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Wesley the owl, p.15
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       Wesley the Owl, p.15

           Stacey O'Brien
 
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  When my grandmother came back into the room, Grandpa’s eyes lit up. He said, “Here comes my queen!” and looked completely smitten, as if just now discovering her great beauty. They never grew “old” to each other. My grandparents had the best marriage I’d ever seen. When my grandparents were on the road while Grandpa was playing in the big bands of the ’40s and ’50s, the bands attracted such huge enthusiastic crowds that even after gigs, the performers sometimes had to spend the night backstage because it was impossible to get to their cars. All that attention and glamour didn’t sway my Grandpa one bit. He was absolutely devoted to Grandma and never looked at another woman. Grandpa lived the Way of the Owl.

  On the way home, I decided to tell Guy about Wesley. I turned to him and said, “Um…I have a secret. I need to know that you won’t tell anyone, not even the other band members.”

  He looked concerned. “Okay…”

  “I have a barn owl living with me in my bedroom.”

  “No…really?” he said, incredulous. “You have an owl?”

  “Yep. That’s what all those weird sounds are coming from my room.”

  “That’s an owl? I thought owls hooted.”

  “Not this one. Barn owls don’t hoot.”

  “Well, what are we waiting for? I can’t believe you’ve never showed him to me. I want to meet him. Come on, hurry up, hurry up!” He floored it all the way home.

  “Okay, Guy, now calm down. Wesley’s a wild animal and he’s not used to men. You can’t breach the doorway because that’s his territory and he’ll go into attack mode.”

  “He…he attacks people? Has he ever?” he asked.

  “Yes…uh, well, he attacked my last boyfriend, actually.”

  “Great,” he said. “Well, tell me what to do.”

  I took a breath, “You should tell him he’s handsome.”

  Guy looked at me, “You’re kidding, right? You want me to tell him he’s handsome?”

  I coached him on owl etiquette just outside my bedroom so that Wesley would know we were there and understand that I was relating to this other person. Then I slowly opened the door.

  “Hi, Wesley! Someone’s here to meet you.”

  Wes had heard Guy’s voice on and off for months so he knew there was another person in my life. They looked into each other’s eyes.

  “Hi, there. You’re so handsome, Wesley! You’re beautiful…My gosh, Stacey,” Guy said in a hushed voice, “he’s gorgeous. I’ve never seen a golden and white owl before. This is an owl? Wow, he is actually handsome, to tell the truth. He hardly looks real.”

  Many people were surprised by Wesley’s looks because barn owls are very different from all other owls and people’s expectations of what they look like. Wesley did not have ear tufts and he was not darkly colored like most other owl species. Most owls have colored eyes with black pupils, but Wesley’s eyes were solid obsidian black. His face was exotic, heart-shaped and pure white. The contrast was stunning and caught most people off guard.

  To my amazement, Wesley did not go into his attack no-nos but just watched Guy carefully. Guy stood at the door for a full hour talking gently to Wesley, and they seemed to understand each other. Wesley had never responded this well to anyone other than Wendy and my mom and sister. I was very excited that things were turning out so well. Guy thought Wesley was the coolest creature on earth and I could see that he would have no problem living with him, if we got serious and decided to marry. (Women generally look at their boyfriends as potential husbands and fathers, no matter what we say.)

  After Guy and I had been going together for several months we decided it was time for me to meet his family in Oregon. Guy’s dad, although not actually a logger, worked in the logging industry, which made me nervous. He was an engineering specialist in the factory equipment that turned logs into paper, so logging provided him with his livelihood. There was a well-publicized antagonism between biologists and loggers at the time. Biologists were warning the public that the old-growth forests, a delicate habitat that can’t be replaced, were disappearing at an alarming rate. The streams and rivers were silting and warming up, destroying the salmon runs and the entire ecosystem because of runoff from clear-cut areas. The apex predator of these forests, the northern spotted owl, was endangered. (The apex predator is the very top predator in the food chain of an ecosystem. In the Australian bilabongs, for example, it’s the crocodile.) When the apex predator is thriving, then so is the environment. But when the predator is faltering, biologists know that means the entire system is falling apart.

