“I’m searching for my spirit animal,” I said.
“Why?” the bearded lady asked.
“I feel like I need a spiritual guide.”
“And you want an animal?”
“Isn’t that how it works?” I asked. “Power animals? Spirit animals? No one talks about spirit people.”
“Sure they do, honey,” she responded, “they’re called ghosts.”
My fingers massaged my eyes behind my glasses as I tried to release the tension this conversation had started. I’d walked into the North Fort Myers double-wide because the sign in the window promised “other worldly advice” and I was in need of guidance. Once I was engaged in conversation with this hookah-smoking bearded lady, however, I started to think I’d have been better off taking advice from a newspaper horoscope.
“I can read your cards,” she offered, motioning across the room to a TV tray covered with mismatched sets of Tarot cards. It looked like the bookshelf in my boyhood home that was filled with board games, most of which were missing pieces, cards, dice, and rules; a hodge-podge of contest fragments that often resulted in made up rules, fist fights, and sobbing. With that in mind, I could only imagine the catastrophic results of a Tarot reading from something similar. I thanked her for her time, threw a crumpled ten-dollar bill on the table and walked out the door.
I set across the vacant lot next to the trailer where my car was parked. For the first time, I noticed a small perch that marked the home of a burrowing owl and the reason this lot was empty. More than occasionally in Florida, one could find these small birds sitting upon these perches and watching passersby with suspicion as passersby watched them with fascination.
Out of the hole at the base of the perch leapt a tiny owl who found his seat upon it. “Are you looking for me?” it asked..
“Why… would I be looking for you? I can see burrowing owls almost any time I want to.”
“I hear you’re looking for a power animal.”
“Then I would like to offer my services.”
“You’re hired,” I said.
“Excellent! I can start right away.”
We stood for a moment in an awkward silence.
“So…,” I wanted to get the advice train rolling, “what kind of… um, guidance… do you have for me?”
The owl craned his neck almost all the way around, looking for people who might try to get in on our pow-wow.
“Not here,” he said, and he leapt back down into his burrow.
“Wait!” I screamed down the hole. “Wait! I can’t fit down there! Don’t leave me!”
I dropped to my knees and frantically started digging. The Florida sun hammered me and sweat poured off of me. I felt light and dizzy and weaker by the second, as if I was wasting away to nothing, but still I kept digging. I hadn’t felt this terrified of being left behind since my parents had “forgotten” me at a rest stop in Iowa when I was six… but that’s a story for another day.
I looked down to see a stream of my sweat flowing like a river down into the owl’s burrow. I did a double-take as I looked at my hands to find they were melting. My whole body was liquefying and joining the stream that was flowing down into the owl’s world and soon, there was nothing of me left above ground except a pile of clothes and a pair of Chucks.
Below ground, I slowly rose from a puddle under the opening to the underground dwelling. The burrow was surprisingly roomy, giving me room to stand up and stretch. I was naked and confused, but happy to be intact… basically the same state of affairs I find myself in most Sunday mornings.
The owl had perched himself on a mound of dirt and hopped down to the ground and past me, motioning with his wing that I should follow him down a winding tunnel. It smelled a bit musty, but it was cool and free of humidity. It was much like a classic basement in that way, complete with infinite stacks of books, records, comics, and random papers that rose up from the floor. Torches lined the walls of the tunnel in place of fake wood paneling, but otherwise, the subterranean rec room feel was spot-on.
“How long have you been down here?” I asked.
“40 years,” he responded.
“Hey, I know this one,” I said as I picked up a John Prine Common Sense album off one of the piles. “You got a turntable? We should play this.”
“Please put it back,” Owl commanded, “you’ll muck up my filing system.”
We pressed on into the tunnel. I didn’t have much sense of direction, but it was obvious the tunnels were taking us deep underground. The further down we went, the further the torches on the wall were spaced, casting long shadows on the walls around us.
“Is someone burning incense?” I asked, sniffing the air.
“Who would that be? It’s just us down here.”
“I smell it. Maybe it’s in one of these side caves.” I motioned to the openings in the side of the tunnel that surely led to other parts of this underground network.
“Pay no mind to those,” Owl said, “they go nowhere. They’re merely echo chambers and nightmare factories.”
I turned to ask him what he meant, but as soon as my eyes focused on him, the torch behind him went out, snuffed like a birthday candle by a cold wind that cut through the tunnel.
“If you want to learn to navigate this place on your own, you’ve got to simplify things.” I looked up ahead in the tunnel and saw him on the ground in a circle of candles. “Less clutter. Less side tunnels. Less danger.”
“More clothes?” I asked. “May I have more clothes?”
I felt a pinch on my shoulder, claws digging into it. The candles surrounding Owl all went out simultaneously. I turned my head to see him perched on my shoulder.
“This path you need,” it was Owl, digging his talons into my shoulder, “is the simple one. It’s straightforward. It’s uncomplicated.”
“I don’t even need a lot of clothes,” I said. “You got a pair of pants? Maybe a kilt?”
Owl turned to liquid and was absorbed smoothly into my shoulder.
Stay on the main path, Owl’s voice echoed in my head as my beard morphed from hair to feathers and spread out from my face. The rest of him shot out of my chest and neck and he took off like a bullet down the tunnel.
“See you at the end,” he screamed as he disappeared into the shadows cast by dying torches.
