Owl Christmas

My third Christmas without my mom, 2015. Mom’s favorite holiday is still full of love and tissue paper, peppermint and Christmas-tree smell. But as the moon rises, there is an empty place in my heart.

It will be another seventeen years before the next full moon on Christmas night, the astronomers tell us. So around midnight, I take the dog out by the light of a moon so bright the evergreens cast sharp shadows across the lawn. The air is cold and clear. Mom would have loved it.

owl2Then I hear the great horned owls. Whoo-whoo-ing. Their voices have a soft blurriness, like running water far off, indistinct yet unmistakable. Mom was a birdwatcher, so I know these giant night raptors court in midwinter. Like most birds of prey, the females are larger, deeper voiced than the males.

Their calls tug at me. I put the dog inside and come back alone, seeking the owl serenade. With the moon so bright, I might — just this once — spot an owl by night: a feat that would have impressed even my mom.

I cross the slick street, toward the open field, craning my neck, following the sounds. Sure enough, the moon gives enough light that I see, with a thrill, the chunky silhouette of an owl. She is high up in a bare alder.

Waiting below, I hear whoo, whoo, whoo-whoo every so often. Sometimes there is a not-quite echo, like another owl in almost-unison. Funny how hard it is to locate the sound. If I wasn’t looking right at the bird, I couldn’t tell where she was. I study all the trees in the vicinity. No second owl.

I watch for a long time, that one blurry shape in the half darkness.

Now that I’ve done the nearly impossible – located an owl at night – I want more. I want to see her fly. How many chances do you get in a lifetime, for that? My mom lived nearly 89 years. I want this for her. I know she saw some owls fly at night. If you pay attention, you’ll eventually see a barn owl some night: a white flash above the glare of your headlights, or ghostly wings above a farmer’s field. But now I want to see a great horned owl fly — its four-foot wingspan as silent as snowfall.  I want to feel blessed by this ancient symbol of wisdom, and death.

So I wait.

It is cold.

I wait some more. It gets colder. The wet grass turns sparkly under my boots. My toes go numb. My neck is developing a permanent crick.

Finally I whoo  back, gently. Twice.

Silence.

Goodness knows what rudeness I have committed in owlish. Three’s a crowd. Or, in this case, a parliament. Who wants a parliament in the middle of a romantic dinner for two?

I begin to back away, with wary feet. Showing a little respect. I don’t look away. If I take my eyes off the black blob in the tree, I might miss her flight.

Then the moon goes behind the clouds. Even though it is darker now, from my new vantage, I think I see a blurry second shape, lower down in the same tree.

The first owl takes off, swift and silent in the dark.

Right behind her, lower, and even quicker, goes the other, catching up to his mate. Together, they are not silent! They hoot, soft and grumbly – talking to each other – as they fly toward another stand of trees.

“Humans. They are so underfoot these days.”

“I know, my dear. What next?”

I run home, grass crunching. I am grinning, hugging myself, like a little kid at Christmas.

Merry Christmas, owls. And thank you.

Merry Christmas, Mom.

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