“Grenville: The Visitor,” is the first of a series of five interconnected short stories set in the fictional town of Grenville, N.Y., in the Adirondack Mountains. When a mysterious visitor takes roost in her backyard, Esther Crocker knows this is only a temporary gift.
But it was hard not to be optimistic on a day like this, as the thermometer heaved itself up to 50 degrees, which felt downright balmy after the 20-below temperatures recorded in mid-January. All over town, residents opened windows, and not just a crack. Great gaps let the wind in and through and out again. The only houses to remain sealed tight were the summer homes and cottages of vacationers, who wouldn’t make themselves known until Memorial Day at least. Their windows stayed shuttered or boarded up, their front doors blocked by hard crusts of dirty snow. Behind those blank facades, field mice sometimes penetrated the tiniest holes, and possums and raccoons nosed gaps in foundations and eaves. Then, there would be quite the surprise when the summer people returned, the retirees who spent much of June, July, and August in Grenville, and the families who drove up for long weekends from Syracuse, Albany, and sometimes as far away as New York City.
Esther, a proud year-round resident of Grenville, stood at the back door and sniffed. The air smelled of mud and loam, old leaves and a tingling, fresh scent she associated with melting snow. Fifty degrees or not, Esther wore a heavy sweater that buttoned up the front and wrapped her neck with a shawl collar. It was maroon and long enough to reach the top of her lumpy thighs in front, although in the back it formed a horseshoe over her ample backside. The right pocket sagged on one side, having lost stitches that Esther always meant to repair. She wore that old sweater around the yard in the fall and spring, and inside on winter days when the furnace didn’t kick up enough heat. Today it was protection from this siren song of a March day, the kind of weather that coaxed foolish people into walking around like it was July, which just invited a chest cold and, at her age, the threat of pneumonia.
Esther headed upstairs, starting in her bedroom with its powder blue walls and a strip of wallpaper in an ivy pattern just below the molding that ringed the ceiling. She thought of Charlie at the top of a stepladder, putting up that border, while she stood in the doorway and scolded that he’d fall and break his neck. He’d done it for her, a nuisance of a job on walls that rippled and bumped from old plaster and patched cracks.
She raised the shade and then the double-pane window—one of the few new windows in the house—and let in the first fresh gusts.
The next room was painted green and furnished with two twin beds and a narrow set of shelves mounted to the wall, which still held four small brass trophies with a runner statuette frozen mid-stride. Esther entered, opened another window, and thought as she always did about the two boys who had occupied this room: Michael, her oldest son, in the choice spot on the right that was closer to the window, and Claude, who was two years younger, on the left. Then Michael, at age eighteen, went off a curve in the road late one night, leaving a hollow place in Esther’s heart. Claude had slept next to that empty twin bed, never coveting its prime spot, until he went off to college.
This past Christmas, Claude and his wife, Jenn, came up from Westchester County with their children, Trevor, who at eight hadn’t wanted to share his room with six-year-old Sarah, even though they each had their own bed. “You got my old bed,” Claude had told the boy, as if it were a prize—just for him and not for his sister. Esther smiled now, remembering that brilliant bit of parenting. Trevor never asked who the other bed belonged to.
Claude and Jenn had slept in Anne’s old room down the hall, in a double bed that was too small for them, although they assured Esther every morning that they had slept well. As soon as she could get to Saranac Lake, she’d go to one of those mattress outlets and buy a queen-sized bed. She couldn’t bear the idea that Claude and Jenn might want to stay in a hotel on their next visit, or that they might actually do that.
But the more Esther thought about it, the more she wanted to caution her daughter-in-law against complaining over elbows and knees that bumped in a too-small bed in the night, because one day they would not be there anymore. Not that she’d say something so maudlin, but it was true. She’d married late in life, at age thirty-three, which in Esther’s day had labeled her an old maid. Charlie, a confirmed bachelor, had been thirty-eight. Convinced that she’d be alone all her life, Esther had been overwhelmed by marriage and then motherhood; to her amazement she conceived three times and gave birth to Anne just before her forty-second birthday. Esther vowed that, in return for that good fortune, she’d never grasp at her children. A few times she faltered: when Michael died far too young; when Claude went all the way to Colorado for college and didn’t come home for two summers; when Anne married an unsuitable man (everybody but Anne could see he always put himself first and didn’t love her enough). But she’d kept her mouth shut.
