A COMPANION TO OWLS

by Joelle Steele

The pebbled earth crunched beneath Caitlin Harvey's boots as she brushed aside the jungle of scrub oaks and other unidentified flora that lined the long-abandoned trail. Her backpack was far heavier than she expected it to feel when she first heaved it over her shoulders fifteen minutes earlier. The sun was now fully over the horizon, and already the air was warm and still. Her long, wavy, auburn hair was in a ponytail and tucked under her hat, and her head was getting hot. A thin line of perspiration trickled past her left eye and down her freckled cheek. In the oaks that lined the ravine to her right, a lone scrub jay shrieked out a warning. On the left, a gray squirrel barked as it scaled the trunk of a particularly old, gnarled, and leafless pine, and then disappeared into one of the many rotted recesses in the wood.

If she was reading his crudely drawn map correctly, it wasn't much farther to Doc's cabin. He had noted a spot at the halfway point where she could sit and rest. She could see that small summit ahead. On the map it was indicated as overlooking something called Peril Creek. From the rest stop on, it was supposed to be a clear and mostly level trail to the gate in the fenced perimeter of Doc's five acres.

A few long silk threads of a spider's web tickled Caitlin's face. Ah nature! She smirked. It was the closest she had come to letting her face form a smile in a long time. Seven months, to be exact. That was when she packed up all her meager belongings into the trunk of her Jeep Cherokee, said goodbye to her friends and her career on the East Coast, and headed cross-country for her home town of Fresno, California.

The family farm had looked much the same as it had when she last visited for her parents thirtieth wedding anniversary just two and a half years ago. The whitewashed, woodframe, stand-alone garage that had sat in place next to the house since it was built in the early 1900s had been torn down and replaced by a large corrugated aluminum building set closer to the barn. It housed not only the two aging family cars, but also a number of farm vehicles that had previously been parked in whatever spot was closest to where they had last been used. The house had been painted, but it was just a fresh coat of the same dull mustard color and contrasting dark brown trim. The brilliant magenta bougainvillea vines that had once covered the front porch and surrounding area were now relegated to the fence between the house and the water tower, the latter having also been repainted the same colors as the house.

Inside, not much had changed at all since Caitlin had moved out ten years earlier. Not a stick of furniture had been replaced or relocated. Even her old bedroom, now officially the Caitlin Harvey Museum, was intact. The only readily noticeable difference was that the small cozy den off the kitchen had been commandeered as a hospital room for her mother.

"She's stable now," assured her father, as he showed Caitlin into his wife's new room. "She sleeps mostly."

He ran his fingers through his thinning gray hair, and then looked away from the shadow of a woman whose wasting figure was barely discernable under the old ivory-colored wool blanket. He crossed the room and raised the window, letting a soft warm breeze replace the stuffiness of the sick room.

"She looks so fragile," commented Caitlin softly, her brow furrowing. She stood at the foot of the bed, her right hand holding the maple bedpost, her left partially tucked into her front jeans pocket.

Caitlin's mind was racing and nothing it was processing at that moment seemed worthy of iteration. The same thoughts kept shouting at her from within: Mom is dying. Mom is dying. Mom is dying. How was one supposed to answer such an announcement. She had known for months that this would happen. Only now did it seem real to her. Ellie Harvey, a once sturdy specimen of a woman, had been reduced by the Big C to a bloated skeleton, her skin jaundiced and sagging on her bones, while her stomach bulged out like a watermelon from under the covers.

"She sleeps really deeply, but she'll call out when she wakes up," her father advised. "She probably won't recognize you though," he warned, as he led his daughter out of the sickroom and down the hall into the kitchen. Dishes were piled in the sink and the counter tops were littered with the remnants of a week's worth of meal preparation.

"Daddy," Caitlin began, "Don't you think it would be a good idea to have someone come in to help ... just for awhile?" What she meant was, "until she's gone," but she could not and did not want to say the words.

Ed Harvey merely sat and stared into space, his elbows on the table, his chin cradled in his hands. Caitlin could never think about her father without thinking of his hands. The knuckles were gnarled and the skin was dark and flecked with spots from constant exposure to the sun. In the very lines of his hands was the story of his life, of the yearly planting of crops, harvesting them, and repairing tools, tractors, and the old Chevy pickup. Caitlin realized that her father would probably be lost without his wife.

Two short days later, Eleanor Elizabeth Harvey left one world for another.

In a frenzy of grief and anger, Caitlin and her father struggled to lay to rest the woman who had been the maker of their lives for thirty-two years. Her father had arranged things before Caitlin arrived. He knew Ellie's wishes and followed them to the letter. What he didn't know was how to manage without his life partner. Ellie had taken care of all the details. She was good at those things. What Ed also didn't know was how angry he was — especially at Caitlin.

