A short story by Janis Hallowell
I stood on Mr. Silvia’s porch with my last thirty-six dollars rolled in a rubber band tucked between breast and belly fat.
I remembered the house from when I was a kid. Back then it was a gap-toothed barn where we played while birds flew in and out above us. Now it was a fancy house where the famous author, Bernard Silvia, lived. As I listened for him on the other side of the wooden door I pulled my coat tight to protect against his eyes seeing me for the first time.
People noticed. They did. The polite ones tried to hide it, but everybody, meeting me for the first time, noticed. To get past the awkward moment, or maybe to prove her innocence, my mother always introduced me by saying, “Irene’s heavy, but we love her,” the same way she told creditors, “We’re not Rockefellers but we’re good people.”
It was useful, my fat, my flesh, for money or car keys or a handkerchief. It was the perfect place to soften sticks of butter for baking or to warm mittens. When I was little, before there were breasts, I kept things in the fat folds around my belly: a melting peppermint, a pink stone from the schoolyard, a pearly button. At bath time, my mother was disgusted by my hidden treasures. She set her mouth and quickly scooped them out of my flesh, then scrubbed the place hard with the soapy washcloth.
When my Anyi, my Hungarian grandmother, bathed me she didn’t bother with washcloth or soap. “Kish csipash, little stinker,” she’d say, eyeing my belly folds, ”What do you have in there?” And when I didn’t answer she’d say, “Good girl. Keep your secrets.” With Anyi in charge, I soaked weightless in warm water, my treasures safe, and listened to her stories of ogres and flying wolves.
He opened the door.
“Come in, Irene,” he said. And there it was, the moment when he took in all of me. He smiled with his celebrity-white teeth and held the door wide. I knew that when I walked past him he would allow himself to stare. “Go ahead and look,” I wanted to say. “I weigh 337 pounds without my clothes on.” But I was not my mother. I resisted the urge.
The barn house was big and airy inside, with stairs going up and a baby-grand piano in the middle. We sat on facing couches that each cost more than my car. He showed me a pad of yellow paper filled with his writing. There were words on top of words and arrows pointing to parts scribbled in the margins. Everything was printed in capital letters, though, and I found it easy enough to follow.
“Do you think you could transcribe this into the computer?” he said.
I was confused. “Mrs. Mack at job services said this was a housekeeping job,” I said. I had been hoping for a nanny job but this was all she had.
“It is,” he said, “but I’d like it if you could also be sort of an assistant to me. I’ll pay more, of course.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. I got good grades in school. I liked to read. A job that used those skills would be a marvelous thing in a world where only skinny, college-educated girls got those kinds of jobs.
So I became his assistant in the mornings, his housekeeper in the afternoons. I cooked the evening meal and slept in a room off the kitchen. Each morning I made strong black tea to tone down his over-white teeth. We worked upstairs, high in the treetops, our heads in the rafters of the barn-house. The trees nodding outside the glass were bumpy with the coming spring, but still bleak and bare in the gray sky.
Bernard wrote at his desk on pads of yellow paper. He wore a gold ring with a ruby on his pinkie. I sat at the other table in front of the window. There, I untangled the scribbled words and entered them into the computer. We didn’t speak. If I had a question, I would mark the page and at the end of the morning’s work we looked at it together.
On the third day he handed me two pages of scratchings that were an attempt to describe a street in the story. It must have been an important street but the more he tried, word after word, sentence after sentence, to describe it, the more tangled it got.
“If you don’t mind my saying so,” I said, “You could just leave it out.”
I waited for him to remind me I was only a housekeeper, but he read the page again and crossed out the entire passage.
That night, after laundry and sweeping the floors, I made chicken paprikash, Anyi’s recipe, with the paprika so strong my eyes burned. Bernard ate two full plates and wiped them clean with bread. He smiled and poured wine for me. “It’s good,” he said.
