OWL - A SHORT STORY BY ALEX SCHNEIDEMAN
Tom Baine sat with his fists clenched under the table while Janice, his wife of twenty years was describing a slight that had been paid to her at work that day by a constant perpetrator of such slights; a name familiar to Tom over many years. Janice was fifty, hardening into middle age with a sharp bob-cut that she had sported since her twenties and impermeable blue eyes which Tom had recently noticed calcifying to a marble-hardness. He accepted that life would not match his early dreams of love and accomplishment. If disappointment had hardened Janice it had had the opposite effect on Tom who watched the years of hope fade to a yearning and distant memory. Tom had an oval face with a sharp chin and thin, sandy hair that he let fall flatly to one side. His pallid skin was complemented by his oak brown eyes that, in unguarded moments, revealed a yearning sadness within. The couple had never had children and now, at fifty, Tom felt that life’s emptiness hummed with the frustration he felt towards his wife.
He had been aware of a distance growing between them for some time. He hated the way she so easily dismissed him but wasn’t altogether sure that he loved her either. For Janice’s part she did not see a man to whom she had once pledged her honour, her body and her heart. She didn’t really see him at all. Tom meant about as much to her as an old family pet. She bore Tom no animosity but she did not feel anything like passion for him and if he should die there would be a period of grief that would feel like an adjustment but not more than that.
Tom had worked his whole adult life as a vet. He loved animals. He had an affinity with them. It troubled Tom that, although he had been inspired to become a vet and work with animals because he had a desire to connect with something wild, he had ended up treating cosseted, domestic pets whose innate ‘wildness’ had been eliminated through breeding and training.
And so, on this warm June evening with the kitchen doors open to the scents and sounds of an early English summer, Janice dived deeper and deeper into the injustices of her working life and lost herself in the brown morass of middle management. Tom nodded and sighed at the right moments and, presently, just as he knew she would, Janice declared that she was so tired and overwrought by the day’s events that she would take herself to bed to renew her strength to face the next round of injustices. Tom had been listening with half an ear, distracted by a sensual longing. Despite this onslaught of drudgery Tom yearned to be with her – this is why his fists were clenched. He wanted her to look at him – to really look at him and say, ‘Tom, please take me to bed. I love you. I’ve always loved you and will love you with all my heart forever’. Yet this had never’
So, as had happened many times before, Tom found himself left with the detritus of dinner. A chaste immediate future was a certainty. He looked at his watch and, with that, a softening of his features might have been apparent to an observant viewer. It was eleven o’clock on a Wednesday in June. The clear sky almost dark. A deep glimmer of purple faded to black above him. Tom watched the glimmer. He imagined himself to be flying so high that he would be illuminated by that faint caress of light that touched high planes. One day he’d like to become one with it.
It was at about this time every night that he would step out of their large sliding doors into the neat, suburban garden. He would walk to the end of the lawn where a fence separated the garden from the little wood beyond. Once there he would listen. In the distance he would hear the soft white-noise of traffic. Closer, he could detect the rustlings of nocturnal rodents, the faint cooing of a wood pigeon, the dry rustle of a breeze passing through beech leaves, a thud as a car door was closed. The breeze carried the olfactory molecules of cut grass, woodland fungus and nocturnal floral scents to be dissolved in mucus and transposed into vivid messages to the brain. There was no Moon that night and so it took Tom some time to adjust his eyes to the darkness, to diminish the latent fear of proximate evil that all humans have when confronted by the wild at night.
Tom spent some time listening and peering into the dark tree tops. He pulled his hands slowly from his pockets and made a hollow bowl shape by placing his cupped hands together. He drew them to his lips. Breathing through an aperture created between his two upright thumbs he produced a cavernous, trembling whistle which echoed softly in the darkness.
The deep green scent lifted the low note through the thickening brambles, through the leaves of oaks, ashes and beech, so that all living things would be touched by its intention. He repeated the low whistle and then again and then again. He lowered his hands to his sides and listened. Again he raised his cupped hands to his lips and blew the tremulous note. Tom strained his ears as the ribbon of his whistle fluttered into the dark wood. His ears registered nothing but a wall of natural silence. And then, almost as if it was imagined or a distant memory, came a similar sound from the other side of existence. The sound got nearer and stronger
still. Tom was now certain; it was the call of his owl.
