Animals come after my father dies. Dogs. Cats. Ducks. Geese. A goat. A peacock. They wander to our home several years into his absence, appearing on our doorstep, or catching our eye from feed store cages. Always, we take them in. We line our laundry room floor with bath towels, bed sheets and spare blankets, filling cereal bowls with tap water, and mending cut skin, matted fur, and broken feathers. Then we flick off the light to watch them sleep.
Strays make the best pets, my mother tells us kids. They won’t leave.
Beggar’s night, 1970. My big brother is late. Again. Our mother has given him permission to play on the ditch behind our house and to see if the neighbors will give him Halloween candy a day early, but when I peek out the back window to check on him, the sun has already set and the shadows drip like ink from the cottonwoods. I don’t say anything to our mother, who sits stiffly in her antique rocker, tapping a Russian olive switch on the floor. I scoot across the living room on my knees and take my place in front of the TV, where my three sisters watch Dr. No. It’s a school night. We’ve changed into our flannel pajamas. Our hair is damp from the bath.
The back door thuds open. My brother clomps through the kitchen, breathing hard, as if he’s been running. Our mother stands, grips the switch and intercepts him in the dining room. The overhead light flicks on, bright as an interrogation lamp.
“Wait,” my brother pleads. “I found something. Look!”
I scramble to my feet and jockey for position with my three sisters. Our brother reaches into his corduroy jacket, extracts a small bundle, and opens his hands. A baby bird squints at us.
My mother leans the switch against the wall.
“An owl,” she says, kneeling. “It’s adorable. Where did you find it?”
My brother had been hurrying home along the ditch when he heard a rustling from the bushes. When he slid down the embankment to investigate, he startled a hatchling that skittered through the dust but couldn’t fly. He thought it might have broken its wing, so he scooped it up.
“I looked for the nest but couldn’t find it,” he says, shifting his weight from one foot to another. “Then I saw the mother by a tree. Someone shot her or something.”
Our mother holds the owl to the warmth of her body. It looks up at her, and blinks.
An ornithologist who lives down the street tells my mother we’ve adopted a screech owl, probably a female, given the description over the phone. Although it’s not allowed under city codes, it should be okay for us to nurse the chick until she gets stronger. She’s not a danger to us, although we might want to wear gloves when handling her. Feed her bits of stew meat, the ornithologist suggests, and later mice. Within six months, the owl should grow to her full height of five inches. We should keep her in a large cage or an enclosed room. And watch out for our cats.
My mother follows his advice, but vetoes the cage. She wants the owl to fly freely in her home. She retrieves a cardboard box from Safeway, lines it with towels and places a piñon branch inside before setting the carton atop the dining room pottery case where the cats can’t easily reach.
The owl is the size and shape of an upside-down pear. Her feathers are gray with black and white speckles. She has two tufts on her head that look like ears, or horns. Her beak is sharp and shiny black and so are her talons. What I like best are her eyes, a piercing yellow, the size of dimes. When she looks at me, it’s as if she’s reading my mind, or seeing something I can’t. One of my aunts can’t even meet her gaze. The owl’s eyes, she says, are too human.
My mother considers the bird’s name carefully. Usually, she names the pets after artists she admires, like Toshiro, the Japanese actor, for the silky black cat. Sometimes, she chooses characters from her favorite films, like Tonya, from Dr. Zhivago, for the German shepherd cross. Occasionally, she selects Spanish words that just sound nice, like Sol Pavo, sun bird, for the peacock. When I adopt a mallard duckling from the feed store, I pick Hercules, my favorite matinee hero, and the nickname my father gave me because I was stronger than other newborns in the nursery. For the owl, my mother decides upon Tirzah, after a Hopi basket maker.
“Tirzah,” my mother says, savoring the syllables, which break like sunlight through her window crystals, turquoise and yellow.
“What does it mean?” I ask.
“It’s an old name,” she says. “A religious name. From the Bible.”
Later, I look it up in a library dictionary: “Tirzah – A city in Palestine, a beautiful place alluded to in the Songs of Solomon (`You are as beautiful, my darling, as Tirzah’).”
During the first few weeks, Tirzah stays put on the pottery case. But as she gains strength, she flutters from her box, hovers a few seconds, and drops to the floor. Worried the owl will break its wings, my mother drapes the box each night with a sheet. But as soon as morning comes, she throws off the cover and sets the container on the dining room table while she makes breakfast, draws in her sketchpad, or pays bills. Tirzah hops out immediately, waddles over, and nibbles her pen. If my mother leaves the room, the owl tries to follow. The only way my mother can finish her household chores is to wrap the owl in a washcloth and tuck her in the breast pocket of her denim work shirt. Tirzah remains there for hours, lulled by my mother’s heartbeat.
