This story is a runner-up in our 2019 Great American Fiction Contest. See all of the winners.
Jefferson, Texas, on a sticky spring afternoon, my husband’s up to no good. I wait for disaster to rain down like tiny frogs clinging to branches after a tornado. My husband, Jace, a heavy man, dons a faded tractor hat. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he steers his motorized wheelchair down the ramp outside our house while whistling “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Closing the door behind him, I slide the window open and pop off the screen. A blast of fresh air, hot and muggy, hits my face like breath. Outside, baby grasshoppers jump like hot oil on a griddle. Robins sing. Owls call. The sky ebbs the deep vivid blue of painted china. Meanwhile, I pretend I’m cleaning the windows.
I’m waiting, watching, hoping Jace doesn’t notice.
We’ve been living here for two years, ever since our retirement from the military, and we aren’t accustomed to a life of lakes and tourists, friendly dog walkers. Our lot is surrounded by trees and owls. Big pickup trucks hauling shiny fishing boats on trailors cruise by our double carport, slowing down to view the stretch of asphalt where Jace’s neglected pontoon boat and bass boat sit, gathering cobwebs beneath the oaks. At this hour, the dense leafy shade of mature maples bathes the ramps near the end of the driveway. Standing near the window, hidden by umber curtains, I spy on Jace, my husband of 10 years, a diabetic and avid fisherman.
He lost his legs to nerve damage last summer.
Now that he’s disabled, I’m constantly spying, keeping watch, to search and inspect his body, the house, the wheelchair, our surroundings, looking for clues that we’ll be all right. Once a birder addicted to owling, I know how to observe without disturbance, though I don’t go birding or owling anymore. I’ve given it up for Jace.
My first love was the monkey-faced owl, a barn owl that roosted near my childhood home. I remember its humanlike face, the eyes directed forward, the wide wings, and hooked beak. I listened for the strange, loud double-clicking echoes among buildings and the screaming, its droll quizzical expression and white underparts reflected in streetlights. I loved that owl. I fell for it, the way I would eventually fall for men who were strangers to me. When I gave myself to them, the men reminded me of owls, their quizzical expressions, white bellies, their secretive nature. I stalked them, when I was young, but only the secretive ones. Like Jace.
Nearing the end of the cracked concrete drive, the wheelchair stalls. Jace jerks back, as if realizing he is on display. He halts the chair at the final stretch, just before the asphalt road. I hold my breath, wondering if he’ll be able to reach far enough to get the newspaper. It’s right there on the concrete, wrapped in its clear plastic bag, where the carrier threw it.
The neighbors are watching. I spy them in their windows, looking out, on their front porches, in their yards, pretending to tend to the grass. Yesterday, this moment birthed disaster. A little thing like a man going out to retrieve the newspaper on his own driveway. Yesterday, Jace had fallen out of his chair. Hard. Smack onto the concrete. His hands and elbows and face were bleeding. Bruises all over his pale skin. I ran out of the house to lift him back into his wheelchair. He was too heavy. The neighbors ran to gather him in their arms, picking him up and putting him back into his chair.
“Okay,” he said, smiling but shaking. “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
Inside the house, I cleaned his wounds with iodine and checked for broken bones before laying ice packs on his elbows.
Today, just as he’s bending down, grasping, he removes a metal pen from his shirt pocket with a flourish. He flicks this pen, which has a pointer, retractable and approximately two-and-a-half feet long at full length. He nudges the paper with it. He thumbs the end of the pointer, and a claw on the opposite end flexes outward, grabbing the newspaper. Jace lifts the paper into the air, hanging from the end of the pointer. The neighbors watching from their porches applaud.
Jace smiles and waves at everyone, before turning this wheelchair back to the ramps.
He’s a clever man, my husband, with unusual charm, the ability to disarm even his greatest detractors, like his mother-in-law, who never liked me being with Jace, who is nearly my father’s age. I always preferred older men. I remember what Mother said when she found out I was marrying Jace: A fisherman is a jerk on one end of the line waiting for a jerk on the other. Jace laughed about that for days, but I didn’t think it funny.
