Monday Text: Lewis Nordan’s “Owls”

“Owls” is the final chapter in Lewis Nordan’s novel, or novel-in-stories, Music of the SwampSugar Mecklin is riding with his drunken father in the middle-of-the-night:

Once when I was a small boy of ten or eleven I was traveling late at night with my father on a narrow country road. I had been counting the number of beers he drank that night, nine or ten of them, and I was anxious about his driving.

Neither of us had spoken for a long time. What was there to say?–the beers, the narrow road, the stubble fields, a bare bulb shining out in the darkness from a porch far back from the road, the yellow headlights? What was there to talk about? The car held the road on the curves, the heater was making its familiar sound. 

Then I saw the road sign, bright yellow and diamond-shaped, and on it I read the word SLOW. My father kept driving at the same speed and did not slow down, though I knew he had seen the sign. So I was bold. I said, “Did you see that sign?” (185)

Skipping ahead:

We drove on in the darkness for a minute. My father said, “The sign didn’t say SLOW.”

I said, “It didn’t? I thought it said SLOW.”

My father said, “It said OWLS.” (186).

Skipping ahead:

Then the sign came into view again, the back of the sign, of course. My father slowed the car and pulled over to the right and when he had come to a complete stop he checked over his shoulder for safety and made another U-turn so that we might face the sign again and read its message. The headlights made the sign huge and bright. 

My father had been right. The sign said OWLS.

We kept sitting there for a long time. The engine was running, there was a small vibration. 

Then my father turned off the engine. The early-spring night air was cool, but he rolled down the windows. 

I knew my father wanted me to be quiet. I’m not sure how I knew this. I knew he wanted us to listen. I scarcely breathed I was listening so hard. I did not move at all. 

Then I heard the owls overhead. I heard the soft centrifugal buffeting of their feathers on the night air. I heard a sound from their owl-throats so soft that I believed it was their breathing. In my mind I counted them and thought that they were many. The owls were circling and circling and circling in the air above us. 

I don’t know what I believed would happen. I think I believed I would feel the fingers of my father’s hand touch my arm, the sleeve of my shirt. I believed I would turn to him and for the first time in my life I would know what to say. I would tell him all my secrets. I believed my father would say, “I love you.” This is what it meant to sit in a car with your father in in the middle of the night and listen to a flock of owls while looking at a diamond-shaped sign that said OWLS. (186-187)

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