Authors: Jeffrey Ford
“No you won't. Now hurry around front and pay again to be let in. You might catch me answering your wife's question.” I heard Dornsberry's laughter in the background. The window shut with a bang.
I took out my cell phone, but when I flipped it open it was dead. “Shit,” I said, and headed for the edge of the patio. Only then did I notice that the side of the house butted up against the edge of a forest. In the moonlight I could make out tall pine trees in both directions. There was a path that went either around the back of the place through the trees or, in the other direction, to the front of the house. I was just about to head for the front when I realized that had been the smartest man's advice. What were the chances he was going to tell me the best way to go? I stepped onto the path and headed toward the back. There were stretches of perfect night where the pines blocked the moon completely.
I walked fast for a ways, but soon I was out of breath and my Achilles tendon was aching, so I slowed down. Just then I noticed something like a lectern, on the side of the path. I stepped over to it. It was a chest-high stand with a plaque on top situated at an angle. There was something written on it. I took out the lighter, flicked it, and quickly read the plaque. It said:
BEWARE OF OWLS! MULLIONS IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DAMAGES OR DEATHS CAUSED BY OWLS.
I flicked the lighter again, and this time noticed that beneath the writing there was an etching of a large owl in midflight, grasping in its talons the severed head of Jenny, the Mullions hostess. “Killer owls?” I said aloud. A stiff breeze blew the flame out and it felt more like autumn than spring. I noticed the path was strewn with fallen leaves. “That's ridiculous,” I said, and started walking again. Two minutes later, I wrapped my hand around the neck of the beer bottle in my pocket and took it out to use as a club.
“Fuck those owls,” I told myself, “I have to get back to Lynn.” I put on as much steam as I could manage, and with almost every step, the tendon in my left heel got worse. “She'll never let him touch her,” I said to myself. “If he tries, she'll punch him in the face and break his glasses.” I hobbled a few more yards, and then thought, “Or will she?”
That's when I happened to look up and notice the pairs of yellow eyes trimming the trees like dull Christmas lights. They were everywhere. My knees went weak and my heart began to pound so hard I could hear it in my right ear. I desperately wanted to run but knew I wouldn't get far. Instead, I crept forward, trembling, praying they hadn't noticed me and wouldn't. In whispers, like a novena, I recited the theme song to the afternoon television cartoon of my youth, “The Eighth Man.”
I got only as far as, “The F.B.I. is helpless. It's twenty stories tall,” when a shrill screech tore through the dark. An owl's flight is silent, but I heard the beating of their wings in my mind as they swooped after me. The breeze picked up and I pushed against it, trying to run, waving the beer bottle over my head and ducking. It was like running through water. I felt their talons at my back and what hair I have. Feathers whipped my cheeks. I tried to scream, but it came forth a long, breathy fart.
Just when I thought I was finished, I collided with another person on the path, and for some reason the owls miraculously retreated. I lit the lighter to see who it was, and only when I saw it was Mrs. Krull did I realize she'd been talking the whole time. There was a glassy, vacant stare to her froggy eyes. Her lips were moving and she was in the midst of the story of her one-legged aunt. I gathered my wits, walking alongside her, and said, “Mrs. Krull, what are you doing out here?” She moved steadily forward, staring straight ahead, as if in a trance. All the time the words spilled out of her.
It came to me not as a thought but as a feeling that it was precisely her grim tale that kept the owls at bay. They were above us and to the sides everywhere, but they didn't stir from their perches. Occasionally one would hoot in the distance, a feather would fall, but they wouldn't attack. When she was finishing up the story of her aunt's demise, for the first time in my life, I hoped she had another one ready.
There was a mere half-a-breath pause before the next pathetic tale was born. She spoke about a couple she knew from her old neighborhood. Nice people. They had three kids. They all went on a vacation in upstate New York. They drove all day and into the night. Here, she went into the details of the family, and time seemed to pass in a whirl before I again picked up the thread of the story with the father pulling over on the side of the road to take a piss. They were on the interstate. He got out, told his wife he'd be right back, and then, mounting a small hill, disappeared over the top.