And then he was gone. I stood in a dark tunnel alone, naked, disoriented, and, for the first
time in over a decade, clean-shaven. I looked in the direction the Owl had flown and realized that was probably the direction to go in. So I did.
I took a torch from the wall and continued on the winding path, going further and further underground. Side tunnels came along every so often and I would occasionally peek into them and hear the echoes as I called into them. Cavernous and vacant, they did nothing but fill themselves with my voice until it bounced back into the darkness.
I walked on and crossed land bridges that stretched over underground rivers. I climbed through root systems of trees which rained down from the cavern ceilings above. I fell down steep embankments and pissed off of cliffs. I was exploring depths that I never knew existed. I felt alive. I felt adventurous. I felt… lost.
Where the fuck is the path?
I couldn’t find the path. The trail, the way out, was lost to me. I’d gotten turned around somewhere. I didn’t even know where I’d stumbled off of it.
Was it when I fell off that ledge and got road-rash on my ass? Or was it where I tripped and hit my balls on that rock? And why do I always get injured around my crotch area? Okay, stay calm. Call for your guide. That’s what he’s here for.
“Owl!” I shouted into the darkness. “Owl, where are you?!”
I got no response except my own voice in echo form.
Great spirit guide… He leads me deep underground and then abandons me. At least the bearded lady had cards and probably would have gotten me high.
I shouted for Owl, but my voice was all that answered. It wasn’t, however, the echo of me shouting for Owl, it was the voices I had shouted into the side tunnels and caverns on my way down. All of the previous noises and random profanities I had screamed into the caves had made their way through the depths of those tunnels and ended up bouncing around the stone and dirt walls that surrounded me, creating an infinite loop of my own voice.
Loose gravel started rolling down hills and walls started crumbling as the sound of my voice pummeled them. Boulders, rocks, and clumps of dirt and mud tumbled down and crashed all around me. My stupid, echoing voice droned on above the sound of the avalanche it was creating. My own voice drove me mad and was actively trying to kill me.
Turn into liquid. Turn into liquid like you did before. Your skull can’t be crushed if it’s liquid, it can only be splashed. Turn into liquid. How the fuck did I turn into liquid? Fuck me, I can’t be liquid! I’m solid! I’m fucking solid!
The ground beneath me cracked, broke up completely, and gave way to a huge empty space below it. I fell, letting go of my dying torch and reaching out for a stray tree root that was revealed when stone crumbled away. I grabbed it and hung there as my echoing voice drained from the chamber into the huge void around me.
I looked down and saw stars. Millions of stars dotted the sky… below me?
Why is the sky below me?
It was space. Space was below me because I’d reached the end. I had traveled to the bottom of the world and fallen through. I’d wandered too far and was now being cast out into space by my own shouted profanities and need to make noise.
“You talk too much,” said Nearly Everyone I’d Known In My Entire Life. They spoke it all at once in my head, a pile of specially selected memories stacked neatly on top of one another for the sake of my limited time.
“Stay on the simple path. Stay on the simple path. It’ll be good for you.” Owl, you douchebag. You left me alone on the simple path and it killed me. Thanks a lot. Worst. Spirit guide. Ever.
Something flew toward me from the tunnel, picking up speed as it came toward me, and hurtling toward the vacuum of space behind me. I caught a glimpse of the flat surface of the square as it flew past my head at the speed of the Concorde. It was an LP. It was John Prine’s Common Sense.
I looked up just in time to see a tidal wave of stuff bearing down on me. It was made up of books, papers, comics, drawings, records, CDs, images of past arguments, beer cans, 3D glasses, photographs, liquor bottles, lawnmower parts, and an insane amount of canvas tennis shoes. Everything that had been an immovable obstacle on the way here was now an unstoppable force about to launch me into the void.
The wave hit me with the force of a dynamite blast, knocking me from the root that was my safety line. I flew backward, surrounded by all the things that defined me. As we flew further and further from the globe, the mass of stuff started to break up, leaving me floating through space with nothing… not even noise.
The breath I held was being exhausted and I felt my lungs starting to strain. I looked up and saw Owl flying swiftly and silently directly for my face. I waited for him to pull up and land gently near me. He did not. Owl flew straight into my face with the force I hadn’t felt since I caught a snap kick to the face at Sensei Travis’ High Flying Kicks of Fury Dojo during my first and final karate lesson. Owl formed himself back into my beard, and I heard his voice in my head.
My head stopped spinning after a second and I was able to focus on the big blue marble that was Earth. It floated in the void just as I did. At that moment, we were just two bodies flying around a space fireball together. We were separated and connected by the space between us. I saw it all as it was. I smiled and my vision faded to black…
I woke up on the bong-water stained shag carpeting of the medium’s double-wide trailer. I was surrounded by Tarot cards, bird bones, and trinkets and knick-knacky bullshit. The bearded lady saw me sitting up and looked noticeably relieved.
“Thank God you’re alive,” she said, “I was afraid I’d have to ask my brother for another favor.”
I found my feet and rose to meet full consciousness. It seemed like I should have asked what had happened, why I’d passed out, and what exactly her brother was going to do if I wasn’t alive, but I didn’t. I didn’t care. I still don’t care. Nothing that happened was anywhere near as interesting as what I had experienced while unconscious. I simply reached into my pocket, pulled out a ten-dollar bill, threw it on her table, and walked out.