A Meeting of Chance

I sped west toward home along Roseau County Road 8, listening to CBC late-night radio’s, “As It Happens” feature provided by NPR. Driving ahead of my headlights, a dim view at best, I saw what I thought was a small animal’s body lying in my lane. I swerved into the vacant eastbound lane to avoid hitting what I thought was a dead skunk, yet in passing, saw it wasn’t a skunk. What was it?
I slowed the car, stopped and reversed. Peering into my side mirrors I steered the car backwards using the solid white line on my left and the yellow dashes of the center line, illuminated by my backup lights, on my right. I backed-up beyond the carcass, returning gradually into the westbound lane. Stopping, I drove forward until my headlights shone on a feathered lifeless body. “Maybe a hawk.” I thought aloud, walking toward it, “But this late at night? Hawks wouldn’t be out now.”

Nudging it with my boot, I saw its feathered-toes and clenched talons, and a partially-extended, short, powerful-looking wing. Then I saw two tufts on its head, its short black, hooked beak.
Oh my gosh, it was a wawenjiganoo!

I couldn’t leave it there to get run over by a passing car. It didn’t seem right to leave it there to be crushed and obliterated into just a bloodstain and scattered feathers. Gently, using one of its wings, I pulled it gently from the road onto the gravel shoulder when I saw its breast move up and down. Oh my gosh, it was still alive!  I had pulled it by its wing! For dumb! Should I put it out of its misery? How? Beat it to death with a Vise-Grip© or ball-peen hammer?  That seemed grisly.
It didn’t seem terribly injured. I didn’t see blood.

I remembered my wife Jackie having some success reviving small birds that had hit the windows of the house by helping them get back onto their feet. She harassed them long enough to regain consciousness and fly away. That’s what I’d do, I thought. So I nudged it with my work boot into a semblance of a sitting position all the while telling it to wake up, to fly, to go, to ‘git.’

It opened its eyes.

Whoa! I backed off a little bit, unsure of what to do next. Maybe harassment wasn’t the wisest thing to do. Then it hunched its shoulders a little and weakly fluffed out its breast.
I felt hopeful. It was regaining consciousness. It blinked.

I called Jackie on the cellphone, noticing I had a weak battery, with just one little blue bar remaining. After several rings, she answered the phone, “Aaniin.” (ahneen) she answered in Ojibwe. I told her I’d be late getting home as I had found a wawenjiganoo that had been hit by a car, then discovered it was alive. I explained all I had done with it and how it had regained consciousness but didn’t try to fly.

Wawenjiganoo sat in the beam of my headlights, its short height casting a long shadow. Its eyes were fully open now. I took its picture. Then another. It was rude to use flash, I guess. Perhaps it too closely resembled the traumatic event it experienced, suddenly striking the side of a moving vehicle as it pursued fleeing prey across the road. It had to be the shock of its life. Imagine yourself hurtling forward at night, flying only a foot or two above the contours of the ground, with only the light from the stars lighting your way, then suddenly colliding with, for example, an invisible pane of heavy glass traveling perpendicular to your flight path.

What injuries had wawenjiganoo suffered? Feathers that had separated from its body fluttered against the mowed grass along the highway shoulder acting as though they knew they should be airborne, though their owner did not.

Well, I had done my part, I thought. I had moved it off the road. Anybody else would’ve hit it again without stopping. And, if I hadn’t happened by it probably would have regained its marbles sooner or later and flown off like nothing happened. Why is it up to me to take care of it now?

I thought I should call the DNR or somebody to come and get the bird. They would either put it out of his misery or take it to a raptor rehabilitation center. They do that. The DNR rescues two or three birds a year, Jackie learned from a TV/internet program she found. So I drove home, after I had left a long cardboard box with a florescent orange ribbon tied to it as a marker nearby, should anyone come looking. Wawenjiganoo would likely be gone by the time anyone showed up anyway. I’d pick the box up in the morning when I went past Joe’s.

I tried calling the county sheriff’s department, but my memory for its phone number isn’t what it used to be. No one answered. Calling Jackie back, I asked her for the correct number, but what she gave me was a non-emergency, information number for the Roseau cop shop, but that’s just an answering machine. I finally called 911. I told them immediately, that this call wasn’t an emergency, that I had found this wawenjiganoo hit by another car, and that it was alive--and I didn’t know what to do about it. She seemed thoughtful, then said she’d forward my call to the Minnesota Highway Patrol, and they would contact a DNR officer.

Explaining the nature of my call again to the dispatch of the MHP, I told her of the location, being on the northside of County Road 8, “A mile or so east of Highway 89. No, I’m sorry--it’s west of Highway 89.” I explained, “Between the residences of Greg Beito and Joe McDonnell.
She said she doubted any DNR officers were in the vicinity at that hour, but would forward a message to them. She said she didn’t know how long it would take.

