Have Your Quarter-Life Crisis at an Owl Sanctuary

“The Bird is a System” by Gabrielle Hovendon, recommended by Electric Literature


Gabrielle Hovendon’s funny and keenly observed story, “The Bird is a System,” concerns that generation most maligned and obsessed over, the subject of so many trend pieces and hot takes, the target of marketing schemes, the inventor of the quarter-life crisis, and the namesake of a certain liquid-soap shade of pink: the millennial.

The young narrator, directionless and just graduated from college, is “Following a Nontraditional Path,” working at a decrepit owl sanctuary where she is responsible for flinging mouse carcasses from wheelbarrows and shoveling copious amounts of owl shit. Narrating her story in the second person, she capitalizes certain phrases that seem gleaned from pamphlets at the career counselor’s office: Thrive Under Pressure, Going with the Flow, Building Character. The letters rise like little coat racks for the narrator to hang her hopes on, her tone at once sarcastic and mocking, yet nonetheless devoted to snake-oil concepts of self-improvement.

After the sanctuary owners take off on a road trip to procure more owls, the narrator’s ex-girlfriend, Felicity, pays a surprise visit, and together they obscure their problems by drinking tequila in the aviary. Meanwhile, the sanctuary and the grotesque beauty of the owls is vividly rendered: “All around you, the evening insect sounds were beginning. Lightning bugs speckled the aviary. The other owls were all gearing up for the night, the best analogy for which was a few dozen monkeys all losing their minds at once.” When an owl called Casanova becomes sick, the narrator consults the maudlin Owl Care for Amateur Ornithologists, which reads: “Anything can go wrong. Anything can kill the bird. The owner should ask of themselves, what resources are you willing to expend on the bird? Of what quality is your dedication and proof thereof?”

Of what quality is your dedication and proof thereof. The textbook thrums with unhelpful philosophical suggestion, illuminating the gulf between the theoretical and the practical. What use is dedication if it cannot be put into practice?

At moments, the narrator’s aimlessness takes on a similar significance and seems almost like a life code. At others, she seems just lazy. Often it’s both. And in capturing this duality, Hovendon expertly distills that feeling of a wasted summer, familiar to every generation, stuck and sticky, but poised to do something different.

Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading

Have Your Quarter-Life Crisis at an Owl Sanctuary

“The Bird is a System”

by Gabrielle Hovendon

So you weren’t exactly where you thought you’d be.

That was okay. Things could still work out.

Were you not your father’s daughter? Your mother’s daughter? Had they not instilled in you an appreciation for perseverance, stick-to-it-ness, whatever you wanted to call it? Were you not, in your earlier slash more impressionable years, known for your ability to Thrive Under Pressure?

Things were almost definitely going to work out.

Take, for instance, this place. There were things to like about this place. The way Robert and Roberta treated you like family, for example. The way, whenever someone commented on one of your photos, like, what is that place? lol, you could honestly answer by saying you were Following a Nontraditional Path.

So this was not exactly where you’d pictured yourself, post-graduation. To be fair, a failing owl sanctuary in rural North Carolina was probably not where anyone pictured themselves. You just had to keep an Open Mind, was all.

And when that Open Mind got a little less open after four months of taking care of de-winged slash elderly slash beakless owls, well, you just had to keep focusing on the little things. For instance, the textbook. You were learning things from the textbook. Owl Care for Amateur Ornithologists — who would have guessed you’d end up with something like this?

Life was truly full of Little Surprises.

Maybe you didn’t love the owls like Milo did. So what? Milo was a True Hippie, one of those forty-something guys who wore hemp sandals and showered twice a week, tops. Technically your supervisor, he mostly just walked around saying things like, Are You Living Your Best Life? or, The Greatest Present is to Be Present. What you wanted to tell him was that your own Best Life wasn’t sewing toy mice out of old shirts and teasing the birds with them. It wasn’t picking katydids out of the laurel bushes and hand-feeding them to Héloïse, the barn owl with the beatific white face.

The thing was, it was healthy to have some sort of work-life boundaries. More than once, you’d walked in on Milo deep in conversation with an actual owl. He treated them like something between an oracle and a pet. Was it going to rain? Should he add clove oil to the homemade weed killer? He sometimes stayed up all night worrying over the sick owls, watching them breathe. He had had a dozen jobs in as many years and didn’t seem bothered by anything.

