The Problem With Owls
Dan Tarbin had rolled down the window of his truck to speak to him. Wally was in his own truck and had his window down so they could talk, the trucks facing opposite directions. Dusk was coming down on the manzanitas and chinquapin of Chester, California and turning them gold. Dan was smiling. He had just celebrated his 50th birthday ﬂoating down the Feather River. He weighed three hundred pounds, was blonde, and he loved bears.
“First of all,” he said. “If you’re ever in a bar in these parts, say you study wildlife. Don’t say you study the Spotted Owl.”
“Wildlife biologist. Got it.”
“Really, keep a lid on it. Even stay clear of ‘ornithologist.’ You are liable to get your ass kicked in.”
“Some logger’s son will kick your ass in.”
“I’ll be careful. Or maybe I’ll kick his ass in.”
“And another thing. There’s been reports of mountain lions around here. Right here. I mean right where you’re heading tonight for your walk and hoot. I’m serious. Be careful.”
“Why would you tell me that?”
“I just thought you should know.”
“You’re a son of a bitch.”
“Anyway, good luck! Toodle-oo.” Dan waved and drove off along the old logging road.
That night Wally wore a headlamp and carried a ﬂashlight. He had high res binoculars, though not with night vision. He carried a compass in his waterproof satchel, a GPS, maps, sandwiches, a notebook, pens and pencils, tobacco and rolling papers. Beat working at the plastic factory. He slammed the truck door behind him sending a metal clangor through the manzanitas. It was cold, so he put his hood on. Scratches along the body of the truck shined like silver snail tracks under the headlamp. He let down the tailgate. The back of the truck smelled like mouse piss. There were cinder blocks in case he ever had to keep the wheels from rolling. There was a jack and a spare and a lot of Gatorade. From the bed he took the orange reﬂective tape and added that to his bag. Then he took the squawk box. Then he took the mouse box.
In the dark, glowing green eyes means deer. You can also know a deer by the loud crash it pulls like a sidecar through the forest. Red eyes means owl or bear. Yellow eyes mean mountain lion. You have to be wary for the eyes of a mountain lion because a mountain lion will make no sound and its body is invisible. Once you see the eyes, that is how you know it’s looking at you. Part of his training was to watch videos of them killing prey animals.
Wally put the tailgate up. He started walking and turned on the squawk box. He left his truck behind. The only light was celestial or from his headlamp and ﬂashlight. His squawk box broadcasted the four note contact call. His satchel was slung over his shoulder and he wore the mouse box as a backpack. It was ventilated and full of living mice, which pissed. He pushed aside branches and passed through thickets and thickets. The squawk box called out on his behalf. Then, he heard it. The return call. He pushed to an opening. There he threw a mouse into the opal light. It seemed confused. What is a pinecone? When the owl killed it, it did not swoop it back to its roost but crushed the spine and stood on it.
Wally looked at the owl. The owl looked at him. It slid back and forth in its own bones, clutching the mouse. Two spots shined red: a layer of guanine crystals formed the Tapetum lucidum, the bright carpet of its eyes.
“Are you my friend?” said Wally very quietly.
The owl broke the mouse in half.
“Mm,” he said.
Days later at the bar Wally shot pool with his date until a quarter was placed on the rail. It was a white guy with curly black hair who put it there. He wanted a game. Another young man was with him. They were about Wally’s age. Wally thought they might have been checking out his date, one of the Bird Girls who studied passerines. The guy with curly black hair was friendly, though. The three of them began a game.
After a while, after some deliberation, Wally said, “I study owls. What do you do?”
“Is that right?” said the guy with curly black hair. He’d been caught off-guard. So had his friend and Wally’s date. A glance passed between the guy and his friend.
“The Spotted Owl,” said Wally.
“Is that so,” the young guy repeated, leaning on his cue stick. It had come out almost as a whisper, more to himself this time.
“But I don’t consider you an enemy,” said Wally.
Before long, Wally got his nose broken. After that, nobody in the room knew exactly what to do.