The Owls Of Solomon Place.
pia z. ehrhardt
Posted on September 1, 2013
In May of 2013 a great horned owl fell into our backyard while I unloaded grocery bags from my car. I froze and kept a distance. We’d been watching the family; this looked like the female. She and her mate had made a nest in the live oak behind our house, or, rather, they’d been squatting in a nest built by black crows who daily mobbed them with swoops and scolds. Babies—we counted two—had hatched. At night, one parent guarded the clutch while the other hunted in the park across the street. A red clay finial on the roof of our house served as a lookout perch, or the crooked telephone pole. The owl sighted prey, its thick head on a swivel. My husband and I drank gin and took in the show from our porch, and the Solomon Place neighbors walked down the street with their drinks and gathered on the corner, all of us waiting for the bulky bird to take off.
And now I hoped that she’d only flown into a window and knocked herself out. A neighbor passed by on his way to jog and I asked if he’d check to see if she was alive. I’m afraid of dead things, dying people. I worried there was blood. Or that her neck had been snapped. I blamed Ella, our vigilant black dog, fearing she’d somehow cornered the feeding owl and shaken her senseless. But owls don’t linger in yards, and I remembered the dog was in her kennel. Up in the oak, owlets peered out from the nest. On a near branch, the father waited. I thought: One parent can still raise a child.
My neighbor offered to move the owl into—what? A box? She deserved better than a garbage bag. When my husband got home we could bury her in City Park.
Had the crows heckled her into flying low? Crows have good memories and hold a grudge. But there were no smudges on our windows, and wouldn’t she have cracked glass? Maybe she’d been clotheslined by a power line, electrocuted. She lay on her side, taxidermically perfect. I got closer; there was no blood. She hadn’t been on the ground long, and only a single fly buzzed around her open eye, which was bigger than a human’s, deep amber ringed by gray with a yellow iris. Up close she was intensely feathered with a white throat bib, tufts like ears, tan velvet feet and four-inch talons, all of her logical and essential, camouflaged for tree bark, not green lawn. We gave her privacy, shrouding her with a white towel.
The neighbors who live behind us hurried over, distraught. Their son had first spotted the owls’ nest in February. While they drank their morning coffee they called passersby over to partake.
With caution their son pulled back the cover.
“What a beauty,” his dad said.
“Who will keep the crows away from the nest?” his mom asked.
Neighbors from across the street walked into the yard, wondering what was wrong.
“Call City Park,” someone said.
I did and left a message.
“She should be stuffed and studied in science class,” another neighbor said.
The owl was a specimen, too perfect to bury or discard.
City Park didn’t call back.
“Decomposition has started,” the son said.
I found an old Easter basket in the basement and he laid her down, like a baby in a cradle. He set the basket in the passenger seat of my car and I drove across town to Audubon Zoo, hoping they’d know what to do. At red lights I checked for movement in case the owl recovered and suddenly flew like stunned birds do.
I liked my private time with her, taking this drive together, because at crowded deaths I’d been a two-time failure. Around my grandmother twelve years ago, I hovered with my three sisters, my aunt, my father, but fled before her last breath. And in February at the well-attended bedside of our dear friend, Ray, unconscious and dying from Parkinson’s, I clammed up and let my husband tell him we loved him as I backed out of his room.
The zookeeper met me at the entrance, opened the towel and lifted the sturdy wings, searching for wounds.
“Can you tell why she died?” I asked.
“She may have been shot,” the zookeeper said. “And if that’s the case, you need to call Wildlife & Fisheries.”
But she didn’t find bullet holes.
“Will you do an autopsy?” I asked.
“Probably not,” she said. “We have our own animals, you know?”
Before the zookeeper carried the body away, I took a photo with my phone to keep the mother owl close.
The next morning a second owl dropped into the yard across the street. A neighbor saw him fall out of the sky with a pigeon in his mouth.
