Short Fiction by Chris Manno
What the people believe is true. — Odawa proverb
Grampa proved that owls meant death, if you believed. Uncle Ed didn’t, at least he didn’t want to or didn’t care, I can’t say which. But the end result was the same no matter what he believed. Even at age seven I knew that, because owls and death came around all the time. Out of darkness or worse, straight out of the daylight, it would flap down onto our tarpaper roof and perch near the smoke stack, sometimes right on top, in summer when the stove wasn’t lit for heat. Then we could all hear the call, the airy, pipe organ “whoo.” So oh God, there we’d go again and I’d wonder exactly who? Who this time?
Grampa didn’t care, because he was full-blooded Indian. Signs were exactly that he’d say and besides, he was blind. He didn’t have to see what he didn’t want to. Gramma was full-blooded French and Catholic to boot, so it wasn’t like the two of them were ever going to see things the same way. But according to her that didn’t matter. Because the end result, no matter whose eyes you looked through, would be the same. You just had to be practical, which for us meant living on minus one each time. So naturally I always felt better in daylight, best of all outside in the wide open dirt-bowl yard which was about as nice as any in Chickasha, Oklahoma.
We had no trees, but we could see some: cottonwoods, with blossoms which in springtime shed blowy white seeds that flew like snowflakes on the breeze. Grampa could feel the airy cotton floaters and he’d smile because he knew what they were. Then I’d call Shanny and tell her it was snowing and she’d fly to the window, hoping. Her face would drop then she’d tell me I was mean and though I guess Shanny was about as good as a little sister could be, I was mean. Before she learned to talk, I had her petting yellow jackets that flitted among clumps of clover.
Pet the pretty bees, Shanny. And she would too, because she had faith in me. Gramma couldn’t figure what was wrong with Shanny coming in bee-stung yet again, bawling her eyes out. Till she learned to talk, then I got my little hide tanned good. But I could almost make up for it by telling Shanny about the trucks and trains flying by, east to west and back again, that we could see from the dirt pancake yard. “People’s trains” we called them, those long snakes of sleek silver cars clacking smoothly by on shiny rails stretched to forever.
People’s trains were the best, better than freight cars, because we could imagine ourselves on board, whisked toward the edge of the sky sprawled in every direction. Headed for the ocean with President and Mrs. Kennedy, I’d tell Shanny. Or on a good day, with the Pope, The Apostles, The Martyrs and All the Saints too, or maybe just Jesus if I was real tired. While trains were regular, trucks were more plentiful. I’d tell Shanny where each truck was headed and what was inside. Usually, it’d be some fantastic cargo, like toys or food or TV’s or other stuff we didn’t have but didn’t really need anyway.
Lies, we both knew, but stories were fun to hear, probably more fun than truth, so we both went along with them. Grampa’d listen, up on the porch doing his jigsaw puzzle by feel for the thousandth time. Sometimes I’d tell him what it looked like finished, making up something, of course, something he’d like it to be. Maybe a thing I’d want loaded on a truck or a place we’d like to be hauled to by train, or some item we could all enjoy. Luckily, we lived at a crossroads and near a rail head, a good location for watching and making up stuff.
It wasn’t a reservation but all our neighbors were Indians. Most of them knew about owls and death too, and a few even knew about the power of The Blessed Virgin. There’d be arguments about how you could believe in both at the same time but like Gramma said, you had to be practical. Since whole families, or in our case, a whole family plus ten cats, lived in just two rooms there was no leeway for intolerance. So I prayed to The Holy Trinity just in case, but kept my eyes open for signs, especially the feathery, round-eyed hooty kind.
Even way back in the first house, the one with the dirt floor and ply board roof that leaked in the wrong corner, I kept watch. There an owl could flap loud enough for me to hear him right through the sky hole, the one Grampa stood me under so I could see clear to the stars before he went to bed. I’d let him know everything was in its place to the best of my knowledge, whether it was or wasn’t, just so he could rest easy. But sooner or later, I knew I’d hear scratchy feet on plywood overhead, guttural cooing, then the hoot, hollow as a tom-tom, empty, cold, but not the least bit sorry.
Which was okay, because Grampa said spirits had to speak to us whether we liked what they said or not. Gramma said it wasn’t an evil omen to hide from, because you couldn’t do much about what God had planned for His world. Maybe he’d let you know and maybe he wouldn’t, but the owl was just a symbol, not exactly a spirit. Grampa said he didn’t know about the Jesus thing, being full-blooded Kiowa and all. But he said you took the sign, the death hoot, and prepared yourself for what you knew had to come next.
So in our house, The Holy Trinity and the hoot owls stood nose to nose, one as powerful as the other depending on who you believed. That’s why I threw cats on the roof all the time, something Gramma didn’t understand any better than Shanny petting pretty bees. But I was being practical, because birds and cats didn’t mix. Grampa said so and he ought to know, being the oldest, with blind eyes looking at death the soonest among us. So I figured the cats could be powerful like Gramma’s archangels, warding off death and protecting Grampa, for whom the owls searched.
And after all, they were his cats. We had so many, I decided each could take his turn on the roof for awhile and nothing would be hurt and maybe Grampa could be safe for another day. The cats never stayed over us too long and they never got hurt, always landing on their feet like true angels if ever there were any. They, like Grampa, had special eyes: glassy-smooth cream colored iris’s with long vertical slits that would stretch open like stage curtains pulled apart in the middle by hands on the dark side. Flat blackness hid the inner works, the noiseless things way deep inside, as if maybe the real seeing went on somewhere else and the eyeball itself was just a fancy marble, a matched pair, put there for decoration because we expected it like on a mannequin.
