The boy trudged through the woods with a purpose. His sneakers were sopped in the snow. He couldn’t have been more than 65 pounds. When he got to the road, he paused for just a moment for some deep breaths. His lungs ached. And then he ran in the ruts made by car tires. His legs were pumping like piston rods in a speeding Datsun. He ran past houses until he came to TG’s general store.
He pushed the door open with a force unnatural for a small boy. It made a crashing sound against the wood frame.
Mr. Tietje was alone in the store, bent over a pad of paper. He looked up at the noise. “Hey, easy with that door, Andy.”
“Mr. Tietje,” the boy said. “I need a box.”
Hugh Tietje’s anger passed quickly. Andy had always been a polite kid.
“Now what do ya need a box for, Andy?”
The boy was still trying to get his breath. “I found an owl in the woods.”
“Okay. Just give me a minute to finish adding these numbers.” He started writing again with the nub of a pencil.
“Mr. Tietje, I really need that box now. I think he’s hurt bad.”
Hugh stood up to his full six-foot-two height, dwarfing the boy. “Well, now… gotcha a live one, do ya? Okay. Let me go back to the storeroom and see what I can find.”
He disappeared through a door behind the counter. He came back out with a cardboard box. “How’s this?” he said. “Plenty strong. Twenty-four cans of Hunt’s Tomato Sauce came in it.”
The boy grabbed the box. “Thanks, Mr. Tietje,” he said as he ran out the door. The bell above it tinkled like a frantic cricket.
The boy ran back to the woods. He knew them well. He knew to turn off at the path and past the big hump where he jumped his bicycle in the summer. He ran past the frozen creek. But then he couldn’t find him. He knew it was around here. He began calling out for it. “Mr. Owl! Mr. Owl!” He listened for a response. Then he saw a white lump, something round, about a foot high, like a tiny statue covered in snow. He went up to it and began gently brushing the snow away. He saw the brown striations of feathers. He cleared more away and saw the eye. The one eye looking at him. The other one was still closed. Gently, he lifted the owl into the box. It didn’t struggle. Andy could see one of his wings was askew. The right eye moved a little, giving the only indication he was even alive. Andy closed the top of the box and began walking back to the road. He would take him straight to Dr. Broderick’s office even though he was just a people doctor.
He got to the road, arms around the box. He couldn’t feel his feet anymore in the snow. He was glad to be able to walk in the tire ruts. He heard the rumble of a car behind him and chains on the tires rattling. He looked back to see the church pastor’s Oldsmobile coming towards him. He moved off to the side. The car came to a stop and the window whirred down. A woman with dyed red hair looked from the driver’s seat.
“Well, Andy Knowles, what have you got there?”
“I got an owl, Mrs. Belton. I found him hurt in the woods.”
“An owl?” The pastor’s wife craned her head out. “Let me take a look at him.”
Andy stepped towards the big sedan and cracked open the box. A big eye looked out. Mrs. Belton’s head recoiled back into the car.
“My! And so you do. Where are you taking him?”
“To Dr. Broderick’s office. I figure maybe he can fix him up.”
“Well now, Dr. Broderick isn’t a veterinarian.”
“I know, Mrs. Belton. But he’s all we got.”
“And so he is. Problem is…” she glanced at the clock in her dashboard. “it’s 4: 30 now and Dr. Broderick closes his office early on Fridays.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Why don’t you put your owl here in the car and I’ll take him to the church. He’ll be safe there until you come get him.”
Andy thought it was swell of her to offer that. He went to the side of her car as she leaned over to unlock the passenger door. He saw the backseat was full of boxes. “Christmas decorations for the church,” she explained. “Just put your owl here on the front seat and you go home and get out of those wet clothes. Then you come right on over to the church.”
Andy nodded and carefully put the box down on the bench seat. The car drove off, rumbling away in the snow. He was happy. A grown-up had his owl. It was safe.
When he got home, he found his parents were gone. He warmed his feet and put on a set of dry clothes and headed to the church. He had to see Mr. Owl. He ran most of the way, even though his left foot was still numb. When he got there he saw the parking lot was almost full. There was a service going on inside, which surprised him since it wasn’t Sunday. He snuck his small body through the front door and saw his owl now in a cage hanging near the altar with Pastor John giving a sermon beside it. He looked around his congregation and saw his parents seated near the back. He went and shoehorned himself by his mother’s side.
“That’s my owl, mom.”
She looked down at him and made a shushing sign with her finger over her lips.
Pastor John was tall and angular while his wife Mary was short with close-set eyes and cheeks too large for her head. She stood next to the owl, beaming as the pastor spoke. “Let it be known, that when Mary found this poor, wounded bird by the roadside, it was a symbol from God of rebirth.”
