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issue 19: july - august 2000 

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OWL SAYS
by Patricia Anthony

       

The building smelled of Lysol and panicked sweat; its silence again took her by surprise—two visits allotted, this one her last. She knew that she would always remember this silence, the odd, sad, sterile passivity of it, the hushed, contemplative expectation, like a monastery.
      She entered H-wing of Ellis Unit past Barry Swotts, the young freckled-faced guard, and Frank Best, the balding older man. She knew they must dread her coming. Still, they were Texas-polite, tipping their caps. "Hey, how’s it going, Miz Jessup? Sure is a fine one outside."
      This fine morning she had driven past grape purple irises, tulips the pastel hue of children’s Easter eggs, lollipop-shaped Bradford pear trees frothy with blossoms: a feast of blooms not a hundred yards from this spot. Frank and Barry must have driven by them on their way to work. Jimmy Lee Highwater hadn’t seen the seasonal color. In Ellis’ cell block wings there were no windows. He had not seen spring for over eight years.
      Jimmy Lee waited for her in a square beige room. He sat on one of a pair of molded tan plastic chairs. Head bowed, he’d propped his elbows on the rectangular pressed wood table. The table’s gray metal legs folded if need be, so that it might be stored away. Neat and pliable as a corpse, that table—arms folded over chest, legs drawn up like a child sleeping.
      Jimmy Lee’s right wrist was cuffed. He was a big man; the table flimsy. Had he been so inclined, he could have carried that table one-handed through the buff steel door, down the tan corridor, to the chain link fence and beyond. As he ran, he could fold that table. He could store it in a culvert, under a bridge, in a shallow grave.
      Barry and Frank crowded into the room with her. When she sat opposite Jimmy Lee, Frank put a box of Scott tissues (pale watercolor lilacs on a white cardboard background) within arm’s reach. Then he withdrew. On this particular fine spring morning young Barry had Granny Guarding duty. He leaned against the steel-and-glass door, hands clasped to his front, a blond, khaki-uniformed choirboy.
      She said, "I’m here. So what did you want?"
      Jimmy Lee lifted his head and she could see the blankness of death in him. He was, she imagined, mulling things over.
      With a compassion that annoyed her, he asked, "Didn’t get no sleep?" His imposing size was what she remembered from the trial. Yet since the first time they had sat face to face, his blue eyes struck her as too gentle for mass murder.
      "I didn’t come all this way for you to patronize me," she snapped.
      He seemed mildly puzzled. "Yeah, it’s bad, not getting no sleep."
      He’s useless, she thought. Primitive. Ignorant. Perhaps slow-witted. She wondered how the State of Texas had ever imagined he could give her closure.
      At the door, Barry shifted his weight. She shot him a warning look. On her first visit, when she had broken down in perfectly understandable sobs, the guards had been solicitous not of her, but of Jimmy Lee. Yet in two days these same guards would strap him to a gurney and then they would put him to death. She could tell by his body language that Jimmy Lee had already forgiven the guards for what they were to do; she could tell that the guards appreciated his forgiveness. It’s a damned boy’s club out there, she’d told Edgar only the week before. The comment had made Edgar peevish, of course. As if a husband’s and father’s love was any greater. As if straight-laced Edgar and his RAMS, his fast modems, his big hard drives, would ever dream of raping a woman and killing her kids.
      "You a Christian?" Jimmy Lee asked.
      Her back stiffened so abruptly that a nerve pinched.
      "’Cause I been thinking you probably is. Most folks ‘round here is Christians." Jimmy Lee’s eyes might have been soft, but his face was coarse, his features blunt. His hands were huge—the fingers spatulate—hands made for the cruder of the male tasks.
      "That’s none of your business."
      "I know that, ma’am. But I was just wondering . . . " He considered the box of tissues. "You think your family’s in heaven?"
      It didn’t feel as if she had tensed, but she must have. Barry dropped his arms. He took a half-step forward.
      "I think they must be," Jimmy Lee said. "I think it’s only right. I mean, the way they died and all."
      "How?"
      He jerked his head up. Her question surprised her, too. All this time—she didn’t think that she would ever have the courage to ask. "I killt ‘em, ma’am. You remember?"
      "Yes, damn it. I’m not stupid. But how?"
      "Well, like they told you at the trial: I shot the boys in the back while they was sleeping, and I shot her in the face later. But they all went real quick, though. Want you to know that. Weren’t no struggle nor nothin’." He stared at the tissues a while. "So you a Christian, then, ma’am? You think they’s all in heaven?"
      "At one time I was a Christian, yes."