When Charlie died two years ago after a heart attack felled him in the backyard, between the house and the garage, Esther had wanted to draw her family tightly about herself. She saw Anne and her two daughters at least once a week but resisted any hints that she move in with them. If Anne was going to remarry one of these days, her daughter didn’t need an elderly mother underfoot. Not that she told Anne any of this, because her daughter had sworn off men, or so she said; but at thirty-seven, Anne had a lot of life ahead of her.
Esther lingered in her daughter’s old room with its lilac walls and ruffled curtains, pushing them out of the way before raising the window. It was tricky business since the frame was warped and the window sometimes stuck; this time it slid upwards without much trouble. The window looked out onto the backyard: an expanse of brown lawn, the detached garage, and a phalanx of overgrown pine trees at the back of the property. Soon the view would change as shrubs filled out with new leaves and gardens sprouted daffodils and tulips. But now, barren and muddy, it hid nothing, especially that old aluminum rowboat that belonged to Jack, Anne’s ex. He refused to move that eyesore because he was living in an apartment with his latest girlfriend and had no place to store it. Esther threatened to haul that boat to the side of the road with a sign that said, “Free!” on it, but Anne begged her not cause trouble since she and Jack were trying to get along for their daughters’ sake. One of these days, though— Esther didn’t finish the thought.
She glowered one last time at that worthless old boat which sported a strange mound of snow—a pillar of white, almost three feet tall. The metal should have heated up sufficiently to melt that pile, but maybe it was solid ice, in which case it would be there still at Easter. Then the pillar of snow stretched a remarkable pair of wings and folded them again.
Over the years, Esther had seen a menagerie of creatures in her backyard: deer as common as weeds in the garden, raccoons and possums, chipmunks and squirrels, a couple of black bears nosing in the trash cans, and once a moose that had to be nine feet from hoof to antlers. Hawks circled every day, and blue jays cawed raucously from the pine forest. But never had she seen anything like this up close.
Walking stealthily, heel to toe, soundless except for the soft sucking of her bootsteps on the water-logged lawn, Esther approached the white lump. It opened one orange eye punctuated by a black pupil and then the other. Feeling the hard rectangle in her sweater pocket, Esther finally had a reason to be glad Anne’s daughters, Taylor and Emma, had showed her how to use her cellphone as a camera. She chronicled the visitor just in case it departed, leaving her (and anybody she tried to tell) to question what she’d really seen.
But the visitor stayed. Five days later, the great snowy owl—a male, as evident by its all-white feathers, and named Oliver by Esther—still sat there. Presumably it left at night or other odd hours to hunt. Inspecting the ground around the boat while Oliver slept, Esther found pellets of fur, feathers, and bones—the telltale signs that it had eaten and then coughed up the undigestible bits later. “At least you can fend for yourself,” Esther said one morning, coming within a foot of Oliver. “Between us, you can stay on that boat as long as you want. Somebody ought to use it.”
Anne and the girls came to see the owl, trying to get Oliver to answer their calls of “Whoo! Whoo!” The mailman, Jimmy Rivers, stopped his rounds long enough to investigate. Neighbors came, as did a few people who were less familiar. Oliver never stirred, and Esther didn’t let them get too close to keep from disturbing the bird.
Jimmy suggested she call the state Fish & Wildlife department, which Esther did reluctantly, hoping they wouldn’t try to capture Oliver and take him away. The young man on the phone assured her no one would disturb the bird, just observe. The next day, a dark green pickup truck with the name of the state agency etched on the doors pulled up. Esther was home, puttering inside on a day that had turned cold and threatened snow. She put on her boots and winter coat and pulled a red knit hat over her short gray hair.
Long-legged in dark denim jeans and a bulky parka, the young man introduced himself: “Evan Polinski, Fish & Game.” He offered a gloveless hand to shake.
“Esther Crocker. We got the owl and the boat—all we need is a pussycat.” She’d thought of the line that morning and was dying to try out on someone. “You know, the owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.”
“Uh-huh,” Evan said.
Esther stood back while he circled the aluminum hull sticking out of an inch of wet slush. “It doesn’t look injured. No blood on the feathers. Have you seen it fly?”
Esther hadn’t contemplated that the bird might be sick, even dying. “No, but plenty of pellets on the ground so he hunts and eats. Oliver—that’s what I call him—never budges during the day. Just sleeps.”
Evan took pictures with a small computer pad and made notes while Esther watched, until she was too cold and headed inside, telling the young man to come in for coffee when he was finished. He might even like some of that pound cake she bought at the store the other day.