On Sunday evenings, my grandmother Desolina stops by our house for pot roast with garlic, carrots and potatoes. Over supper, my grandmother grumbles about her childhood in Corrales, growing up among horses, cows and chickens, in a drafty adobe where black widow spiders dropped from the rafters into your food. She hated every minute of it, she says, chewing with her mouth open. She hated pumping water by hand and canning apricots and apples and squatting in the dark outhouse, but she learned the old ways despite herself. She knows which herbs make which teas, how to brand cattle and castrate goats, and how to make red wine and corn whiskey. And, she knows about spirits.
While my mother gathers the dishes, I line up my cowboys and Indians on the kitchen table and listen to her and my grandmother whisper in Spanish about dead relatives. When Desolina catches me eavesdropping – and she always catches me – she laughs under her breath and beckons me with an arthritic finger. “Come here, mí hijito,” she says, leaning from the edge of her chair, and clutching her shiny black handbag. Then, in a low hoarse voice, she tells me about the fireballs she saw dancing along the Rio Grande bosque, the footsteps dragging down her hallway at midnight, and the hooded crone who transformed into a banshee and chased two of her brothers home one night on the acequia between Alameda and Corrales. “It’s true,” she says, nodding at my wide eyes, and breaking into a smile of red lipstick and crooked teeth. “Did you go to church like I told you?”
When the owl flutters by, Desolina makes the sign of the cross and squints. Owls are bad omens, she mutters. Navajos consider them evil spirits. Brujas use them to deliver messages.
“Que fea,” she says, mouth twisted. “Why did you bring that ugly thing into your home?”
My mother shrugs, filling the sink with hot water. “I think she’s beautiful.”
When Tirzah settles on a chair across from her, Desolina holds the owl’s intense gaze. Then, the old woman slips a glow-in-the dark rosary from her purse, turns her head, and spits.
I don’t go camping, like the other kids on my block. I don’t go fishing, boating, or even to Uncle Cliff’s Family Land. My mother doesn’t like tourists. She doesn’t like to do what everyone else does. On the weekends, we go exploring. We pile into her metallic green `67 Comet and hit the back roads. We visit churches, graveyards, ranch towns and adobe ruins, chasing a culture she says is vanishing before our eyes. She talks to old people and collects antique tables and chairs while I run with my siblings through the juniper and ponderosa pine playing Last of the Mohicans.
On a Saturday morning washed clean by spring rain, we take my grandfather’s pickup north to Truchas, a village so high in the Sangre de Cristos we almost touch the clouds. In a meadow beside the main road, my grandfather Carlos discovers a slice of aspen bark, eight feet long, crescent shaped, with a knothole at one end. My uncle, who’s tagged along for the ride, says it looks like a cobra. I see a dragon. My mother says it has character, so we pitch it into the truck.
Before heading back to Albuquerque, we stop at the tiendita for gas, chile chips and root beer. The old man behind the counter tells us the bark was cut by lightning a few nights earlier. He saw the flash and heard the boom. This makes my mother smile. Great symbolism, she says.
Back home, she and my uncle nail the plank across the living room wall as the centerpiece of her artifact collection. Tirzah notices immediately. She flies from the dining room pottery case and claims the perch as her own, sliding into the knothole, watching us through the dragon’s eye.
My brother finds most of our strays. Or they find him. He’ll see a German shepherd digging in a garbage can, walk right up, and it’ll lick his hand, a friend for life. He has a way with animals, who soothe him in a way our mother can’t. He was six when our father died. He has the most memories. I was two. I remember almost nothing. We’re polar opposites, as our mother likes to say. And she’s right. My brother loses his temper like the strike of a match, plays hardball without a glove, and keeps a Mexican switchblade in his drawer. He’s always moving, always fidgeting, always running, as if he’s afraid to look over his shoulder. I’m steady, docile and brooding, like my duck, Hercules, with his blunt beak and orange feet, quite happy to never leave his yard.
On weekday afternoons, Tirzah waits by the front window for my brother to return from school. She hoots when he shuffles through the driveway, flies to his room while he changes from school clothes into blue jeans, and perches patiently on his shoulder while our mother tethers them together with a strand of yarn; boy’s wrist to owl’s leg. Task complete, they step outside to straddle his Stingray bike. I watch from porch as Tirzah’s eyes swallow light and motion; the flashing chrome handlebars, the fluttering cottonwood leaf. “Be careful,” our mother says, but my brother ignores her. He stands on his pedals and steers a wide circle under the street lamp, gathering speed for the lap around the block. Tirzah grips his jacket, and leans into the wind.
