Featured Prose | July 18, 2018
“Owl” by Tyler Keevil
Tyler Keevil’s moving and beautiful essay “Owl” is about the vulnerability of all creatures in the face of both natural and human-caused calamities. It first appeared in Volume 40, number 4.
by Tyler Keevil
My wife left work two hours ago and still isn’t home, so I’m haunting our back window, watching snow sweep through the ochre cone of a streetlamp further down our block. The streetlamp next to our house isn’t lit: not because it’s faulty, but because the County Council has decided to switch these lights off at random intervals to save money. And because of that, I’m studying this other streetlamp, fifty yards away, trying to gauge the heaviness of the snowfall. There are gritters (what I would call snowploughs) out roaming the roads, but not enough of them. The council is cutting back on highway maintenance, too. They’re cutting back on everything. When it snows like this in rural Wales, the roads are barely passable.
I say these words aloud, even though I’m alone. I’m alone as I’ve ever felt, waiting for my wife on a night like this. The snow has to be at least six inches deep, and piling up higher all the time. I retreat to the kitchen and check the clock on our stove: it’s now quarter to eight, and she left at five-thirty. The commute normally takes her about half an hour.
It’s no use phoning her, because for large stretches of road between Llandrindod Wells (where she works) and Llanidloes (where we live) there is no cell phone coverage. I’ve tried several times anyway, and it’s gone straight to voice mail. No rings at all. Just the beep and the melancholy sound of her voice, asking me to leave a message. I have left messages. I have left many messages, more for my sake than hers, uttering my words like prayers.
There’s no point in leaving another now. Instead I try to decide when it might be appropriate to phone the emergency services, or whatever it is they call it over here. When will I officially begin to worry about my wife and what might have happened to her? And as I’m trying to decide that, I hear the rattle of keys in the lock, and the door opens, and it’s her: Lowri. We can call her Lowri, for the purposes of this story.
Lowri is holding a model boat, cradled like a child.
She comes in, bringing the cold with her. I cross the kitchen, shut the door behind her, say that I’ve been worrying about her. I want to hug her, take her in my arms, but that boat is in my way. So I pat her on the upper arms—like a coach encouraging a player—and tell her with too much enthusiasm that I can’t believe she actually got the boat.
“Take it, will you?” she says, offering it to me. “I have to get out of these things.”
I accept the boat, cupping it by the hull. It’s large—about two feet long—but light, built out of balsa wood. It’s a model of a fishing boat, a seiner, with a blue hull and a white cabin. It’s a prop from All Aboard, the first show Lowri performed in with Theatre Taith. In the play, the boat’s name was The Rebecca, and that name is painted across the transom of the model. At the helm stands a small figure in a yellow fisherman’s slicker. The captain.
“I never saw it up close before,” I say.
“There’s more, in the car.” Lowri is shrugging off her coat, removing her cap. Flakes of snow linger in her hair like glitter. “Some stuff from Antigone and Of Mice and Men.”
“Should we go get it? Or we could eat first. I made food.” I gesture with the boat at the stove, where a pot of chili is simmering. That chili has been simmering for hours.
“I don’t know,” she says.
Then she puts her hand to her face, shielding her eyes, and her mouth folds down at the corners, and I know that she’s trying not to cry.
I lay the boat on the table and go to her and I hold her, and she allows me to do this without returning the embrace, without taking her hand away from her face. She makes a sound, trying to catch her breath. I say the kinds of things you say to your wife when she is distraught. I tell her it’s going to be okay. I ask her if it was a tough day. Then I ask about Stephen and Jay, assuming this has to do with them. Stephen is the artistic director of her company. Jay is his partner, who acts in most of the productions. Together, they’ve run Theatre Taith for the past fifteen years. This thing with the funding is hitting them hard.
“Are they okay?” I ask her. “Did something happen?”
“No, no,” she says, and her voice is breaking, faltering. “There was an owl. I think I might have killed an owl.”
I stop patting her back, and I look down at her. All I can see is the top of her scalp, the swirl of her crown, the snow melting in her hair. She smells of the cold, the outdoors.
“An owl?” I echo, sounding very stupid.
She pushes away from me, rubbing at her eyes with the heels of her palms, as if she can physically staunch the tears. It seems to work, too. She takes a shaky breath and starts telling me about this owl. She was coming home—she was nearly home—when an owl flew in front of her car. She didn’t have time to stop. She repeats that phrase twice: I didn’t have time to stop. She just saw it, lit up in her headlights, and hit the brakes and heard the thump of its body on the windscreen, before it flapped away into the night, into the dark. She nearly went off the road, spinning out.