At the end of my first week a couple of owls no bigger than my shoes began poking in and out of a hole in the tall birch outside the workroom window. They were white with rusty streaks and round yellow eyes. They brought dry grass and twigs and dropped them into the cavity.
Early in the morning and at dusk especially, the two owls swooped in and out of the tree. I watched them, day after day, building for their babies and I knew that Bernard watched them too, because I could feel him look past me, out the window to the birch tree.
“Look at them fuss,” he said, one day when the female hovered, pecking and hooting at her mate while he tried to place the grass he carried in his beak. “Poor bastard, he can’t do anything right.”
“Well, she’s the one with the eggs,” I said. “She has to have the perfect, soft place to lay them.”
The next morning the female was inside the tree; her round eyes shone in the gloom. Her mate continued his business of flying to and fro. She sat with her fierce eyes focused on me as if to say, “See the trouble I’m in? Now I have to lay these eggs, and he’s free to fly.”
After our morning work I dusted the barn-room and piano, cleaned Bernard’s bathroom and then began preparing a special dinner. It was a celebration after all; the mother owl had begun to lay her eggs. I ground pork and beef and made paprika roux for the stuffed cabbage rolls Anyi called toltot kapusta. I started the dough for dessert pancakes, palacsinta, and left it to rise under a tea towel, then I set to work grinding poppy seeds for the sweet filling. It was a laborious meal, one that Anyi made for large groups of family on special occasions. Tonight it was just for Bernard and me.
At six o’clock he came into the kitchen. I was rolling the meaty sauce into steamed cabbage leaves and arranging them in a baking pan. He took his ruby ring off and set it on the windowsill above the sink before he began to wash his hands.
I said, “Dinner will be ready in an hour.”
He smiled his apologetic smile. No doubt about it, the teeth were a much better color since he had been drinking my tea.
“I thought I told you I’m going out,” he said.
I kept filling cabbage rolls. He went off in his car. Of course, it was his right to go. He didn’t have to tell me his plans.
After the cabbage rolls were in the oven and the pancakes were cooked and filled, I cleaned the kitchen. I did the stovetop and the floor. The pancakes were stored in a clean refrigerator. We would have them cold tomorrow. I ate a few, just to sample them and then washed my hands in the sink. As I rubbed the soap between my hands I stared at Bernard’s ring on the windowsill. How easy it would be for that ring to go down the drain. I reached for the hand towel, still damp from Bernard using it. Either of us could knock that ring in the sink and never know we’d done it.
I scooped the ring up and tucked it in the crease under my left breast. For safekeeping.
Sometime between 12:30 and 1:00 Bernard came home. He turned on lights, opened the fridge door. I thought about getting up and fixing him a plate, but stayed put. Let him fix his own snack. Let him know what a good hot dinner he missed.
He stayed home the rest of the week and ate my cooking. We were making progress on the novel, though the characters, two lawyers, didn’t seem to be doing anything. I worked on, reminding myself that Bernard must have something in mind.
The female owl stayed in the hole through March and into April. At dusk, sometimes, I saw the male owl bring her mice. Once I saw him bring a small frog. Sleety rain blew in her face, and she squeezed her eyes shut. When the branches thrashed in high winds, she stayed cozy in her tree hole, sleeping or watching me. I stared back, wondering what was going on in the dark beneath her. The presence of Bernard’s ring in my breast crease brought a calm, serene sense of expectation. He never mentioned missing it.
On the first sunny morning, when tiny leaves were showing gold-green in the tree the female owl was gone.
”Look at that,” Bernard said, resting his hand on my shoulder as he looked out the window. The warmth of his hand sank through my skin and wrapped around my bones.
“She’s gone,” I said.
“She’ll be back.”
I couldn’t concentrate on typing Bernard’s words into the computer for fear about the mother owl. It was not right that she would leave after so many days of sitting on the eggs. If the babies had hatched, she would be bringing them food.
“They haven’t hatched yet,” I said.
He said, “Nature has its own way, Irene.”
