Oil Painting of a Screech Owl Painted on A Wooden Panel by Author
The child dragged a five-foot ladder as she walked the grassy path between a ripened cornfield and the bank of a slow-moving river. The child’s foraging bag hung from her shoulder and in the bag was a pair of her father’s work gloves. She wore a faded cotton dress and was walking barefoot. The year was 1955 and the child was nine years old. This was a time when little girls wore dresses, even little girls who climbed trees and caught frogs along muddy shorelines.
The child had walked this path at sunrise when dew clung to blades of grass, and her destination then as now was the same. She leaned the ladder against the trunk of a dead oak and carefully climbed each rung until she was level with a hole, a hole large enough for an arm to reach inside. When she visited the tree earlier, she had knocked loudly with a knuckled fist and had placed her ear against the trunk to listen. The occupant clicked a reply, and the child smiled and said aloud, “I’ll be back.”
Now, balancing herself on the ladder, feet spread and leaning her body against the trunk, she pulled on her father’s gloves before reaching with her right hand into the hole. When she touched the soft body at the bottom of the hole, a thrill raced through her fingers and into her heart. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, as she gently lifted a tiny screech owl from its home. “Don’t be afraid. It’s just me. Remember?”
Still leaning against the gnarled trunk, she cupped the small owl with both hands while stepping slowly down the ladder to the ground. The little creature stared at her with startled eyes, and bit fiercely at the work gloves. While blowing gently in the face of the little owl, the child soothed, “I won’t hurt you. You don’t have to bite,” and the owl stopped biting.
Leaving the ladder leaning against the tree, the child walked hurriedly home. There, she placed the little owl in a cage, one of her mother’s empty canary cages. It hopped to a perch and stared at her through large black pupils set in golden irises. Its feathers were several shades of brown, light and dark shades that formed patterns, with white under feathers.
The child carried the cage to the garden where her mother was picking the season’s last green beans and tomatoes. The mother bent and looked into the cage, “Ah, your friend,” she said softly. The child knelt and looked closely at the little owl, and the mother knelt beside her.
“Isn’t she cute?” the child whispered excitedly.
“Yes,” her mother agreed, and then added, “Look, her feet are covered with feathers, and she has little feather horns.”
“She looks angry,” the child said softly.
“The feather pattern above her eyes makes her look that way,” her mother replied, nodding.
The two sat for several minutes studying the small owl, then the mother returned to picking green beans. The child sat quietly next to the cage. She felt somehow connected to the little bird. She knew it was a wildling, that she couldn’t keep it, that it needed to hunt at night for food, and that it needed to spread its wings and fly. Still, she felt comforted just knowing it was alive and that it knew how to fly, that it knew how to find its own food, that it knew where its home was. This little owl and she shared something. They shared life.
“I think it’s time,” the mother directed.
“I know. It’s time to return her to her home,” the child replied.
Her mother answered with a smile.
The child carried the caged owl back to its home tree. After setting the cage on the ground next to the ladder, she gently lifted the small bird with a gloved hand and then carefully climbed while leaning into the ladder and graspingone rung at a time with her free hand. She placed the little owl inside its hollow oak. “There, you’re home,” she assured.
While still standing on the ladder, the child looked across the cornfield to a line of orange and golden maple trees. The sky was a glorious blue, and the song of cicadas, warmed by the autumn sun, filled the air. She leaned close to the opening of the little owl’s home and whispered, “Thank you.”