“An old fisherman lives here with the catch of his life,” he announced to Mother when she first visited this house, shortly before his amputations.
Mother only smiled wryly, asking for a drink, then whispering in the kitchen, “The fishing is always better on the other side of the lake, isn’t it, dear?”
I didn’t know quite what she meant.
“There’s something fishy about this fella,” she said after a few drinks, while eyeing all the prize-winning bass mounted on the den walls near Jace’s trophies.
“I’ll not deny it,” said Jace.
This was before he lost his legs, when he went fishing every weekend, rain or shine, and won trophies in fishing competitions.
“Early to bed, early to rise, fish all day, make up lies?” Mother asked, examining his trophies.
Jace raised an eyebrow and his beer to her. “You know the old proverb, Norma? Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day … Teach a man to fish, and he will sit in a boat, and drink beer all day.”
“Men and fish are alike,” Mother said to me later that night before turning in to bed. “They both get into trouble when they open their mouths.”
Jace was so deliciously sunburned then.
He smelled of the lake, the wind, the sun, the water.
He tasted sun-kissed.
His hairdo was courtesy of his boat, in the days when he used to assure me I could separate the men from the boys by the size of their rods.
That was before the amputations, when Jace lived to fish and fished to live, when life was too short to fish without beer. Back when wishes were fishes and everyday was a fish fry, Jace used to live for the lake, the water, the catch of the day. So strong, determined, adventurous, full of energy, before his amputations, he was the one who carried me to bed when I was tired. Now, I spend entire hours regretting I’m not strong enough to carry him.
I used to venture out at night to go owling. He used to leave for the lake in the dark hours of morning so that we crossed each other in our adventures, one of us coming home, one of us leaving. Now, we both stay at home. He resents it, not as much as my asking why he doesn’t go to the lake anymore. There are other things we don’t do anymore, but I don’t like to think about that.
Sometimes at night, I venture into the yard to stand beside the decaying pontoon boat. That’s how I first saw the neighborhood ambassador owl and realized the owl was calling to me, letting itself be known, as owls rarely do. I wanted to explain to the owl it was too late. I no longer went on trips to search for nests in caves, tree hollows, bridges, and buildings. Gone were my childhood visits to caves littered with droppings, pellets scattered amid golden-brown feathers. The owls I loved fed on cotton rats and nested in deserted buildings, bridges, and water towers, but never during the years of rodent shortage. They refused to brood in hunger. The mated pair I once watched for months fed their brood on the foreparts of rats, leaving behind hind parts and separate stomachs scattered around the nest. I found them by searching for scattered stomachs of rats they killed.
Tonight, the bold ambassador owl finds me, again, and stares with inquisitive eyes. He’s a barn owl with the perfect white monkey face.
The owl and I stare at each other near the carport where the pontoon boat rusts in the dust of neglect. I notice one of the owl’s wings is damaged, wounded, and I wonder if it knows what Jace and I have learned. One’s body can become a stranger, a separate entity, even to oneself, or to one’s partner. I feel guilty about not noticing this sooner, though I was the one to spot the sores. The trouble began on Jace’s left foot, an ulcer that wouldn’t heal.
What happened to Jace was related to his diabetes, but the official medical reason for his amputations was poor circulation due to damage to his arteries. Without adequate blood flow, the body’s cells cannot get oxygen and nutrients they need from the bloodstream. Infections do not go away or cannot be controlled. With so much nerve damage to his feet, Jace couldn’t feel pain. This meant he couldn’t heal. He had an ulcer on his foot that grew and became infected, but he never even felt it or knew it was there until I saw it.
Jace isn’t the only one who can’t feel pain. Some people stare at amputees, regardless of what they are doing, never realizing the pain they are causing. I guess to some people the pain of others is interesting. Watching struggle is entertainment.
