It snowed. Silke stood at the top of the hill, between two stocky pinon trees. It was nine in the morning, and the temperature had yet to break fifteen degrees. The children, all nine of them, were crawling and slipping up the slope on the right hand side, garbage bags in tow. Their heavy boots and puffy snowsuits made each movement difficult, but comical. Everyone was screaming and laughing. Behind me, the Rio Pueblo, thick with a layer of frozen ice, gurgled underneath.
At the top, as each child arrived, Silke laid out a garbage bag over the slick snow and sat them down. I was at the bottom. After navigating the narrow pass between two lichen-covered stones, the riders plunged down the embankment, leveled off, and barreled directly toward me. Our eyes locked. Joy filled my belly, and the teeth of my boots sank into the snow for grip. Poised like a football lineman, I greeted each child with a roar, tackling them before they scooted onto the icy surface of the river and, God forbid, broke through.
The whole route from top to bottom wasn’t more than fifty feet, and it was less than twenty from there to the embankment of the river. As often as not, the children, spinning and flopping with stray arms and boots, slowed themselves before they even reached me, so that our raucous greetings were simply an expression of our shared joy. But the hill, though short, was quite steep and a careful rider set squarely on the bag could easily have rocketed past me onto the surface of the river, and beyond.
Moments like this quiet my mind. The immediacy of the activity takes over and all my thoughts and plans recede to the background. My social awkwardness dissolves, and the world becomes close, very close.
Two days later, I found myself staring into the eyes of a great horned owl. I had just finished writing the preceding paragraphs, and was headed out to feed the chickens and turkeys before moving into the rest of my day. As I approached the gate to the garden, and the chicken coop beyond, several of my housemates were clustered around a green wagon. It was not quite eight o’clock, and I could immediately tell something was up.
A week prior, something had killed one of our turkeys. It was a juvenile turkey, a chick just a few months ago, but now about the size of a chicken, and no easy catch. Because it happened at night, when the turkeys were roosting on the roof, we were uncertain as to the killer. What was conspicuous was the fact that the turkey had been beheaded, and that the carcass had been left behind.
Less than a week before that, one of the male turkeys had killed the other. For over a year, these two brothers were never found alone. They paraded and shimmied together, and, except for the occasional scrape, seemed to be pals. Then one got sick. We thought he would die, but after a brief convalescence he came around. The next day his brother, apparently sensing the other’s vulnerability, attacked him to the point of death. Victorious, the male bird copulated with his dead partner while the humans in his midst stood mystified.
The dead male was feathered and hung up in the root cellar. It was just two days before Thanksgiving. Not exactly fortuitous, but there it was. I was a little extra cautious of the victor, whom I always distrusted, but in fact he seemed more docile than ever. When, a little over a week later, a second turkey chick was killed, again in the middle of the night, confusion reigned.
“Did you hear that scream an hour ago,” one of my housemates asked me early one morning, “Out in the courtyard?” No, I hadn’t heard it. But I had heard scuffles on the roof throughout the night. Turns out lots of people heard things, but never quite enough to make sense of it all. Finally, the turkeys - now down to one male, one female, and five chicks - tried to roost on the neighbor’s house. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the turkeys were trying to escape their killer, but we were so confused by the series of events that we chased them down off the roof and herded them back home so they wouldn’t get lost.
Later that evening, well after dark, someone went to close up the chicken coop. It was later than usual, and when he got there he found an owl gorging on a chicken, apparently a recent kill. After an initial attempt to chase off the owl, he saw its long black talons, its fierce yellow eyes, and thought better of it. The next morning he found the chicken’s head, severed, and took it, along with what was left of the body, into a distant field.
It seems ridiculous that we could be befuddled for so long, but we did not yet have the advantage of hindsight. We had talked through the possibility of a housecat, a bobcat, a weasel, even a skunk. Nothing quite fit. The victims were beheaded, but not eaten, not fully at least, and so the carcasses were left behind. That ruled out coyotes. And there was the matter of climbing onto the roof. The male turkey was unpredictable, sure, but no one had ever seen him be that vicious. But an owl, that finally made sense. An owl struck at night, could fly silently onto the roof, and had a beak and talons powerful enough to decapitate. Her kills were probably too heavy, and she was forced to leave the carcass behind, where an opportunistic coyote or dog might snatch it.