A little while later, after Esther had run a comb through her hair and changed into a clean blouse and cardigan sweater, Evan tapped on the back door. He drank two cups of coffee and had a slice of cake while answering Esther’s eager questions about being a Fish & Wildlife field agent. He was twenty-six, two years out of Dartmouth with a degree in biology and wanted to go back to get his master’s degree.
Two days later, Evan came back to check on Oliver, and Esther made him a sandwich from the turkey breast she’d bought at the store for that very purpose. “After supper, Oliver’s still there,” Esther told Evan. “Then it gets so dark, I can’t make him out. I don’t want to turn on the outside light and goof him up, thinking it’s daylight. Say—you think we should do a stake-out and see when he goes off?”
Evan took his time chewing. “I don’t know if we have to do that.”
“Course not,” Esther said. “Not like Oliver’s starving.”
“But it might be nice to see him in flight. His wingspan’s gotta be five feet. I’ll come by the next couple of days. I’ll call.”
Esther refilled her coffee mug. She’d have a nice casserole ready, maybe that baked goulash Charlie had been so fond of.
Louisa Pherson heard about the owl from Jimmy Rivers, whose mail route was far shorter in the winter and early spring when the summer cottages and cabins and most of the businesses in Grenville were closed for the season. Jimmy had come in for a cup of coffee with Frank Pherson who was taking a break from painting the rooms at Pine Breezes, the ten-unit motel he and Louisa owned. Frank loved Grenville: fishing in summer, hunting in the fall, and snowy winter days without much to do other than feed another split log into the woodstove. Louisa dreamed of warmer climates and more interesting people. She fancied herself to be the most cultured person in Grenville, as evident by the Murano glass and hand-fired pottery she displayed in the tiny giftshop she operated in a room adjacent to the motel office. But the fishermen and hikers who stayed at Pine Breezes weren’t looking for quality collectables to take home; if anything, they bought balsam scented sachet pillows with “Pine Breezes” and the brown outline of a pinecone stamped on the cheap muslin fabric.
Louisa liked the high-class summer people and tried to ingratiate herself with them. She managed to establish nodding acquaintances with a few people from downstate who drove new cars and thought of the Adirondacks as their summer playground. To improve her status, she tried to talk Frank into upgrading Pine Breezes into a “boutique motel,” each room decorated with four-poster beds, chintz curtains, and antiques. Instead of just offering coffee in Styrofoam cups in the morning and a gooey Danish bought from the grocery store, they could serve gourmet breakfasts of quiche and eggs benedict and homemade muffins.
“Clean and cheap,” Frank always replied, proud of the fishermen who sent them cards at Christmas signed “see you next summer!”
“Them summer people you love so much already have their own houses—why would they stay here?” he’d add.
“Their friends would. Word would spread. People would take a virtual tour on the website. It’s called viral marketing.” Louisa always gave up, because by this point, Frank would be back to painting, scrounging in the refrigerator, or poking at the fire in the woodstove.
This time of year was the worst for Louisa, when the boredom of living in a town of 1,200 threatened to crush her long before Memorial Day. It was hard to hang on to better weather, when the summer people would return in their SUVs and convertibles—all tanned and trim and wearing good sportswear. Unlike most of Grenville residents, Louisa didn’t mind the clogged checkout lines at the IGA or the crowds at the fish fry and ice cream stands or having to wait forty-five minutes for a booth at the two diners in town (only one was open all year). She’d mingle as she waited, pretending that she, too, was only visiting and not doomed to be still stuck there come November, when the last of the leaves turned and left their crinkled corpses on the lawn.
On this particular day, Jimmy brought not only news of the owl—“still sittin’ on that old boat of Jack’s in Esther’s yard”—but also of the young man from Fish & Wildlife, who had been eating a turkey sandwich in Esther’s kitchen when Jimmy stopped by with a package from Amazon. (Esther always ordered books, big thick ones.)
Louisa perked up and listened intently to Jimmy’s description of the field officer—“real smart fella, a Dartmouth grad.” Surely there had to be something on the Pine Breezes property that would interest Fish & Wildlife. But after Jimmy finally left and Louisa asked Frank about it, her husband laughed and said, “I ain’t running Noah’s Ark around here. Just be glad we don’t have any ‘wildlife’ to worry about—especially bedbugs. Jimmy says there’s a bad infestation at a camp down on the Raquette River.”
Louisa stopped listening. She was turning fifty this year and had gained five pounds in the past month alone. At least four times a day, she had to stand outside without a jacket on to cool off from hot flashes.
