He flew on silent wings; one swoop and his talons grazed the top of her head. She didn't see him coming. She was walking down the forest path to her cabin after a hearty meal at the farmhouse. It was twilight, drizzly and she was alone. Before she thought to run, he went in for a second swipe. This time, she left sprinting and even though her cabin was closer, she ran back to the farmhouse to warn us.
This was my first night as a writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers located on Whidbey Island, WA. The writers' cottages are tucked away in the forest amongst cedars and furs, pines and hemlocks and vine maples. In owl territory, it seemed. Funny, the packet I received when I was awarded the Hedgebrook residency, mentioned deer and bunnies, not crazed owls.
We needed an edge. A shield, breastplate and matching helmet would give us one. We settled for coats. We buttoned up to our necks, tucked in loose hairs and most important, covered our heads.
There are many ways to protect a head. Flip up a hood, don a wide brimmed hat, tie on a red blinking light, or put tomorrow’s lunch in your pocket and wear the Red-Riding-Hood basket it came in, on your head, the handle like a bow. I put on my basket after I finished tying my hood.
We turned on our windup flashlights and marched shoulder to shoulder into the woods. We walked a fast clip. And the owl, wherever he was, allowed us to pass.
He woke me before my alarm. I rushed downstairs and opened the window. First light winked through the branches. I wanted to get a look at that owl. It was a frosty morning and I shivered. The fire I made the night before was ash. I wrapped in a blanket and waited.
It wasn't long before I heard him hooting. “Hoo-hoo hoo hoo. Hoo-hoo hoo hoo hoo,” he called. Was this the crazed owl? While he hooted, I peered into the branches. He was nearby, I knew it. But where?
I opened my Pacific NW Guidebook and turned to the owl section. I learned that a Barn Owl screamed and clicked, the Burrowing Owl cooed. I read on. The Barred Owl’s hoot was unique. If he hooted words they’d be, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
Who cooks for you? I substituted ‘hoo’ for each word. I hooted out loud a few times. Yes, I found my owl! I studied the picture. He or she, the book wasn't that detailed, was about two feet tall, had a four foot wingspan and friendly eyebrows. He looked cuddly, not crazed.
The owl had been quiet for a while. The sun was up; and yellow and red leaves glistened. I shut the window. I’d have to go out there later, in the dark, and walk to the farmhouse.
I saw my lunch-basket hat on the table. The sandwich I left in my pocket was still cold, as if it’d been in the fridge all night. I thought of dinner the night before. An epicurean feast and the first meal I hadn't cooked in ages. Hedgebrook had a chef, a real chef who made mouth-watering dinners and lunches to go. The type of meals I would never prepare at home because, well, who had time for fancy stuff, when you had kids and jobs and messes to clean? I ate the sandwich for breakfast, roast beef, not bologna. Who cooks for you? I chuckled. I had almost two weeks left at Hedgebrook to write whenever I wanted and without interruption or obligation.
That night after dinner, we walked back to our cabins together. I kept the picture of the owl in mind. I thought of his big brown eyes; I thought of his stripes. We had our hats on! One of the women wore a floppy one and I wore the hardhat I found in my cabin. I looked like a construction worker. Problem was, someone with a bigger head had worn it last and I hadn't thought to adjust it. As I walked, it slid down over my eyes, off the back of my head, to one side, the other.
We arrived at the giant elm, the spot where we would split up. Two of us left the path and headed to our cabins. Not a peep out of that owl. Strange, I felt disappointed.
We’d only walked a few feet when the owl swooped in and landed on a branch. We had high power flashlights this time, not the wimpy windups. We shined our lights on him.
He didn't look as friendly as he did in the picture. Still, I felt a little giddy. Who cooks for you? I smiled. The chef made chocolate chip cookies for dessert. A rare treat; I never baked much at home. She gave me extra on my way out. They were in my pockets.
The owl blocked our way and he wasn’t budging. Then, with no warning, my companion marched up to that bird and started telling him off. I watched her wave her arms, whoop and holler. I’d never seen anything like it. The owl cocked his head. Apparently, he hadn't either. Finally, she put her hand on her hip and turned. “He’s not scared at all.” She sounded surprised and held her flashlight steady.
His eyes slid over to me. I thought of the cuddly owl. I saw a hunter. I remembered the bunnies I’d seen on the path earlier. I tried not to scare them, but a twig snapped underfoot and they scurried into the bushes. I turned off my flashlight. This was not a crazed owl. We were tramping through his territory during prime hunting hours and scaring his dinner away. He was only taking care of himself. Maybe he had mouths to feed.
The owl took flight. He made no sound; the branch didn't move. He glided. He flew in my direction. Several feet away he broke course. Whoosh! He soared up, up and over my head. I whirled around to see where he’d gone, but my hard hat slid over my eyes and fell to the ground.
I looked up. A moonless night, the sky inky-black and the only sound was rustling leaves.
Photo: Hedgebrook Owl by Kate Thompson 2008.
Kate Thompson is a 2008 Hedgebrook alum. Her novella, "The Asteroid's Daughter and the Serpent Handler's Son" and short story, "Hannah's Treasure" are two of the 13 stories in New Halem Tales Secrets: 13 Stories from 5 NW Authors, www.newhalemtales.com. She is currently working on her second novel, Tied by Water, and a third, A Family of Forgetters. Kate is enthralled by treasure hunter stories and pirates, pioneer women, UFOs and Bigfoot. You can see more of her work at www.5nwauthors.com.