Fiction

The Shomer and the Boreal Owl

BY

Illustration by Adrienne Kammerer


Illustration by Adrienne Kammerer

Ephraim kobre realized that he wanted to fuck wild things at the age of forty-two. Out for a stroll one evening in late August, he spotted a white-tailed fawn nibbling the buds of a poplar in a corner of Mount Pleasant Cemetery near the opulent family mausoleums, and his erection was instant, painful—the erection of a fourteen-year-old boy. All it took was three solid jerks over the top of his slacks. Then he wandered home in his own stickiness and stood in front of the mirror, in the unflattering fluorescent light of the basement-apartment hallway, to inspect what he was. The body of a middle-aged man is like a language beginning to lose its grammar from common usage. He stood naked, perplexed to the point of cruelty: Why had God made him like this? Why this body? And why did he suddenly want to fuck wild things?

Later Ephraim would try to wrap the origin of his urge in with the history of his catastrophes. His daughter Esther, strangely empty-eyed one afternoon, had been diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease; then there were the eighteen months of watching her brain crumble in her skull, praying to a merciful god; then the divorce from his wife, Rachel; then the closing of the store that sold religious books and paraphernalia where Ephraim had earned a small living. Somewhere in the middle of all these misfortunes, a flock of chickadees in the neighbour’s maple brought vague stirrings to his cock and balls. He could recall, on a business trip to Ottawa, pulling over on the side of the highway to masturbate over a huge wavering cloud of snow buntings gleaning a farmer’s field. He had assumed, at the time, it was the nights away from his wife.

The only work Ephraim could find in the aftermath was as a shomer at Winterstein’s funeral home. Winterstein, trim-bearded and shrewd in the business of death, kept him away from the public. Ephraim performed the mitzvah and no other service; he stayed with the bodies so that the dead would not be alone between the moment of death and the interment. The work itself, Ephraim enjoyed. As he read the psalms aloud to the corpses, a relieving numbness would descend on him. His communion with the dead was the happy part of his life.

Out of habit more than hope for answers, Ephraim visited Rabbi Katzman’s office on Bathurst Street. Once, Rabbi Katzman had said something almost comforting during Esther’s death. The death of children, however, was within the scope of the Law. The desire to fuck wild things was not.

“Explain this to me again, Ephraim, and put in all the details you are leaving out,” the rabbi said.

Ephraim explained that the sight of wild things brought him to a state of instant and ferocious lust.

“But you have not yet, I take it from what you say, actually had intercourse with any animal? ”

Ephraim hadn’t.

“Good, because the Law is clear that such an act requires punishment, and that furthermore the animal must be destroyed in that case. And it would be a shame to stone a beautiful wild deer. The point is: You have not sinned. You have ­only turned to the desire in your thoughts. Am I correct in that? ”

The idea cheered Ephraim, slightly. The rabbi at least hadn’t called him out as an abomination.

“First of all, don’t visit any farms.” Ephraim almost laughed at the rabbi’s misunderstanding. Nothing disgusted him more than the notion of sexual intercourse with domestic livestock. His stomach clenched and sweat pushed through his skin like whey through cheesecloth at the thought. He wanted to fuck wild things.

“The next thing is to push the desire away,” the rabbi said.

“I don’t even know where it comes from, Rabbi. How can I push it away? ”

“Nobody knows where desire comes from, and nobody knows where it goes. There are ways, though. There are ways. Suppress it. Learn to suppress.”

It was, at least, a plan, and a plan implied hope.

Leaving the rabbi’s office, Ephraim crossed Bathurst Street and saw the bird. Across the traffic, above the puffed grime of a concrete mixer blaring by, a bright red bird, a crested bird, perched at the top of an elm. The bright red bird made a bright red call, two distant, paired notes of longing that sped into a glamorous, piercing trill. Later he would learn both the bird’s common name, northern cardinal, and its binomial name, Cardinalis cardinalis, but on Bathurst, the bright red bird had nothing so human as a name about it. Nothing human could ever be so vivid. No paint ever poured from a can in that shade. No blood ever spilled that colour.

The bird flew, tree to tree, and Ephraim followed without knowing he followed. The city scraped by: he stumbled over a Yorkshire terrier outside the Maserati dealership in Yorkville; he paused in a St. James Town courtyard ringed by sullen Somali women in head scarves; he lost the bird in Little India in the canopies of a halal restaurant and found it at a Stop ’N Go beside a Wendy’s on the other side of the street. At the edge of the six-lane Lake Shore Boulevard, Ephraim Kobre watched the bright red bird fly off into the dark fringe of the bit of forsaken wood that lay on the other side of the coursing traffic and stopped himself. The bird was exquisite as a secret, but should every secret be revealed? If he were to enter the woods, would he ever find a way out?