Searching online, she found cruises to Mexico and the Caribbean that didn’t cost that much, but Frank was spending money on painting and repairs. Then their son, Rodney, on a break from his second attempt at college, would upgrade their website with photos to show just how clean and cheap Pine Breezes really was.
If Frank wasn’t willing to do anything, Louisa told herself, she’d have to take matters into her own hands with what she had. She made excuses about needing a head of lettuce from the IGA and drove off in their ten-year-old Subaru Outback.
The bird didn’t move while Louisa stood about five feet away. It was a bird of prey and might be vicious. There was nothing special about it, other than its size and its snowy white feathers, and – “Oh my heavens!” Louisa gasped aloud – its wingspan. The owl suddenly stretched like it was going to take off, taking that boat with it. Louisa screeched, earning a glowing stare from those orange eyes.
“Who’s there?” Esther Crocker called out.
Louisa made a face in the bird’s direction as if they were conspirators in this little interlude. “Just me, Esther. Jimmy told me about your owl—”
“Not mine. He’s a wild thing. Just paying a visit for a while. Fella from Fish & Wildlife says Oliver might be looking to establish a mating ground around here. Or he could be heading back to the tundra.”
“Maybe the owl will stay.” If she could talk Frank into it, Louisa thought, they could set aside the land behind the motel as a kind of bird sanctuary. They could cut some pathways around the perimeter, build an observation platform for people to sit and watch the hawks and bluebirds and whatever the heck else might be around there. A snowy owl could be a mascot for the motel! She’d have a talk with that young man from Fish & Wildlife. It would be such a pleasure to have a conversation with someone intelligent for a change.
“Does Oliver think there’s more of them around here?” Louisa asked.
Esther gave her a funny look. “It’s not like Oliver and me have many conversations.”
“I thought he came here to observe the owl.”
“Oliver is the owl—that’s what I call him,” Esther cackled. “You thought I meant the Fish & Wildlife guy—that’s Evan.”
Louisa pursed her lips, hating to be the butt of anybody’s joke. She hoped Esther didn’t tell Jimmy because he was bound to repeat it to Frank and then she’d never hear the end of it.
“Evan says he hasn’t seen many snowy owls around here. They like wide open barren places,” Esther told her.
Louisa looked around the muddy yard; barren was exactly the description that came to mind. She feigned a cough. “Might you have a glass of water?”
“Yup, I might,” Esther replied with a smirk.
Some people didn’t know polite language when they heard it, Louisa thought angrily. She coughed again, and Esther went inside to get her some water.
Louisa reached into her pocket for a sealed baggie with strips of bologna, the only thing she could find in the refrigerator that might tempt an owl. She held a piece of it in her fingers and summoned the courage to step closer. “Here you go, Oliver. Look. Doesn’t this smell good?”
Oliver sat motionless, eyes shut.
“This is good. Mr. Frank loves this bologna, and he’s not half as wise as you are.” Louisa took two more steps forward. She could make out each feather on its pure white wings with a scattering of black specks like freckles. Steadying her nerves and her hand, she held out the bologna.
“Sorry about that—the phone rang.” Esther called out.
Louisa dropped the bologna strip on the ground and stuffed the baggie into her pocket. She hurried away from the boat hull where Oliver sat, ignoring the offering on the dirt. Maybe he’d try it later and then pick up the scent all the way to Louisa’s, where she’d leave the rest of the bologna strips along the fence. Louisa could picture Oliver sitting on a perch near the motel, eating choice bits out of her hand. In time, she would train him to come out of the woods when she whistled his special call…
Esther handed her the water.
“Mmmph, parched.” Louisa sipped the water, tasting the metal of old pipes.
“Drink more than a sip if you’re that thirsty.”
Louisa gulped half the glass, forcing a smile through a grimace. “Thanks. Well, I better be going.” She took one look back at the owl, who glared at her with eyes as bright as headlights. Louisa hurried to her car and drove home, forgetting all about her ruse of getting lettuce at the IGA.
Evan Polinski sat in the Fish & Wildlife truck on the shoulder of the road, the engine idling and the heater blowing. His smartphone in hand, he scrolled through his texts to and from Birgitta. She hadn’t responded to his last missive, and to speak out of turn now would seem like he was being too possessive, which is what she’d accused him of a few months ago. They’d been friends during their senior year at Dartmouth. She was gorgeous and Swedish, a double-barrel of attractiveness he didn’t stand a chance against. But after college their friendship evolved into a romance of sorts, thanks to a fortuitous mixture of proximity and loneliness. Evan had moved back to New York City to occupy a tiny studio on the Upper West Side, thanks to his parents’ support and his lack of student debt. Birgitta shared an apartment in Chinatown with three other students while studying for a master’s in global public health at New York University.
