Daylight gives way to night, as inevitable as life giving way to death. The furtive returning of that which is known to that which is unseen and murky in shape and substance. Since the Earth has become scorched and barren, nighttime sounds have given way to a silent unease. Gone was the pulse of life that carried through from dusk to dark. The womb that was once our mother was now stark, dry, and lacking life-sustaining breath.
The crunch of gravel under my own feet as I near an expanse that I can only assume used to be a field is the only sound I hear, and it moves in time with the pulsing of my heartbeat in my temple. A crunch, swoosh as my foot rolls through each step, from heel to toe. Each step feels heavier than the last, as though the darkness is also pushing me into its silent unknown space. I grow closer with each limb moving forward, closer to discovering what lies on the other side.
But there’s something out there. Not a scream, but a screech. Its sound is throaty and primal -- not human, and I attempt to imitate the noise. The sound vibrates in my chest and throat as noises come unbidden out of my mouth, the first to exit my body in more time than I can wrap my memory around. My voice doesn’t match the sound I’m moving toward, and it feels foreign, caustic, in response.
Animals of nearly any kind have been extinct for over a decade, and valuable ecosystems had fallen quickly in response. But this noise is not a human, clawing for water and sustenance in the dust of our world. This noise is something else, something crying for its prey. Which means prey exists. Predator cannot exist without prey. This I know. I have been both.
A shadow hovers on the edge of the dry expanse I’m crossing. The sound is there, hovering inside the shape of a building. I can feel its pull, but instead, I crouch down, cautious, rubbing dust from my feet. I put my fingers to my nose and mouth, smelling and tasting the dust that I travel over. Humans have had to adapt for survival, not in the obvious ways that we read about in the science fiction novels of our youth, but in more subtle ways. In the dry dust, I can taste life. My head swivels in response to external stimuli – another soft screech. I long to converse with this sound, but again, my own voice is nothing but a guttural croak. Disuse has rendered it impotent.
Instead, I stand and continue my forward movement until I reach the structure. Shadows give way to settling beams as I approach. Grey with age and dry with rot, they splinter off into my skin as I run my fingers along them. Like a soft exhale, I can almost feel the barn constrict under the weight of the still night. As I approach the wide-open doorway, something white and winged rushes by, smelling of dust and feathers. The soft movement of air pulls the breath from me and puts the hairs on my arms, back, body on end. I shiver. Dinosaur. Through all levels of extinction, descendants of the ancient race persist.
The barn owl silently plunges, then there it is, life and sustenance in its beak. This world is not dead after all. I peer into the dark, now not so silent as the prey screams in response. My teeth are bared as I watch the owl pause and stare at me, its white face contoured for sound sensitivity in a way that my human face is not. Then it lifts, back into the barn, unbothered by my ineffectual animus.
I am hungry for more than just prey and I suck air through my teeth. Turning, I enter behind the owl, following as though pulled by the sound of a magical flute. A soft sound emanates from the rafters of the barn. There is not just one owl, but several, struggling in their bed of regurgitated pellets, desperate for food. Earth, wind, fire, water. These things must exist, and it would seem that our mother Earth continues to bear life despite human destruction.
As I stand transfixed, a soft thud pulls my attention down from the rafters and I see a small ball of fluff thrashing on the ground, quickly turning from bright white in the moonlight to a dull, grey shadow, nothing but dust. My own womb, long dormant, now thrashes about inside me and I scoop it up, cradling it to my chest. The same guttural noise comes from my throat and the tiny owl seems to settle against the vibrations of my chest. Eyes wild, searching in the darkness, I stand in a half-crouch, shoulders hunched, huddled around the tiny, feathered baby. I am mother. I must provide.
In some cultures, owls are believed to be harbingers of death, a bad omen. But it is also said that Genghis Khan once hid from pursuers under a roosting owl, thereby protecting him from capture. In still other cultures, owls are thought to be lucky. I know this because once, in another life before Earth was laid to waste, I studied history and talismans. Now, this tiny owl talisman is proof that the night is alive and teeming with activity, lush and verdant despite its black-and-white still-life portraiture.
As swift as night is reborn back into light, I change directions, mentally and physically. No longer on an unending quest for the unknown, I now have purpose. These owls have become my verve and I will help find life, create life, bring this patch of Earth back from the dead. No longer just waiting to be absorbed back into the dirt’s murky depths, I now feel more human than I have in a long time. Settling the infant owl under my chin, I curl up in a corner of the barn, dust for a bed, and wait to sunrise. The journey of Earth reborn has just begun.