This ritual of owl-calling had started twelve years before as a tipsy jape after reading a snippet in a veterinary journal which mentioned a study of basic human and animal communication. The piece suggested that humans and some animals could enjoin in a simple to and fro communication in very particular circumstances.
That same night Janice had headed to bed shortly after the last drops had ritually been drained from the wine bottle – a bottle which provided a momentary cement for two – people who had little else to draw them together. With Janice gone, Tom stepped through the garden doors and into a new chapter in his life.
Leading to this point Tom had sometimes heard the call of an owl coming from the small coppice at the edge of the housing estate where they had lived since marriage. Tom had guessed that it might be a tawny owl. His first tentative ‘call’ ended without success. Later, when he was lying in bed, he heard the owl call out again and he drowsily committed himself to trying again.
So from that night on Tom dedicated himself to making a passable owl call. It took little time to produce a good basic tone and within a couple of weeks of nightly sessions Tom was beginning to hear the odd, desultory reply from an owl somewhere in the coppice. Sometimes he would start without having heard a call already and at others he’d be prompted by a distant sound to leave the table and rush into the garden, hands to his mouth hurriedly blowing his opening, senseless reply, Janice already forgotten. These sessions
quickly established themselves as a regular part of his evening and every day he looked forward to that night’s communion. As the years went by his marriage became more settled in its accepted dreariness and so the nightly ‘chats’ with his tawny owl became an essential part of Tom’s life.
Not that the owl could be relied upon every evening. Sometimes Tom would call out night after night and hear nothing. This might go on for days and every time he would wonder if he had had his last session but invariably his owl would return. Sometimes these sabbaticals could last as long as ten days or two weeks. During these times Tom wondered at the nocturnal journeys his owl would make. He imagined the owl would be away hunting or fledging its owlets in another coppice. But sooner or later Tom’s nightly routine would resume. The calling would never become woven into the dull fabric which was the rest of Tom’s life. It floated over everything he did and was a piece of good luck which kept coming back day after day blessing his quotidian routine with its unmistakable call to the wild.
Tom believed he had developed a way of communicating with the owl that went beyond the backward and forward. He felt that the owl in its turn was saying something to him – perhaps something that could only be expressed in nature. And he, in his turn, felt that he could articulate an essential truth that was beyond anything he could find the words for – a communication that was deeply needed and completely missing from his life.
So from this early summer evening everything continued as it had for the last twelve years. Tom went about his life as he had done for many years; working in the day and pouring his heart out at night to the most important being in his life.
And then in October Janice had left. She had been suffering in her own way and needed a kind of communication that she would never have with Tom and which she had been able to find in the arms of several colleagues. At last one had answered her ‘call’ and asked her to leave Tom and live with him and so she had gone. Suddenly Tom found himself in an empty house devoid of its old frustrations and cold shoulders. Janice had wanted to go quickly and with little fuss so she left him the house and most of what was in it. It suited her to get out with little excess baggage. Her savings and company pension would see her right into old age, new lover or not.
Tom felt a release from the bonds of routine and frustration which had been the underscore of much of his life, and so for a couple of months he stopped calling to the owl. Tom didn’t feel the need now that Janice was gone.
As the weeks went on Tom settled into an unbroken routine of work and solitary evenings in front of the TV. But slowly, stealthily, the feeling that he was missing something very necessary and dear to him started to grow. The owl itself had never stopped calling and night after night with diminishing insouciance Tom listened as the notes slipped through the imperceptible gaps in his house. To Tom the owl’s calls sounded more and more plaintive. It was as if the owl was calling out with the pain of a lover scorned – a lover whose mate had disappeared without reason or warning and vanished like a wisp of mist on the night air. Unable to remain indifferent to the constant nightly reminder of the most fulfilling relationship of his adult life, Tom resumed his calling and with it the joy returned in waves of pleasure. The owl responded immediately and the nightly calls between two old friends recommenced. Tom began to feel that between his work and his relationship with the owl he had everything he needed. He believed that he had achieved a certain ‘contentment’. His work gave him a good deal of human contact but his conversations with his old friend the tawny owl gave him a sense of the purest communication that any man could hope for.
