Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!
Many years ago, “Professor Doodles’ Just For Kids Corner,” in our local newspaper’s Sunday comics supplement, ran the following riddle:
Q. What bird is with you?
A. The swallow.
The question was presumably supposed to have been something along the lines of “What bird is with you at every meal?” — but somehow the last few words had been omitted, transforming what had been intended as a lame pun into something more like a kōan.
Naturally, we kids thought this was, by a very wide margin, the Professor’s funniest riddle ever, and we quoted it incessantly. “What bird is with you?” — or just “What bird?” — came to be used as a general-purpose expression of complete bewilderment.
Yesterday, I happened to be thinking about this expression and its history as I was riding back home from my morning classes, when I noticed something odd-looking in the middle of the road. At first I thought it was just some random piece of rubbish and rode right past it, but then the thought registered, “Wait, was that a roadkilled swallow?” I turned my motorcycle around and went back to check — and, sure enough, it was a swallow, though not a roadkilled one. It was a live swallow — to all appearances, perfectly healthy and uninjured — but it was just sitting there in the middle of the road, waiting to be hit by a car or nabbed by a stray cat.
This would not do, so, putting on some gloves, I picked the bird up. It perched on my finger, holding on tight and twitching its tail a bit, and looked at me. This was the first time I’d ever seen a stationary swallow at such close range, and it was really an exquisite little creature. The feathers, which look plain black when you see a swallow zipping past you at high speed, are actually iridescent blue; and the bird blinks with milky reptilian-style eyelids that close from side to side. I set the swallow down under a tree by the roadside, dropped off my motorcycle at home, and came back on foot. It was still there where I’d left it, so I picked it up again, thinking I’d probably take it to an avian vet I know. This time, though, it only perched on my finger for a few seconds before taking off and flying away into the distance. Apparently it could fly all along; I have no idea what it was doing sitting in the middle of the road. (Something similar happened with a little brown bat that showed up on my doorstep one morning. It let me pick it up, and I was quite sure it was unable to fly, but after drinking some milk it suddenly spread its wings and began flying around the living room.)
This is not the first time I’ve been thinking of a particular kind of bird, only to have an actual bird of that species suddenly materialize and walk into my life. Back in 2011 (as described in this post), I had just been reading about a boy who had had a racing pigeon with a number band on its leg show up at his house — when a racing pigeon with a number band on its leg showed up at my house!
More recently — a week or two ago — I pulled off a similar Jumanji-like trick with a centipede. I’m usually in the middle of three or four different books at any given time, and at that time I was reading (among others) C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters and Piers Anthony’s Centaur Aisle. Shortly after having read in Centaur Aisle about “nickelpedes” — described as being like centipedes but five times as big and fierce — I turned to Screwtape and found that I had come to the part where the title character inadvertently transforms himself into a large centipede. I was just about to mention this not-terribly-impressive coincidence to my wife when I noticed something big and black wriggling across the living room floor. It was, of course, an enormous centipede — only the third centipede I’ve encountered in the past decade.
(Years ago I designed a vaguely tarot-inspired deck of picture cards, and one of the cards depicted a big black centipede crawling out of an open book. That card seems a little creepy now.)
Obviously these experiences can’t possibly be anything other than freak coincidences, but — well, let’s just say I’m making a point of not reading any books about cobras these days.