Authors: Kathryn Lasky
... and then the forest of the Kingdom ofTyto seemed to grow smaller and smaller and dimmer and dimmer in the night ...
GUARDIANS of GAHOOLE
BY KATHRYN LASKY
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The world spiraled, the needles of the old fir tree blurred against the night sky and then there was a sickening sensation as the forest floor raced toward him. Soren madly tried to beat his stubby little wings. Useless! He thought, I am dead. A dead owlet. Three weeks out of the shell and my life ends!
Suddenly, something began to soften his fall -- a pocket of breeze? A cushion of wind? A downy fluff of air lacing through his unsightly patches of fuzz? What was it? Time slowed. His short life flowed by him --
every second of it from his very first memory....
Noctus, can you spare a bit more down, darling? I think our third little one is about to arrive. That egg is beginning to crack."
"Not again!" sighed Kludd.
"What do you mean, Kludd, not again? Don't you want another little brother?" his father said. There was an edge to his voice.
"Or sister?" His mother sighed the low soft whistle Barn Owls sometimes used.
"I'd like a sister," Soren peeped up.
"You just hatched out two weeks ago." Kludd turned to Soren, his younger brother. "What do you know about sisters?"
Maybe, Soren thought to himself, they would be better than brothers. Kludd seemed to have resented him since the moment he had first hatched.
"You really wouldn't want them arriving just when you're about to begin branching," Kludd said dully.
was the first step, literally, toward flight. The young owlets would begin by hopping from branch to branch and flapping their wings.
"Now, now, Kludd!" his father admonished. "Don't be impatient. There'll be time for branching.
Remember, you won't have your flight feathers for at least another month or more."
Soren was just about to ask what a month was when he heard a crack. The owl family all seemed to freeze. To any other forest creature the sound would have been imperceptible. But Barn Owls were blessed with extraordinary hearing.
"It's coming!" Soren's mother gasped. "I'm so excited." She sighed again and looked rapturously at the pure white egg as it rocked back and forth. A tiny hole appeared and from it protruded a small spur.
"Its egg tooth, by Glaux!" Soren's father exclaimed.
"Mine was bigger wasn't it, Da?" Kludd shoved Soren aside for a better look, but Soren crept back up under his father's wing.
"Oh, I don't know, son. But isn't it a pretty, glistening little point. Always gives me a thrill. Such a tiny little thing pecking its way into the big wide world. Ah! Bless my gizzard, the wonder of it all."
It did indeed seem a wonder. Soren stared at the hole
that now began to split into two or three cracks. The egg shuddered slightly and the cracks grew longer and wider. He had done this himself just two weeks ago. This was exciting.
"What happened to my egg tooth, Mum?"
"It dropped off, stupid," Kludd said.
"Oh," Soren said quietly. His parents were so absorbed in the hatching that they didn't reprimand Kludd for his rudeness.
"Where's Mrs. Rhiann.? Mrs. Rhiann.?" his mother said urgently.
"Right here, ma'am." Mrs. Plithiver, the old blind snake who had been with the owl family for years and years, slithered into the hollow. Blind snakes, born without eyes, served as nest-maids and were kept by many owls to make sure the nests were clean and free of maggots and various insects that found their way into the hollows.
"Mrs. Rhiann., no maggots or vermin in that corner where Noctus put in fresh down."
"'Course not, ma'am. Now, how many broods of owlets have I been through with you?"
"Oh, sorry, Mrs. Rhiann. How could I have ever doubted you? I'm always nervous at the hatching. Each one is just like the first time. I never get used to it."
"Don't you apologize, ma'am. You think any other birds would care two whits if their nest was clean?
I've heard about seagulls! Oh, my goodness! Well, I won't even go into it."
Blind snakes prided themselves on working for owls, whom they considered the noblest of birds.
Meticulous, the blind snakes had great disdain for other birds that they felt were less clean due to their unfortunate digestive processes that caused them to eliminate only sloppy wet droppings instead of nice neat bundles -- the pellets that owls yarped, or spit up. Although owls did digest the soft parts of their food in a manner similar to other birds, and indeed passed it in a liquid form, for some reason they were never associated with these lesser digestive processes. All the fur and bones and tiny teeth of their prey,
like mice, that could not be digested in the ordinary way were pressed into little pellets just the shape and size of the owl's gizzard. Several hours after eating, the owls would yarp them up. "Wet poopers" is how many nest-maid snakes referred to other birds. Of course, Mrs. Plithiver was much too proper to use such coarse language.
"Mum!" Soren gasped. "Look at that." The nest suddenly seemed to reverberate with a huge cracking sound. Again, only huge to the ear slits of Barn Owls. Now the egg split. A pale slimy blob flopped out.
"It's a girl!" A long shree call streamed from his mother's throat. It was the shree of pure happiness. "Adorable!" Soren's mother sighed.
"Enchanting!" said Soren's father.
Kludd yawned and Soren stared dumbfounded at the wet naked thing with its huge bulging eyes sealed tightly shut.
"What's wrong with her head, Mum?" Soren asked.
"Nothing, dear. Chicks just have very large heads. It takes a while for their bodies to catch up."
"Not to mention their brains," Kludd muttered.
"So they can't hold their heads up right away," said his mother. "You were the same way"
"What shall we call the little dear?" Soren's father asked.
"Eglantine," Soren's mother replied immediately. "I have always wanted a little Eglantine."
