The Old Barn
Eli tears out of the house running barefoot down the dusty, gravel driveway leading to the old barn out back. The rusty screen door bangs twice as it slams shut. "Eli don't be late for supper," grandma yells, but Eli doesn't hear. He's already too far away. Now that he is six years old and all grown up, he loves exploring more than ever. He runs almost the whole way to the old barn, stopping only once to lift up a couple of flat stones looking for roly-polies. "Hi there, little guys," he says and shoves a couple in his front jeans pocket.
Eli stops just outside the barn's shadow and looks up to the loft as he peels off his shirt and drops it onto the grass. The summer sun warms his curly brown hair. The barn smells of freshly cut hay, a familiar, welcoming scent. Now that his dad is gone, Eli is the man of the house and has to go to work just like papa used to. Eli picks up a well-used claw hammer from his papa's workbench and bangs a loose nail into the barn door. He slips the hammer into his back pocket. The weight of it causes his pants to sag a bit on the right. He steps back, folding his arms to admire his work, before checking for more nails needing his attention. A summer breeze suddenly swings the side door shut, causing Eli to jump. "I am b-b-brave," Eli whispers. An otherworldly voice softly calls out "Whooo?" Just then he hears a swoosh and sees something dark fly like a ghost out of the loft. The hairs on the back of Eli's neck stand straight up. "I am brave," Eli reaffirms, gaining confidence. Nervously, he looks around the barn and repeats what Papa told him. "To be brave, you must act brave." Wanting to make Papa proud, he pushes himself toward the old wooden ladder leading to the top. Eli's eyes inspect each rung of the ladder till they reach the loft. The loft is a scary place, even for a grown-up six year old. He takes hold of the first rung and slowly begins climbing. Looking nervously around with each new step, he slowly makes his way up the ladder. Finally, he reaches the top. To the left he sees square bales of hay stacked three high. The loft floor is strewn with hay. Anxiously, Eli climbs into the loft and looks around. "Is anyone here," Eli asks timidly. After a moment, realizing that there is nothing scary or strange in the loft, Eli sees a box of his father's things stacked in the corner.
An old, metal toy truck and an ancient-looking catcher's mitt sit on top of the box. Eli picks up the glove and a baseball falls out, bouncing twice before rolling across the floor and into a clump of hay near the open loft window. He walks over to pick it up when he sees something moving above him. Creeping slowly over to investigate, Eli sees a small bird nest perched on top of the rafters. Standing on tip-toes, he stretches his whole body so he can peek into the nest. There he sees a tiny, baby owl, just a few days old. "Hello there little fella," he says happily. "Where's your mommy?" Eli asks. A big smile blooms across Eli's face. The baby owl bounces up and down with his little mouth open, flapping his miniature wings, anxiously awaiting his next meal. After watching the tiny bird for what feels like only a few minutes, Eli notices it is starting to get dark. "How can it be dark so soon?" Eli wonders aloud, not realizing he has been watching his new little friend for so long. Reluctantly, Eli climbs down the ladder and bounds back down the gravel drive to his house. As soon as he crosses the doorway he hears his grandma say, "Eli, I thought I told you not to be late for supper. I was calling for you. Didn't you hear me?" "No grandma. Sorry, I didn't hear you. You know the barn is a long ways away," Eli replies. "Next time, you need to be on time, young man. You're poor mama's having to work late again tonight. Poor thing, she has to leave early in the morning before you get up and she works till it's late trying to take care of us. We all got to take care of each other. Now come over here and give your old grandma a big hug," she says with a smile. Giving him two tight squeezes, she says, "Your supper's on the table, now you go on and eat before it gets cold." Eli heads to the dining room and leaps into his chair. "Grandma, guess what I saw today," Eli says excitedly before taking a big bite of food. "I go'ed to the barn and I," Grandma corrects him saying, "It's went, not go'ed. I went to the barn, not I go'ed to the barn." "Yes ma'am, I w-w-went to the barn and I found something," Eli replies. "What did you find?" grandma asks, looking into her grandson's beaming face. "I found a baby owl! I think he looks like an Andre. Yes! His name is Andre." Eli says happily. "Oh my, isn't that exciting," Grandma says, "But watch out for his mama. She might get you if she thinks you are hurting her baby." "Yes ma'am, I will. I'm always careful," Eli replies. Eli gulps his dinner down like a hungry bird and wipes his mouth with his sleeve. "Ok, now, off to bed with you, young man," Grandma says. The next morning, Eli jumps out of bed, throws on his clothes and heads toward the back door when he hears his grandma clear her throat. He knows what that means so he freezes in his tracks. "Yes, ma'am?" Eli asks respectfully. "Now Eli, don't forget to eat yourself some breakfast before you go outside," Grandma says. "But Grandma," Eli starts to reply but his grandma interrupts saying, "But nuthin'. Go eat your breakfast, son." He knows when she calls him son, that is just her way of saying, "I love you with all my heart." Eli runs through the kitchen grabbing an apple from the counter along the way and bursts through the back door. The screen door bangs twice as it slams shut.
Eli skips along the path to the barn looking for Andre's breakfast. Stopping abruptly he slowly stalks his prey before pouncing. "Gotcha!" he says as he scoops up a grasshopper from the tall grass. Eli wipes morning dew from the grass onto his jeans. After capturing another grasshopper, Eli runs into the barn and scampers up the ladder. "Good morning Andre!" Eli says. The little owlet bounces up and down in the nest with his mouth open, ready for breakfast. "Here you go Andre," Eli says as he holds a grasshopper to Andre's mouth. Andre downs the grasshopper in one gulp. Eli watches with fascination as Andre's bouncing slows. After about a minute, Andre settles down and falls fast asleep. Eli continues watching Andre while he sleeps. Something about him is mesmerizing. Eventually, Eli pulls himself away from the nest to let Andre sleep. His legs are tired from standing on tip-toes for so long. He pushes a bale of hay under the nest so next time he can see Andre easier. While moving the hay, the toy metal truck falls from the stack of boxes. Eli picks up the truck and finds something shoved inside. It's a folded piece of paper from a Big Chief writing tablet, the same kind that Eli uses at school. The paper feels old, so Eli takes care not to tear it. He pulls the paper from the truck and puts it in his back pocket.
Eli spends every day with Andre for the next six weeks. Each day he feeds Andre grasshoppers and an occasional piece of raw meat if he can sneak it out of the kitchen before Grandma notices. Andre grows bigger day by day and before long, his downy fuzz is replaced with long, soft feathers. No longer a baby bird, Andre has grown into a beautiful young owl. Eli loves every moment he spends with Andre. Eli talks to Andre as best friends do, telling him all of his secrets and Andre is an excellent listener. Always too soon, the sun touches the treetops marking the time for Eli to head back home.
One evening just about time for Eli to head back home, Eli sees Andre's mama swoop down and land in a nearby tree. "I guess she's waiting for you," Eli says. Realizing what he must do, Eli sniffles and wipes a tear from his eyes then carefully picks Andre up, holding him in the palm of his hand. Andre's wings wrap around Eli's arm as he picks him up and to Eli it feels like Andre gives him two big squeezes, just like his grandma always does when she hugs him. Then, with a nearly silent flutter of wings, Andre flies out through the loft window, his silhouette against the full moon etching an indelible mark in Eli's memory. "Goodnight Andre," Eli says as he descends the ladder and makes his way back home. After supper, while getting ready for bed, Eli finds the folded paper from his papa's toy truck in his pocket, Eli opens it and sees a drawing of an owl. Eli muses, "Guess my Papa loved owls too." An unexpected smile dawns on Eli's face.