  Most of the loggers didn’t understand this “canary in the coal mine” connection and thought the entire issue was about saving the owls, rather than their habitat. Because the loggers had been told to stop destroying ancient forests before the forests were completely gone, they would lose their livelihoods sooner than if they kept cutting down trees until the entire ecosystem went extinct. Focusing on only their own livelihoods, they didn’t want to be told what to do, got angry, and took it out on the owls. Some loggers actually killed them and tied their bodies to the backs of their trucks to protest the government’s and the conservation groups’ efforts to save this ecosystem before it was destroyed entirely. They didn’t understand—or they just chose not to—and they reminded me of the buffalo hunters of the nineteenth century determined to hunt down every last animal. They failed to see that they were going to have to find something else to do anyway after the last buffalo was gone.

  As soon as we drove into Oregon, I began to see threadbare tree lines with nothing behind them but stripped land. Hundreds of miles of priceless virgin forest had been wiped away, with just a thin veneer of trees left standing along the roads to fool tourists and others into thinking the forest was still intact. It wasn’t. Oregon would have been one of the most magnificent and sought-after tourist spots in the world if the old-growth forests had been saved.

  Guy and I decided we just wouldn’t mention my owl to anyone. The people in his community wouldn’t understand. His own parents might not understand. Guy, on the other hand, had spent his youth hiking and camping in the old-growth forests. He loved them passionately and did not want to see them destroyed.

  By the time we got to his parents’ house at around 4:00 a.m., we were exhausted from driving straight through the night. We crept in silently, and I went to the guest room while Guy went downstairs into his boyhood bedroom. He left a note for his parents saying when we’d arrived and please not to wake us up. As nervous as I was about making a good impression on his parents, I still had no trouble drifting off to sleep.

  I woke up when Guy’s mother, Aileen, poked her head into my room.

  “Stacey? Hi. I’m Aileen, Guy’s mom. I’m so sorry to wake you up like this, especially since we haven’t been properly introduced, but your mom is on the phone.”

  I was wide-awake now. Wesley! Was he okay?

  “She says she, uh…” Aileen looked at a note in her hand. “Well, I’m sure I misunderstood her, but I think…she’s asking me to ask you what…uh…what setting to use on the, well, the…the microwave. The microwave?”

  I nodded encouragingly.

  “On the microwave for the…I couldn’t understand her very well, but I think she said mice. Mice?”

  “Yeah,” I mumbled.

  “Okay then. Um, what setting to use to defrost the mice? Defrost?”

  I nodded. So much for owl secrecy.

  “Okay then. What setting and for how long should she…uh…well…uh…defrost them…for the…owl?!” she blurted out.

  “It’s for Wesley. I wrote all this down for her. She was only supposed to call for emergencies. I’m so sorry.”

  “Oh, well, that’s okay, but what should I tell her? She’s on the phone right now.”

  Great.

  “I’m sorry, Aileen. She’s supposed to set the microwave to defrost for twenty seconds. Then she’s supposed to take the baggie with the four mice in it out and let it sit until there are no hot spots a
nd no frozen spots. She can kind of mush the baggie around in her hand to make sure they’re completely soft so he has no trouble swallowing them whole.”

  She looked like she was going to faint.

  When she left to deliver the message to my mom, I buried my face in my pillow.

  “Noooooooooo,” I groaned.

  It turned out that owl secrecy wasn’t necessary. Guy’s parents were wonderful. We had a lovely ten-day visit way out in the country next to the McKenzie River, hiking around the old-growth forest with long flowing curtains of moss hanging down from the trees and huge yellow slugs and tiger salamanders. We picked wild berries and drank from ice-cold streams. It was a kind of paradise.

  Aileen became so interested in Wesley that she decided that if I was recording his vocalizations at home (I left out the part about him mating with my arm), I should also have recordings of the now very endangered spotted owl, which they occasionally heard when they were sitting out on their deck. She and Guy were sure they could get the sound on a tape recorder if they tried. I thought the folks at Caltech would be thrilled to get a recording of the vocalizations of this species.

  I went to bed fairly early, and the next morning I woke up to find a tape on my nightstand labeled, “Sounds of the Northern Spotted Owl.”