      "It’s hard when folks is pulling at you," he agreed. "I mean, like on the outside and all. It’s quiet in here, except when them doors slam. Mostly it’s nice. You got your bed and your three squares. A person can be alone with his thoughts. Only when it gets closer to the time and all, things gets hard. Listen. You ever get them nightmares?"
      Once upon a time she’d dreamed in color. Now she struggled into sleep and sometimes awoke with the sound of a shot.
      "’Cause when I was a kid," he said, "had this friend was a Lakota Sioux. Mama and me, we lived up near Weatherford? And when she wasn’t drinking it was nice and quiet. Just like here. We’d go swimming, Lyle and me—that was this Indian kid’s name—we’d shuck our jeans and go skinny dipping in his daddy’s stock tank. And so Lyle told me about true names, and how his was Rattlesnake. I thought that was pretty good. Nobody fucks—sorry, ma’am. Nobody messes with a rattler. But Lyle, he tells me it ain’t like that, that the rattler is wise and all, and only kills to protect hisself. Anyways, Lyle told me I was Owl. I told him he was full of shit. Oh, I’m sorry, Ms. Jessup. Me and my dirty mouth. We got this bad habit."
      She checked her watch. "Does this have a point? Because this is a long story, Jimmy Lee, and I just don’t see the point. Neither of us has the time."
      Jimmy Lee ducked his head. To her shock, she saw he was blushing. "No, ma’am. No, we surely don’t. When I was a kid, though, I didn’t want to be no owl—hiding in the dark like that. But later on it struck me that Lyle must have been pretty smart, ‘cause damned if I didn’t turn into one. Like if you ever see an owl sitting in a tree, you’ll never see it fly. Owls is sneaky like that." He pulled a tissue out of the box and handed it to her. "You got some mascara or something."
      When had she started crying? She scrubbed her eyes hard.
      He said, "When you was in here before, Miz Jessup, you asked me the why of what I done; but you never stuck around for the answer."
      She slammed her fist, the tissue wadded in it, onto the plywood table. At the door, Barry said, "Miz Jessup?"
      She’d utterly forgotten he was there. "You told me you didn’t know."
      "Yes, ma’am. And that’s the God’s honest truth. I could tell you it was the meth what done it, and I used that excuse a while. The easy answer is, I needed money. But why did I kill them kids? Them boys never done nothing to me. I mean, the rest of the story kinda makes sense: Your daughter had on this pink little nightie, ma’am. Didn’t cover much of nothing. And as for shooting her after? Well, couldn’t leave no witnesses. You know that."
      She swiped at her eyes again. The tissue came away smudged with taupe eye shadow, the institutional hue of the walls.
      "So for nine years I been thinking on the why," he said, "and I still cain’t make no head nor tail. Seems like I was mad at the time; but if you was to ask who done what to make me so blamed mad, I couldn’t give you no good answer. I figure Lyle was right—my nature is Owl. I killt them kids ‘cause they was small and defenseless. I killt ‘em because I felt like it at the time."
      "I dream about coming in here with a knife," she told him. "I fanaticize that two big men are with me, to hold you down." She noticed that Barry was staring at her, his cherubic face blank.
      Jimmy Lee nodded. He studied the tabletop, the place where the wood grain Contact paper was peeling. "Did you know, ma’am, that if there’s a creature on God’s green earth that hates an owl, it’s a crow? Not that they see a whole lot of each other, crows being daytime birds and owls coming out in the night. But crows always give me the jeebies. If a crow finds some critter dead or dying—a helpless little critter—they’ll eat it alive. The first thing they go for is the eyes."
      She looked to the wall clock, wondering how much of this she was supposed to take. She wondered when the "healing" the state had promised would begin. Two oh five. Forty-nine hours from now the drugs would work their way down the IV line. Jimmy Lee would go to sleep, and then, without much fanfare, his heart would stop. She strangled the tissue. It wasn’t payment enough.
      "I dream about ‘em."
      She sat up, hopeful. "Renee and the boys?"
      "Crows." He tried to touch his face with his cuffed hand. His wrists were thick and the cuff was tight. She wondered if the impulsive gesture had bruised him. "Seems like just lately, I been dreaming about crows." He cleared his throat. "They’s a-flapping them big black wings and they’s coming closer. And in this dream, see, I cain’t move a muscle. My body’s all froze up. And I think . . . if I could just close my eyes, you know? Squinch ‘em tight so the crows can’t get at ‘em. But I just cain’t seem to do that."