His unrewarded quest made him late for the dead. Winterstein himself was filling in. A man in his late twenties and a lady in her early nineties lay equally still in the waiting room.

“Mr. Winterstein, I am fully, genuinely sorry.” Ephraim could sense the sweatiness from his hustle disturbing the
placid bodies.

“This is the first time, Ephraim, so there’s that.”

“There won’t be a second.”

Winterstein shrugged, as if he were sorry he would have to fire Ephraim were he to come in late again. “We are around death, Ephraim. All we can sell is a little reliability. That’s all we have.”

Winterstein shuffled off and Ephraim began his performance for the dead. He always began with Psalm 148. The words lost themselves in his recitation, and his mind stretched to its usual rolled blankness. This time the bird flew in, the memory of that bright red bird. To Ephraim’s horror, he was erect again. If Winterstein walked back in—he almost laughed to think—he would mistake him for a necrophiliac. He was so much further from God than that.

Neither the law nor the Internet could outflank his abomination. After many weeks of searching, Ephraim gave up hope of finding men and women fucking wild animals online. Even the Internet hadn’t debased itself to the point where it could serve him.

There was bestiality of course. Many, many women fucking many, many donkeys. Japan had tentacle-rape porn. There were websites devoted to Syrian teenagers fucking goats, recorded by phone. He even managed to find a clip of a man shoving a sparrow into his anus, which almost helped. Mostly he was amazed to learn how many forms of misplaced pleasure there were: masochism (pain), sadism (pain in others), pedophilia (children), emetophilia (vomit), apotemnophilia (amputation), dendrophilia (trees), toxophilia (archery), oculolinctus (licking eyeballs), chremastistophilia (being robbed), somnophilia (sleeping), forniphilia (furniture made out of humans), anthropophagy (cannibalism), vorarephilia (being eaten by cannibals). There were a thousand different kinds of zoophilia, too, but he recognized himself in none of them. The others fucked domestic things—horses and dogs, or deer who wandered in from the gardens to perform oral sex on teenagers. You could buy online a dildo in the shape of a wolf’s penis. But the disgust all his viewing provoked ended in a final deflation: none of it worked. What he craved, in the sinews of his being, was the wilderness. Pornography was its antithesis. Pornography was cage.

Human pornography led him to nature specials, and there he foundered like an addict, drowned by his own thirst. Entire days were lost. He would awake from his documentary binges with sore genitals and flickering memories: the slow-motion arch of a cheetah hunting antelope on the veld, the bulbous eye of a newborn elephant, the all-crushing jaws of a weird anglerfish at the bottom of the ocean, the effortless sweep of a golden eagle off a Mongolian peak. He woke up ashamed beyond himself and desperate for a solution to his desire. His bedside table filled with field guides to the butterflies of Ontario, the mammals of Canada, the perversions of Audubon. The firm massage of David Attenborough’s voice: that alone made him hard.

His desperation veered this way and that. He had found a store on Queen Street West that sold taxidermy to the cool young people who needed decorations for their high-up glass apartments. The stuffed wolverines and arranged songbirds and saucer-eyed owlets did not satisfy him. Nor did the rescued birds of prey at a raptor centre he visited. Behind a cage, with a broken wing, a peregrine falcon was just another pet. Ephraim’s desire was not for the form of the wildness but for wildness itself. He signed up for E-wild, an email alert service for amateur naturalists, which kept him up to date on all the wilderness sightings in and around the city. The baby brown trout in the Humber River. Mating peregrine falcons at Yonge and Eglinton. Harlequin ducks in a swamp in Oshawa. A family of otters in Rouge Park. The whole city shivered with clandestine fulfillments. It was succulent to know they were there.

He thought to buy a prostitute, but this was not so easy. The exchange of money for flesh was one thing. Where do you buy a wild thing to fuck? The back pages of Now magazine, in frenetic neon, offered race by race and shape by shape and act by act. Ephraim contemplated the idea that a costume would help—no doubt for a price, any of these advertised women would dress up as, say, an osprey or a Kodiak bear.
In his research he had witnessed other, more normal men who enjoyed intercourse with stuffed animals and with women who clothed themselves in the guise of stuffed animals. He hemmed and hawed. He would not know what to ask, or how to ask, or why he was asking.

In a splurge of self-contempt and desperation he stalked the hooker corner near Jarvis and Carlton. Everything corrupt, everything monstrous and obscene about Homo sapiens was there on display. In the beaten, ugly women, leashed to sex, wandering the cold mornings in their tattered come-ons to the garbage men and construction workers, fixing others in exchange for their own fixes, his disgust drained him. His memory betrayed him—the memory of a morning with his wife and infant daughter, fried eggs in bed, and tenderness. Before the knowledge. The odour of sick and nicotine-stained fingertips squeezed his throat. “Hey honey, want to party? ” “Looking for a good time? ” He wanted to have ears that could shut like seals’ did when they dived.