“Some time passed,” said Mrs. Krull. “The wife started wondering, how long will my husband piss for? Finally, after almost twenty minutes, she told the kids she'd be right back and to stay in the car. She went to look for her husband. Up the hill she went in the dark. The kids were alone in the car and probably eventually got scared when their mother didn't return.”
I noticed that all around us, as Mrs. Krull ground out her story with relentless persistence, the owls were keeling off their branches and falling to the forest floor. I knew in my heart that it was my neighbor's tragic droning that rendered them insensate. “Right over the rise of that small hill, unbeknownst to him and her, was the edge of a cliff. Both hadn't seen the edge in the dark and had fallen two hundred feet to their deaths,” she said.
The owls fell like pillows, hit the ground with muffled thuds. Every now and then there was a weak squawk. “Then the kids,” said Mrs. Krull, “one after the other. First the oldest, a boy, Kenneth, who was in my Robert's grade (he was a mean-spirited kid), and then the middle one, the sister, she was adorable. They each went looking in their turn and each fell to their death. They probably screamed in terror but no one heard them. Maybe they landed on their parents, but it still killed them.”
Mrs. Krull's story was making even me dizzy. It appeared that she had subdued the owls, so I worked up the courage to escape her. “Then the last child, little Freddie, I have a photo of him in shorts and a collar shirt with a small bow tie. I could just bite those cheeks. He went next up the hill in the dark. But he was my little genius and figured out what had happened. He ran to get help.”
“Well, at least little Freddie made it,” I said, and veered away from Mrs. Krull, right off the path and directly into the trees. At the moment, I didn't care where I was going. I stumbled in a rut between two trees, still light headed. The last thing I heard Mrs. Krull say as I groped blindly through the underbrush was, “He ran out onto the highway to flag down a car, and the driver didn't see him till it was too late.”
I tramped unsteadily forward, kicking downed owl carcasses, like empty birthday piÃ±atas, out of my way. Mrs. Krull's sad bullshit had sucked out their life. It struck me that the potential of her drivel was like a terrible superpower, and I had a brief vision of her walking through the sky on a blue day, dressed in white robes, with a halo, a six-foot uprooted sunflower chained to her ankle, gliding along behind her.
It was a fear-soaked hour or more, submerged in the dark, skinning my shins, taking branches to the face, before I returned to the patio. Sitting in the wrought-iron chair at the table, I popped the beer I'd been carrying and lit up a smoke. I noticed that the house was perfectly silent and dark.
“I missed the whole goddamn thing,” I thought. “I never got to ask my question, Lynn has long been tongue-kissed by the smartest man in the world and seen God, and I'm a castaway in Owl Forest. What the fuck?”
After finishing the cigarette and half the beer, I got up and checked the kitchen door. To my surprise and elation, it was unlocked. I opened it and stepped into the silence of the dark house. Without even closing the door behind me, I was off on a beeline for the front door. Who knows how long it took to cross the kitchen, to reach the entrance to the living room, which, itself, was vast. Only when passing the occasional window did the moonlight allow me to see where I was going. Otherwise, I slammed against furniture and at one point might have tripped over a body.
My tendon was acting up badly, so I stopped after a long while by one of the windows and had another smoke. While I rested, I looked outside and saw that it was snowing. As soon as I saw the snow, I heard the wind howl. “Great,” I said. I put the cigarette out on the windowsill and left it there. No more than a dozen limping steps later, I collided with the edge of the food table and got a thrill to know I was making progress. A little ways after that I saw small intermittent bursts of flame in the distance. That flame was my lighthouse. For some reason I believed it would bring me to the front door and my escape. So entranced was I with the rhythmic fire that grew ever more prominent with each painful step that I was almost upon the source of the phenomenon before I realized what was causing it. The scene suddenly materialized out of the dark, no more than six feet in front of me.