The owl isn’t my pet, although I’d like her to be. She won’t come when I call, perch on my finger, or accept stew meat from my hand, as she does with my mother, uncle or brother. It’s not that I’m afraid. It’s more that she’s too beautiful to touch. When I get nervous, she flies away.
One afternoon, while I’m doing homework, Tirzah flutters down to the dining room table.
“Hi, pretty girl,” says my mother, who sits beside me sewing a blouse. “Are you thirsty?”
Tirzah waddles up to me, ignoring the water bowl my mother slides forward.
I tap the pencil eraser on my teeth.
“Go ahead,” my mother says. “Pet her. She won’t bite.”
“I know. She just doesn’t like me.”
“That’s not true. Scratch her head. She loves that. Rub in little circles.”
I extend the pencil. Tirzah flinches, eyes wide, preparing to fly.
“Just wait. Try again. Slower this time.”
I inch the eraser forward until it touches the owl’s head. Tirzah squints, but stays put.
“Good,” my mother says. “Use your finger. See how funny it feels? Like a ping pong ball?”
Tirzah closes her eyes and leans into the pressure. The more she relaxes, the more I relax.
After a few minutes, the owl curls her toes and rolls onto her side, asleep.
My grandfather Carlos stops by our house sometimes on the way home from his shift on the highway crew. At sixty-five, after raising eight children, picking fruit and working construction, he insists on holding a job. He nods hello, settles into a corner rocker, hangs his gray fedora on his bony knee, while my mother fetches him a cold Coors longneck. Carlos doesn’t talk much. He prefers to watch, listen, and absorb the warmth of a family life he never had as a boy. His father died when he was eight. When his mother remarried, her husband refused to raise another man’s son, so she sent him to a boarding school in Santa Fe. He ran away whenever he got the chance, often standing while his family ate supper. Eventually, he left Santa Fe for good, he and a friend, walking a hundred miles through the Rio Puerco badlands to the mining village of Marquez, where he was offered a handy-man job. Carlos slept in arroyos, caves, and abandoned barns during that trek through the high desert, bedding down among the range grass, chamisa, and cholla cactus. On those lonely nights, owls watched him from the junipers, bathed in silver moonlight.
On one of his visits to our house, Tirzah flutters to his armrest from her aspen perch. Carlos extends a finger and she hops on. He raises her to his nose, and smiles.
Each winter, our house fills with the sweet scent of piñon. We have no fireplace or wood-burning stove, so my mother sprinkles trading post incense over the steel grate of our living room floor furnace. It reminds her of childhood, she says of the smell, crumbling sawdust sticks between her fingers, then standing back while orange sparks swirl before her eyes. As a girl, she stoked the potbelly stove in her grandmother’s kitchen. Piñon reminds her of black coffee in tin cups, thick cotton quilts and crackling orno flames. Piñon takes her back, she tells me.
When my mother leaves to prepare supper, I take her place on the furnace vent, standing in the hot current of air until my blue jeans burn my legs. As Tirzah glides through the room, white smoke curling from her wings, I imagine I’m soaring through the clouds beside her, or drifting like an apparition above the antique tables, the brass lamps, the Navajo rugs and the broken pots, haunting this room forever.
On nights before art show openings, I sleep to the hiss of my uncle’s propane torch and the click of his sculptor’s tools. He’s the baby in my mother’s family; fourteen years her junior. He moved in with us four years after my father died because my mother didn’t feel safe alone with five children on the rural edge of northwest Albuquerque. She also wanted a male role model for my brother and me, although my uncle was barely out of his teens. He listens to The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Country Joe and the Fish, wears a beard and shoulder-length hair, and walks barefoot everywhere, even in the mountains. I think he looks exactly like George Harrison stepping onto the crosswalk of my mother’s favorite album, Abbey Road, but my grandmother thinks he looks like Jesus. Desolina wants him to be a priest, to help atone for her sins, but instead he becomes an artist. With needle-nose pliers and rods of Pyrex glass, he creates intricate figurines of Hopi eagle dancers, Mexican vaqueros and Navajo shepherds, then he mounts them on driftwood, sandstone and volcanic rock. I watch him from my pillow with his wizard’s hair and welder’s glasses, spinning solid into liquid into solid again, crafting icy figures from fire. Tirzah perches above his worktable on these nights, drawn, as I am, to his clear blue flame.
