by Sarah Giragosian
A Present from Cookie: the pellet, hacked up by my local Audubon’s resident barred owl, is a bundle of fur, claws, teeth, and the skull of a mouse he tore into earlier in the morning. It’s a little endearing, a little disgusting; the “present” is tagged and displayed proudly in a case on Cookie’s aviary, alongside portraits and love notes authored by the children who took a fancy to the barred owl on their visit to the animal rehabilitation center. The drawings are whimsical, informed renderings that capture Cookie’s basic morphology and attest to the power of their connections with him. Each captures the ermine chest and creamy coat, the inquisitive eyes and long barred tail. Whether Cookie knows it or not, he is loved.
A year ago, Cookie was diving for prey when a car struck him, blinding him permanently in one eye and damaging the other. Because of his injury, he can no longer hunt for a moving target. I imagine him as he once was: stealthy, keen-eyed, stirred by the slightest fidget in the underbrush. He is still alert, but no longer does his rapt attention yield results. He no longer swoops without a sound across the night sky, pouncing at the critical moment that his prey emerges in the open. I have never seen the fluency of his attack as he spreads his talons, stretches his legs forward, and strikes, clamping the mouse or vole in the nimble, hooked knives of his talons, puncturing and killing it in flight or biting into the nape of its neck and ending its suffering. Today Cookie is a partial refraction of his former self, although I think the solemn gaze from his feathery widow’s peak has always been there, as has his curiosity. Keyed into my footfalls, he perches close when I am nearby and bobs his head in unconscious rhythmic beats as he tries to get a better view of the shadows and shapes of me through the shattered lens of his eyes. The intensity of his bob seems to reflect the degree of interest he takes in his object. Sometimes the bob morphs into a sharp bow and instinctively I return the gesture. It has become a ritual with us.
He spends most of his day slipping in and out of catnaps and almost perceptibly grimacing at the cockatiels, whose bright vocals disturb what rest he can get in a wildlife rehabilitation center that ceaselessly squawks, hoots, and whistles with life. To this impromptu soundtrack, Cookie is a mostly silent listener, but every once in a while, he advertises his distinctive baritone call, Who cooks for you? or whoops a pentametrical hoo—hoo—to—hoo—oo to the passing visitor.
Sometimes I catch him looking past me to the rabbit hutch that some prankster planted just a few feet away from his aviary. In the winter, the pair of rabbits is all but conjoined, magnetized to the furry radiators of each other’s bodies. Enthralled but ever-frustrated, Cookie stalks the rabbits behind the wire mesh of his cage, a student of waiting.
I understand the test. Cookie is a liminal animal—partially wild, partially tamed—that loves to have his neck scratched by his caretakers, yet would likely seize the opportunity to go fugitive given the chance and the means. The aviary door left open, a window ajar: what little accidents and strokes of luck might mean to an aspiring runaway! Is he calculating my moves, waiting for me to forget to latch his door so that he can give me the slip? And does he see me as his captor? I am just that, of course, even while I call myself a caretaker, and no matter how I rationalize my presence in his life, I know that my every act of love or homage towards Cookie cannot override my position of dominance. His survival is tied to me, though I wish for a relationship with an animal that is truly reciprocal—the state of children in their earliest encounters with creatures imagined and real.
Normally, owls are shy animals that select spots well-removed from human intrusion; an old forest or swamp surrounded by dense hemlocks and maples, for example, are ideal nesting spots. Barred owls are not social animals; they’re loners and a bit opaque, like cats. They are loyal to their mates though and stay with them for life. Cookie, of course, is single, and may continue to be for the rest of his life.
To Cookie, I am an intruder that must be tolerated. Like the rabbits that are forever haunted by the raptors’ unflinching attention, Cookie endures my close regard from a cage. I’ve seen him blinking up at me through wet eyes, occasionally closing his milky blue third eyelids cross-wise to clean and moisten them. They are beautiful, riveting, as if cut from onyx, and accented by a series of snowflake-sized brown feathers that ripple outwards from his eyes like modulated parentheses. Every evening he preens his feathers, a creamy color on his breast that is fringed with thick brown streaks. He is devoted to his hygiene, and when he finishes cleaning himself, he rouses and shakes out his wing feathers like a cloak, sometimes over and over again. I am a ravenous onlooker and though Cookie most likely knows that I do not mean any harm, I imagine he will never be completely at ease with his human rehabilitators. Owls who do not imprint on humans early in their life rarely are.
Mostly it is the quiet power of his presence that I crave. The average human can exert 45 pounds of force with her grip, while some owls, such as the great horned owl, exert up to 500 pounds per square inch. What that grip can do to tiny bones, tender skin, the wiggling tail of a fish! It is the kind of death we all must wish for: quick and furtive, noiseless. Indeed, the owl’s wings, with their texture so fluffy as to be closer to chinchilla fur than feathers, muffle all sound before the pounce. Ghosts are louder. To be crushed and devoured is less appealing, perhaps, but still I like to think that for a mouse, death by owl is a not a bad way to go.
Since he can no longer hunt, each day we present dead mice to him by hand. He bristles and swallows them in a single bite, the acid bath of his saliva and two-part stomach doing wonders for his digestion. In an hour or so, he’ll cough up a pellet with the bones and bits that he could not swallow. I arrange newspaper below him in preparation, and with head cocked, he listens with his super-charged auditory system. His medulla, the region of the brain associated with hearing, is much more advanced than ours, enabling him to pinpoint the location of a mouse sliding below a drift of snow. I think of his sonic intelligence that can map sound three dimensionally and imagine him tuning in to the blubbery rhythm of my heartbeat, perhaps fearing its acceleration when I approach. Or maybe he knows my rhythms, leap of heart and shifting blur of dark hair and pale skin, my penchant for his dropped feathers as part of my individual repertoire. Routine, perhaps, renders me benign.
And yet it is that ancient pull—the desire for recognition by another animal—that links me irrepressibly to Cookie. Most likely it’s naïve to desire that recognition from a wild animal, and a half-blind one at that. But in his presence every sensation is intensified to a knife point. I am a wire of nerve. And he is that rare combination of vulnerability and power, with his neck folds as soft as grandmother’s neck and his talons scraping his perch like steel knives. I coo to him, fling a dead mouse towards his waiting beak, and get to work on cleaning his aviary, encrusted with skin and bones. I’m comfortable in Cookie’s cosmos, as entranced by the operations of his life with its humdrum routines of killing and preening as any passing child.
About Sarah Giragosian
Sarah Giragosian‘s writing has recently appeared in Ecotone, Best of the Net Anthology-2016, Prairie Schooner, The Missouri Review, The Baltimore Review, Blackbird, and Verse Daily, among others. A winner of the 2014 American Poetry Journal Book Prize, her first book Queer Fish is forthcoming from Dream Horse Press. She teaches in the department of Writing and Critical Inquiry at the University at Albany-SUNY.