"You never visited her! Not even once!" he yelled at Caitlin. It was only moments after the last in a long line of visitors had departed the house and a neighbor Caitlin did not recognize had finished straightening up in the kitchen. He alternated between pacing and sitting on every piece of forty-year-old Early American furniture in the living room.

Caitlin didn't want to argue with her father. She couldn't argue with anyone. What her father was saying was true. After hearing that her mother was terminally ill, she had made numerous phone calls, but had not come to visit once while her mother was still alert and coherent. Caitlin couldn't refute her father's statements and she didn't even want to try to explain herself to him. It was between her and her mother.

Ellie Harvey had been one tough cookie. It still surprised Caitlin that this colossus of a person, this self-proclaimed sainted martyr of womanhood, this giver of her daughter's own life, could possibly have died from pancreatic cancer, or anything other than extreme old age. She honestly believed her mother would live to be a hundred. Ellie never caught so much as a summer cold. In fact, she took every opportunity available to lecture Caitlin on taking better care of herself. Caitlin, unlike her mother, was a virtual accident waiting to happen. Every germ that ever lived was desperately seeking her out. Throughout childhood she was a magnet for mumps, measles, chicken pox, allergies, colds, and flu. The pattern had continued into her adult years as she entertained a variety of invading viruses, including mononucleosis and two bouts of "walking" pneumonia.

Caitlin was different from her mother in other ways as well, ways that labored together to erect an insurmountable wall between them. They had never been close. Even when she was a small child she felt a distance from her mother, what she later realized was a coldness born of stoicism. As she grew older, they were virtually strangers sharing a house. Most of the time they rarely spoke beyond that which was necessary, since the outcome otherwise was so predictable: if Caitlin said black, her mother said white.

"I sent away for a brochure on the performing arts school I was telling you about," she announced one morning at the age of twenty-one.

"What about your job at Fresh-Pak?" asked her mother, as she scurried around the kitchen putting pans and dishes in the sink, replacing the butter and eggs into the refrigerator, and carefully wiping off every trace that remained of the breakfast meal.

"Mom, Fresh-Pak can always get another bookkeeper. I'm not cut out for that kind of work."

"That kind of work pays the bills, Caitlin."

"Maybe, but I think I can pay my bills just as well, maybe even better, if I'm doing something I really like and that I'm good at." Her mother did not reply. Caitlin continued.

"Look at all the money you and Daddy invested in me for dancing lessons over the years. I love to dance. I'm good at it. I want to be even better."

"It's your life. Just do as you please, you always do."

So it had been with every other aspect of their lives. Even the treatment for her mother's cancer had become a bone of contention between the two women. Eleanor's cancer had been detected late in the game. It had already metasticized and was invading her lungs, heart, and liver. The chances for her survival were nil and she knew it. Rather than subject herself to any form of therapy that would cause further misery during her last days, she opted to let nature take its course. Caitlin was horrified. She could not imagine anyone choosing to die without a fight.

And now she was gone. Caitlin felt so empty. There was a gnawing pain in her heart that would not be subdued. How could she suddenly feel so gut-wrenchingly awful about the passing of a woman to whom she had never felt close in life? Every part of her body seemed to ache with that dreaded disease called Grief. Caitlin tried to ignore it, she tried to battle it, and she even tried giving in to it, hoping that by crying long and out loud all of the pain would simply be released from her, never to return. It didn't work.

Caitlin saw the half-way rest stop right ahead of her. She began to loosen the straps on her pack. It was going to be a very warm day. She wanted to get out of her jacket before she took on the rest of the hike. Something skittered across the trail. A small lizard. It darted into the dry foliage and rustled up the narrow incline along the path. Birds were waking up, and their chirping and chattering could be heard all around her, like a wonderful feathered chorus. She sat down on a man-made bench composed of a split log spanning two flat-topped granite boulders, and opened her backpack to find a bottle of water and the sandwich she made before she left home.

She wondered what Doc's cabin would be like. It could be nothing more than a raccoon-infested shack. He said no one had been out there for quite awhile. And it was nothing if not isolated. She was lucky to have met Doc, regardless of the state of his real estate. This was her first real chance to pull her life together.

Four days after her mother's funeral, Caitlin had packed up the Jeep and driven away. She did not return to the East Coast. Instead, she drove randomly, aimlessly. First north to Stockton, then Sacramento, then out to Napa, and then south to San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and finally San Luis Obispo, by which time three months had passed and she had just about run out of credit, savings, and cash. She also thought, hoped, that she had run out of tears. She didn't even think about calling her friends or her agent. She knew that Sheila must be frantic wondering what happened to one of her best dancers. Somehow it just didn't matter.