A basket was passed to Andy’s lap. It was full of money. His mother opened her purse and put in a twenty-dollar bill and passed it on.
“My dear wife could have driven past this magnificent beast,” said the pastor. She could have averted her eyes to its suffering. But that is not what God calls on us to do. Psalm 25 tells us: ‘All paths of the Lord are mercy and truth…’”
Andy tugged at his mother’s sleeve. “Mom, that’s my owl.”
Andy’s father leaned forward and pointed a finger at him. It was a warning. Andy lowered his head and stared at the floor for the rest of the sermon. Then everyone gathered around Mrs. Belton, her face gleaming with pride.
That night when Andy tried to tell his parents what had happened, his father washed his mouth out with soap. The next day, a picture of Mrs. Belton and the owl was on the front page of the Gazette.
Mary Belton came barging through the front door of the church. John came out from his office and met her at the altar. “Mary, what are you doing here? I’m in the middle of writing my sermon.”
“We got a letter from the wildlife commission that says we have to give up the owl,” she said, waving the paper in the air.
“That’s plain nonsense.” He grabbed the letter from her.
Mrs. Belton talked while the pastor read. “They say it’s against the law for a private citizen to keep a wild raptor in captivity. They got an inspector coming down to get him on Thursday.”
He folded up the letter. “Well, we aren’t going to give him up. We found him, fair and square. Now we’re the most famous church in the state.”
The owl stared at them through its one eye. His cage hung at the back end of the stage.
“How can we fight them, John?”
The pastor sat down in the front pew. “Let me think about this.” Then his head shot up. “I got it.”
The pastor ran back to his office and came back with plastic wrap. “This,” he said.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“Put it over his head.”
“Listen Mary. I just put this plastic over his head until he isn’t breathing anymore. The Lord takes his soul and we have CJ down the road stuff it and mount it in our entryway. Then the owl is here forever to greet our congregation.”
She looked at the owl and shrugged. “I suppose it could work.”
“It’s foolproof Mary. It’ll be done before the inspector gets here. Then what can they do? We’ll just say we found it dead in its cage.”
“Well, okay…but I don’t know anything about this, right? No matter what, I don’t know anything.”
“Mary,” he said while opening the cage. “Nothing can go wrong.”
He tried to put the wrap over the owl’s head, but the bird lashed out with its beak. Blood spurted from the pastor’s hand. He recoiled his arm out of the cage and slammed the door shut.
“The damn thing bit me!” He held his bleeding hand in his good one.
“Let me see it,” she said.
“That beast from hell!” He ran to his office and came back with the revolver he kept in his desk. He raised the gun at the cage. “And the Lord vowed that the Sword shall devour!”
“No!” said Mary jumping in front of it. “Not with a gun, John! Everyone will know…” But her voice was swallowed up by the ringing of the gunshot. The pastor dropped the gun. Blood dripped from his hand. Mary lay on the floor staring at the ceiling.
“Oh my God,” he said. “What in God’s name have I done?”
It was snowing at the zoo when the young man visited. It was evening and very few visitors were still there. The man stood before the owl with a violin case cradled in his arm. The zoo had made the ground into a branchy haven for it. It never gained flight again and his left eye remained closed forever. There was a plaque in front of it with the words: “Mrs. Belton’s Owl.”
A dark-haired woman in her thirties with glasses and a staff name badge approached him. “Closing time in ten minutes, Sir.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
“Is that a violin?”
“Oh, I love the violin. Do you play?”
“Yes. In fact, I’m on my way to Rice University. I was just awarded a music scholarship there.”
“Wow. That’s cool. Haven’t I seen you here before?”
“I try to come here as often as I can on the Greyhound.”
“So, you know his story.”
“A bit, yes.”
“Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. Sadly, we can’t cure it.”
“Yeah. I read that in the paper. That’s why I had to come see him one last time. I wanted to play him my favorite Mendelssohn piece.”
“Well, are you aware of his history? He came to us from a little town called Glenn.”
“Yes. I’m from Glenn too.”
“Then you must know about Mary Belton, the pastor’s wife. She died protecting him in a robbery. She’s a saint here. This entire wing of the zoo is called the ‘Belton Sanctuary’.”
“I knew her well.”
“Really? You don’t look that old. She was murdered almost ten years ago.”
“I knew them all. Her, her alleged killer, and Pastor John.”
“My gosh. Then you know that evil man was executed just last month.”
“How did you know him?”
“His name was Geoff Towers. He hung around the bars. He was a big nuisance for the sheriff. He was always in trouble for something. But he never caused me any problems. In fact, he did magic tricks for me. I was just a kid then. But I still remember how he could flip a quarter through his knuckles and make stuff disappear right in front of me.”
