Eye of the Owl
Henry's gloves muted the sound of his knocking on the heavy
wooden door. When he looked
away and waited, his breath steamed out toward the woods, and a gust of
wind bit at his face. The
horse looked at him, then huffed and turned her head toward the woods,
her ears erect, reins lying loose on her neck.
Snow, broken by clumps of fescue around the cabin, exaggerated
the moonlight. Henry didn't
know what he would say. When
Pearl opened the door, he turned to her and said nothing.
He shifted his weight and the snow creaked under his boots, and
she said, "I've got to admit I'm surprised."
She waited, and she leaned into the edge of the door.
"So, what do you want?" she said.
"You going to let your place get cold while we have this
conversation?" he said.
She stepped back to give him room to pass, but she said nothing
and her face showed nothing. He
walked past her and stomped his boots on a braided rug just inside as
she closed the door. Nothing in the cabin had changed in three years.
The smell of leather, of sage and lilac.
He waited, not looking back at her.
"Go ahead," she said, "take off your coat.
You know where it goes."
He took off his coat and hat and hung them on the pegs beside the
door. When she passed him,
he smelled the perfume, the same perfume she had always worn.
She walked away from him, over to the cook stove that stood
against the wall.
The cabin was a single room broken only by two supports, pine
trunks with short stubs of limbs left untrimmed for pegs, bearing a
ridge beam that ran the length of the ceiling.
Three woven baskets hung from the pegs of one support.
A shawl and a long strip of braided leather hung on the other.
"You'd never guess what I'm cooking," she said.
"A gift from my little brother Paul."
She stirred the pan on the stove, moving her hand in a slow
circle, and shook her head. It
was just like her to begin a conversation as if the past three years
He walked over to the small wood stove in the opposite corner of
the room at the foot of the bed. The
smell of lilac was strong there from the bowl she kept on the stove.
Lilac and the musky smell of the bed.
The wood stove was hot. She
had always kept the room so warm he had to go outside to cool off.
"No, I'd never guess," he said.
"The eyes of an owl," she said, and she stopped
stirring and looked up at him. "Fresh killed. Paul
just dropped them off a little while ago.
They're supposed to restore lost eyesight. He thinks they will help me find my way.
He's being his sister's keeper."
She turned back to the pan and stirred again.
She put the lid on the pan and came over to the wood stove.
"You're supposed to swallow them whole, raw," she said,
"but not me. No way
I'm eating an eye without cooking it first in a broth."
She backed up to the wood stove beside him.
"It's bad enough I'm eating them at all. But he'd never let me alone if I didn't.
Pretty amazing the things we do for people we love, isn't
Henry stood beside her, facing the stove, and felt the warmth
through his pantlegs, his hands in his pockets.
He didn't want to talk about her little brother Paul, trying to
reclaim his heritage.
She squinted her eyes, the lines creasing out from the corners.
The muscle in her cheek twitched once.
He thought of Naomi, his wife, sitting across the table from him
every evening in the house back in town.
The way she didn't look at him.
The way he was always guessing what it was he was supposed to do,
and always guessing wrong, always watching her face tighten up in
response to what he said or did, always feeling the heave in his stomach
when he said or did anything. A
blind mole digging, the thing he wanted always just out of reach.
For over a year now he had slept in the bedroom across the hall
from hers. And last Sunday
evening, his thirtieth birthday, he had sat alone at the kitchen table
after dinner, drinking until he could no longer hear footsteps in her
And now he had come back here.
"Want something to drink?" she said.
"Sure," he said.
She went to the cabinet above the sink and pulled down a
half-empty bottle of Fine Old Rye and two metal cups.
"Not as fancy as you're used to now," she said.
She poured some whiskey into the cups and brought him one.
"Those eyes need to simmer in that broth a little
longer," she said.
Her long hair, thick and black, was tied back with a piece of
leather. The thick eyebrows
and long lashes, the sharp nose and full lips that pouted even when she
relaxed, the body that moved with hardly a sound--it was all the same.
And his response was the same when he looked at her, when he
smelled the faint perfume.
He tried to imagine that the past three years hadn't happened.
Tried to imagine what would have happened if he had laughed when
Naomi dared him to marry her on that hot Sunday afternoon.
He could see Naomi standing there in front of him, her hands on
her hips, as he sat on the steps of the schoolhouse.
He could hear the laughter and shouts from the river.
In the silence between shouts, the sun caught in her brown hair,
and she looked at him without blinking, and he saw the dare.
And he felt that surge in his belly, as if he was holding three
of a kind, something low, fives maybe, and the man across the table had
just raised the stakes.
It was his chance to spit in the face of polite society, to steal
one of theirs. And in that one moment it had all been decided.
The balance had shifted.
"I almost believed you," Pearl said.
"What?" he said.
She took another drink. "Nothing,"
she said. "It doesn't
She went to the counter and got the bottle and refilled the cups.
"Drink up," she said.
"I guess we ought to drink to old times."
She took a drink. "You remember the old times, don't you, Henry?"
"Some of them," he said.
She was lifting her cup, but it stopped short of her mouth and
she closed her eyes, then opened them and drank.
"I was thinking of the time you took me to
Fayetteville," she said. "The
weekend in the Hilltop. The
singer at the opera house. That
weekend cost you a lot of money. It
was the only time I've ever been to Fayetteville."
