Love’s Light Wings
The baleful eye of a full moon hovered high above my head, blanching the shadows and snuffing out the stars. There were those who loved the full moon, but I preferred the relative anonymity of darkness. I forgave its presence that night though, because the air tasted of springtime—of trees bursting to life and everything clean and new and fresh—and my blood rushed and tumbled through my veins like a river newly freed of ice.
After three nights of rain I was fiercely hungry, and I took up a vigil in my favorite tree, far enough from the trunk to prevent its obscuring my view, and high enough to allow the light breeze to carry away my scent. It was a good place—a place where my prey was unlikely to notice me until was too late. I flexed my talons against the rough bark and scanned the underbrush. The other night creatures must've been as restless and hungry as I was, because it wasn't long before a fat mouse waddled past, its shifting shadow nearly hidden in the thick grasses. I stiffened, my stomach clenching in anticipation of its first meal in two days.
The mouse paused and sat up on its haunches, whiskers twitching as it tested the air. That moment's hesitation would cost it its life. I launched myself from the branch, wings splayed wide to catch the wind as I dropped like a stone through the shifting shadows.
My target saw me coming. With a desperate squeak, it dashed away, twisting this way and that, running for its life. Amused by its futile bid for survival, I gave chase—and the silent, deadly game of tag began. I would win, of course. I always won. My perfect kill record was a point of personal pride, one I wasn't about to let some skittish little rodent ruin.
But as I closed in, talons extended, wingtips shifting to control my speed, something distracted me—a sound, or a rustle of leaves—something that made me forget, just for an instant, how close I was to the blackened strip of land that separated my peaceful world from the teeming wilderness beyond.
To this day, I can't remember the details of what happened next. There's only the terrible rending screech, the flash of blinding light, and a sensation of having flown full-tilt, into a wall.
I awoke to utter darkness and an unfamiliar rocking motion. I was bound up in something that stifled movement and thwarted my efforts to escape. Indignant and afraid, I struggled, talons flexing and tearing at the stubborn, suffocating blackness.
The rocking motion stopped, and a deep, unfamiliar rumble echoed in my ears. The quiet tones gradually soothed my terror, and I came to understand that no harm would come to me. At any rate, the firm bindings made it painfully obvious that I had no hope of regaining my freedom. The hunter had become the hunted.
Helpless against the resolute strength of my captor, I grew still. The rocking motion began again, and lulled by the darkness and the quiet, continuous murmur, I slept.
When awareness returned, it brought with it the terrifying certainty that I was blind. My eyes were open, and yet I could see nothing. And I had no idea where I was; I sensed neither the comforting familiarity of my nest, nor the rough bark of a tree, nor even the faintest whisper of the wind. I ruffled my feathers, startled when my feet failed to find purchase against the smooth surface beneath them. A quick extension of my wings saved me from falling, but the sudden motion made my head pound as if a woodpecker was drilling for insects.
Confused and frightened, I searched for a place of safety in this strange new world. I moved with care, afraid that I might fall, and when I felt something solid press against my side I leaned into it, finding uncertain security in the hard, unfamiliar surface.
"Easy, my friend. You're safe now."
The sounds meant nothing to me, but I recognized their timbre. They were the same rich tones I'd heard earlier, only now they had a faint echo—further proof that I was in an alien world.
"You must be hungry."
I heard a terrified squeak and felt a light breeze against my face—the frantic paddling of tiny feet. But I turned my head away, uninterested. My head hurt, I couldn't see, and I was in a strange place that neither felt nor sounded like home. Food was the farthest thing from my mind.
"Vincent, he's beautiful."
I twitched, startled. This was a lighter voice, suffused with sunshine and birdsong—so different from the first, whose mellow tones spoke more of starlight.
"Yes, he is." Shadow Spirit, I decided. The name suited the voice.
"What happened to him?" The tones seemed almost to float through the darkness, gentle and tender as a spring breeze. I would think of their owner as Wind Singer.
"His world and yours collided." Shadow Spirit offered the mouse again, but I continued to ignore it, the pain in my head making my stomach churn. "He ventured too near the street on a hunting expedition."
"Will he be all right?"
"I believe so. There don't appear to be any broken bones, and we're hoping the damage to his eyesight is only a temporary."
"And if it isn't?"
"Then I will continue to care for him as long as he needs me."
"Owls can live for a very long time."
"Yes, but I believe he will recover. In a few days, we will return him to his home. Come. He should rest. The quiet is better for him."