  I got ready as quickly as I could and went to the kitchen, where the family was already gathered for breakfast.

  “What’s this?” I asked.

  “Guy and I went out last night and captured spotted owl sounds for you!” Aileen said.

  “Really?” I was amazed.

  “Yes, we drove around until we found a good spot and recorded them.”

  Guy nodded enthusiastically as he stuffed his breakfast into his mouth. I was really touched. Here this family in the logging industry had gone to great lengths to accept and include me.

  On the way home, we visited Wendy at her new house, a cabin in the Oregon woods. She was glad to meet Guy, since I’d been telling her all about him on the phone for months.

  “Come on, Stacey, wait till you see this!” With Annie at her side, Wendy led us out back to a fenced pen that held Courtney the dog, a gigantic brown Norwegian rabbit, and a young fawn. The fawn was beautiful, tawny with a few spots and large brown eyes. We all took turns bottle-feeding her.

  “The kinship between these animals is amazing.”

  As Wendy said this, the older female bunny, who was the biggest rabbit I’d ever seen, named Fierce Bad Rabbit, pawed at the fawn’s knees and the fawn buckled and lay down. Fierce Bad Rabbit then hopped onto the fawn’s back and stretched out to take a nap.

  “Two weeks the fawn got out of the pen and a strange dog spooked her and she ran off. The next day, Courtney disappeared and all we found was her broken collar. Annie and I were heartsick. Three days later, Courtney appeared in the yard with the fawn trotting behind her.”

  Wendy laughed. “In the wild, a deer and a canine would be enemies. When the fawn is older, I’ll take her to a captive refuge. She’s a nonindigenous Sika deer. They can’t be released because they might interfere with the indigenous species here. But I know Courtney and Fierce Bad Rabbit will miss her.”

  The fawn got up and grazed on some of the grass at her knees and Courtney began to graze the grass with her, but the dog’s lips curled as if to say, “I don’t know what that deer sees in this stuff.”

  Wendy’s husband barely spoke to us throughout our visit. I could tell from both Wendy’s and Annie’s faces that things might not be so good with him. I was sobered by what I saw and worried about my friend.

  After two days of driving, Guy and I completed our long journey home. At first I was worried about Wesley’s reaction. I had never left him for this long. But my mother had spent a lot of time talking to him so he wouldn’t feel lonely and abandoned. He was relatively calm when I got home and had not gotten crazy wild as experts warned he would if I left for too long. Yes, he was a little wilder, a little harder to handle, and a little bit more nervous, but that was all. He tried to act cool and a little distant—he sulked a bit, too, and didn’t carry on about greeting me but was so happy to see me that it didn’t last long.

  Wesley always slept on the side of his perch nearest to me, facing me. But on my first night back from the trip, he slept on the opposite side with his back to me, the way he did when he was angry. I tossed around and couldn’t sleep. Finally, at around 3:00 a.m., he moved back to his old spot as close to me as possible, and I fell into a peaceful slumber.

  I thanked my mom profusely. How many mothers would put up with feeding mice to a wild animal while her daughter was gone, especially since she had to wear eye goggles and use barbecue tongs to feed him, because he would attack her if she got too close? Not too many.

  The next night, Wesley and I were back to our old ways. He did everything he could to lure me into a mating frame of mind but to no avail. He made elaborate nests, with magazines that he selected and pulled off of the top of the toilet, then dragged into the cupboard and shredded apart. He then commenced his incessant, ear-piercing nesting call. Ah! That reminded me of the tape of the spotted owls given me by Guy’s mom. I could hardly wait to hear it and I wondered how Wes would react.

  I popped the tape into the player and settled back to listen.

  “Okay, here, Mom, down here.”

  “Where are you? Ouch!” [Bushes thrashing.]

  “Turn on the flashlight, Guy.”

  “No, Mom, I don’t want to scare them away.”

  “Oh, here you are. Okay. Start taping them.”

  “I am. Shhhhh…”

  [Long silence.]

  “Are you getting that?”

  “Yeah, this is great…she’s gonna love this.”

  [More silence.]

  [Crash, shriek, crash, rustle rustle rustle of bushes.]

