Owl Boy

by Ed Davis

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Marina stared out the window into the garden at her withered cosmos, coneflowers, and milkweed. If there ever would be a time to shut down whatever operation Aspen had going on in his room, it was now. He’d gobbled the PB & J she’d made him, flung a goodbye over his shoulder and taken off for work washing dishes at Curt’s Southern Cuisine, driving the old Subaru Outback his father gave him after buying his Lexus. Now the crow in the box elder a hundred yards away turned its head and glared at her. Get moving.

Still she sat, listening to the growl of the neighbor’s chainsaw—a recurring sound out here. A restored farmhouse on five acres outside Louisville had been Sam’s idea two decades ago. Now he’d gone to the city to live in a condo with The Slut. The lure of living on the land had sounded so romantic twenty years ago, and it had been, at least till she’d gotten pregnant. Then it began to feel like exile.

The crow tore out of the tree screaming. Go now.

Rising on creaky knees, she made her way to her son’s door and stopped. After Sam left a year ago, it remained as off limits to her as it had been before he’d begun to keep the door unlocked. Trapped in her own trauma over Sam’s affair, then divorce, she’d surrendered her lost boy to cyberspace. Aspen was in fourth grade when he became “Quaking Aspen” to the bullies on his bus. When he’d slunk home bloody, Marina lost it. Within a week, she’d quit her librarian’s job to become a full-time mother. She’d wanted to enroll Aspen in a private school immediately, but Sam wouldn’t hear of it. What was good enough for him was good enough for his son. Now Aspen was a twenty-year-old friendless, nearly mute dishwasher.

“The boy just needs discipline,” Sam used to say. Did food preparation count?

Once a month or so, usually on Sunday, Aspen cooked, using recipes and techniques he’d picked up at the restaurant. He’d answer yes and no to her careful questions, leave her food on the stove, and carry his to his room. Still, she prized those minutes watching her boy hovering over the stove.

Marina heard distant cries: hawks no doubt circling, contending with the songbirds, though there seemed plenty of territory to go around. Was that an owl? Aspen had sought out the spookily silent raptors, camping out every night for a week the summer he was six in order to see as many as possible as they hunted in the dark. She’d listened to him talk till her ears bled about the scream of the barred owl.

By seventh grade, he refused to let her drive him to school or pick him up afterward. If he were still being bullied, he no longer told her about it. He rode the bus, came home, closed and locked his door. When he was absent, and the door was unlocked, it became a game between them: enter and pay the price. She’d done it once, when he was in high school. He’d come home smelling strange and she’d suspected he was smoking pot. But she’d found nothing, and when he found out, it earned her total silence with zero eye contact for a week, a cost she could not bear. Since the divorce, at least he asked her to pass the Captain Crunch and usually said goodbye.  But maybe it was more complicated, now he was older. Maybe he was daring her: enter and see what happens.

Coming to with a jolt, Marina realized she’d leaned forward and rested her head against the door’s smooth wood. When she once waxed nostalgic in Aspen’s presence about owls, he laughed so harshly she nearly cried and never mentioned them again. She struck her head against the wood, gently then increasingly harder.

But wasn’t he a good boy, really? He worked his minimum wage job, didn’t drink, smoke, or use drugs, hadn’t impregnated any females. She was sure her son, with zero interest in developing social skills, was as celibate as she’d been since her two disastrous post-divorce dates. Now she liked celibacy. The bookshop required all her time anyway.

She turned the knob and the door creaked open, though she never heard a sound when the boy opened it—of course she was seldom present when he did it, their schedules were so mutually exclusive. She waited thirty seconds before pushing her son’s door wide, realizing with dread that she hadn’t seen his room since before the divorce, when he let her clean it once a month, waiting nervously in the living room like an ICU patient stripped of life support.

What the hell did he do in here all those hours? Pornography? With pounding pulse, she was about to find out.

The room was dim, the curtains closed. Turning on the overhead light, she saw that his mattress lay on the floor near the window, his computer gear at the head. Beside it was spread an old plastic shower curtain. The twin bed they’d carefully chosen for him was shoved against the left wall. He computed in bed? Of course he did.The monitor was on, the screen-saver a huge target, alternating red and black circles with an arrow protruding from the center. She stood frozen. What or whom was he targeting? She struck her chest to make her heart stay rooted right here in the room.