“Oh, Jesus,” I say. “I’m sorry, honey. Hell.”
“I think I must have killed it.” She winces, as if she is remembering the moment of impact, replaying it in her mind. Then she whispers something in Welsh, which I haven’t learned to speak. Her language, like so much else in this country, is unfathomable to me.
I say, “If it flew away, it might be okay.”
“I was going thirty miles an hour.”
“Birds are tough.”
She sinks down into a chair at our kitchen table and gazes dully at the boat.
“Do you really think?” she asks.
“Sure, sure,” I say.
But I say it a little too quickly, a little too smoothly. Her face solidifies.
“No,” she says. “It’s probably dying. I didn’t kill it but I hurt it. It’s probably out there right now, in the snow, lying somewhere. Bleeding and dying.”
“You don’t know that. There’s no way you can know that.”
I’m rubbing the back of my neck now. I don’t like the thought of it, of that owl lying in the snow. I don’t like it any better than she does.
“What kind of owl was it, anyway?” I ask.
“It looked like a snowy owl.”
I tell her that it couldn’t have been. There aren’t any snowy owls in Wales, or Britain.
“I saw one,” she says, “as a girl, down in Devon. There are some.”
“It must have been a barn owl. Barn owls can be pretty white.”
“I know what a barn owl looks like.”
Neither of us is looking at the other. Instead, we’re both looking at the boat. It has several tiny lobster pots strewn across the deck, and rigging lines strung between the masts, delicate as cobwebs. Every detail is precise, perfect. Like all of Theatre Taith’s props, the boat was constructed with care, with tenderness, with love. It’s a miniature work of art.
I reach out and tap the hull with my finger, making the boat rock on its keel.
I ask, “Do you want to get the other props?”
“I can’t eat anything. I don’t want to eat.”
“Come on, then. Let’s get the rest of it. Maybe it’ll make you feel better.”
I coax her to her feet and guide her towards the door like an outpatient: with both my hands on her shoulders. Then I get her coat and fit her arms into it, even though she’s just taken it off. I don’t dress myself. It doesn’t seem necessary, and I don’t want her to have to wait there, feeling wretched. I just pull on some shoes and open the door into the dark.
Lowri has parked at the bottom of our hill, near Foundry Terrace. The road leading to our place hasn’t been cleared or salted and is too treacherous to drive up. Walking down it is a challenge, too. The snow is calf-deep, and as we make our way towards the car I keep losing traction, slipping and having to catch myself. The whole damn street feels slick as an ice rink. I make a crack about that: about the council and the great job they’re doing maintaining the roads. “Glad to see they’re putting the funds they saved to good use,” I say.
But Lowri, she doesn’t bother to answer. A few months back, during the middle of the campaign to save her company—the letter writing, the protests, the petitions—she would have railed against the council at the slightest provocation. She would swear and curse, pound the table, shake her fists, as mutinous as Antigone confronting Creon, as defiant as Lear in the storm, as tough and uncompromising as Jay, who—like always—Lowri was emulating. That all stopped the day the company’s final appeal was overturned and it became clear that Theatre Taith would be closed. I don’t know where it went, her anger. I suppose it just went somewhere else, like the heat of a fire when it gets stamped out. But I miss it. I miss it as much as I miss my wife and what our life was like before this started to happen.
Even though our car, a beat-up Astra, has only been parked for about ten minutes, it’s already coated with snow. Lowri trudges around to the back and pops the trunk, or the boot. The automatic light comes on, revealing the interior, and it’s like looking into a chest from an old curiousity shop. I see a laurel crown, which she wore in Burial at Thebes, and a Venetian carnival mask from their rendition of Romeo and Juliet. And the shoes Jay wore in Scarecrow, and a chalk writing slate, from The Selkie and the Stone—their play about the potato famine. All these relics, all these fragments of story. The refuse from the wreck.
“Got a good haul tonight,” I say.
“I took as much as I could, this time.”