The next night, the female turkey was gone. No one ever saw her body. Four birds dead in less than a week. Finally, a neighbor and I herded the five remaining chicks and the sole adult male into an enclosed pen next to the chickens. We didn’t close them in the plywood coop, because the pen was screened in with chicken wire all the way around, including above.
The next morning, as I went out to feed the turkeys, I saw the male walking through the courtyard, as if nothing had changed. “How did you get out?” I wondered aloud, as I continued on to the pen. I fed the chickens first. In the pen next door, I could see four of the turkey chicks running around, eager to be fed. As I walked over with a bucket of water and some grain, I found the fifth, now dead, lying on the ground in the yard outside the door. The door was closed. This made no sense. I opened the door and stepped inside, careful to close it behind me. After feeding and watering the chicks, I looked the entire enclosure over for a hole, finding none. A male turkey is a large bird. I was confused, and also irritated. Fact is, I find the turkeys a little irritating, even when they’re not being killed. They have no sense of personal space, and their beauty can also be described as hideous. I left the final carcass in the yard, my senses dulled with exasperation.
A few hours later, I would be standing at the bottom of a snowy hill, catching children as they rushed down the slick hillside into my arms. There was a new boy in our group, Joah, and his mother was tagging along for the day to make sure he was comfortable. Joah was plainly shy at first, doing his best to find avenues into the group, a very sweet and tender boy. I could see he was a bit uncertain, and I had made an attempt earlier to warm him up. “Hey Joah,” I said, taking him aside for a moment as the other children lined up and took turns sliding across a puddle of ice. “Guess what?” I said, “My name’s Joe. Kind of like JO-ah. Kind of interesting, huh?” “Ugh, yeah,” he said, kindly but distractedly. We walked back to the line forming in front of the ice puddle and I held out my hand to him. Initially, he refused. Who was I, after all? When another child, Little Bear, eagerly took my hand instead, Joah brightened and the three of us took off running for the ice.
Ten minutes later, I watched Joah sledding down the hill with two other boys, all three wrapped up in each other’s laps. As they landed in my arms, not without a sudden force, we all burst into laughter. They scrambled to untangle themselves, and, standing up, took off for the hill. But Joah turned around. “Father Joseph,” he said, the sobriquet catching me by surprise. It was a twist on “Papa Joe,” which the kids usually call me. But Joah didn’t finish what he was going to say. He stood for a moment, unsure. The screams and laughter continued from all directions. He smiled and decided it was time to get moving.
I turned to Joah’s mom, who was at my side, her eight-month-old tucked in her warm chest. “Have you ever read The Catcher in the Rye?” I asked. “This is exactly what he - what was his name? Anyway, this is exactly what he wanted to do.”
Early Saturday morning, two days after I had gone sledding with Joah and the kids, two days after the final turkey had died, I got up early to take a walk in the blackness of night. Pema was back with her mother, sleeping. I returned, good and chilled, to write for a couple hours before beginning my daylight chores. I had already struck on the idea of The Catcher in the Rye, but after two hours of uninspired work, I produced only a few paragraphs, none of which I thought much of. The moment at the bottom of that hill had been lovely, but I didn’t have much to say about it.
Two hours later, I walked outside to feed the chickens and turkeys. As I approached the gate of the garden, which leads to the chicken coop, three of my housemates were standing around a green wagon with a cage on top. “We caught the owl,” one of them said. But I already knew it.
I’m not sure where the three other men went. We had gazed at each other indirectly. There was concern in each face. Sorrow. Victory. My eyes were wide with the moment. I came within three or four feet of the owl, and suddenly we were alone. Again. She was inside a cage, resting on the same wagon we had used for children’s rides, to haul straw and wood. The owl’s wing was gruesome and deformed. She could not retract it, so it hung limp in the air in front of her. She appeared ragged and uneven. The visual shape of a bird is almost all feathers. I had learned this especially from the male turkeys, whose giant topography, shimmying feathers and broad tail fans conceal a surprisingly small animal inside. The owl, now unable to smooth her feathers into a tight coil, had no dignity of appearance. But her eyes were wild and luminous, without fear, and yet casual.