My mother wants to bless our pets. Although she left the Catholic Church some years after my father died, she wants protection for our strays. So, on a warm Sunday in February, we load the ducks, geese, peacock, goat and owl into our Comet, and attend the outdoor ceremony.
We stand in line behind a dozen puppies, kitties, gerbils and bunnies. The priest chuckles from the gazebo as he sprinkles holy water. When our turn arrives, he stops mid-motion and appraises us behind silver-rimmed eyeglasses. My brother slouches before the dais, arms folded, Tirzah on his shoulder. I kneel beside the black Nubian goat, which suckles nosily from its baby bottle. My oldest sister cradles the peacock, while the other two hold ducks and geese. Our mother lingers on the steps with her eyes hidden behind Jackie O sunglasses. We’re longhaired and tie-dyed and proud of it, in full bloom eight years after my father died, surrounded by the animals that brought new life into our home. Parishioners scowl. A poodle yaps. A news photographer snaps our portrait. After a long pause, the priest mumbles a prayer. The next day, we make the front page.
Tirzah surprises us. When one of the dogs slinks through the house, she contracts her feathers, squints, and becomes as thin as a dry branch, camouflaged completely against the gray aspen plank. She changes direction in mid-flight, too, hovering like a helicopter, swiveling her head, and returning silently the way she came. She’s also a hunter. When we place a chunk of stew meat before her, she puffs to twice her normal size, dilates her pupils, and pounces. She thumps the meat hard against the perch then flings it to the floor. Talons scratching hardwood, yellow eyes blazing, she stalks her meal. Finding it, she stretches her beak wide, and swallows it whole.
During the day, the sun is too bright for the owl’s eyes, so she seeks dark corners to sleep. One morning, when the temperature hits eighty-nine, my middle sister reaches into the hall closet to flick on the swamp cooler, but leaves the door ajar. The chain is broken on the overhead bulb, and the closet is always pitch black. Tirzah, gazing toward the opening from her living room perch, flutters atop the closet door. I hold my breath. My sister calls our mother. Normally, the closet is off limits to us kids. We try to shoo Tirzah away, but she won’t budge. She will only stare into the cool abyss. After a moment, she lowers her head and hops inside. From then on, the hall closet becomes her sanctuary. To fetch her, I must reach into the darkness, brushing my father’s things
My brother finds another stray, a baby meadowlark that had fallen from a cottonwood into an alfalfa field near his school. He can’t find the nest, so he tucks the orphan under his arm and carries it home. Our mother swaddles the chick in a washcloth, fetches some old newspapers and phones the ornithologist. I watch her fill an eyedropper with water and hold it to the bird’s beak. She adores meadowlarks, she says after hanging up. As a girl, while staying with her grandparents in Corrales, she often woke to the song of meadowlarks in the apple orchards across the road.
“It was so beautiful,” she tells me, puckering her lips to whistle. “But sad, too.”
She retrieves an extra birdcage from the back porch, places the chick inside and covers the wire dome with a bed sheet, as the ornithologist instructed. Standing on her tiptoes, she sets the bundle atop the pottery case, away from the cats. Tirzah watches from her living room perch.
The next morning, I hear my mother scream. In the dining room, I find her holding the birdcage. In the center, lies the meadowlark, wet with blood.
“Poor little thing,” she cries, swatting a tabby off the table. “See what you did!”
My uncle steps inside from the back yard, examines the bird, and concludes that its skull has been crushed. He checks the cage for damage. Finding none, he snatches up the cat and holds its paw to the wire bars, but its arm is too thick to fit through. Stumped, he searches the house for clues. On the aspen plank, he discovers bits of wet gray fuzz. After retrieving Tirzah from the closet, he holds her tightly with one hand, then uses the other to extend one of her long bony legs, which slips neatly into the cage, within easy reach of where the meadowlark had slept.
“You dirty rat!” my uncle says, holding the owl to his face. “Did you kill that poor bird?”
Tirzah bites his thumb, wriggles away, and flutters to the living room.
She scowls at us the rest of the day. She won’t even come to my mother.
I have no bed and no room of my own. For a year I sleep on an aluminum cot beside the antique church pew in our living room. My mother buys me Peanuts sheets to make me feel better but I hate that cot, sliding it down the hall each night. The foam mattress smells like dirty socks. The joints pinch my skin. Be patient, my mother says. For my tenth birthday, she’ll restore one of the iron headboards on the back porch. Soon, I’ll join my uncle and brother in the boys’ room.
