When I was nineteen, my uncle turned into an owl.

I had spent the last month walking and hitchhiking across the country. Starting in Michigan, I made my way down the Midwest before following the setting sun across Interstate 40. I remember watching the mile markers counting down, the shimmer of the sun across the heated roads. On this particular journey, I was heading to the reservation I spent the first portion of my life on. It had been twelve years since I had last been home.

It was difficult to think—to swallow, in the time leading up to my arrival. Those long days on the highway, mostly sitting shotgun in semi-trucks, lent themselves to hours of staring out the window, consumed by thoughts and an empty landscape. I didn’t know what I was going to find on my return, or what would even be left for me to find. So many years had passed since I was last there. I tried, but I was unable to even remember the voices of my estranged family and I was worried how they might receive me.

A nice couple drove me straight into Parker and dropped me off at a fast food joint in an all too familiar parking lot. Nothing much had changed except for a few surprising commercial developments, mostly large, corporate business. It was a hundred and eight degrees that day in early October, but on the asphalt it felt doubly hot. I could feel pools of sweat filling within my boots and the rubber on my soles melted into the pavement. Those first few steps were difficult as I sludged away on the sidewalk, leaving footprints in the blacktop behind me. Perhaps they would be traces of my people left behind in the years to come.

My childhood home was at the end of town, a town that was only a mile long, branching off a single road that ran through the most dismal piece of desert. I dragged my feet through that dry, blistering heat, and when I saw my house from afar I realized it was the most pathetic piece of architecture.

The fence was broken in dozens of places, the fallen pieces left to turn to dust and blend into the earth. A tree in the front yard stood tall, but hardly proud. Barely a green leaf remained on its branches and I believe it died long, long ago. My home was an absolute wreck and I stood and watched it rot for hours until I decided it was time to knock on the door.

There was an uproar as the door swung open. A hurricane blew me into the house and into the large arms and bellies of faces that felt like fleeting dreams. “I knew it was you! I saw those big brown eyes of yours and I knew it was you!” I heard my uncle cry. He held me as tight as the bear that he was while everyone else took pictures and cheered. The moment was so surreal, it happened so quickly that only a few notes are accented in my mind.

The smell of rum on my uncle’s breath.

The smell of smoke in the house, in his hair, in everything that surrounded me.

Urine stains on the carpet.

Peeling wallpaper.

A cockroach.

Ants . . . ants seemingly everywhere.

I sat down on the couch—a gross artifact to say the least—and looked around at the shambles of my memories. At some point (perhaps after my Nana died) the house began to cannibalize itself. I think it started with the walls, and the carpet, and then progressed to all of the furniture. After those were stripped, I believe that’s when they started to work on my uncle. He shoved a drink into my hands and sat on an equally disgusting couch across from me. He smiled a happy, too-few-toothed smile as he asked me if I wanted to see the bloody stump of his amputated toes.

* * *

We drank that night, because really, what else was there to do on this barren stretch of land on the edge of the Mojave Desert? We drank to reunions, we drank to losses, we drank out of fear that this feeling couldn’t possibly last. It was then, after a dozen beers, five shots and a heartfelt sob that my uncle pulled out a traditional Mojave rattle…

shucka shucka      
shucka shucka shucka
shucka shucka    
shucka shucka   shucka shucka shucka

And he began to sing.

He sang for days, maybe even years. He sang in our native Yuman language and even the coyotes remembered the words and sang along. The howls echoed through the mountains, shaking the house so violently that the roaches fell from the ceiling along with dried bits of paint plaster. The sound was so loud it drowned out everything but my uncle, and it brought us all into an absolute silence within ourselves.

At some point, months after he began singing, he stretched out his great, majestic wings and burst triumphantly though the dilapidated roof of the home. Higher and higher he rocketed, and the further he ascended the larger he grew. A great owl soaring into the dark, desert sky, his wings dazzled with the light of the stars and the Milky Way around him. The blues and purples danced along his rippling feathers as he cloaked the landscape in his sweet, ancient song.

Tears streamed down our faces, hearts swelling with boisterous hope. The overwhelming weight of our joy and sadness fell like leaden weights to the bottom of our stomachs. All of this pressure sank deep into our cores, and I could feel myself sliding into the recesses of the couch. My body was dragged down through the cushions and I didn’t even attempt to stop my descent. Down

         Down

                  Down

Down I went past the rotting floorboards, through the crumbling foundation until we all rested at the very bottom in the skeleton of the house, a place that we had always been destined to return to.

I lay there until the end of all things. I lay there until The Great Mystery had long come and kissed my eyelids shut. I lay there until my body returned to the earth. I lay there like the first people that Mateviyla brought to the dark house to crawl around and feel how it was built.

However, like all birds, my uncle longed to be human again. As quickly as he had transformed, he drifted back down through the Milky Way, back down past the howls, and back down through the roof into our living room. His voice faded. His song grew softer. The rattles slowly began to subside.

Our bodies were now propelled up through the foundation and once again through the floorboards. We squeezed and crawled our way out from between the cushions, finding ourselves back in the seats we were born in on that ratty, revolting couch. I stared down at the cheap beer in my hand. Everyone sat in absolute silence as the air went quiet. Not a sound.

You could hear that thought drifting above us in the room, the thought that it would never be like this again. Tomorrow we would all have to go back to the droll of our everyday lives. There were problems still yet to be faced—problems of poverty, longing, fear, a culture lost. All of it loomed over us in the stagnancy of that room. Today was only a small victory in a history of losses.

But . . . for just that one night, we watched my uncle set his soul free.

We wondered if somehow, maybe we could do the same.

Alex Bakhsh’s “Owls” won first prize in the Third Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. She is a sophomore majoring in Illustration.