By Christine Stoddard
I am the owl and I saw it all on that red and black night. The stars shattered the heavens with their brightness and cast an eerie light upon the scene below, like a stage light perhaps. They wanted to illuminate the drama taking place beneath them. If I remember correctly—and I do—it was quite a theatrical sight, what with the star beams and the melancholy man. The moon, if she could speak, would attest to that.
In the ghostly forest full of birch trees, I holed myself inside of a rickety snag to shield myself from the wind. It was a blistery summer evening and my feathers alone could not protect me from the mix of hot and cold. Too irritated to hunt, I decided to rest. I could afford to starve for one day if it meant feeling comfortable. The mice and voles, as I recall, were quite grateful.
Once I nestled inside of the perfect hole of the perfect tree, lightning struck immediately. I had sought refuge just in time. I peered out but saw no rain. The storm was much farther than I thought. It terrorized another part of my phantom forest, perhaps closer to the valley where all the wretched humans lived.
Speaking of humans, they really were the focus that night. Those creatures are guilty of nearly always stealing the show. They must think it their right, given that they have opposable thumbs and skyscrapers. It is my curse to own talons and straw nests instead.
Right after I realized how far the storm was, I withdrew into my hole. But only a moment later, the sound of a moaning animal alarmed me. I popped my head out again. It was not an animal, no kin of any kind, but rather a man. The man was tall and gaunt, the very picture of sickness and sadness entwined. His shining black eyes, which shifted back and forth over and over, bulged out from his long face. His city clothes hung in gray folds and wrinkles from his bony body. And he carried a rope.
What a strange night for such an ill looking man to wander around the lonely forest! Did he not fear the dark like other humans? What about the nasty wind? What about the storm? It was a suspicious situation indeed.
The man spewed rather pathetic words about his hateful life. At least that was the gist of it. I cannot remember word for word of his monologue but I remember his somber mood. He despised himself and he despised what he had become, or rather, what he had not.
He did not identify himself but I imagined him to be a William. His grave manner merited a classic name, nothing novel or frivolous. He did not state his current profession, either, only what he had wanted to become. Ever since he was a small boy, he narrated as he sat upon a rotting stump, William wanted to become a painter. Thus, it was obvious what his true profession must be: William was a salesman.
William moped upon the stump, lamenting the direction his life had taken. He sighed and cried and then sighed some more. Every now and then, he pulled the rope taut between his two large hands. They were smooth, artistic hands, ones he may have enjoyed painting had he become a painter.
But William was not a painter, as he reminded himself again and again. He had sacrificed his dreams for…for what? He did not say. But he probably had parents, demanding ones who wanted him to sculpt a secure future for himself. Maybe they wanted him to be very rich and very famous so they could brag about him to all of their friends and neighbors.
He probably had a wife who constantly reminded him about paying the rent. Maybe a mortgage because she insisted that they buy the stylish townhouse near the mall so she could do all of her shopping and socializing only a block away from home.
He also probably had children who whined for food and toys. Maybe the children begged for more than nourishment and a modest plaything or two, even. Maybe they screamed for gingerbread and a Russian chess set and a giant dollhouse and a rocking horse and more still.
Such are the things many a painter cannot provide.
At last, William’s moaning ceased. He stared at the rope lying in his hands. He contemplated it. Then he stood up. William gazed at the sloping tree branch above him. It was long, pale, and beautiful, just like one of his own fingers. The man threw one end of the rope over the branch and mumbled something I could not decipher. He proceeded to form the rest of the noose.
It was then that I heard a rustle, like that of an animal crawling through the underbrush. I ignored it, as did William. So momentous was his task that he could not allow for distractions.
The skeletal man stepped forward and grasped both sides of the noose so that his face hovered right before the loop. William wailed, “I should have been a painter!”
Suddenly, a little girl with golden braids that echoed William’s rope popped up out from the brush. She had been running and then came to a stop. Without a single utterance, she pushed in front of William and seized the rope. She began tugging at it wildly.
“Get away, girl!” William shouted, “Can’t you see what–”
“I need this rope! All over the barn and all over the farm did I search for a rope!”
“But this is MY rope!”
“Sir, I need this rope to catch my calf! She ran away when she heard the storm! My father used the last of our rope when he–”
“Are you mad? Why should I give you this rope? It is my holy rope!”
“Please, sir, please! I have to catch my calf. Her mother just died and my family needs to have—”
The girl closed her mouth when she saw William untie the rope with his porcelain fingers. “Another poor farm family, I see.”
The girl nodded solemnly.
“I came from one of those.”
“Then you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
William had nearly finished untangling the rope from the branch when he scraped himself. “Ow!”
“Are you alright, sir?”
“Yes, I’m just bleeding a bit, that’s all.”
“No need to feel sorry. Just careless of me.” William handed the rope to the little girl. “Go find your calf, girl.”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you very, very much.” She greedily took the rope with William’s drops of blood clinging to its fibers.
As the little girl turned around to take the same path from which she came, William called for her. “Girl!”
The girl whipped around, her eyebrows arched in mild surprise.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
She remained silent for a moment. “My parents say I should be a nurse.”
William shook his head. “No, I asked what you want to be.”
Her pretty eyes shone and she stood a tad taller. “I want to be an actress.”
“Then,” William breathed, “Be an actress.”
The girl smiled and blew William a kiss before she disappeared into the forest. Once the girl had left, William hugged the birch tree that only a few minutes before would have served as his gallows. He rested his forehead against the tree and muttered, “And, you, be a painter.”