Every night Tom put his very essence into the calls – and every night he felt another essence returned to him. The calling brought Tom closer to another living being than he had ever been. The more he put of himself into the calling the more he seemed to elicit in response. It did not occur to him for one moment that there was anything unusual in this – instead it was the most visceral, natural and truly wild connection. Aconnection that exceeded every relationship that had gone before. Alone with his owl Tom could pour out his heart, his failings, his sense of loss, his darkest desires, his fears, his dreams, his self. And in return he would hear the same from a creature of the wild whose visceral nature could be dated back to the beginnings of the universe because that was all an animal could say for its existence. There could be no explanation, no analysis – just instinct and a connectedness to the beginning of time, evolution, blood, death, birth, flight, warmth. In the hollow of his cupped hands and the tension in his lips and the force of his breath there was a route back to the primal and a feeling of direct connection to the universe and therefore everything that had ever happened and everything that would ever happen. Tom felt the resonance of the Big Bang in the call of an owl. He felt the depth of wisdom and he could feel the force of creation in the sound of a bird at night. Nature, red in tooth and claw. The owl fed on smaller mammals – ones that had come from the same single cell of life millions of years before. To him the owl was a messenger from the universe – his portal into nature and all its interwoven forces and dynamics. The owl was a key to unlock his existence. It was the first true love of his life. The owl listened to Tom without criticism or judgement and, in the owl’s company, he was a complete human being.
As autumn turned into winter and the calls echoed around the leafless coppice, the calling grew in importance to such an extent that Tom had reduced contact with his own species to a minimum. One evening, as he was climbing into bed he realised that, notwithstanding the inevitable contact with other adults that his work brought, he had not had a ‘social’ encounter with anyone since Janice left. This realisation didn’t disturb him particularly but, as he lay there, he could see the route he was heading down; a seemingly deep and enduring relationship with an animal but not a human friend to his name. Tom had had friends but many had children and, as a childless couple, Janice and Tom had gradually ceased to mix with them. It was ok whilst the children were babies because the childless could objectify and adore these mini humans but children grow in stature and articulation. Communication with children becomes more onerous or, at least, bidirectional, so that those lacking the patience inflicted by having children of their own drift from their old friends’ company, failing to follow up on dinner invitations and allowing once treasured friendships to wither.
This was the state in which Tom found himself on that December night and, as he drifted off to sleep, Tom vowed to renew his lease with his own kind.
A pub, ’The Red Hart’, had been built along with the construction of ‘The Oaks’, the estate joined to the outskirts of Milton Keynes. Tom and Janice had been infrequent visitors, mostly popping in for a pint on the occasional weekend. When Janice was still around Tom only ever visited on a Saturday or Sunday with her because popping in for a solitary pint had never felt right. She had never ruled it out but somehow their relationship’s unspoken ‘grey area’ of do’s and dont’s proscribed solitary socialising. But now that Janice was gone he was free to mix when, where and with whom he chose. A weeknight visit to ‘The Hart’ would be the first autonomous social event that Tom had made since he started to ’go steady’ with Janice fifteen years ago.
The Hart was designed to appeal to rural drinkers and diners looking for an urban experience as well as those from more urban parts looking for a ‘rustic’ local. Consequently the pub had little of its own organic patina of culture. The horse brasses battled with the espresso machine for cultural supremacy.
It was a Tuesday evening at eight when Tom made his first visit of the post-Janice era. There was a murmur of talk, laughter, chinking of glasses and throaty guffaws which all served to make Tom feel as if he’d walked into a club of which he was not a member – or at least the uninitiated one. He worked his way towards the light oak veneer bar with its sparse collection of Toby jugs, postcards sent from various happy ’regulars’ whilst on holiday, aphorisms on mock wood such as ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!’ and other clutter self consciously arranged to make the pub look ’lived-in’.
