Robert P. Kaye
I came upon a tree in the woods I’d never seen before, a huge old deciduous thing with tortured burls and exposed roots. Scabs of moss, fungi and air ferns camouflaged its species, but I was curious. A barrow of withered seed pods or animal scat—hard to say which in the dim light—littered the coppice. Before I could consult my field guide, a great horned owl swooped down from a branch, severed my spine with a nip of its beak, and ingested me like a baby skunk.
Holey moley. Not the demise I’d planned. So many goodbyes unsaid. So much terra incognita unexplored. This is what I pondered in the glandular stomach, or proventriculus, of the owl, my digestible parts liquified, nutritional value extracted. It wasn’t painful or even unpleasant except for the lingering sense of incompletion.
I pondered still as the owl regurgitated my hard parts in a pellet onto the forest floor to lighten itself before soaring off to hunt again. I landed in the pile beneath the wizened tree.
After some time, I heard footsteps. Felt someone or something pick me up, and transport me, perhaps in a knapsack. Long ago I purchased owl pellets and cut them open with a sharp little blade for my son Daniel, discovering the bones of voles and other small rodents like nature’s Crackerjack prizes. But never the bones of an old man.
Time passed, presumably in a bin. One day I heard the laughter of children, the ring of a cash register. Felt the tip of a blade graze my skull.
“Holy moley,” someone said. “What was this?”
I knew the voice of my grandson, with whom I’d walked the woods. I could not see him because I had no eyes. Could not talk to him because the atoms of my tongue were now an infinitesimal fraction of an owl.
“Let’s find out,” said my son Daniel, who wielded the pocketknife that had once been mine. “I wish your grandfather was here. He’d know.”
I heard the catch of grief in his voice. But, to their credit, they forged ahead, laying out my bones to compare my parts against pictures in my old field guides with the frayed covers.
I considered attempting to rearrange my bones to formulate a message. Stay away from the gnarled tree, it might say. Or watch out for the huge owl. Or even stay out of the woods. This was absurd, of course, but I was desperate to protect them.
I gave up the plan, realizing they must watch the skies themselves. Find their way among the trees and predators. Discover their own endings.
Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared in New Letters, SmokeLong Quarterly, Gulf Stream, Penn Review, Hobart, and elsewhere, with details at RobertPKaye.com. He hosts the Works In Progress open mic at Hugo House in Seattle and is an editor with Pacifica Literary Review.