Birgitta liked the space and quiet of Evan’s apartment, and a few times spent the night. Then they were dating. Evan stayed in that miserable consulting job for two years, just so he could keep seeing Birgitta; then she graduated and went to Guatemala. He couldn’t follow her there, so Evan took a job with Fish & Wildlife and moved to the Adirondack Mountains. He tried to make plans: going to see her in Guatemala or bringing Birgitta up here to spend a couple of weeks hiking and camping with him. “We are in different places in our lives,” Birgitta always told him. “It’s better that we be friends right now.”
Unable to withstand the temptation to text her, Evan sent her a photo of the owl. “My new friend. Tonight, observing hunting habits.”
The text sent, Evan stuffed the phone back in his pocket. Before he could put the truck in drive, the chime sounded on the phone. “Love owls!” Birgitta texted. “So majestic. Send more photos!”
Evan smiled. He didn’t need a second invitation.
All afternoon, Esther had kept a close eye on Oliver, with her cell phone in her pocket to call Evan should the owl start to act restless. But Oliver had all the ambition of a lawn statue. Taking the baked goulash out of the oven at a little before five-thirty, Esther saw Evan arrive, earlier than he’d said. He stood in the yard, his back to the house, watching the boat. Esther turned off the oven and slipped the baking dish inside to keep warm, then hurried outside. Evan pumped his hand in an up-and-down motion behind his back, a signal Esther interpreted to slow down, walk quietly, and say nothing.
Oliver preened his feathers, spread his wings, then hopped off the boat hull. Esther looked questioningly up at Evan, who leaned down to whisper, “They hunt on the ground.”
Spreading his great talons, Oliver pounced on something on the opposite side of the boat. A field mouse, Esther suspected; there were plenty in the woods and around the garage.
They stood as motionless as possible while Oliver stalked for the better part of an hour. Esther fought the urge to follow the bird around, trying to see the world as he did through those sharply focused eyes of his. To her, it was the same muddy backyard: gardens bare, ground frost-heaved in places, with an old aluminum boat upturned on the brown grass that was just starting to turn green. But to Oliver it was a hunting ground and a refuge between wherever he’d come from and wherever he was going.
The huge wings opened, and Oliver flapped into the air. Weighed down by his heavy body, he moved slowly, then caught an air current and soared off.
“Oh, my,” Esther said when she could speak again.
Cold and damp creeped up from the soles of Esther’s boots to her ankles and then her left knee started to ache. “Got goulash,” she said and turned without waiting for a reply.
Evan left his boots at the back door and walked into the kitchen wearing a pair of thick, gray wool socks. He used the bathroom and came out with his hair pushed back out of his eyes. He offered to help, but Esther shooed him toward the table. She brought two plates of goulash, a bigger mound on Evan’s plate than hers.
Watching Evan eat, listening to him talk about the owl, Esther thought about Michael. Had he lived, Michael would have been over forty by now, but something about this lanky young man reminded Esther of her late son. It was the way he held his fork, his wrist curled just slightly. Such a small detail, filed away deep in her memory, to be recalled all these years later.
Esther offered a second helping, which Evan considered briefly, then said, “Yeah, thanks. Maybe half what you gave me last time.”
He picked up his fork again, and Esther watched, smiling.
Oliver didn’t come back. Esther had known it that night, although she couldn’t say why. But there had been something about that great swoop of wings, the fact that she and Evan had been there to witness what turned out to be the last departure.
It was time. In a couple of months, the summer people would be back, and with them the noise on the road that ran right past the house. Oliver’s nights would have been quiet no longer.
“Hope you found your lady love,” Esther said to the dimming sky one early April evening, imagining Oliver with his mate and a nest full of eggs to hatch into owlets—the proper name for the chicks, as Evan had told her.
Evan had said he might stop by sometime on his rounds, but Esther didn’t expect that to happen—not unless Oliver returned one day. Maybe next spring.
Patricia Crisafulli, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer, published author, and founder of FaithHopeandFiction.com. Tricia received her Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) from Northwestern University, which also honored her with the Distinguished Thesis Award in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of three Write Well Awards for best-of-the-web literary fiction for stories that have appeared on FaithHopeandFiction. She is the author of several nonfiction books and a collection of short stories and essays, Inspired Every Day, published by Hallmark.
Image Credit: Copyright: eclecticcreations / 123RF Stock Photo.