The Owl Tree

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“Come on, let’s go!” My father’s voice sounded smooth against the harsh crunch of rocks under our feet as we walked down the lane. Miniature plumes of dust curled beneath our feet as gravel rolled away.

“Daddy, hold on!” I called after him, feeling the shortness of my legs to his marching stride. All around us gold glinted from scrub brush, sage, and stunted aspen trees. Dad paused in his stride, reaching his hand back, palm open. I grasped his warmed callused fingers, his hand engulfing my own.

“Come on mom!” I said, looking back at my baby brother, George. His unsteady gait, checked by the security of my mother’s arms, propelled both forward. She smiled at me with dark brown eyes, her honey kissed hair tossed in the breeze.

“I’m a comin’!” She laughed, hauling George up on one hip. Around us birds sang from power lines drawing graceful waves along the sky. I gripped my father’s fingers tighter and looked up as the sky turned a silky purple. A lone cloud, long and spindly caught brilliant rays of the setting sun.

Without breaking stride dad pointed at a T in the road, “”We’re almost there! Look see the stop sign there?”

I could feel his excitement radiate through my hand as he squeezed it. I caught his wide smile and his green eyes flashed down at me full of anticipation. Throwing my body forward I skipped ahead of him, giggling as I felt him pull back. And then he was running with me, kicking at the ground and bounding the last stretch to our destination. Light grew in great sheets as dust rose from the ground. Shadows danced around us as we drew closer to a line of poplar trees. My face felt the flush of sunlight and crispness of shadows. A cow mooed in the near distance.

In a cloud of dirt and laughter we stopped before vast natural spires. Dad leaned over, giggling almost as much as me. I smiled and turn around to survey the sun-bleached surface of the poplar trees. Dark leaves surrounded the lighter bark like lips over teeth. They stood there, watching us, listening to us breath. Reaching for the sky as if to brush a passing cloud their limbs waved in a breeze high above my head. I could feel my youth against their crackling, weather beaten skin.

“You two run too fast!” Called mom, her smile radiant, George blew raspberries as mom lifted him higher on to a hip. She brushed a strand of hair from her face and looked at the poplars as well. She glanced at me and said, “They’re pretty big, aren’t they?”

I nodded, and let go of my father’s hand stepping to the side of the road. A twisted metal fence sat sleeping in a sea of golden weeds. The poplars were massive and impressive, but my attention focused beyond them.

“Careful Ira, don’t get too close to that fence.” Mom called standing next to dad. She set George on the ground and he toddled about, grinning to himself. Dad reached for mom, and she smiled as he pulled her into a tight hug. I couldn’t help myself. I stamped my foot and looked beyond the poplars again, the evening air was growing cooler.

“Are we there? Did we make it? Dad, did we find it?” I looked up and down the empty lane, an errant cottontail skittered from one side of the road to the other. Dad looked beyond the trees while mom with her arm resting on his shoulder. George picking up a small stone, looking at its smooth surface.

“Honey, do you see that? Did it move?” Mom held a hand up to shade her eyes. I stood stalk still, listening and straining to see above the weeds. Dad now grabbed me around the waist, looking in the same direction.

“I think so. Look at that tree there, it’s moving.” He pointed to a small stand of gnarled fruit trees. Around them were several stumps of fallen poplars, and rusted farm equipment.

“Where dad? Where?” My eyes roved over every branch and twisted limb, but the light was growing too dim.

“Screech!” The call raises hair on the back of my neck. I grip my hands around dad’s chin.

“There!” Mom whispers, now holding a squirming George, “I can see them!”

“Screech!”

There just apart from the other trees, naked branches jutting out, trunk bent as if frozen in mid dance. The Owl Tree.

The sun’s dying rays touch gray down. With a sudden movement vast wings opened and an expectant, “Whoo!”emerged from the tree.

“Owls!” I said, hearing my brother mimic the sound. I leaned forward, forcing my dad step closer to the fence.

“Screech!” There were three of them just distinguishable from the outline of their tree. All three swiveled their heads side to side, looking from us, to the field, and then trees.

“I see them daddy! I see!” I could feel my legs kick against dad’s chest and he bounced me around.

“You do? Good!” He pointed making me lean to one side, “Look! There!”

A gray form dropped from a branch on silent wing, gliding from tree to brush. I could almost hear the wind gliding through feathers as stillness engulfed the field. The owl dropped to the ground. beside me bubbles popped in George’s mouth. And then the great bird was airborne, claws clutched to a furry form.

“Screech!” A second owl followed close behind, disappearing into dark foliage.

“They’re hunting.” Dad said, I could hear the quiet awe in his voice. I looked back and forth from the Owl Tree to the poplars and grass, nothing stirred.

George wiggled in mom’s arms,he too looked from tree to tree, then back at us. Dad stood stone still, listening, waiting.

Nothing.

“I guess they’re off elsewhere then.” Said mom, hoisting George onto her shoulders, he wriggled even harder and began to pout.

“I guess so.” Said dad, feeling his excitement ebb, his shoulders lower, “We’d better get back home. Don’t want the coyotes to get us.”

I shivered, thinking about the yipping and barking we’d heard the other night. But I didn’t want to say good-bye to the owls yet. I clung to dad’s head, “We can’t leave now! Where did they go?”

Dad turned from the now set sun, “They’re out in the fields, hunting for their dinner. Just like you did earlier.”

I knew he was trying to make me feel better, but something tugged at me to stay, “Daddy, we can’t go yet.”

“I know Ira, but it’s almost time for bed.”

“But dad!” I knew it was a losing battle. We turned out backs to the Owl Tree, ahead of us the dusty lane twisted lazy path homewards.

“Whoo.” Dad froze where he stood, I felt the hair on my neck stand on end.

“Whoow!” Echoed within the dark. An owl, right on top of us.

Mom now stopped, looking around. I inched my head around, scanning the growing dark from dad’s shoulders. It sounded like the owl was on my head.

“Whoooo!” I looked up, a power pole stood next to us, contrasting orange wood on  deep purple sky. Lines ran across criss-crossing pieces of wood near the top. And there at the top were two round flashing eyes, staring right at me, right at me!

“D-d-dad.” I whispered as two wings stretched wide, showing thick lines of feathers.

Dad looked up, just as the owl leapt from the post, right on top of us.

“Screech!” Talons flashed as wings spread wide, dancing a downy white above my head. I felt wind rustle my hair, and closed my eyes tight.

“Did you see that? Ira did you see that!” He whooped as the owl dipped between the long shadows of the lane. Settling on another power pole, he turned his head round to us, feathered horns waving in the night air.

“Whoo!”

Mom took Dad’s hand and we walked up the lane, under the careful eye of the owl. None of us could turn our heads away as we came closer to the owls roost. And then as before he stretched noiseless wings and swooped on along the path.

Before long our cabin home peaked between the trees, lights bright against the night.

I could feel exhaustion creeping into my hands and legs as we stepped through the front gate. Beyond the yard our companion and soundless guide perched upon Grandpa’s wooden flag pole.

“Whoo!” He said one final time, twisting his neck all the way around, watching us as we made our way to the front door.

I stayed back as Mom, George, and Dad went through the door, their words muted in my ears.

Looking back at the flag pole I waved once, saying a silent good-bye to the two reflecting eyes. They blinked and disappeared back into the night, back to the Owl Tree.

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