We begin to unload. Since there is too much to carry, we have to wear some of it: I put on the laurel crown, and Lowri drapes a cloak—from Little Red Cape—on her back. All these props and costumes technically belong to the County Council, which owns the building where Theatre Taith is based and which, for the past forty years, has provided the company’s funding. The counsellors were intending to sell off these theatrical supplies as surplus and turn a small profit. But on the day the final appeal was overturned, Stephen sat Lowri and the other resident actors down and explained to them that they weren’t going to let that happen. I can imagine this. Stephen is a craggy-faced Scotsman, just past middle age. He is not a big man, and he never raises his voice, but he has presence—both on and off the stage. When he talks, people listen. They listened. And they started stealing things. Lowri and Jay and the other company members have all been secreting away their most treasured props. I do not know what they are hoping to achieve through these small acts of salvage, but I understand that it is necessary.
“I love to imagine their faces,” I say, tucking a bundle of dresses under my arm, “on the day they clear you out of the building. It will be like the ending of some heist film, when the cops open the vault, expecting to see the loot, and all that’s left is a roll of nickels.”
“Probably they won’t even care.”
“All the more reason to lay claim to it.”
I like the sound of that phrase: lay claim to it. That is what we are doing. Laying claim to what is rightfully hers, and theirs. And ours. I worked for them too, when I first moved to Wales, with a suitcase full of books and a work visa and not much else. Stephen gave me a job with Theatre Taith. He didn’t know me. He did it as a favour to Lowri. For two years, until I found my feet, I was their stagehand and technical assistant and went on tour with the company. So all these story-making materials are familiar to me.
As we remove more and more items, something much larger is gradually revealed underneath. It takes up the entire bottom of the boot and spans the full width of the car: a large, flat piece of lacquered oak. It is the stern of a boat, the full-sized version of the model she brought into the kitchen. And just like on the model, across the transom the name Rebecca is stencilled. We had to construct the boat on set each night for the production of All Aboard. It was one of my first tasks as their stagehand. I felt right at home, building that boat, and working around it. The last job I’d had before leaving Vancouver for Wales was at the Westco cannery and boatyard, assisting the shipwrights and nautical engineers.
Seeing that set piece now is bewildering. It seems like a small miracle, having the entire stern of a boat hidden in the back of a car. An act of magic—like those model boats you see in bottles. I just start laughing, incredulous. I laugh so hard I slip and sit back in a snowbank but manage to hold on to my bundle of costumes.
“Honey,” I say, “that’s the pièce de résistance, right there.”
“I thought you’d appreciate it.”
“Where in the hell are we going to put it?”
“I didn’t think of that. I just took it.”
“Leave it here for now. We got enough of a load, anyway.”
We’re so laden with props, costumes, and other theatrical paraphernalia, we must look like story-making pilgrims searching for a place to weather the storm and maybe perform. We could be the travelling players in Hamlet, showing up at Elsinore, ready to present our play within a play, or the little acting troupe in The Seventh Seal, doomed but still on tour while being pursued by the Reaper. And as we trudge back up the hill, laden with all this weight, I start humming a tune I can’t place—not at first. But eventually the words begin to emerge, bubbling up from the depths of memory: Rebecca, Rebecca, lady of the sea. . . . It’s the theme of the good ship Rebecca, the song Lowri sang on stage each night.
As we wade through the snow towards the light of our house, I repeat the chorus softly to myself, and Lowri, she doesn’t seem to mind.
In the kitchen we stomp the snow off our shoes, like Morris dancers performing an elaborate step. After, we carry our burden through to the living room, where we deposit the props and costumes on the floor. They form a heap, and the heap smells familiar. It actually smells of the theatre: of the sweat and effort and energy that goes into a show, of the backstage buzz and excitement. Of audience laughter and tears and applause. Of encores and curtains calls.
It smells more like home than our house.
I leave Lowri to sort through it, and return to the kitchen to get her a bowl of chili and a glass of wine. This is something I do: cooking meals, having food ready, whenever she comes home. Typically she loses at least a stone—or fourteen pounds—during a community tour. It’s the grind of the performance schedule that does it. The long journeys to distant parts of Wales, the eating on the go, the sleeping in strange beds, the thirteen-, fourteen-hour days, the strain of doing six shows a week—or more if there are matinees. It burns up the stores of her fat and muscle like candle wax. We just accept that. That’s always been part of it, and my job has always been to help restore that weight and replenish her reserves after a tour finishes. But the last tour, their final tour, finished a month ago. And she hasn’t put the weight back on. If anything, she’s lost more. She isn’t eating, and she isn’t sleeping. Her hair has turned dry and brittle. When she changes at night, her ribs and hips show through her skin. I’m beginning to wonder if there’ll be anything left of her when the company closes, or if she’ll simply waste away, like a hunger artist, having given everything up for her art.