After a wretched morning she still hadn’t returned to the nest. I ate lunch and then went outside. I walked around the base of the birch looking for signs of her, circling ever wider, searching under bushes and on the ground. When I reached the porch of the house I knew that I had found the spot. There was a worn place in the dirt where an animal had dug an entrance.
At my size, kneeling on the ground is a huge undertaking, but I did it and I’m sorry to say that in the dark damp under the boards I found what I was looking for. White and brown feathers were everywhere, and in the midst of it there was the gutted carcass of the mother owl. Next to it sat the black cat that ate her.
“Zoldog matcska,” I hissed at it, the way Anyi would have. Demon cat.
Rocks and small sticks pressed into the flesh on my knees. I scraped her feathers into a small pile and put them in the pockets of my sweater. A shadow crossed me and I looked up to see Bernard.
“What did you find?” he said, extending both hands to help me rise.
I took his hands and waited for him to brace himself, leaning all his weight backward from our straight arms, to bring me to my feet. He managed the maneuver gracefully, as if he’d done it before.
“We have to save the eggs,” I said, firmly, when I had caught my breath.
He shook his head. “Irene, don’t interfere. We can’t save them. We can’t even hatch them.”
But here he was wrong. I’d had in my mind, ever since I saw the mother owl sitting on her eggs, a woman from Anyi’s stories. The woman had a magic goose that was sitting on a magic egg when a wolf ate her. The woman couldn’t save the goose but she took the egg and placed it between her own breasts. That egg between her breasts entranced me. There it stayed night and day, safe from the wolf. Eventually the magic gosling emerged and in gratitude granted the woman three wishes. I thought of this story and I thought of all the things I had kept in my creases. Why not owl eggs?
“Bernard,” I said. “Get the eggs. I can’t climb a ladder, so you’ll have to.”
He must have seen in my eyes that I wouldn’t back down, because he didn’t argue. He brought the ladder from the shed and climbed up the side of the building until he could pick the eggs out of the tree.
“Be careful not to drop them,” I shouted. He climbed down, holding the eggs in his shirt, mumbling under his breath but he handed me four chalky-white eggs the size of apricots. I took them into the warm kitchen with Bernard following.
“I suppose we could get an incubator for them,” he said.
He didn’t know what I planned to do, and I wasn’t sure how to explain it. I decided to indulge his whim about the store-bought incubator. It would be useful after the babies hatched. He searched in the yellow pages and made a phone call. Then he set off in his car to pick up the incubator.
I waited until he was down the hill and on the main road before I lifted my shirt and my right breast and placed some of the mother owl’s feathers in the deep crevice. Then I put in two eggs, carefully insulated from each other with some of the softer down. I did the same on the other side. Now I had four eggs inside my creases. Plus the ruby ring.
The eggs themselves were cold at first, but within minutes they warmed to the temperature of my body. Gingerly, I began moving around the kitchen, testing how well the eggs would stay in place. I wiped the counter top and got milk out of the refrigerator. I reached up, carefully, to get a plate off of a high shelf. The creases stayed closed, the eggs stayed put. I bent at the waist, just slightly, to open the oven door as if to see a cake inside. The eggs were secure.
I began to prepare dinner. I washed green beans and snapped the ends off. I put a tenderloin in the oven. I had begun peeling the potatoes when Bernard’s car roared to the top of the hill. He got out, carrying a box contraption with him.
He set it up on the kitchen counter. It was really nothing more than a cardboard box with a lightbulb socket wired into the side but he seemed excited when he plugged the thing in.
“Okay, give me the eggs,” he said, holding out one hand while his other tinkered with the bulb.
I considered the ways to explain. He looked up from the box and stopped tinkering.
“Irene, where are the eggs?” he demanded.
I swallowed. “I have them.”
He looked around as if he would find them on the kitchen counter.
This wasn’t the time to be shy. He wasn’t a stranger. I pointed to the area beneath my breasts, where they were warming nicely. “Right here.”
