It was a little more than a month before my fifteenth birthday when I entered the tenth grade in the old Corvallis High School. I hated school with a passion. I was confined within a stuffy prison of walls, doors, and closed windows when I really wanted to be outside in the fresh air. And, with the exception of Biology and English, I was thoroughly bored.
I longed to be in the forest, or oak woodlands, or meadows, or along the streams and rivers, or up at my secret rock pit--a natural outcropping of sandstone that contained wonderful fossils of marine snails. So I spent each day somewhere out-of-doors in my mind, while my body sat obediently in the classroom being bombarded with dull, meaningless facts.
Feeling unsafe at home, I spent as little time there as possible. This meant I got up before dawn, gathered my school things, as well as my slingshot and selected rocks, and headed for one of the small patches of remaining forest near our house. Once safe in the forest, I hunted for my breakfast, usually robins or squirrels.
Having secured my meal, I built a small fire and cooked breakfast, after which I walked the three miles or so to school. I repeated the procedure on my way home, only then I slipped into my room after dark so I could go to bed without having to spend any more time around my father than absolutely necessary.
I knew the "woods" so well that, even while sitting in school, I was really hunting along its trails, each of which I saw equally well with my eyes open or closed. This way the teachers never knew that, while I was bodily present, I was mentally and spiritually absent.
One day, while sitting in the most boring class, Social Studies, I was mentally walking through a thicket of young Douglas-fir trees surrounded by a mixed forest of Douglas fir and white oak on a small hill near the rock pit. As often happened, the moment school was out, I headed for the place I had been traveling in my mind.
School out, I walked home, where I stopped just long enough to drop my things off. It was a beautiful, warm, Indian-Summer afternoon in mid October as I crossed the golf course to the oak- and fir-covered hill.
I reached the hill shortly before sunset. To be quiet, I had to move slowly along the deer trail that led past a gnarled apple tree, through a thicket or two of young Douglas-fir trees, and up over the hill to the south, all the while paying strict attention to where I placed my feet because there already was a goodly number of dry, crunchy leaves carpeting the ground.
Although hunting was poor, it was such a magnificent day it really didn't matter if I was hungry. The sun was beginning to disappear over the Coast Range that separates the Willamette Valley from the Pacific Ocean, when I saw a smallish bird in a thicket of young Douglas firs. It was already getting dark inside the thicket, so I studied the bird a few seconds before deciding it was one I normally hunted for food and shot it with my slingshot, despite the fact that I couldn't see it clearly. But when I crawled into the thicket and picked it up, I held in my hand a little owl about seven inches long, the likes of which I had never seen.
I was sick inside for having shot the owl; first because I wasn't absolutely sure of my target--to me an all-but-mortal sin--and second because I hadn't listened to the precautionary whisper of my inner voice. While holding the little owl, however, I was suddenly aware that it was breathing ever so slightly. (I use the pronoun "it" for Owl because I have no idea what Owl's gender was.)
Tears began coursing down my cheeks as I realized the pain it would suffer on regaining consciousness, and because I had hurt it unnecessarily. "How could I have done this? How could I have done this?" I asked myself over and over again.
It was by this time too dark in the thicket to see well, so I carried Owl into the light. It struggled out of the depths of the unknown, opened its bright, yellow eyes, and blinked at me.
Not knowing how badly it was injured, I took Owl home--apologizing all the way: "I'm sorry, little owl. I'm so sorry. Can you forgive me? I probably don't deserve it, but I hope you can. I'll never make this mistake again, I promise."
Although I made the trip in record time, it was well after dark when I arrived, and, much to my relief, I managed to slip unseen into my room. Once safe, I made a nest by arranging a towel in a small box into which I put Owl. Then, finding a picture in my bird book, I discovered that Owl was an adult Saw-whet.
Next morning, to my joy and immense relief, a dazed Owl was recovering. I therefore slipped quietly downstairs while everyone was still asleep and got some ground beef out of the refrigerator. With meat in hand, I went into the basement, where our cat, Xerxes, was sleeping, and combed out some of his hair, which I mixed into the ground beef, because owls must regurgitate a "pellet" of whatever undigested material is in their stomachs if they are to remain healthy. I proffered the food to Owl, who took it graciously and promptly went to sleep.
