Owl Eyes by John Washington


I wasn’t used to riding a bicycle with a bow across my back. I felt a little silly about it actually, and hoped no one I knew would see me. That’s why, or why I thought, I started out so early in the morning, looking to be able to loop the city and be back home before ten or so. But the truth is, I didn’t know what exactly I was doing out there. I knew I was hunting owls, and I knew that every time I looked over my shoulder I’d spot a couple—a man and a woman—riding bicycles behind me, but I didn’t feel like I knew much else. The man and woman were keeping their distance, a distance that made me think they were following me, that they were why I was out there in the first place, and why I had the bow across my back.
     Sometimes you wonder why you find yourself where you do. Sometimes that wondering can change things for you. And yet sometimes you just wonder and keep on.
     Earlier on my ride I’d already caught a glimpse of a few owls. They were out of shooting range though, and each time I got within a hundred yards, they started hopping away. Hopping sort of like kangaroos, a few quick, bolting hops, and then volplaning—if that’s the word—for a few seconds, adding to the distance between us. The owls kept far enough away that it would have been a waste to shoot at them. I’m not a very good shot anyway. In fact, I’ve only shot an arrow a few times in my life, and, if I remember correctly, besides painfully chafing my forearm with the snap of the bowstring, my arrows didn’t come close to their target.
     I was getting tired. More than anything, the bow across my back was uncomfortable. I cruised to a stop, stood with the bicycle between my legs and tried to rearrange myself. The constricting quiver and the arrows poking everywhere made it awkward, plus my shirt was bunching up. I pulled it down to cover the little flash of my belly and then, straightened up a bit, turned to look behind me. The couple had stopped on their bicycles as well. They were looking at me. A tall, skinny man with close cropped blonde hair, a jaw so bony I could see it from a hundred yards away, and a woman of indistinct age with dark brown hair. I threw up my hands in frustration. They didn’t respond.
     I stepped on the raised pedal and started riding again.
     I was approaching the underpass of a bridge when I saw the flock of owls. There must have been thirty of them. What I knew of owls, which was very little, told me something was wrong. Owls, as I knew them, weren’t the flocking type. And yet nor were owls the hopping type and I had already seen a number of them hopping around that morning. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a flock of owls, but I was. All of those fat and furry little owl legs running, running and hopping, some of them even volplaning a bit, and then hopping and running again, made me stand up on the pedals and start pumping faster. I was gaining on them. Maybe, I thought, I would finally be able to take a shot. I pedaled hard, once, once more, then squeezed the break handles and started untangling the bow off my back. An arrow caught and fell out of the quiver. The owls, the whole time, were hysterical, yelping and hopping like little children. Finally I had the bow in my hands.
     That was when I saw him. It was a man. From his body-type I’d guess he was in his fifties, but I’m not sure. I never saw his face. He was wearing a faded, pink, button down shirt, khaki pants and good and new-looking brown boots. Though I couldn’t see his face, from the way he was running I could tell he was frightened, and the fear he felt was very pressing. I loaded my arrow. Is that what you say? Loaded? I pulled back the string. There were so many owls to choose from. More than thirty, I’d say. More like fifty or sixty. Maybe even more than that. I probably could have just shot into the air and I would have got one. Is that what you say? Got one? Isn’t there an official term for it? Bagged one, is that it? Anyway, once I had the whole hysterical chirruping flock in my sights, I couldn’t help it, that crazed man was running right alongside the owls, I pointed my arrow towards him and let go.
     Like I said, I’m not a very good shot. I guess I didn’t even pull the string back straight. It caught my forearm a little bit. I could actually see the arrow wavering in the air. It wasn’t a forceful shot, and yet it hit the man in his upper back, on the right. If he were facing me I would have hit him right in the heart. But he was running, almost flailing, away from me, so the arrow hit opposite his heart, in the back. And it stuck.
     The man took about three more knock-kneed steps, and then, as he started to fall, as if trying to fly, he waved his arms about. It was as if he too could have volplaned a little bit. But instead of gliding, he fell, stiffly, hitting the ground with his face.
     For a moment I felt a shocking silence. And then it went away. The owls had all reached what they must have considered was a safe distance between us. A few of them turned back to look at me, or at least look in my direction. The man on the ground was twitching. Or maybe he was trying to get up. How was I to know what his intentions were?
     Anyway, he lay there, face down, the arrow sticking out of his back. I was surprised I had hit him. I was also surprised the arrow had actually stuck.
     Before I’d shot the arrow, I forgot to mention this, I had gotten completely off my bike, or whoever’s bike it was, and, in my excitement, just let it fall. Now I went back and picked it up, and threw my leg over its seat. My hands were sweating, I was still holding the bow, the quiver strap trying to strangle me. My belly flashed.