“I’m a free show,” Jace says, whenever we catch people staring at him.
“I’ll never forgive them,” I whisper, especially if those who are staring are adults.
But later, he tells me he no longer takes it personally.
“Everyone needs to invent a new game or to find a game to make life worth living, or else we die,” he says. “Staring at me is just a game to them.”
I’m thinking how wise he is, how much sense his words make, but how little his spoken wisdom relates to his actions. His game was once fishing, and now he has no game. I wonder if he realizes he isn’t following his own advice, or perhaps he has a secret game he hasn’t revealed to me.
I’m thinking about this tonight, as I walk out of the house, quietly, wanting to be alone with the full moon, just for a little while, not daring to go beyond the confines of our property. Somehow, as always, I end up walking to the pontoon boat. I stroke the dust on the paint and remember the sun on the water.
I wonder when the ambassador owl will return. It blends into the bark of the trees, never revealing its roost, even after crows mobbing. Unlike the Romans, I don’t believe owl hoots signal death. Like the Greeks, I feel hoots are good fortune.
“I’ve seen it before,” Jace says, when I go back inside the house, where he’s waiting for me near the fireplace full of lit candles. “I know what you’re doing.”
“What?” I ask.
“Your friend in the trees? He watches me too, and I have plans for him.”
“What do you mean?” I’m worried for the owl.
When Jace tells me what he plans to do with the ambassador owl, I begin to wonder, if it works, will it be because of the strangeness of the wounded owl or the strangeness of my husband?
The next day, Jace gets to work on his new game, taking a full week to prepare. He rigs a system of ropes, weights, and wheels, fashioning long pulleys behind our house, cords stretching from tree to tree to hang homemade wooden cages dangling like chandeliers from heavy branches. Jace installs huge, high-powered spotlights to shine on the night sky. The neighbors watch from their back porches, as if mesmerized.
Now, we have an entire neighborhood of “concerned” citizens who can’t keep their eyes off Jace. I hide my outrage. What good would it do? He’s drawing attention to himself, making everyone stare all the more, giving them an excuse.
Jace, gleeful, says, “It’s all part of the new sport I’ve invented.” He appears proud people are watching. “They’re taking pictures and making videos, honey,” he says.
The neighbors have invited friends to watch him. Local tourists have gotten word, driving by our house slowly to get a glimpse of the system Jace has rigged in the backyard, the mystery he has created. Jace won’t tell anyone, except me, what he’s really doing. I pretend to be enthusiastic, because it has been a long time since I’ve seen him this way, but my heart hurts.
“Bless your little heart,” Jace says, when I tell him I’m worried.
His spirits are lifted, his eyes are full of light like on days of fishing tournaments. The neighbors, gazing shamelessly, cheer him. He’s a local sensation, or a freak, which is the same thing.
Only in Jefferson, I think. A former fisherman, Jace is just the type of man for this place. So much of his spectacle is possible because Jefferson is located in between Caddo Lake and Lake O’ the Pines. It thrives on tourists who visit for outdoor recreational activities and events every year, like the Holiday Light Trail and the Barbecue Cook-Off. Jefferson is ripe for a new event, a new sensation, the sort of nightly sideshow Jace is creating. Here, we have many nature activities, including steam paddleboat lake tours, horse-drawn carriage rides, antique shops, ghost tours, and now … Jace.
Maybe that’s why no one has called the police yet. No one has reported Jace because people are looking forward to more spectacle. Friends and strangers gather around our fence in the evening to watch and chat. As Jace drives his wheelchair in circles over the oversized balcony in our sloped backyard, he’s holding a fishing pole. His electronic wheelchair makes rounds on the balcony, the fishing line whips through the air over the trees, and the new sport he has invented seems like a crime against nature.
“Jace,” I say, “explain to me what you think you’re doing?”
“Fishing for owls,” he says.
“If I can fish from the lake, I can fish from the sky.”
No matter how many times I beg him not to, no matter how I try to reason with him, he’s determined to fish for owls all night long.
