The Screech Owl

Fiction by Chris McGinley

1901, Black Boar Mountain, Eastern Kentucky

Lydia stood under the old oak tree, close enough to see the vibration in the breast of the screech owl that sat in a hollow up the trunk.  She tried to predict the timing of the bird’s eerie call, to sing out just as the owl did.  Soon her mother would light the fire in the cabin and call her to help out.  Lydia hoped the owl would fly off before she was summoned.  To watch such a thing thrilled her, and she willed the bird to take flight.  One time, a year or so earlier, she watched the owl dive for a squirrel, though she turned away when it returned with its kill.  Lydia knew she couldn’t have witnessed the bird tear apart the little creature.  Maybe someday she could, she thought.  For now, though, she was content to see the owl take flight and soar above her, to watch it glide and tilt its wings against the grey sky and the dark hillsides.

But the owl hadn’t flown by the time her mother called her, and Lydia coaxed the bird.  “C’mon now,” she said.  “Spread your wings, Mr. Owl.”  Still, the bird remained in its hollow.  It sang out a few more times before Lydia’s mother called her again, and now she knew she had better get home.  “Goodbye then, Mr. Owl,” she finally said.  She ran off toward the cabin.

The supper was a disappointment.  Soup beans with the morning’s half-stale cornbread and the tart blackberries that tortured Lydia with their thorns at harvest.  “These berries aren’t as nice as the ones Mr. McNeely grows on them poles and strings,” she said.

“Well, I’m sorry about that, your highness,” her mother said, “but those berries don’t come in for some time.  And those we have to trade for, and he wants too much for them.  These berries grow wild.  Now you know this much, Lydia.  Why do you worry me about berries?”  Her mother plunked down a mug on the table and filled it halfway with milk.  The sound startled the girl. 

“I didn’t mean it mean, Momma,” Lydia said.

“Well think before you speak. Last thing I need is a lippy ten-year-old.  Your father’s doing the best he can, we all are, and there’s not much beyond squirrels can anybody find right now.  And even they’re hard to get, seems like.”  She rattled the logs with the poker and sparks flew onto the puncheon floor.  “It’s that railroad work that’s run off the animals,” she said.

Her mother swept a strand of hair from her face and Lydia noticed then that she seemed tired, frail even.  Small circles had formed beneath her eyes.  She watched her mother as she worked the fire.  Her frame had shrunk in recent months, and the task seemed a real chore for her.  The domestic energy she always had in spades, before the game had gone scarce, had left her.  Lydia knew that meat had been harder to come by recently, but she also wondered if it was the kind of work that wore so deeply on her mother.  Work around the cabin seemed to tire out a person more than checking traps, Lydia felt, more than hauling wood even.  For Lydia, there was a fatigue and a boredom that came with cabin work, with boiling shirts, with cleaning and cooking, even if the work itself seemed less demanding than clearing brush, say, or digging a fire pit.  Part of her wanted to help her mother, to lessen the burden, but it wasn’t in her to feel good about it.  Truth be told, she begrudged cabin work, and she often had to be told to help out.

Lydia forced herself to eat the pone of cornbread and then she began work on the bitter berries.  Her mother sat down beside her and Lydia noticed that her wedding band no longer fit snugly.  She reached over and took her hand, and when her mother asked about the owl near the stream she knew that their brief quarrel had ended.

“It’s beautiful,” Lydia said.  “I wonder if it’s a male or a female.”

“I don’t know.  Maybe we could find out.  Ask Hez, maybe.  He studies on that kind of thing.”

“I sure would like to know.”

It was then that the two heard men’s voices outside. “Lord,” Lydia’s mother said when she looked out the cabin door.  Lydia rose and joined her.

A group of men were gathered alongside Hez Coombs’ wagon, stopped near the pathway that led down to the barn.  The men were too far away for Lydia to see what was in the wagon, but she could hear them plainly.  There was an energy that lifted their voices on the air.  She heard laughter, too, and the sound of a heavy chain being dragged.  A few women had come out of their cabins.  Lydia and her mother joined them and headed toward the commotion.