No one knew what to say. We went as quiet as church. Watching these owls was a part of our day. They’d been our preserve. The father’s body had been laid on the porch. Again, he appeared undamaged, and exquisitely rendered to hunt. We had read up. Owls scout prey first by hearing. The dozens of feathers on their wide flat faces collect sound like satellite dishes. They are stealth. They detect rodents moving around under blankets of snow.
Someone threw the half-eaten pigeon into the garbage. “What is wrong here?” he asked.
The day before, we’d gathered under the nest, straining to see, and bits of down floated onto the street. Roughhousing babies. We liked to catch the owlets feeding, their fluffy heads vying; we cheered the guarding parent as it fended off angry, displaced crows, while a lone neighbor lauded crows for their smarts and tight community. “They figure things out,” she said. “At red lights they place walnuts in the street and let car wheels crack them open.” A group of crows: a flock, a muster, a murder. A group of owls: a parliament, a bazaar, a wisdom. We’d been waiting for the owlets to step out and become branchers. At night we kept our windows open to hear the parents hoot back and forth, joined by sound, ho-ho-hoo, hoo-hoo, marking territory, updating, the father’s cry deeper, the mother’s lifting at the end, reassuring. Now the owlets were orphans.
We conducted a rescue. Ellen, my friend, the Houston mom, had moved next door into Calvin’s house, and her husband was an electrical contractor. Within minutes a bucket truck was dispatched to bring down the babies. The neighbor’s son volunteered to go up, and the operator strapped him into a harness. His mother stood on the sidewalk beside me, wrenching her hands. His father stood under the tree, a vicarious rescuer, there to catch him if he fell.
The nest was thirty feet above ground and the bucket eased their son through ancient branches until he was above the clutch. He wore industrial leather gloves and gently lifted each owlet out and into a cardboard box. On the ground, we gathered around the plush-toy babies. One stood up, the other lay on its back. They glared with round yellow eyes in faces flat as plates. Owls blink, but these babies didn’t. The two of them snapped their beaks in protest, demanding parents.
A neighbor made some calls. A woman in uptown New Orleans specializes in the rehabilitation of raptors and other predatory birds. She runs a nonprofit and she said she’d take them. The son and I brought her the owlets and the body of the father. Audubon Zoo had contacted her about the dead mother and her body was already in the refrigerator.
We tried not to stare but her home was a wonderland, a cacophony of owl love, busy with figurines, pillows, plates, candleholders, and convincing stuffed birds. The living room and den were crammed with cages of live, damaged birds that you’d see flying in the wild, or picking at rubbery carcasses in the road, or in some facsimile habitat at the Zoo: raptors, hawks, kestrels. In the kitchen, a vulture stalked us from a metal perch, screamed then attacked, but his foot was tethered to the mount.
The woman showed us the hutch she’d prepared for the fledged owls, the bowl of water, a piece of soft blanket, the Ziploc bag of tiny naked mice. At this age, they’d eat nine or ten a day.
In the backyard, she had constructed a ghetto of wooden sheds with screened side yards. We walked down the rows, peering into dark spaces. She had rescued more owls than I knew existed: barred, horned, spectacled, tawny, screech. Every bird I found was already looking at me.
Ray’s Parkinson’s took him down quickly. He was Louisiana’s top political consultant, a writer and producer of winning TV commercials and radio spots. He’d run the campaigns of councilmen, judges, sheriffs, congressmen, and governors. But his speech had thickened like a martini lunch. Soon his hands began to shake, then his head, the tremors methodically ending motor skills: driving his Jeep, swimming laps, typing scripts, walking. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t glued together with experimental meds like Michael J. Fox. Every time my husband and I saw Ray, he could do less, his speech was harder to understand, but in his eyes we saw his brain running full tilt. A nurse had moved into his spare room. She brought him drinks and fixed him food, answered the phone, and lifted him into his bath and bed, staying within the sound of his bell.
He was an old friend and a mystery: courtly, private and vague. He’d been adopted and had no interest in knowing his birth mother. Both of his parents were dead. They left him money and property in Pineville. He talked about moving to Key West. We never knew him to date a woman or a man. He dodged questions about his age. He traveled with us on business, ate dinner at our house, vacationed once with us in Florida. But until Ray got sick, we had never been to his home.
