Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death
“I want to take you away,” Elan said. “I want to go to the beach.”
I looked up from the newspaper. His face had color in it. After months of weakening, his eyes were lit with some reprieve from illness, not the old fire but a spark from the black sockets that awoke something in me as well. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, and yet his eyes were focused: on me, on this idea of the beach.
The Atlanta Constitution was stretched open on my mom’s tatted tablecloth to the crossword puzzle I had in progress. I folded it closed, pulled the thick glass coaster with my coffee mug toward me and motioned to the coffeemaker. “Get a cup, come sit with me.” Elan’s hair jutted out in dark blond loops and angles.
“What beach?” I said. “When?”
Elan sat in the chair beside me. “Anywhere. But I was thinking St. Augustine.”
I fiddled with the newspaper, copying the date in balloon writing. “When do you want to go?”
Elan looked at me. “I think we should go soon, while I’m feeling good. What about this weekend?”
I checked the skies out the kitchen window. “I can get the grass cut today and tomorrow. Then sure, we can go this weekend.”
Elan stood up. “I’ll find a hotel.” He leaned on the table and pointed at the newspaper. “Anything good today?” He knew my routine, scouring the big city paper daily for some mention of new AIDS research, some alternative treatment or regimen for him.
I drew a circle around the Living section banner, tapped the main headline. “There’s this one here on Mother’s Day ideas.”
“Oh, that’s Sunday?”
“Then we’ll come back Sunday morning.”
“But too late for church,” I said, raising my face and waiting for a kiss.
Elan never disappointed me and agreed. “Too late for church.”
I rewrote “Mother’s Day” down the newspaper’s right margin in big letters, shading them with pencil. Then I got up and followed Elan to the bedroom, where I lay on the bed, listening to him talk on the phone, his once-thick Georgia accent already softened to a North Florida purr.
On Friday morning, he drove us to St. Augustine. He did fine with the new eyeglasses, wore a Braves cap to shade the sun. We sang along to old mix-tapes on the stereo, soundtracks from college parties and road trips that now seemed a lifetime ago.
We had an ice chest in the trunk to keep Elan’s medicine cold. The vacuum-pumped Gancyclovir shells reminded me of hand grenades, and they had to be refrigerated, then set out an hour to thaw before Elan hooked up his daily infusion. If the drug went in too cold, he would chill, despite the sweaty weather of this humid Spring, and even slight chills zapped his energy. Next to the cooler, my grandfather’s old plastic tackle box organized the trays of colored pills. In Elan’s shirt pocket was the dose he’d take after lunch, with something in his stomach.
Over the ice chest was Granny Weave’s star quilt, her wedding gift to mom and dad, then from mom to Elan and me when we first moved in together. And beside all that medicine, a blue duffel bag with our tank tops, khaki cut-offs, and sneakers, one long sleeve shirt and one light jacket in case Elan got cold.
He had gotten us new rubber flip-flops for the weekend, and they somehow hippied up our blue jeans and Gap pocket-tee shirts. I’d folded a faded red bandana and tied it around my head like a do-rag to keep the wind from whipping my hair in my eyes.
The sun held bright all morning as Elan took the coast road south toward Florida’s “oldest city,” where he’d made reservations for us in a small cottage on the Atlantic. We’d arrive in time to have just about two hours on the beach before the daily rains set in. You could set your watch by the 3 p.m. showers.
I noticed something beside the road and reacted automatically, “Pull over! Hurry.”
Elan stepped on the brake and stopped some hundred yards past the flapping carcass. I jumped out of the car and ran back along the highway shoulder. Heat fumes rose from the asphalt and winded me. I still couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was, but it was a big one, and had probably flown into a car. The tall weeds along the road were littered with its feathers.
I stood above the raptor, nudged it over with the sole of my sandal. Its face was torn away, the body a mangle of white and gray stripes, coagulating blood all shades of red and brown. I squatted down to look at its talons. I’d seen a few of the Old People wearing beaded versions of these claws.
“What is it?” Elan said. He’d walked up beside me.
“Owl,” I told him, “or maybe some kind of kite.”
A truck sped by us, its force blowing up the mutilated wing, and I asked him, “Have we got any extra red bags in the car?”
“Extra my red bags?” he said. “We’re not carrying that dead bird with us. It already stinks.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. My mouth went dry and I had to really work to swallow. “I’ll clean the feathers and bury the rest. Or better yet,” I coughed, “I’ll give the whole thing to Granny Weave. I’ll seal the bag up tight. We’ll keep it in the trunk.”
“Who you talking ‘We,’ Peter?”
“You and me,” I smiled. “We be ‘We.’”