I fill a bowl of chili and bring that back into the living room. Lowri is in the process of arranging the chalk slate on our mantelpiece, next to a map—from a programme they did for primary schools. She has made only a small dent in the pile in the centre of the room. I tell her to take a break. She ought to get some food in her. The way I say it sounds wheedling and whiny, as if I’m some kind dealer, plying his product.
“It’s good chili, honey.”
“I’m sorting all this out.”
“We can finish that after.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Just try a bit.”
She sits down, reluctantly accepts the bowl from me, and takes a few token bites. I watch while pretending not to. I ask her if she wants me to light a fire, and she tells me no, she doesn’t want a fire. So we sit in front of the empty hearth, in front of those cold bricks, and she cradles the bowl of chili in her lap without eating it, and I gaze around at our new décor. She’s placed the carnival mask on the windowsill, and hung the laurel crown above the television. All our bookcases and shelves and cupboards are filled with similar bits of memorabilia, brought home on previous nights, things that seem odd and incongruous—a tobacco pipe, a poster of Montmartre, a dream catcher—unless you know the stories behind them. There’s more upstairs, too. It’s as if the whole house is becoming a museum.
“This is like the Theatre Taith Museum,” I say. “We could put signs outside, welcome visitors, arrange exhibits. You could dress up in your old costumes, and I could wear my stagehand outfit and act as tour guide.”
I don’t mean this in the way it sounds. I don’t mean it to be cruel or sardonic or critical of what Lowri is doing. I just say it to be saying something, and because it occurs to me as we sit here. But Lowri, she takes it as you might expect. She puts her chili down, shoving it away from her on the table, and reaches for her wine and drinks, deliberately draining the glass.
She gets up and goes to the window. She stands where I stood when I was waiting for her, and she looks down the block at that same lone streetlamp.
After a minute she says, “I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“It’s brutal. The council are bastards.”
“I mean the owl. I hate people who do that. Who hit a fox or a badger and leave it and just drive on without checking to see if it’s dead or if there’s anything they can do.”
“This is different.”
“I could have stopped. I should have stopped.”
“You were too shocked.”
“That’s no excuse.”
I can guess what’s coming, and I figure there may still be the chance to steer her off course, to redirect her chain of thought somehow. I go to stand behind her, place my hands on her waist. In the glass I see the shadows of our reflections gazing out. And beyond us, on the roof of our garden shed, eight inches of snow has piled up. That roof is sagging under the weight, ready to cave.
“It couldn’t be helped,” I say.
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
“It’s not supposed to make you feel anything.”
She twists away from me, one hip at a time.
“Come on and have a sit,” I say. “I’ll pour you another glass of wine.”
“I don’t want any more wine, or chili. And I don’t want a fucking fire. I don’t want to be sitting around. No more sitting around, waiting until I’m finally drunk enough to sleep.”
“That’s not what we’re doing.”
“What are we doing then?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Nothing.”
“Exactly. Nothing. And that owl is out there, lying in the snow. Dying.”
The way she’s talking would sound crazy to anybody else, anybody who wasn’t privy to all the details of the situation and all the events that have led us here, up to this night. So I understand that even if it’s crazy, it’s the kind of crazy that has to be taken seriously, because we’re deep into this now. And I know what she’s going to say next, which is possibly what she’s been wanting to say ever since she got home, and it took that glass of wine to say it.
She says, “We could go back out there.”
“We’re not going anywhere in this weather.”
“We could find it and make sure.”
“It’s probably dead. It’s dead, okay?”
She brushes by me and dumps more wine into her glass and knocks it back, watching me over the rim, daring me to tell her to stop. Daring me to argue. When the glass is empty again she plants it, like a flag, on the tabletop next to the bottle.
“Then I’ll know,” she says. “Then I’ll know it’s dead, and it will be over.”
“And what if it’s flown off somewhere? What if it’s in a tree, safe and sound? And you don’t find it at all.”
“Then we’ll know that too.”