He invited us for coffee on a Saturday, in the morning before the cocktail of meds muddled him. He received us in a wheelchair in the living room of his light-filled, white-walled house on the Lakefront. His nurse brought us mugs and she placed a cup with a straw in a holder near Ray’s mouth.
He was still working on political campaigns, and my husband asked him how things were going. I gobbled up personal information through Ray’s furniture: a low- slung sofa in bright orange, art deco lamps and Persian rugs; the art on his walls: pencil drawings by Spanish artists—a Miro?—and abstract expressionist paintings slashed by color, a hung Chinese tapestry, big as a blanket. His chairs were vintage: twin Barcelonas in soft tan, a giant chaise longue made of airplane material. I coveted a walnut Robsjohn-Gibbings with graceful arms and legs, the seat made of leather straps, looking perfect in the corner. A ten-foot, waist-high antique sideboard held towers of books: memoirs and novels and biographies of great men. Shelves sagged under the weight of two thousand classical CDs. We shared a tireless interest in music. He’d led me to concert pianists like Alicia de Larrocha and Martha Argerich; to Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, the risk in them, like jazz; to Schubert’s challenging Winterreise, a song cycle about loneliness, the longing for death, delusional hope. There was no piece of serious music I could mention that Ray didn’t own. That afternoon, though, irritating, boring, unbeautiful techno-rave blared through the speaker system, making our friend even more difficult to hear. My husband leaned forward, straining. Before every sentence Ray breathed oxygen through a mask. He no longer spoke in audacious paragraphs. I missed the sound of him, his daredevil riffs on the city’s hapless ex-mayor, the oppositional research (also known as dirt) he dug up, the gossip he sowed and manufactured, how my husband used to make him laugh ho-ho-hos, from the bottom of his belly.
He wanted Ray’s help with one of his clients. Ray said sure. We sat together on the sofa, hanging tough through the pauses, Ray’s ideas cut down to an excerpt because he didn’t have enough air to finish. He couldn’t riff, or hold a pen, or hold a book, or answer the phone, or turn down that brutal music.
My suffering at seeing his suffering turned into panic. Like I did with my grandmother, I bailed. When someone I love is dying, I leave first. After all, they’re over, aren’t they? I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
In hospice, much of what my sisters said to my grandmother sounded phony: You look better today. Are you hungry? Do you know who I am? We’re all here, isn’t that nice? There were only so many cheerful things you could say at a deathbed. Instead, I watched her and she watched me. I was in a staring contest against an opponent who could only win. She had raised me for three years when I was a toddler, after my parents went on tour, and then again when my mother got tuberculosis. When the quarantine was over I hadn’t wanted to go back home, uncertain about which mother I loved more.
Lill dusted our grandmother’s bedroom furniture with lemon Pledge, and Ginger held old photographs close enough for her to see. She weakly touched faces: our father playing sax in the marching band, our aunt in tight braids and a plaid grammar school uniform, our grandfather behind the butcher counter, where he’d worked his whole life.
She pointed at the chest of drawers and remembered where they’d bought the bedroom suite—Fleisher’s Department Store—when she and my grandfather were first married, and what they’d paid for it. Her memory wouldn’t rest.
The days were slow and busy: Lill squeezed morphine drops into our grandmother’s mouth and fed her water from the end of a straw. Her nails were darkening at the edges, and my aunt rubbed cocoa butter into her hands and feet to keep the circulation moving. My father stood, worried, in the doorway. My grandmother saw me with the newspaper and asked that I read the obituaries out loud because she wanted to know who was dying before her.
I’d overheard my aunt talking to my father. “She’s cold, your oldest daughter. I wonder what the hell she feels.”
We were on Day Eight. Had we been called to New Jersey prematurely? The slowness of her death was unbearable. We awoke in the morning and she had made it through another night, and my sisters and I faced this news with relief and impatience. When? They had kids and husbands at home. I missed my husband and son. In my grandmother’s small, neat apartment, my sisters and father and aunt and I were stepping over one another.