Which, you did not want to be judgmental. You had your own issues. Worrying that you didn’t have a life plan, for example. Worrying that you’d wasted the best part of your teens working at an aquarium gift shop, where grim parents shepherded squalling children past bins of plastic whales and sting rays. That you were pushing twenty-three and still hadn’t found your Own Personal Dream.

As far as you knew, Milo didn’t have any of those worries. Milo was great at Going with the Flow. In playful moods, he messed with the tour groups. He made up owl species, lying about their origins and their diets.

The coyote-tail owl eats mainly shrimp, he told a family from Wisconsin.

The speckled Northern whompus is afraid of pillows and sheets, he told a troop of sullen-looking Girl Scouts.

Earlier that morning, as he was packing to leave with Robert and Roberta, he’d given you a long, soulful look. He was full of those.

Look after the place, he said, as if he was planning to be gone for months and not days. And, you know, try to enjoy yourself. Get into the spirit of things.

You would, you said.

You were trying.

You watched the van go, waving as they pulled out of the driveway. From the dirt patch in front of the bunkhouse, you could see the sanctuary’s nets rising through the trees: vast, intricate, ghostly. You could see the metal scaffolding reaching up into the hot sky and down into the pine needles, which released a sweet, sickly smell as they baked in the sun. Closer up, you could see its shit-streaked floor, its cheap repairs, its arching interior filled with sick and broken birds of prey.

It was the height of summer, and the air was hot and oppressive. You could hear the birds going to sleep inside the giant, mesh-draped aviary. There were the Eastern screech-owls looking wooly on their perches. There were Antony and Cleopatra, the boreal owls, and Vronsky, the great horned owl with the ridiculous ear tufts. Higher up, in the trees, the barn owls shrieked like little goblins.

Most of the owls weren’t so healthy. Milo said even the well ones only lived to be five or ten years old, but you were pretty sure he was making that up, too. At least once a week, you had nightmares of owls falling out of the sky and landing at your feet with a feathery thump, dead.

But you weren’t supposed to be a natural at this kind of thing, okay?

You were a college dropout. Community college, no less. You didn’t have to be good at everything you tried.

Like, last month, when that old tourist had put out her hand and touched the wire mesh gingerly, as if she expected it to electrocute her, and asked if there was really supposed to be so much poop everywhere.

A troubling amount of fecal matter, was what the comment card said.

And now it had been six months, and you were alone with the owls, and nothing was what you hoped. When you’d first arrived at the sanctuary, it had been the morning after an ice storm. The sun was shining, the sky an eye-watering blue. Coated in ice, the mesh nets of the aviary had glistened like they were made of cut glass. Everything shone; everything was brittle and new.

The hopefulness had lasted all of fifteen minutes — the length of your official training — and then you were enlisted to help Milo thaw the branches in the aviary with a hair dryer and an extension cord.

What you needed now was for something, anything, to change. For the universe to give you a chance. To offer you a Helping Hand.

And then, for once in your life, it did.

At the end of the driveway, emerging from a car you’d never seen before, was Felicity.

Felicity, your ex-girlfriend.

Felicity of the Doc Martens and tattoos. Of the erratic hairstyles and near-pathological wanderlust.

Felicity coming up the driveway with a suitcase in her hand.

The first thing she said was, You didn’t tell me you’d left the planet. Then she was hugging you, her bony arms around your neck. The familiar smells of bubblegum and cigarettes wafted up from her clothes.

What are you doing here? you managed to say.

She stepped back, shrugged.

Aren’t you happy to see me?

You stared at her, speechless.

No offense, she went on, but I think you highlighted the potential rather than the actuality of the place.

She did a slow revolution where she stood. Dirt patch, trees, aviary. Bunkhouse with peeling paint, garden patch full of weeds, rusted-out old pickup truck.

It’s a little rough, you admitted.

She said, a little?

Last time I talked to you, you were in Mexico City, you said. Like, three days ago.

She shrugged.

I got on a plane. I was bored.

Bored, you thought. That sounded about right. You remembered her making a similar statement at the aquarium gift shop right before she left. That was the way Felicity worked, disappearing for six months at a time and then showing up with a new girlfriend or boyfriend or in Croatia or San Bernardino or, once in a while, on your doorstep.