Her mother yelled up ahead to one of the women, “What do they have, ladies?”  But the answer was lost in the men’s voices.

“What’s happening, Momma?” Lydia said.

“I don’t know, dear.  I just don’t know.  We’ll find out.”

A group of men bustled around the wagon hitched to Hez’s mule, some carrying guns and knives.  A few had already headed down the steep incline toward the two-stall barn and the oak tree near the stream.  Their strides seemed long and sure to Lydia.  Something important was happening, she could tell.  As the men moved off toward the barn, the women circled the wagon.  Lydia stood on her toes, but she still couldn’t see what was in the bed.  She shouldered her way through finally, ducking and sliding sideways until she stood right up alongside the wagon.

Then she saw it.   

A dead black bear lay in the bed of the wagon, its legs secured around a birch trunk roughly cut at the ends. The bear’s head was turned in her direction and the mouth lay open.  She stared wide-eyed at the fang-like canines and the large, tan muzzle.  And at once a great sorrow for the huge animal swept over her.  Instantly she sensed that this was different than killing chickens or squirrels.  Those were animals that fled, or worse, animals who never even sensed they were hunted.  A bear was a rare creature, nothing like those others, nothing like deer even.  It was wilder than these, more terrifying.  She stared at the huge body, lifeless on the wagon bed, and it came to her that maybe this was wrong, that the bear should have been spared.   And yet, part of her knew that the animal would provide for everyone there, her mother included.  She stood and thought about it, her hands on the wagon bed and the bear just a few feet away.  She studied its jaw with its long canines open in a silent howl, a reminder of the fearsomeness that once was, just hours ago.

The women started asking questions, all at one time it seemed like to Lydia.

“Who claimed it?” a neighbor woman asked.

“Is it a sow?”

“Naw, that one’s a boar,” someone said.

A neighbor woman named Clytie Noe threw her arm around Lydia’s narrow shoulders and asked her, “Well, little lady, what do you think of this here?”

Lydia saw that the animal had been field dressed.  With her eyes, she followed the wide cut that ran from chest to groin.  A layer of white fat beneath the fur showed at the edges and the hair along the cut had been matted with blood.  She stretched her hand out and touched the animal’s paw, gingerly at first.  She felt the leathery pads on the bottom and fingered the smooth, dark claws.  The bear’s legs were cinched tightly around the pole, and though she knew it was dead, she thought it looked painful. She ran her fingers through the thick fur, and traces of dirt and blood soiled her hands.

Men circled around and began to direct the women.  “Watch out, ladies,” one of them said.

“Move away now.  This is men’s work.” 

People laughed when Clytie said, “Well, which among you men is gonna cook that meat, is what I’d like to know.  It’s untelling how many ways a man could muss that up.”

“Maybe so,” a man with a knife said.  “Anyhow, Hez said to tell you get the cauldron.  He plans to cook that meat right here.  And we need whiskey, too.  Don’t be stingy.  If your man has a bottle, go fetch it.”  He smiled when he said, “And don’t fuss about it neither.  Not today.”

Clytie pulled a small bottle of whiskey from a pocket in her dress.  “I got my own jug, thank you.”  She took a sip and sang out, “Eye-God, tastes good to a woman!”  Those around her laughed, and someone said, “Clytie knows her way around that old cauldron, don’t you, woman?”

Clytie took another sip from the bottle and offered it to a thin, young wife with a baby on her hip who shook her head in amazement.  Still, the woman smiled and took a tiny sip before she passed the bottle on.

“I’m like a witch at that pot if there’s meat enough to go into it,” Clytie said.  “C’mon and help me, ladies.  It’s heavy like to killed you.”

“Eunice and me’ll haul the firewood,” one of the women said.

“I’ve got fat enough from that hog.”