“I’ve spent the last two hours,” I say. “I’ve spent the last two hours waiting for you, and now . . .” But I don’t even finish the sentence. I can see the look, this look she sometimes gets in her eyes. And so instead I say, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, hell.” And I stride into the kitchen and take the ladle out of the pot and whip the ladle at the sink, splattering chili up the wall in a gory starburst. And I sit on the stairs. I sit like that and clutch my head with my hands, not quite understanding how I’ve lost this argument but knowing full well that I have.
I am aware of Lowri coming into the kitchen. I see her feet, drawing near to me. She is wearing pink socks with a hole in one toe. I see that, but I refuse to look up. Then something happens that I don’t expect. I feel her fingers, my wife’s fingers, on my scalp, combing through my hair. This tender gesture. Her fingertips feel cool and firm.
She says, “You’re always bragging about being able to drive in the snow.”
“I can when I have to.”
“So maybe you have to.”
I grab her hand, and hold it, and press it—the back of it—to my cheek.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” I say.
And it’s true. But then, nothing’s made sense for a while, now.
Ten minutes later we are in our car, and beneath the tyres the road seems to be moving, shifting. I’m gripping the wheel and hunching forward, peering past my headlight beams. The night is swarming with white. Lowri was right about my bravado and driving in the snow. But whenever I’ve driven in snow like this back home, it’s been in our old Jeep or one of my friends’ trucks: four-wheel drive tanks with studded tyres, built for snow. But now, tonight, I’m driving a fifteen-year-old Astra hatchback with bald tyres, sketchy steering alignment, and a cracked windscreen. The slightest tap of the brakes sends us into a drift, a slow-moving fishtail. Each time, I have to turn into the skid to compensate. It’s as if the ground itself, the very landscape, has become untrustworthy, unstable. We are adrift, floating on a frozen sea.
We drive in silence, focused, and I don’t say anything about this being absurd or reckless. That is just assumed and accepted. These roads, they aren’t even ploughed. The snow is nearly a foot deep now. I’m driving right in the middle of the road, straddling where the centre line should be, and so far we haven’t passed any other vehicles. Every so often I check my rearview, and over the backseat I can see the stern and transom of the Rebecca. It’s comforting, that sight. It’s as if, through some sleight of hand or deft stage trick, our car has become the boat. And like Lowri’s character in the play, we are setting out on an epic quest. Behind the transom, through the rear windscreen, I can see the fountain of snow churned up in our wake, dyed red by the glow of the taillights.
Up ahead, a sharp turn.
“Hold on a second here,” I say.
I don’t brake. I simply take my foot off the gas. Even so, and even going as slow as we are, we lose traction as we round the corner, power sliding onto the shoulder, before the wheels bite and regain their grip and pull us forward.
I say, “You feel that?”
And Lowri says, “Yes.”
I concentrate on the next turn, and the next, thinking ahead like a luge driver. I know this road so well now. I know all these roads, from going on tour with Theatre Taith. The cast and crew would pile into the company van and we’d make our way to some remote part of Wales: usually a rural community without a theatre or cinema, and a name I couldn’t even pronounce. Llanaffan-fawr. Llanelwydd. Beulah. Bronllys. They sounded fictional or mythical, but they were real. At least, we always found them. We found them and began unloading the van, erecting the set, creating a space where a story would unfold. I had other jobs, too. I would do front-of-house: working the door and greeting the audience members, selling them tickets, chatting to them during the interval. I had a Theatre Taith sweatshirt, a name tag, a role. And in performing that role, I was getting to know my adopted country.
“How are they?” I ask. “Stephen and Jay.”
“The same,” Lowri says. Then, seeming to soften, she adds, “Not good.”
“I can’t imagine,” I say.
But I can. That’s the terrible part. I see what it’s doing to Lowri, and then I double that, triple it. Theatre Taith, for her, is a way of life. But for Stephen and Jay, it is their life. The thought of it being taken from them, what that might do to them, makes me queasy. It’s like trying to imagine losing a limb or breaking your back.
“What are they going to do?”
I say it softly, not a question but a lament.
“I don’t know,” Lowri says. “I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
“What are we going to do?”
She shakes her head, as if refuting the question.
Since I came out here, the only constant in our lives has been Theatre Taith. Lowri’s family, they live in Ireland. And mine, of course, are back home in Canada. Stephen and Jay, Theatre Taith, they’re our only family, now. There was talk, up until all this happened, of Lowri taking over the company. Not right now, but sooner rather than later. Stephen and Jay are getting on. And Jay once confided in me that she was tired of fighting: it was somebody else’s turn. Our turn. Lowri, at least, was ready. I liked to think I was ready, too. I could have had a role, my usual supporting role. A fantasy, maybe, but a nice one. And either way, it doesn’t matter. That’s all gone, now. The County Council has seen to that.
