The Winter Owl


The Winter Owl

The windowpanes were edged in frost, and we
Four cousins bunched to see the screech owl perched
On an apple branch above the drifted snow.
"He might be sick," Kate said.
"No! He's sleeping.
He's just sleeping," Freddy replied.
"He's most
Likely hungry," Gramma put in. "Poor thing,
They don't often come in this close to dwellings
Unless they can't find food in winter."
"Do you
Think he's starving?" Kate frowned.
"I'll put some hamburg
Out in a moment," Gramma answered.
"Won't
He freeze?" Bess wondered.
"Yeah. How do we know
He isn't frozen dead already?" I asked.
"He was alive this morning," Gramma said.
"I thought for sure he'd frighten off when Pop
Shoveled the path, but all he did was close
His eyes and turn his head as if he scorned
To watch." Then Gramma, crossing to the yellow
Stove that drew its heat from naphtha, added,
"You kids go play in the dining room. I can't
Have you bouncing around in here, you'll make
The dough fall."
Wet cloths covered pans of rising
Dough on the kitchen's two broad radiators. 
"He'll freeze," decided Bess.
"He'll be all right,"
Said Freddy, "as soon as he gets something to eat.
. . . 
In the dining room, around the walnut table,
In the circle of the chandelier's dim light,
We kids became jewel merchants.
A wealth
Of buttons spilled from a quart tin box, and we
Were in business. Fev'rishly we sorted through them;
Scrutinizing each with an expert's eye;
Watchful for a button's value in
Another's eye; haggling, threat'ning, shouting—
"I saw it first!" 
"No you didn't!"
—till from
The kitchen this ultimatum:
"If you kids
Can't get along in there, you can put the buttons
Back in the box this minute."
We got along.
We valued the buttons at more than bickering,
Being allowed to keep one button each,
Each time the buttons were allowed.
I found
The best button ever, that day, a gilt
Edged hexagon (most likely brass), framing
A thumbnail opal Abstract, with an eyelet
Behind and so not marred by sewing holes.
A great find destined to button, some other day,
The simple fabric of a priceless lesson.
. . .
At noon, we found the kitchen table changed.
The pans and mixing bowls, the sifted flour,
The rolling pin, the measuring cups—all gone.
And in their place were jars of jam, a patty
Of home churned butter, and Betsy's own rich milk
In a pitcher, and cold stewed apples, and warm bread
So fresh you could roll it back to dough between
Your thumb and index finger, and for dessert—
The promise of one cinnamon roll apiece.
"He's so small. Do you think he's a baby owl?"
Kate asked—I answered, "He's a screech owl. That's as
Big as they get."
"Still he's awfully small."
We all peered out the frosted window and saw
The winter owl still perched on the low branch
Above the pathway cut through knee-deep snow.
"Did he eat any of the hamburg?" 
"Not that
I noticed, Kate."
"I hope he isn't sick."
"Why would he be sick?" Freddy wanted
To know. But no one knew or no one said.
Then Gramma ladled out the barley soup,
A steaming bowl for each of us.
"Now don't go
Bolting your food, Michael," she said to me.
"You don't get all the nourishment you should,
Eating so fast."
I slowed down as best
I could.
"Wasn't he scared of you, when you
Put out the meat?" Kate asked.
"I was afraid
He'd flush, but he never so much as blinked an eye."
"That's because he's sleeping," Freddy insisted.
"Couldn't we bring him in?" Kate asked.
"Let's give him
A chance to feed on his own and then we'll see.
And stay away from the window," Gramma added.
"He can probably see our movements in the house."
I couldn't help but feel the wintry scene
Beyond the frosted window. I liked the look
Of the tangled apple branches etched against
The gray-white sky, and the hillside's snowy sweep
With only charcoal-sketch suggestions of what
The world had been before the age of snow.
But it was the owl who made the afternoon.
On the twigged branch that sloped over the path,
Like an arm reaching down to lend a hand,
He slept—hunched with cold. And as I watched him,
A feeling, dark and deep, stole over me,
The kind you get from a grim tale told at bedtime,
The kind I got from the dark painting hung
In Gramma's living room.
"He might be too weak
To feed himself," Bess posed. But no one answered.
