Nicky Gunn's parents had lived in Napa for all of their lives, nearly forty five years. Her grandfather, Jacob Gunn had moved there to pick grapes during the Great Depression. Jacob fell in love with his boss's wife, a very young and very beautiful Jeanne Gunn, or then, Jeanne Samuelson. Jeanne Samuelson was four feet tall and was missing her two front teeth. Her husband, being a vineyard owner, was able to pay a dentist to create a prosthetic for his wife. However, since the dentist had never created such a piece before, his results were imperfect. Jeanne's front two teeth were shaped a bit like Chiclets, square, perfectly smooth, and white. Although her husband wasn't thrilled with the new teeth, he decided it was better than nothing and left it at that.
It wasn't long before she was pregnant. Months later, while her husband was out of town visiting an aunt, Jeanne sat by her back window for an hour, watching the workers cut grapes. A young man in a checkered shirt caught her eye. His physique was not much to look at; he was slight in stature and not particularly beautiful. But his hands moved deftly through the vines, pulling ripe bundles of dusty grapes from the green leaves. She scrambled to prepare a handkerchief filled with soft cheese and freshly baked bread. She stepped out the back porch and onto the ground below, her bare feet unsettling the fine dirt as she went. As she approached him, his blade slowed to a halt, his vision went soft, and her skin glowed in the hot August air. She stepped with determination, jostling a reflective brown braid with each step.
Jeanne lifted her chin to meet his gaze. Jacob's mouth parted to speak his name just as her hands parted to reveal her gift. He thanked her, bringing the food to his lips and inhaling its richness. She reached for his empty left hand, smudged with soil, and pressed it to her abdomen. Her child reached out to touch him from within her body. The moment was electric. His fingers felt the pressure and he couldn't bring himself to pull away. In spite of the skeptical gaze of his co-workers, he held on, felt the twin pulses of Jeanne and her child drumming away at the skin, shaking the dirt from his palm. Jeanne smiled broadly, and Jacob, farsighted and too poor for glasses, simply saw the mere outline of the woman's teeth, well-formed and clean.
Luckily for Jeanne, and not so luckily for her husband, she was soon widowed. Jacob brought arrangements of grape leaves for her bedroom, cut and sewn into calalilies and roses. Her son, Andrew, was two when they married and sat in the front row of the church, magnolia-shaped grape leaf bundle pinned to his tiny lapel.
Andrew grew up, became a sommelier and married his cousin's best friend, Elaine. When Jeanne passed away, they moved into the house, remodeled, and started a small wine company with the vineyard. When they turned twenty eight, their daughter Nicky was born. At the age of thirteen, Nicky was an aspiring painter, working skillfully to create up to four oil paintings in just one hour without compromising quality. Every interior wall of the house was covered in paintings, floor to ceiling. A few more crawled up onto the ceiling like palm trees stretching skyward. All of them were portraits of the lord. Christ himself looked lovingly down, or up depending on where he was mounted, at the Gunn family as they went about their daily tasks.
The family had never been much for church; Andrew didn't like the smell of the local establishment and Elaine had declared herself an atheist in college. And so, since Nicky had never gone to Sunday school, when she began receiving visions of god at the age of four, no one knew quite what to make of it. The girl would wander through the vineyard, hands outstretched, speaking to no one. Her parents took her to a therapist, asked all of their friends for advice, and laid awake every night whispering about Nicky's strange condition. Eventually they agreed that a miracle had occurred, their daughter's visions were real, and that they really ought to start going to church.
Nicky began creating after her first day of Sunday school with a cheap art kit she'd received for her birthday. The first charcoal was of Christ, looking directly at the viewer, eyes glazed over with tears, lip almost trembling. It broke the heart of everyone in the congregation. So the next Sunday she drew another one, this time with bright green and orange pastels. Jesus' hands were thrown up with joy, his smile wide, his robes flowing around him. The congregation laughed and kissed each other. She began to paint. Every face of Christ was a little different, every painting was beautiful and well crafted. She painted more and more often, soon she was creating a new depiction daily. And then twice a day. By the time she was thirteen, she had quit school to paint full time, producing anywhere from twelve to thirty-five paintings a day. Elaine and Andrew didn't like that she'd dropped out, but knew that if they forced her to go she wouldn't have learned anything anyway. Elaine tried homeschooling, but Nicky was an unwilling audience for her lessons. Andrew tried to suggest that she paint something apart from the lord, as the house was getting awfully eerie and even began to smell faintly of the church he'd so despised as a child. But his daughter merely shook her head and sketched a quick Christ on the back of an old phone bill.
August 11th of her thirteenth year, Nicky took her daily exercise walk around the property late. Instead of going in the morning like usual, skirting around the edges of the vineyard to watch the workers harvest, she became preoccupied with a particularly tricky shadow under Jesus' left ear. It took her until ten to resolve the matter, but she was nevertheless committed to her daily excursion. She washed her brushes and, putting fresh batteries in a blue plastic flashlight, prepared to go out.
The summer sun had set not more than an hour or two before, and the sky was vibrant and full of stars. She walked briskly towards the vineyard and instead of walking its circumference, marched right into the rows of vegetation, illuminating the dirt with her flashlight as she went. Singing a hymn softly, she weaved back and forth across each aisle. The land was silent, save the crickets and the sound of a light breeze shuffling around the vines. Her trail of light ran over something that caught her eye. She paused, found the object with her flashlight again. At her feet was a mass of feathers, black strips of electrical tape. She squatted to look closer. It was hard to tell what kind of shape the body was in, being so tightly bound with tape, but the face was still visible. A beak, dark gray and pointed, was nested firmly in the feathers, but something was wrong, there was no reflection coming from the eyes. Upon further examination, Nicky realized that the creature's eyes had been removed, leaving deep black gaps where they should have been. She ran home.
Her father seemed unfazed at the news. Sitting around the breakfast table the next morning, Elaine rubbed Nicky's back while Andrew explained. The girl's eyes were red; she'd barely slept the night before. You see, he said, in some cultures, the owl is an omen of death. Do you know what an omen is? Nicky nodded, watching her eggs grow cold on the plate in front of her. One of our workers is very superstitious, we're not sure which but I think it's one of the indians. This happens every summer, don't worry.
Elaine lifted her daughter's chin. Your father's right. We didn't want you to see, it's just so awful. We don't want it to interfere with your work. Try not to think about it. It's just a bird, baby.
But Nicky couldn't stop thinking about it. She only made one painting that day. After unsuccessfully sketching the lord's face nearly a hundred times, she decided to just paint something abstract, just to get it out of her system. She pulled a large canvas she'd been saving out of her bedroom closet. Her brushes licked greens and blues up against the canvas like little hands, caressing a lover returned home from war. The worn bristles were new again as they stretched across the whiteness. She worked for eight hours without stopping. Nicky ran out of paint just as she'd filled the last corner of the canvas.
She stepped back to look at her creation. Much to her surprise, before her was the most beautiful owl she'd ever seen, complete with an exquisite blue face marked with green feathers that looked soft enough to touch. Her fingers ached severely; she massaged them as she took in her piece for a few minutes longer.
When her parents woke up the next day, the house had been transformed. Christ was nowhere to be found. Every one of the paintings had disappeared overnight. Andrew and Elaine rushed downstairs to ask Nicky what'd happened.
Dad, Nicky said, not taking her eyes from the massive owl painting that now hung above the fireplace. I took the old paintings out to the trash last night. I found this on the back porch, next to your pocket knife. Her palm outstretched, revealing a small, half used roll of black electrical tape.