Besides, she added, you said you were going to be alone and I thought you could use the company. I wanted to see what your life was like now.

And? you said. What do you think?

What do I think? she said. What I think is what are you doing here? Owls? Really? You couldn’t even stand the animals at the aquarium. And they didn’t shit on everything.

Felicity was right. You were not a Big Fan of animals. Did not find them particularly charming. Could not offer much of a comeback at all.

It’s only temporary, you said. I’m just trying to figure things out, you know?

She looked skeptical.

Does the figuring out have to happen here?

Come on, you said helplessly. Let’s get in the shade.

You crossed the yard and sat on the bunkhouse steps. Felicity dropped her suitcase on the ground — heavy sound of bottles clinking together — and joined you.

Things with me are going well, she said. Really, really well.

From her shorts pocket, she pulled an over-exposed photograph of blurs and lines. The image looked like it had been smeared across the film. You could vaguely make out the shape of a key in one corner, a children’s action figure in another, but that was all.

This is Martín’s, she said. He has this gorgeous studio right in Condesa. Women visit him all day and bring him things for his still lifes, flowers and keys and string bags and, this one time, a real human skull, I shit you not.

She took out some more photographs. These ones were of sweaty, doughy people, pale men looking awkward in their button-downs and women clutching their purses too tightly. They were arrayed in front of a variety of monuments, fountains, and colorful market stalls.

These are mine, she said. I take photographs of tourists for money.

Since when? you asked.

She shrugged. Since the city’s expensive. Since I don’t like asking Martín for money.

There was a silence. Then, as if she could read your mind, she added, It’s not really that often. I’ve only sold a handful of them. Most of the time we’re too busy going to gallery openings and dinner parties. We really love the city. It has such personality, you know?

You looked around you. Behind the bunkhouse’s torn screen door was a room full of duct-taped sneakers, of dirty laundry, of unread ornithology books covered in dark, greasy dust.

Yeah, you said. I know what you mean.

Felicity put the photographs back in her pocket. Something unreadable passed over her face.

But, you know, she went on. It’s too hot in the city. She was frowning, fidgeting with the hem of her dress. Plus there are blackouts right now, so there’s sort of no power? And Martín turned the entire apartment into a darkroom and I can’t find any of my things.

You tried to imagine it: the black apartment with the red lights, and Felicity moving through it, ghostly and unhappy. Baths of developing fluid everywhere. Drying photographs strung up in the doorways.

Well, you said, I guess it’s okay if you stay a day or two. But just until Milo and the owners get back, okay? You can’t get too comfortable.

Out in the aviary, a single owl screeched and wailed. Felicity was humming a song.

Nothing bad ever happens to us, it went, except our own lives.

Feeding time was not great. Let’s get that out of the way. Feeding time was probably one of the very least great things about the sanctuary.

It did not feel Personally Fulfilling to sling frozen carcasses from a wheelbarrow onto various parts of the sanctuary floor that Robert and Roberta had marked with spray paint. It did not feel Personally Fulfilling to clean up the skeletons once they were more or less picked clean and dump them in the grassy canyon beyond the sanctuary.

But, as various adults and well intentioned relatives would have you remember, this was all part of Building Character.

Feeding time was usually not your responsibility. It was only your job since Robert and Roberta were driving across the country to rescue two dozen owls from that failing sanctuary in Colorado. Normally you would be doing things like passing out brochures at the mall or designing a new visitor’s guide for the tourists who almost never came to visit. Normally Milo would be there to help, too, but Robert and Roberta wanted him to help drive the van.

Works Well Without Supervision, was what you could put on your resume.

Or maybe, Handles Adversity with Aplomb.

Back in the bunkhouse, Felicity was already making herself at home. You’d spent the afternoon catching up, eating cheese and bologna sandwiches that you somehow couldn’t imagine anyone eating in Mexico City. When you left her, she was lying on Milo’s bed, her hair plastered to her forehead in the sticky heat. She hadn’t come out and said it, but you could tell she was second-guessing her decision to come here.

And maybe she was right. Maybe the point was instead to get yourself into situations that gave you the opportunity to say my lover about a 45-year-old Mexican artist who’d recently been featured in GQ.

