The Owl and the Bens
by W. O. MITCHELL
THE got owl his and freedom the Ben at approximately and the Young the Ben same each time — the Young Ben at four o’clock one fall afternoon, the owl that evening, and the Ben three days later. The teacher, who knew the owl, the Ben, and the Young Ben, was perhaps the only soul in the prairie town who appreciated the value that freedom had for each of the three.
He was a tall, thin, and remarkably ugly young man, the teacher, with a singularly crooked will that prompted him to think a great deal about things that could not make him money or bring him fame. But he understood children, among whom he included the Ben.
Certainly if irresponsibility was an attribute of childhood, the Ben, surrounded always by a soursweet aroma of brew tanged with a gallop of manure and spiced with natural leaf tobacco, was a child. A spare, gray bird of a man, he had a flaming stare that made one wince. His eyes burned deep in rims as red as fanned coals. A gray stubble covered his creased face. Always at odds with some rule, law, or convention, — shooting pheasant, antelope, or partridge out of season and without a license; or running his still, — the Ben had as much moral conscience as the wind that lifts over the edge of the prairie world to sing mortality to every living thing.
Seldom sober, the Ben knew only two stages of drunkenness: the dramatic and the unconscious. The first was loud with an obscenity expressed best in song; the second was final and left him sprawled in a drift of snow in the deep of winter, or over a downtown curb where he was at the mercy of botflies in summer. From these positions he was usually rescued by Jake Harris, the town constable, garbage man, and fireman, or by the Young Ben.
With the Young Ben the teacher had difficulty at first in deciding whether or not he was a child. Looking down into that solemn face with its wide, gray eyes staring up to him, and its cheeks nutmegged with freckles, he was aware of no spark of childhood there. He was forced to agree with the boy’s father that the Young Ben had been “borned growed-up.” This was a theory that the Ben had expounded many times, over beer, brew, or on one occasion, according to the school janitor, a bottle of Cobb’s Blistering Remedy for Horses, which the Ben had mistaken for Lister’s Household Lemon Essence.
“Thuh Old Lady comes tuh me,” the Ben would explain, “an’ she sez, ‘Ben, yuh better go git Doc. I ain’t feelin’ none too good,’ she sez. ‘The pains is a-comin’ on real frequent now.’ So I went out tuh ketch Dolly, an’ her not havin’ the harness ontuh her sence thuh fall buhfore, I chased her clear down tuh thuh other enda thuh goddam pasture witha panna oats behind my back. After ‘bout a hour I come back tuh thuh shack tuh git my hat. There wuz thuh Old Lady a-settin’ on a apple-box a-peelin’ some puhtatuhs inta thuh slop pail.
“‘Where’s my goddam hat?’ I sez, an’ she sez, ‘Yuh don’t need her.’ ‘Why?’ I sez, an’ she sez, ‘The kid’s already bin borned.’ ‘Whut is it?’ I sez. ‘A boy,’ she sez, ‘an’ han’ me that there pot offa thuh table.’ I asked her where wuz he at, an’ she sez, ‘After he finished of separatin’ thuh cream, he went out tuh chop me up some kendlin’ fer thuh stove.’ Thuh kid wuz borned growed-up.”
Until forced to attend school, the Young Ben never entered the town, though he would accompany his father to its edge where the prairie swelled gently. There, overlooking the town, he would sit watching till his father’s return, his chin in his hands, his elbow’s on his knees. At other times he had been observed, as Mr. Karpack, the blacksmith put it, “a-runnin’ acrost the bald-headed prairie with no more clo’s on than tuh wad a .410 shotgun.” If approached he would startle like a wild thing.
After he came to school the Young Ben had changed little; at no time during the years that followed did he play any games. He could run with the speed of a ring-necked pheasant, but he could not be bothered to take part in organized, team games. He could not understand rules; discipline had no meaning for him; nothing he ever did depended on other people; he was as naked of a sense of right and wrong as a coyote howling in the stillness of a clear fall night.
