Is Inside Is Outside

Willa Jarnagin

“Don’t talk back to the thoughts,” said the white owl, a pair of eyes on a snowy bough, to herself. Though it was hopeless.

A waning moon had poured what was left of itself onto the land. A train in the distance was a train in the distance. Nothing could be stolen from a creature who is herself as unstealable as a thought cloud, the owl reassured herself. She transferred this thought to a lower part of her brain that was worried about catching dinner before someone else did.

In one swoop she caught a mouse and landed on another bough. Same thoughts. A primitive thing it is to turn a mouse inside out, who has her own thoughts and who for a minute eats you with her presence in your mind. Mice do not have small thoughts. No species that meets death in such numbers could be unenlightened.

The owl arrived in the city before morning, perching on the snowy brick ledge of an old woman’s window. The woman could not have heard the owl land, yet woke anyway, lifting her white hair from the white pillow and looking toward the white rectangle that was her window at night, the moon pressed into a box. She rose and filled a bowl with water and brought it to the window, raising the pane and breathing the cold air. The owl drank. Together they surveyed the sleeping and not sleeping city. A few people walked in their long coats, cars went by, sounds traveled up the ribs of buildings, the lungs of civilization. The woman longed and the owl longed, each for the other, vaguely, one to fly and the other to be soon to end. But one could not stay in the cold and the other could not come in from it. So eventually the owl left and flew toward the park.

The woman went back to bed, and, pulling up the sheet, saw a drop of blood on her fingertip. In the pale light on her pale skin, the blood was a new center of herself, as if from the place that no longer bled. A bit of herself untrained for the world had jumped the fence.

The old woman hung in the owl’s vision, ghostly, homesick, and equally airborne at heart. Yet not yet. Until then she was gravity-bound as snow.

The moon had withdrawn into the bare gray of between.

The owl was thinking about the water the woman had given her, that it had come from somewhere out of the city, from who knew where. She thought of her mother, unknown to her now. She remembered the hands of trees holding her up to the moon, her mother coming to feed her.

The owl flew to a building where a young girl lived, first morning light glancing off the glass and brick. She landed on a snowy sill and pecked at a window. After a moment, the girl parted the curtains. “Owl,” she said, lifting the heavy window. “I wondered when I would see you again.” She disappeared for a moment, and reappeared with an apple, which saddened the owl, who could not eat it and would never want the girl to know what she did eat. The girl held out the apple, and the two looked into each other’s eyes, until eventually the girl retracted the apple from the owl’s expressionless face. The owl pecked at the girl’s hand, drawing blood, and the girl jumped back. The owl flew away, unable to explain.

Countless windows inhabited the shadows of buildings. Between buildings were dumpsters and trash cans, and the surprising grace of fire escapes, climbing like charred vines. In one alley was a cat as white as she. The owl perched on the black grill of an escape landing and called down to the cat, who emerged from some invisible place. Close in size, they regarded each other, as they had many times before, in their fierceness and softness, with round eyes. The cat was thin and torn in one ear. These two would not share food. The cat wished to not wish to be alone. After a time, the owl flew off.

The owl thought her thoughts might walk on the moon, where there is no air to compete, shuffling around in the gray dust as in an old woman’s hair.

Rush hour split open the city and let all the noise out.

The owl noted a presence in the back of her mind. From somewhere far, a wolf looked through the owl’s eyes, at the men wearing ties, walking in shoes more polished than worn across wet black streets and wide cement squares, the women in coats and boots holding handbags to their bodies and clattering through intersections. Buses swam among them like alligators.

There was nothing new to see. It was again only too many people in the same place they were before, too many cars and buses, too many haircuts and shoes, too many umbrellas and dry stares.

The owl sat on a spire. She had traded eyes with the wolf before. For a moment a tundra was superimposed on the city, washing away anything so small as people, leaving only the blocky shapes of sky scrapers in a clutter, layered one behind another.

The snow that began to fall fell in both places.

As the wolf withdrew and the tundra cleared, the owl saw people’s thoughts rise up between the snowflakes — the dust of shopping lists and sex, memories and second guesses and regret — forming an exhaust of grimy particles that could swirl into a planet of their own. They passed through the owl unchanged, taking no toll on her expression, because that could not change, and leaving her no wiser than before, because none of the thoughts were new.

The sun hid among its own whiteness in the cold morning air, but the owl always knew which way was east. She left the city.

A little house sat above a rocky shore. Seagulls made a mournful racket. The owl descended to the sill of a lit window and looked in upon the sister of the old woman in the city.

The woman saw the owl through the glass. She went to her kitchen and came back with a bowl of water. “Hello, friend,” she said as she opened the window and offered the bowl. The owl drank from the space between the reflections of her black eyes.

After she drank, a gray squirrel hopped onto the ground across the yard. The woman feared for the squirrel, tried to relinquish her fear to the nature of nature, only to feel it more, with pity for the animal. The owl considered the meal versus the witness, but it was not this part of her that made the decision. She swooped and the squirrel was hers, fighting and desperate, then limp.

The little creature occupied both their minds — the woman’s while she tried not to watch, and the owl’s as she consumed a body not her own and folded its thoughts away among all the others. Blood melted through the snow, hiding itself from the woman’s view, though not the owl’s. She was above, on a branch. Eventually she let the skin and bones fall, where they too disappeared into the white.

The sun rose higher while the owl preened her feathers. She watched the woman, who stared back at the owl’s head, round and white as a snow man’s. The woman absently tapped a finger on the water’s surface in the bowl, making concentric circles.


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