      He reached for water, but the plastic carafe was too far away. She nudged it closer. His hands shook. "So here these past few years," he told her, "I come to know that hate gets past your skin and gnaws at your innards. I know all about hate, see, ‘cause I used to hate my mama. And now I gone and caused you to hate me, too. That’s the worst thing about all this. Them folks I killt, why, there was only a little bit of pain. I’m not making light or nothing, but less than fifteen minutes and it was over. But you, ma’am? Why, it’s been going on nine years."
      Her chest went cold from the effrontery, from the pity she saw in his face. How dare he talk to her of hatred? She wanted to tell him to shut up, shut up, just shut the hell up, but her throat could not let the words go.
      "You ever think, ma’am, that things we do sort of branch out like roots? And so this bad thing I done nine years ago been squeezing on you like a weeping willow’ll squeeze a water main. All this time I been seeing you talk on TV, talking hateful. I caused that. So I told the warden, before the State of Texas kills me, I need to set things right."
      Had she been able to articulate what she felt, her gut should have vomited up a wordless howl. Her strong, steady voice surprised her. "Set things right? Set things right? If you want to set things right, you son of a bitch, you bring me back my daughter and grandkids. You know the last words I said to my daughter? I told her that I hated her new drapes. She hung up on me. The very last thing I told my grandkids was ‘No.’ ‘No, don’t touch grandma’s things.’ ‘No, you can’t have ice cream.’ ‘No, I’m not taking you to the mall.’ So you want to set things right, you bring my family back right now." And then she, too, was shuddering, shuddering so hard that the table danced. She wanted to escape the prison’s dull beige walls. She wanted very badly to close her eyes; but she couldn’t.
      "Oh, Ms Jessup. Oh, ma’am. You don’t have no idea how I wish I could do that. Preacher keeps telling me Jesus done forgive me, but they’s too much to forgive—my whole damned, messed up, no-account life. I been watching you, like I said, on the TV. And, well . . . Here. I wanted to give you something."
      She stiffened. Would he hand her some hand-tooled leather wallet as a pathetic keepsake?
      He leaned as close as his shackles would allow. "I want you to listen to old Jimmy Lee, now. Will you do that, ma’am? I want you to think hard on them nightmares I been having. When they kill me this Wednesday, I want you to know how scared I am to die."
      She drew a tissue from the box and gave it to him. In a monotone, he thanked her.
      He picked at the wadded tissue, shredding it into a damp pile of white. His face worked until his eyes, his cheeks, his mouth, were smooth again. "You think it’s going to rain?"
      "Rain?" She wondered if he might be speaking some sort of prison slang.
      "I like them thunderstorms. Like the smell of it; the way them clouds build up, all white and soft and big, like a pile of clean pillows or something. I used to get me some outside time. Have us a yard here. It’s small; could only see me a part of the sky. But now the date’s so close, they won’t let me out in the yard no more."
      "The sky’s blue today. Not a cloud in sight."
      He stared at the shreds of tissue. "You come watch?"
      "No."
      "Ma’am, I’m asking you to come. I don’t have nobody to see me off, so wouldn’t be folks crying or nothing. But it might ease you to see me strapped down. To see the life go out of me. I took so much away, ma’am. I want to give back what I can."
      She shot to her feet. The chair shrieked across the tile. "Goddamn you! What sort of sick stunt are you trying to pull? How dare you ask if my grandchildren are in heaven! There’s nothing afterwards. Nothing. We’re born; we die. So you can’t give me anything at all, Jimmy Lee. How about that? When they strap you down and pump those drugs into you, don’t assume that you’ve done something good in your life. You're a born loser and you’ll die a loser. That’s all you ever were."
      He nodded. Barry saw her coming and hurriedly stepped out of her way. At the door she stopped to look back. She looked back again from the corridor beyond. Each time she looked, she saw Jimmy Lee staring at the tabletop, nodding.

***

 At two in the afternoon on Wednesday, a late norther blew in. The sky turned slate gray, the wind blustered. At two forty-five, during Edgar’s "Good Riddance" party, she refused a noise maker even though at three o’clock sharp everyone else blew theirs in celebration. At three-fifteen the guests toasted her and Edgar both; they told them that they could get on with their lives. They hugged her. They shook her hand. Unable to stand the press of the crowd, she took her Cuba libre—Edgar’s idea of the day’s perfect drink—into the sunroom, where she could smell the fresh breeze, where she could see the storm come in.
      Edgar followed. "What the hell’s the matter with you?"
      "Nothing." She turned from the damp gray and budding green of the backyard toward the party’s decorations: teal blue, Renee’s favorite color; and cowboy blue and silver for the boys. She said, "It’s not appropriate, Edgar."
      "What do you expect?" he hissed. "I mourned for nine goddamn years!"