He has even ordered new business cards. Tonight, he hands me one of his cards, which reads, Jace Allman. Why fish from water, when you can fish from sky?
“Get it?” he whispers.
I get it. I do. Owls are predators. That’s why he likes to lure them in, despite stories of the woods, old stories of people attacked by owls. I want to tell him these stories, but then I change my mind. I’m afraid for the ambassador owl.
The first time I saw the owl, I felt I had seen something special: a secret friend, a kinship in its gaze.
After downloading a recording on his phone, an owl hooting during mating season, Jace sits quietly to wait for dusk on the balcony. Clutching a large flashlight, he pushes play to start the recording. Eventually, the owl answers back. We can hear it calling a mile away, before it appears. Why, I wonder, is Jace taking such a risk? He’s doing it, I think, to please me, but also for the thrill, the challenge. Inventing a new sport. To entertain himself and the neighbors. Because he can’t sleep. Perhaps even because he feels guilty that I gave up birding to care for him. And yet, I’m keeping a secret from him. I think what he’s doing is wrong and want him to stop, even though I tell him it’s great and I love it.
I worry. What would really happen if he caught the ambassador owl? Owls are usually secretive and don’t like being seen by humans, so why and how would one be so willing? Maybe, I suspect, it’s because the owl is wounded and must care for its brood in times of rodent shortage.
The owl sits in the oak, staring down at Jace.
“Bait,” Jace whispers to me as the owl watches us. Jace looks at the owl as if it might answer. “What do owls like to eat?”
“Rodents,” I say.
“A rat or squirrel on a hook and string will chew through or run under the house. That’s no good. I need something that will fly.”
“Sparrows?” I ask. “Bats?”
In the morning, Jace rises early and staples a net over a hole in the carport, a gap between the brick wall and the carport’s metal roof.
“It’s the bats’ only door. I’ve seen them flying in and out in the evenings,” Jace says with a twisted smile.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” I say, when he nets the first bat, brown velvet wings flopping in terror as Jace holds the writhing bat in his heavy leather gloves.
Jace grabs his rod and reel, then ties twine to the foot of the thrashing, squealing bat. He attaches the twine to fishing line on rod and reel, so the bat is connected.
“This isn’t very sportsmanlike,” I say.
“No,” he says, looking at me sadly. “I’ll just test it tonight. I’ll not call the owl yet. I just want to see if —”
Before he can finish his sentence, the bat begins to fly, still connected to the fishing line. Jace gives it more line, letting it out farther and higher. “Look at it go,” he says with a smile. “This might work after all.”
“No,” I whisper.
He carefully reels the bat back in, grabs it in his gloved hands, and cuts it free from the twine and line. Released and free, the bat flies away, disappearing in darkening sky above the trees.
“Well?” I ask, thinking what Jace is proposing to do to the owl will require great skill, unlike what he has just done to the bat.
“You’re right. The net isn’t fair to the bats. They’re trapped, so there’s no sport in it. Before I start fishing for owls, I need to fish for a bat.”
He fishes for bats by threading a large moth on line and flying the moth on the line outside the bat hole. A bait bat is finally caught, mouth tangled in the line while devouring the moth. Jace secures the bat, throwing a net over it, then knotting twine threaded with fishing line on the bat’s leg. Now, he’s playing a recording of owl mating calls. When the ambassador owl answers, flying toward him, Jace lets the bait bat fly on the line to lure the owl. Jace fishes with the bat, live bait as it flies through the dark sky on line, attached to rod and reel.
Jace almost gets the owl, but not quite, giving up, waiting for another night.
To keep the owl interested, Jace uses sounds I collected long ago on old tapes from a recorder placed near a nest box outside my childhood bedroom window, when I spent nights listening to owls’ whistles, cackles, grunts, and growls. Jace begins to mimic these sounds. He hoots at dusk, pulls out his phone, finds the bird call app, and plays the owls’ mating call. Then, he cranks up the old tape player on max volume, hooking it up to speakers to play the sounds I recorded from the owls of my childhood.
