I haven’t mentioned the owl

I wake up early now. Almost every morning I’m up before four. Refilling my water glass, standing in the kitchen, sometimes in a t-shirt, sometimes not, noting whose lights are on across the street. Whose car is gone. Whose windows are dark. The newspaper delivery person passing by.

Yesterday I was lying on the couch looking over my shoulder at the sky to the north through the screen. Something made me go outside again. When I raised my eyes, there on the wire that runs from the roof to the telephone pole at the back fence, was an adolescent owl. It could have fit in the palms of my hands. I held the door still because it squeaks on its hinges and already had. I saw its head turn almost imperceptibly. It seemed to be looking over its shoulder as if it had sensed something or someone. I stood still as I could watching its black-brown shape, huddled there in the early light, colorless really, everything is still black and white at that time of day. And then it flew. Its wingspan wider than I would have expected, its body exactly the shape of an owl, different from other birds when it takes off, something spooky and slow motion about its lift. I remember doing a little bit of research about owls when I thought I would include the part about finding a dead one on the ground in front of the water trough in Mahana Pasture in Before the Rain, which I took out and put back and took out any number of times and put back in again yesterday.

Have you ever looked closely at an owl’s wing?  It’s a most interesting feature.  The surface area is considerably large, relative to the weight of the bird.  It’s what allows them to fly so buoyantly, so effortlessly, without much flapping.  Do you see the fringe at the edge of the wing feathers?  They’re referred to as flutings or fimbria.  Air rushes over the surface of the wing of most birds in flight, creating turbulence and a gushing noise.  But the fimbria on the edge of an owl’s wing breaks down the turbulence, which muffles the sound of the air rushing over the surface of the wing.  Silent flight is what makes the owl a stealthy predator.

After it flew, I stepped across the cement, a word that always makes me think of Michael McPherson, also dead now–not cement, concrete; not concrete, cement–I could never remember which was which or what the difference was. His last book was called Singing with the Owls, and as I was thinking of that, there was the moon in the shape of a sickle, mirror-silver, more metallic than light.

When I returned to the couch, a layer of cold air moved past my face. The way, swimming, sometimes, you feel you’ve moved into a layer of colder water. And then you move out again.

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