Tom walked up to the bar and ordered a pint of ’best’ and sat himself at one of the stools along the counter in the half hope of falling into conversation with one of the bar staff. Looking across the bar he recognised a number of faces and could even put names to a few of them. Not one of those he could name would be considered a friend rather they fell into the category of acquaintance. Of particular note was a group of four men who were sitting around a table with pints in front of them and the detritus of crisp and peanut packets spread around the table. One of this group Tom knew to be Philip Penser whom he and Janice had visited for dinner a couple of years ago. Philip was sinewy and lean with a full dark head of hair that stood up in a natural, untamable quiff. His face was lined to the point of craggy and he had a quick, kind smile. Philip and Tom could have become more friendly – Philip was a research scientist who worked with animals at Milton Keynes University and lived within shouting distance to Tom in an identical house – but Janice and Babs, Philip’s wife, had not hit it off. Mainly because of this but also owing to a middle aged stasis, Tom and Philip had never taken their friendship any further. They had something in common – a shared love of animals and wildlife and a tacit understanding that they both had an innate attraction to the wild and natural side of life. They also both knew that their wives would never share their passions and, worse, would mistrust those interests and see them as a direct threat to their marriages.
Philip and Babs were still together. The reason that Philip was at the Hart on a Tuesday night was less due to Babs’s laissez-faire approach to Tom’s social life, than an assiduously arranged bi-weekly meeting of four or five friends who knew that their only route to a casual social life was to institutionalise the arrangement in a sort of ’club’. By making it regular and appear somehow ’organised’ this group of middle aged, professional men managed to establish a regular pub session. Like Tom, Philip had no children and, like Tom, it was not for a lack of ability to procreate but an unspecified lack of desire on both the husbands’ and wives’ parts. Tom and Philip would happily have assented if either of their spouses had appeared to yearn to have children but neither had.
Tom finished the dregs of his pint and made up his mind to leave having already stretched his regular boundaries far enough. He was looking forward to spending the evening alone with a microwaved ready-meal, half a bottle of wine and whatever was on TV. He slid from his stool, saluted the barman and headed for the door when he felt a hand on his elbow.
“Tom isn’t it?” said Philip, looking slightly awkward. “Hi, Philip”, said Tom, with genuine pleasure that Philip had breached the most fearsome social bridge. “You look like you’re just off but if you’ve time to force another down why don’t you join me and the lads over here?”. Philip made a sideways glance throwing Tom’s attention to the corner table of friends in deep discussion. “Do you know what, Philip? I’d love to, but just a quicky as I really do have to be off.” For what Tom had no idea – but it somehow made him feel more in control of events. Philip explained that he was just getting a round in and included Tom’s pint. And so with that, according to the ancient laws of Bacchus, Tom was honour bound to stay until he had had his turn to buy a round for the
Four pints later Tom was feeling transformed – not so much because the new company he found himself in was very inspiring but because he had a glimpse of how informal relations could be when taken on one’s own account. Without Janice’s constant commentary and judgement he found that socialising was a much easier affair than he had grown to believe. Here he was doing it for himself, by himself, and loving it. He didn’t feel the need for a perfect connection with these new drinking partners – he simply wanted to be able to converse and be heard in uncritical terms.
The evening broke up shortly after last orders were called and Tom and Philip bid the other members of the group adieu and wandered off together towards their respective homes – one to a wife, the other to a microwave. They chatted easily over the half mile of path and pavement as Philip filled Tom in on the other members of his pub club. Finally as the path to their homes diverged they said goodbye but not before Philip had asked if Tom would like to join his group for the next session. Tom was pleased and accepted happily.
That night Tom felt thrilled and drunk as he contemplated the events of the evening. How simple it all seemed. As he trudged up the stairs to bed he heard the call of his owl and, for the first time in weeks, did not return it.