Lydia watched the women move off to the different cabins as the men moved in on the wagon.  She hoped her mother wouldn’t drag her along with the other women, and she ducked behind the wagon wheel hoping to stay out of sight.  From there she could see her mother looking for her, but she soon gave up and headed off with the others.  Lydia pulled herself up on top of the wagon with the men who were ready to maneuver the animal off the bed.  More than anything, she didn’t want to be shoed away, and she determined that she would be useful.  She would help.

A young man with a thick beard sheathed a long knife and said to Lydia, “Watch out now, girl.  This is dangerous work.”

Lydia eyed him briefly and then crouched down low so as to get her shoulder under the birch pole.  She heaved with all her might when the men began to lift.  The man shook his head, but he didn’t scold her.  Once the animal came off the wagon, Lydia could no longer reach the pole, even with her arms fully extended, but she walked with them down toward the oak, her hand on the bear’s flank. 

“I’ll steady it so it don’t swing,” she said. 

The musky odor was different than other animals she had been around.  She pressed her cheek into its fur and breathed in its scent as they walked down to the tree.

“Law, I can’t believe the size of him!” one of the men said.

“Four hundred pounds at least.”

At the oak tree, Lydia was relieved to see the young man with the beard and knife cut the rope that lashed the animal to the pole.  The bear was freed now.  Still dead, she knew, but ready to be cut up, ready to give over what it possessed.   She watched them strain the tackle block to get the bear high enough for Hez Coombs to go to work on him with his long knife.  The different cuts were removed and given over to a man who had set up a makeshift butcher’s table on two saw horses and boards from inside the small barn.  The man cut away the remaining fat and grizzle from the pieces Hez had butchered and reduced the cuts to smaller pieces for cooking.  These he set out on a piece of pine board. 

It was a real labor for Lydia to carry it, but she relayed the meat up to the women at the cauldron.  She slid the irony cuts onto the table where her mother and another woman coated the cuts in herbs and set the pieces into the fat of the giant iron pot where they began to sizzle.  Her mother’s apron was already splotched with blood, and so were Lydia’s hands.  The meat smelled stronger than deer meat, Lydia thought, stronger than squirrel or chicken.  It was different, and she wondered if maybe the bear would provide something more for the people than those other animals did.

At the cauldron, Clytie worked to brown the pieces in the hog fat before she added hambone stock and the vegetables the other women arrived with.  It would be a burgoo.  In a loud voice, a thick, wide woman talked with Clytie about temperatures, about the addition of water and seasonings, about when to add what and how to know when the burgoo was done.

Some of the men couldn’t wait, though, and fished out hunks of the meat for sampling.  The hot pieces singed their hands and they cursed out loud in front of Lydia and the other children who had gathered around.  “Wait ‘til I’ve cooked it proper, boys!” Clytie yelled. But the men tore into the meat, their hands and beards a mess of grease and blood.

“Oh Clytie, you are good,” one of them said through a mouthful of bear meat.

“Wait ‘til it’s cooked proper,” Clytie said again, running a man off with the tobacco stake she used to stir the cauldron.

More vegetables were added, and someone had brought canned summer tomatoes that were thrown in, too.  Lydia savored the smell, and soon most everyone had gathered by the cauldron to watch Clytie and the women.  Now it was they who directed things, the women who held sway. “Richard, go get that cornbread,” one of them directed her husband.

“And find some salt.  It’s in there by the pot,” another one said.  “Go on now.”

Clytie hollered, “Stand back, everyone. I can’t work with you crowding me.”

“Nor can I tend the fire with you all worryin’ me,” the friend said.  “And I need more wood, Clem.  Go fetch more firewood.”

For a little while, Lydia stirred the cauldron under the direction of Clytie and the other women.  And though she loved the smell of the meat and vegetables as they bubbled and mixed, the work itself drained her.  As she worked the tobacco stake, she stared off in the direction of the oak tree below where the men had gathered.  It seemed like the burgoo would never be done, and it was all she could do not to run off.  Her mother noticed her restlessness and finally said, “Go on down there, Lyddie.”  Lydia gave her the tobacco stake.