In the back of the Honda I found the thick bags marked “hazardous materials” that the home-healthcare nurse collected weekly, the red bags for the used tubing and the capped needles when Elan changed his portacath, the bags that held the chemo shells once they’d been unloaded into his chest.
I shook open one of the bags and began to gather feathers from the roadside. I held one out in front of Elan, sliced it through the warm air. “Owl feathers don’t make any noise,” I said. “That’s how you know.”
Elan took off his hat and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. He bent down beside me.
“Don’t touch it,” I told him. “It might have had a disease.”
Elan stood up and put his hat back on. He folded his arms against the wind. “My love, you have nothing to worry about in that regard.”
I nudged the bird’s twisted body in the plastic bag.
“You shouldn’t touch it either,” Elan said.
“I’ll wash my hands when we stop.” I knotted the bag tightly as we walked back to the car.
“Wash your feet too.”
I spread the fingers of my free hand. I swear I could feel the waves of heat rising off the concrete. “If I still smoked, I’d have tobacco to leave.”
Elan cleared his throat. “Or if you left that dead bird here, you wouldn’t need to offer tobacco.”
“I couldn’t leave it. I have to take it to my granny.”
I usually stayed awake when Elan drove, but when we got back in the car I fell asleep almost immediately. Deep sleep, and I dreamed I was walking the land with my grandfather Poocha. I must have been around twelve in the dream, the year before my Poocha died, though walking the land was something I still did. It was something my family had done “since crawfish brought the mud up.” We walked the land when a relative returned home after any absence. We walked the land after a particularly big dinner, if we didn’t walk to the creek, to settle our food. We walked the land when we needed to think something over, which I was doing a lot more and more of now, especially since we had moved home to Hoyet.
But at twelve, I had walked the land with my grandfather. We had started down the skinny lane, where camellias and azaleas grew in two trimmed rows. Honeysuckle vines tucked among the bushes and had to be cut back year after year, after a good bit of the sweet nectar was sucked from their tiny flowers. And in my dream, just before reaching the clay road, Poocha turned and we walked across the field where my mother would later build our house, the house I had recently moved back into with Elan.
At twelve, I walked the land with Poocha, and a wind rattled the dry leaves of pecan trees that bordered the road. When we reached the barbed wire fence separating a neighbor’s lot from ours, we turned left again, and passed the last cleared acre into the beginning of the woods. At twelve, I had tried to walk the way I thought Indians were supposed to, without stirring a leaf. But Poocha shuffled through the dry leaves like he was stomp dancing. Grandpa said he didn’t want to surprise a snake. He said I watched too many movies about Indians.
In the northwest corner of the land, we came to the giant live oak tree which still lay where it had fallen, struck by lightning fifty years before. Poocha could remember the storm. He had been a boy then, about my age, and it was at this tree that we usually turned around.
You could still see the scorch marks stretched around its wide trunk, the gray base so thick even a grown man had to climb up onto it to take a seat. But once there, he could comfortably lie on his back and take a nap in the belly of the wood. On the day I relived in my dream, I had seen a feather leaning against the big trunk, tufting up from a grass sprig, brown and white bands among the weeds and the leaves. I’d run and picked it up.
“Poocha, look. What kind of feather is it?”
“Owl,” my grandpa said, and I froze.
I already knew that owls were supposed to mean death. It was something I’d come to know a few years earlier, at an intertribal powwow inside the rodeo arena at the county fair. I loved to watch the Indians dance, and had seen a feather fall to the dust at a beautiful dancer’s feet. The other Indians ran to the edges of the grounds, some up to the bleachers, and their high voices shrilled through the arena as the circle cleared.
Mom said an owl feather had fallen from the dancer’s bustle, and the others, superstitious, would have to hold a special ceremony to pick it up. And though I couldn’t hear what that old man on the ground said that day, that was the day I’d learned death was something people feared, and something that could be foretold.
My excitement turned to worry. I stood beside the tree trunk, inanimate save my eyes and mouth, trying to hold the feather as still as I could, and at the same time wanting to drop it. “Are you sure, Poocha?” I could feel my eyes water. “What should I do with it?”
“You should just bring it over here,” Poocha said, pressing his lips together in a smirk.
I felt like the Indians at the fair, but I ran and hugged onto my grandpa like a six-year-old.
Poocha took the feather in his big hands. His hands were stained from garden dirt and tractor engines, but they were gentle as he held the feather and stroked it. Then he cut it through the air by my ear. “Listen,” he said. “Tell me what you hear.”
I shook my head. “Nothing, Poocha.”
