My father has a friend that’s an environmental police officer. Whenever a wild animal is sick or injured, my father will call him up, and he’ll come visit for a while.
This friend, Adam, also rehabilitates birds of prey. People will call him when they find injured animals, or dead animals.
There’s a way men like to shoot the shit. My father does it too. They start by each sitting in their respective trucks with the engines running. Then the engines are shut off. Pretty soon a door is opening. Next thing you know, both men are standing and hanging on to their mirrors. If their wives are with them, the wives stay in the truck. There’s something about this that feels wrong when I explain it, but when you’re in the middle of it, it feels of a different time. Like a horse and buggy are going to clunk by any minute. Or a ranch hand on horseback will trot along and raise a hand to us.
As a child, when my father exited his truck to talk to someone who had just done the same, I knew I was going to be sitting there longer than I wanted to. My father and Adam liked “having a visit with each other.”
My father responded to a car accident on the highway one evening. The driver was swerving to avoid “some big fucking bird.” When my father pulled up, he saw that an eagle had been hit by a car.
“You should have seen it. Every time a car drove by, the wind would lift its wings. The damn thing looked like it was trying to fly away. A thing with a wing span like this, (he held his arms wide) looking like it was trying to fly away every minute. That was a thing.”
Adam had arrived, and my father and he had a visit, of course. Adam’s wife had gone to the doctor and something was wrong. It was impolite to pry so my father let it be, of course. My father told Adam about my brother’s new job and how I was doing well in school. Adam doesn’t have any children, and whenever he saw my brother or I when we were younger, we gave him wide berth. We knew he had no idea how to identify what we were.
Adam had gathered the bald eagle and put it in the back of his truck. My father took a look up close.
“You have no idea how big it is until you’re right up on it. Its neck was twisted round, so I couldn’t look at it for too long. I’d like to learn how to work with those things.”
“You do,” I thought to myself.
In the summers when my father tetters hay, or when my mother bails it, the red-tailed hawks hear the machinery and swoop down from wherever they’ve been. They follow the river sometimes. Three, four, five of them will eye the cut grass and kill what they can find. They’ll ride the baler, and wait as it makes its way around the fields.
They only come when they hear the machines, and it feels as though these hawks, here at home, are now trained.
I remember this story because I remember sitting at the kitchen counter and wondering how I had never seen an eagle. I was twelve. I spent a lot of time outside. I loved looking for animals, even though I was never the first to find anything.
That’s not true. I was the first to spot a basking shark on a whale watch once. But those are forty feet long.
Different bird sightings send different messages, apparently. I learned from a friend that spotting an owl means certain death for you or someone you know.
You can believe this or not.
And now I do.
If you see a couple of crows, follow their flight path and it will lead you to food or water. I’m not sure who told me that story, and I would not take it as fact.
My grandmother adored chickadees. They are everywhere you look in Massachusetts, so that’s something that I never really understood. But this love of hers made it really easy to buy her gifts.
My brother was convinced that they were calling his name when they sang.
He also called nuthatches Magnet Birds, since they could walk up the sides of trees.
There was a Great Blue Heron that would hunt around a pond on our property. There was something prehistoric about it. Its eyes, I think. There’s no emotion in them. It would stab into the water and pull out something wriggling for its life every time.
My father had told me that Adam had a special permit to keep birds he’s rehabilitating at his house a few towns over. My father had seen it. I always asked him if we could go, and his response was always, “Now’s not a good time.”
I was riding my bike through our meadows one morning. The corn was still wet with the night before, and small birds would explode out of and dive back into it. There’d been mention about coyotes trotting down this road, and I wanted to see one, but didn’t. It was going to be a hot day later on, the air drifting off the river felt like fall.
There’s a barn next to our corn silage pile. The roof is high and full of bird nests and cobwebs. Its rafters seem sunken, but no one is worried about it. The grass grows long inside it. Rusty tools, saw blades, dirty ropes hang from hooks on the wall. These things have not been touched or moved.
It’s easy to miss things. On the ground. In the sky. It’s easy to skip right over something. The corn moves as one, and everywhere you turn your head it’s green, brown, and green again. The ponds ripple constantly, and you’re never sure if it’s something alive or the breeze. Animals that move sit on branches and plants that move, and if you’re moving, well, it’s a wonder that any of us see anything for certain.
I was riding my bike, and there was a small pile of something in front of the barn door.
I rode my bike closer, and thought it was just a bundle of feathers.
I hopped off and walked slowly over, and I knew before I saw the head that is was an important bird. A large bird. Something that people don’t see every day.
I moved it with my foot, and it made a noise.
I rode my bike to find my father cutting down an old tree. He tossed my bike into the back of his pickup, and I showed him where it was.
He got out and so did I. And together we walked and stood over it.
“Well, I’ll be damned. It must have flown into the barn window.”
I wanted to keep it. It could live in the barn, and I would come to see it on the weekends. I whispered this my father, and it was an incredibly fast no on his part. He called Adam who came in minutes.
“How’s the day there, Adam?”
“Oh, just been busy. I just had to talk to a couple of drunks about fishing laws.”
“What kind of owl is this?”
“Believe it or not, it’s a tried and true barn owl.”
“Get the hell out of here.”
“God’s honest truth.”
“I think it hit my barn window, there.”
“Well, then I’m going to call him Slam.”
“How’s the wife?”
I don’t know how, but my father knew to walk over to him.
I didn’t hear the conversation, but I watched their faces. And both men didn’t give me any clues. There was no emotion whatsoever.
My father slapped Adam on the back.
“You ever seen an owl pellet?” Adam yelled. He was addressing me, for the first time.
All of a sudden shy, I shook my head no.
“It’s something they puke up, and if you pick it apart, you’ll see what animals the bird ate. Tons of little bits of bone. You can figure out where the bird has been and what it’s eaten. Next time I find one, I’ll keep it for you.”
Before my father came back to me, Adam was climbing into the front seat and starting the engine.
“Where’s he going to take him? Home? Can we go see him? I found him. I want to name him.”
“Adam’s wife is going to die in three months. We’re not going anywhere near his house.”
It was nine years later in a literature course in college that I learned about what it really meant to see an owl. I’ve seen a few since Slam.
There’s a way men like this share news about death that’s close to them.
It’s a quick sentence, a stone face.
And there’s a way that they touch each other’s back or arm. Something’s exchanged between them. It’s the eyes, I think.
Sally Yazwinski was born and raised on a dairy farm in Western Massachusetts. She won Bread Loaf School of English’s Prize for Best Fiction. She was named one of Glimmertrain’s Top 25 New Writers. She’s earned her M.Ed in education from American International College, her MFA in fiction from the University of Idaho, and her M.A in English from University College Cork.