“Take it easy,” Lowri says.
Without realizing, I’ve been accelerating. I ease up on the gas.
“What side of the Gurig bends was it?” I ask.
“In the middle. Right on the bends.”
Gurig is short for Llangurig, and the Gurig bends are what locals call the series of hairpins and switchbacks on the north side of the town. There are always accidents on the bends—sometimes fatal ones. You see the flowers and crosses and cards at the roadside.
“We’ll check,” I tell Lowri, “but if we can’t find the spot, that’s it, okay?”
“We’ll find it.”
I take a breath, shake my head.
As the bends draw near, I slow down and drop into second gear. We crawl around the first few turns, the snow-crusted branches creating a canopy overhead. I don’t really expect to find any owl, but there’s the chance we’ll find the spot. That’s entirely down to Lowri. On trips, and journeys, she is our navigator and guide. I merely obey, going on and on like an automaton, until she tells me to turn, adjust course. She is adept at fitting the shapes of landscapes together, at keeping distances and directions in her head. So I am startled but not surprised, when she leans forward and peers intently into the dark and grips my arm, as if seized by some revelation or moment of divination.
“Here,” she says.
I steer us into the snow at the roadside, on the right-hand shoulder. It will be hell to get out of, and there is the chance we’ll become stuck, but we can’t park in the middle of the road without creating a terrible, obvious hazard. The snow grinds and crunches as it compresses beneath our tyres. I reach up and twist the key, turning the engine off. The heater goes with it, and the wipers, and all is quiet. The snow continues to fall, sticking to the windscreen.
I flick on the hazard lights, and they blink in alarm.
“What now?” I ask.
In answer, Lowri zips up her jacket, tugs on her gloves, reaches for the torch she’s brought with her. She swings open her door; outside there is blackness, a vacuum. She steps into it. I tug my door handle, but the snow at the roadside is blocking me in, and I have to use my shoulder—shoving repeatedly—before the door scrapes open. Lowri is already a dozen feet away, partially obscured by the white-out. I hurry to catch her, wading through powder.
There are no houses nearby, no farms or barns or outbuildings. And strangely, no wind. Just the snow-covered trees and flakes of falling snow, seeming to hang in the air all around us, as if we’ve entered a stasis field. We have stepped out of time, out of place. With the snow-covered pines, the endless snowbanks and snowdrifts, we could be back home in Canada. As in my dreams, as in my mind, I am here and there at the same time.
While she walks, Lowri sweeps her torch over the ground, panning back and forth.
“Look,” she says, directing it to a point on our right.
I see it, too. Faint, already buried beneath fresh snow, but still evident: a set of tyre tracks snaking back and forth. For the first time it feels as if we are not totally crazy, that there is some hope of finding what we came for. We follow the tracks for twenty yards, deliberate as detectives, until we reach the start of her skid.
“Which way did the owl come from?” I ask.
Lowri turns around, on the spot, so she is looking in the direction she would have been facing while driving. She walks backwards, to get a sense of the space and terrain.
“It came from the left,” she says, sweeping one hand in front of her, mimicking the flight path of the bird. “I hit it, and it flapped off to the right.” We both look that way. The woods are dark, enigmatic, revealing nothing.
“It could be anywhere,” I say.
“Or it could be right nearby.”
With the torch casting a cone in front of her, she heads to the side of the road. There is a small ditch, filled with snow, between the roadside and forest. We flounder through it and up a steep bank. The snow is even deeper here, nearly reaching our knees. Lowri scans the torch across the trunks, finds an opening in the treeline, and heads towards it. As I move to follow, an orange glow illuminates the woods, then fades away, then returns. I look back. Down the road, amid the flurrying dark, I see light: a pair of headlights, accompanied by a yellow, revolving beacon. A gritter. The rumble of its engine comes next, growing louder.
“Lowri,” I call. “Hold up.”
Ahead of me, at the edge of the woods, her beam stops.
“Gritter’s coming.” I stumble back into the ditch. “Won’t know what’s going on.”