I took Owl back to the thicket that afternoon and put it back on the branch off which I had shot it the day before. I fed Owl more ground beef and cat hair, and thinking I would never see it again, bid it farewell and left.
The next day, however, my little voice told me to go back to the thicket and check on Owl. So, skipping the last two hours of school, I arrived at the thicket by mid afternoon, and there sat Owl blinking at me with its beautiful, yellow eyes. I moved slowly to the tree and stood looking at Owl, as Owl sat looking at me. Slowly and gently, I stretched out my hand with index finger extended, and, much to my surprise, Owl unhesitatingly climbed onto my finger. I fed Owl some more ground beef and cat hair, all the while talking quietly, telling it how sorry I was for having caused it fear and pain. I then put Owl back on the branch and stood there just looking at the beautiful, little bird with tears of joy and guilt filling my eyes. It was almost dark before I could bring myself to leave.
I skipped the last two classes again the next day and returned to the thicket. There sat Owl. I walked up to the branch and extended my hand, upon which Owl immediately climbed. I fed Owl, but instead of putting it back, I took Owl home with me, where I fixed a place for it to roost at the foot of my bed, much as I had done for Magpie.
Owl seemed to like the roost. Since my room was upstairs and I always slept with my window wide open, Owl was free to leave during the night. Lying as I always did, my head even with the windowsill so I could watch the stars, feel the wind blowing over my face, and the rain in its falling, I felt soft wingtips brush my cheeks ever so gently on Owl's departure. Suddenly, my room was empty--emptier than it had ever been!
It was a long time before I got to sleep.
By morning, however, Owl was again perched on its roost, where it slept all day. From then on, Owl came and went at will. Owl did all its own hunting, and I often found cast pellets on the paper under its roost within five or six hours after Owl's return from its nightly foray. Owl and I become friends as we shared my bedroom over the next few months.
We had a quiet, gentle relationship in which Owl hunted each night and slept in my room each day. When we were both in the room, we visited silently. Owl had not the slightest hesitation about climbing onto my finger or sitting on my shoulder, albeit somewhat sleepily at times. But in the evening, just before dark, Owl was alert and engaging, bobbing its head at me, taking morsels of food from my fingers or from between my lips, and blinking at me. And Owl seemed to enjoy my gentle stroking of its neck and chest.
The bond I felt with Owl ran deep. I had never before known such a mystical sense of connectedness with an animal. It was all the more mystical because it was silent. Somehow words just didn't seem appropriate. All that was necessary was our mutual sense of love and trust, and, on Owl's part, complete forgiveness, which was unconditionally extended--although I was not yet able to forgive myself.
But alas, while I was gone one cold, rainy weekend, my father closed the window in our room, and Owl couldn't get in. When I came home, the first thing I did was go to visit Owl, only to find the window shut. In blind panic, I raced down the stairs and outside. And there, under my window, was the rain-soaked body of Owl, who had flown against the closed window again and again trying to get in.
Looking as Owl's bedraggled, little body, I was filled with depthless grief, burning rage, and an ever-growing hatred for the man who called himself my father. But unlike Owl, who had unconditionally forgiven me my transgression, I unconditionally condemned my father for his based on my assumption of his motives.
Although I buried Owl many years ago, the thought of Owl still brings a smile to my face and now and then a tear to my eye, but the anger has long since dissipated. Owl helped me to see our human frailties and our failings based on those frailties. As Owl forgave me for shooting it, I finally learned to forgive my father for closing the window. In that sense, Owl helped me to learn that forgiveness is an important step toward the inner freedom of unconditional love. And so it is that some of my most important teachers have been, and continue to be, the wee creatures with whom I share this magnificent planet Earth.
©chris maser 2004. All rights reserved.
Photographs by Ivy Otto, to whom I am most grateful for permission to use them in the story of "Owl."