The Owl Mother

Once there was a mother who loved her little boy. They lived in an old wooden house surrounded by a garden, and where the garden ended, a deep forest began.

Every day, the boy and his mother were together, playing with toys, reading books, and taking care of the house and garden. When night-time came, the boy’s mother would sing to him, and he would drift off to sleep to the sound of her voice. And that was how they lived, day after day, night after night, week after week, for as long as the boy could remember.

Each night the boy’s mother would think about the things she needed to do to make their house a little nicer. Then she would think about the improvements she meant to do in the garden, and from the garden her thoughts would run towards the woods. As she fell asleep, she would see a little path leading into the dark and deep heart of the forest. Then the boy’s mother would see herself floating down the path, and her feet only just grazed the ground.

One night in autumn, the boy’s mother dreamed again that she had entered the forest, moving lightly down the path, leaping over the gnarly old roots that rose everywhere above the ground. She flew past oak groves and through the shade of dark, age-old firs. The forest was lit by the moon, and the moonlight felt warm and bright.

She looked around and saw that she was not alone: the forest was full of other people and all of them were enjoying the night, conversing, singing, dancing, and playing games among themselves. She looked a little closer and saw that these were not people at all: they were birds, large and small, filling every tree and speaking to each other in a language that she could nevertheless understand and also speak herself. The boy’s mother realized that she herself was sitting in a great oak-tree, clasping a thick branch with her talons. Full, soft feathers were covering her breast and belly. She stretched out her arms: they were edged with stiff flight feathers. She flapped her wings and took flight, pushing against the air with each great stroke. Groves and clearings tumbled past her, and she hooted with delight: the boy’s mother had turned into an owl.

When morning drew near, the mother felt that it was time to go, but she so much enjoyed being an owl that she thought to herself: ‘Let me stay here, just like this, just a little longer.’

When the boy got up, his mother was already in the kitchen, making breakfast. As he came in, he saw her standing before the window, silently watching the first snowflakes float to the ground. She turned around and smiled at him, a little vacantly.

Days went by, growing shorter little by little. It was often gray outside. Then came a snowstorm. The house now sat deep in the snow. The boy began to think that his mother seemed a little different. Sometimes, when they played a game, she would get up and leave the room without saying where she was going and why. The boy would play alone for a while, then go looking for her and find her in the next room, standing by the window and gazing into the woods.

The boy did not know that his mother was sleepwalking through their days together. Days and weeks went by, but she was still thinking to herself, ‘Let me stay an owl, just a little longer.’ She lingered in her dream, but nothing felt the same to the little boy.

Once, the boy found himself playing alone. Again, he went looking for his mother and found her standing by the window. She seemed very far away, and the boy could not but cry. She turned around, knelt before him, wiped his cheeks, and kissed him. In her owl-mind, words of warning whispered themselves: ‘You must touch the ground, and soon, or else the wind will sweep you up and carry you off for good.’ A gust of cold wind hit hard against her wings.

The owl stooped to the ground. Just as her talons grazed the forest floor, another gale hit and swept her off the ground, like a piece of lint. She had never felt so light, and every new gust of wind picked her up and tore her away from the firm ground. But as she kept trying, little by little she grew heavier and heavier, until the earth pushed up against her feet. She had ordinary human feet and made ordinary human steps, one step at a time. Her wings, too, turned into ordinary human arms. As she emerged from the woods, she heard a birdsong, but she couldn’t make out what the song was about. Snow creaked underfoot along the path. She looked up and saw her winter garden and her house, whose windows glowed like the eyes of a loving heart.

She entered and found her little boy, who was reading to himself in a big armchair. He seemed to have grown and looked more serious than before. The boy heard her steps, looked up, and said: ‘Mama, why are you crying?’

‘Oh, my dearest,’ the boy’s mother said, ‘it’s because it took me off guard how much you’ve grown, how much has changed, and how I hadn’t noticed anything. Until just now.’

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