He cleared his throat. He stood up and looked at me from his full height.
I denied myself permission to turn away but I did pull my sweater tighter around me. “I have them. My body will warm them to the perfect temperature. Just like the mother owl. Don’t worry, your incubator will be good when they hatch out.”
He squinted his eyes as if the light in the room was very bright at that moment.
“You’ve got them,” he said, stupidly.
“Yes, Bernard. I’ve got them.”
I could see another question bubbling up in him.
“There’s plenty of room for them in the crease between my . . . “
He held up his hand for me to stop. “Never mind,” he said, as though he couldn’t bear the thought.
Apparently, I had insulted his sensibilities by incubating owl eggs in my flesh. I wondered if the thought of my belly and breast so disgusted him that he would fire me on the spot. I waited for him to send me away, but he turned and left the kitchen instead.
I roasted the meat and steamed the beans, boiled the potatoes and served them with sour cream and the first chives from the garden. He ate in silence, not looking at me. I understood. It was a very personal thing we were sharing.
The next day he behaved as if there had never been owls in the tree outside the window. He acted as if he had never brought the ladder out from the shed and lifted the eggs down. The incubator stayed where it was, on the kitchen counter, and neither of us mentioned it.
He wrote with his pen and I pecked at the computer, entering his story and taking the liberty of removing the occasional excessive word. Bernard wrote better in the three days that I carried the eggs than in the four weeks before. His characters began to live in the world he had made for them. It was going so well that Bernard said I should give the housework a break and we extended the morning sessions into the afternoons.
He went out both nights, missing my good cooking. While he was out I roamed the house. The first night I stayed up till daylight, when his car came up the hill, then pretended I had slept in my room. The second night I re-read his hand-written work of the day. “Irene,“ it said in the margin. “Check this.” I carefully tore out “Irene” and put it with the eggs under the breast on the right. With my name in his handwriting, the ruby ring, and the four owl eggs in place, I finally lay down and slept. In the morning he pretended he’d slept at the house all night. It helped to know I had secrets, too.
We worked through the days and as I sat at the computer the eggs seemed to pulse against my ribs, under my breasts and I knew, the way mothers do, that the life they contained was coming soon.
On the third day, while transcribing a new draft of Bernard’s fifth chapter I felt the first sharp scratch on the underside of my right breast and then I was aware of a certain dampness there.
“Oh,” I said.
He raised his head.
I looked out the window at the budding tree where the eggs had lived until they came to inhabit my creases. It came again, another weak scraping on my skin. I was aware of movement, of frenetic motion in the eggs.
Bernard stood up, every inch of him nervous and expectant. His eyes ran along the curves of my body. Never had a man looked at me like that before, curious about the mysteries my body contained. It made me blush, but I liked it. Yes, I did indeed. Suddenly, with life about to issue forth from my flesh, I was solid and beautiful. In that moment I saw myself as he must be seeing me: perfect and whole.
“Is everything . . . are you all right?” he asked.
I walked to the stairs and he was at my side, solicitous, his hand on my elbow. We went into the kitchen. Bernard hovered until I finally had to laugh, he was so nervous. “For goodness sake, Bernard, turn on your incubator,” I said.
He plugged it in. I felt another sharper scratching under my left breast. I looked at Bernard. This was it.
I showed him how to cup his hands. “Like this, Bernard. Bring them close. Now don’t drop it when I give it to you.” He solemnly agreed.
With my left hand I lifted my right breast under my shirt and with my right hand scooped up the first egg and transferred it to Bernard’s ready hands along with some of the owl feathers. I kept the paper with my name where it was.
Bernard’s mouth opened when he held the little cracking egg. Our eyes met. He placed the egg carefully in the incubator.
I scooped up the second egg from under the right breast and gave it to him. This one wasn’t as far along, but there was a hole in the eggshell where the tiny beak had broken through. Once it was safely in the incubator we removed the two from under my left breast the same way. Warm from my heart, from my blood, they moved to Bernard’s hands and into the incubator. His ruby ring stayed behind.