“That’s how you know it’s an owl, chebon.” He smoothed the tendrils neatly back in place. “Owls fly silent.”
Poocha waved the feather back and forth.
“You shouldn’t be afraid of owls,” he told me. “The owl is only a messenger.”
But I argued that I knew owls were feared; I had seen it and I knew it. Owl sightings were bad luck. Hearing hooting in the night, eerie screeches that echoed into your bedroom when the windows were open—these were omens.
“The owl only brings a message, chebon.” Poocha handed me the feather. “Listen to it.” He turned and began to walk back the way we’d come, and I swiped it through the air again a few more times before running to catch up with the old man.
I woke up as Elan pulled in to the beach house. The place he found for us was perfect, meaning we could walk right out of the front door onto the sand, and the cottage was far enough away from other houses that we could even hold hands, or hug each other in the waves without fear of repercussion or too much self-consciousness. We wasted no time trying to beat the afternoon rain.
“This was a fantastic idea!” I yelled, bursting through a blue swell with a gasp of air, raising my arms high above the waves.
Elan shook the water from his hair and dove under again. I swam after him, and when he surfaced in front of me, we held on to each other, treading water, until a wave knocked us apart. The echoderm covering Elan’s portacath had wrinkled in the water and the skin beneath it looked pinched and filmy. He’d need to clean and change it.
I kicked until my feet found the sandy bottom and I stood. I watched Elan float on his back and kick to shore. The patch flashed in the sun like dull metal, and the water bathed over it, a flat silver fish in the middle of his beautiful skinny chest. I waded to the beach and sat beside him, pushed my toes beneath his foot, laughed a big drink of salt water when a wave knocked us over and filled our bathing suits with sand. A moment of perfection, lying back in the crash of elements, the orange light behind my eyelids a swirl of bright neon until a cloud blocked the sun, then a cool blackout, and a wind actually cold enough to goose-pimple our skin.
“Rain’s coming,” Elan said, and he pulled me up, helped gather our towels, and the first big drops came down as we reached our cottage door to rinse off and change.
Around dusk, I drove us to Main Street for an early dinner, where we walked along the strip, peering in the tourist traps and local artists galleries. “A lot of Indian stuff in this one,” Elan said, pointing to the roach-clip feathers and technicolor dreamcatchers in one store window, a New Age flute tape piped through the outdoor speaker system.
Next to this was Ye Olde Time Photo Shoppe, and I encouraged Elan inside and we looked over the costume options. “How about I dress up like a cowboy and you be the saloon girl who gives it up to me for free.”
I shook my head. “Why don’t you be the Indian,” I said, holding out a headdress plumed with plastic red and yellow feathers, “and I’ll be the colonist that comes and fucks you.”
“Nice,” Elan said, but he laughed. “Is that the same mouth you kiss me with?”
“Help you boys?” a chubby, white-haired senior asked from the counter.
I elbowed Elan and whispered, “Your ass just got saved from a scalping.”
In the end we both settled on cowboys: one good guy, one villain. I puffed out my chest and wore the white Stetson and coat-tails. Elan posed in the black hat, a pinstriped vest with a poker hand of playing cards fanned from the breast pocket, a realistic toy pistol in his hand. We waited while the photo processed, playing with the frilly boas and lacy garter belts.
The old man returned with the eight-by-ten. “You boys came out handsome,” he said.
We looked at the picture together: two cowboys, yes, and we were handsome—the slender blond gambler laughing; the dark-skinned cowboy in white looking solemn, my eyes too serious. The photograph was all brown tints and yellows, sepia toned to look old and faded.
“Looks like you’ve got something on your mind,” the old man told me. “Let me take another with you smiling.”
I looked at the photo again. “You might be the next Edward Curtis,” I said.
“The next who?”
I remembered what Granny said about Indians getting our pictures taken—that we should always be in color and that we should always be smiling. I looked over to Elan, then back to the photographer and said, “Yes, I’d like to do it again smiling.”
“Good!” The old man rubbed his hands together and got us set back up before the camera, meticulously fussing with our sleeves and the hat angles. Elan tried to make me smile. The photographer made jokes about girlfriends. Apparently he took us for frat boys, and that made me laugh.
The second picture looked almost identical to the first one, but I had a wide grin on my face, and the old man let us have both photos for the price of one.
At dinner that night, over grilled fish and too soft, buttery vegetables, we talked about what we’d do on our weekend, about friends in Atlanta we’d like to go and see that summer, about things we could get my mom and granny for Mother’s Day. The waitress cleared our plates and we listened as she told us about desserts.
“We could give each of them one of those pictures,” Elan said, and I said it wasn’t the worst idea, but what if I wanted to keep one?
