Every so often, I see the image of that owl Andy Fuller shot and killed back when we were boys.
We were friends due to proximity. We were the only kids who waited at our bus stop. We had no siblings. He lived with his father—his mother had run off when he was ten—and both my parents worked six days a week. Andy and his father didn’t get along. In the little world of the hollow that held our homes, we were alone. We needed each other. But on the bus, at school, we didn’t speak—hardly even looked up when we passed in the halls.
There was a steep, wooded hill that stood between our houses. Come Saturday, I could reliably find him at the top of my yard—framed just so against the dense woods that stood behind him—waiting for me. He’d be wearing this tan, corduroy jacket with big wooly lapels. It was cut at the hip, and his hands were always buried in the pockets. The buttons were dull brass. As far as I knew, it was the only nice thing he owned. It was the only thing about him I envied. Once, I’d asked where, or maybe how, he’d gotten it. “My mom,” he’d told me. I tried to ask when. He shrugged and told me, “Before she left.”
Even then, I struggled to remember the details of his mother. I’d met her maybe a dozen times in the years before she was gone. We were so very young. And now all these years have come and gone—upwards of thirty since this business with the owl—and to try and conjure up a complete vision of Andy’s mother seems like a dishonest endeavor. So I’m going to say only exactly what I remember. One day, maybe a year or two before she left, I saw her with Andy, walking up and down the main drag in town. I was behind them. It must have been spring or summer. She wore a green dress that stopped just above her knee. It caught the breeze and billowed gently against her slim frame. Her sandals were made up of brown leather braids, the likes of which I had never seen before. That’s all I can remember about the woman. I want to say more. I want to say that even then there was something very out of place about her. I want to say that the air of that little, West Virginia town never really seemed settled around her, and that maybe she’d never been able to touch any part of that place. I want to say all that, and maybe I can. But these were not the thoughts I had at eight years old. Here’s what I did think: how beautiful.
Andy’s father was a drunk, and everyone knew it. We never said it, but that’s why it was always Andy coming into my yard, and never me into his. I never saw the inside of his home. Maybe no one besides Andy, his father, and his mother ever saw the world within those walls. The weight of his short life must have been immense. I knew so little, and there is much I will never understand.
The last time I saw Andy was at our high school graduation. Because we weren’t alone, we didn’t speak to each other. We did share one long look, but we didn’t speak. A year after that, home on break from college, I stopped by his house. I had planned on knocking on the door. I had hoped that Andy would answer, or, at the very least, his father could tell me where Andy had ended up. But I never made it to the door. I stood in the yard and stared at the home’s flat, pinched face. The house stared back at me, daring me to approach, asking me, what do you really want to know, what could you understand, anyway? And at that moment, I didn’t want to know anything, and there was nothing I could understand. And very little has changed since that moment.
We couldn’t have been older than thirteen when he killed the owl. The day it happened, I found Andy waiting at the usual spot in my yard. It was getting towards the end of October. Most trees had already dropped their leaves, and so they stood, naked and slender, the dark little ends of their branches pointing up towards all the grayness of the sky. Like always, he wore the jacket his mother had given him sometime before she left forever. I walked up to him and said something like, hello.
“Can I show you something?” he asked.
“I guess so,” I said.
And then he turned and led me up the hill into the woods. The air was thin and sharp and cut right to the back of my throat. The woods smelled sweet and dark. It was the smell of the fallen leaves rotting already—it was the smell of many things rotting. It was the smell of layers and layers of death and rot, because that’s what the woods are made of. It was quiet, and it was gray, and there was no canopy to give us a sense of closeness. The whole broad stillness of the sky was on display, and we were small, and nothing in the world cared about us two West Virginia boys walking through the woods.
We walked for a long while. Once we reached the top of the hill we began to descend. We weren’t heading towards Andy’s house. We were going deeper and deeper into the woods. We kept on going until we stopped. Andy stopped. I looked around and saw nothing at all. Andy bent and picked something out of the leaves. It was a rifle. It was short and ugly. Almost all the bluing had been worn away from the barrel and receiver. The stock had no luster, and had big scars from where someone had cut it down to fit a child’s length of pull. Etched into the receiver was the word, Marlin.