We were busy with soup and arguments
Of what to do that afternoon, while Gramma
Sipped her coffee lost in thought. And then,
As promised, one cinnamon roll for each of us.
. . .
The stairway opened both onto the kitchen
And the living room, and with the door shut to
The kitchen but open to the living room,
We played a button game which we called "school."
Kate was the teacher first, and stood facing
Her pupils—Freddy, Bess, and me—who sat
Crowded together on the first of the two
Steps to the landing. Behind her back she changed
A button from hand to hand a number of times,
Then held her hands straight out in front of her
For me to guess which hand it was that held
The button.
Each step was like a grade in school,
And you progressed from grade to grade by right
Guesses. A wrong guess kept you where you were,
And two wrong guesses put you back a grade,
Unless, of course, you were already on
The bottom step. I made my guess. Kate flashed
An empty hand—"Too bad"— then mixed the button
Behind her back a second time to test
The next student—Freddy. And so it went.
I enjoyed this game as much as any, but
That afternoon with the dim of winter at
The windows and the living room in dusk,
As it always was, but even more so that day,
I couldn't keep my attention on the game.
Above the old upright piano hung
The painting that had always haunted me.
Inside its gilt frame all was night, and shadow
Within shadow, and a yellow moon
Fleecing the night clouds above a black castle,
A castle so deep in shadow that I knew
Of its existence only because I'd climbed
On top the piano once to see up close
What the picture was about. It had been painted
Years ago by a relative long deceased.
And looking at the painting that afternoon,
I wondered who she was and felt a dark
Something, the same as I had felt at lunch time,
Looking out the frosted window at
The sleeping screech owl on the apple branch.
It was a brooding mood that made me want
To be alone.
So after a few more turns
I quit. I said I didn't feel like playing
Anymore, and that made Freddy mad
At me. But Kate said that a person had
A right to their own feelings no matter what
Those feelings were. And I agreed with her.
. . .
In the kitchen, looking out the frosted window
To see the owl, I saw how dim, how dark
The afternoon had grown, and guessed more snow
Was on its way, and next I saw the owl
Still perched among the wickerwork of twigs,
And though a gust of wind ruffed his feathers,
He still sat on, supremely unperturbed.
"I wouldn't hang around the window, Michael,"
Said Gramma. "Our movements in the house might make
Him fearful."
I stepped back, but waited for
That sense of brooding to come over me
Cloud-shadow-like, and when it did, I left
The kitchen window for the living room.
The game was over. But Freddy still wouldnt talk
To me. Then Bess said that she was "tahred" and laid
Down on the braided rug between the living
And dining rooms.
"You'll catch a cold," Kate told her.
"I don't care."
"Get up, Bess, or I'll tell Mother
When we get home."
So Bess got up, and for
A time we milled around the dining room,
Argumentative and bored, till finally
We gathered at the frosted kitchen window.
"Did he eat the hamburg?" Freddy asked of Gramma.
"He hasn't touched it, so far as I can tell."
"Do you think he's sick or just hungry?" Bess
Wanted to know.
"If he was just hungry,"
Kate said, "I think by now, he would have tried
To eat the hamburg."
"Unless he's afraid of us,"
I said. "He probably can see our movements
In the house."
We all stepped back a step into
The dimness of the kitchen. Then Gramma said,
"I'll just go out and bring the poor thing in.
I can't see sense in waiting any longer.
Bess might be right, that he's too weak to feed
Himself."
We gathered close around the window
To watch. First, a bitter cold burst in on
The kitchen's fragrant moisty-warmth, and next,
We saw Gramma cross the porch and step down
Into the pathway cut through knee-deep snow.
We watched, and the wind flapped Gramma's apron, and
A few grey hairs streamed from her bun. We watched,
And the owl sat stock-still with his eyes closed tight,
Right over that narrow path where Gramma walked.
I watched. My guts electric waiting for
The burst of feathers that would happen at
The moment of capture. 
But when Gramma reached
Up for the sleeping owl there was no burst
Of feathers, no effort at flight, or attempt to flee,
No struggle of any kind.
Gramma had simply
Reached up and taken down the owl from his perch,
The way you'd take a jar down from a cupboard
Shelf. And when she reentered the kitchen's warmth,
Holding the little owl so close, she said,
"I blame myself. I should have acted sooner."