The waitress returned with a thick slice of fudge, whipped cream and chocolate sauce seeping over the side, as Elan took the photos out.
“What’s this?” she asked, setting the plate and two spoons between us. “Cute.” She made a dramatic point of wiping her hands on her apron and took the pictures for a closer look. She turned to Elan. “You’ve got the Dead Man’s Hand.”
I choked on my spoon of chocolate and looked up at her. “What did you say?”
“The Dead -- Man’s -- Hand,” she repeated, “the cards in his pocket: black aces and eights. That’s the hand Wild Bill was holding the last time he was shot.” She studied the photo and looked at me. “You could be an Indian or something.”
I shrugged. “I could be anything.” I no longer felt like eating the dessert, but I picked at it, the sugar knotting in my throat.
“It’s just a coincidence,” Elan said. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
“I know,” I said. “I know it is.”
When we returned to the cottage, Elan took his dose of evening pills and brushed his teeth. “Let’s take a walk on the beach.”
“In a little while,” I said. “I want to lie down with you first.”
“Come on,” he urged. “We can take a blanket and lay on the beach.”
The moon was far off and a quarter full and cast uneven shadows on the choppy waves. Elan and I walked the shore hand in hand, granny’s star quilt draped around our shoulders. A lumpy shadow crawled the beach ahead of us, and I waited to see how long it would take before Elan noticed the turtle. We got within fifteen feet of it when he stopped and whispered, “What’s that?”
We followed the big leatherback up toward the sand dunes. “I bet she’s laying her eggs.” We edged closer, until the turtle crawled under a bunch of scrub oaks and disappeared.
Elan spread out the blanket and we sat down. The ocean wind blew our hair salty and damp. It bent the sea oats like worshippers bowing to prayer. Waves curled to the shore with little crashes of surf, but if we were still and quiet, we could hear the faint scratching of the turtle kicking sand beneath the brush.
I grabbed one side of the quilt and climbed on top of Elan. He took my hands inside the blanket.
“How many eggs do you think she’ll lay?”
I had no exact idea but I guessed it would be hundreds.
“And how many will make it?”
Not very many, I told him. Of that I was certain. “Raccoons will eat the eggs. Gulls and other birds will peck the babies as they dig out to find the ocean.”
“Isn’t there a turtle-watching group or something?” Elan asked, letting go of my hands and wriggling out from under me. He sat up. “Aren’t they endangered?”
“Yeah, I’m sure there’s someone,” I told him. “They report turtle nestings in the local paper. So we can call and ask for information.” I leaned on an elbow, patted the blanked beside me. “Come lay back down. We can call someone later.”
We stayed together on the beach for what must have been hours, looking at the stars and listening to the turtle dig in the sand. We fell asleep a while, woke up and had to walk back to the cottage wet and groggy. I found a hotline for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in the phone book and called in the sighting. The wildlife people said they’d send someone to mark the nesting, so I stayed up to meet the guys and walked them down to where we saw the turtle.
When I got back to the beach house, Elan was sound asleep. The sky pinked around the curtains as I slipped off my clothes and crawled beneath the covers.
I still woke up first and so I took Elan’s medicine out of the refrigerator, drove to the gas station to pick up a newspaper and coffee, and had another quiet hour staring at the ocean before Elan came out the front door and said he’d join me in a minute.
We ate breakfast in town, then found the Ponce de Leon Gator Farm we’d seen advertised on handmade signs all up and down the coast road. We arrived at the beginning of a live show, where a young Seminole guy wrestled full-grown alligators. When the guy asked for volunteers, Elan nudged me forward and said it was my tradition.
“I don’t know anyone who’s wrestled a gator,” I said, adding under my breath, “on purpose. You try it, white man. You guys are the ones always aiming to tame nature. You go ahead and wrestle it.” We looked at each other with crazed daring then edged away to see the farm’s infirmary, where they rehabilitated the wounded sea birds.
We drove a different way back, passing a roadside nursery, and I turned the car around and picked out five rose bushes for my mom and Granny Weave. I knew Elan was anxious to get to the beach before the rain, but I asked if he wanted to go downtown for anything.
“Not really,” Elan said, “I might take a nap on the beach.”
“Do you mind if I drop you off then?” I said. “I want to go back to that Indian store we walked by.”
“Are you kidding? I thought you hated that kind of —
“I want to buy something,” I told him.
Elan took off his glasses and looked at me. “I thought you couldn’t buy tradition.”
“You can’t,” I said. “But you can buy sage. And I want to burn some.” I pulled up in front of the cottage.