Caitlin took a job as an assistant innkeeper at a Victorian-style bed and breakfast in San Luis Obispo. She had to make money to support herself, and if she ever decided to go back to New York, she would need to save up a good deal of money to start over. She rented a small cottage down the street from the inn, using what remained of her savings. Her landlord was Doc Moss, an eighty-two year old, semi-retired veterinarian. He lived in the house that fronted her cottage, along with two golden retrievers and a small fuzzy mutt of indeterminate parentage.

Doc loved animals, and he was still a soft touch for anyone who had a sick cat or a sick cow. It didn't matter. He just cared about the health of the animal. Doc also liked people, and he liked to talk — sometimes a lot. But he was also a good listener, and Caitlin soon found that she could tell Doc just about anything, and he would sit quietly, absorbing her words, and uttering an occasional "um-huh" to acknowledge that he was awake and alert.

"I have lost so much more than my mother, Doc. I didn't tell anyone this, but just a couple weeks before I left New York, my best friend, Pam, died from complications with anorexia." Caitlin inhaled deeply and let out a sigh before continuing. "It's a dancer's most common health problem. Everyone wants you to be so thin, and it's your livelihood, so you starve yourself and exercise beyond the limits your body can tolerate. Self image is so important to a dancer. Not everyone survives. Pam battled anorexia, and I had to sit by helplessly while she did. Nothing I said meant anything to her. She looked in the mirror and saw a body that was not acceptable. Now there's nothing left of her. Nothing at all." Caitlin stood up, preparing to leave before she bored Doc beyond even his tolerant disposition.

"I know about anorexia," he said, to Caitlin's surprise. Not that she didn't think he had heard of it, but he sounded like he knew about it firsthand. He leaned back in his rocker and looked out over the advancing twilight. "My granddaughter, the one up in Seattle. She was anorexic. Spent a lot of time in the hospital that one. Seems okay nowadays. Knock wood." He tapped the porch railing.

Caitlin sat down again. She joined Doc in looking at the advancing night sky. It was clear, not a cloud in sight. A few stars were coming into view.

"Your granddaughter was very lucky. I wish I could say the same for Pam."

"Um-huh."

"There's something else too." She paused, trying to make the words form in her brain and then on her tongue. "I had a fiancé. Michael. We were together for two years. I went over to his place to pick up a sweater I left there. He was home, in bed with another woman. It was just a couple days after Pam died."

"You've certainly had your share of grief, young lady."

"Yeah, I guess so. I don't seem to be dealing with it very well. I can't help thinking that I just need to get away from everything. You know, just sit around and commune with nature. No matter where I have gone so far, I always seem to end up at odds with civilization and I can't seem to handle my losses. They get worse, more complicated, I think." Caitlin felt pretty sure that she was only rambling at this point. Her conversations seemed to degrade in that way these days.

"Um-huh."

She didn't really expect Doc to understand. He had lived his entire life in a small town, no big city pressures, probably had the same friends all his life. And it was a long life, even though Doc didn't look his age. Caitlin was never particularly accurate in guessing peoples' ages, but even she could see that Doc looked at least twenty years younger than he was. He had only a very few lines in his face, and while his hair was silvery, it was thick, with no sign of balding. He was a sharp contrast to her father's tall, lean yet muscular frame. Doc was not more than five foot eight, and was hefty without being fat. He was an active man who like to fish as much as he liked to sing in the church choir.

"Maybe a camping trip would help," Caitlin suggested, more to herself than to Doc, who had stopped rocking in his chair and now appeared to be falling asleep.

"Um-huh," he again replied. He leaned forward and put his hand on her knee. "What you need is a place where you can be alone with your thoughts. No interruptions. And I know just the place." He rose and went through the screen door, its frame losing dark green paint in flaky patches, revealing a gray, well-weathered wood beneath. She could hear Doc rummaging around in the mud room, opening a cabinet with a creaky hinge, pulling something heavy out and dropping it in a thud onto the linoleum floor. Finally, he returned to his rocker and held out his hand to her.

"What's this?"

"The key to your happiness," replied Doc, releasing an old skeleton key into her waiting hand. "I have a cabin up the coast. Nothing much. Just two rooms in a little valley. You park behind a motel and hike up a path a ways — I'll draw you a map."

That was two weeks ago. And here she was, communing with nature. Had she really said that? Yes, she had. But she did love the outdoors, and that was something she had missed a lot when she was living in New York. There was always Central Park, but it wasn't the same as being outdoors in California. It just wasn't the same landscape that she had grown up with, that felt familiar to her.

Caitlin had finished her sandwich and hoisted her heavy pack onto her shoulders. She walked for about a half an hour along a very narrow but completely flat and unobstructed trail. To her left, north, was an open field, a dry meadow. To her right, south, was a steep canyon, and according to Doc's map, Peril Creek was at the bottom of that canyon, although it was too deep and too wooded for her to see.