I bought a ticket to Carnegie Hall by phone, and the next day I took the train into New York to hear Brad Mehldau’s jazz trio play. The conductor punched crescent-shaped holes in my yellow ticket. I drank coffee from a paper cup. It felt good to be on a track for a few hours, going somewhere, out of the house, disengaged. Little gray depots rolled by, their parking lots filled with commuters’ cars. What was close up flashed by, and what was most distant took forever to leave my line of sight. I’d long forgotten the equation to figure out a train’s speed.
Zankel Hall was packed. Mehldau wore a burgundy short-sleeved shirt and on his right arm was a blue tattoo. He spoke shyly to the audience, and seemed surprised at such long applause. His trio swung through “Dreamland,” “Caravan,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and some original work. My hands were damp. I held my breath, anxious for the players to find their way back to the melody after wandering out so far.
During the performance I forgot about my grandmother’s bedsores, the covers even with her chin because she couldn’t get warm, and how she kept her hands properly by her sides, as if she were standing.
My aunt was brushing her mother’s hair when she fiercely pushed the brush away and told her daughter goodbye. We heard sobbing and rushed into the bedroom. My aunt had blanketed our grandmother with her body, bereft. She needed privacy. I pulled my sisters back into the living room to sit on the brocade sofa and wait our turn. My father took a seat in his mother’s chair, his head in his hands. My sisters cried quietly. I stared at the rug with a wobbly heart. I couldn’t imagine coming up the stairs of my grandmother’s apartment and not being greeted by her long, tight hug; talking for hours at the kitchen table; being tucked into the sofa bed with a kiss and a prayer. She loved me with an intensity I would never know again. What would I do without her? My father went into the bathroom and we heard him sobbing through the door. No one could help anyone.
My aunt called us into the room to say our goodbyes. All of us wanted some sign that we were good, some sentence we could keep like a souvenir. There wasn’t enough room on my grandmother’s bed so I sat on a hard-backed chair. The neighbor’s toy terrier had come upstairs to visit like he did every morning, and he tried to jump on my lap, but when I put him there he wanted down. His toenails click-clacked on the hardwood floor.
We each went to her and leaned in close.
My grandmother’s last words to me were something about love. That I needed to always love, or did she say that I needed to love more, or that I’d always wanted love. I can’t remember. The event was too dramatic, embarrassing, terrifying, too final. The words were about something only my grandmother knew about me, but they happened quickly and she said them only once. I listened too hard and missed them, and then my grandmother brushed away imaginary cobwebs, or was it a curtain?
The night Ray died, the air was cold and fresh. His assistant had called to say we needed to come now. My husband and I sat in the car outside his home and held hands before going in. Cars had parked up and down the block. Governor Blanco and her husband got out of their black SUV, and we followed them in. In Ray’s living room were the politicians he’d elected who’d become his friends, the people he trusted and enjoyed, all of us his summoned ad hoc family. His nurse sat in a chair, crying into a tissue.
Ray lay unconscious. A small, airless study had been turned into a makeshift hospital room. Someone remembered that Ray had left a playlist for the end. The nurse put in a CD, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and she canted the speaker toward him.
We gathered in a wide circle to say prayers. A priest had been called to give Ray last rites, although our friend staunchly did not believe in God. The former governor stood next to him and smoothed his hair. I wanted to trade places with her, touch Ray’s hair. My husband warned the priest that our friend might sit up suddenly and protest, and we laughed on Ray’s behalf, covering our bases.