     Then, of a sudden, I started realizing what a problem I had on my hands. There was a dead or dying man laying not too far away from me, a whole bunch of owls, and—and then I looked behind me for the first time—maybe even some distant witnesses. But the couple that had been following me all morning, the twosome urging or even forcing me along in my hunt, were not to be seen. So maybe I did have time. And yet I felt something strange. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was at first, but then, standing there a few more seconds in the hot open sun, I realized what it was. Remorse. Yes. I should have poisoned the arrow first. So obvious after the fact. Without doubt. And then my thinking started to clear.
     There were at least two obvious mistakes I had made (one of which I was still making). I shouldn’t have stayed there staring at the man, or at the owls starting to crowd around him. I was attracting too much attention. I should have jumped right back on my bike, or whoever’s bike it was, and started pedaling. Soon, I was sure, the couple would be in view and when they reached me they would surely look in the direction I was looking, and, most definitely, spot the man on the ground. Then I would have to start explaining. I was acting like an idiot, a stupid criminal idiot, but instead of making the mistake of returning to the scene of the crime I hadn’t even left it yet. The second obvious mistake, as I’ve already said, was that I hadn’t poisoned the arrow. What if the man, however unlikely, were to live? He might be able to identify me. I didn’t get much further into these thoughts when I turned around and saw, though still a ways away, the approaching couple.
     I stared at them, trying to stare them away. They kept coming though, leisurely, despite me, their front wheels turning this way and that, riding almost as slowly as you can ride, just fast enough, as I understand it, for their forward momentum to keep from becoming sideways momentum and tipping them off their bikes. I raised my arm in the same frustrated motion I had raised it earlier. I think the woman, though it was hard to see, smiled.
     They didn’t even pretend not to know. That’s what bothered me most. They didn’t ask anything like, What happened here? Or, What’s that lying on the ground over there? The woman spoke first. She said, You committed a grave act.
     One of the gravest, the man said, sticking his tongue out a little bit. The motion added a lightness to what he said. I don’t know if he was making fun of me, or was being ironic, or what.
     What do you think about what you’ve done? the woman asked.
     I still had the quiver on my back, the bow in my hand, the bike between my legs. The owls, I noticed, were starting to hop, just a little bit, hopping in place like little excited children.
     You, I wanted to say. You two are accusing me? After following me at a distance all morning? After riding so slowly behind me? But I didn’t say that. I could have really given it to them, I know, but I decided, for the time being at least, to take it easy. Keep my cards close to my chest.
     I was hunting owls, I said.
     Does that look like an owl? the woman said, but neither she nor the man motioned to anything like that.
     I turned and looked. The owls, still bumping up and down, were creeping a little closer towards us, back to the bike path where I’d startled them off.
     I raised my hand in frustration. I wonder how it all would have turned out if I had shot an owl instead of a man. It might have been the same, or worse, with the man joining in to interrogate me. Maybe it would have been better. You never know.
     Listen, I said. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here.
     It seemed like it could have been the beginning of a good explanation.
     The owls were getting more comfortable with our presence. Hopping, now timidly, now boldly, closer and closer. They were within easy shooting distance, again.
     You were hunting owls? the man said, and I couldn’t tell if his voice expressed horror or incredulity. Or reproach. Or maybe irony again.
     I, I started to say, then finished with, Why were you following me?
     Following you? the woman said.
     Are you still hunting owls? the man said, nodding toward the flock of them. Because if you are—
     Listen, I said, fed up with it all. There is a man lying on the ground. He has an arrow in his back. We really should do something. Then I lifted and set my foot back on the pedal.
     The couple was unperturbed. They looked like they were trying to look baffled—widening their eyes, making little O’s out of their lips—as if they didn’t know what I was talking about.
     Then the man straightened up and said, You were hunting owls, but you shot the man instead.
     The sentence was somewhere between a statement and a question. I didn’t know how to respond. I shrugged my shoulders, put my arm through the bow and arranged it again across my back.
     You meant to shoot the man? the woman asked.
     I sighed. I don’t know, I said.
     It wasn’t premeditated, I know that. But, and I admit (though I didn’t admit anything then) it wasn’t unmeditated either.
     Well, the woman said. What’s next for you?
     I have to get this bike back, I said.
     Whose bike is it?
     Hmm, I thought for a moment. Then, It’s mine, I heard myself say. And then I stepped my weight onto the pedal, starting to ride again. The couple didn’t say anything, or at least I didn’t hear them say anything.
     This time the owls didn’t startle off the path. They just watched me ride, opening a narrow path for me to ride my bike through. And as I rode between them, I saw, as they turned their mobile little heads, that they watched me not in admiration, not in animal fear, not in confusion, doubt or even dismissal, but, and I could see it clearly in their big compass-like eyes, in disdain.
     
     
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John Washington writes in Mexico City these days.