There was a peculiar rustling sound. Then silence returned and I knew I'd been left alone. For a while I listened to the strange sounds that permeated this place, odd tappings and clanks that seemed, at times, almost musical. I drifted back to sleep with the unfamiliar noises echoing all around me.
When Shadow Spirit returned, he was alone. He offered another mouse, but I turned my head away. My head still ached, and I detested the oppressive darkness. Would my eyesight ever return? Or was I destined to live out my days in this dark and alien world—dependent upon the fickle kindness of strangers?
I would rather die.
"Come, now," Shadow Spirit coaxed. "You must eat if you wish to fly free, to find a mate among your own kind."
There was something wistful in the voice, a longing I wanted to understand, but his language and mine were too different, the sounds he made too alien.
I felt a little better the next time Shadow Spirit came, and I accepted two mice, swallowing them whole while he cleaned my sleeping area. The edges of my vision had lightened, as though somewhere in the distance a new day was beginning. It was an odd sensation, because if I looked too hard, the light vanished, replaced once again by frustrating darkness. Still, the elusive shadows gave me hope.
"He's doing better." Wind Singer was back, and Shadow Spirit seemed changed in her presence—warmer, somehow. Was she his mate? If so, why hadn't she come with him on his last visit? And why had I heard that note of longing in Shadow Spirit's voice?
"Yes," Shadow Spirit said, "he's eating well, now. It is a good sign."
"Will you set him free soon?"
"When his vision has fully returned. Watch."
I felt, rather than saw, a sudden motion close to my body, and I stepped back, startled.
"Owls are creatures of the night, their eyesight their strongest asset. He should have seen me sooner."
"Maybe I should take him Above?" Wind Singer sounded worried. "Surely there's someone in the city … A vet, maybe?"
"No. This kind of injury must heal of its own accord."
"It's good that he's eating, though."
"Two mice today. I fear Mouse would find that news rather alarming."
Wind Singer made a light, trilling noise that echoed strangely around me, and I fluffed my feathers, restless and uneasy. What was it about this place that made sounds behave in such an unusual manner?
"I think," Wind Singer said, "Mouse would be too big a meal even for this fellow."
The voices went away soon after, and I spent a few minutes exploring the limits of my strange new world before once again settling down for a nap.
With the passage of time, my vision slowly returned, and soon I began to see blurred images—images I was eager to match to voices. I learned that Shadow Spirit was tall, many times taller than I, with a great deal of golden fur and a brilliant, piercing gaze.
Among my kind, the females are larger than the males. Was this, then, a female?
Wind Singer was much smaller, delicate even, with shining hair and small, soft hands. How could such hands, clawless and frail, hope to provide for a hungry family?
Maybe that was why Shadow Spirit was the one who brought my food, the one who cared for me. Wind Singer joined him only rarely, her whereabouts at other times a complete mystery. Perhaps, during those times, she was tending their nest.
The puzzle of their genders occupied my thoughts, helping me pass the time while I waited for my vision to return in full. And sometimes, during those long days, Shadow Spirit and Wind Singer would sit with me, and I'd listen to their low voices, fascinated by the way the sounds intertwined to form something new and lovely, something complete.
Eventually, my eyesight returned completely, and I began to yearn for my freedom, for the wide-open sky, the rustle of leaves, and the thrill of hunting my own prey. Spring was moving forward without me, and I wanted to be a part of it, to revel in fresh beginnings.
Shadow Spirit seemed to recognize the restlessness in me, and one night he came to me empty-handed.
"It is time to hunt your own meals again, friend owl."
He moved so suddenly that I had no chance to react. In an instant, utter blackness descended upon me. I struggled, outraged by the cavalier treatment, but Shadow Spirit ignored my protests and lifted me into his arms. A moment later, the rocking motion returned. I recognized the sensation, and rather than fight it uselessly, I saved my energy, waiting to see what would happen next.
"Vincent." Wind Singer's voice, muffled by the strange covering, still carried its distinctive musical chime.
"Of course I came. I wouldn't miss this for the world."
The rocking motion resumed, their voices providing an interesting counterpoint. I still didn't understand what the sounds meant, but they were pleasant enough to listen to, and they helped to pass the time.
"Where are we going?" Wind Singer's voice.
"There's a large oak tree near where I first found him. It will be familiar to him."
"Do you think he'll remember ...?"
"What it is to be free?"