We abandoned work for the day, pulling stools up to the counter to watch the owls break out of their shells. At first, after moving them to the incubator, the hatching slowed so much that I worried they had stopped. I was beside myself. What if it wasn’t warm enough in the box? Or worse, what if the bulb was too hot? How could any contraption compare to the steady dark warmth of my body?
Eventually two of the eggs started showing movement again. They pecked steadily at their shells from the inside, and I could hear them peeping, until finally the shells cracked open and there they were, a pile of right-angles and damp fuzz, struggling to master their unrestricted bodies. They were caramel gold with huge round eyes and white triangles on their foreheads. Watching them, I realized I had been holding my breath. Bernard’s eyes shone.
Before the first two owlets had fully dried in the lightbulb heat the other two began to peck again and soon freed themselves to join their siblings in a happy ruin of shells and feathers.
We laughed, Bernard and I, over the top of the incubator box, proud of the babies and ourselves. I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I placed the ring and the scrap of paper on the counter next to the sink. The warm washcloth felt good on the raw skin of my breast creases where the eggs had been, but I was already a little empty without them, a little sad they were gone. It was much better when I returned the ring and paper to clean, dry creases. When I went back out Bernard was hanging up the phone.
“I called my friend to come see them,” he said. “I hope that’s okay.”
I would have preferred to stay as we were, just we two alone with our owlets, but if Bernard had a friend who wanted to visit, of course I couldn’t object.
He joked with me. “What do we feed owlets anyway, chicken paprikash?”
“How about an earthworm?” I said.
I stayed with the owls while he went to the garden to dig for worms. I smoothed the gold fuzz on their little backs with my finger. They turned their round faces to me and opened their beaks.
“Soon, soon, my babies,” I crooned. “Papa is bringing a nice fat worm.”
The largest owl was pale cream with a dark spot on his ruff. I decided to call him Dirty Harry, after Anyi’s favorite American movie. The smallest, palest owl I called Teeny. The other two were darker; the color of baked biscuits and honey, so the larger one became Biscuit and the smaller one Honey.
I heard Bernard’s friend driving up the hill but I stayed with the owlets, not wanting to leave them alone for a minute. I was sure the man would see Bernard out in the garden. In a moment the kitchen door opened and I looked up, ready to welcome Bernard’s friend. But it was a woman that came through the door in front of Bernard, wearing slim blue jeans and a black sweater.
“You must be Irene,” she said, holding out her hand. I kept my own in the incubator with the owlets.
“This is Brenda,” Bernard said to me, over her shoulder. “And here are two earthworms.” He triumphantly held out a paper cup with the worms. He was slightly embarrassed and awkward as he slipped an arm around Brenda’s waist.
I took the cup, what else could I do? I could see that Bernard thought of me as something completely other than this woman he brought into my kitchen and nuzzled in front of my face. The work of many days and the hatching of the owls was nothing compared to what he wanted with her. I had been stupid, stupid! to believe anything else.
Bernard leaned his head down so that it was resting on Brenda’s shoulder and he was watching me from there. The woman continued to give me the smile some people have for waiters and shopkeepers. It says: See how well bred I am but please don’t be mistaken; you are not my friend.
The owls began to peep harder, making a noise I couldn’t ignore. I knew I must take care of them, so I busied myself with the earthworms. They were, indeed, two fine fat ones. I thought a moment about how the mother owl would have fed them to the owlets, then I got a kitchen knife and diced one of the worms on the cutting board. Brenda’s hand went over her mouth at the sight. I scooped the chopped worm into another cup and then contemplated how to get the mash into the baby owl beaks. A spoon was too large and awkward, an eyedropper too fine and small. Finally, I fetched a plastic milk straw.
“Brilliant,” Bernard said.
