Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Bird Lady

Melodie Edwards
From Prairie Schooner, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Summer 2011)

That morning of the owl, I remember taking my time walking home from my grandmother's hogan. I didn't want to go home to my dad, is why. He was laid off from the oil fields again. Next to the phone he kept a list. He'd written "Fucking Drilling Companies" across the top of it, most of them scratched off so hard the paper was all shredded up. I walked home slow as I could, taking "the frontage road"; that's what Dad called it, a foot/horse/fourwheeler track down a gully parallel to the highway that could take you all the way to the reservation forty miles away if you wanted it to, and I did. I didn't want to go home at all, but Grandma made me. "Your dad likes to cook for you," she said. "Go home so he can put food in your belly." But who wants to sit at a table listening to another person chew? My feet kicked red sand as I walked, filling up my shoes, making them heavy.

That's when I saw the revolving lights and scrambled up the arroyo wall to the highway. Anything to delay going home, but what I saw made me wish I was home already. A blue pickup lay turned over in the middle of the road, its front wheels buckled in as if holding a bellyache. People sat in the road under blankets. I didn't know them, but I knew them, it was that kind of small town. One big lady, talking to a police officer, kept saying "Howl" or "Ow" like she'd forgotten how to cry out. The policewoman turned her head, and I followed the direction her eyes looked off to a puddle of feathers. I thought "Owl," and turned away.

The owl is death, I heard Grandmother Yazzi's voice sing in me. When an owl crosses your path, turn back. Without opening my eyes, I swiveled in my tracks. Dad would have to come pick me up on his motorcycle.

"Hey, little girl!" someone called. "Stop, please."

I stopped but I didn't turn around. Then I felt a hand like something with talons on my shoulder.

"It's okay, she's dead now, I covered her up. But I saw the owl's eyes watching you. She knew you, didn't she?"

I opened my eyes and saw a middle-aged white woman in an army jacket and white earmuffs. I recognized her from somewhere, maybe school. She looked like a substitute teacher, one of those skinny women with hunchy walks and big glasses who come twice, then never again.

"I don't like owls," I told her.

"Maybe you know where her nest is though?"

I was shaking my head. But there was a place where I went sometimes, a lost place, a narrow place where the birds made noises that sounded like I felt inside. Hungry noises, urgent.

"Can you take me there?"

How did this skinny lady in her earmuffs know what owls thought about? When I looked up at her, I saw a fluffy feather stuck in her perm. So I started walking. I heard the woman follow.

We went past the accident and down into the arroyo.

"Hey!" the cop shouted after us. "What about the dead bird?"

"Wrap her up and put her in my car," the woman shouted back. "I'll take her to the Fish and Game when I get back."

One of the people sitting in the street asked, "Who's that?"

"That's the bird lady," the cop answered.

We walked a ways up the canyon, through knots of clematis, to the narrow place. The snow was still all over everything. The bird lady did all the talking as we walked along. No rabbit tracks at all, she said, no owl food. She said the closest place were the buffet tables out on the highway. She said we must be getting close to the owl's nest. Why, I asked. No more bird calls.

After awhile, I thought I heard the tiny owlet noises, but then they quit. I pointed at a gash in the rocks up above. "Up there," I said.

"Yes, I see the nest. Good."

"Can I go now?"

She looked at me through those big brown-tinted eyeglasses, her eyes magnified, the right eye more than the left, like one side of her head was more awake than the other. "Do baby owls count?" she asked.

"What do you mean?"

"I suppose they're a harbinger of death, same as the mother."

I shrugged.

"I wish you'd wait for me," she told me. "That's going to be a hard climb, especially getting down with them alive."

"What will you do with them?"

"I have a coop with bird stalls in my backyard and a special place for all the babies, stuffed full of straw and a warming lamp overhead to simulate a mother's body heat."

She began taking off her shoes, stepping barefoot into the snow. "Ai, ai!" she cried out. Then this earmuff lady put her fingers into a crack in the rocks and started climbing straight up. When she got close to the crack, she started making a humming sound, low, like that electric noise you hear when you pass under power lines. The owlets began to hoo.

"Excuse me!" the bird lady called down at me. "Could you please climb up? I can't squeeze in to the nest!"

I looked up at her waving arm. What would Grandma Yazzi say? I put a toe in a rock wrinkle and started up. I was used to rock climbing for Grandmother's seeds in the autumn. When I got to the crack, the bird lady had made room for me to pass, and I shimmied down into the iced shadow toward the nest's bristle. I laid flat and wedged my upper self in. The baby owls got silent. I started to hum to them, then reached in my hands. Don't be afraid to look at masks and see them for the masks they are, Grandma would say. My eyes adjusted, and I could see into their night vision eyes, twinkling different colors, as if one side of their heads were more scared of me than the other. Up close, I heard them start humming back to me. In that hum, I heard them figure out for the first time that feeling of mother missing, a thing I knew hard. At my fingertips, they began to flap, but I caught two easy, wings clasped, and carried them out into the light to the bird lady. Then I went back for the third.

The bird lady released the owlets into canvas bags and cinched them tight. I slid down the rock to the snow, then waited for her to lower the bags down to me on a long cord. Inside the bags, I felt their breakable bodies, fighting. I thought of Grandma chopping a rattlesnake to pieces with her axe, then calling the crows to come and feast, singing up to the branches psshh, psshh, psshh. The birds of the canyon—the wren, and the magpie, the pinyon jay—would be happy to peck the small little eyes out of the heads of baby owls, turn them in the sand so the ants could find them. But it was too late for that. I'd heard their hum inside me, and now it was there, jammed. This might kill me, tomorrow, or the next day, or a year from now. Just like their mother had caused that accident, feeding on road kill in the highway. Things kill you. But being dead isn't the worst thing. At least the baby owls had the bird lady and her warming lamp, her low hum. But, for me, there was no lamp, never would be again, no way to simulate a mother's body heat. I held the bags down in the snow and sang.

When she got to the bottom, the bird lady put a bird in each big pocket of her army jacket. I put the third bag inside my coat and we started walking down canyon. Behind us the wrens and jays began to flock in, filling up the hole where the owl family once lived. I took the bird lady as far as Grandma Yazzi's, then I gave the baby owl back. "What kind of owls are they?" I asked. I guess I wanted to know their family name.

"Great horned," she said, running her hands over the swell under her coat.

"Great horned owl," I repeated. The bird lady started up the road, her arms cradling, walking with her knees bowed, carrying that little bit of weight like it was tons. I remembered where I'd seen her before. At school, she'd excused some of us to sit in the hall. We turned our eyes away when she brought past the one-winged eagle. I watched her go along like a heavy woman up the road, watched her until she was out of sight. Then I turned and went inside to tell Grandma about masks, about the motherless, and how we recognize each other by our hums.

Later, I called my dad on the phone and said, Dad, come get me, and he said, I thought you'd be calling. I walked out to wait by the highway for the roar of his motorcycle. When he pulled up next to me, I climbed on behind him and gripped the folds of his scratchy coat. It was only five minutes home but I felt it the whole way, the vibration of us, the strum of that cold ride through my bones. My hair spun around us both.