THE teacher did his best with the Young Ben; he whipped him regularly with the regulation length of breeching harness given him by Mr. Thorborn, chairman of the school board and owner of the livery stable behind the Baptist church. And while the Young Ben lifted one hand after the other to the sting of the strap, the teacher sweated over the ritual, knowing that he did it only in deference to the public opinion of the town, which felt that the Young Ben was a bad actor like his father and should be sent to “an institution.”
In the course of trying to understand the Young Ben, the teacher came to know much about the boy’s father. Some of his information was firsthand, but the greater part of it had been picked from the magpie mind of the school janitor and came to him in bits gleaned during recesses while he smoked in the janitor’s retreat just off the boys’ lavatory. The teacher took what seemed dependable in the light of the janitor’s known weakness for exaggeration; much of it he labeled legend that had grown up around the Ben.
It was in the twilight of the furnace room, with its gray dust and its spun, gray intricacies of spider webbing, that he found out how the Ben got money for beer and tobacco, for grain and kerosene for his still. He learned that the Ben did no work and had done none for several years, though formerly he condescended to dig an occasional grave.
One night after the Ben had drunk the remuneration for the digging of a grave the day before, several men of the town stationed themselves in the brush halfway down the dirt trail that led to Haggerty’s coulee and the Ben’s shack. They covered themselves with sheets from the hotel, and as the Ben came staggering and singing down the moonlit road, they presented themselves to him. They know that the Ben was superstitious, and that he only agreed to dig a grave when the most ravaging of thirsts forced him to it; but his reaction was unexpected. In drunken pugnacity he raised his nail kegs of fists and cried out hoarsely and alarmingly:
“C’mon, alla yuh—I berried yuh buhfore, an’ I’m a-gonna berry yuh agin!”
The Ben’s bravado was not deep-seated; he never dug another grave after that, giving rheumatism in his back as his reason. This made it harder for the teacher to believe the janitor’s description of the Ben’s periodic visits to Sherry’s mill. At such times, he said, it was the Ben’s custom to lift a fifty-pound sack of feed to his head, walk to the beer parlor of the Royal Hotel, sit down, drink his beer, stand up, and walk the quarter of a mile to his shack, all the time carrying the sack on his head as lightly as though it were a matchbox.
Denied his income from gravedigging, the Ben turned then to eggs. When Mrs. Ben was out, the Ben would sneak down to the hen house and steal two or three eggs, never more, for he dared not let her know that eggs were disappearing. The hens as well as the ten cows — the creatures that with the Bens inhabited Haggerty’s coulee — belonged to the Ben’s wife. With her eggs he was able to get ten to twenty cents at the General Store. And at the Royal Hotel all that the Ben needed was to buy the first beer; his yarns bought those that followed.
Unfortunately for the Ben, egg financing came to an end. It was unfortunate because, indirectly, the shutting off of the supply by Mrs. Ben resulted some time later in the discovery of his still. The Ben was forced to accept the position of janitor in the Baptist church; this in turn led to an incident which created in the heart of the Reverend Powelly an undying, Old Testament thirst for revenge.
An unbroken chain of cause and effect led from the eggs to the Ben’s conviction for running a still, though perhaps the term “still” was too dignified for the great granite pot to which the Ben had wired on a length of copper coil. In the early days the Ben had been content to follow the usual technique of covering the still with brush at a comfortable distance from his shack; later he dug a cave for it and covered it carefully with squares of prairie sod.
Then the Ben became a member of the Baptist congregation, a prerequisite to becoming janitor. He started his one-month career inauspiciously after having made a loquacious but not too detailed account of his sins. He was then, unexpectedly, confronted by the hand of the Reverend Powelly, held out in the ritual of welcoming him into the fold. Strangely reluctant, the Ben shook hands. Many are called, but few of those chosen come to the selecting with wads of partly chewed Old Stag tobacco secreted in the palms of their right hands. The minister deposited the cud in a pot of Lilies of Jerusalem beside the pulpit. A charitable man, he forgave the Ben, judging the act to be the result of hurried thinking in an embarrassing situation.
