Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Christmas Owls

Once upon a time there was a woman who liked to listen to owls. It happened this way.

She had lived in The City for a long time—too long. One day, she packed her small car with her animals and some belongings, and joined by her companion, she headed home. Because she had always wanted to live in the country, she decided to look for a place outside the city limits.

She got lucky. Down a dirt road, she found an old farmhouse—raised off the ground as the old cracker-style homes are—with a screened front porch, tin roof, heart pine paneling in three rooms, an old propane heater for the cold months and a huge yard with a western breeze for the hot months, and big, old, beautiful big trees—live oak, hackberry, pear, dogwood, and pecan.

It wasn’t long after she moved in with her companion that she met the owls. Sitting on the back stoop one night at sunset, she heard a strange little whinny followed by other whinnies and strange hooting noises. In that twilight time when light and shadow play tricks on the eyes, she watched as her whole yard filled with tiny swooping shapes and haunting calls.

Because she had lived in The City for too long, she had to ask people who know about these things what she had seen, and then she realized that it had a been a family of little screech owls—probably some of them fledglings who were leaving their nest for the first time.

The woman continued to see the little owls and hear their calls. One day she realized that the owls were bringing her a message. She found out that her father was very ill, and was soon to die.

One night after her father had died, there was a terrible storm. After the storm, the woman didn’t hear or see the screech owls any more.

Instead of the screech owls, the woman began to hear the distinctive cries of the larger barred owls: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” punctuated by the owls’ occasional loud screams and laughs. Sometimes the woman would hear a more rare call, the softer hooting of the great horned owls, but it was mainly the barred owls that sang to her.

She came to love the calls of the barred owls so much that her companion would come in from outside to tell her, “Your people are out there, calling for you,” and she would go out to listen and to marvel.

She liked living in the country so much that she decided she would like to work in the country too, so she got a job in a state park. She was leaving work one day when she spotted two big great horned owls in a large tree, mating. At another time, she watched as a family of tiny barn owls that could be spotted through a hole in a large tree grew to adulthood. And at home, she felt honored to sometimes catch a glimpse of a barred owl eating its dinner, spitting bits of discarded food onto the ground from high up in the trees by the sinkhole near her house.

One night she even dreamed she was an owl. She flew low to the ground over the pasture behind her house, hunting for mice and rats. When she woke from the dream, she woke to the words and music of an owl song humming in her head.

When her mother was sick and in the hospital, the woman traveled to be with her and to do what she could to help. Driving back from the hospital to her mother’s house just after twilight one November night, the woman was surprised to hear the calls of screech owls coming from the oaks in every direction throughout her mother’s yard. She had never heard the screech owls there before, and it was the first time she had heard so many screech owls since before her father died.

Not long after that, the woman’s mother died.

With the money she got from the sale of her mother’s house, the woman bought her own house even farther from town than the places she had been renting. She could hear the barred owls some nights, down by the river, but one night the woman got a little worried. Her companion was sick, and she heard one lone screech owl whinnying in the pines behind her house.

Sure enough, her companion got sicker—very sick, in fact. But thanks to some good doctors, he didn’t die.

The woman wondered if the fact she had heard only one screech owl was some kind of indicator that his illness would not kill him.

The woman missed having owls in her yard. So she planted some young live oak trees, thinking that maybe the owls might eventually find her yard a pleasant place to be.

She spent some time contemplating her relationship with the owls. She knew that owls were often considered omens of death, but that they were also the companions of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and that they were associated in different cultures with healing powers, magic, and clairvoyance.

She learned that owls and hawks often share the same territory, with owls hunting at night and hawks during the daytime. The woman built a relationship with hawks, as well, while living in the country—indeed, one of the woman’s family names indicated that her ancestors might well have been falconers. In her heart she began to resonate, more and more, with the raptors.

One night she had a dream—or was it a vision in that state between sleeping and waking?—that she was lying on the ground and looking up, and a small parliament of owls was flying overhead. She was struck by the very human look on the faces of the owls, and then it came to her: Long ago, people had seen the eyes of owls flying overhead and had imagined that the owls were people, and from this vision had come the idea that witches can shapeshift and fly.

So one particular Christmas, the woman was delighted when her companion made her a gift of several little owls. One owl image hung from a bell. Another was a metal sculpture of a group of three owls. And there were a couple of pairs of owls, and one wee baby owl.

And the woman welcomed the new owls into her home as she had learned, over the years, to welcome the wildness of the raptors into her heart.

1 comment:

  1. Ohhh, I want to live in a house like that! This story reminds me of Linda Hogan's novel "Power," about native Americans and the Florida cougar (you've read?). The screech owl is likely a spirit ally for you. What a blessing! On another note, I just rediscovered your kind comments from a while back on my blog about my novel ( Wanted to let you know it's published now. Please email me if you're interested in purchasing a copy from me.