A blade gleamed ominously from the plastic sheet. Oh dear Jesus, he’s a cutter! Tempted to flee, she steeled herself and eased forward. Yes, it was a blade, but it had handles and when she stooped to get a closer look, she saw curly shavings. Scooping up a handful, she held them to her nose. Bittersweet, as when Sam trimmed trees around the house and brought branches onto the deck to season for kindling.

Lowering her knees to the mattress, she leaned forward and found the keyboard. Surely he’d changed the password they’d made up when they’d let him get the machine, back when they thought they were in control. It was worth a try. Bingo. Barredowlboy1234 worked. Within moments, she was searching his recent Internet history, finding none of the expected sex or game sites. Instead: Flemish twist strings. She continued scrolling. A man’s name appeared over and over: Tom McManix, Bowyer. She recalled the screen-saver, the arrow and target. It brought back the memory of reading her little boy Robin Hood; Aspen had loved the outlaw’s exploits, she the antique language.

She laid herself out on the mattress, imagining she could feel the imprint of the lithe body that had lain looking at this screen for hours, learning from You Tube and Tom McManix how to make a bow, for that’s obviously what he’d been carving with the knife. She could not have been more shocked if she’d found a pipe bomb in progress. And you thought your boy was just another videogame addict. Here’s what he does with his hands. (Take that, Sam.)

Lifting herself back onto her knees, she leaned toward the keyboard again and signed out. Scooting off the mattress, she smoothed the blanket, then wrinkled it a little, trying to leave it exactly as she’d found it. Then she stood and brushed herself off.

“He’s going to be all right,” she whispered to the walls. She was almost to the door when she halted.  Where was the bow?

Turning, she let her eyes rove over the floor, up the walls and back down before she saw what she’d missed. Against the edge of the mattress lay two long staves, unseen due to her interest in the blade. Again on her knees, she reached out and touched the closest one, yellowish with a smooth, satiny finish. The one behind it, though, was raw, green wood—maybe from one of their own trees. She stroked the more finished one, squinted to see the grain. Lifting it to her face as if it might shatter, she brought it close and smelled oil, linseed maybe, or the Tung oil she’d used to refinish a desk long ago. She imagined her son sitting on the back deck, shoulders hunched, muscles rippling, as he applied the oil outdoors where the scent wouldn’t attract attention. Maybe he’d even gone into the woods. She smiled at the image of her boy in their old owl grove making a bow. His baby, his secret.

She carefully replaced the staves, replicating the order in which they’d been lying. Her hand was drawing the door closed when the chainsaw started up again outside. Glancing out the window, she saw her neighbor Randy behind the ten-foot fence he’d erected to protect his vegetable garden from deer.

An image of a buck, many-antlered and springing forward, whanged into consciousness like a just-struck bull’s-eye. Was Owl Boy making a bow in order to kill the beautiful creatures that shared these woods with them? Even redneck Randy just built a fence, so as not to harm a hoof. Her discovery suddenly seemed worse than violent videogames or porn. Two decades ago—Aspen’s lifetime—a man and a woman had come here to Eden to be at peace with all creatures. Did her son now want to use the beautiful bow he’d made to kill those same creatures? Did he want to eat them? A vegetarian (mostly), Marina shuddered. But maybe her boy just wanted to practice archery, a legitimate sport. Then why so secretive? Because he knew she wouldn’t approve. Tomorrow was Sunday. She’d find out.


But Aspen never emerged, though Marina baked her legendary mac and cheese and opened a window to waft waves of tasty tendrils beneath his door. He never appeared, though she waited and waited. Eventually she put on jeans and raked leaves for an hour, leaving the dish to cool on the counter, never casting an eye toward his window. He knew she’d been in his room looking through his files—never mind how. Probably had to do with the technology she barely understood. He was in there hating her.

She flung down the rake and sat under the box elder. Sure, his door was unlocked, but if she stormed in and confronted him, she’d lose. He’d just stare at her blankly, telegraphing I didn’t ask to be born. You two wanted a puppy to come running when you call, to sit up and do tricks. Deal with it.