Perhaps it was his distrust of Mrs. Ben, who threatened to tell Jake Harris about his moonshining if he took any more eggs, that caused him to hide his still in the basement of the church. It was an ideal place; no one but the Ben ever entered the coal room where the still and its kerosene burner rested on a dark shelf of earth just inside the church building; the telltale fumes of the still were quickly absorbed by the manure pile thrown up from Mr. Thorborn’s livery barn behind the church. Without fear of detection the Ben could visit his still, fill the burner with kerosene, the coil bed with ice, the pot with mash, and himself with brew.
One month after the Ben’s conversion, the Sunday the Reverend Powelly had chosen for his delicately balanced sermon on the Parable of the Lost Penny, a sermon pointed at the Ben, — as had also been that of the Sunday before (The Lost Sheep), and the one before that (The Prodigal’s Return), — the still blew up. Ignited by the yellow, moth-wing flame of the burner, which the Ben had left turned too high, it exploded between the announcing of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Chicken Dinner, to be held the following Tuesday, and the passing of the collection plate. It detonated with a thud that was felt physically, rather than heard, by every member of the congregation. In the absolute silence that settled over the congregation, there could be heard, from below, the clanging of metal objects dropping one after the other. The Ben hurried from the church.
Thinking that whatever was the matter, it would be ably attended to by the Ben, the Reverend Powelly began his sermon two pages on in his notes. The church was heated by hot-air vents along its sides, all of them leading to the basement. Out of these, soon after the explosion, there stole a yeasty breath that drifted through the congregation and blossomed unmistakably into sweet, oppressive fumes of ferment.
Below, meanwhile, the Ben feverishly collected the parts of his still from far corners and frantically shoveled out a cave in the coal in which to hide the evidence. That night he retrieved the copper coil and parts of the stove. Jake Harris, summoned tardily on Monday morning, found nothing.
ALL this time, the Young Ben was finding school an intolerable incarceration made bearable by many short flights of freedom. Taking two years to a grade, he made leisurely progress; by the time he was fourteen he sat uneasily in a back seat, lifting his thin shoulders a good foot above the Grade Four pupils around him. Just once in all the Young Ben’s time in school did the teacher surprise an expression on his face; it was the look that lies in the eye of a caught thing.
As well as he could, the teacher sought to ease the Young Ben’s days by assigning him at intervals numerous tasks which might relieve the tension. If he wanted a window opened or closed, he let the Young Ben do it; he asked the Young Ben to fill the water jug from the school well, to post a letter for him, take a message to the janitor, ring the bell. In spite of this the Young Ben indulged in regular hooky.
It was in calling about the Young Ben’s attendance that the teacher first saw the owl. It was kept in a coop of chicken netting tucked in one corner of the much interrupted fence that canted around the Ben’s yard. The Ben had caught the owl; knowing that owls always alight before flying to the ground, he had set a gopher trap on the top of a dead poplar, then scattered raw meat over the ground below. He had climbed the poplar himself and had almost lost a finger and an eye in getting the owl down. He had not trapped it as a pet for his son; it was simply that he had felt like catching an owl; he had; now it was his owl to put in a chicken-wire coop.
Before he actually saw it, the teacher heard the owl. He heard first, as he climbed through the barbed strands of the fence, a sharp, snapping sound like the clear punctuation of dry, dead underbrush cracking and popping. As he straightened he heard a wild, harsh hissing, a fierce sibilance savaging deep in the owl’s gray throat. He looked up and into two eyes of amazing brilliance, eyes that blinked deliberately with the coming down of their untidy gray lids, the lids of an old man. The teacher saw that the pupils of those eyes were dead black with nothing in them to tell that they lived.
Transfixed by the cold glow of the two wide eyes flaming on either side of the down-curving beak, the teacher stood for minutes, the insistent, persistent husking incessantly in his ears. And suddenly he was aware of the gray wing-shoulders weaving tirelessly from side to side. A soul-burning compulsion stirred within him, an ineffable urge to tear away the netting.