___

When he saw her approach, Hez called Lydia to the oak tree where he coiled his ropes.  “Everybody left me, Lydia,” he laughed.  Can you help me here, girl?”  Lydia set to work at the little tasks Hez gave her, some of which she knew he could have done on his own, work he intended for her so that she could be a part of it all.  She liked him for this.

“Now I hear there’s a screech owl down here, a friend of yours, right?” Hez asked her.

“Yessir, he sets in that little hollow up there.”  Hez looked up to the hollow but the owl was gone.

“All this commotion must have scared him off.”

“I bet,” Lydia said.  “We was wondering if it was a male or female.  Is there a way to tell?”

“Not always.  The males do more of the hunting, especially if the females are nesting.  The females are bigger, though, and they can kill, too.  They ain’t as fast as the males, though.”

Hez cleaned up the last of his knives and placed them it a leather sheath.  “You know, there’s a bald eagle around here, Lydia.  A big one, a male I think.  I seen it myself.”

“Really, Hez?  An eagle?”

“Yes.  There’s men timberin’ over there, up on Rusty Mountain.  And that brung out the bird, I figure.  I talked to one of them woodhicks.  He said he’s seen it many times now.”

“Well, I hope they don’t take down his nest.”

Hez said, “Can’t see any way around it, sweetheart.  They ain’t gonna spare a tree just for a bird, even an eagle.”  Lydia looked at him as if she weren’t sure if he were joking.  She wanted to see it.   An eagle was much more than just a bird, more even than the owl she so loved.  It was like the bear in this way, greater than the animals around it.  And she didn’t like to think that the eagle might be chased from its nest.  How would it survive, she wondered?  

Hez touched her elbow and said, “C’mon now let’s go and see how that food’s coming along.  That eagle will make another nest somewheres else.  Don’t worry about him any.”

She hoped he was right.

___

In the gloaming, the cauldron fire cast a glow on the men gathered around. Lydia watched them eat from bowls they held close to their faces while others waited their turn, sipping whiskey from the bottles passed about.  Some of the women drank, too, and moved close against their husbands.  A few couples kissed openly on the lips, and older siblings were given charge of the little ones.  Lydia spotted her mother and father in the rear of the circle.  In the light of the fire they came into view but receded just as quickly.  In one hand her father held a whiskey bottle.  His arm was cinched tightly around her mother’s waist.  There was blood on her mother’s apron, under her breast and across the stomach, but whether from working with the bear meat or from her father’s hands Lydia didn’t know.  When the orange light revealed them again, they were walking off toward the cabin, her mother’s arm tight around her father’s back.

Eventually, Lydia pushed her way to the cauldron and was served some burgoo.  She put her face over the steaming bowl and took in the scent of the herbs and the rich, fatty meat.  She went at it then, devouring it quickly.  When she finished she wiped the oil from her lips with her dress sleeve, something she saw one of the men do.  Someone drew a bow across a fiddle and music filled the air.  Lydia knew all the songs by heart, and she joined in, too.  A few couples set to dancing.  She watched it all and it filled her with an energy and a gladsomeness.

At some point, one of the neighbor women at the cauldron called out for Lydia’s mother, “Where’s that Inez?”

“Off to ruttin’ with that husband,” Clytie said as she gave the pot a stir.  “Like the others, I suppose.” A swell of laughter rose.  Lydia knew the word, but she had considered it only in relation to animals in the woods.  Still, it was true that several of the couples had walked off to their cabins, their arms around one another in tight embraces.

Later that night, when Lydia lay in bed in the loft, she heard the sounds from her parents down below.  She had heard them before, late at night when they thought she had fallen asleep.  She had wrapped her quilt around her ears then.  But now she listened, forcing herself to hear the primal sounds, what seemed to her like both pleasure and pain.  Her skin became so warm she kicked her quilt to the floor.  She let it all run around in her mind now.  The coupling, the killing, the drinking and carrying on.  She tried to think about it more deeply, to figure it all out.  With her stomach full, though, and her body so warm, she could stay awake no longer.

