Gary Guinn

The Eye of the Owl

slattonS2.jpg (51986 bytes)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 hadn't happened.

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 it?"

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 bedroom overhead.

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 matter."

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. "The waterfall."

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 concerned."

"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 for nothing."

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 stove.

"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 guard."

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 mounted.

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 and shivered.

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)