As the truck draws closer, I hear the scrape of its plough burrowing through the snow and the spitting rattle of salt tossed out in its wake. Around its wheels, snow gets whipped up like egg white. It rumbles to a halt behind our car. I’m caught in its headlights, blinking and blinded, as the door swings open and the driver clambers down. He is dressed in work boots, a snowsuit, and a high-vis bib. The front of his cap has the County Council logo on it: the silhouette of a bird, a red kite, above the word “Powys” in green lettering.
He stomps his way over.
“Got stuck, did you?” he asks.
I look at the car. It really does look as if we’re stuck, and possibly we will be when we try to get out. Through the rear windscreen, I can see the transom of the Rebecca; I know he can see that too: he is frowning, baffled by this piece of boat in the back of our car.
“No,” I say. “We’re just taking a bit of a break, here.”
That is not the answer he expected.
“My wife and I.”
I gesture at the trees, towards where Lowri should be, but she is not. I can see the beam of her torch, flitting about, getting smaller, as if she’s hurrying away. Then the driver makes some comment about it being a fine time to answer nature’s call, and he makes it in an insinuating way, a man-to-man way, as if he expects me to join him in criticizing my wife.
“That’s not it,” I say. “We’re looking for an owl. We hit an owl.”
I don’t tell him that she hit it, drove all the way home, and then convinced me of the need to come back out here. That would be too much for anybody. Too unbelievable. Even I’m not quite sure I believe it, and I’m the one who agreed. I’m the one who’s standing here.
“You’re searching for a bird, in this weather?”
“An owl. My wife, she doesn’t want to just leave it out there.”
He shakes his head. “Mental.”
“Hey—don’t worry about it, okay? It’s none of your business.”
“It will be when somebody smashes into your car or you get stuck out here.”
“Nobody else is on the road.”
“Nobody is daft enough to be.”
“And we’re not going to get stuck.”
“The worst night of the year—a blizzard—and they’re looking for a bloody owl.” He says it as if we’re not alone, he and I, as if he’s already imagining relating this story later, as an anecdote, to dispatch or the boys back at headquarters, or wherever the hell it is they park their gritters. He’ll talk about it round the table with the rest of his crew, all of them on the County Council payroll.
“It’s not a blizzard, buddy. Let’s not exaggerate, all right?”
“What would you call this, then?”
“A bit of snow never hurt anybody.”
“Driving, on a night like this. You’re risking your life, and other people’s lives.”
“Only because nobody knows how to drive in the snow over here.” Now I’m the one pointing. Not at him, but at my own chest, as if I’m trying to pick a fight with myself. “I’m Canadian, okay? I was born in a snowstorm.” This, bizarrely, is true. “I’m not gonna go off the road or get stuck or cause some kind of accident. Thank you for your concern, Officer. But we are fine. You can get back in your little truck and do your job and plough the roads.”
He blinks at me, shields his eyes. We’re both in the headlights, now, caught by the glare, our long shadows stretching away from us down the road. He looks uncertain, wary.
“There’s no need to be like that,” he says sullenly.
I rub a hand over my face, sigh, stand looking at the ground.
“I’m sorry, man,” I say. “It’s just—my wife’s losing her job, okay? The council, and these cutbacks.” I look over to where she was and can’t see her. “She’s taking it really hard.”
I say this as if it explains everything, and he nods, accepting it as if it does.
“That’s a bloody shame.” He tips back his cap. “Us, too. A bunch of my mates got made redundant.” That’s their term for getting fired: being made redundant. As if you’ve become superfluous, outmoded. “We’re running a skeleton crew tonight. I’m the only one working this whole stretch, from Welshpool to Rhayader. That’s why it’s all piling up, like.”
“Ah, hell—you can’t do much about that.”
We stand there in silence for a minute, huffing in the frost. Then he seems to rouse himself and awkwardly wishes us luck—either with our search, or our lives—and starts back towards his cab. As he clambers up, he calls to me, “What kind of owl is it?”
“A snowy owl, she thinks.”
“Aren’t any of those round here.”
“That’s what I told her.”
I turn my back and trudge towards the woods again. I hear the rumble of the engine firing up, and the yellow sweep of the gritter’s beacon grows smaller and smaller, like a lighthouse fading as you float away, leaving the shore behind. I have the same sense that something is receding; we are the sole survivors of the good ship Rebecca, and we are being cast off, cut loose, set adrift.