There was Jenny, completely naked, her sagging yet emaciated body perched in the throne of the smartest man in the world with her legs spread and hooked over its wooden arms. Kneeling in front of her was the fire-eater with his head between her legs, only this time it wasn't fire he was eating. I watched as Jenny glowed from inside like a jack-o'-lantern, saw the silhouettes of her ribs and spine and heart. Then she gave a slight moan, opened her mouth, and a burst of flame shot out. I took a step back and stared in amazement.
I was afraid they'd see me there, but I was also afraid to move. FinallyâI don't know what possessed me, it was like some kind of momentary insanityâI yelled, “I see you.” The fire-eater never even turned around but kept working like he was nonunion. Jenny lifted herself a little and turned to look at me. She reached up to her chin, and then grabbing it, literally pulled her face off like it was a rubber mask. The jaws of her skull head creaked open. There came a moan and then she shot a long burst of fire at me. I ran, but felt the sting of her flaming tongue on my left earlobe.
The next thing I knew, I was standing out on the front lawn. It was freezing and the snow was driving down. I passed the neon Mullions sign, no longer lit, on my way to the street. Heading in the direction Lynn and I had initially come, I shivered, huddled inside my suit jacket, the collar flipped up and doing nothing for me. I had no idea where I was or how to get home, and there was a considerable chance I might freeze to death.
In my desperation I was going to give my phone one more try, and when I looked down, I saw Lynn's shawl half covered in the drifting snow. I picked it up and put it to my face. On a sunny Halloween thirty-two years ago, we took a bottle of tequila and climbed a mountain. At the top there was a rundown shack. Inside there was a metal bed frame, a three-legged chair with a frayed wicker seat fallen in the corner, and a warped desk with a rash of pale fungus. Dead leaves and brittle news pages littered the floor. The door hung by one hinge; there was broken glass beneath the single window. In a drawer of the desk, Lynn found a mildewed dictionary and in it a letter from 1932. The envelope was marked
RETURN TO SENDER
. The closing read:
Love you forever
A car came slowly down the road toward me and when it got close, its headlights flicked on and off. It drew up next to me, a late-model Mercedes. The window went down, a cloud of cigar smoke escaped, and I saw it was Dornsberry. “Get in,” he said. “The owls are waking up.” For just a second, I was going to tell him to fuck off, but the promise of owls, not to mention the bitter cold, humbled me. I hobbled around to the passenger side and got in.
“Are you going to town?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I'll drop you at your place.”
The car was so warm and it felt great to get off my feet. “I ran into the owls earlier,” I said.
Dornsberry's cigar had vanished. Both of his black-gloved hands were on the leather steering wheel. He seemed affable, like some whole different Dornsberry I'd never met. “I told Jenny,” he said, “you gotta poison those fucking owls. What a liability. I told her, what eats owls? Get some of that. Like weasels or something. Maybe a wolf .Â .Â . whatever.”
“They seem put off by Mrs. Krull,” I said.
“Well, nobody said they were stupid,” said Dornsberry. “They're just mean as hell. I was back in the forest tonight, scared out of my wits they'd catch me. I've been bitten by those things before. Luckily, for some reason, every one of the little bastards was knocked out. I stole two of their eggs.” He reached into his pocket with his right hand and brought out a large brown egg. “Take this one,” he said.
What the hell, I took it and put it in my pocket. “Thanks,” I said.
“Each time it lays, every she-owl drops two eggs, no more no less. It is said that if you place one of these eggs in the hand of a sleeping woman, she will tell you only the truth. Have her hold the other, though, and she will tell only lies.”
“Where'd you hear that?” I asked.
“The smartest man in the world told me,” he said.
Just his name set me off. I had a thing or two to say to Dornsberry about the smartest man, but before I could launch into it, he said, “Here's your place.”
I looked out the window and saw my house, a snowdrift going halfway up the front steps. The sight of it almost brought tears to my eyes. I opened the door and got out. “Thanks,” I called back, and shut the door. I took a single step, then I heard the passenger window slide down. Turning to see what was up, I caught a glimpse of Dornsberry flipping me the bird. “You're such a pussy,” he said, revved the engine, and tried to peel out in the snow. The car shot off down the street sideways on the ice, righted itself for a moment, and then crashed into the light pole on the corner.