"No," he said, "the waterfall."
He finished the whiskey in his cup and held it out to her.
She poured again for both of them.
"July," he said. "On
the blanket, the moonlight in the trees, the sound of the waterfall on
the rocks. Nothing will ever get close to that as far as I'm
"Okay," she said, "the waterfall."
She rubbed her finger along the lip of her cup.
When she looked down into her cup, her hair shined, and her long
lashes extended from beneath her eyebrows.
Her nose was straight and narrow above the pouting lips.
Not at all like Naomi, who kept her lips drawn in a tight line,
always in check.
"That's as good as it got alright," she said, "but
it didn't happen that often, Henry."
She swirled the whiskey around in her cup in quick small circles.
"I wish it was July," he said.
She held the bottle up and looked at it, then poured what was
left into the cups. "It's
January, Henry. A foot of
snow. You'd freeze it off
She started across the room toward the cook stove.
"Those eyes ought to be about boiled away by now," she
said. She put the bottle on the counter and lifted the lid from the
pan. "Nope, they're
ready to go," she said. She shook her head.
She brought the pan with her back to the wood stove.
"Hold out your cup," she said.
"You may want to leave that whiskey in the bottom, I don't
know. Cool the broth a little, maybe hide the taste."
He held out his cup.
"Don't know why I'm doing this," he said.
"It's your little brother thinks you're blind."
She poured a little broth into both their cups, shaking the pan
around to get an eye to drop into each one.
A wisp of steam rose from the cups, and Henry swirled his around
and blew on it to cool it. She put the pan on the wood stove. "Maybe you need it worse than I do," she said.
They both stood without doing anything.
"Go ahead, Henry," she said.
"Toss it off. Let's
see if it's true. Maybe
it'll help us both find our way."
He drank it without looking into the cup and felt the eye, like a
peeled grape, slide past the back of his tongue.
The broth was bitter and hot.
The whiskey did little to cover it.
"What the hell did you put in that?" he said.
"Nothing special," she said.
"Salt, pepper, a little ground up yellow root."
She raised her eyebrows. "Did
I put too much yellow root? Maybe
it's the eye, Henry. Maybe
you can't hide it. Too
strong to cover up with a little seasoning."
Her eyes narrowed and she pushed her lips together exaggerating
the pout, and he reached out and pulled her to him with his hand at the
back of her neck, and he kissed her and dropped his cup and pulled her
up against him with the other hand. She pushed against his shoulders, her cup still clenched in
one hand, but he held her to him, and her free hand moved to the back of
his head and her fingers threaded into his hair and for a moment she
held it there, but she balled her fist in his hair and pushed hard,
pushed his head away.
Broth from her cup spilled on his shoulder and steamed there, and
he let her go and opened his mouth but didn't say anything.
She stepped back and spit on the floor.
"Bitter, isn't it?" she said.
She held her cup up between them and slowly poured what was left
of the broth onto the floor. The
soft pulp of the eye dropped over the lip of the cup and plopped with a
wet sound at their feet. The
lilac in the bowl on the stove smelled sweet, the wood hissed in the
"What the hell are you doing?" he said.
"I can see okay now without it," she said.
"I see you. Me. Especially me, sitting here waiting three years ago."
She shook her head and picked up his cup and went to the sink and
dropped the cups in. They rattled against the metal sink bottom.
She grabbed a damp rag from the edge of the sink and came back to
the wood stove and dropped the rag on the mess on the floor and got the
pan off the stove.
"You're a son-of-a-bitch, Henry.
You didn't even bother to tell me."
Steam rose from the pan in her hand.
"One night you're here," she said, "the next day
you're a married man. And I
don't hear another word." She
took the pan to the sink and shoved it in and it clattered.
"I kept waiting for you to come and explain it to me,"
she said, "to tell me how it was that I got caught so off
She came back to him, her face relaxed, but the lines around her
eyes and in her forehead distinct.
"Screw you, Henry," she said, her voice soft, a little
louder than the hissing of the wood in the stove.
"Go on back to the little tart from Fayetteville."
She walked over and sat on the bed, leaned over on one hand, her
fingers just up under the pillow. "I'm
going to bed now," she said. "Alone."
When he walked out the door, the cold air hit him.
The horse had turned with its rump into the wind, its head down,
its tail blowing up under its belly.
The leather of the reins crackled and the saddle groaned when he
He thought of Naomi, probably getting ready for bed, probably
angry at not knowing where he was.
The bitter taste rose in his mouth.
The eye of the owl. He
looked out into the darkness as the horse walked along the road.
He pulled the horse up to a stop.
The wind whispered in the trees.
The river, on the other side of the field along the tree line,
whispered like the wind, but deeper.
And he heard, from beyond the river in the deep woods, the low
throaty hoot of an owl.
He could see it all. Three
years. His life laid across the fulcrum of one moment.
The balance gone for good. He
leaned over in the saddle and threw up, saw the snow darken beneath him
in the moonlight. He spit and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
His eyes had watered and the water in his lashes had begun to
freeze and he brushed at his eyes and put his hands on the saddle horn
The horse nickered and started forward at a walk, then broke into
a trot. He left his hands
on the horn, let them ride there, the reins still loose on the horse's
neck. It was two miles to
town. There was nowhere
else to go.
(Photo by S. Satton)