The summer I turned 18 was one for the history books...literally. Wilson had stubbed his toe over German subs and food shortages. After trying everything we could to stay out of it, the world was upside down – and we were smack dab in it. While I was trying to pass English lit and figure out how to ask Sally Maxwell to the picture shows, my friends were going off to war. I knew it was only a matter of time before my number got called, and even if I was afraid, I’d never admitted it out loud.
I dropped out of school and busied myself with work around the farm. From dawn to dusk I’d bale hay, feed livestock, and fix fenceposts. When night came, I’d find myself in an old familiar place: the loft of our family’s barn. My granddaddy had built it, and my father had helped. And when it sprung a leak or a board came loose, I’d helped my dad fix it. It was good, you know, keeping something like that going. You learn a lot when you shadow someone fixin’ something else.
I’d climb up that rickety ladder and plant myself like a laying hen in that prickly hay. When all was dark and quiet and my parents were fast asleep, I’d be drawing by the light of a kerosene lamp. For Christmas that year I’d asked for a set of real lead artist’s pencils. And the sketch pad I’d bought myself with change I’d gotten for crushing old cans. It wasn’t much, but up in that barn, through the dim haze of fog on the Carolina plains, I was a regular Picasso…if only to myself.
I was too embarrassed to ever show anybody what I’d drawn; too afraid I’d be called a sissy. ‘Boys don’t draw’ they said. Calloused hands aren’t much good for fine lines and delicate strokes. I drew what I knew, though: lizards, pigs, the dog, Roofus (with his one eye), and sometimes I’d try drawing the tractor.
When my daddy wasn’t farming, he was the preacher at the local church. More ruckus than righteous if I’d ever seen it, but I couldn’t blame him for trying. And trying, at least, he did. He told me a fanciful story once about an owl that visited him at church late one night as he was preparing for a Sunday sermon. He’d been stumped and couldn’t figure out what to say. He said that old owl hooted and hollered and it was like he was talkin’ just to him. Eventually, he says he understood that old owl plain as day, like he’d been speaking perfect English. Like when the angel spoke to Balaam through a donkey in the Bible.
Well, Pops told the story with such conviction that I hadn’t the heart to tell him I don’t believe it. Whoever heard of an animal talking? I’ve never been much for faith or trusting in things I can’t see. And the sad truth was, I wasn’t focused much on possibility when I knew my reality was a course charted in pen before me.
My number would come up any day now, and I’d join the million or two other boys that’d gone off to fight. Daddy also preached that there comes a time when a man has to put away childish things and grow up, and I believed that time had come.
The night before I turned 18, I crept up to the barn loft to draw after my chores were finished, just as I always had. There was a sadness to it, because I knew it might be my last time for a while. There’s no time for art in a war. So many boys weren’t coming back, including my older brother, James, who’d gone in the first round. Momma was devastated. Daddy didn’t say much, but he sat at the church much longer after everybody’d left.
As I contemplated my future and what might wait for me in foreign lands I’d only read about in schoolbooks and newspapers, I picked up my pencil and got to work. I decided I’d sketch the loft, what I saw around me, and maybe I’d take it with me and stuff it in my hat – like soldiers did with pictures of girls back home.
After I’d finished sketching the beams and ceiling joists, I heard something – the flapping of wings, sounded like. I looked up from my paper and before me, resting on a rafter, was a magnificent silver-grey owl. He looked right at me, as if I was supposed to know he was coming. And he just sat there looking at me, bright yellow eyes and a confident demeanor, like this was somethin’ he does all the time, or I’d forgotten we made an appointment.
Naturally, I figured the respectful thing to do was draw him. I mean, I’d never even seen an owl before. In all my years sneakin’ to that old barn to draw, I’d never seen him. So I drew him best I could, and when I was finished, he flew away. The next day I was working in the barn baling hay and came across one of his feathers. Out of nowhere, I hear the sound of hooting.
“Hoot, hoot,” says the stranger.
I could tell it wasn’t an animal. It was definitely human.
“Excuse me,” I hollered, “Who’s there?”
From around the corner popped out a young boy no more than seven or eight years old. He was wearing a pair of grey trousers with a stain on the left pocket, and his white shirt was stained yellow with wear. My momma would’ve tore her hair if she saw it…(she took her whites seriously). It made me wonder where this boy’s parents were.
“That’s an owl’s feather, y’know,” he said matter-of-factly as he chewed on a piece of straw.
He was precocious alright, and ruddy, too. His personality very well matched his clothes. I’d never seen him around before, and as far as I knew, nobody had moved into town recently.
“Yes, sir, I know that,” I replied in turn. “Where’d you come from?”
He wiped his brow like a politician before walking over and gesturing for the feather. I handed it to him, though I’m not real sure why. This boy had a way about him, persuasive like, but I felt he could be trouble. Well, as much trouble as a child can be.
“Around the barn, of course.” He hadn’t lied. He had come around the corner of the barn, after all.
“Who do you belong to?” I asked.
“Eh, that’s not important,” he shrugged. The boy walked around the barn aimlessly. “Do you need any help around here?”
“You looking for work?” I said. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“School?” he seemed offended. “There’s a war goin’ on and you want me to sit in a classroom and figure out how many apples Sally will have if she gives Bobby two?”
