THE GREAT HORNED OWLS’ BEHEADINGS
The veterinarian wanders through the forest that abuts the long-emptied parking lot for her clinic in search of her owls, birds she has tracked in the ten years since her clinic opened, birds she can identify by the silence they leave behind as they slip from branch to branch.
She wanders until at some distance she sees a great horned owl, beheaded but still alive. As she approaches, the body splays its wings, tries to fly, careens back into the fallen leaves a few steps ahead of her, as if make itself open to examination. She can see its spine: a keratin threading come undone.
The veterinarian knows she should leave these portions to nature, but there is no one watching and she needs to know why, how. She tucks the owl’s trunk into her lab coat, pins her elbows close to her body, holds the head between her globed palms, runs. With every step, a talon digging further into the space beneath her ribcage.
When she gets home, there will be a cut in her blouse and a swatch of red. She will admire the pain, wish she could hold it in her fingers.
One benefit of owning a veterinary clinic is that it’s easy—not as easy as it used to be, but easy enough—to smuggle hydromorphone out and into her veins, and with that bliss in her bloodstream, the veterinarian prowls her old Victorian house, opening all the windows, wind scraping up dust from forgotten surfaces and dropping it like snow on the hardwood floors, where it collects on the bottoms of her feet until she feels like she’s crumbling away, and how that no longer seems to matter.
It’s important to leave the lights on in all the rooms so that the ghosts of what she’s done are relegated only to the usual hiding places—under the bed, in the closet, just beyond every night-shaded window—and there the barbiturate-silenced menagerie can accumulate, and that way, she knows exactly where not to look.
In the morning the veterinarian brings the great horned owl into her clinic. The lights are out and it’s cold inside, and empty, and she can’t quite remember when the staff stopped showing up at dawn.
She takes the owl’s head and mates it to the threading on the trunk’s exposed vertebrae. She begins to twist, clockwise, right-y tight-y she says to herself, and listens to the keratin sliding against itself. The action is smooth, lubricated by what she can only believe to be cerebrospinal fluid.
As soon as the head is restored the owl cavorts its body and unwinds its head, which topples on the countertop with a thud, rolls, falls to the floor with a louder crack. It makes an un-owl-like squawk.
She asks, Why would you do this to yourself?
She places the bird beneath the x-ray machine—in hyaline filmstrips, she sees an impossible anatomy, bones shifted into an unnatural shape. Among that disconnect—vertebrae made into figures new—she finds no trauma, no signs of fracturing, no clues as to the unraveling of severed nerves, their retreats into belly-cisterns or ankle-caves where they might never be found again. There is only a patina of feathers smooth as the inside of patellae. Either the down is infinite, or her fingers are unwilling to dive into the unknown.
She asks, What’s the matter with you.
The owl only opens its wings in a flourish that sounds like a whisper spoken in a voice and language she once knew but has since forgotten.
She loops through the clinic’s rooms, trying to remember what transpired in each. The waiting room is weighted by a patina of dust, and someone has broken the glass of the front door but then, it seems, declined to enter.
In the back she remembers slipping on surgical gloves, the wheeze of the anesthesia machine, scalpels carving out tumors, bloodloss clamped, bones reset. In each examination room, every animal she has killed lined up on every flat surface. They do not watch because they no longer have eyes, but they intuit her presence, turn toward her.
In every euthanasia a slippage; she lost a bundle of cells every time, always sloughing from places of herself that she did not know existed. The first doses of hydromorphone did not replace those departures, but they did act as the tightest of sutures.
She tucks the owl into her coat and leaves out the back door. She leaves it unlocked—let another enter, perhaps, and search better than she’s ever known how.
As the veterinarian wanders the forest near her clinic, still wearing her OR shoes, she finds an owl’s pellet, stops and ponders this sarcophagus amid the fallen leaves, the intimate arrangement of bones, of unrendered fur. She picks through it with her fingers, pushing at the crumbling shapes, searching inside the history of this killer.
Perhaps the fragmented teeth and skulls left whole will speak some truth of the owl’s beheading. She appreciates evidence most of all, differentiating diagnoses, rationalizing out the truth, but all she finds is dust, small clues packaged for her remorse alone.
They say an animal knows, intuits the time of its passing. They say an animal understands the love in the gesture of killing. An unburdening, cessation of pain.
These voices, they make so many promises, but none of them press the stethoscope’s diaphragm into ribcages and actually listen. What they do not understand is that sound is not a weightless phenomenon: its fading beat, the heaviest of all.
When she plunges the syringe into her skin, the owl’s body comes darting in through the open bathroom door, talons grasping, as if to steal it away, but it swings well wide, the eyes a mere distant observer, perception of depth askew.