Two weeks later Tom found himself, twenty pound note in hand, waiting for five pints of best. The barman gave him a dented tin tray and Tom gingerly transported the slopping pints to the table where he was thanked as casually as if he had been a founder member of the gang. As it turned out the other members of Tom’s new club were all involved in scientific research and so the topics of conversation often relied on a technical understanding of some issue or other. As a vet Tom fitted in perfectly and was able to offer a new perspective on many of the subjects that burst into life during the course of the evening. It had occurred to Tom that the group would be enthralled to hear about his owl calling but some sense of privacy, almost a superstitious fear, prevented him from mentioning it. That and the fact that they would all think him clearly insane. As the weeks wore on Tom made a point of always joining the ’club’ for its sessions but Tom and Philip had also taken to meeting at the Hart in their own time. Tom quickly discovered that, in Philip there was a kindred spirit – not only in the coincidence of their interests but also in their respective marriages. Philip was as unhappy as Tom had been. Philip found himself in a marriage that benefitted neither participant and he admitted to Tom that he had been thinking of how he might bring his marriage to an end but, when it came to taking action, had baulked at the prospect time and again. For years he had closed out the world until he had been asked to join the other men for regular pub sessions. This had been a reconnection for him. Just to admit this to Tom was a step forward for Philip and the years of frustration and loneliness could now be put into perspective. So, in this way, over the next few months Tom and Philip developed a trusting friendship for which both were consciously grateful. They talked easily and at length and shared a similarly knowledgeable and cynical point of view on many subjects.
Tom quickly became habituated to his new bachelor existence which was made all the easier in having found a human friendship developing. Despite this he carried on calling to his owl. His friendship with the owl was now his longest (extant) relationship and he drew great solace from its shrill, hollow voice echoing around the estate. A voice which only he could understand. Tom knew that one day this would end and he dreaded to think what effect that would have on him. A local estate agent had offered him a decent price for his house and Tom had turned him down arguing that he could get a better deal, but he had to admit to himself that he was never going to leave as long as his owl would call to him.
At the next ’club’ meeting the usual members were in position around their corner table. The talk swirled around the usual subjects; some threads being picked up from their last meeting but all discussed with the bonhomie that occurs when a few men with many responsibilities between them are gathered for a few hours of respite. Tom was discussing the merits, or otherwise, of various new ’cosmetic’ animal surgeries that his
clients were beginning to demand and whether or not this was a positive development for veterinary practice. As he talked he became vaguely aware of Philip’s discussion at the other end of the table which seemed, from the snatches he could grasp, also centered on the subject of animals. Vaguely intrigued Tom started to tune into this discussion. He gleaned that the discussion was on advancements in the training of various mammals to perform tasks in response to human commands, with dolphins being at the leading edge of this research. The subject was close to Philip’s heart and he was recognised by his interlocutors as the resident authority in this field. The next words Philip uttered grabbed Tom’s attention completely.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure that owls are intelligent enough to communicate with humans”, Philip declared to his two listeners. Tom’s attention was locked to Philip. Tom continued to listen with a sense of foreboding that he couldn’t understand.
Philip continued, “I, myself, have been conversing with an owl every night for years.”
“What do you mean?” asked David, one of his group. By now the whole table was listening.
“I mean some years ago I heard an owl calling in my garden one night. Just for a lark I tried to return the call, you know by cupping my hands and whistling – like we all did when we were in the Cubs”. Tom went cold.
Philip had always felt a little ashamed of his habit but, like Tom, it had carried him through some very dark times in his marriage. Now with the booze coursing through his veins and the attention of the floor his fantastic secret was revealed. As soon as he had filled in some of the details he sensed a vague regret at his decision to lay all before the group but there it was – he’d said it and it was out. Philip looked at Tom who had visibly whitened. He was alarmed to see his friend staring so intensely at him. What could he have said to invoke this, he wondered as he felt a the grim sense of foreboding chill him.
Tom, his mouth dry and feeling like the air had been sucked from him began to grasp the importance of his friend’s announcement. But Philip, seeing his friend so visibly stricken was asking “Tom, are you ok?” Tom swallowed and nodded limply.
Tom gathered himself, “Philip, when did you start talking to an owl?”
“Oh, I don’t know, perhaps a year or so after Babs and I moved here so that would be about twelve, thirteen
Tom stared back at him. As he looked into Philip’s eyes the rest of the world disappeared. He now understood the truth and, seeing his friend look so stricken, Philip now understood the true impact of his revelation, too. Philip had unwittingly betrayed a sacred trust between him and the ‘owl’ and consequently between him and Tom in a way he could not quite grasp. Philip went silent, looked down and then, making his excuses to the rest of table he left. Tom left soon after. He still had no words to articulate what he had learned.
Weeks passed and the two men did not talk about what had happened in The Hart. Both were too aghast at the loss of something they had treasured, not to mention being utterly embarrassed by the ridiculousness of the situation – two men stupid enough to believe they had developed some kind of relationship with an animal and, worst of all, opened their hearts to it while, in reality, they were baring their souls to each other.
