About three hundred yards out, it sees me. The head turns, sun gleams off the eye. From where I stand, I can see that the enormous black bird with rangy claws has recently found or killed something: there’s a mess of bone, blood, and fur at its feet. Without breaking its fix on me, the predator forks a chunk of its kill across the pavement.
It’s a cloudless July sky, and the air is warm and benign; leaves rattle in the wind, and husky earth smells blow off the fields. I feel strangely like a child. Standing near what looks like a dead rabbit, with one eye on the vulture, my sunny, functionally aimless bike ride suddenly seems laughable. It’s clear that I’m a rookie out here. An amateur in the ways of reality. Next to this bloody mess, innocence gives way to surprise and disgust and at least a tiny bit of fear.
As I step off my bike and unstrap my helmet, the bird leaps into the air, its huge wings swinging in a muscular, measured way that forces air down and back and into the tall grass near the road. The thing wheels off in big circles, then turns abruptly and perches on an old dead oak, wings folded haphazardly beneath it.
From his tree, the vulture leers at me the way a mob boss might stare down a kid who doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. I feel myself getting sized up. “Ya better beat it, son,” the eye seems to menace from the tree top. I imagine the bird gnawing a cigar, gangster style, with whiskey in claw.
The dead rabbit also has things to say: “Enjoy the sunny day, brother, but it’s serious out here. Always is, always will be. And don’t think you’re exempt, either.”
I lean down and examine what’s left of the rabbit, forgetting, for a few seconds, that I’m in the middle of a road. Circles of dried blood radiate out and away into the grass. I spin the bike around, spending enough time over everything until it registers. The fine white bone glistens like jewelry, and it feels right to give it an audience; to let it command my attention for awhile, allow it to lead my thoughts.
But the vulture is tired of waiting. It seems to triple in size as it approaches the road in wide circles, which, I realize, are tightening around my head. I decide to get back on the bike. Wings out, the thing is huge and in full control of a kind of brutal athleticism; it occurs to me that, right here, on this lonely bit of country road, I’m basically a slow, clumsy, animal in a plastic hat. My bike is right under the vulture’s flight path, and its wingtips edge out the sun.
For a few seconds, I am afraid. I slip and scramble on the peddles and do not make anything close to a smooth getaway.
The planet is alive with such feelings on bright days. The heat of them is forever bleeding and sinking into the dirt, rooting in, reversing, and then surging skyward in a bent of grass, a hungry eye, a body on a bike ride. Leaving, I churn uphill in a low gear and suck air through my teeth. Clouds arrive and the sun gets low, flashing the pavement ahead of me light and dark, light and dark.
Scott is Orion‘s Special Projects Assistant. Even on a good day, he’s not confident he could outrun a vulture.