3rd May

The Owls

for Gerry Cambridge

They’d start their calling around midnight. Cloudless, cold, starlit nights were best: the keen air carried their voices with greater clarity. The first hoot, then two half-notes like the gasps of someone getting into a hot bath or under a cold shower, followed by a second, longer cry. A cry of what? Triumph? Pride? Warning? Negotiation? Books from the library said that the calls, which sounded as if made by one voice, were in fact those of two birds, male and female, signalling to one another. Was that right? So much about owls seemed little more than speculation, informed guesswork.

When two or three owls hooted to one another from different locations it sounded to him like a tribal ritual. He lay in bed, and their weird incantations flowed in at the open window and invited him out into the night. Intrigued and curious teenager that he was, out he went.

The woods were more alive, it seemed, with unseen life than they ever were in daylight. He moved stealthily, stopped, shivered at the bite of the cold stillness. When he stood, he heard creeping, rustling, cracking sounds. He thought of the pellets he found by day, the tight packages of bone, fur and excrement that, like crushed auto carcases in a wrecker’s yard, were all that remained of voles or mice swallowed whole by their strigine predators. Did those small creatures scuffling over leaves and roots hear the owls calling, and tremble in fear? Or were they oblivious to danger until too late? He cupped his hands and called skyward – ‘Ooo. Oo-oo – oohooo!’ – and sometimes out of the dark their great feathered presences came down and he felt rather than saw them assessing and dismissing him. He was, to them, both greater and far less than a mouse.

And suddenly he saw himself alongside but separate from the mice, the owls, the trees, the stars. Even a mouse had a sure place in that chain, that fabrication of cause and effect. But what was his place? He stared into the sky and nothing was staring back. No wonder people invented gods. How else could you explain your presence, other than by speculation, informed guesswork?

Reader: Gerda Stevenson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Piano: Kit Downes
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