There was an especially ebullient morning on the farm in late August. My skin at the time was raw from interminable afternoons in late July, but that day a westward breeze eased the sting and paused me to take in the sunrise, pink. The half-moon gazed out of clouds and in every sense I felt like the worst of the summer heat was gone. I stretched my back until it cracked and drank three cups of coffee on my porch, looking at nothing in particular for an hour until work the harvest day started.
I may have remained lethargic for the entire day if it wasn’t for the great gray owl I saw staring at me from a large, dead tree on the other side of the creek that straddles the perimeter of the farm. I did not know at first they were an owl when I saw them; I did not mean to find them; I was hauling the kale I harvested to the pack shed to be washed when I saw them ruffle on the last remaining big branch of the tree.
And it suddenly felt much warmer; the sun remained covered by blankets of clouds. How there was a great gray was here, in the high country of Appalachia in the summer, I wasn’t sure. I took a blurry picture of them on my phone and double-checked with my bird book. The farm is several hundred miles away from the closest common area for great grays to be, yet this one—a veritable great gray, after checking—was sitting steadfast on the dead tree, the one with no leaves, like it had always been there.
I knew I should have been getting back to work, but instead I let the kale wilt in the crates beside me and got binoculars from my room and studied more. The most obvious, striking detail about great grays is their face: spherical and flat with a thick round ring of black, which augments acid green eyes. There are layers of opaque black and white rings which circle the eyes and beak and give way to deep crescent brows. The bridge of the nose is the central feature: large and concave with a thick line running in the center. The great gray looked a lot like a human in their expressions, yet the artistry of their plumage and the pride in their stature seemed foreign—and I felt soggy when I stared back at them, like there was a potato in my stomach.
They hadn’t moved at all since I discovered them in the tree. I left with the kale to the pack shed to tell the others about the owl. I felt the owl looking at me on my walk down.
The other farm hands didn’t want to stop washing vegetables to go see the owl. They didn’t get it. If only they came with me to see them, maybe then they would. One asked me if I thought the owl lived close by, but I wasn’t sure. I don’t know much about owls, less about ones who are found so far from where they’re supposed to be. During my lunch break, I sent an email to the local Audubon society asking if they had ever heard of anything like this happening before. “A Great Gray in North Carolina?” I had no reason for believing me. They would think I saw a barred owl and got confused.
The entire day, it felt like the owl was nipping at my ear lobes. I really believed I heard them clicking and cooing, sporadically throughout the day. Even in the kitchen and my room—when I put the quilt over my head—the owl was there. Judging me? I went back outside after dinner to check the tree; they were still there, but sleeping—a pulsating bundle of gray feathers. I stood there for what must have been five minutes to see if they would perk their head out of their chest to watch me. I felt safe for the first time since I discovered them, knowing they weren’t staring anymore. And I realized how unsafe I’ve felt since they arrived.
The first thing I did the next morning was check on the owl. It was another unusually cool morning for August. I put on a sweatshirt for the first time since the spring and walked to the creek.
I heard them before I saw them. They—the raptor was wailing thirty feet above me: a man gagging in a cave, a sound which shook me out of my skin. They seemed possessed by some divinity, or else surrendered to their mania. They stumbled from one branch to another, shredding leaves from neighboring trees and scattering butternuts, which rang off the tin kitchen roof like cannons. They looked like they had never known how to fly, as if they had jettisoned some great bodily reason. Their wing movements were erratic, violent; they fell out of branches more than they flew.
I had never seen such behavior from any bird or being. I stood there for a few moments longer, wondering what I should do—what would I google?—until the great gray once again perched on the same branch of the dead tree. They still huffed deeply for breath. They were fetal; they used their right wing to cover their face. I stood there helpless, jarred until my emotions ran dry.
The owl removed their wing from their face and in place of their right eye was a thick roux of blood and puss. Gouged! Someone had gouged their eye out! The wound was fresh: sour, and it steamed from the orifice. I stuttered and shrunk. I felt so weak I knelt down and could not puke.