Arriving home, after a distance of only two and a half miles, I parked the car near the house. Just as I stopped the car, the headlights still on, a small bird flew from an unusual perch atop a string of old Christmas lights strung over the door toward the car light’s luminance and hovered there, acting unsure of what to do or where to go, then flew off into the darkness. I had never seen a bird there before, during the day nor during the night. There are no open rafters below the eaves for them to roost, just that loose string of white LED bulbs strung from the fascia.
“What is happening?” I said to whomever was listening. “What am I to think? To do?”

Jackie was sad to think I left it alone to die. She didn’t want it to just sit there vulnerable to any passing coyote, dog or cat--or skunk, out wandering the county road late at night. She said I should go back, for as long as it would take. I said it was nature’s way and if I hadn’t stopped to pull it off the road its fate would’ve been worse. Yet, reconsidering my reasoning-- and that little bird that met me-- I decided to go back. I took a long drink of water and grabbed a pair of heavy leather gloves in case I had to move it again for some reason. Jackie reiterated that she didn’t want it to die alone, then be ravaged by things unknown. Then she said to wait. 

Taking a baggie out of a kitchen drawer and reaching into the cupboard for some asemaa (tobacco), she took a pinch from its foil package, put into the baggie, then handed it  to me saying, “Say a prayer for it.”

Learning a little of Indian ways since our Ojibwe grandson was born three years ago, provides us a link to the Great Mystery, this energy, entity of the great beyond who either of us converse with day or night, under stars, cloud or sun. Spreading tobacco on the winds, we thank those who came before us for assisting us, and for them to assist those who follow our trail, in the name of “All my relations”--all those creatures great and small. Wawenjiganoo was one, though as I learned later, from the darker side of things. In many Indian nations it’s considered ominous.

I asked for help to guide me that night, to temper my thoughts as a human being for what to do here. What was I to do? Should I bring it home with me? Should I end its life? Was it my decision to make? Who was I to do that? Then I sprinkled tobacco around wawenjiganoo, and a few tiny flakes onto his head. [I didn’t think it’d hurt.]

I returned to wawenjiganoo. It sat forlornly where I had left it, the yellowish cast of Beito’s yard light almost reaching its tail feathers. I parked the car a short distance behind it, then got out, the engine of the car still running, to look at wawenjiganoo again for further signs of life. It stared blankly ahead, breathing normally--or what I thought hadn’t changed in rhythm since I saw it last. I waved my hand back and forth in front of its face, and watched for eye movement, watching to see if it followed its pass, but it wasn’t apparent that it did.

I was conscious that wawenjiganoo could maybe suddenly rise or try to grab at my hand, so I was cautious, this while the engine’s idle rose and fell, the radiator fan going off, then on. Tiny bugs darted about the glow of the headlights.

The night was cool but humid. My skin was clammy from a night’s hard work in a hot factory. My energies were winding down. I was sleepy, but I had this one focus I had to be aware of, so I kept a vigil outside with it, once in a while looking out at the landscape seeing the white headlights of cars on Highway 89; a faraway yard light.

Removing my cap, I touched wawenjiganoo’s back against the grain of its feathers and passed it around from back to front. It followed the cap with a full turn of its head. Oh boy, wawenjiganoo is even wider awake now. Maybe, maybe-- it will try to fly if I leave it alone.

I got in the car, closed the door and turned off the headlights, leaving just the parking lights on to mark the vehicle parked there. Turning on the dome light, I searched the backseat for a notebook I always try to keep in one of the cars so I can write down the things I think about. This was one of those times. It’s been months since I’ve written anything ‘off the top,’ an impulse buried by daily routine and responsibility, but wawenjiganoo deserved a story, even if maybe, it wouldn’t have the ending we had wished for it. I had to write something about these moments, this progress, this situation.

Glancing up from my writing pad--yes, a handheld writing pen and real college-ruled lined paper. No iPad. It appeared wawenjiganoo had moved from its original position. I wondered if it was just my imagination for it sat still as stone, its shoulders hunched forward, its ear tufts upright buffeted by the wind. It faced west.
“No.” I thought to myself, “It didn’t move.”

Writing again, the window of the driver’s door down, I wrote:
“Coyotes howl across the quarter section. A semi, on the highway a mile or so away, whines past.”
Time passes into a better part of an hour as I wrote, consumed by pen against paper and the words that flow ceaselessly between them.

Looking up again, I distinctly see wawenjiganoo has turned south into the wind, the feathers of its mottled breast fluffed by its caress. Wow, I hadn’t imagined it! Paying closer attention now, I watch as wawenjiganoo turned west again and hopped into the short grass along the shoulder. Lowering itself, --it suddenly bolted upwards, its wings fully extended, trying to fly skyward, only to flop backwards onto its back, helpless. Throwing my notebook on the passenger seat, I got out of the car fast. I tell wawenjiganoo it can’t lay on its back like that. It has to get up.

“Get up! C’Mon! Up!” I say to an injured wawenjiganoo in the grass along a rural Minnesota road at night, the oddness of the situation not lost on me.  I was talking to a wawenjiganoo.