___

Lydia rose early the next day and walked down to the oak tree.  A few bottles lay about on the ground and a heavy fog covered the hilltops.  Down by the oak tree a grey fox moved toward the stream.  The fox turned its head when it sensed Lydia’s presence, though she caused no alarm, and the animal stood still even as she approached.  Not until she was almost on top of him did he finally move on.  And then at the stream bank she spotted a doe and a buck dipping their heads for a drink.  They, too, seemed not to notice her.  Vibrating and making its shrill call, the owl had returned to the oak.  Lydia moved close to the tree, but the bird remained in its hollow, calling and thrumming, calling and thrumming.  She knew exactly when it would sound now, irregular as this was.  She felt alive with it, a part of the living things around her, and also a part of the adults who slept now in their cabins, full and sated. 

Suddenly the screech owl lifted from the hollow, rising high and circling.  Lydia scanned the stream bank and saw what the bird had seen, a small woodchuck grubbing for food.  The owl flew toward it, and Lydia hoped that it would return to the tree with its kill.  She knew now that she could bear the scene.  Today she would watch the owl tear up the animal.  Then out of the dense fog, she saw something come into view above the trees.  It glided above, floating almost, its wings a giant silhouette against the gray sky, much larger than the owl.

The eagle. 

As the owl dove for the woodchuck, so did the eagle.  It would be a close race, Lydia thought, and she yelled out to the owl, “Go get it, Mr. Owl!”  But it would be no race.

When she thought of it later, even years later, she would swear that she felt the strike, physically, as if the violence of the impact had somehow traveled through the air and met her below.  A mass of feathers swirled above her and fell to the ground.  The owl let out a single, high-pitched squeal, nothing like its call from the oak hollow, and the eagle flew away toward Rusty Mountain, the bird in its talons. 

Lydia watched them go. 

The owl was forever gone, she knew, the oak hollow empty.  It pained her, but she never cried.  Instead, she stooped and collected a single feather. Later that night she would cut a hole through the shaft and thread some elm bark through it.  It was a necklace, the vane absurdly long on her small frame.  But she would wear it, even if others teased her for it.

She was never sure if the feather belonged to the owl or the eagle.  But this didn’t matter.  In the end, she was glad not to know.

<strong>Chris McGinley</strong>
Chris McGinley

Chris McGinley’s Coal Black (Shotgun Honey, 2019) is a collection of dark and eerie stories set in eastern Kentucky.  His work has appeared in Cutleaf, Mystery Tribune, Mystery Weekly, and like venues.  He also writes on literature and film for LitHub outlets and other non-fiction forums.  He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, where he teaches middle school English and Social Studies.

4 thoughts on “The Screech Owl

  1. Graddy Johnson

    Remarkable! I always enjoy the vivid imagery of Chris’ work. As a Kentucky boy, I can smell the words! I look forward to reading more, for sure. Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Shelby Lee Adams

    Congratulations Chris, another successful story. In some places in the hollers this still go’s on. Genuine writing

    Reply
  3. Karen Salyer McElmurray

    I loved this story—-it’s devotion to small details like the vibration in the owl’s chest or the musk scent of the bear. I loved how, like Susan Glaspell and “A Jury of Her Peers,” this story is about the work of women and the work of men. And most of all there’s that story under the story, the about, that is the girl Lydia as she takes in both the beauty and violence and inevitably of her world. Thank you, Chris!

    Reply
  4. Steven R Froehlich

    We are drawn in to Lydia’s way of intuiting a nobility in Nature, and a higher nobility in some animals — the owl, the bear, the eagle — than in others.
    But what makes one animal more noble than another? And where do humans fit into this hierarchy?

    Reply

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