With a feeling of relief he let his gaze drop to the owl’s white, feather-panted legs, to the black twigtoes that grew into talons gripping the Saskatoon sapling perch in their curved clutch. He turned away, the hissing real in his ears, the lemon eyes, like the lingering afterimages of extinguished lights, glowing in his mind; he felt his body, against his will, sway with a hint of empathy. He knew that the owl could never be tamed to the chicken coop and to the limp bodies of gophers and field mice brought by the Young Ben.
In the Ben shack he found Mrs. Ben uninterested in the Young Ben’s attendance record, and the boy’s father completely drunk over the kitchen table. As he picked his way back through the welter of mud in the yard, he avoided the chicken coop.
THAT was the year the Reverend Powelly’s bitterness bore fruit. Jake Harris, the town constable, after five years of conscientious search, found the Ben’s still. His perseverance had been nourished by numerous personal encounters with the minister, by impassioned exhortations to the police department at each annual ratepayers’ meeting, and, as time went on without the Ben’s being brought to justice, by sermons criticizing the garbage department (Community Cleanliness Next to Community Godliness), bristling with illustrative reference to the fire department (Flames of Hell Are Ready for the Unready Fireman).
In the end it was the horse, Dolly, who betrayed the Ben — Dolly and the Young Ben, who led her into the barn while Jake was paying one of his innumerable hopeful visits. Just inside the door, before Jake’s startled eyes, she stumbled; her foreleg disappeared up to the hock. As Jake strained with the Bens to release her, the fruity gentleness of rising bread dough teased at his nostrils; Dolly’s hoof came suddenly free, and the usual solid smell of manure within the barn became unbelievably heady and exotic. Hidden under the manure, a rotten board had given way.
The Ben came up for trial two days later. “Judge” Mortimer held court in the town hall, a great building partitioned horizontally through its middle, like an upended crate, the lower half containing the town secretary’s office and the stable of the two roan fire and garbage wagon horses. Here, seated at a fumed oak desk, — amid the pervading sweetness of alfalfa, green feed, and hay, soothed with the warm smell of horses’ bodies, and with just a tinct of ammonia, — the “Judge” dispensed justice.
The day of the trial, the Ben stood before the “Judge,” his hands trembling from a two-day drouth, one clear, amber bead of tobacco juice dewing the silver stubble at the corner of his mouth. He hoarsely pleaded not guilty, then kissed the Gideon Bible borrowed from the Royal Hotel for the occasion. Jake Harris told of finding the still; the Ben changed his plea to guilty; the “Judge” pushed his metal-rimmed glasses halfway down his nose, blew out the ragged fringes of his mustache, and looked down into the well of the desk.
From below came the blurred thudding of hoofs; through the open window, the quick, skipping lift of a meadow lark’s song. The Ben, Jake, and the town secretary waited. The “Judge” began pawing through the papers on his desk, looking for his Criminal Code book. He uncovered a spring mailorder catalogue and realized then that he had brought it by mistake. He opened it; he read: —
“Semi-step-in Model of fine quality Rayon satin — for snug fit. $2.98.”
He blew out his mustache and with a careless flick of his hand flipped over a quarter inch of catalogue. “Team harness — Black Steerhide. Popular and useful 5-ring-style breeching. De-luxe. Sh. wt. 68 lbs. $92.95.”
He looked up at the Ben, leaned forward, and said: “Ninety dollars an’ costs.” He settled back.
“Er whut?” the town secretary prompted him.
“Huh? Oh — uh — er ninety days.” He drew in his chin, looked down at the catalogue, looked up again, extended his chin. He spat with a distinct plop into the spittoon beside the desk.
The Ben took the jail term: Mrs. Ben had no intention of selling any of her cows. During the three months that followed, the Young Ben cared for the owl and his father; he brought the owl gophers and field mice, and to the Ben tobacco and news or just himself. Someone had to feed the owl, and the Ben had threatened to “thin his hide” when he got out if he didn’t come regularly and stand by the barred window at the side of the town hall.
