Mrs. Whitmire wore a cardigan for their walk together that evening. It was her favorite, and she wondered if Mr. Whitmire liked it, but he didn’t say one way or the other. Instead, Mr. Whitmire brought up his favorite topic of conversation: finances.
The Whitmires lived in the most modest house on a street of decidedly immodest houses. Luxury was flaunted in every way possible: extravagant architecture, shiny cars, exotic and intricate landscaping. Mr. and Mrs. Whitmire had lucked up on purchasing their way into the neighborhood, but just barely. “A steal,” Mr. Whitmire repeated, at random intervals, for the first six months of their occupancy.
The house may have been a theft of fortune, but everything else was at cost. Mrs. Whitmire struggled to find her way with the neighbors. They were lithe, competent, ambitious. She was older, quieter, plain. She liked it that way. She felt no need to run two miles when walking one would do.
In fact, while Mr. Whitmire stomped beside her, crackling twigs under his feet, Mrs. Whitmire began to notice how her ankles ached, and her calves already burned. They hadn’t even climbed the first hill yet.
She was considering whether she should speak up and cut the walk short when something caught her eye. In the shadow of dusk, feathers. White belly. Descending.
“Robert, is that a hawk?”
Mrs. Whitmire made the mistake of asking a question to hide a command: Look! Look at that! Mr. Whitmire had warned her to work on her confidence, to be more assertive, especially over the phone, with customer service. But truth be told, Mrs. Whitmire preferred her shy, roundabout ways.
Ask a question and you get an answer, however. Especially of Mr. Whitmire.
In the dimness, Mr. Whitmire said to his wife, “It’s a cat.”
Maybe it was the quick dark of the oncoming night, or the warmth of the cardigan, but Mrs. Whitmire felt something strange to her. She felt sure. Her mind clicked smoothly.
She answered, “I watched it fly down from the sky.”
The triumph of this statement cannot be overestimated.
Mr. Whitmire was silent. He was no longer interested in the animal if it wouldn’t be a cat. Mr. Whitmire was annoyed by things that weren’t as he said they were.
Mrs. Whitmire, however, was fascinated. Her pupils expanded as if she were prey, her survival dependent on assessing the size and shape of all around her. Finally, she decided the bird was an owl. The body was too small, and the head too large, for a hawk. A calm, feathered professor, perched high and quiet on a thick limb, rather than shrieking, darting sharpness.
Mrs. Whitmire declared her determination to her husband. Mr. Whitmire jerked the leash as their large mutt, Maximus, yearned toward a stalk of hyssop, his snout quivering.
They walked on, Maximus sufficiently heeled, Mr. Whitmire back to the topic of interest rates, and Mrs. Whitmire mulling her secret enchantment.
They had gone half a block when Mrs. Whitmire heard the frothy beat of feathers a few feet above their heads. She looked up, but saw only branches, black against periwinkle. A few more steps forward, and she felt a rush of air against her skin. More ghost than animal, but there was a beating heart to it. The threat of substance. Mrs. Whitmire felt the horripilation of a weak beast in an open field, under attack.
She was about to call out to her husband when suddenly he was lifted from the ground, dropping the leash he’d yanked. As he rose, his little pink paws searched the air, and his tail curled weakly.
Mr. Whitmire was a mouse of a man.
As the owl’s wings expanded, Mrs. Whitmire studied. She marveled at the soft white of their undersides. Mr. Whitmire let out furious, frantic squeaks of terror, but they faded to a pinprick of sound, swallowed up by the owl’s swooping ascension within the troposphere.
Any that are safe, tame and fed may feign the repose of Buddhists. Maximus stood at Mrs. Whitmire’s side, no more alert than he would be watching a squirrel in a distant yard. Mrs. Whitmire bent and claimed the loop of his leash. The owl, and her husband, were gone.
First, scent was restored to her. Or, remembered. Or, noticed. There was a fire burning three houses down. Early leaves. Somehow she heard the neighbor’s rake, a talon gently scraping and gathering. Mrs. Whitmire closed her eyes. She imagined, she re-imaged, all that was around her, in the dark. She let herself float in a sea of unseen creatures. Peace with them. Peace with herself. All animal.
Mrs. Whitmire walked on. Maximus trotted easily alongside her. When he stopped, Mrs. Whitmire stopped, too. She closed her eyes or kept them open. She focused on one sense, then another. Life. Miracle. Gratitude.
Rounding a corner, she heard a rustle in the brush to the side of the walkway. The rustle took on a start-stop pattern. Footsteps, searching. Hesitant.
Mrs. Whitmire waited. Maximus laid himself back on his haunches.
Out from the brush, Mr. Whitmire burst forth, his mouth open to a deep breath of air. His knees were skinned. He held one arm close, lame. His thin hair was sweaty, and mussed. He reached for the leash with his good arm, but Mrs. Whitmire held it back.
They were understood. Mr. Whitmire took his place alongside his wife and, after lifting his glasses and pinching his nose bridge, took a look around as if gazing up from a profound map. He noted the hour to Mrs. Whitmire, and the pace of the night. He asked if she would like to return home.
Mrs. Whitmire, refreshed, replied, “Yes, Robert, if that is what you would like.”
Bonus: Listen to this...