“Oh, my Lord,” Brenda said, watching me suck the worm mash up into the straw. Of course I didn’t pull it up far enough to touch my mouth but I didn’t bother to tell her that.
I placed my finger over the end of the straw creating a vacuum so that none of the mash ran out. Then I positioned it over the open beak of Dirty Harry and released a small amount of earthworm. The surprised owlet closed his beak and swallowed, blinked once, looked up at me and opened his beak again. I repeated the process. Now the other three made more noise, sensing that food was near, so I fed them.
The woman turned her head to better see Bernard. “So, how long were they in the incubator?”
Bernard didn’t hesitate. “Three days, right, Irene?”
I didn’t answer. Let him tell his own lies. I knew the truth: the skin under my breasts was raw from hatching those owls.
I fed the owlets in turn until the straw was empty. The second worm was prepared and devoured the same way. Still, the owlets peeped for more. I rinsed out the compost bucket and handed it to Bernard. Dusk was already thick outside. “More worms,” I said. “Lots of them, before it gets dark. I’ve no idea how much they’ll eat, so if you don’t want to dig in the middle of the night, fill the bucket now.”
They went out together. He said something under his breath. She stifled a laugh. When they were gone I sank onto one of the stools by the incubator, the pain in my heart pulling my head down to the countertop.
What could be done? How had I let this happen? The pain expanded to my ribs and shoulders. My breath came raggedly because of it.
Bernard and the woman came back into my kitchen, rosy cheeked and holding on to each other. I accepted the bucket of worms and filled the blender.
“We got lucky,” Bernard said. “There was a huge knot of them in the compost pile.”
“You realize we must feed the owls through the night,” I said severely, pushing the pulse button on the blender.
Brenda flinched at the sight of the worms becoming mash. “I’d like to help,” she said, looking up into Bernard’s face and asking other silent questions.
Bernard glanced at the gory blender and cutting board. “What about dinner?”
I began feeding the owlets with the straw. Let him clean up. Let him cook his own dinner.
“We could order Chinese,” Brenda said.
Bernard looked at me. This would be the first time I didn’t cook for him. “Do what you like,” I said. “I’m not hungry.”
“Irene, you’re tired,” Bernard said. “It’s been a big day with the owls hatching. Why don’t you go rest and let us take the first shift?”
I continued to feed the babies. Dirty Harry was the best eater. Surprisingly, Teeny was the second best.
“You? You don’t know how to feed them.”
Brenda answered. “We’ve been watching you. We see how to do it.”
“You’re going to suck worms into the straw?”
Bernard quickly said, “I’ll do that part.”
I was suddenly exhausted. My chest hurt, my hand was heavy and my eyelids drooped as I fed the owls.
“Okay,” I said. “Let me see you do it.”
They exchanged a look that told me they had agreed to humor me.
I went on. I was a dumb beast putting my head down and plodding forward. “You have to get Biscuit and Honey to eat. They’re slower than the other two.”
Again, they traded a glance.
“You named them?” Brenda asked.
I pointed out the differences between the owls and taught them the names. I watched Bernard feed them. Then I watched Brenda feed them. I made sure they knew not to put too much mash in at once. When I was satisfied that the owls would be all right, and I had Bernard’s promise to wake me in two hours, I went into my room and lay on the bed, still in my clothes.
It was late, much more than two hours later, when Bernard knocked on my door. I came out to a kitchen full of cartons from Chinese food along with dirty plates and an empty bottle of wine. The blender sat where I left it and now the worm mash was black and hard on the inside. Brenda was sleeping under a blanket on the couch. Only a faint peeping came from the incubator.
“I’m beat, Irene. I’ve got to get some sleep,” Bernard said. “Two of the owls haven’t eaten in a while, I think they finally got full. The other two are still hungry all the time.”
I looked into the box. There was spilled worm mash dried everywhere, on the mother owl’s feathers, on the sides of the box. Dirty Harry and Teeny were stronger and making little hops in the mess. Biscuit and Honey were over in one corner, huddled together. I could see that they were not good.