Grampa’s eyes were milky yellow and not much good, according to Gramma. Didn’t matter, he’d say, since faith meant not seeing but believing anyway, even to her, and she had to agree. So once again it didn’t matter whose viewpoint you took, the result was the same.
Grampa was right all the way to his last evening when thunderheads towered and ragged white boulders tumbled east to west across a worried sky. For as far as I could see, wind-whipped curtains of rain flapped like gray rags, raking flat dirt as a boiling storm marched our way behind a procession of flickering lightning and booming thunder like a storybook band. The dank smell of parched earth newly wet crept ahead of the parade, promising a gully-washer, promising rain.
From his room, Grampa called me to help him up and we shuffled out the front door. He stood on the porch, telling me exactly what everything looked like: the cottonwood stained weepy by rain, red dirt taking a deep, wet tone and even the rusty brown hoot owl flitting from phone pole to tree to fence to rooftop in the pelting rain.
And he was right. Next day, Grampa’s dead. Then Shanny needed to know everything and I couldn’t answer. Where was Grampa now? Well, since he wasn’t a bad man, not in Hell. But unbaptized so not in Heaven, though you better not tell Gramma. That left Limbo with a chance of Purgatory and from there I figured he could work his way up to Heaven maybe, if eternity didn’t end first.
But Shanny still wanted to see him in the breeze, the rain or the moon or any of the places Grampa said he’d be, all of which sounded better than Limbo. So I helped her look, which was just like telling her stories about trains and trucks. And I could always find just the right cloud or dented rainbow or even a circling hawk to point out to Shanny and then she’d see what she needed.
That’s where Uncle Ed came in. He wasn’t really an uncle, nor Catholic nor Indian. He shaved only sometimes and was just old and drank a lot but being practical, Gramma decided we needed a man around the house. Though Uncle Ed wasn’t blind he still couldn’t see owls as anything other than just plain old birds or even Gramma’s yard statue of The Blessed Virgin as other than painted plaster. “Mary on a Half Shell” Ed called it time and again then coughed till he gagged which usually ended his hyena laughter.
Even though Ed had two good eyes he couldn’t see anything in a people’s train except people, nothing on a freight car but freight and worse yet, nothing at all in a sealed up tractor trailer. So when I’d sit in the yard cooking up what was what for Shanny, he’d laugh at me, laugh till he coughed up green globs and had to spit. Then the words “not seeing is not believing” just about screamed to me out of his flabby roast-beef face, even though his lips never moved.
Then it seemed a waste that Gramma gave him the room with the big window since he had no faith and couldn’t see much anyway. But she needed the money and we had to be practical and that was the room he wanted. And life rolled on like an endless people’s train. Shanny and I measured the time passage after Grampa’s death in moon phases because that’s how he’d have seen it. We gauged time ahead by sacraments and seasons, because that’s how Gramma looked at things.
Ed simply had a daily calendar from which he tore pages and that was that. Six moons came and went. So did the Feast of The Assumption, The Blessing of The Throats and all of The Nativity. And the torn pages of Uncle Ed’s calendar matched a pile of Sacraments: a Baptism, a Holy Matrimony, two owl foreshadowed Extreme Unctions plus the weekly sacramental smorgasbord of rosary, penance, communion, guilt and on Wednesday nights, Bingo.
The calendars eventually landed us smack on the end of Lent and that’s where we lost Ed. Because we didn’t eat till after Mass on Good Friday, it was dark by supper. We knew the dirt road home by heart, so walking wasn’t a problem, even with no light.
As we did, I heard the first hoot a hundred yards away, something Shanny said was impossible, but she couldn’t even count to a hundred yet so what did she know? Then I saw the feathery bump on the flat roof, stock-still save the twitchy head, and I felt right then what had happened. Inside, Gramma banged pans and ran water and flapped around the kitchen, telling us to be quiet so we wouldn’t wake Uncle Ed till his supper was ready. I told Shanny never mind, because even though his door was open a crack, he wasn’t going to hear a thing, except maybe Gabriel’s horn.
Then Gramma had the table set with chipped dishes but clean silverware. And she said to me, “Judas, be a good boy and go find out what your Uncle Ed wants on his hamburger,” even though he wasn’t really my Uncle. Then my knees shook, I couldn’t swallow and I wanted to wet my pants. I pushed his door open but still it was pitch black inside.
So I dragged up a wooden chair and placed it in the middle of the room where I already knew the hangy-down light string should be, if only I could reach it. I stretched to my tippy-toes, swinging my arms in the dark, trying not to fall on my face when finally, light as a cobweb, the string was in my hand. I yanked hard, then screamed.
Bald light blazed down on Uncle Ed, sprawled on the bed, eyes wide, face and arms and belly mountain all pasty pale. Ten cats, hanging by their claws on the outside screen mewed and hissed and scratched, watching, wanting in but staying out, archangels on strike.
And then the hoot, the sad, hollow, dry hoot I knew plain as day. Gramma sent Shanny flying two doors down to where they had a phone but still it took ages for the ambulance to find us out in the middle of moonless black nowhere.
I’ll remember forever, though I want to forget, the gurney wheels rattling on wood floor, then thumping the sheet-draped bulk down the steps so the owl could finally move on, his business done.
Then I thought, oh God, how am I going to explain all this to Shanny? Where does a guy who’s not Indian or Catholic go? But when the door slammed, Gramma just shoved the plate with a fat, drippy burger on it my way, saying, “Well, no sense in good food going to waste.”
She already knew what Ed liked on his burger even though I hadn’t asked and I knew it when I saw it. I also knew you weren’t supposed to have meat on Good Friday. And though I wanted to be practical, really I did, I just couldn’t eat. God Almighty, how faith can leave you hungry.