It was one of those early summer days when the green of the oak trees is most brilliant, and the carpet of Jacob’s Ladder is blooming in vivid blue-purple patches along the road side. It had been so long since I walked barefoot in the grass or picked a flower. I found myself slowing down, trying to ignore the warnings interrupting my view.
“Danger!!!” “Do Not Wander!” “Stay on the Road!” “Keep Moving!” Were posted in alarming red letters on white signage every 100 feet along the gray gravel shoulders of the two-lane, paved road.
The forested mountain pass between cities was all that remained of the natural world, and everyone was anxious for that 60 mile stretch to be burned as well. My mind flipped through bloody scenes of dismembered human bodies and images of people crying on TV, as they told the horror story of what had happened to them that one time they had left the road or wandered too near the perimeter of the city.
As I topped the last rise, and saw the dingy smoke of the city rising in the distance, a muffled explosion and the violent twist of my steering wheel told me I had blown a back tire. Fear rose in my throat and choked me. The urge I had to stop and pick flowers, only moments earlier, now seemed like the memory of insanity.
As long as I stay on the road, I told myself. Stay on the road and change the tire as quickly as possible. The old Nissan bumped to a stop and I shut off the engine and searched the woods around me with terrified eyes. Nothing in sight. I opened the door and got out.
The sound, or lack thereof, was the first thing that struck me. No engines, no voices, no sirens or clatter. And yet, it wasn’t silent either. At least 5 different bird voices filled the air, trilling and questioning my presence. The rustle of the wind in the oak leaves moved and flowed around me like liquid sloshing in a giant glass. Under my feet, Jacob’s Ladder flowers lay crushed and broken. I quickly stepped off of them and bent down to lift their heads. With my back exposed to the forest, I felt vulnerable and turned quickly again to open the trunk and get the spare tire.
I wrestled with the lug nuts, hoping someone else would drive down the road soon, and at least stop and wait for me to finish. Two cars past me, pale faces and wide eyes looked at me from the windows, but neither stopped. I got the jack situated and began to pump the handle up and down. Nothing happened. Not being very handy, I assumed I was doing something wrong and pulled the jack out to examine it. Try again. And again. The dang jack was broken.
I sat on the road for a moment, taking in the ramifications of the situation. A cool breeze dried the sweat on my forehead. A small bird hopped along the ground only a few feet away, her head cocked sideways as she studied me intently. This place was so peaceful and beautiful. How could it be so dangerous?
Then I saw them. Standing in the trees on the other side of the road, watching me. One. . . two. . . three. . . tall and white, fierce eyes gazing at me without blinking or turning away. My heart felt like it was going to explode with fear. I got to my feet and stepped toward the door of the car, never taking my eyes from the predators who stood in the shadows.
It was said that they could silently sneak up on a person and disembowel him with one swift move of the giant spurs on their feet. They were the last great danger to Humanity, the man-eating White Ostriches of the mountains. Our Protectors worked day and night to keep us safe, to protect us from our own weak desire to roam and discover. But today, for me, there was no protection. I was alone and the Ostriches had found me.