The gritter rounds the bend and is gone, and I am alone in the dark and the silence. I make my way to the edge of the woods, to the spot where Lowri entered. There is no sign of her at all, not even the dim and distant flicker of her torch. I call her name, gently at first, and then louder. Nothing comes back to me, not even an echo. The words are muffled and absorbed by the snow. I stand and wait. The silence is absolute, eternal. The woods as lifeless and fathomless as outer space.
I did not bring a torch of my own, but I have a phone. I fumble it from my jacket pocket. The plastic case feels frosty. I poke at the screen, switching it to the torch setting, which provides me with a little light: enough to see her footsteps in the snow.
I follow them into the woods, calling her name and still getting no reply.
The snow is not quite as deep under the canopy of pines, but it conceals fallen trees, stumps, rocks, branches, and holes. The ground beneath is as treacherous as the road. I slip several times and have to scrabble for purchase. Nothing seems stable, nothing feels solid. Not anymore. Up until now, our path has been so neatly laid out, so perfectly constructed, as tidy as a well-written story. I have been able to envision this wonderful narrative arc, feel it unfolding around us. And now this. This stumbling and aimlessness, this utter loss of direction. And loss of each other, too. This slow drift apart. Theatre Taith wasn’t just the basis for our life here, but also for our relationship, our love. Without it, I don’t know what’s left.
I follow her footprints, this trail she has left for me, through a gap in the trees, into a small clearing. The branches overhead open up, revealing nothing. No moon, no stars. Just a black shroud of cloud. But on the ground is a torch, and kneeling beside it, half-illuminated, is my wife.
I lower my phone. I do not say anything. She has heard me calling. She must have heard me calling. And she must have heard me approaching, thrashing around out there, a dull beast. But she has not answered me or acknowledged me, and she does not do so now.
I take a step closer, and then I see: on the ground in front of her is an owl. It lies flat on its back, one wing tucked in against its side, the other stretched out, bent and awkward and broken, the damage clearly fatal, irreparable. The snow around it is churned up and spotted with red drops, glossy in the light of her torch. There is more blood near its beak and on its wing, but aside from that, the down and feathers are pure white, as white as the snow beneath it. And in seeing that, I also see that Lowri was right—not just about the species of owl but about coming here, about the need to find it, about the need for closure.
The owl is still breathing.
Its chest rises and falls rapidly, shallowly, fluttering up and down. I take another step, the snow creaking beneath my shoe. The owl’s eyes are yellow, and wide. So wide. It stirs, feebly, maybe frightened by my presence, and Lowri makes a soft shushing sound. I do not know if she is warning me to be quiet or soothing the bird, or both.
I ease myself down in the snow, on my knees, so that Lowri and I are kneeling across from each other, directly opposite, with the bird between us. Both our heads are bowed, as if in worship: two figures depicted on some ancient frieze. Neither of us moves or speaks. The only sound is the soft whisper of the owl’s breathing, mixing with our own. Rushing in, and out. In, and out. We are helpless before its pain, can do nothing to save it from its fate, and so, penitent, we sit apart from each other in the cold and the dark, in a place we no longer belong, waiting for this beautiful thing to die.
Tyler Keevil grew up in Vancouver and in his mid-twenties moved to Wales. He has published several books, and his short fiction has appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, including the Missouri Review, New Welsh Review, and PRISM: International. He has received a number of awards for his writing, most notably the Missouri Review‘s Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize, the Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, and the Wales Book of the Year People’s Prize. He is the director of the MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University, and his most recent novel is No Good Brother (The Borough Press/HarperCollins, 2018).
SEE THE ISSUE
Mar 27 2020
“Ronaldo” by Andrew D. Cohen
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Andrew D. Cohen’s essay “Ronaldo”, which won the 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in
Mar 25 2020
“The Wall” by Emma Törsz
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Today’s selection is Emma Törsz’s “The Wall.” In this 2015 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning fiction,
Mar 23 2020
The City of the Dead by Jennifer Dubois
A dead man’s second wife and his daughter by a previous marriage wrestle over the rights to his remains in Jennifer du Bois’ darkly comic story about the toll dementia takes on caregivers and family. “The City of the Dead” was a fiction finalist in our 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest. Jennifer’s debut novel A Partial History of Lost Causes was published by the Dial Press in 2012 and won the California Book Award Gold Medal for First Fiction, as well as being named one of the best ten books of the year by O: The Oprah Magazine.