SI Vault
 
OWL
William Service
June 30, 1969
He was small when he arrived, and has never grown above six inches tall, but the full measure of him is much larger than that. He is a feather filtering through the sunlight here, a humiliated cat over there. He is a chirr sound, he is a nibble on a toe, he is a sudden whoosh, he is a missing chicken neck. But most of all, he is HEX.
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June 30, 1969

Owl

He was small when he arrived, and has never grown above six inches tall, but the full measure of him is much larger than that. He is a feather filtering through the sunlight here, a humiliated cat over there. He is a chirr sound, he is a nibble on a toe, he is a sudden whoosh, he is a missing chicken neck. But most of all, he is HEX.

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Q. Could he keep alive outside?

A. No doubt he could catch enough to eat. While he mistrusts strange animals, I suspect he may not mistrust them enough.

Q. If you did let him go, would he come back?

A. Owl is staying right here with his own family.

Owl Dies

In the middle of the summer, as I was working up the last of these notes and putting them through the typewriter, the subject died. A weak appetite on one stifling night—he did not bother to walk over to pick up a moth I had brought him. Unusual. Unwilling to waste what I'd caught, I gave it to him, he took it down. As he would be after a big feed occasionally, he seemed dull, sluggish. He spent his customary many minutes examining a basin of water, decided not to bathe. We left him free of his cage, told him good night.

Even the morning was hot. "Clever Owl," we said when we saw him standing in the basin of water, where he may well have spent the night. But it was unusual. And again he seemed dull to the touch when I put him back in his cage. That afternoon my wife called me—"He's dying"—and so it was. He grew weaker as I held him upright. The claws went dead. He kept on breathing but then, as if looking it right in the face, the open pupils shuttered down, held and finally expanded again; a swallowing, and that was that.

The question of why. I asked our veterinarian for an autopsy. If he had any comment about the request, he kept it to himself and obliged, both macro- and microscopically, but found no cause. Unacquainted with Owl, he wondered if the bird might have been panicked by something and died from shock and beating himself against bars or glass. I pointed out how uncharacteristic that would have been and the talk ended somewhere after the mention of pesticides—unlikely agents, since we do not use the persistent ones and rarely the others—but by their nature impossible to rule out. Owl had no final surprise for us: he was found to be a male.

I typed the last pages keeping to the convention that he was still alive. He left a very small blank—precisely owl-shaped—in the daily routine...a discontinuity which things still get caught on. And memorabilia. A feather may yet swirl from a suddenly opened closet door or come down with a book from the shelf. A fleck of lime in an angle somewhere. Punctured houseplants and page corners nipped off. We keep finding one more pellet. Will had just discovered how to render one of Owl's songs better than I could do, by blowing into his hands—he had been getting, at any rate, a higher percentage of answers—and he still calls from time to time. As I walk by any porch light, automatically I check the area for any substantial night flyer Owl might like. Cutting meat for the other animals, the knife sets for a piece bite-sized for Owl. And every now and then someone asks about him.

We have all missed that trivial, emphatic presence. By no means a domestic creature, neither was he simply a penned wild one. Wild and tame, he showed some of the best of both. He lived less than a year and a half, all told. We take the shortness as a rebuke of some kind, but we count the odd visit a minor privilege, an emblem of the household.

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