He nearly tripped over her as he was fleeing, a little girl crouched on the curb. She looked fifteen; she had the colour of aged paper from a high-quality manuscript. She was smoking a used cigarette. She would have been laughing had she not been where she was. Two long strands of hair, knotted and braided and beaded, ended in two white feathers. Two pure white feathers.

He left before he could purchase his criminality.

Winter set in, and with it a new breed of despair. Under the snow, his impurity, his perversity, was even more unbearable to him. What do I have to lose? That was the question that repeated itself, whether Ephraim was at home or reciting psalms over corpses: What did he have to lose? What did he have to lose? What did he have to lose? Finally, on a November weekend when nobody died, Ephraim finally lost all shame and went birding.

He knew exactly where to go. The red bird had led him there, to the tangled, ragged forest across Lake Shore Boulevard known as the Leslie Street Spit. He had read about it in his perverse online searches. It had become a park by accident. It was originally a dump. The city’s collected garbage had sprawled into a peninsula, and on that curlicue, mounds of smashed tiles and piles of broken toilets sprouted luxuries of wild grasses, and with the wild grasses came stands of sappy poplars and dappled aspens, caroused by occasional deer. Some years, even haggard coyotes terrified the dog-walkers.

The cold that blew off Lake Ontario blew like a teasing benediction. His groin trembled at the smell of rot and lake, the cry of gulls in the distance, the road that curved, through thickening forest, in the direction of darker, evergreen woods near the tip. He would have broken out into a run except that, in the middle of the road, a woman was waddling her way in the same direction. She had exactly the shape of an egg with legs, and she bristled with various technological accoutrements — a scope like a thick club over her shoulder, small binoculars on her ample chest, a side bag presumably brimming with field guides. Ephraim had not expected other humans.

“Hi, there,” she greeted him cheerfully, with a wide smile, as if she were a visiting aunt. “You here to see the snowy? ”

“I’m sorry? ”

“The snowy owl.”

“There’s a snowy owl here? ” He had not considered any specific animals he might see.

“I hope so, or I’ve had all my trouble for nothing. They posted on the boards that the owls had come back.”

Ephraim wanted to hustle on but the woman began talking just as he began to leave her, to hold him. “You have to come early in the year to see the owls. There’s a big old great horned who lives here and he eats them all eventually. Funny to think of that isn’t it? Owls eating owls.”

“There’s more than a snowy then? ”

“I’ve seen the long-eared, the short-eared, the great grey, the barred, the northern saw-whet. And the snowy and great horned. Never seen the boreal. Although nobody ever does. Are you a big owler? ”

Ephraim weighed the question. “Yes,” he finally decided.

“New to the city? ”

Ephraim also weighed this question. “Yes.” He was new to this city.

“Toronto is a great city for owlers.” Ephraim nodded. “And there it is,” the lady said, pointing.

Ephraim only saw the people. A group of six figures stood in a rough semicircle, their eyes and binoculars raised to a patch of crushed cement and twisted ice near the lake. A black man and his young son were taking turns on a scope. The others were white—a couple in their sixties, and two young fraternity members, it looked like, who hadn’t dressed for the cold, wearing hoodies and rain jackets and shivering as they raised their glasses to peer at something that Ephraim still could not make out.

“It’s juvenile,” one of the frat boys whispered as Ephraim and the lady arrived. “We can’t decide whether second or third year.”

Still Ephraim couldn’t see what it was he was supposed to see. He could see where they all were looking but not the wild thing itself. The black father, with an open-palmed gesture, offered him the scope. Ephraim had never used a scope before. It took some finagling of the vision. He had to close one eye and not blink the other; only then could he see.

The snowy owl had perched on an S of rebar striking out of a half-crumbled concrete block. Its immaculate white was streaked with delicate brown brushstrokes. Its stillness was inconceivable. Its yellow eyes stared at the spectators with infinite concentration, with mingled wariness and disregard. Ephraim was stiff as a board. Thank Hashem he had worn such heavy clothes or he wouldn’t be able to stand up without embarrassment.

“Isn’t it beautiful? ” the Canadian lady raptured when he finally tore himself from the vision.

“Not if you’re a mouse,” one of the students added, shivering in a spasm.

The winter had decimated the city’s walking whores but the young girl was exactly where Ephraim had left her, on the same curb, with the same grin on her face, and the same white feathers in her knotted hair. Against the winter, she had found some kind of man’s navy-blue overcoat, much too big for her, and she had draped herself in it as if it were a tribal blanket. How long was she going to survive? The winter? Another winter after that? She had known a thousand, or at least a couple hundred like him. His burden was probably no greater than the others.

