by Janet Oakley, 1525 words

“Shh, shh,” Alex said as he held the injured barn owl against his chest, mindful of the bird’s sharp claws “You’re going to be all right.” How it had survived the café fire, the fireman couldn’t image. Its feathers gave off a sickly smell of singed feathers. Were its claws burned, too? Alex would assess that as soon as he got the bird home. He covered the owl with his wool scarf and picked up the pace.

Alex was no stranger to caring for wildlife, especially birds of prey. Ever since he was a kid, he had been fascinated with them. While some thought them a nuisance, killers of chickens and occasionally cats, Alex admired them for their grace and silent stealth. In fourth grade, while on a field trip to a nearby wildlife rescue center, he saw an owl close up. Barne, the barn owl, had been injured after it flew into a car’s windshield on the area’s scenic highway. The horrified driver brought him to the rescue center where, after being treated for a broken wing, the owl remained. Barne never could fly properly again, so he became the ambassador for the center. So taken with what he was seeing, Alex asked if he could volunteer. The bemused director said, if he liked, Alex could come the next Saturday and get a tour. Then he could see if this was something he really wanted to do. There was more going on behind the scenes. Alex said, yes, and never turned back from his desire to help the big birds.

Starting out for a few hours on the weekends (after chores at home), cleaning out bird cages and the large flight areas, Alex’s volunteering stretched to all day on Sunday by sixth grade so he could play soccer on the weekends. Seeing how he cared for the raptors, the director invited him to attend a special workshop by a nationally known veterinarian on the treating of birds of prey and the many scenarios that could befall them. In addition to breaking a wing by flying into a window or windshield, raptors also fell prey to poisoning, gunshot, entanglement in wires, loss of habitat or illness caused by climate change. Alex was hooked. A careful student, Alex was soon entrusted in rendering first aid to the birds rushed into the center. By the time he graduated from high school, he was paid staff.

Alex had another love: firefighting. In college, he pursued a degree in biology, focusing on wildlife, forestry, and the environment, but during his first summer off, he signed up for fighting wildfires in the North Cascades. He found that he liked the physical challenge and the teamwork that it took to bring a fire under control and save the forests, but when he rescued a fawn with badly burned hooves, he saw firefighting as another way to serve his beloved creatures of the woods. Soon, he was asked to teach fellow firefighters what to do when they encountered a fire-stricken animal or fowl. For following summers, he went through grueling fire-fighting training in Idaho and Montana before being permanently stationed in the North Cascades. Graduating with a degree in biology with an emphasis on avian species and forest ecology, Alex looked for employment in his field.

Then tragedy struck.

Many of the homes in his hometown were approaching one hundred years, the legacy of the boom in logging and mining at the turn of the last century. Made of old growth lumber and covered with moss as they were often tucked under the massive Doug fir and cedar trees of the area, many were unfortunate victims of a knocked over candle, cigarette butt in the hay barn or the ashes from the woodburning stove set on the porch. Alex was out on a temporary job as a biologist with the Forest Service when he got the call that a fire was raging at his Aunt Ellen’s log house. He rushed back into town to assist. But it was too late. His aunt, her pets and home were lost. Except for two Stellar jays she had raised after falling out of their nest. Ellen, like Alex, liked and cared for birds and had an outdoor flight cage as part of their recovery. Alex took the birds home. The next day he applied for the open position on the district fire unit that served his town. He never regretted his decision. He could fight fires, save lives, educate people on being fire safe, and continue to look after birds. He was now in his fifth year of service.

In his arms, the barred owl Alex rescued from the ruins of the café acted like it was still stunned. Or did it recognize it was in safe hands, so did not struggle? Alex could feel its heartbeat, always faster than a human’s, against his chest. There was something familiar about this owl. As if he had handled it before. There were always owls around the town and lately, in particular, the café, but often when he was in the woods behind the town, owls would follow him. At least, he felt them following him. Unless, they called, he never heard them, only guessed they were there. Like ghosts, the feathers on their wings muffled their flight as they glided between the trees in search of prey. He imagined them as friends and were there to protect him.

At his house two blocks back from the main street and next to a forest, Alex entered his garage where he had set up a bird rescue facility. Lights went on automatically, exposing stainless steel tables and cages. The space was heated and clean. He laid a towel on a table one- handed, but before he set the owl down, he tested its wrath to look at one of its talons. The owl hissed in protest, then blinked and pivoted its head away. Not terribly surprised, Alex saw that its leg was banded. “One more look, my friend,” Alex said. He turned the band around and read the words, “Excelsior.”

“Where have you been, old friend?”  Alex set the bird on the towel, slowly pulling away.  He was relieved to see the feet and legs of the owl were unharmed.

Excelsior responded by climbing up on one of Alex’s thick gloves. Even though the bird was gentle, its talons dug into the leather. He twisted his head around to study Alex.

When was the last time he had seen Excelsior? Nearly eight years ago when he was an owlet. “You’re almost an old man, aren’t you?” Barred owls only lived nine to ten years in the wild. “What were you doing at the café?” Alex lifted his arm, taking the owl off the table with him. “I need to check your feathers. Are you burned anywhere?”

Excelsior ruffled his feathers like he was all right.  He lifted his left leg, then put it down on the glove. He swiveled his head away. Alex moved his arm so he could study the feathers on the owl’s back, but Excelsior shifted position on Alex’s wrist. “All right. I get it. Can I put you on the perch over there? I have treats in the freezer.”

Excelsior’s eyes seemed to widen. He willingly stepped onto the perch and turning his head around, watched Alex bring two frozen mice over to him and put them into a cup attached to the perch. “Enjoy.”

While Excelsior ate, Alex did a quick look at the bird’s back and ascertained that only a few of feathers looked damaged. The owl would be OK.

Alex looked at his watch. He was getting hungry, but more importantly he needed to report back to the station. He patted his coat pocket and realized that his cell phone wasn’t there. Did he drop it somewhere? He looked back at Excelsior and then remembered back at the ruined cafe, the owl had acted like he wanted to tell him something. It would be weird if the bird was warning him that he had dropped it. “I guess I better go back,” he said. “You stay put.”

Alex closed the door to the garage, assured the owl would be safe. He’d give him a few hours, then release him in the woods. Back at the ruins, Alex gingerly made his way back to where he had found the owl. Stepping gingerly over downed boards and unrecognizable furniture and broken restaurant supplies, he realized that he was back by the old booth where he had seen a strange girl sitting a few days ago. Even after two days, the stench of smoke and acrid water made him put a hand over his mouth. He picked up something that looked like a chair leg and used it to clear debris. There, not far from where he had discovered Excelsior, he spied his phone, its black case blending into the charred remains. He bent down to pick it up. Under it, he discovered a gold coin with the date, 1898.

Where the hell did that come from? And why didn’t it melt?