Years earlier on a beach in Destin, Ray had walked up on us, barefoot, with a bottle of chilled champagne and truffles and a case of CDs. He was our prized weekend guest. We aimed our chairs at the Gulf of Mexico and drank from plastic flutes. He looked relaxed out of his suit and tie, handsome in a white linen shirt and khaki shorts, hair messed up by breeze, a lover of blue-green water. He read us a commercial he’d written called “Imagine” that showed a blond child snuffing out tall candles, each one representing his candidate’s battles against waste, fraud, the utility companies, the casino, while a voiceover asked us to imagine a city council with out her. “Bullshit?” Ray said. “The city goes dark?” we asked. “As night,” he said. “The Beatles can’t be bought,” we said. “The word is the song,” he said. We talked about his races and movies and books, and drank through sunset and dinner. I paneed chicken, tossed noodles in butter and grated cheese, fixed a spinach salad with marble-sized tomatoes. We walked out to the beach with coffee and chocolates and toed the surf. At bedtime, Ray selected the music: Chopin’s Nocturnes, a Bach cello concerto, and German opera. I stayed awake through the beauty of Strauss’s parallel sopranos in Der Rosenkavalier. Singing women filled the rental cottage.
In my grandmother’s room, I’d placed the kitchen radio on her dresser and set the volume just loud enough to be heard in the distance, music that might have drifted in the open window, but she seemed agitated. The nurse said terminally ill patients sometimes waited for their families to gather so they could say goodbye, and then wanted their families to leave and let them die out of view.
My aunt and father and sisters stayed through her last breath and finish. They didn’t want to leave her alone. My grandmother raised her arms to be picked up, but not by the family that was there. She cried out for her mother. She asked her to shut the window because she heard howling winds.
I drove the rental car back to the hotel and waited on my bed for the call that she had passed, and then I phoned my husband and sobbed like the little girl she used to hold in her arms, a busted dam. And then I called my mother in Hopedale, where she was waiting to hear. “You loved her, I know,” she said, soothingly. “She really never gave you back to me.”
My grandmother didn’t want to be buried with her wedding ring. In her hands she held the pearl rosary, not the wood one. Her casket: silvery-mauve, 18-gauge steel with roses embroidered on light pink fabric that lined the lid. Inside it she looked at peace, but also stopped. Her funeral was crowded with family and townspeople, and the repast was a warm and delicious gathering in her kitchen she would’ve enjoyed. My sisters and I brought home linen from her cedar chest: embroidered handkerchiefs, smooth cotton pillowcases, starched muslin napkins, everything smelling of steam from her iron.
There was a memorial for Ray in a rented banquet room, and people told funny vague stories, like wedding toasts, puzzling together pieces of him. My husband and I preferred to remember him quietly and didn’t go. Ray had joked that he had an identical twin somewhere, but that would be too good to be true, an iteration of Ray walking around out there. I wish he’d left me his CDs; I should’ve asked. His obituary gave up his age: 59. His body was cremated and he was laid to rest in Pineville between his parents.
Great horned owls hit prey with nearly thirty pounds of force, and kill animals two and three times their size, like raccoons and possum, cats and small dogs, even skunks. What they can’t digest, they release as pellets of regurgitated hair and bone, leaving behind forensics we never found.
The Solomon Place owlets are owls now. They’ve graduated from a cage to a backyard shed, and they bang their wings against the netting that allows them to fly, but not away. To feed them the rescue woman has to wear a hat, a mask, a raincoat, and heavy boots.
She guesses the parents ate rat poison, probably out of someone’s yard. I wish they’d stuck to the thousand green acres of City Park for their hunting instead of detouring into neighborhoods. Did they share a poisoned rat? But they died a day apart. Did they happen onto a kit of diseased pigeons? How long from ingestion to death? The father fell with one in his mouth, the bird just alive. The parents died yards from the nest, bringing home dinner.
The woman will release the owls across the lake because she doesn’t trust that this won’t happen again, although our street is filled with the chatter of smaller birds, and the red-tailed hawk we followed before Katrina has returned and it watches us from the high snag of a cypress tree. At night in our beds we hear mourning doves and croaking frogs, barking dogs and the absence of owls.
Again with my grandmother, again with Ray, I would be less self-conscious, more patient, present. While we waited, I would hold her hand, touch Ray’s hair. I would stay close, and let them off the hook, let them go. I’ll be better with the next death.
In our backyard, the mother owl had looked heavy, ten pounds, dead weight, the sad end of her, I thought, more than I could handle, but when I’d lifted the basket out of my car, she was as light as air, warm feathers and loft.
Published in the Fall 2013 Issue of Oxford American.