The Owl

Owl tattoo

Owl tattoo

By Alicia Eler

I. First Word

“Owl” is a difficult word for a child to pronounce. As the “o” of “owl” wraps itself around my tongue and tiny teeth, I voice “w” and “l,” until my mouth understands what shape to take. Then my lips come back together, the tip of my tongue resting on the roof of my mouth, just behind my two front teeth. I whisper the word—”owl”—again, surprised by my power. My grandmother Edna and my great aunt Betty turn their heads, then grab each other’s hands.  I stare into Edna’s brown eyes, then pluck a sweet red strawberry from her plate. On television, the Cubs batter hits a home run, interrupting our moment. Everyone knows about owl.

II. Origin

In my childhood bedroom, walls painted periwinkle blue, I stared at my owl nightlight every night before I went to sleep. Millions of miles away, white stars marked black outer space. Outside my house, cars sped down the street, ambulances howled, and feral cats meowed and prowled through alleys, looking for rodent victims. My owl sat perched on a plastic branch, yellow eyes and pointed orange beak protecting my room.

Eventually the bulb burned out and no one replaced it. The cleaning lady carelessly unplugged it. My grandmother came by and delivered it to the storage area underneath the basement stairs. First I got used to sleeping in the dark—then I began to crave it. My mom bought me thick, cream-colored shades that guaranteed ninety percent light-blockage. Soon, even a hint of morning glow infuriated me. I became a night owl.

III. Return

Twenty years later, maybe because I felt lost in my life, I started noticing owls again. How might owl figure into my new, adult life? How could I make owl a permanent fixture so that it surely wouldn’t fly away again?

But not yet. First the business of adulthood, apartments, roommates, breakups and jobs, figuring out how to live in Chicago. Then I met Peregrine. Named for a falcon, she invited me to visit her in Kansas City. It was August, and the wet summer air pooled puddles on the highway from Chicago to Missouri. When I arrived, I told her about owl’s newest incarnation. She put ink to thick paper and started drawing almost moments after the hard-to-say word came tumbling out of my mouth.

IV. Rebirth

At the Mercy Seat Tattoo Parlor, I sit in a  black leather salon chair.  A man I’d met only five minutes earlier begins drawing a delicate great horned owl on the upper lefthand-side of my tender white back. I try to sit still, but my heart is beating fast through my chest. The needle vibrates, its buzz resonating throughout the tattoo parlor. The tattoo artist is bent so close that I can smell the cigarette smoke on his breath. For 45 tedious minutes, I alternate between staring blankly at a taxidermy zebra’s glass eyes and looking, with fear and confusion, into the eyes of my friend Peregrine. She snaps photos as she watches the drawing, gleaned from my mind, transform to skin-tight ink.

The baby owl is ready; it’s fled my body’s interiors to perch on my skin. It stands tall on my back, swollen from birth, with big oval eyes, tiny pointed ears, proud ruffled feathers and crooked claws that clamp onto a delicately flowered branch. A vision from childhood re-emerges as a permanent fixture.