Who knew? Maybe you would meet your own rich lover. Maybe she would fly you to Acapulco, or Vienna, or Bali. You might meet a kind stranger who offered you a lucrative job at his successful startup. You might end up working in an impossibly chic boutique, or else an office with floor to ceiling windows and a great view of a skyline. The point was, Anything Could Happen.

You wound along the trail with your wheelbarrow, unloading sad little piles of frozen voles and squirrels. True, this was not something you’d ever imagined being an expert at. But, also true, there were certain apocalyptic scenarios in which it could become a valuable skill.

That was approximately the right attitude, you thought.

At the southernmost feeding point, you came across the remnants of a whole deer. This was the part of the sanctuary where the strongest, healthiest birds lived, and they’d torn the carcass — not frozen but fresh, a gift from a neighbor who’d hit it with his car — into gruesome pink confetti. Scattered around it were the remains of what you remembered to be rabbits, which, after they’d been there a few days, had mostly dissolved into little heaps of ribcages and dust. The smell stopped bothering you early on, but you still couldn’t keep from peering at them, from searching out what new and fascinating forms the rot had taken.

There was a metaphor in that, you thought.

You started to push the wheelbarrow faster. You could picture Felicity back at the bunkhouse, a tequila bottle in hand. Sooner or later, you would end up entertaining her; it was just a question of what form the entertainment would take, and when, and how much trouble it would get you in.

You were still wondering when you rounded the last bend and came across it.

An owl on the ground.

Huddled in the dirt with a hard knobbly bulge in its neck. Its crop.

Was this normal owl behavior?

You shuffled closer to the owl. You tried to think what to do. What Milo would do. The owl — you thought it was named Casanova, or maybe it was the Count of Monte Cristo (you’d failed English class, too) — was doing a sort of shivering thing, trying to retch in a not-good way.

Should you pick it up?

Should you leave it alone?

You paused on the path a few feet away. You were thinking about what Felicity would say if you brought the owl back with you. Something like, I had no idea you were so brave and kindhearted? No, probably more like, Oh my god, what is that thing doing here?

All around you, the evening insect sounds were beginning. Lightning bugs speckled the aviary. The other owls were all gearing up for the night, the best analogy for which was a few dozen monkeys all losing their minds at once.

Maybe the best choice was to do nothing. Didn’t even the healthy owls seem sort of peaky, honestly? Didn’t they have red-rimmed eyes and bedraggled, grubby feathers? From time to time, when money was short, hadn’t Robert and Roberta been known to feed them chopped-up hotdogs?

You hesitated a moment longer. The aviary rustled faintly around you. Back at the bunkhouse, Felicity was waiting for you with God only knew what in mind.

In front of you, the owl blinked solemnly.

Later, after the sun had set and the air had gone flat and stagnant, you sat with Felicity on the bunkhouse roof. She’d turned up the music inside as high as it would go, and a hazy melody floated up and around you. The tequila bottle was half empty.

To sum up your evening: Peanut butter. Metamucil. Holding down Casanova with one hand. Applying mixture to beak region with the other. Getting thrashed by his struggling wings. Trying to see if he’d swallowed any of it. Repeat. Repeat.

Why don’t you call a vet? Felicity had suggested, not knowing that you only got paid in a timely manner as long as there weren’t extra bills.

And as long as an owl didn’t die on your watch.

Hence the arms covered in bruises.

Hence the lack of Charitable Thoughts.

You were allowing yourself to feel your hatred of the place. How it grew with every hoot and screech. How it morphed and swelled and took on the proportions of the aviary, something gigantic rising through the trees.

Bitterness was seeping through your whole body, swelling your fingers and dripping out your eyeballs.

Felicity poured another drink for herself, then for you. She checked her phone again. You had the sense that things maybe weren’t as good with Martín as she said. A few times that evening you’d caught her trying to call someone who didn’t pick up and didn’t pick up and didn’t pick up. You knew you should ask her about it, but — bad person, bad person — you didn’t.

How come you always know what it is you want, Fe? you asked instead. How do you always know what to do?

Do I? she said. I don’t know. I just know when I don’t want something.

You nudged a dead cicada from side to side with your toe. You could feel Felicity’s eyes on you.

Why don’t you go to one of those recruiter places? she said. Or one of those temp agencies? It can’t be that complicated, can it?

I don’t even know what I’d ask for, you said. Hi, do you have any jobs for the catastrophically clueless?