The ambassador owl flies nearer.
I sit on our back porch, beneath the balcony, under the plastic awning faded from sun, and sip a mojito blended with mint from our garden.
When Jace catches the ambassador owl, as it swoops in for the bait bat, I hear screams and laughter, whispers, as he reels the owl on strong line, netting the owl with the bat in its beak. Jace deposits the stunned owl in one of the tree cages connected to pulleys. Jace uses pulleys to bring fresh cages to the balcony and then to return them to the trees, where they dangle like rustic chandeliers from oak limbs. A struggle for his strong arms, his well-defined muscles working, Jace captures the mate of the caged owl next.
As the stunned owls reanimate in cages, they stir, dazed, coming back to fly from their chandeliers, lit by solar landscape spotlights. After drawing them nearer with the pulley, Jace opens the cage doors with his clawed pointer, the one he uses to reach the newspaper on the driveway each day.
The neighbors applaud, again and again. He motions for silence, and they obey his unspoken command.
On the balcony under the pecan trees, he calls to the owls, again, getting them to call back. It scares me because of their eyes, the way they stare as they answer back, as if actually trying to hold a conversation with him. He’s setting up his laptop with more owl recordings on the balcony table under the pecan trees. These are not mating calls but the calls of young owls, nestlings, calling to their parents. It’s wrong, wrong, for anyone to do what he’s doing. I fear he will anger the owls and we’ll both pay the price of his foolish game.
I hear Jace and the owls have conversations. Now that he has learned to lure them, to mimic their voices, they answer. In the pecan trees near the balcony, the owls roost, calling to him as he lures them nearer.
The calls become louder, increasing in intensity, and then I hear another sound, unlike any that I have heard before when he is fishing for owls. His voice changes and is not at all owl-like but the screech of a little boy, frightened, overwhelmed. When I hear his little-boy cry, my maternal instincts kick in, and I rush up the rickety stairs leading from the porch to the balcony, where I find my worst nightmare. He has netted a great horned owl so large it won’t fit inside the cages. Jace doesn’t know what to do now that he’s got it.
“Let him go,” I say.
Jace says, “Out of the way!”
He’s trying to cut it loose, but the owl is staring up at the inky sky, taking off too fast, beating its wings, slapping Jace’s face. Jace’s nose is bleeding, and he is holding his fishing pole. It whips crazily in his large hands as the owl circles above. He’s reeling the owl in as it swerves higher, pulling away. Reeling and reeling, he’s giving it more line, and yet the line threatens to wrap around the branches of the nearer trees.
“I’ll wear him down,” he says.
God knows if he’ll be able, or what he’ll do with the owl if he succeeds.
The owl wants to escape with the bait. It weaves above, circling down. Jace reeling, reeling, huffs as if out of breath. Sweating profusely, he attempts to pull the owl from the sky. The line breaks. Jace falls back against his wheelchair, the pole still in his hands, the great horned owl disappearing into the dark.
“One thing I’ll never buy again,” he says, catching his breath, “is cheap line.”
Something about the wild look in his eye makes me remember the way we used to love each other. I don’t want him fishing for owls anymore because I worry he will get hurt or hurt one of the owls and be sorry. He doesn’t like hurting things, usually, except for fish and bait. He has switched to sparrows now but wants to look for more bats as well as flying squirrels.
Past midnight, he’s toying with the new line and the sparrows in their cage.
“When I was a kid,” I say, “a man named Jimmy got too close to a great horned owl during mating season. Its talons cut through his skull like a hot knife through butter.”
“Jimmy had a lobotomy — a lobotomy by owl.”
Jace gazes up to the darkening sky as if thinking about owls in a new way. He goes back inside the house, without fishing for owls tonight. I hope I’ve convinced him to see reason, but in the morning, he is in the garage with his welder, working on something that looks like a medieval torture device.