As I approached, I felt all the indecision fall out of my body. It was her. We had met before, over dusk, she sitting on a low branch, me gazing curiously into her face and those fierce yellow eyes. We had had dozens of sightings, actually. Once, during a bonfire, Pema had watched her alight from the tree directly over our heads, spread her vast wings, and soar silently into the night. Owl feathers part the wind silently, making them stealthy and deadly predators. If Pema had not had her eyes to the sky at that precise moment, lit by the glowing fire underneath, no one would even have noticed.
Now she was in a cage. She adjusted her face to look at me, the muscles of her eyes synchronizing with those of her neck. My sympathetic neurons fired, and I could feel my own neck twisting, my blue eyes peering back at hers, yellow. Our eyelids blinked. I felt horror and grief, naked and foolish. This owl had terrorized our birds. We had greeted each other over the laments of dusk. I felt the admiration and respect worthy of a powerful foe.
I’d like to say that we met, that somehow, through our eyes, we acknowledged each other. I’d like to say that, prior to her capture, as she sat on a branch or as she flew over our campfire, we shared something, that I had gleaned a meaning from her visit in my life. But I hadn’t. All the projections and clockwork of my mind were met with an impenetrable emptiness behind her eyes. She was a creature wholly different from me. She had no fear. She had no pity. Even behind the cage, she appeared solely interested in collecting observations for herself.
I learned later that the owl had flown back into the yard to feed on the dead turkey. The chickens and turkey chicks were safely locked up, but I had left that final carcass behind, largely by neglect. Sometime in the night, after feeding on the carcass, she attempted to fly away and got caught in the fishing line that snakes above the chicken yard, a casual attempt to keep wild birds from flying in and eating the chicken feed. She must have gotten tangled in the wire and flapped for - who knows? - hours. Poor thing, I thought. That’s what I could read in the other men’s faces, and surely it was written all over my own as I examined her through the cage. But the owl did not recognize our sympathy. She did not betray fear or anything other than her bold predominance.
I’d like to wrap these two stories up neatly, me at the bottom of the sled hill, saying hello to Joah, then staring at the owl on the branch at dusk, later through the cage. As I fit the grooves of these stories together, a greater meaning would rise from the interplay. But that would be a sort of lie. Instead, I find myself sitting with the vast emptiness between these experiences. I cannot reconcile them. I don’t exactly wish to.
Except this - I want to teach this. Not teach, but allow. I want to live a life that allows for the rich concatenations of culture, and the emptiness of brutal ignorance. I want to go sledding with Pema and her grandfather, and then have to clean up severed turkey heads and be angry about it. And I want Pema there with me. I want her to ask me what it all means, and I want to lie and stumble and grow frustrated with my answers, and then pick it back up hours later with a new softness. I want to be stretched, severely, as much as I can manage without breaking. No, I want to break, but never too much, not till the very, very end. And I don’t want to prioritize one thing too much over the other. I don’t ever want to figure out who that owl was. I want to enjoy all the richness of what it means to gather as a family over the holidays, with personal memories, warmth, sugar, and the long accretions of cultural history. I want to catch children at the edge of a frozen river and laugh, and remember Holden Caulfield, or forget his name and have to look it up. And I want to walk out into the darkness and find myself naked and cold. I want to meet a predator that has no fear of me, or a lowly bacteria that can bring down civilizations, or my gut. I want to die alone, scared. I want this for myself, surely, but I also want it for Pema and the other children in my care. Not necessarily now, but when they’re ready. When they can choose it for themselves. It’s coming no matter what. I want drunk, living animals. And I want to tidy up with a broom occasionally. Life is disgusting. It is rich and beautiful, full of joy and pain. I want to eat sugar cookies with my mom over tea, recalling stories from my youth, and I don’t ever want to forget that there are severed turkey heads under my feet.