The Ben found his imprisonment hard to bear, and that was a strange thing. Never before in his life had he been so physically comfortable. His meals, brought to him each morning and noon by the Young Ben, came from the Chinaman’s; they transcended anything to which the Ben had ever been accustomed. He slept between sheets and on a flounced Winnipeg couch that stood in one corner of the twelve-foot-square room that served as his cell. But these luxuries served only to sharpen the restraint that the Ben endured with difficulty for three months. Frequently people passing the town hall noticed his face close to the barred window, his gray hair wild, his startling eyes deeper than ever in their flaming sockets.
At first there were outbursts of fury, during one of which he purpled the Young Ben’s face with a flung wedge of Saskatoon pie. These ceased finally; or rather the pent energy of the man sought outlet in a continuous overflowing of movement that would not let him alone for one second of his waking hours. Harried from within himself, he moved like all caged things, his feet stitching over and over again the same pattern across the bare cement floor: from the bed to the chair, from the chair to the table with its china pitcher and red-rimmed basin, from the table to the bed again, to the chair, to the table, again and again and again.
IT WAS three days before the end of the Ben’s term that the pencil-sharpening incident occurred. The teacher had a standing rule that no pencils were to be sharpened during school hours. It was a rule that, while it did not take into consideration the fallibility of pencils and the break in monotony their sharpening afforded, did quench the pencil-sharpening hysterias that had frequently swept that part of the room he was not teaching.
But on this afternoon the sharpener lifted its grind of sound. It was the Young Ben, standing there by the open window, his eyes lost in the expanse of prairie stretching from the edge of the schoolyard to the distant line of the sky, where the town’s five grain elevators lifted their sloping shoulders.
The teacher dropped the intricacies of percentage; the low hum of the classroom faltered; the dotting sound of pencils stopped; there was absolute schoolroom quiet. Outside, a crow flying low over the schoolyard took that moment to repeat his deliberate call, each echoing caw diluting itself with more and more prairie stillness, withdrawing, fading, fainting from sound-tint to sound-tint to silence.
The boy turned, startled.
“You’re sharpening your pencil!”
The teacher looked down at the chewed end of the pencil guiltily protruding. “Take it out, Ben!”
He did, then looked at the teacher, uneasily shifting his weight from one bare foot to the other.
“Take your seat.”
When the four o’clock bell rang, the teacher called the Young Ben to his desk. “How old are you, Ben?”
“When’s your next birthday?”
“Next spring — April twenty-third.”
The teacher opened his register. He picked up his red correction pencil from his desk and he drew a red line through the Young Ben’s name. He said, “Ben — I think I’d better let you go.”
The Young Ben looked at the teacher. He looked over at the pencil sharpener. He left the room.
Outside, with the slivered warmth of the board walk dry to his bare feet, he headed for the town hall. A wind off the prairie was lapping in the leaves of the schoolyard poplars that lined the walk; it brought to him the wild Indian smell of smoke from burning straw stacks, from fall leaves smoldering in back yards. Away from him the tan prairie stretched to the sky, and the sky lifted above him, where a lonely goshawk hung.
He turned off the walk to the dirt road that led to the town hall.
The papery sound of his footsteps through the dead, stalked grass stopped by the basement jail window. He waited. The Ben’s head appeared, with its gray hair standing out in two tufts from his temples; then his hands with their chicken-foot knuckles and their spade nails gripped the bars. His eyes stared out at the Young Ben from raw rims red as meat, eyes that by their fixity had stopped being anything but things by themselves. The Young Ben could hear his father’s breathing, harsh with a shrill edge to its rough rhythm.
He told his father that he had dropped school. He stood there in the slanting rays of the fall sun and rubbed the back of one leg with the bare instep of the other. The Ben’s head and its two eyes moved slightly from side to side with impatience, as though to move the bars from his line of vision. He said nothing.
Finally the Young Ben said that he’d better be getting home; there were chores; the cows had to be brought in and milked; feed had to be thrown down; the owl had to be fed.
Low along the prairie sky the dying sunshine lingered, faintly blushing the length of one lone, gray cloud there. The Ben said: —
“Let that there goddam owl go.”