When I was a child, my grandpa told me that young barn owls can be generous toward each other, donating portions of their food to smaller, hungrier siblings. My family had too many children and stepchildren left at our door, cousins and second cousins, friends of in-laws. With so many in the house to properly feed and care for, to survive we needed an altruism rare among animals.
With the younger children, I learned to communicate wordlessly. Before dropping out of high school, I was listening to owls in the nest box outside my window. Owls I associated with Athena’s shining eyes. The children cried out in trills, barks, and hoots at night, answering the owls.
We can be generous to each other, I think. We can be generous to each other like the owls.
Jace looks like an owl when he gazes at me in the moonlight, his pale face flat and heart-shaped like the barn owls’ facial disk that functions as a kind of satellite to capture sound. Of course, I never tell Jace about my childhood. He wouldn’t understand, just like he wouldn’t appreciate how I love the owls for their calls and their silence, the way their feathers have serrated fringes that reduce noise in flight as the velvety wings absorb sound. Jace would never understand how what he’s doing could alert predators to the owls’ whereabouts, make the owls worry for their young, give a lonely owl false hopes of finding a mate, or even lure fledglings from the nest.
I committed that crime against nature more than once, and I paid the price as a young girl. After nights of luring owls, I was lured by a false mating call from a married man I thought loved me before leaving me forever damaged. I want to tell Jace. Instead, I tell him owls vocalize differently in spring, when looking for a mate, than they do in early summer, when defending their young. This gives him an idea. He uses his laptop and smartphone to listen to more recorded owl calls captured in the wild.
“Thanks, babe,” Jace says.
I want to tell him about what happened to me, how a mating call can be used against a lonely girl, a lonely boy, an isolated woman or a man. But he only thinks of protecting his head from talons. That’s why he goes into the garage to collect metal rods and to fire up his old welder again.
I slurp my mojito while looking away from the torch light.
When he’s finished welding, he holds up a metal contraption like a cage for a man’s head.
Sure enough, he puts it on so that his head is caged, his eyes staring out of the bars.
“Jace,” I say.
“Baby,” he says. “How about a kiss?”
He puckers up and makes kissing sounds inside the cage.
Laughing, I go back inside the house, but I’m afraid to look out the window when I hear the jigsaw. He’s making screw boards for his arms.
“What now,” I whisper.
His arms are braced by boards locked into place by screws. Hinged at the elbow, the boards open at his hands so he can manipulate the fishing pole and pulleys.
Jace sets up the laptop as the sun goes down over the trees, the sky whitening with that faint graying just before it darkens. Jace begins to play the recording, so that he can draw the great horned owl near. I see it landing on the branches.
Jace reaches inside the sparrow cage to remove the first tied sparrow to bait the line. Slowly, he releases the sparrow so that it flies into the sky, one foot hooked. Jace gives it some slack before flying it closer to the owl. This owl is the big one, large enough to kill a man. Every time Jace keeps the great horned owl on the line, circling above, and then cuts the line to let it go, I realize he’s afraid.
Watching from the other side of the kitchen window, I hold my breath. My heart skips. The great horned owl, now caught on the line again, swoops down to land on the board attached to Jace’s left arm. Jace cuts the line, but the owl stays put, holding the sparrow in its beak while staring into the cage surrounding Jace’s head.
When the owl finally flies away with the sparrow, Jace rolls back into the house. He makes love to me like he hasn’t since before he lost his legs. We’re kissing each other like there’s no tomorrow.
“Catch and release,” he says, smiling.
The next night, like every other night, Jace wheels out onto the balcony and puts the cage on his head. I watch from the window, and the neighbors watch from the other side of the fence, filming with cameras, taking videos on phones.
The big owl keeps coming back, getting used to us. Jace keeps feeding the big owl, almost as if it’s his pet. It lands on him, night after night. The big owl takes one bait after another, each time allowing Jace to fly it like a kite over the balcony and the pecan trees.
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