There is something about an owl’s call that makes one stop and take stock. I am walking along, debating over how to tackle a problem at the office or ruminating on the blister forming at my heel, and the soft stuttering vocals - hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo - make me forget everything. My breath catches and I stand still, hoping to hear the sound again.
I am disappointed.
Shiva tugs at my side, shakes off the snow, and whines to keep moving. With much better ears than mine, I know she heard the owl, but it is a sound she deems unimportant. White noise. It signals neither food nor threat and she is anxious to reach the curved stick metres away on the path ahead. I am reluctant to move forward, scared my boots in the snow and Shiva’s jingling tags will startle the bird. But at last I give in and Shiva leaps forward in relief. As she pounces on the broken branch I hear the call again.
I stop again. My eyes search the trees to my left. I know the chances of me catching sight of the owl are limited. I have to try. Shiva chomps on her stick and tosses her head, the terrier-shake that always makes me grin. Giving up, I move forward once more.
The last time I heard a hoot like this was in Nova Scotia, fairly close to one year ago. Last winter, Shiva and I spent many early mornings walking on the off-leash trail near our home. Being February, we were almost always alone. Except for the wildlife.
Being susceptible to dense imaginings, I often frightened myself by wondering what creatures may have been watching us from behind the trees. The only light in the park was the moon bouncing off the snow. Though a major road lay only a kilometre away, in the forest the soundtrack of our strolls consisted of Shiva’s short pants and my crunching shoes. And, on special occasions, the call of an owl.
It made for a spooky experience, I can’t deny. The cry of an owl is not a comfort. At least, not back then. It served as a caution. When I heard the owl, the hair on the back of my neck did more than stand up, it danced, bounding on my nerves until I decided to recall Shiva and make my way home to safety.
Tonight, as I stand in the northern Alberta cold, cheeks burning from the acid wind, the experience is much different. As I gaze into the dark branches, straining to catch a flicker of a feather, I am reassured.
I may be far from that other place I used to call home. We may be walking at night on a busy trail with less quiet and sharper chill, but the owls are still around.
As our walk is close to an end – I can see the too-bright lights of houses up the hill – I give in to Shiva’s nagging and carry on. My feet leave the crunchy white path and slide on to pavement. The owl calls again. I keep walking but I have to look back. Maybe this time I will see.
Only darkness meets my scrutiny. I smile. Perhaps it is better not to see. We trudge up the icy road and my movements are careful so as not to slip. If the owl speaks again I am now too far to hear. But I decide to picture him leaving as we did, going on to harmonize someone else’s winter trek.