They sat tranquil in the dead tree as if they always had a beating crater where their right eye used to be. It seemed like I had just missed whatever happened that led to this behavior, but the owl nonetheless had ostensibly accepted their malaise. They no longer squawked nor struggled. I must have stood there for thirty minutes; I checked my phone and it was already time to get ready for morning chores.
I went back to my room and opened my laptop; there were more than a dozen replies from Audubon folks in my inbox. Subject lines read: “Are you sure it’s a Great Gray?”; “Pictures??”; “Where did you see it?”; etc. I didn’t have the heart nor the emotional wherewithal to tell them that the owl now only had one eye. Even if I did, they probably wouldn’t believe me. They probably pegged me for a troll.
I did not email them back. I left my room for work and kept my back to the owl when I passed by the tree on my way to the field on the other side of the farm. I must have been at least two-hundred feet away from the great gray, but I felt them like fiberglass tracing my spine. I couldn’t harvest lettuce; I couldn’t catch my breath. I told the other workers I had to go, fearing I was deepening into a bad panic attack.
In my room, on my bed, I only saw the owl. How intrusive and rude! My mind spiraled around their lost eye: “Where was the eye now? Did something eat it? Who or what could have gouged an owl’s eye? An owl with talons! Was what I saw real? Has anyone else on the farm seen the owl?
Was there a reason for the owl losing their eye?”
I had no other answer; I settled on yes; they must have done something that ended in them losing their eye. There had to be some reason they were there, because they were there. I even did my best to believe that they were supposed to be there. I closed my eyes and pleaded with myself to stop seeing the owl. Even in my prayers they were watching me. They were probably listening too. They could hear my prayers!
I did not go back to work that day and no one came to check on me. I stayed in my room all day. I went back outside just before dusk to check on the owl, out of a desperate need to see that the owl was gone.
They were still awake. Their eyes followed me out of my room. I stood ten feet from the base of the dead tree. I did not know what to do before them. They looked at me like they expected something from me.
I flailed my arms
and kicked the air
swung my hips and snapped my back. I did some sort of hop-kick thing until I stumbled, out of breath and will—
and the dirt was soppy from last night’s rain.
I felt swollen and I really did want to cry, because just a couple of days ago things seemed to be okay and now I felt terribly haunted and confused. I shrank in my mud and looked up at the owl, who stared back at me unimpressed, expecting more. “Can you stop staring at me?” I thought to ask. Maybe they just needed me to ask.
Their wound was crusty. It didn’t look infected, but since it was never cleaned it was grimy. They blinked once at me, with their one eye. They didn’t seem like they missed their eye. I surrendered in silence and went to my room.
I went to bed and threw the blankets over my head. I tried to sleep even though it was no later than seven. At no point during that night did I sleep. I laid awake and tried reading but did not have the mental aptitude to focus on the plot of the novel. I scrolled on my phone for hours.
At one in the morning I smelled smoke. I sat up; outside my window there was a faint glow. I tore through my blankets and out the door and pivoted to my left and there was the owl, set completely ablaze. Six-foot flames and even from where I was standing I could feel the heat.
The owl was not dead! For a moment, I thought how lucky I was that this owl was certainly ash, but no, through the flames you could see them sitting as stoic as ever. I felt a thousand stinging nettles and bull thistles under my fingernails as I wandered closer to the tree—poison ivy on the back of my neck.
They were not frantic from the fire the way they were when they lost their eye. It did not seem like the fire was hurting them. They were still staring at me. The tree was not on fire, as dead as it was and how easy it should have been for it to light up. Only the great gray was on fire. They were imperious. They were still missing their eye.
There was nothing I could do nor think in the wake of the great gray on fire in North Carolina. Nothing seemed to be an appropriate response. There was no way I could help, and it did not look like the situation needed my help. The fire, though thirty feet above me, made the sunburn on my forehead sting. My breathing became heavy again and my body was shaking outside of my ability to make it stop.