The veterinarian loses her legs and falls to the ground grateful. The hydromorphone has already left her hands useless for combat as a pair of wings, which are only good for so many wonders: flight, beauty, hiding a whole wreath of secrets.
Somewhere in the night, time lost, the veterinarian reaches up with her hands and presses her fingers into either temple and twists until the lock gives, until she can see the curve of her buttock, the heel of her foot, until she’s come back around again to the front, and the owl is there watching, head screwed back on, whole, screeching, splaying its wings in the codes she never learned to break.
Every morning after a dose the veterinarian wakes to dust on her eyelids, dust on her tongue. She wipes it away as best she can with her fingertips but it is never enough. Shower a thousand times and there is a haze of things done and left undone.
Her house is a sarcophagus: the blue-bound textbooks rainbowed in highlights and the pale green pads mimicking skin all riddled with sutures, plastic tubing as thick-walled arteries, all symbols of her once-love. It is all there but chewed apart, if not by jaws then by time.
Someone could search for the rest of her lifetime but they would never find the bone or fibrous connection that can sing to what she once loved and how quickly she watched it denature, disappear.
The veterinarian wonders if there is someone or something out there who would take sorrow in a killer’s departure: the owl, ravager of small rodentlife; the veterinarian, bearing syringes of silence. But, sometimes, the killer doesn’t have a choice. Sometimes, a killer just does what needs to be done, again and again, because it is their calling and their only melody.
The veterinarian finds another great horned owl beheaded and over its two pieces she cries. She tries replacing their heads together—she thinks in seeing the condition of the other, the birds might understand. They come off again and again: skulls tapping against the dining room table. Eyes rolling, beaks open as if in search of another kind of air. They hoot at each other from short distances.
Why won’t you let me fix you? the veterinarian asks. Why won’t you let me bring you back?
She doesn’t know why, now, her patients would be capable of giving an answer. They use their wings to fly through every room, scattering dust that billows into weather systems. Storms coalesce above the chandelier, thunderheads looming. They drop their heads on a bookshelf and stand their bodies nearby, guardians of their own anatomies.
In her case studies she told fictions of life: patients not euthanized, instead offered doses of hydromorphone that she would take home for herself. In those pages, the animals were still alive. She had not yet taken them. Better, she thought, to be in pain and still alive than free and gone. That was some time ago, days she can’t count. She has started to wonder if the opposite were true all along.
In her truck, barbiturates: she can try pushing doses into the owl bodies, a smaller portion into the heads, and see if the dead can still die. If not to make an answer, then to find peace.
Before, she might have euthanized out of sympathy for the pain she assumed they felt. Now her need for knowing is greater, and they will not die. They will not join the vaults.
The owl bodies drop their heads into the palms of her hands as if on command. As if they know. She kisses them on the crowns of their skulls. They bite her lips and she blesses the blood left behind.
If there is some apology that transmits universal, beyond language or any barrier, by sight alone or perhaps the gentlest of touches, let it stay unknown. Let it be foreign. She does not want it. For the dying, there is nothing but goodbyes. She can apologize for inflicting pain in order to make some healing possible but never for taking it all away.
Apologies are only for those that are to remain.
The veterinarian has one more syringe of hydromorphone hidden in a cupboard beneath the bathroom sink. She avoids the owls as she runs for it, peels away the sheathe, plummets it into her arm.
She steps out into the dark and leaves the front door open, letting night bleed inside, the owls flying outside with their heads in their talons, setting them on the car’s hood—they pin her within their eyes, her shadow in reflection, as she begs for quiet, for a talon pulled across her throat, and in response they open their wings and flex their feet, draw scratches into the paint.
To remain: To be, or to become dust.
Snow is falling gentle as the veterinarian wakes once more, sees the owls taking turns threading back on each other’s heads, as if beneath the fingers there are small fingers. She sees a body in the distance: white-gowned, OR shoes facing her, no bloody veins, no nerves firing for the pulling-apart, no pain at all. She sees skin capable of holding in only so much dark.
She sees them watching her. The apologizes with the spare words she has left: that she never did see who it was that needed the diagnoses. The great horned owls watch her from the hood of the car like she is something unlike pray or predator. They silence their wings into the night.
The veterinarian will wake again whole in the morning. She will brush the snow from her eyelids. She will step inside to find her home ransacked by thousands of taloned gouges. She will hold each in her hands and begin to diagnose with her fingertips. The owls will have long finished picking through her sarcophagus, the shell of her home, the inconsequential bones within tucked into shapes that might tell a story if read by eyes sharp enough to see like telescopes into the past.