About a hundred yards in the distance was what appeared to be an old fence. As she drew closer, Caitlin could make out a sign: Moss Ranch - Private Property. She doubted that any living thing other than a wayward mule deer or a dying possum had ever found its way to this particular place on earth. She saw no sign of a cabin, but according to the map, it was just around the hill in a small grove of California Live Oaks. Within ten minutes, she could see it quite clearly.

The cabin was not really a cabin at all. It was a small, white clapboard house, badly in need of painting, and completely overgrown with weedy native plants that nearly blocked the porch steps. She could identify rattlesnake grass and dandelions, the latter almost four feet tall in places. The steps were bowed slightly but seemed to be safe. They creaked as she mounted them, but they didn't collapse. The thought of becoming injured in the middle of nowhere had crossed Caitlin's mind, so she brought a cell phone and hoped it would catch a signal from somewhere. Doc told her his did the last time he was there, and there were probably a lot more cell phones put into use since then. She didn't really want to use it, because the point of this trip was to be away from civilization, to have some peace and quiet, to be able to think, but having the cell phone made her feel safer, just in case.

The skeleton key opened the wiggling lock, and the door opened into a very dusty but otherwise habitable space. She dropped her pack to the floor and lifted the corner of a sheet away from the sofa it was protecting. Dust flew into the air from the sheet, which she gingerly folded as she removed it. She did the same for the other furnishings, and then stood back to examine the place that would serve as her spiritual retreat for one week.

It wasn't bad. In fact, it was a lot better than she expected. The furniture was old, the place was musty, but it wasn't nearly as rustic as what she had expected. She opened all the windows and let the air breeze through the entire house as she removed protective sheets from the bed and other furnishings in the one small bedroom. In the kitchen, she found, as Doc had described, a veritable wealth of canned goods, including chili, soups, condensed milk, and vegetables. There were also about twenty dark garbage bags sealed with twist-ties. She later discovered they held boxes of cereal, bags of flour and sugar, crackers, and cookies.

After walking for a little over an hour, Caitlin was beat. She was also hungry. The sandwich was not enough. She hauled her backpack into the kitchen and onto the table, where she emptied it of its contents. There weren't many clothes or toiletry items. Food was a top priority. She took out the loaves of bread and the bags of fruit and set them out onto the counter next to the sink. The sink had a pump handle, and using Doc's instructions, she eventually managed to make it produce an irregular stream of dark rusty-looking water that eventually ran crystal clear.

There was no television or radio and no electricity. The cupboard next to the back door contained a supply of plain white emergency candles, as well as kerosene for the lamps and lanterns in each room. She filled each lamp and then made sure they all lit properly using the big box of kitchen matches next to the stove. She also opened the wood box on the back porch and, watching carefully for black widows, removed kindling and wood for the beautiful antique wood-burning appliance. There were people she was sure would pay a fortune for one like it. The front and hood were a pale butter color and the legs and other parts were black. She wondered how in the world something that size could have been transported up the narrow trail. Ditto for the furniture and the building materials to erect the structure itself.

Satisfied that everything was now operational, she looked at the bookshelves in the living room. They were dusty and moldy, and great literature was obviously not Doc's idea of good reading material. There were a few old veterinarian books and some cookbooks. Sitting on the coffee table was the only non-dusty book in the house, a beautiful, old, leather-bound King James Bible. She picked up the Bible and dragged a small chair out onto the front porch.

When she was a little girl, Grandma Harvey used to run her thumb along the edge of the Bible's pages, flipping to a page at random. Then she would close her eyes and run her index finger down the page and stop, again at random. Wherever her finger stopped is where she would read. Caitlin set the large book across her knees and followed her grandmother's actions. Her finger landed at Job 30:29 and she read.

"I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls," she read aloud.

She knew the lines by heart. Job was one of her father's favorites, and Grandma Harvey's too. Satan tried to test Job's loyalty to God by taking away everything that was Job's, including his children and his health. Job refused to curse God or turn away from Him. He would not be consoled by his friends and, in the quoted verse and the others that followed, he described his state of being alone in the world after everything was taken from him.

When she was a little girl, her father read Job aloud, a maudlin account for a small child to endure, and she did not fully comprehend it then. Now, on this day, Caitlin could well understand Job's plight. Not everything had been taken from her, but that did not diminish her losses in any way. And now, like Job, she too had made her way into the wilderness. And perhaps in the end, by looking inward, by praying, and with the passage of time, God would restore to her, as he did to Job, some measure of what she had lost. Until that time, she would rest and heal her own heart and soul in the peace and solitude of the California wilderness, where she too would become a companion to owls.