  “What was that??”

  “I don’t know, I don’t know, just go. Go go go!”

  [More thrashing.]

  “Ouch! You just stepped on me.”

  “Well, don’t stop like that.”

  “I can’t see. That’s why I stopped.”

  “I think that was just a deer.”

  “Well, it better be just a deer! Get me out of here.”

  “Don’t push me.”

  “Sorry.”

  [More thrashing around in the underbrush and oooches and ouches and finally the ding ding ding of a car door.]

  “Get in! Get in! Just go, go!”

  “Okay, okay. I’m going, geez!”

  [Click. End of tape.]

  DURING THIS PERIOD of my life, deep bonds were forged and broken. Wendy’s marriage ended, and she and I spent many tearful nights on the phone. Through this difficulty our friendship became stronger than ever. And although Guy and I had wonderful times together, our dating relationship began to wane, which was painful for me. I visited Grandma during this time and told her that Guy might not be the one.

  “Stacey,” she said, “I knew your grandpa was in love with me when he dipped my braids in the inkwell of his desk. He sat behind me in the fourth grade. We never dated anyone else.”

  “You and Grandpa are like a pair of owls,” I told her. “I have always hoped for a marriage like yours.” We had a long visit, and as I gazed again at her owl collection, I thought about telling her my dearest secret.

  “Grandma,” I said.

  “Yes?”

  “I have something to…to show you. You must come visit me sometime.”

  “I’d love to,” she said.

  Guy and I broke up, though we are still friends to this day. That night I cried into Wesley’s feathers and poured my thoughts out to him. As always, he watched me with his deep black eyes and listened to every word I said.

  I had been at Aerospace for almost five years and had become an expert in UNIX operating systems but was still being paid an entry-level salary even though my skills would bring nearly four times that in private industry. I struggled with whether or not to leave, exploring my
options when an event of historic proportion overtook my decision.

  The Rodney King police brutality verdict hit the streets the afternoon of April 29, 1992, and Los Angeles soon erupted into rioting not far from where I worked. Black smoke blew ominously past our office windows. I took our computer servers down to preserve data and directed members of our department to organize into caravans to drive people home. We searched for anything useful as weapons for self-defense. Among the staff there was still debate about whether it was safer to stay or go. Then the power shut off.

  We quickly evacuated the office and our caravan threaded through out-of-control traffic, with cars running stoplights and blocking lanes, even driving on the sidewalks. From the freeway we watched Los Angeles burning. Almost every block as far as we could see had a building on fire, as if the whole city had been bombed by some foreign air force. The freeway was almost stopped and it was a vulnerable feeling, just sitting in our cars, hoping that the rioters didn’t come over the walls and start killing the unarmed people in the cars. No one knew what was going to happen next. There wasn’t a police car to be seen all the way home. Huntington Beach was a ghost town.

  I was worried and shaken but happy to be safely home with Mom and Wesley. He was hungry, as usual, so I went to the freezer and discovered I was out of mice. This was not good. I drove around town, but all the businesses were shut down and the nearest pet store was dark, though cars were still in the parking lot. I banged on the glass double doors.

  “Jason! Jason! Are you in there? It’s me, Stacey! I need mice!” I saw movement in the shadows of the store and Jason appeared and let me slip inside.

  “Hi, Stacey, go get them, but be quick. Most of the animals are out, but we’re still evacuating. I just got a call from a friend of mine in LA and the rioters burned down his pet store.”

  I headed for the back of the store where the mice were but stopped short. In every aisle a man was sitting on the floor with a gun across his lap. “These guys are spending the night to guard the store,” Jason said.

  As it turned out, Jason’s animals were under no threat; the rioting never spread this far south. In the days that followed, Los Angeles continued to burn, and for months tensions were high. The commute into LA no longer seemed safe, and the whole incident finalized my decision to leave Aerospace. Wesley and I moved shortly thereafter to a wonderful community in north San Diego County, where the air was clean and crime was low, and there were so many computer-related jobs that I could almost take my pick. I found a two-bedroom apartment in La Costa, up in the hills above a small river gorge. At night I could hear coyotes and wild owls calling from the canyons around my new home.

 
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