When she switches off the floor lamp and the ten o’clock news, I’m alone. I lie back under the silver glow of the curbside street light with the clicks from the vintage clock and the creaks of old walls. From the haze of half sleep, I sense Tirzah awaken. I hear scratching. Feel the weight of eyes. Breathe in the aroma of mothballs and dust. I snap awake and sit up, but there’s only a whisper, an echo, a slight disturbance of air.
The longer she stays with us, the more stir crazy Tirzah becomes. Every few weeks or so, she flies into the broad living room window, unable to see the glass, confused when she can’t pass through. My mother draws the curtains, then replaces the drapes with bamboo shades, but whenever a sparrow darts by outside, Tirzah chases after it, straight into the glass. My uncle, fearing the owl will crack her skull or break the window, nails a row of Russian olive branches to the outside of the frame. Tirzah settles on a chair back, gazing through the bars.
One afternoon, the owl goes missing. She’s not on her perch, in the closet, or in the back rooms. I search under the beds, behind the bookshelves, inside cabinets. I search with my siblings for nearly an hour but we can’t find her. My mother sits in her rocker, jaw muscle flexing.
“She’s gone,” she mutters. “I know she is. One of you brats must have left the front door open again. How many times have I told you to close that damn door?”
My uncle thumps across the hardwood floor checking behind chairs and tables. When one of the dogs slinks by, he kicks it. “Where’s the flashlight? Who took the flashlight?”
I stand with my sisters in the dining room. I didn’t leave the door open. I didn’t do anything. But I feel like I did, like I always do when one of the pets is in trouble, like something that happened a long time ago is about to happen again.
“Don’t just stand there,” my mother says. “Look under the table again.”
My little sister starts to cry.
Above the scrape and knock of old wooden chairs, we hear a muffled sound.
“Hush!” my mother says. “Listen…”
We turn toward the pottery case, to the Pueblo water bowl on a back shelf. Inside it, glaring at us over the rim, is Tirzah. She’d settled inside to sleep, but woke during our commotion.
“There you are!” My mother rushes forward. “My Tirzah…”
My sisters gather around her. My uncle snaps a photo.
I hesitate before joining them. I don’t like what I see in the owl’s eyes. She appears wary, as if she’s seeing my family for the first time.
We’re late returning home from an outing up north. The horizon burns magenta as we race blue shadows home. We arrive in darkness. My uncle flicks on the house lights while my mother fires the floor furnace. Tirzah, who hasn’t eaten since morning, hoots from her perch. My mother squeaks open the refrigerator, scans the shelves, but finds no stew meat, only breakfast steak. She checks the clock. Safeway has just closed. The breakfast steak is fresh, so she chops it for the owl.
The next day, Tirzah won’t eat or drink. She barely flies. The ornithologist asks my mother to read the steak label to him over the phone. She does, her voice barely a whisper. The breakfast steak has a chemical protein that stew meat does not, he informs her. Tirzah was poisoned.
My mother paces the living room. My sisters and I pray to St. Francis of Assisi.
The following morning, I find my mother sobbing at the dining room table. She’d woken up early to check on Tirzah and found her motionless in the water bowl. The thirsty owl had leaned over the rim and fallen inside. Too weak to climb out, Tirzah drowned.
My uncle digs deep in the backyard cactus garden, grunting white puffs of steam. My mother stands beside him holding a shoebox. Inside it, lies the owl, wrapped in a washcloth. The air is still. The sky is pink and orange. My uncle tosses the shovel aside and it clangs against the cold ground. He and my mother shuffle away, heads down, seeking a hunk of driftwood or a large rock to mark the grave. I stare into the hole, another hole, another absence I will never fill.
After a few minutes, my uncle returns with a piñon branch. Without a word, my mother lowers the shoebox into the fine red sand. We bury Tirzah among the prickly pear, yucca, and chamisa, beside the goat, the peacock, and the mallard duck named Hercules.
“Beautiful City of Tirzah” has appeared in The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction (Simon & Schuster, December 2007) and New Letters (University of Missouri Press Vol. 72, No. 2, Fall 2006) and was awarded the 2005 Dorothy Churchill Cappon Prize for Essay.
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s essays have appeared in The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, New Letters, Fourth Genre, Puerto del Sol, Cimarron Review and other journals. In 2007 he was a National Magazine Award essay finalist and received a Pushcart Prize special citation. Recent honors include a New Letters best essay prize, New Letters readers’ award and New Millennium Writers honorable mention. A native New Mexican, he lives with his wife and two children in Denver.