“Please, miss,” Ephraim asked, approaching. “May I ask you a thing? ”

She rubbed her cigarette on the pavement. “I guess.”

“Are those the feathers of a snowy owl in your hair? ”

She held them up. “These are my Walmart feathers. I bought these beauties at Walmart.” She paused, waiting for business to emerge. “Is this a weird Indian thing? I can pretend they’re owl feathers. You want me to tickle your balls with them or something? ”

“No, miss, I don’t.”

“What do you want, then? ”

That seemed to be the question, didn’t it? She was a young girl, dark and debased. She was a servant of all the exhausting permutations of male desire, familiar with the thousand ends to the end of innocence. She would do anything for the hundred dollars he carried in his front pocket. And he had no lust for her, nor an explanation for why he had no lust for her, not even a name he could offer as comfort for his insolubility. Her question was more probing than the rabbi’s. What did he want?

The lesson eased the horror in his heart somewhat. His body was a problem with no solution. The melodrama with nature that had consumed his life dissipated when he understood that discipline was the only answer. Suppression was key. The answer had been so simple all along, from the wisdom of the fathers: “Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And build a fence around the Torah.” This is life—traipsing around wild places with the goyim and paying hookers to tell you their feathers are synthetic in order to learn that the elders were correct all along. Whenever the thought of a tiger or a falcon would creep into his mind, he would simply swallow it back down.

Not that he was anything like cured. As he recited the psalms during the long nights, his heart would fill with stampeding wildebeests, or with the hallelujah of 10,000 snow geese rising on the morning drafts, and he would see again a leopard’s gaze or the almost insulting aristocratic bearing of Siberian cranes in their mating dances, the subliminal rustle of salmon forcing their flesh out of oceans into shallow, delirious rivers. But he was no longer overwhelmed by his own desire. That’s all a man has a right to ask for.

In March, he was confident enough in his fate that he scheduled a meeting with Rabbi Katzman to inform him of his progress, and to thank the old man for his counsel. The rabbi was delighted. “You have deserved some better news,” he said.

“I have tried to deserve it,” Ephraim said.

“And now, to life. To the rest of your life. A better job, and after a better job, who knows—maybe even a woman.”

Even to Ephraim, the idea did not seem entirely absurd. And he might even have arrived at the good things that are suitable to a man, the work of his own hands and a wife, had he not checked his phone as he was leaving the rabbi’s on the way to the evening shift at Winterstein’s. There was a message from E-wild:

Boreal owl spotted on Leslie Street Spit

A boreal owl, Aegolius funereus, has been seen near the turn in the road by the yacht club. It is roosting in a young spruce tree.

Please show caution around this highly vulnerable bird. The Inuit called the boreal owl “the blind one” because they are so wild that they are tame. Inuit children made them into pets without needing to domesticate them. The boreal owl lacks fear of people because they live where people do not. They should not be approached too closely even though they will permit it. Proximity to human beings can stress them.

Looking up from his phone, Ephraim found his instinct had already turned him in the direction of the lake.

The bird was waiting at the precise spot the E-wild message had indicated. A small spruce crouched under a draft of poplars, and nestled in its densest branch, against the trunk, perched a boreal owl. It was smaller than Ephraim had imagined, no bigger than a human heart. The boreal owl looked at Ephraim with a face that had not yet realized what humans were, too remote to understand, too innocent to fear. Ephraim crept closer.

Memories fluttered through him. He remembered the first time his daughter had stared emptily into his eyes, before they had known the emptiness would swallow Esther’s little body up. He remembered his bar mitzvah in Montreal, the feel of the fringe of the shawl on his neck. He remembered the softness of his wife’s freshly bathed breasts the first evenings of their marriage. He remembered the flock of snow buntings gleaning the field, and a crow that had waited one morning in the window well of his basement apartment. He remembered Rachel weeping over Esther’s corpse. He remembered his own closed eyes.

The owl’s gaze did not flicker. Ephraim held his breath. He would have held his pulse had he been given such control by the facts of biology. The bird remained still even as Ephraim reached out for it. The cold, when he unzipped his fly, startled him, but beneath the feathers, silky and soft, lay a warmth as generous as survival itself. The rest was the oblivion of trance and transformation and release until he woke from his ecstasy holding a dead wild thing in his human hands.

This appeared in the January/February 2016 issue.

Stephen Marche (@StephenMarche) published The Hunger of the Wolf, a novel, in February 2015. The Unmade Bed, his sixth book, is out now.

Adrienne Kammerer has drawn for Hazlitt and The Walrus, among others.

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