Using my leather gloves, I helped it onto its feet, but one wing laid awkwardly at an angle.
Wawenjiganoo acted dazed. It didn’t react defensively toward me, didn’t try to claw at me with its talons. It didn’t clack its tongue and beak as I know wawenjiganoog will do when threatened. We just happened to be two beings in the grass along a road, and something terrible has happened to the other that I had no part in. I have no way to know if wawenjiganoo sensed I wasn’t there to harm it. Some people may think I was meant to be there, but I don’t know these things. Others may think it utter foolishness, silly stuff, but they don’t know of such things either.
I left wawenjiganoo alone again to gather its strength.

All this action gave me my second wind. I put on a sweatshirt I had in the car to warm my sleeveless arms, then sat down in the car to call Jackie.

“You can’t leave him there! Something will eat him, helpless like that! Bring him home with you!” she said in no uncertain terms. We had no way of determining its sex, but she called it ‘he’, so ‘he’ it became, furthering its personification, and the urgency of rescue she expressed.

Gathering some grass along the road I put wawenjiganoo in a Rubbermaid© tub I had brought against such contingency. I put on the leather gloves and gathered his wings against his body as gently as I could manage, watching out for his talons that I suspected, should he use to grab me would not be a pleasant ordeal, razor sharp as they looked. Weakened as he was, he didn’t struggle. Perhaps his hopes were dashed or he was saving his strength, I was guessing.

Wawenjiganoo took his first ride in a car, I suspect. Again, I was just guessing. Maybe it was commonplace for him, I don’t know. These days with all kinds of birds and animals being collared, tagged, clipped, caught and released, or photographed or videotaped or micro-chipped or tattooed, you can’t ever tell. “Wild” anything, may not be so wild anymore, but let’s say, just this one time, this wawenjiganoo had never ridden in a vehicle powered by a combustion engine before that night. If he had been a cat, you would know immediately his reaction to his confinement in a moving vehicle. If he had been a dog, certainly his saliva would’ve laced the car windows with the wind streaming in my open driver’s door window as it did. But him being wawenjiganoo and all, mystery was in play for he uttered not a hoo-hoot, clack nor tweet all the way home, and I got to thinking maybe he had expired at long last on the road between Grimstad and Palmville.

Not a chance, I discovered, opening the hatch and easing him from the tub onto a flattened cardboard box that Jackie wanted me to place him on to ‘protect him from the cold wet ground.’
It was only then he clacked at me and tried to grab at me with those black needle-like talons, succeeding to grasp the cardboard and pierce it clean through with one of his quad-clawed feet. He would have nothing of that strange ‘cushion.’ He pushed himself off the box to lay against the ground again, wide-eyed. His breast heaved in short panicked breaths. 

We went into the house and turned off the outdoor house light, leaving him to his isolation. I opened a beer and sat down on a kitchen step. But Jackie couldn’t bear the thought of wawenjiganoo dying alone ‘out there,’ and went back out to stand not too faraway, watching him in the soft light from the millions of stars overhead and the Milky Way.

“Come out here quick! ” she hollered in at me, opening the door of the entry then closing it against the onslaught of tiny gnat-like bugs that stormed toward the interior light, 
“Wawenjiganoo has flopped himself against the wheel of the car! He can’t lay like this.”

I went back outside and found him upside down again, his wings all in a knot, one talon gripping the leading edge of one wing in a steel-like fist. Wawenjiganoo’s tail-feathers were splayed. Its eyes were now closed. I eased him onto its breast. He was too spent to fight, though he clacked menacingly at me.

It was the first time I noticed the blood on its back, the little scrape on one ankle, a bloody spot in the joint of one wing.

“He must be busted up inside pretty bad.” I said, “Maybe all this flailing has opened up an injury I couldn’t see before. He’s calmed down now. I think his end is near.”

“I’m too cold to stay out here now, would you stay with wawenjiganoo until the end?” Jackie asked me. “Should we put him out of his misery? Can you do it?”

Opening the rear car door, I took out a factory jacket I had there and put it on against the coming chill of the night, well past one in the morning. We could see our breath.
“Yeah, guess I’m obligated now.” I said, snugging the high collar up under my bearded chin.

“He’s cold against that ground, I just know he’ll freeze.” She said, lingering, casting the flashlight off to the side of wawenjiganoo, not shining on him directly,
“Can you cover him with a sweatshirt or something?”
“Yes, I can do that.” I said, taking her often expressed concern in stride, and went back into the house until I found an old insulated shirt I hadn’t worn for over a year. “Here’s something.”

Wawenjiganoo looked as though he was tucked into a warm grassy bed, his eyes and beak closed, one tuft out, the other against the ground. I watched him for many long minutes, his breath coming in slow, shallow, inhalations, almost to nothing. Knowing the Great Mystery was watching, I ended his life.

A wawenjiganoo hoo-hooted northeast of us, then after long minutes sounded again deep from the darkness along Mickinock Creek.


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