      Beyond the French doors, the crowd of guests had begun to stare their way. She caught sight of Edgar’s new girlfriend. "Oh, no, no Edgar. For heaven’s sake. It’s time for you to move on."
      "We’re in this thing together, aren’t we? Aren’t we?" He had turned crimson-faced. "Lately you’ve been looking at me like I’m some sort of monster. Well, Jimmy Lee Highwater was the monster, Marge. He murdered three innocents, or did you forget that? What sob story did that sociopath tell you, anyway? All about how his mommy sent him to bed without his dinner? Huh? Did you feel sorry for him, for god’s sake?" She wondered which of Edgar’s guests would stop this. Pastor Dunwith had taken a half step forward when Edgar screamed, "What the fuck did you do? Forgive him?"
      No. Never. Not that. Yet she wished she’d gone to Ellis. Now she would never know if watching Jimmy Lee’s death would have given her peace.
      Edgar crowded her, his body blocking the door. With an effort, she shouldered past him. To her back he called, "You tight-assed bitch! They were my children!"
      She pushed through the throng, their eyes on her every move, gazes as unflinching as television cameras. Then she was out the front door and alone in the spitting rain. No flash-bulbs, no microphones. No more reporters now that Jimmy Lee Highwater was dead. Edgar’s manicured tiff grass was vacant without them, as if someone had stolen an assembly of ubiquitous garden trolls, pink flamingos.
      Yet at the curb, parked cars, always the parked cars, visitors bringing pot roasts for the widower, activists bringing petitions, politicians wanting a useful quote. For nine years she and Edgar had been so damned busy.
      She was not dressed for the outing, but still she drove to the lake. There, she strode the black asphalt jogging trail until her Neiman Marcus pants suit hung heavy, until the padding in her Easy Spirit pumps was sodden. Weighted down, her hair collapsed, an Aqua-Net-fragrant mop.
      Wiping the damp from her cheeks, she saw that her makeup had run. She ran, too—past sleepy spectator ducks and apathetic mud hens, past small boats moored at the dock, sails neatly tucked. As fast as her arthritis allowed, she jogged into the wood’s dim cathedral twilight.
      Why hadn’t she spoken up? The state had certainly given her the chance. Now it was too late to ask if Renee had begged for her life. Too late to ask which of the children he had shot first, or if the noise had woken his brother. She would never know if Renee’s last sight had been that of the dead bodies of her children.
      Ahead, from a tangle of old growth oaks, crows screamed bloody murder. The cacophony stopped her in her tracks. Shock set her heart racing. Then a gust of wind; the boughs of the bur oak dipped. She wasn’t dreaming as she had (for a giddy, irrational moment) feared. Yet what she saw made no sense. Furious, hysterical, the birds attacked a lump on a branch.
      The crows spotted her. Startled, they fled, cawing: black specters through the latticework of the trees. The lump turned its head one hundred and eighty degrees and peered backward. Caught in the regard of those moon-yellow eyes, daylight dimmed. The air went hushed. Fresh rain pattered on the remains of last winter’s leaves. The owl was startlingly, unnaturally close. She could see the breeze ruffle its mottled wings, its feathery horns. The round face was as familiar and homey as an image in a child’s coloring book. Its talons looked deadly.
      It hooted—the same whimsical query she’d once taught Renee when she was a baby. The call that once, over nine years ago, she’d taught her grandchildren. Four times it asked: "Who-who? Who-who?"
      Rain fell faster, the rhythm of the drops impatient, like the drumming of fingernails. The wind turned chill. A gust lifted a lock of her hair from her forehead and slapped her with it. She blinked. When she could see again, the branch (of course) was bare.
      In the gray day she walked to her car. Against the Buick’s door, she wept. From the shrouding mist on the other side of the park the owl asked, "Who-who? Who-who?" It had always been, she realized, the only relevant question. "Why?" could never be known. The true answer to "How?" would have driven her insane.
      Renee, she thought. Alan, Jason. Jimmy Lee.
      All this time she imagined she’d been watching; yet she’d failed to catch sight of where nine years had flown. At Edgar’s house the party was over. It was over, whether they were ready for freedom or not.

2000 Patricia Anthony
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navigation:                         barcelona review #19                    july - august 2000
-Fiction James Meek: These Lovers
James Meek: And the Days Grow Shorter
Lynn Coady: Jesus Christ, Murdeena
David Ewen: God's Breath
Patricia Anthony: Owl Says
Abel Diaz: Comfortable
-Essay Barbara F. Lefcowitz: Rope, Pockets, The Bidet
-Interview Patricia Anthony: Worlds at War
-Article July and August in Barcelona
-Quiz Toni Morrison
Answers to last issue's William Faulkner Quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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