Now Tom and Philip avoided each other. The prospect of openly acknowledging all the thousands of messages of hope, failure, love and longing that both had whistled through cupped hands was unthinkable. And so, in this way, two brilliant flames were extinguished in each of their lives; the first, a connection to something wonderful and natural; the second, the loss of a wonderful friendship. Each felt this as strongly as the other and both regretted what had happened that night in ’The Hart’, believing that without it they would both have continued to live in ignorant bliss of the truth and been the happier for it.
There was now no reason for Tom to keep his home so he contacted the estate agent who had approached him a few months before and asked him to take on the sale of his ’desirable, detached residence in the sortafter ‘Oaks Village’ area of Milton Keynes’. It didn’t take long for a buyer to be found and the process of completion got underway. During this time Tom looked for a flat in town. He had lost his desire to be near the natural world which mocked him every day. The innocent coo of nesting pigeons reminded him of what a fool he had been to think that he, a mere man, could have believed that he had a connection with their majestic, visceral, natural world.
The weeks passed and the date of completion for the sale was agreed. For Tom the date loomed and he dreaded it. Final completion was arranged for the 12th of June and he set about the business of removal. Having nothing but his work to occupy him he spent the evenings packing, watching tv and drinking his now usual bottle of wine. The light had gone from Tom’s life – that time he’d always known would come had arrived (he could never have guessed at the events leading to this moment, however) and he felt that he was in a state of grief. Grief for a loss of hope and a loss of the world as he had hoped it might be.
In the warmth of the evening of the eleventh of June, the night before the move, Tom stood by the open garden doors reviewing the bare space he was leaving behind. A bottle of wine stood open on the kitchen counter and he held a glass in his hand. He thought about Philip and he thought about the owl. He knew that, despite everything, he had found happiness here which he would never regain – the life he had begun to forge for himself, his relationship with Philip and his long and most precious love, his friend, the owl. Tom felt his strength leave him. He sighed and felt his face redden with emotion. He slumped to his haunches and started to cry. He cried like he’d never cried before. Heaving sobs of pure emotion gripped him. His breathing was controlled by the ebb and flow of his grief. Crouched with his back against the empty kitchen cabinets and his head laid against his forearm Tom’s grief found a connection with the real world. And then, as if in the grip of an immense power from another world he let out a noise that seemed rooted deep in the earth – a howl that he couldn’t hold back which carried out of the house and into the night air, a noise that spread through the coppice and could be heard by every living thing. He cried for the love he had lost forever – for two friends; one real and one imaginary and for a life that would never again contain either. He cried for the years of longing and loss and the years spent that could never be regained. He cried for the little boy he used to be who had placed so much trust on his manly shoulders and which he had never been able to satisfy.
In time Tom’s tears were spent. As darkness fell he continued to slump against the cupboards amidst the boxes ready for tomorrow’s removal. In this way Tom drifted in and out of consciousness for an unknowable amount of time.
He was exhausted. As uncomfortable as he was he couldn’t move – he had no strength. He was just a being without a home, no past and no future. Just a being.
He lay in the same disjointed position he had fallen into. His tears had gone. Now he felt a throbbing hollow inside where life used to be. There was no point in movement because there was nothing to move towards. He
sensed it must be dark by now but he had neither the will nor the desire to open his eyes.
Tom’s breathing had become regular and he was conscious only of the involuntary inflation and contraction of his chest. He heard something that sounded like a deeply internal whistle. It was soft and hollow and seemed to come from another time. He heard it again – this time it seemed more distinct. It seemed to emanate from deep within his chest.
He was still, listening. And then it came again, this time louder and less mistakable. Tom unfurled and rested the back of his head against the cupboard door. The sound came again and then again. His arms tensed against his lank body and he heaved himself into a kneeling position. Slowly he raised his arms to the counter and pulled himself up. Steadying himself on his feet he heard the noise again.
Step by step he made his way through the doors and out into the dark garden. The coppice was barely visible. The sound came again.
Looking up, Tom glimpsed the last golden glimmer of sunlight illuminate the trails of a distant jet.