She didn't know the owl was dying. It seemed lively as it hunted from a low perch—teetering on one of the red rubber caps on the dock's posts, clawing its way sideways along the trunk of a pine that sloped over the lake and, later, on the moonlit snow near the platform birdfeeder. Its crisp, elongated shadow gave it the appearance of a soft, limber mound, not something that was fading, but of a luscious and warm being, cloaked and secure while it rested on the crusted snow.
The owl circumnavigated the yard for three days. Around sunset its habits were unchanging: it hopped from a log up to a stump and back to the ground close to the birdfeeders, or stared down at the cavalry-like squirrel trails from the feeders to the trees. Watching its antics—antics didn't carry enough dignity—she felt cold air seeping through the edges of the window. This tiny foreign and fresh wind was at odds with both the odors of the cabin and the wind that awakened her at night. That wind, the nighttime wind, was like the squalls of a baby or a departing train. She wrapped a sweater around her neck and tied it in a knot like she had seen a tall woman do on Rue Mouffetard when they bought a chicken grilled with garlic on a spit in the open air for the celebratory meal. She had refused the champagne, and later turned to face the wall when he tried to stroke her belly.
She rolled a dish towel and laid it along the base of the window frame. It was possible that the owl would appear with its babies—were they called chicks or owlets?—nestled in the greens close to the trunks of the conifers, as if they were resting on clouds. But it didn't matter. She would be gone by then, back to Seattle before summer, when the cabin would be taken and, as he had said and she had agreed, she'd have had ample time to think things through, to reconsider.
It was sitting on the ground again on the fourth day and she marked the calendar. Walking on the narrow, crunchy path back to the house from the compost pile, Belle, an Epagneul Breton, a bird dog to her core, pointed at the owl and she called her along. Through binoculars the snow was pink and yellow, and at first the owl appeared to be a piece of bark or a broken chunk of rotted birch. It took ten minutes for the changing light to sharpen the contours of the bird. It had a fluffy breast and perfect edges to the wings, held apart from its body, and the tail feathers appeared longer than they should be. All the feathers looked alike, as if the bird was a replica of an owl, not a real owl. Real owls don't get sick in someone's yard, not even in a yard carved out of the forest. Real owls don't get sick.
On the fifth day as she washed her plate and cup after lunch she broke the plate in two pieces against the faucet when a thump on the window jolted Belle off the only comfortable chair in the cabin. A patch of grey feathers—feathery was the best way to describe them—was smashed against the rippled glass in a moist circle. Others floated down. She leaned over the sill to look at the ground and at the feeders, now silent and empty; one swung in place. A motionless nuthatch clung to the trunk of the largest pine. The odd silhouette of the owl's head made it easy to find against the stark branches in the linear forest. It sat on a branch and stared at the ground, no more or less stunned than usual. Staring was all it ever did, she was certain. She dried the plate in a warm oven and glued the pieces together and weighted it down with a book. She returned to the window and the owl was gone.
Ron answered on the first ring. She wrapped six cookies in waxed paper and put on her boots and coat. She followed Belle along the packed trail across the lake to Ron's trailer. He'd built a permanent roof on posts, to hold the snow load, he told her, and a cedar deck on the south side. Happy to oblige, he'd said, and she said oblige, oblige, all the way home, and returned along the road with a warm red squirrel Ron shot off his deck railing in a plastic bag in her pocket. It must be French, with the soft G retained, the beauty of the word intact, not like so many other words. Agnes, a graceful name in the French, a pretty name she wanted to use. There was also Gilbert, a dramatic name, almost like a parody of the French, a name she could whisper or moan, or use to beg or tease. Gilbert, she had said, merci, merci, and it sounded like mercy. She would look up oblige later. She had the owl to feed, her owl, and her own breakfast to prepare, a routine to which she adhered. She was obliged to the owl. She felt the muscles in her jaw relax.
At the edge of the woods, the owl sat in a shallow well in the snow around the base of a paper birch. It blinked and turned its head in a cliché of itself as she balanced the soft squirrel on an extended stick, and with an underhanded lift bounced it off the end to the edge of the well, where it rolled once to the owl's feet.
From the house she lined up the owl's silhouette along the branch of a shrub, with the back of the squirrel forming a triangle of white snow between them. She sat forward on the edge of the chair and lined up the binoculars with the window's center sash. She memorized the triangle. She made coffee. Her day started when she emptied the compost bucket to make room for yesterday's grounds. She wouldn't go out at noon; the owl needed silence and privacy. She warmed milk in a saucepan and put it in a mug and added the coffee and some sugar. Gilbert preferred his coffee that way, too.
