Microfiction by Todd Adams

“Great Snowy Owl”
             By Todd Adams

David’s rusted-out Coronet shook as it battled across the brand-new Mackinac Bridge linking Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas in 1957. Winds buffeted it seemingly from all directions, and the road beneath twisted and turned as it rolled up and down to a rhythm only it—or the wind—knew. In front of us, a Bridge Authority pickup truck with flashing lights plowed through the moving snow drifts and kept us from skidding off the road into the dark whiteness of the blizzard. The guard at the bridge’s base had told us we would be the last car across tonight as if it were an honor, and I doubted it was. I’d jumped in the car with my friend six hours earlier, ignoring the warnings of my girlfriend, because David had heard a rumor that a Great Snowy Owl had been seen in the upper peninsula. He wasn’t a twitcher who listed every bird he’d seen or took off at the drop of a hat to see a bird he’d never seen before, but with his eyes sparkling between his short, preppy haircut and full mouth, he assured me we had to go now. The Arctic bird might never appear again in Michigan during our lifetime. So, I grabbed both of our binocs, and we started north in the dusk. Girlfriends came and went, but a roomie was forever.

Minutes seemed like hours, and hours like days, but we made it across the bridge and onto terra firma. Now what? We couldn’t stay there with a three-quarters-empty gas tank or see ten feet ahead on the two-lane road as it climbed into the hills beyond. The best we could do was to follow rapidly disappearing tire tracks in the hope of finding an open gas station or a motel. We felt more than drove our way as windshield wipers maintained a monotonous rhythm. I leaned out the front passenger side window—my eyelids freezing almost shut as snow and ice accumulated on them and my nose turning red from frostbite until I couldn’t stand it anymore—and tried to glimpse the future. More by luck than skill, my eyes saw an orange reflection on a snowflake. I screamed, “Turn!” to no effect, then ducked my head back into the vehicle and shouted turn right to David.

He did, but the old car couldn’t make it up the driveway to the hotel, stopping under the flashing neon vacancy sign at the entrance. Leaving the car running in case it wouldn’t start again, we got out to trudge the rest of the way to the manager’s door. The snow tasted cold and clean on our tongues. Relieved, we pressed a buzzer before pounding on the metal door when no one answered. Fifteen minutes later, a pasty, bleary-eyed man with red-rimmed eyes opened the door to let us into the motel lobby. He couldn’t have expected anyone to come in such a storm, but he’d shaved before bed, and only bristles covered his thin face when he got up to greet us. We couldn’t say the same as we hadn’t shaved since we left Ann Arbor, and he said nothing to us except “two dollars” and “Sign here,” as if we were pariahs.

We laughed at and then forgot him as David couldn’t wait for dawn to begin tromping through the hip-high drifts along fence lines and the curving edges of trackless forests. Our useless eyes probed the swirling white pines and bare sugar maples to no effect. Our noses filled with a citrusy, grassy, soapy smell that overwhelmed any but the most pungent tobacco smell, and our ears stood alert for the faintest whistle, hoot, or hiss throughout. No luck, and we returned to the motel. Two hours of sleep and a dried fruit bar later, we were back out in the early dawn, stopping more often now to draw in the hot cigarette smoke to warm our lungs as the bitter cold frosted the linings of our noses. We traversed the barren wastelands until we almost dropped. Indeed, we did so more than once and responded by carving out angels in the snow until we heard a raspy call in the morning twilight. It sounded close by, and we stood stock-still, our fingers shooting with pain as they froze solid, moving only our eyes as they searched the woods and fields for the owl.

David found the great bird’s claws gripping a post less than a stone’s throw away from us. Its white plumage was stippled with dark spots, either a male or a young female from its smaller size. Its head, with its long, black beak, was turning around upon itself, ever-searching, until it stopped moving and peered at us with sun-kissed sclera. It was magnificent and not a little scary.

“Who are you?” we breathed out to the alien eyes across the clearing.
“Who are you?” it called back.

- Todd Adams is a retired assistant attorney general of Michigan. He also taught undergraduates and law students about the law at Michigan State University. The Michigan Law Journal awarded his short story, “As the Law is Written,” second place in its annual writing contest and published it along with the first-place finisher. His short stories have also received honorable mentions in several writing contests, and law reviews have published some of his legal articles on environmental and other areas of the law. The University of Oklahoma Press has also accepted a nonfiction book about litigation over a Native American Tribe’s litigation in which he wrote several chapters. This flash fiction grows from a novel, Jaffe’s Last Case, about an aging Jewish lawyer representing an African-American Detroiter accused of selling fake art to wealthy, white suburban collectors.

Copyright©2023 by Todd Adams. All Rights Reserved.