I can’t say he ever stopped loving us.
That would be unfair.
All I can say is that one day he became a little distant, but not in the usual way, not like the way people become distant when they cheat on each other. More like the way a cat is distant from a person or space is distant from the Earth, like it’s a question of nature, a deep question. Already from the first signs, I had the impression there was a fundamental misalignment of not who but what we were.
It began with a newspaper—his opening and hiding behind it.
Not because he was reading the paper (he never read the paper) but because he was using it to create a barrier, to separate himself from us. In hindsight, there was symbolism or irony in those unfolded pages, so much like wings, but at the time it just struck me as odd. All the same, there they were, in the kitchen, in the living room, in bed.
One day our son hurt himself while playing. He wailed and bled onto the carpet, and my husband just sat unmoved behind his great newspaper as if nothing had happened.
I got bandaids and cleaned the stains.
Only then did my husband react. He folded his newspaper and proceeded up the stairs, from where he watched us for several more minutes before disappearing into the bathroom.
Next came the nudity, the crouching on furniture and the isolation.
By the time I came home from work to find him naked and perched on the armrest of the living room sofa, I knew there was likely a mental problem. There was no talking to him about it, however, because he flat out refused to say anything. I warned him that if his behaviour continued he would have to move out, at least temporarily, because he was freaking out the kids, but there was no response beyond the predatory stare of those big unblinking eyes.
Yet he must have understood, because from that day on he spent most of his time away from us, in the garage, the cellar and the attic.
God only knows what he did in there, but I’ll never forget the night sounds, the squeaks and shrieks and the thuds which always preceded a silence that was somehow even more uncomfortable than the noises before it. And it all coincided with the disappearance of the mice that moved into our cellar every summer, so that I understood he must be hunting even before that awful day when he joined us unexpectedly for breakfast (nude, of course, and crouching on his chair) and in full view of me and the kids proceeded to vomit up a half digested rodent that hit the tabletop with the most gruesome plop. Then, after surveying it and us in turn, bowed his head and feasted on the carcass until there was nothing left but a few broken bones.
“What’s wrong with daddy?” my daughter would sometimes ask. “He’s going through a hard time,” I’d answer, reassuring her that we still loved him and he loved us.
I put the kids into therapy, but what they told the therapist or what she believed about us I’ll never know. As for myself, I held off, hoping I was strong enough to deal with this transformation on my own, and for a while I was. Late summer turned to early fall, and we developed a working rhythm to our lives. It helped that by now my husband was almost entirely nocturnal, spending our waking hours asleep in some hidden corner of the house, and becoming active while we slept, and increasingly outdoors at that.
For a while I was afraid of what the neighbours might think if they caught him stalking around the subdivision at night, but time helped with that. There were no strange looks, no whispered comments, no heads turned in disgust, and I realized that he was being careful, if that’s the right word. I doubted he cared much about their opinions, or how those opinions would reflect on us (I admit I dreaded being known as the wife of that freak), but he was a predator now, and a good predator had to be invisible—until he swept in for the kill. Mice, rats, rabbits, perhaps other birds…
I followed him once, out into the darkness, down our street and quietly into the forest that grew along the edge of the subdivision. He truly seemed at home there. He moved with a grace I’d never seen before, and climbed trees better than any man I’d known. His body, no doubt starved by the first few weeks when he was still learning to catch his prey, was lean and muscular in the moonlight. He was attractive. If he saw me trailing him, and likely he did, he showed no sign of it, and merely ascended one of the tall oaks and clung there, scanning his wild domain with slow, fluid motions of the neck, and every once in a while letting out a deep and masculine hoot.
That autumn must have been the crowning moment of his existence.
In a way, I was proud of him.
But winter came early that year. The temperatures dropped and the persistent snow drove the little forest creatures into hiding. Yet my husband did not give up his owlness. Bare and featherless, he shivered in the blowing winds, and I imagined the fevered nights he must have spent hugging his favourite oak while the food around him grew scarce.
I saw him infrequently in those days, but when I did I noted how grey and wrinkled he looked, even from the distance he now kept from me. Once, I left scraps of meat for him—the only time I did anything that could be seen as encouraging his behaviour—but he didn’t take them, and they must have fed some other animal instead. I noticed too that sometimes he was marked with blood, and it pained me to know how brutal life can be and how he must have fought with other predators for survival.
But I admit I did not suspect him when the first neighbourhood child disappeared. I didn’t want to accept that he was capable, let alone culpable.
Yes, he was a changed thing that had grown accustomed to killing small mammals, but I still saw in him the sweet man I’d married, however distant those times now seemed, and I didn’t want to believe that he was capable of murder. Did I love him? Yes, in the way you might love a beautiful landscape, one that fills your soul with awe, but my inaction was motivated more by how I remembered our youthful love: warm, intimate and bursting with potential for a perfect life. It’s hard to give that up.
When the second and third child disappeared, I knew it was him, but still I remained silent. When the police interviewed me, I told them my husband had gone away for work, and I instructed the kids to do the same. I stayed up entire nights, sleepless not only with the guilt of knowing what he’d done but that he would surely do it again. But how would I even tell the police? What words and phrases? I tried writing it down, but it sounded absurd.
My husband is an owl.
I daydreamed about telling the grieving parents about what had happened, hoping to at least give them closure, but my imaginary explanations became apologies, then excuses—nature was cruel, merciless, and every creature had the right to do all within its power to survive—and in my head I concocted elaborate arguments in which I would yell myself back to consciousness with the cold logic of why should my husband die and your kids live? If they were weak and he was strong, why didn’t he deserve to live at their expense?
Perhaps what happened was justice.
It was three days before Christmas. The decorations were up, our favourite carols were playing softly in the background, and the kids and I had done our best to forget, if only for a few days, the surreality of the past months.
I put them to bed around ten, and turned on It’s a Wonderful Life in the living room.
I must have dozed off on the sofa because—
I awoke to crunching.
Within seconds I was alert, and heading up the stairs.
My heart raced.
Coldness rushed down the upstairs hallway, and immediately I noticed that my son’s bedroom door was open.
I ran to it.
I looked inside.
Across a volume of snow-infested air, my husband and my daughter crouching over my son’s limp, opened body, followed by that dreadful moment when they both lifted their heads, hot blood dripping down their faces, their big eyes staring absently at me, and intoned those hideous, echoing sounds…
Then they dropped their heads in unison and continued crunching.
I don’t remember what I did next, screamed while beating them away from my son’s corpse or checked to see if he was still alive, but what does it matter? He was dead, and the last glimpse I ever had of my husband and daughter was as they flitted, one neatly after another, through the broken bedroom window, onto the tiled roof below and out into the raging blizzard, whose natural whiteness swallowed them whole.