There are tawny owls in the ash trees in the garden. Young birds – ‘juveniles’ birdwatchers call them. Able to fly, but dependent on their parents for food.
Instead of the ‘whoo’ sounds of the adults, they repeat a two-note high-pitched call. Hour after hour demanding food. There are two, their calls echoing each other’s. Every five seconds through the night. I’ve timed them.
I creep from my own bedroom to those of my now grown and long-gone children to find the best listening point. At first I craned to hear, opening a bedroom window to catch their tiny yearning noises. Six weeks on, the windows wide, their calls are strong, chiming in the darkness. I live alone and am willing to pay the price of a sleepless night, or a late awakening, for the joy of the sound filling my home.
Though I can tell by their calls that they are here every night, I only glimpse them when the garden is moonlit - and they take to the air like phantoms.
Sometimes I hear a deeper, more fluid call and the young owls hear it too. A parent with food. Then their sounds become more agitated, frenzied. They are silenced by gulping a vole or perhaps a small bird. Immediately, their calls start up again.
The young owls will be with me for a few more weeks. When they are three months old, the parents will chase them away. With the youngsters gone, the adults need not compete for food when breeding recurs in the spring. The young owls seek out their own territories. And never return.
I prepare myself for that time, each night expecting silence. When it comes, it is like my heart has stopped. I move from room to room hoping for a single unruly sound.
First published by Reflex Fiction, October 2019.
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