I have never gone looking for them but if they wish they will always find you. They emerge from the wood like phantoms in the darkness just before or after the eerie light of dusk and dawn, lone shadows cast in moonlight. You will not see them until they are upon you; their powerful sweeping wings are silent and blend with the smeared color of the woods in the faded light. Their approach always sends creeping apprehension through my entire body, standing each hair on end one after the other, like dominoes, as if every part of me is focusing on some foreshadowed doom. It is the kind of feeling you might get if someone were to approach you from behind in a dark alley. At times I have gasped aloud at the sensation before realizing its cause. They cast a spell of silence over the otherwise boisterous forest. I do not need to see or hear them to know they are soaring overhead on hushed wings. While hunting from my tree, I have felt their arrival by the sudden absence of sound. This abrupt silence can be as alarming as a gunshot. It feels like the entire forest is holding its breath, waiting for this otherworldly being to pass. The creatures of the forest would not recognize this winged predator in the cute and unassuming prints and other housewares that are so popular. These depictions are such a far cry from the actual owls I have known that they are a different creature altogether; always wearing comically surprised expressions with a friendly upturn to their blunted beaks and brightly colored feathers that make them appear cheerful. The owls I have known could not be further from these sweet images. As I speed along the river trail in the inky dark, I know his grove of trees. As I pass by them I always have a moment of hesitation followed by a burst of speed. He has made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that he does not fear me. The casualness with which he intercepts my speeding bike, is unsettling and telling of his unwavering assurance in his dominance over me. His gaze is all knowing; nothing has ever surprised him. He has never doubted himself despite the fact that as a human I should be above him on the food chain. I first met him when the darkness shifted during the winter months of my daily bike commute through the woods and I suddenly found myself discovered, trespassing in his domain during his awake hours. As I had rounded a frozen turn, his great white form dove without hesitation from the trees, emerging from the leaves like a ghost. My heart sputtered and then froze, sudden dread gripping me as I felt his focus shift to my fleeting unwelcome presence. Two whispering beats of his powerful wings was all I heard before he was in front of me, golden eyes locked on mine with a piercing glare. A flash of softest white and brown bands of down made my blood go cold. The long soft plumes of his outstretched wings brushed my cheek, a caress and a threat, as he made his exit. It had been only a second, maybe two and he was gone without a trace, the only evidence of him having been there at all is the quickness of my breath. Some days he chooses to give me this unsettling warning. Other days, he rushes toward me from the dark only to bank at the last moment and glide alongside my bike, effortlessly sailing along the tall grass that lines the trail and eventually pulling ahead and disappearing into the dark once more. I am left to wonder if or when he will return. I have begun to consider this a warning in itself; a message of his mystery and power.
On one of these occasions, early one dusky morning, I felt his approach a split second before he was beside me. In a misguided attempt to assert my parity to his effortless authority, instead of allowing him to pull ahead and disappear, I threw myself into my pedals trying to stay even with him, increasing my speed whenever he did. I was going to prove that I could keep up with him, that he wasn’t so mysterious, that I knew him. I kept pace with him so closely that I could feel the cool wind from his wings. For just a split second, I felt a surge of triumph before I glimpsed his dismissive expression just as, with a single taloned foot, he struck a very surprised and ill-fated rabbit in the grass, snatching it casually from the ground and holding fast as it writhed in its claws. I had barely comprehended what had happened before he banked on powerful outstretched wings, veering directly into my path. He flew so close to my face, frozen in surprise, that it was as if the screams of his unfortunate prey were my own. The owl’s wings were soundless as he disappeared into the imminent morning dawn.