With the end of the rifle, Andy pointed to a pile of something maybe twenty feet away. I walked over and crouched down. And there it was, all deflated and ratty looking—a trail of red that began at its breast and ran down its belly. Andy came and stood beside me, the rifle still in his hands. “An owl?” I asked.
“I killed it,” he said.
“So what?” I asked.
And then he told me more. He told me he’d spent the night here in this spot. “Weren’t you cold?” I asked. He nodded. He told me that he had been cold, but he’d brought a big quilt. He said that it helped a little. “Why didn’t you go home?” I asked. He didn’t say anything for a little while. Then he told me that he couldn’t go home last night, and I didn’t ask him why. He told me that he’d been sitting between the roots of a tree, and he’d been sitting very still for a very long time. He told that he’d heard a noise above him, and when he looked up he saw the owl. The night was clear, and the moon was bright and nearly full. He stood, and walked ten paces from the tree. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and pressed his cheek against the old wood. He pulled the trigger, and the owl fell right away.
That’s what he told me. And I think he wanted me to understand something, but I couldn’t. I think he wanted to understand something, but he couldn’t. We were quiet for a long time, and then I asked another question. “Why’d you bring the gun anyways?” I asked. “Just in case,” he told me.
“Will you help me?” he asked.
“Help you how?” I asked.
“I feel bad,” he said. He put the ugly little rifle down in the dead leaves. He took his jacket off, and scooped up the owl with it. He held it against his chest. “I’m going to eat it,” he told me.
“You’ll get sick,” I told him.
“I’ll boil it,” he said. “It’ll be fine if we boil it.”
It was always going to be ‘we.’ It was us. More than anything, I wanted to say no. But then I looked at him and I looked all around us. We were all alone in our little gray world. And I felt like I didn’t have a choice in the matter.
As I sit here, on my front porch, in my safe suburban neighborhood with all its streetlamps humming around me, the day we ate the owl feels closer to me than ever. An hour ago, I sat and ate dinner with my wife and my son. In another few months he will be leaving for college. His life has been a fortunate one, and I imagine that it will go on being fortunate. He goes to an expensive private school and has many friends. He has many of the things I went without. Although I can’t pretend to know his world, I do not think he has ever been alone the way Andy Fuller and I were alone on that day. Whatever his world looks like, I can’t believe it felt as big and dull and meaningless as ours did. We were so young but already we understood the powerlessness we were born into. Maybe that’s why Andy shot the owl. Maybe he needed to feel some power. Maybe it was a streak of cruelty he fought to suppress. Maybe he was a scared kid alone in the woods at night. I can’t say. I can only say exactly what happened.
We took the owl back to my place. My parents were both working. I took a knife from the kitchen. We pulled the feathers out in great handfuls. There wasn’t much blood left in the thing. We cut it open and pulled the guts out. They opened in our hands, and the remains of who knows what spilled out on the ground. They still had a hint of warmth to them, but our hands felt very cold. We didn’t know what we were doing, and by the time we’d removed the feathers and organs, the thing was mangled beyond all recognition. And then we boiled it. There was hardly any meat, but it still took two full hours to eat the thing. It was dry and mealy, and stuck in our teeth. It tasted of almost nothing, but left behind a film with a sharp, mineral tang. Somehow, we managed to keep it down. And when we were done, we took the bones and bits of gristle that clung to them and wrapped them in Andy’s jacket. He threw them into the woods. We couldn’t look at each other.
I wish I could say that Andy felt better—I wish I could say our efforts amounted to anything at all, and that the rest of our childhood was happier. But I can’t say any of that. So I’ll keep the image of that pile of blood and feathers alive in my mind, and hope that one day it will all add up. And maybe then, I’ll finally understand something about the only friend I ever had, and the home that we shared. And then all this loneliness will mean something, and for the first time in my life, I’ll be something new.
© Thomas Boos
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Thomas’ interview]