The triangle was still there but the right edge had new lumps where the owl's back was fluffed up. It's hunched over the squirrel. She said it out loud to Belle. But the owl's feet were not moving, were not pressing down on the squirrel's neck, and it was not kneading and ripping and tearing the flesh with its beak. Owls do that.
She tipped the top edge of a dictionary down from a shelf. Oblige followed the hard G words, on up the column to obligate. Above that was oblation, an offering to a god. The paper was smooth and cold under her finger as she traced the list. Oblige was from the Latin, meaning "to bind." An obligation that binds. He liked to bind her hands and feet to the bed when they made love.
It hadn't really moved. She pressed the dishtowel into the crack and set the binoculars on the dining table. Placing the dictionary in its dark, empty slot she saw a field guide pushed to the back of the shelf. Loose pages with small birds, warblers or sparrows, fell to the floor. The owls were near the front of the book. It was a barred owl and she thought it was a mistake until she saw the arrow. Note the bars on breast. He was a bard who said his poems came to him in streams that he could not stop. It was his obligation he said; he was as obliged to write them down as she was to lie on his bed, much obliged, and content, and eager and happy and asking for mercy. But not obliged, she had insisted, to have the baby.
The sexes are alike in plumage, with the female being larger. The owl's call—was it a song?— sounded like who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all and it was commonly heard in late winter. She'd heard the call in the night, when an owl was in the forest near the cabin and another was far away like an echo, and sometimes they overlapped and became frantic and competitive. Her owl was silent, with its head tilted forward, smaller and whiter in the sun. The squirrel's legs stuck out straight from its body and a line of blood ran from its mouth to the snow. Its eyes were open. She spread glue on the binding of the field guide with a toothpick and inserted the pages and weighted the book with the dictionary.
Later in the day the owl had moved again, its chin, if it had one, pressed to its chest. She found a hamburger patty in the freezer, covered with ice crystals, and held it between her palms and scraped some of the meat away with a teaspoon. She wiped it into a cup with her finger and put on her boots and coat. The owl was in a different well in the snow, away from the squirrel, under a spruce from which the lower branches hung down, the tips encrusted below the snow's surface. She crouched, then sat and stretched her legs to the side and leaned on an elbow and pushed the cup into the crust and examined the owl's face. She sat up and leaned forward and placed a hand on each side of the owl. She pressed into the wings to feel its body. It was no bigger around than her wrist and very light, a pound at most. It didn't look at her. Furry feathers extended all the way down to its black claws. Her hands were cold from the raw meat. She turned the owl around and placed it on her lap. She smeared hamburger on her finger and held the owl's upper and lower beak and pulled them apart. There was some resistance and she got meat in its beak and the rest on its face. It didn't move its mouth—did birds do that?—as if it were eating and swallowing. She placed it under the spruce, its back close to the trunk where she could see it from the window.
Snow fell overnight, a soft two inches on the crust. At dawn juncos arrived singly under the feeder until they dotted the undisturbed surface with charcoal and slate. Two rusty fox sparrows scooted through the fluff to bring up seeds from below. She held her place in the field guide with her finger until she saw the owl under the spruce. Its eyes were shut and snow mounded around its body. She went to it.
Gilbert told people—their friends, her sister in Minnesota, and his parents—that the baby was stillborn. It had died inside her. She knew that before the doctor held the stethoscope to her belly, and before the ultrasound. She could take drugs to accelerate the process or wait for her body to naturally reject it. She didn't know all the words and Gilbert translated for her. She chose la naturelle. En temps, the doctor said. In time. But it was not born. She screamed that the last time he used the word stillborn. It was expelled. I expelled it. That is the word. She screamed that, too. He sat at her side when the contractions came and after an hour he wrapped the bloody girl in a blanket handed over by the nurse and held it, held her, with both hands above his head to the light and then against the side of his throat, his palms wrapped around her, no larger than a potato, his elbows touching and his eyes closed. She hadn't expected her to have so much hair.
She curled on her side in front of the owl and brushed the snow away from its feet and off its head. It didn't move. She picked it up with both hands and stretched her legs and pushed up to her feet with the owl pressed between her forearm and her breast. It was too late to worry about crushing it. In the cabin, holding the owl to keep it warm, she found a telephone directory in a drawer. It was dated ten years earlier. She laid the owl on its back on her lap. It did not resist. Its eyes were brown. In the business pages there were no headings for Rehabilitation, Wildlife, or Birds. She tried Life.