My lungs shuttered and I did not stop wallowing for the owl because that’s what they must have wanted. They must have needed me to see them on fire and they must have needed me to give myself away. So I got on my knees and I pounded the ground which was still wet and I screamed into the grass until my voice cracked and then my body cracked and I laid limp on the wet ground crying for anything to happen, because I did not want to see an owl on fire. I wanted the Audubon folks to be here and extinguish the fire and put an eye back in the owl and for the owl to fly away.
The great gray did nothing in response because that’s all they ever did. And it looked like the fire was getting bigger; I felt more of the heat and the ground even seemed to dry a bit out. Soon it was not just warm, but excruciating to be so close. I crawled away from the fire as fast as I could and fell to the ground once more when I could stand it. I covered my ears with my hands and shut my eyes as hard as I could and only then did the owl speak to me. Through the fire, which was now at least eight feet high with streaks of blue, the owl spoke and said this:
“The best way to catch a mouse is to use your ears. When you hear a mouse in a pile of leaf litter, it is important to remain perched and listen more until you can locate exactly where it is. Do not move at all or flap your wings before you know where the mouse is. It is just a mouse, but it will be wise enough to hide if it knows you are near. Once you find the mouse, notice the patterns in its movements. Has it found seeds on the ground? If so, it will likely stay close to them until the seeds are finished. If not, you will likely be able to pick up on the rhythms and jerks in its crawl for food. All mice movements are relatively the same. They will scurry and stop to take in their surroundings. They are always weary of an attacker. As soon as they sense they are being watched, they will hide in a crevice or hole. If they do this they are not likely to come out until you have left. They would rather starve than come out and be eaten. Do not let this happen. When you have located the mouse and studied its patterns of movement, in one motion, dismount your tree and dive. Do not be worried about hitting the ground because your wings are strong, and you do not weigh too much because you are just an owl, after all. You will not have to think too much about your movements on your way to the mouse. Your fall will be swift. Once you are within a few feet of the ground, the mouse is yours. At this moment it does not matter if they notice you; it is too late for them. You are too sharp. Open your talons and lay them symmetrically ahead of your body and flap your wings hard so you do not hit the ground before you get the mouse. The mouse will be easy to grab if you have both your talons open. Its flesh is soft. It will be easily killed. Now you can fly back to your tree and you have a mouse to eat. You do not have to be hungry anymore.”
The great gray fell—in flames and into the creek below. There was a thud and a splash and the fire dispelled into plumes of smoke that were still visible through the fog and black of that night. Without any will to do so, I walked into the creek and flurried my arms through the smoke and found the carcass caught on a couple rocks in the middle of the creek. The body was still so warm and the ashes burned little holes in my shirt, but I still tucked it in my arms and brought it to my room. Together, the owl carcass and I laid in my bed and between my arms it felt heavy and still so full. We laid there together for the whole night, and I did not close my eyes once.
The owl carcass stayed in my room for the rest of the year. The cats gnawed at the protruded organs and swatted the owl’s talons which laid limp against my dresser. When the maggots came, I laid it outside on my porch so the house sparrows living in my roof could eat them. My room acquired a stench beyond what candles could cover up. The smell was noticeable anywhere within a ten-foot radius of my room, and others noticed but I did not care. No one asked me to remove it. No one knew how to ask why there was a rotting owl carcass in my room, and even if they had, I would have answered, “I’m sorry. I can’t get rid of it now.”
I left that room, though, when the farm season ended. And when I packed up my things, I shoved the carcass into my backpack and closed the zipper. Now, the backpack sits in my new room next to my window, and the carcass only stinks up the room when I take it out daily to caress. What is left of the owl is misshapen and deformed so much that I can only tell it was an owl by its talons, which may decompose from its body any day now. Flies will find their way into my room and feast on the remains while I have it out, so I can only be with it for a few minutes before I’ve attracted quite the swarm.
Most of the time, it sits in my backpack. It makes it easier to carry.