by Shelley Fowler
It was a sunlit and already warm weekday morning and I was driving along a stretch of four-lane highway north of Seiling, Oklahoma. I had the tunes playing and was thinking random thoughts when I passed alongside what I thought was a swaying stick in my lane. At the very last moment I realized it was anything but a stick. Indeed, it was a creature of some sort!
Although I was already running a tad late for a meeting in Weatherford, I found the next turnaround and eventually got back to the place of my creature sighting. The ditch was filled with high, green grass and patches of yellow wildflowers, so I figured if there was a creature it was hunkered down. I gingerly walked through the grass and flowers and it wasn’t long before I spotted some movement. I looked down and there it was, that supposed swaying stick, now identified as an large ‘common’ barn owl. His feathered wings were splayed out amongst the blades of grass, but when he saw me he attempted to flee. But he couldn’t, for he was injured in some way.
I went back to the Jeep and found my blue hoodie, which I figured could double as a blanket. The owl was still where I had left him and he protested very little when I covered him with the hoodie and gently gathered his wings in beside his body. Then I picked him up, swaddling him like baby Jesus. As I turned his body towards mine, his face being all that was exposed at the moment, he made a loud clicking sound as he twice opened and shut his strong, hooked beak. And then he was quiet, even as his large black eyes stared very intently into my green eyes.
Thus, I found myself driving down the highway holding the steering wheel with one hand while cradling the injured bird against my chest with the other. And thinking all the while what could I, what would I, do with and for this wild creature, this barn owl, that had suddenly entered my life.
Then something happened that made me catch my breath and say, “Wow!” .
For just a fleeting moment, right there in the Jeep scooting down the highway, and with the owl crooked in my arm, it seemed as if our spirits connected! I know this sounds strange, but I was struck by the sensation of being the owl, being up there in the sky and looking down at a field of golden grass. Then turning my head and seeing the white feathers that made up underside of one of my wings!
The vision left me as quickly as it had appeared. I looked down at the strong, and yet somehow delicate, face of the dear barn owl. His eyes were now closed.
Being a little taken aback by the experience, I stopped the Jeep once again, along another patch of green grass and yellow wildflowers. Carefully, I unswaddled the blue hoodie from his body. He offered no resistance. I placed my hand against the downy white and tan feathers of his breast and could feel no beating of his heart. It was then that I noticed the dense splotches of bright red blood, not only on the hoodie but also on the front of the white shirt I was wearing.
With a feeling of sadness, I looked at the barn owl’s mortal injury. His left wing had been nearly severed from his body. The major bone that joined the two was jutting out, ragged and bloody.
Not knowing what else to do, and now being way behind schedule, I placed his beautiful, broken body on the passenger seat and got back on the road. I walked into the meeting wearing a stained shirt and a smile that belied the tugging of my heart, the feeling of true loss.
After the meeting adjourned, I told my supervisor about the encounter. She said she wanted to see the owl’s body, so I went to the Jeep to get him. I opened the driver’s door, and lo and behold! There he was…standing on the floorboard beneath the steering wheel! Ever so gently I picked him up and once again swaddled his body, trying to protect his broken wing.
It was then suggested I take him to a local vet, or turn him over to the city animal control officer. I also thought about taking him to a rehabilitation center in Oklahoma City. But, I did none of those things. Why subject him to more examination, more fright from being handled by more people? His wound was bleeding and I knew there was no hope for saving him. He would never again fly above the earth.
And so I retraced the route I had taken just a few hours earlier, once again holding his hoodie-clad body against my heart. My plan was to return him to where our encounter had begun. But the sun was beating down and there were no trees under which I could leave him. Instead, I followed my heart and took him to my motel room in Woodward. Where it was dark and cool and quiet. Surprisingly, he was still alive when we got there. I knew this because when I touched the edge of his feathered face he would (barely) react.
I sat in the chair, there in the quiet and coolness of the room, and slowly rocked his practically weightless body back and forth, hoping he would have the sensation of being perched on a limb in a tree. Perhaps it was silly of me, but I also talked to the owl, telling him of the beauty of the golden feathers that framed the whiteness of his round face, told him of my vision of seeing the world through his eyes.
And then, somewhere amidst my words and rocking, the wild creature, the common barn owl took flight for the last time, soaring beyond this realm. And I realized there were tears running down my cheeks.
Only after that, only after I knew for sure that he was no longer alive, did I unswaddle his broken winged body. And what I saw amazed me. He was truly magnificent. The color and texture of his long, strong wing feathers. The tiny gold and brown, black and white feathers that created the patterns and designs upon his head and chest. The hard ridge of short orange and brown feathers that accented the white feathers that gave his face its roundness. The ivory colored beak that became pink as it disappeared beneath those same white feathers. And then there were his leathery gray feet and arched, sharp black talons! Oh, but how I wished at that moment to have seen him when he was whole, alive and sweeping across a field of milo or grass, his black eyes alert and shining!
It seemed only appropriate that since he was a barn owl his final resting place should be within a barn. So, with him on the passenger seat once again, I went in search of just that. And I found the perfect one on a lonesome dirt road southwest of town. The barn was a mere shell, long deserted and unused. All around it were yellow wildflowers and tall green grass, accented by a bright blue sky filled with towering white pillars of clouds. With reverence, I placed the wild creature, now tamed by death, against the wall of the old barn. And before I turned and walked away, I thanked him for being who he was in life, for his beauty that was breathtaking upon examination, and for gracing my life with his presence for just a little while.
I’m sure it was just my imagination, but as I reached the Jeep and turned to look once more at the barn, I thought I heard the screeching of an owl, I thought I saw a flash of golden brown wings, I thought I saw….a common barn owl skimming above the field of tall green grass filled with patches of swaying yellow wildflowers.