“I want to burn some for those alligators we saw, and those pitiful pelicans. I want to burn some for that Indian guy and the sea turtles.”
I let Elan out and drove back to the gas station, where I picked up a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. “I want to burn some for the owl in the ice chest,” I said out loud to myself when I lit my first smoke. It had been two years since I’d had a cigarette. Then I went downtown and bought a stick of sage.
Another sweet, romantic night included another seafood dinner and later naked Scrabble on the extra bed, and then an early start the next morning had us back to my mom’s late Sunday morning, where I marked off a square flower bed between my mother’s house and my granny’s.
Elan seemed to be regaining strength even more as he helped me pull the rocks and grass from the dry, packed clay. The beach and sun were good for him. I turned the ground with a shovel, and before long we had a four-foot plot dug up for planting. We mixed the fertile mulch from Granny’s compost bin around the holes. I sprinkled corn meal into each hollow, and beginning with the one I’d dug in the east, I lifted the bush, careful to dodge its dry thorns, and set it down in the depression. I pulled out the pack of cigarettes I’d bought in St. Augustine and broke the tobacco out and sprinkled it around the rosebush.
By the time the fourth one was planted, mom’s navy blue Cutlass pulled between the honeysuckle overgrowing the lane. I leaned on my shovel and waved as my mom and Granny stretched out of the big car, its bottom half dusted with rust-colored mud.
“What’s this?” mom asked, walking toward us. A white corsage was pinned to her dress, and I knew my sister had ordered it from where she lived in California.
“A rose garden for you and Granny,” I announced.
“Oh, y’all,” my mom said. “I love it. And I’ve always wanted one.”
“I’m gonna get you dirty,” I said, stepping away from her hug, but mom pulled me close.
“You boys are sure sweet.” Granny sneaked up on Elan and pinched his ribs. She wore the same white flower on her blue-checked blouse.
“Your sister sent us these lilies,” Mom told me as she bent over a pink rose.
“The florist delivered them all the way out here,” Granny said.
“I thought maybe she would fly home this weekend and surprise you.”
Mom made a sucking noise through her teeth. “Well guys?” she said. “How was the beach?”
“Great!” Elan said. “Look at my tan.” He held his arm out next to hers for comparison.
Mom and Granny nodded their approval as they walked around the flower bed. Granny squeezed into the middle and peered into the empty fifth pit; she turned to me and whispered, “Tell me what happened.”
“It was fun,” I said. “We saw a bunch of alligators, a cute Seminole wrestler, and even a sea turtle.” My granny caught my eye and held it.
“We put a dead owl in your freezer,” Elan told her.
Granny drew my eyes to the empty hole, the small mound of earth and the bag of corn meal beside it. She hitched up her dress to kneel next to the last rose bush, careful as she took a stem in her hand and brought it to her nose.
I watched her stand back up slowly, mind at work, and I saw the branch slip and its thorns scratch her thin wrist.
“Chebon, in this last one,” she said, “I want you to offer more than cornmeal and tobacco. And get back in here and dig the hole a little deeper some.” She spit on her wrist and rubbed it with her thumb. “I’m going to change out of these church clothes. Then I’ll be right back to help you.”
Mom put her arm around Elan. “You must be hungry,” she said. “Let’s leave these two fools to their funny business, and you help me start some lunch.” They turned and walked to the house, but Granny and I stayed in the garden.
“Go out to Poocha’s shed and get the axe,” Granny said. “The old bird can’t land without feet, and it’s been a while since I beaded up a fetish.” She put her hand on my arm. “Hole’s about half-dug,” she said, “And it’ll be nice to honor the owl with some flowers.”
I pulled off my T-shirt as she walked away. I closed my eyes and wiped the sweat from my neck and forehead. An image of my grandpa came to mind: Poocha in a black baize cowboy hat, a white feather stuck in the hatband. He shook out a poker green tablecloth and spread it over the base of the old oak tree way back beyond the shed.
In my vision, Poocha shuffled a deck of playing cards and dealt them across the tree trunk where Wild Bill Hickock, Granny Weave, and I had pulled up folding chairs. Granny peeled up the corners of her cards and smiled. Poocha turned to me and touched his breast pocket.
I opened my eyes and looked around. Granny had already gone inside to change her clothes. I walked toward Poocha’s shed. Elan was in my mother’s kitchen. I could see him through the window. I imagined mom dicing ham for the black-eyed peas on the stove, Elan mixing the cornbread batter for the iron skillet.
He’s right, I thought. It was just a coincidence. Everything was going to be okay. But just in case, I had Granny Weave to show me what to do with the owl in the freezer. And after that, I’d ask her what cards beat the Dead Man’s Hand.