Jun 21, 2005

By the pricking of my thumbs/

Something wicked this way comes.

When I was a very young child, I was afraid of a lot of things. I was afraid of the dark, afraid of snakes, afraid of the creatures that roamed in the night, and afraid of most nuns. Thankfully most of that has changed.

The dark no longer worries me, and in fact is a great comfort. I know enough about snakes that I am no longer afraid, simply respectful when need be. The barking yowls and yips of the foxes chasing mice in the fields no longer makes me cringe, and instead makes me smile to imagine the dusky red and white coursers through the rows. Nuns? Well, I'm still afraid of them, but that many years of nun-centered abuse can't be cured overnight. As for the creatures of the night? What music they make!

Okay, that makes two poorly used quotes, so let's get on with the post, shall we?

I woke up this morning at the usual time (5:30a) and was treated to a sound that used to chill me straight to my bones. Owls hooting. Next door, back in the old barnyard stands a two-story mammoth of a barn that my grandfather built back around the time he was building the REO swing. And like most everything he did, he built big and innovative, which aspects we won't get into right now. It's stood there, genteely falling to pieces from long before I was a little boy, and it has housed, for no telling how long, barn owls. And these barn owls have long populated the landscape of my fears as a child.

It's strange that Hollyweird could get so very many things wrong, and yet somehow get the mournful hoot of an owl just right. When I was a little boy trembling under the covers, afraid of the things that I could see in the pattern of the curtains and afraid of the dark and afraid of sleep, the hooting of an owl outside, sounding exactly like the soundtrack off a black and white Dracula movie would put me into utter paroxyms of terror. That sound carried so very well, utterly without effort it seemed, and would hit the huddling primate in my hindbrain right between his dull eyes every time. That empty, piercing cry without fail sent me scampering into my parent's room begging for protection from winged death.

The turning point came at some obsure point in my childhood partly because I rarely heard them and so never got the chance to really dig that fear in deep, and partly because I simply grew up and learned more about the silent hunters. I can recall my father finding owl pellets for us out in the field and, with large, careful fingers, opening them up on a flat space so we could see this dry gray capsule suddenly turn into such a marvelous collection of tiny white bones and bits that any graveyard worth it's salt would be proud to have held it. I always felt like some sort of archaeologist, and knew that if only I had enough very thin wire and a jeweler's loupe I could take all those tiny ivory puzzle pieces and turn them into a gleaming white memento mori. I learned about owls, and occasionally even saw them.

One memorable night while I was still in college I turned onto our lane after a very late night out and couldn't help but notice the foot and a half tall, razor-beaked addition to the street sign--a massive brown and white finial over the usual red octagonal sign. I was rubbernecking so hard to get a glimpse of that beautiful creature that I nearly put my Camaro in the ditch. Then there was the summer night years ago that I decided to step out onto the front porch to see what was making the birds nesting in the hedges so restless. I casually looked up and saw a giant on my television aerial; the only thing I could think about doing was grabbing the digital camera and snapping pictures of it before it flew off, utterly unconcerned with the pasty blob down below it's very long talons.

It occured to me much later that, had it taken offense at the bright white flash that kept popping below it, all that it had to do to cure the problem would be to dive the twelve feet straight down off that aerial at me and tear me to bloody ribbons with those two-inch long black talons and that cruel hooked beak, a thought which gave me no comfort when it occurred to me, but the fact that it took almost no notice of me at all made me feel better, too. Obscurely, and perhaps wrongly, I assigned to the owl a belief that it saw me as a provider of shelter and a handy perch from which to survey it's domain, not as a threat to it's survival. It's a thought that still gives me a measure of satisfaction.

And so this morning, when I was blearily staring into the mirror, regretting last evening's push-mower exertions, it was with great joy that I heard that lonely hooting echoing out across the pasture. Mixed in with the raccous screams of blue jays and the wide-ranging noises of the mockingbirds, making a pleasant counterpoint to the mourning dove's cooing song I heard that sharp 'hoot' rolling off the trees, magnified by the heavy fog, and I could see in my mind's eye the perfectly silent hunter gliding through the thick morning fog, gliding back to the old barn's hayloft, back to the talon-chewed perches that many scores of huge, wise-eyed brown and white shapes have perched on, raised owlets on, and kept careful watch through hot sweltering summer days from.

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