Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death
by Chip Livingston
Reviewed by Hank Trout
Chip Livingston’s lyrical, heart-wrenching new novel, Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death, introduces us to Peter, a mixed-blood native American Creek Indian, and Cache, his blond blue-eyed partner who is dying of complications due to AIDS. Cache talks Peter into taking him on a motor trip from Gainesville, Florida, where they live to St. Augustine, “While I’m feeling good,” Cache says. It is not the last time Peter cannot say “no” to Cache.
As much as this novel is about Peter’s and Cache’s relationship, and the rituals of coping with the slow, inevitable death of a loved one, it is even more concerned with Peter’s relationships with his family, his ancestors, their customs, history, and beliefs. Peter deeply loves his grandparents, elders in their Tribe, from whose stories and teachings Peter has learned reverence for the rituals and mythologies of “the old ways.” He is well versed in his Tribe’s history and rituals. That doesn’t keep the twentieth century from intruding—after a Naming Ceremony, in which Peter’s grandfather gives him the highly respectful name “Two Wolves,” in acknowledgment of Peter’s being of “two spirits,” Peter discovers that others unknown to him have carved “Two Fags” into the bleachers surrounding the naming ceremony circle. And of course, there is Cache’s fight with AIDS. When he is diagnosed with “an active colony of Cytomegalovirus in your intestines,” and the only available treatment, daily infusions of Gancyclovir through a portacatheter inserted in Cache’s chest, fails to produce desired results, we know that the end is near. Peter balances his hope in modern medicine with a grasping at hope and help from his ancestors. “Please let us remember,” he asks them, “how to save him.”
It is a testament to Livingston’s great skill as a writer that the love between Peter and Cache is so intense and so palpable. The relationship is fraught with pain and doubt and worry, but it is also full of incredibly soft, poignant moments that anyone who has loved and lost someone will recognize instantly. They will also recognize the verisimilitude with which Livingston renders the horror of Cache’s blood-soaked death in hospital.
This novel is also about the importance of words, the power of storytelling, the significance of “naming” things. Peter’s Granny Weave (so-named for her skill as a seamstress) seems to carry the entire history and culture of the Creek tribe in the parables that fill her gray-haired head, and when she shares a story as she’s instructing Peter on how to make a proper dreamcatcher, we listen. And we want more of her stories, her wisdom; we feel richer for having met her.
Peter has believed all his life that an owl sighting is a bad omen. The novel opens with Peter and Cache discovering a dead owl in their yard, and it closes with Peter and his cousin encountering an owl who seems put in the trees to guide them as they walk the Trail of Tears from Florida to Oklahoma, a spiritual journey that Peter undertakes to heal, with the guidance of his ancestors. As readers, we genuinely hope that the owl will lead Two Wolves to the peace he seeks.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-seven-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.