Well, what’s the worst that can happen? she said.

You swallowed hard. The tequila was wreaking havoc on your stomach. All around you in the loud, humid night, you could feel the things you didn’t know how to do or say collecting at your feet.

Casanova was getting worse.

You and Felicity had come to check on him at midnight and found him hunched on his branch, a limp, grey huddle. You could hear him feebly trying to disgorge the stuck bone from his crop. You consulted the textbook, wondering if this was call-the-vet serious or wait-and-see serious.

Being perpetually undernourished, you read, the small bird is always only a few hours from death. When ill, it may need to be hand-fed with a mixture of raw meat scraps. Tweezers and hand puppets are useful for this task. Be cautious that the bird is not over-fed and over-watered. Under the wrong circumstances, the bird may drown while drinking.

What the hell kind of book is this? Felicity asked. The two of you had brought a blanket into the aviary, and you were lying in the center of one of its grassy clearings. Felicity was still drinking. She reached out and pulled a feather from your hair. A barred owl sent a sonic shiver through the trees.

Do you hear that? Felicity said. It’s like the owls are trying to tell us something.

You listened closely. It sounded like it always did, loud and urgent and chaotic. Your flashlight cast a narrow pool of light over the textbook pages. Felicity had produced a pack of cigarettes and was smoking them in proportion to how often she checked her phone.

Martín and I are going to buy our own gallery, she said. We’re talking about it, I mean. We’re going to exhibit our work side by side.

You nodded. You were thinking, tomorrow you’d call the vet, for sure.

Felicity finished one cigarette and lit another.

And he’s going to introduce me to this great magazine editor, she said. I’m really excited. Martín’s got all sorts of connections, you know?

You produced a smile of the right shape and size onto your face. You were thinking how, when you interviewed for the job at the owl sanctuary, Robert and Roberta had asked you about your Greatest Weakness. You’d thought about telling them how, at the aquarium, you used to get bored and drop bits of your lunch into the fish tanks all afternoon. You thought about telling them that you didn’t care much for owls.

Your actual Greatest Weakness: you couldn’t recognize opportunities if they jumped out at you with giant yellow eyes and feathers. You couldn’t Seize the Day, Take the Chance, Just Go for It. You yourself were choking — on your indecision, on your fear — and there was no one to help you out.

Anything can go wrong. Anything can kill the bird. The bird may suffer from heat stroke. The bird may contract hepatitis, myocarditis, or tuberculosis. The bird may be stricken with parasitic worms. The owner should ask of themselves, what resources are you willing to expend on the bird? Of what quality is your dedication and proof thereof? What might the bird’s sickness or health signify, and how long are you willing to nurse the bird?

You woke early in the morning with Felicity’s hand on your shoulder.

Hey, she whispered. Her hair hung down over her face. Hey, wake up.

What is it? you mumbled. What’s wrong?

I lied, she said. I didn’t leave Mexico City because it was too hot, okay? And I didn’t really care about him turning the place into a darkroom. Honestly, I thought it was cool.

You could smell the smoke and sweat on her. She smelled like something made out of sweet, rotting wood.

You don’t want someone painting you constantly, she said. No one wants to be looked at that much. Maybe pathological narcissists, I guess. And then when he’s not looking, he’s really not looking, you know? It’s like I don’t even exist.

You didn’t say anything.

Martín’s better in my head than in real life, she added. Big fucking surprise.

Kneeling there, backlit by the moon, she looked like a ship’s wooden figurehead — the kind that performed miracles when sailors prayed to it, or else sent them to their deaths.

If I can just figure out one thing, she said. If I can just get my head around one month of living. That would be great.

She scooted closer, and you waited for her to say something, anything. You thought, so this was how everyone’s life felt, after all. Like they were waiting around to get started. Like they were the only ones who didn’t have it Figured Out. Like at any moment someone was going to hand them an instruction manual, a how-to guide, something.

Felicity’s face was inches from yours.

Do you know what I mean? she whispered.

Later, much later, you’d look back on that moment, thinking, who could explain what was happening in those days? Why couldn’t we rescue ourselves from our own catastrophic lives? Why did we allow everything to be constantly on the verge of collapse?

Felicity, moonlit. Felicity, on the brink of some decision.

What do you think? she said.

What should we do?

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