I picked up Biscuit and held him in my hand. I tried to feed him. He didn’t open his beak. I stroked his back and then his front with my finger to try to get him going. He just looked up at me with a fearful eye. I could feel his little heart hammering in his chest. I brought him to my mouth and blew gently on his face to try to get him to open his beak but he just closed his eyes.
I turned on Bernard. “How could you let this happen? Why didn’t you wake me?”
He shook his head and opened his arms in the classic gesture of innocence. “They stopped eating. I thought they were full. Anyway, there isn’t anything you could have done.”
I put Biscuit down and picked up Honey. Her heart was erratic. Her eye was already looking far past me. I knew she would die soon. I held her to my heart and felt myself begin to sway.
Bernard put his hand on my shoulder and I’m ashamed to say that even at that moment, when I had already lost him and I knew I was about to begin losing the babies I was grateful, grateful! for his touch. “I’m sorry, Irene,” he said. I gritted my teeth waiting for him to add how it wasn’t his fault. I was almost hoping he would, so that I could hate him completely. But he didn’t. He moved away from me with the air of a man who accepts the burden of blame, fairly placed or not. He woke up his girlfriend and helped her to his bedroom. The door shut.
Still holding Honey, I scooped up Biscuit so that they were both together. I sang a Hungarian lullaby to them. I tried to forget about Bernard and the woman behind the closed door. I kept singing as first one and then the other owl’s little sides stopped heaving and the eyes grew dull. I sang as I lifted my left breast with my right hand and put Biscuit and Honey back in the fold with Bernard’s ring. I wanted to keep them safe and warm while I took care of Dirty Harry and Teeny.
At dawn I knocked on the door to Bernard’s bedroom. He opened it, wearing only boxer shorts. I averted my eyes and held out the compost bucket.
“Excuse me, but we need more worms.”
He stepped into his pants from the night before. I caught a glimpse of the thin, bare arm of the woman in the bed. He grabbed the bucket and went outside.
I began to clean the kitchen. I collected dirty glasses and plates, threw away Chinese food cartons, put hot sudsy water in the blender and turned it on to clean the dried worm mash out of the blade. All the time I was aware of the two dead owlets and his ruby ring tucked into the crease under my heart. I worried about the two remaining owls. Was Teeny eating less than she had been? Was she looking droopy around the ruff? I busied myself cleaning the spills of worm mash off of the incubator box. I folded the blanket that the woman had used and placed her shoes neatly by the door.
When Bernard came back with the worms I whipped them up.
He looked into the incubator. “What happened to the brown ones?” he asked. He didn’t say their names.
“Oh,” he said, with less interest than if I had told him I had broken a tea cup.
I said nothing more. My chest ached into my arms.
“Irene, you look awful. Go back to bed and I’ll feed these two for a while.”
But I had learned at a terrible price what came of letting him care for them. I was not going to risk Dirty Harry and Teeny. I would feed them alone.
By noon the woman was up and, tired of the owls, she went back to her own house. It was clear to me now that Teeny was not eating as much.
“Call a veterinarian,” I said to Bernard. “Find out what can be done.”
He called a vet and the county extension and the department of wildlife. They all said that the only thing we could do differently was try another food; that the owls should be getting small birds or mice.
I stroked Teeny. She was taking very little mash now.
“I’ll drive to the pet store in town and get some mice,” Bernard said. He looked haggard. I could see he wanted this to be over.
While he was gone Teeny died. I placed her back in her birthplace, underneath my right breast, next to my name in his handwriting. My body felt strangely light. The pain radiating from my chest was cleansing and pure. I hadn’t eaten for over a day. I had slept only a few hours. I was the living repository of dead owls. I wandered through the house that I had cleaned many times over the last five weeks. I went up to the writing room and saw his pads of paper and the computer. I turned on the computer and gazed outside at the cavity in the tree where the owls had nested. I dragged all of the chapters I had typed into the picture of the trashcan on the screen and then emptied the trash. Yes, I told the computer, I was sure I wanted to empty the trash.