She raked her wild hair with trembling fingers. She needed to know what he was going to do with the bows. Might her silent son be contemplating stalking something even more sentient than a deer? Did he still have bullies in his life? Crazy! She walked inside and devoured comfort food as if she were starving.

When he came out to go to work on Monday, she’d be waiting.


Rain was falling in thick streams off the roof, thunder grumbling, when she heard the click. Sitting at the table, half-heartedly reading the new Kingsolver novel, she felt his eyes on her. Her neck warmed. There was no stare like the silent stare of your own flesh and blood.

“You didn’t go to work,” he said in the same uninflected voice he’d used to answer his cell phone, before he became text-only, the better to keep parents at bay.

“Emily can handle things.”

Marina kept her eyes on the page, words blurring.  

“You’ve been waiting for me.”

She yearned to hear Randy’s chainsaw, anything other than this razory silence, but her neighbor was at work. She finally turned to look at her son. She’d been so seeing that little owl boy in her imagination all morning. Now she was once again taken aback by how tall he was, taller than his dad, and more solid. It surprised her to realize he was more eagle than owl. He’d folded his arms, just like Sam used to during their arguments.

“You were in my room.”

Closing the book, she turned fully toward him. Her upper lip tic-ed once, twice. Better speak while she still could.

“What have you been doing in there?” she enunciated carefully.

“You know.”

“But why?”

“There has to be a reason?”

“For constructing a weapon? Yes, I’d say so.”

He shuffled his feet a little and glanced around the room. Then he lifted his chin and locked eyes with her. She thought about cornered animals, what they did to escape.

“I’m learning to hunt.”

She laughed and instantly wished she hadn’t. “In your room?”

NO. In the woods.”

 “Have you thought that completely through?”

He just leveled his gaze. She stood, her legs held stronger than she’d expected. When she spoke, she found her voice mostly steady.

“My father—the grandfather you never knew—hunted. I heard all his stories. If you don’t shoot it in the heart, the deer takes off and you have to follow the blood trail for hours. If you don’t find the deer, it dies horribly, alone, and takes a long time. If you do find it, then you have to shoot it again and skin it. Do you know what all that entails?”

“On You Tube—”

That’s not real life. You shoot something, there are consequences, Aspen.”

Unclasping his arms, he stood up straight, hands clenched at his sides. “Thinking doesn’t save you, Mom. Acting does.”

He’d probably heard that from Tom McManix, bowyer.

“Oh, yeah, acting: going off half-cocked and doing anything you want to do, that’s real mature.”

Half-cocked—had she actually said that? She was panting a little; why didn’t he look madder? Because he’d wanted her to discover his secret “hobby.” But why?

“All hunters,” he said, “say there’s no feeling like knowing you can feed your family.”

She stared. Could he not hear how ridiculous that sounded coming from a kid who spent all of his non-dishwashing hours in his room staring at a screen (okay, and whittling)? Even more absurd: did he think his family required extra food killed in the wild? But he looked so deadly earnest that she held her tongue. Her silence must’ve encouraged him.

 “Randy will be able to take down his fence, Mom.”

She couldn’t help wagging her head. Was he going to kill the entire herd that, aided and abetted by their benevolence, had thrived? But she liked the note of pride in his voice. Since Owl Boy had expired, she’d never detected that much confidence in her son, not even when he cooked killer mushroom, cheese and chili pepper omelets, not since that day, at ten, he’d pointed out to an entire group of adult birdwatchers the great horned owl staring straight at them across the bog.

“Is your father going to join you in hunting the local deer?”

Headshake, lips tight.

“But there are two bows. Who—”

“Alexandra has been helping me. She’ll take me when I’m ready.”

Marina felt her face turn fiery red. The Slut’s real name had never been uttered within these walls since Sam’s abandonment. The name of the woman who’d stolen her husband—never mind that she didn’t much want the bastard by then; that wasn’t the issue.

Alexandra is teaching you to hunt?”

He didn’t even look sorry he’d broken the cardinal rule. He looked determined.

 “Alex’s dad took her hunting as soon as she could hold a .22. But she hated hunting with a gun—too much technology between you and the animal, like buying hamburger in Kroger and never seeing the cow it came from. The kill must come from your own hands.”