Sally. I hadn’t even thought about what me being gone would mean for her. Dear John letters and praying for me to come home safe. She deserved better than that. And Bobby; well, I suppose she could choose Bobby instead. He lived right down the road from us, and he was exempt from the draft ‘cause he was too young still. Life with him would be easier than waiting on me.
“Hello?” the little boy brought me back to earth. He certainly was strange. Or, maybe it was just me who felt strange.
For the next two weeks, the boy came back and helped me work every day. That very night, the owl came back and posed for me again. I drew him much better than the time before. This was good practice, I thought. Maybe after I got back from serving my tour, I could become a real artist. Go to art school, even. Although, I don’t think Daddy would approve of that much.
And so it went; every day the little boy showed up and we worked together, and every night the owl came and I drew. The boy peppered me with questions about all sorts of things; he was curious, confident, and never seemed to run out of energy. He was one of the hardest workers I’d ever known, and strong, too. He could outsmart boys twice his age on the tractor, and lift a bale of hay by himself on one shoulder. Sometimes he’d join us for dinner, eating like a starved dog, and sometimes he would scurry off before the dinner bell. I never knew where he went, and if I asked, he wouldn’t tell me.
I got better and better at drawing the owl. I studied his features: the curve of his beak, the glisten of his knowing, piercing eyes, and the texture of his wings. After a while, I could draw him without even looking.
You know, some cultures believe owls are messengers; bringers of bad omens when you’re near death, or you’ve got an important decision to make. Sometimes folks’ll even kill an owl for fear of some silly superstition. Still, others say owls symbolize boundless knowledge and wisdom. But then again, as I told you, I’m not much for believing in things I can’t see.
One evening as the sun was swinging low like those chariots we always sang about in Daddy’s church, the little boy turned to leave. That was just his way, you see – he’d just walk away when he was ready to go. But this time, I stopped him cold. I rested my hand on his small shoulder and said something out loud I’d been thinking since I first met him.
“You don’t have anywhere to go, do you?”
He didn’t turn around. He rung his dirty little grease-stained hands in his shirt and lowered his head like he was asking forgiveness. And then, for the first time in all those weeks spending every day together, that toe-headed, ornery boy broke down and cried. He held that scruffy face of his in those calloused hands, and he sobbed. It’s the only time I’d ever seen him really act like a child.
“You’ll stay here tonight,” I said.
He didn’t put up a fuss. I made us a spot up in the loft, let my momma know what was going on, and we settled in for sleep. As I turned out the lamp, I heard his usually assured voice shrink into an uneasy whisper: “Don’t go, Jessie. If you do,” the sniffles started again, “you won’t come back.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I was touched by his concern. “I wish I had a choice, kid. But even if I did, I’d still prolly choose to go.”
“But…but you’re the first one that ever…saw me. Really saw me. You ain’t the first person I’ve ever come to. And out of all those people, you’re the only one who ever…”
He didn’t finish the thought, and he didn’t have to, ‘cause I already knew what he was gonna say. And probably for the first time in a long while, that tough little boy was held and rocked fast asleep, just as if he’d been a baby again. The tears rolled down his dusty cheeks like rivers ought to; purposeful and steady. I loved him, and there was no reason not to, but somewhere along the line, somebody’d convinced him there was, and the channels etched on his cheeks were the proof of it.
When I woke up in the morning, he was gone. He didn’t come back. But, strange enough, the night he stayed was the only night the owl didn’t come. Every night after, that old owl carried on the same as he always had.
The day finally came and my number was called. I was shipped off – a Navy man – leaving my family, Sally, the boy, and that owl behind me. After a few months in the field, I was working in engineering, fixing pipes and engines and mechanical things on the sub. One day, a pressurized pipe I was working on exploded…it burned me real bad, and nearly took a limb or two with it. I languished in and out of consciousness for 26 days in the infirmary until we could surface and get me to a hospital. Doctors said it was a miracle I didn’t die, and if it’d been just one more day, I would have.
They discharged me, honorable with no commendations, and sent me home with one less finger and some nasty scars. The first thing I did once I could walk again was head out to the barn. I dug out that sketch pad and flipped through it. I had dozens of sketches, but over half of them were of that silver-grey barn owl. Twenty-six sketches exactly, each one better than the last, and, on top of the rafter where he always rested laid a large, proud feather.
After I healed up real good, I went off to art school. Considering I nearly died in the middle of the ocean, my father was less worried about me choosing a ‘sissy’ career. Sally did marry Bobby, but it was alright. I met a real nice girl in sculpting class shortly after, and we fell in love. She’s still my favorite subject to draw. Daddy died a few years later, but not before seeing his only living son’s illustrations on the cover of a big city magazine. He was real proud of that.
My grandchildren play in that old barn now, waiting some foggy Carolina nights to catch a glimpse of him, just in case he appears. I watch them as they scurry up to the loft, hiding treats from their mother, a pile of books in hand, reading by kerosene lamp. The story of “Grandpa’s Owl” seems to be their favorite. Wide-eyed, they thumb through the pages as if it’s the first time they’ve ever read it. The day of my funeral, they say, a silver-grey owl (with a splotch on his left wing, and yellow-peppered breast feathers) came to rest atop my casket, nestled in the blanket. He let out a “hoot, hoot” as he flew away…and he hasn’t been seen or heard since.