I put all of the scribbled yellow pads of paper and printed chapters into a garbage bag and dragged them outside to the compost where Bernard had dug for worms. My breath hurt in my chest, but I couldn’t stop. I took the shovel and went to work, digging a shallow grave at the base of the compost pile. I was sweating and nearly faint from the effort and pain before it was deep enough. I emptied the bag into the hole and put compost and dirt back on top, amazed that I could do such work. When the dirt was in place I walked around on it and then shoveled compost over it so that he would never know what was rotting at the bottom.
I was back inside with Dirty Harry, feeding him the last of the earthworms when Bernard’s car roared up the hill. He came through the door with mice in a box.
“Teeny’s dead,” I said, accepting the box. It moved like a large Mexican jumping bean. I dropped one white mouse into the blender and watched it run around on the blades a moment before I pushed the pulse button.
Bernard winced. “That was harsh.”
I meant to shrug my shoulders but knives of pain went through me. I meant to say, “You think that was harsh, Bernard? That mouse was lucky. He didn’t feel a thing.” But I no longer had the strength. I was going to pick up Dirty Harry and try some of the mouse puree on him but I began to sink. My legs refused to keep me upright.
Bernard grabbed my elbow, then moved a chair to catch me as I went down. My full weight landed in it at once and it gave out with a loud crack. I added this to all the other shame that was breaking its way out of my chest.
It took the ambulance a long time. Bernard put his arms around me to keep me from falling over.
“Please don’t die,” he whispered.
Somewhere between Bernard’s house and the hospital they put the shockers on my bare chest, and with Bernard watching, my shame was immense. I began to rise. I floated above the pain and noise and the paramedics working.
When I woke up I was in a bed in a quiet room. On the table next to me, on a clean white towel, were the three dead owls, the ring, and the paper with my name.
Tears puddled into my hair and ears. I had been turned inside out like a pocket. My body had given up all of its secrets and now I was empty. I was too weak to raise a hand and wipe my eyes so I lay there and cried until the nurse came in and put something into the IV.
The next time I woke, Bernard was talking to the nurse. I kept my eyes closed. The lids were too heavy and, anyway, I couldn’t face him, after what he’d seen, after everything that had happened. He pulled the chair up to the bed and sat in it for a long time.
“Irene,” he said. I didn’t open my eyes. Let him talk to me as if I was asleep. Let him talk to me as if I were dying.
“Dirty Harry pulled through,” he said, and I almost opened my eyes for that. I had to remind myself to keep them squeezed shut. “He’s at an owl refuge.”
And then his warm hand was opening mine and putting in the ring and the scrap of paper and closing my fist around them.
The nurse put Biscuit, Honey and Teeny in the hospital freezer as they were starting to cause concern among the staff. She brought them to me on my last day, three frozen lumps of fluff and beak in a ziplock bag.
There was no discussion about where I would go when I was able to leave the hospital. I was moved into my mother’s house. My clothes and things were in two boxes. Bernard must have packed them.
I had one last task before I claimed my birthright. I took the owls into my old room, the stale smelling, cramped, bedroom where I began. I ripped my white cotton shirt into strips and wound each of the three birds, starting at the tiny feet and wrapping up over the head and back down again, several times, until each bird was a mango sized mummy. I did the same with the ruby ring, and the paper that said “Irene.” I tied the cotton ends into knots and packed them all into the small box, tucking the remaining shirt around them. I taped the box and printed his address on it. My mother took it to the post office.
She left and I settled into my narrow childhood bed. Outside my window the branches were glutted with leaves. I listened to my heart beat its new, weak rhythm and imagined Bernard opening the box. He would take each of the five small offerings in his hands and unwind the cotton while I prepared myself to accept the life that had been waiting in this room.
First published in Ploughshares, December 2006