“Say, that’s really interesting. My name’s Maura, by the way,” she said. “I’m the staff biologist.”
“I’m Andrew Knowles.” They shook hands.
“Well Andrew, I find it hard to believe that killer had a good side to him.”
“He did. I went to see him in jail once.”
“Wow, what was that like?”
“He was the same old Geoff that I remembered. I brought him a Hostess fruit pie. He liked those. But they didn’t have cherry so I had to bring him apple.”
“You were a brave kid to talk to a murderer.”
“Yeah. Maybe. But he said he didn’t do it.”
“But he signed a full confession. He admitted to shooting Mrs. Belton when she wouldn’t give him the owl.”
“He told me the sheriff and two deputies used an electric cattle prod on his legs until he signed it.”
“That’s crazy. Police officers don’t do things like that.”
“You know what else he told me?”
“That the police report said he had a knife and cut the pastor John’s hand before he wrestled the pastor’s gun away from him. But the police didn’t find any blood on his clothes.”
“Then why did he plead guilty?”
“His attorney told him to. Said he would avoid the death penalty that way. But the judge gave it to him, anyway, seeing how he killed a pastor’s wife in a church.”
“Wow. What else did he say?”
“He said his sentence was on appeal, but he didn’t think his lawyer was trying real hard. He didn’t think he was going to win. Then he asked me if I thought he did it.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him no. And he said it was important to him that at least one person in the world believe him.”
“Then he did magic tricks for me and thanked me for the Hostess pie. I never saw him again.”
“You have quite a story to tell, Andrew.”
“There’s more. It’s about the owl.”
“What about him?”
“You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Somehow I feel like I can trust you.”
She smiled. “You can, Andrew.”
He looked down at the ground then back up at Maura. “I’m the one who saved the owl. I found him hurt in some woods. I got a box and I was taking him home when Mrs. Belton came driving by and took him from me. Then her church got real famous with that owl.”
“Are you saying Mary Belton made up that whole story about finding him on the side of the road?”
He nodded. “I’ve never told this to anyone since it happened. Sometimes I don’t believe it myself until I see the one thing that lets me know it’s all true.”
“My little toe. Here look.” Andrew sat on a short brick wall and began taking his shoe off. “My toenail turned black from frostbite that day. The color never came back. This is how I know it wasn’t some kind of childhood hallucination. Hallucinations don’t cause frostbite.” He rolled his sock off. The toenail was completely gone. “It was there this morning,” he said. He turned his sock inside out. “It’s here somewhere.”
“It’s okay, Andrew. Put your shoe back on. I believe you.”
She nodded. Andrew looked at her green eyes through the lenses of her glasses. He saw deliverance.
“Then you’re that one person. Just like Geoff said.”
Maura smiled. “We’ll be closing soon. You play your song. I’ll leave you alone with him.”
She turned and walked away. Andrew put his shoe back on and opened the violin case. The owl was perched in the middle of his exhibit. Nobody else was around. He raised the violin to his cheek and drew the bow down across the strings. The music flowed through him like an angel’s breath. He closed his eyes as he played.
He stopped in mid bow. He turned towards the voice. It came from a short, powerfully built man with gray hair in a security guard’s uniform with an American flag sewn above a pocket.
“You ain’t Chinese,” the guard said.
“No sir,” replied Andrew.
“Maura says you’re going to a Rice University?”
“Ain’t that Chinese?”
“No Sir. It’s in Texas.”
“Well, pack up your shit and get goin’ to Texas then.”
“But Maura told me I could finish, Sir.”
The guard chortled. “That’s damn amusing. She’s the one who told me to kick out the nut case with a violin.”
“Maura said that?”
“She also told me you think you have some kind of haunted toe. If that ain’t nutty I don’t know what is. Look, that chick runs the Sanctuary and she told me you gotta go. You and your spooky toe can just beat feet out of here.”
“Officer, can you let me finish playing? Please…”
The guard reached back and pulled handcuffs off his belt. “You got a choice, son. You can just leave, or I can slap these on you.” He held them up so they dangled on his fingers, the metal clinking. “And believe me, I know how to put them on so they ain’t real comfortable. So I highly recommend you stop questioning my authority.”
Andrew lowered the instrument from his shoulder. “Yes Sir.”
He put his violin in the case and took one last look into the exhibit. Mr. Owl shuddered off the snow. His chest was soft and white like the fur on a king’s robe and the feathers on his back lay in an enchanting mosaic. He turned his oval head towards Andy and like a Mystic in a forest, winked with his one dark eye.