Ambivalent, Raccoon, Generation.
Malevolent yellow eyes followed me when ever I walked through the living room. Their gaze skittered off of my shoulders and shivered down my back making my five-year old legs weak. I hid behind my mother when going upstairs; otherwise I pushed my back to the wall and scraped past as quickly as I could. The old stuffed owl on the newel was terrifying. The first time I saw it I touched the tip of the beak and got a nasty cut that became infected, I knew for sure it had bitten me. Hey I was little, what did I know?
Didn’t everyone’s grandmother have animal skins lying around the garage? Didn’t they all have a bunch of glass eyeballs in a drawer in the kitchen? All I had to do was sneak a couple of eyeballs out of that drawer and I was king of the playground back home all day long. Show and Tell was always interesting; my grandmother stuffs dead animals, what does yours do?
My dad grew up in that house. A carpenter, he worked outside year round, even in the cold. I figured he stayed outside now because he spent his childhood shut away in that old New Hampshire house all winter long, staring at stuffed raccoons and deer heads. Wouldn’t that get old fast. I wonder if he was as ambivalent about it as I was when he was young and didn’t know that the owl couldn’t come get him in his sleep. Drawn to those claws of death each time I entered the room, I was unable to look away. I knew it wouldn’t move but somehow that never meant that it couldn’t.
There was a nearly vertical flight of stairs back in the kitchen that led to the end of the hallway upstairs. When I was big enough my parents let me use it and after that I hardly went near the front room. I could go for entire visits and never see the owl if I gave up watching television while I was there. Small price to pay, if you asked 12 yr old me. I went less and less in the later years. As burgeoning youth are wont I had other things to do and other friends to visit. The last time I was there I was in college and the house was deeded to my father. That was years ago now.
I recently brought my family cross-country to see the old house for the first time. Before we came I asked my parents to put the owl away, no need to terrorize the next generation of offspring right? Mom said she would put it in the study while we were there and then promptly forgot all about it.
They welcomed us on the front lawn when we pulled up. My son Ian jumped down and ran into his grandpa’s arms, nearly knocking him over. After all the hugging Mom took my wife upstairs to show her our rooms while Dad took the kids to show them the chickens. Left on my own, I began to unload the car.
I walked into the living room and immediately my eyes went to the staircase. Sure enough my old enemy was there – talons ready, beak sharp and hooked, eyes staring. One look at that contorted beak was all it took, one glance at those crooked talons. For a moment I was five again and swallowing hard. The eyes gleamed in the fading afternoon light; having caught a ray from the dying sun.
The room seemed to draw in around me as the old fears came rushing back. A light sweat broke out on my upper lip, my face felt hot and prickly. I shifted the bag in my hand to the other and wiped a damp palm on my pants. The owl tracked my progress across the room until I stood in front of it. The wicked talons still looked needle-sharp. The beak, though yellowed with age still gave me pause. A breeze from the open door wound its way in, ruffling the feathers on its way by. Good Lord it was finally coming to get me.
I jumped when my son came around from behind me. He stood at my side and when I looked down I saw that the owl had found him too. His mouth formed a perfect “O” and he stopped dead in his tracks. “What is that?”
I would not make a big deal out of it. “It’s an owl Ian. Go help your mother.”
“Whoa,” he said as he stepped toward it. No Ian, I thought, don’t do it son. Many, many sleepless nights await you if you touch that creature. I’d hated birds ever since touching Grandma’s smelly, feathered horror. I put out a hand to stop Ian but he was past me in a second.
“Dad,” he said as he turned to me, “this is sick! Can I play with it?” I shook my head.
Ian put his hand on the newel below the bird and stepped up beside it. He gave it a thorough examination and, the little boy in him winning out, reached up and touched it. “Euwwww,” he said, but I could tell he really thought it was cool. “Wait till I tell Peter!” With that he bounded up the stairs to go find his mother. That was it. That was the extent of his reaction.
I set my bag down and took another look at the owl. Humph. It was missing a few feathers and looked kind of shabby and pathetic. There were small scratches on the talons and beak. The eyes were dull, their surface no longer shiny. Afraid of this? What a girlie boy. What a wuss. I reached out to touch the decrepit old beak and promptly cut myself on the tip of it.