Saturday, February 6, 2016

Whooooooo Knew? by Gail Roughton

Legend has it that we have all a spirit animal.  Well, okay, I don’t know if legend actually has that or not.  What I do know is that the Native American Indians certainly believed that, and if I’m remembering my history correctly, discovering an individual’s spirit animal was a really big deal. Now, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure we’ve got a family spirit animal, or at the very least, a spirit animal shared by at least four members of my family, to-wit, me, my daughter, my granddaughter, and my oldest dog, Max. 

I grew up on the banks of Stone Creek Swamp, and some of my fondest, oldest memories are of sitting on the back porch at night and catching the cry of a night owl. That whoooooooooo…who…whoooooooooo—that’s one of the most beautiful sounds in the world.  And since I can’t imagine living where I don’t hear it—and since once a country girl, always a country girl—of course my family lives in the country. Smack-dab in the middle of fifty acres of woods.  That’s where I discovered that owls have a secret language all their own. I haven’t quite deciphered it yet, but sometimes at night, when they talk to each other from every corner of the woods, I’m sure if I listen hard enough, one day I will.  The calls come from everywhere, the grove of trees outside the kitchen window, then over into the depths of the woods, shifting to the edge of the creek, moving to the shadows outside the front door, varying in cadence and speed.  Who..who…whoooooooooo…who whoooooooo. Who..who…who… who… whooooooooo…who…whooo!  It has to mean something.  It just has to! 

My daughter’s always loved owls, and my granddaughter’s clothes and toys proliferate with owls. Even her first birthday party and cake celebrated the owl motif.  She has two big stuffed owls, Hootie and Goldie, who looks just the same as Hootie other than being gold in color, and a smaller owl known as Blueberry.  Because yep, you guessed it, he (or she) is blue.  Woe to the poor soul who tries to put her to bed without at least one of them.

Still, it didn’t occur to me that of course owls were the spirit animals of the whole family until one night this past January when I’d settled our pets on their respective beds in our room, covered with their respective blankets, and Max began to whine. Come to think of it, he’d been restless all night, but by now, he wasn’t just whining, he sounded pitiful.

My husband just had to ask. “You need to go back out a minute, boy?” Leave it to a man.  I’m sure that sounds like the logical question to ask in such a situation, but the thing is, I try very hard not to let either of our boys out past eight o’clock or so. Living in the country is wonderful, but the nights are full of wildlife, some of which is not as harmless to pets as say, deer or wild turkey. Not to mention I wasn’t real fond of the thought of Max tearing out into the woods after a pair of deer and waiting up for him to come back.  Because of course, that’s who’d end up waiting up for him.  Me.

“You’re crazy if you let him out! He probably hears something moving around outside and he’ll tear off after whatever it is!”

“He’s gotta go.”

So the outside flood lights came on and my boys tore out into the night. I gave an exasperated sigh and went out on the front porch to try and keep an ear on whereabouts they were. To my extreme surprise, they trotted right back into the light from around the boat. Max had  something in his mouth. My first thought was Oh, dear Lord! Don’t let it be anything dead! That was quickly replaced with the even more awful thought, Oh, dear Lord! Please don’t let it be anything ALIVE!” I was just about to call my husband out for reinforcements—because of course he’d gone back inside—when I realized what Max had.  His own stuffed owl, his Hootie, one of his new Christmas toys. Now mind you, he has a whole toy box full of toys of varying age. He even has four or five other toys in his bed. Apparently, none of them held the special significance to him of that owl. 

“Randy! He didn’t have his owl in his mouth when he went out, did he?”


“Did he take it out with him earlier?”

“Not that I saw. Why?”

“Well, he went out without it, and now he’s back in the space of two minutes with it. So he knew it was missing and he sure as heck knew exactly where it was.”

Max trotted to his bed, lay down, and dropped Hootie between his front legs. I re-covered him with his blanket, and he settled right down.

“Guess he wanted his owl.”

“I guess.”

That’s when it hit me. Owls obviously have great significance for several members of this family. Which really shouldn’t come as nearly the surprise it did. Some time ago, I don’t even remember when, I played around with a short story in some submission contest or other, I don’t even remember the name, for works set in the south.  I don’t do short stories, so I didn’t play around with it much, and it wouldn’t have even caught my attention had it not been specifically targeting “southern” works.  I think I got as far as the first couple of sentences:  “Don’t nobody go into Hoot Owl Holler. Bad things happen in Hoot Owl Holler…”.  And that was about it. But I loved those sentences, the promise of a good spine-tingling tale. Even more, I loved the double meaning in the 'holler". In southern parlance, “holler” can mean either a loud shout or a low-lying piece of land nestled between hills/mountains/swamps. So the “Hoot Owl Holler” just tickled my writing bone. I’ve always said nothing ever written or thought about by a writer is wasted. Because one day, out of nowhere, there’ll be a place to use it.  My current work in progress, Black Turkey Walk, is the place I’m using it.  (Yes, I know that’s been a work in progress for a really long time now and I apologize, but these last two years of my “official” working career have just about killed me. My last “official” working day is March 16, and I promise—it will cease to be “in progress” and become finished within a few months after that date.) 

And guess what?  Hoot Owl Holler lies in the swamp lands off Black Turkey Walk.  That’s what the locals call a strip down by Turkey Creek. And believe me—don’t nobody want to go into Hoot Owl Holler.  Because bad things happen in Hoot Owl Holler…

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