The Stoat, the Vivarium and the White Owl.
Summer holidays and my days are freer. There are some days when I can meander at will. A stoat pops up by the white barn, sees me and doubles back, like water through a u-bend. I wait. A triangular face appears; bright eyes, chocolate-drop nose, long cream neck. It vanishes without seeming to move, into the long-stilled, rusted fan mechanism of the old grain dryer. I sit down quietly on the logpile, put the back of my hand to my mouth to ‘squeak’ it in. It doesn’t take long. The nettle tops waggle and it comes, a low-slung ribbon of orange pelt, weaving through the ploughshares. The face is there again momentarily, as if a magician has flashed a card to memorise, and it is gone. I ‘squeak’ harder. But then two walkers emerge from the footpath, nod, and give this girl (who appears to be snogging the back of her hand) a wide berth.
There is a window, left lying on the ground behind a near-neighbour’s house across the field. I have heard it acts as a vivarium for adders. On the way, I spot and pick up a buzzard feather, three-quarters of its barred length, white. I twirl and smooth it, knowing the bird it has come from. I approach the window, and peer through its glass, darkly. The view is a hunched press of blanched and softened leaves: of mouse-ear chickweed, henbit dead-nettle and scarlet pimpernel. There is condensation. I grasp one corner of the window and lift it carefully and with effort. The buzzard feather in my hand catches the otherwise indiscernible breeze and wobbles wildly, as if in fear – there are no snakes. But in this greenhouse for vipers, there are pieces of moulted snakeskin. Papery, transparent, silky-smooth between thumb and forefinger, a ribbed underbelly absent of any diagnostic markings.
After dark. I am writing in my hut, the door open onto the field. Moths swirl and there is the sound of something swishing unseen through the oats, like a woman in a dress. I wade out into long grass with the big torch, making the same sound, but the battery fails. Then, there is the distinct screech-snore sshhhht of a barn owl. In nothing but starlight, the white owl rows buoyantly above the field, flashing through next door’s security light beam, attended by a vortex of moths. I sink into the oatbells and for the second time that day, put the back of my hand to my mouth and squeak. Something bolts. The owl pivots on a stalled wingtip and in two beats hovers above me so I am held in the gaze of its heart-shaped face. And then it is gone. But at that moment, two, three tawny owls answer the barn owl’s screech; one is silhouetted on the chimney. Tawny owlets scattered through the wood answer their parents with a chiseek, chiseek, and the little owl joins in loudly with a pee woo woo from the opposite chimney of our otherwise ordinary, rather cramped, tenanted 1950’s semi. Tonight, it appears to host an owl party. Today and tonight, it is an absolute palace.