This is why it is so. This is why we can always understand the owl. It always predicts bad weather. It always tells what is going to happen in other towns.From the Tlingit myth of the owl woman.
There was a girl who lived beside a wild Alaskan bay in a clapboard house with a porch and a swing that hung from clothesline. She was born on a blue clear day and wore the radiance of her birth through the northwest rains and the long sunless winter. Her hair was bright as acacia honey but the Tlingit named her for her eyes that were gray like clouds that warn of storms.
And her father drew giant boats in white on blue paper and sold them to shipbuilders in the south. And her mother wrote poems and hung laundry on the line between the house and the tree, the swing and the wind, and wrung her hands wondering what would happen to all of them.
For her youngest daughter would no longer answer to her Christian name, but called herself Tsisk'w. The fearsome protector.
The one who fights the spirits in the forest.
The Tlingit know that there was a time when everything was dangerous. And in that time when the spirit of fire divided her family she moved from the clapboard house by the bay, to a shack in an island forest that was not used to people. No one would stay in that place but her.
There was a room with a mattress and no light where she fell asleep listening to the rats and the voles scratching across the bare wooden floor.
The windows were all broken, and the decrepit building swayed in the wind.
Each night an owl would appear in the window beside the dirty mattress. At first, it scared her. But gradually she became accustomed to it. And as time passed she would not fall asleep until it landed on the window sill.
One night, the owl did not appear.
And there came the sound of heavy footfalls on the stairs.
Years ago we met at the bottom of the world, in a place as untouched by men as a place on the world can be. And we talked about our lives and our dreams.
"And so you're here," I think she said.
"Maybe it's the only safe place," I think I said.
Then she told me about her travels. Of journeys to the flat white south pole. Everest's snows and fields of Chilean wheat. Of ballrooms in Moscow and a time on a train rolling through Krakow she brushed souls with one who might have been a lover in a past life, and another whose muddy boots fell heavy upon the floor of the train car.
Of the cold on the backs of her legs, and how she confronted the danger that becomes those who surrender to the fire of hopelessness.
I told her I thought she was fearless, but she rejected the notion. She was never reckless, never fearless. But rather, she was asea upon her life's journey, buoyed by the sun, propelled by the breath of distant storms.
Yesterday I met the girl from Alaska. And when everyone else had gone, after it had been quiet for a long time, she told me about the storms and the cold and her husband who might not live. She told me about the Tlingit and the one who seemed first warm, and then like pain. How many times she's fought the fire spirit and how it followed her. We had never been together in the night because we'd always met before in perpetual daylight. So there'd never been between us any ideas that can only be born of starlight.
When she told me her biggest secret, my chest tightened and my breath escaped. My eyes stung and a tear filled the depression beside my cheek. I clenched my fist because I wanted to grab time and turn it inside out so I could fit through.
There was nothing in my hands but my fingertips against my palms.
I wanted to be there. I told her that if I had been at the moment of her secret, it all would have been very different.
The girl with a smile like summershine and hair the color of acacia honey told me, "But you weren't. Nobody was. And you can never be."
God gave her eyes like storm clouds. And the earth disturbs her sleep with strong winds. And the winds pile high the ice, and block the shipping lanes and boats her father dreamed. So the supplies never get through.
So starve the abandoned sailors. So die the explorers of polar wastes.
Our lives follow tortured serpentine paths through which we draw straight lines to calm our minds. So much we would like to forget, so much to disbelieve. And I said to her yesterday, by the beach under the stars, "I don't know how I can repay you for entrusting me. Because there's nothing--my secrets don't mean anything. I have nothing as big as that."
She said, "Now you do."
And with her finger, wet with salt from her own eyes, she touched the ocean in mine.
So cries one abandoned by innocent dreams. So dies an explorer of ideals.
So lives one man.