I am armed with a torch, but I soon realise it is unnecessary, and it’s less scary without it bouncing about making dramatic shapes. The naked trees are silhouetted against the ‘midnight blue’ sky, although it is only seven in the evening. I am passing Kinramer Wood on my way to dinner at my friend’s house on Rathlin. Behind me my body casts a crisp shadow, and ahead the damp road glistens blue in the moonlight; two giant parallel snail trails snaking away down the hill and around the corner.
I hear what I hope could be an owl call. In that instant all of my owl-related memories flash back: I recall the joy relayed by a revisiting RSPB volunteer just up the road when one of the baby owls flew past as they opened the front door one night; the feathers gifted to me by a friend in Canada and the stories she told about the owls in her barn out in the Prairies; the perfect owl corpse an artist friend found in a the living room of an empty old house in Norway – it must have flown down the chimney, got trapped inside the locked house and died of starvation; the owl wing I found sticking out of the seaweed in Portaferry, which I mistook for an immature gull. It took my father’s identification of the fluffy brown wing for me to appreciate the enormity of my find.
I stop and listen. Who. Who. A single note back-lit by the dull white noise of millions of blades of grass, and branches, and leaves moving slightly in the mild wind. I walk on relishing the sounds around me and the fresh nip in the air while the hooting continues. Then there is an echo; I wonder what the sound is bouncing off to make such a perfect reverberation; there must be a rock face somewhere over there.
Then I realise it is a different pitch, one whole tone higher: a different owl.
In my friend’s kitchen I select a particular ‘Bonne Maman’ jar from the shelf near the window, lifting it to the light and twirling it slowly. Inside are two owl’s feet. The legs and toes are swathed in fine white feathers, built for silent flying. The talons are long and finely-pointed, built for gripping and ripping.
I am mesmerised.