Was he quoting The Slut? Before she could reply, Marina recalled the finished bow’s silky slickness. In her mind, she heard her grandfather say that killing, if you did it skillfully and humbly, connected you (to what? He hadn’t said).  But the image of her son’s step-mom wielding the object he’d crafted with his hands drowned out Grandpa’s voice.  

“Then why don’t you just stab the deer instead?”

When he frowned and shook his head, she was tempted to apologize. But if she didn’t release him, he’d be late for work. Marina took a step backward.

“Go to work,” she said. “We can discuss this when—”

“They fired me yesterday.”


“I’m not fast enough. To do a good job washing dishes takes a lot longer than they think. But they didn’t believe me. They’ll see.”

This time her cheeks didn’t flame. Compared to his earlier revelation—that he was making his step-mom a bow—the job loss was not only bearable but could even be the opening she’d been hoping for. His father would not see it this way. Alexandra and all Robin’s merry men would not save him from Dad’s wrath.

“Do you think you could make me a bow?”

She couldn’t believe she’d said it or the unbidden grin teasing her lips. She let it stay, waiting for him to recover from his astonishment. There was the owl-boy, innocent and eager, who’d trusted her to be his woods companion. Together, they’d seen so much, nearly all there was to see on their five acres. There was a lot more land to be conquered elsewhere, with other guides. Eyes closed, she saw Aspen striding soundlessly through the understory of some unknown forest, bow at his side. And he was not alone. His voice brought her back.

 “You gonna take a shot at Bambi, Mom?”

Was that a grin or a smirk? She assumed the latter and allowed herself the wide smile from which he usually fled. She folded her arms; if the gesture helped the men of this family stand their ground, why not the women?

“I can think of other targets.”

“I’ll bet you can.”

When he laughed, she joined him, wondering whether he’d somehow read her mind and seen Alexandra with an arrow in her butt. Probably not, yet it was a with-you not at-you laugh. Was this a real conversation? If so, it was the first since the divorce. Since Aspen had spoken Alexandra’s name, the room’s climate had changed. Is that what he’d wanted all along, consciously or not: to force some sort of reckoning by leaving the evidence in clear sight, figuring she’d eventually succumb to temptation? Had she sold her son short, too often considering him a narcissistic loser who occasionally made good meals, when he’d been dreaming about connecting his two families in order to give himself a coherent life? Then what could she do about it?

With the windows and roof being battered by sideways rain, the house felt to Marina like a cave: snug, intimate, allowing forbidden thoughts, such as: Why not quit hating her son’s step-mother when it was really Sam who’d betrayed her? That thought triggered another, even scarier: how about forgiving Sam, the man she’d stopped loving a long time before he asked for the divorce? Too much. It was grist for another day’s milling. There was something she could do right now with this new son in front of her.  Since he didn’t have to go to work today, she could cook for him. Or maybe they could make something together; she’d make sides to go with his entrée. If she could have him in the kitchen, she’d let his step-mom have him in the woods.

She still shuddered at the thought of killing. She’d Google Tom McManix, though the name sounded like a villain cowboy or a rogue detective. Maybe the bowyer would turn out to be a kind, competent hunter like Gramps, like—she swallowed hard—Alexandra. She could not imagine Owl Boy shooting a deer. But that was her problem.

“Have you told your father you were fired?”

He jammed his hands in his pockets and slumped.

“Then don’t. You can work for me at the shop until you decide what to do next.”


She’d expected his expression to read torture, but he looked almost eager.  

“As for tonight . . .”

Before she could make her co-cooking proposal, he stepped backward and half-turned. Oh no, he was returning to his room!

“Come on, Mom,” he flung behind him, “I want to show you something. You may not like it, but since you’ve seen the other stuff, you might as well know everything.”

For a moment he’d looked like Owl Boy again, begging her to sleep outside for just one more night when she was sick to death of being eaten alive by mosquitoes, chiggers and flies. But even before the visual was half-formed, she hit delete and it was gone: an illusion not to be confused with the present reality. She thought she’d never say yes to another man inviting her into his bedroom, but today she’d make an exception. She might be ready to see what she could not ever truly know.


end of story

© 2021, Ed Davis Go to top