There was a moment of silence, and when he went on, Shadow Spirit's voice had a wistful note. "He'll remember."
They grew quiet then, and it was several minutes later when the rocking motion stopped.
"You should step back, Catherine. We mustn't alarm him."
I heard a faint rustle as she moved away. Grass? And was that the distant flutter of leaves and the chirping of crickets? Excitement pulsed in my veins, and I struggled, anxious for my freedom.
"Easy." There was warning in Shadow Spirit's voice. "You will only injure yourself again."
An instant later, the heavy cover was removed, and I stood blinking on what I now recognized as a picnic table. I blinked as my eyes grew accustomed to the night skies once more.
The moon, no longer full, was a mere sliver of light, allowing the stars to shine brightly. I fluffed my feathers and looked around, reveling in the familiar sights of home—the trees and grass, the bushes, the tiny movements and shifting shadows of living things seeking their fortunes in the fullness of the night. Over my head, a swallow flew by on silent wings, swift and sure. I cocked my head to watch it, stretched my wings once, and with a great thrust, took to the sky, wheeling higher and higher with a glad cry.
I was home. I was alive.
I was free.
I wanted to thank Shadow Spirit and Wind Singer for caring for me in my time of need. I would've died if Shadow Spirit hadn't found me. I owed him my life, and I never forgot my debts.
I spiraled higher, joy flowing through me as the night breezes flowed through my feathers. There is no greater pleasure than flight, no greater freedom than that encompassed by the endless, open expanse of the night sky.
When I looked down, Shadow Spirit and Wind Singer were standing close together, eyes lifted to the sky as they watched my progress. I saw Wind Singer lean against Shadow Spirit. He put his arm around her and drew her close, and I knew I'd been right.
They were a mated pair.
After that, I often saw Shadow Spirit and Wind Singer in my world. They would wander among the trees, talking, or sit close together on one of the benches, her head resting on his shoulder. Sometimes, on warm summer evenings, they'd settle on the ground at the foot of my tree and he would read to her, his voice floating on the gentle wings of the night breeze. On those nights, if my stomach was full, I would stay and listen, and though I never learned to understand the meaning of the sounds that rose and fell in the tender darkness, they always gave me comfort.
But there came a time when Wind Singer didn't come, when Shadow Spirit haunted the shadows, restless and alone. Had something happened to her? Was she hurt? Or worse? I'd never had a mate, and yet I knew that losing a mate could destroy one of my kind.
Shadow Spirit had saved my life, and though I didn't know how I could help, I felt duty-bound to watch over him.
The next time I saw him, I followed him on silent wings. I don't know if he knew that I was there, and perhaps it wouldn't have mattered if he had, but my presence was the only comfort I had to offer, and so when he settled for a short time on a bench or under a tree, I perched nearby, watchful and alert.
I hadn't seen him on this night, though, and as I preened my feathers and cleaned my beak, I wondered where he was and if he was well. The work was vital and delicate, and it was several minutes later when I lifted my head, satisfied that all was in order.
It was then that I saw her.
She'd crossed into my world without my notice, but when she passed beneath my tree, her hair and jacket floating out behind her, her feet flying across the grass as she ran, I knew where she was going, and I took to the air to follow.
And so I was there when Shadow Spirit burst from the storm drain in a whirl of golden hair and flying cloak. I was there, watching, when Wind Singer sprinted across the moonlit grass, joy emanating from her in great waves. And I was there when she threw herself into his arms and he caught her, holding her against him as if he held the entire universe in his arms. And perhaps, for Shadow Spirit, it was true.
I settled in a nearby tree to watch their reunion, certain, somehow, that this meeting was important to their future. She lifted her head and spoke to him, and when he answered her, I heard Shadow Spirit's joy and relief.
My own kind takes to the air to express joy, but Shadow Spirit and Wind Singer seemed content to rest in each other's arms, neither making any attempt to move. Indeed, as I watched they moved closer together, their arms around each other and his head resting against hers while the world moved on around them.
I was happy for them, but their behavior puzzled me. Still, they seemed to find nothing unusual in what they were doing, and since it appeared that all was well, I felt certain that I could safely retire to my nest. I called to them, a single, drawn-out hoot. Hello and goodbye and be well.
They turned at the sound and looked up at me, and I saw the joy in their faces. Then he put his arm around her and led her back the way he'd come, and I took to the air once more.
I flew through the night, the wind running soft against my wings, the moon lighting my way, and below me, all the world at peace.