The Watcher in the Woods.
A warm, still night before bed, and I take the lamp out with me for a walk round the stubble field. Several tawny owls are calling, close to, and as far away as my ears can hear them. The ke-wick of both sexes (but mostly female) and the long, tremulous hoo, hoo hoooo floats out from wood, copse and combe. They are early nesters and territories have been set up, defended and re-shuffled since November.
I scan the pale field with its upright straws full of rainwater. A dozen rabbits and a woodcock are feeding. And then, near to the wood, the broad silhouette of the down black behind it, I spot a tawny owl, sitting on the low branch of a favourite hunting perch.
I creep forward the best I can over the stubble and squelch of the wet field in my wellies, until the unblinking owl looks down on me, at shed-roof height and not much more than an arm’s length away. I hold my lamp beam askance, so the owl is on its outer circle and not blinded by it. It does not move. It does not look away. The markings on its chestnut brown feathers are streaked, spotted and freckled with cream in camouflage that serves so well against a tree trunk in a sun-dappled wood. The owl’s eyes are big dark wells; just a tiny, fathomless point of light in each.
The bird turns its head skyward, the stiff ruff of its facial disc directing and receiving sounds I cannot hear. For a moment I think it is going to take off, but instead, it flexes and squeezes its strange white toes and talons round its grip of the branch, so that they pierce the crust of lichen and bark. It gives me a cursory glance and then turns its head to something behind it. With eyes so huge they are fixed in their sockets, the owl must turn its head some 180 degrees to pinpoint the sound. It is nothing of consequence.
The owl settles its gaze on me with a gathered, renewed intensity. I blink, being outstared by much bigger, wilder eyes than mine. But it is more than just a physical glare. I have never looked into the eyes of a wild animal for so long before. To the owl, I am neither predator, usurper nor prey. A remote threat, perhaps. A distracting inconvenience? It is an intelligent, penetrating stare. Disquieting. I feel the owl is peering into my soul and assessing it. I lower my beam and leave the creature to its hunting.
The following night, after a silly argument, I run out in the dusk up the lane, past the old woods and the big house and all their ghosts. The melancholy wavering call of owls reaches me. But tonight, I am not frightened of phantoms; I feel a renewed sense of belonging here, an acceptance. I have met the gaze of the owl and neither of us had been afraid.