"Oooh! Mum, I love that name," Soren said. He softly repeated the name. Then he tipped toward the little pulsing mass of white. "Eglantine," he whispered softly, and he thought he saw one little sealed eye open just a slit and a tiny voice seemed to say "hi" Soren loved his little sister immediately.
One second, Eglantine had been this quivering little wet blob, and then, minutes later, it seemed as if she had turned into a fluffy white ball of down. She grew stronger quickly, or so it appeared to Soren.
His parents assured him that he, too, had done exactly the same. That evening it was time for her First Insect ceremony. Her eyes were fully open and she was bawling with hunger. Eglantine could hardly make it through her father's "Welcome to Tyto" speech.
"Little Eglantine, welcome to the Forest of Tyto, forest of the Barn Owls, or Tyto alba, as we are more formally known. Once upon a time, long long ago, we did indeed live in barns. But now, we and other Tyto cousins live in this forest kingdom known as Tyto. We are rare indeed and we are perhaps the smallest of all the owl kingdoms. Although, in truth, it has been a long long time since we had a king.
Someday when you grow up, when you enter your second year, you, too, will fly out from this hollow and find one of your own in which to live with a mate."
This was the part of the speech that amazed and disturbed Soren. He simply could not imagine growing up and having a nest of his own. How could he be separated from his parents? And yet there was this urge to fly, even now with his stubby little wings that lacked even the smallest sign of true flight feathers. "And now," Soren's father continued, "it is time for your First Insect ceremony." He turned to Soren's mother. "Marella, my dear, can you bring forward the cricket?"
Soren's mother stepped up. In her beak she held one of the summer's last crickets. "Eat up, young'un!
Headfirst. Yes, down the beak. Yes, always headfirst -- that's the proper way, be it cricket, mouse, or vole."
"Mmmm," sighed Soren's father as he watched his daughter swallow the cricket. "Dizzy in the gizzy, ain't it so?!"
Kludd blinked and yawned. Sometimes his parents really embarrassed him, especially his da with his stupid jokes. "Wit of the wood!" muttered Kludd.
That dawn, after the owls had settled down, Soren was still so excited by his little sister's arrival that he could not sleep. His parents had retired to the ledge above him where they slept, but he could hear their voices threading through the dim morning light that filtered into the hollow.
"Oh, Noctus, it is very strange -- another owlet disappeared?"
"Yes, my dear, I'm afraid so."
"How many is that now in the last few days?"
"Fifteen missing, I believe."
"That is many more than can be accounted for by raccoons."
"Yes," Noctus replied grimly. "And there is something else."
"What?" his wife replied in a lower wavering hoot.
"Eggs have disappeared."
"Eggs from a nest?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so."
"No!" Marella Alba gasped. "I have never heard of such a thing. It's unspeakable."
"I thought I must tell you in case we are blessed with another brood."
"Oh, great Glaux," his mother gasped. Soren's eyes blinked wide. He had never heard his mother swear before. "But we so seldom leave the nest during broody times. Whoever it is must watch us." She paused. "Watch us constantly."
"Whoever it is can fly or climb," Noctus Alba said darkly.
Soren felt a sense of dread seep into the hollow. How thankful he was that Eglantine had not been snatched while just an egg. He vowed he would never leave her alone.
It seemed to Soren that as soon as Eglantine ate her first insect she never stopped eating. His mother and father assured him that he had been the same. "And you still are, Soren! And it's almost time for your first Fur-on-Meat ceremony!
That was what life was like those first weeks in the nest -- one ceremony after another. Each, it seemed in some way or another, led to the truly biggest, perhaps the most solemn yet joyous moment in a young owl's life: First Flight.
"Fur!" whispered Soren. He couldn't quite imagine what it was like. What it would feel like slipping down his throat. His mother always stripped off all the fur from the meat and then tore out the bones before offering the little tidbits of fresh mouse or squirrel to Soren. Kludd was almost ready for his First Bones ceremony when he would be allowed to eat "the whole bit" as Soren's father said. And it was just before First Bones that a young owl began branching. And just after that, it would begin its first real flight under the watchful eyes of its parents.
"Hop! Hop! That's it, Kludd! Now, up with the wings just as you begin the hop to that next branch. And remember, you are just branching now. No flying. And even after your first flight lessons, no flying by yourself until Mum and I say so."
"Yes, Da!" Kludd said in a bored voice. Then he muttered, "How many times have I heard this lecture!"
Soren had heard it many many times, too, even though he was nowhere near branching. The worst thing a young owl could do was to try to fly before it was ready. And, of course, young owls usually did this when their parents were out hunting. It was so tempting to try one's newly fledged wings, but it would most likely end in a disastrous crash, leaving the little owlet nestless, perhaps badly injured, and on the ground exposed to dangerous predators. The lecture was brief this time, and the branching lesson resumed.
"Crisply! Crisply, boy! Keep the noise down. Owls are silent fliers."
"But I'm not flying yet, Da! As you keep reminding me constantly! What's it matter if I'm noisy now when I'm just branching?"
"Bad habit! Bad habit! Leads to noisy flight. Hard to outgrow noise habits started in branching."
"Oh, I'll bother you!" Noctus exploded, and gave his son a cuff on the head that nearly tipped him over.
Soren had to admit that Kludd didn't even whimper but just picked himself up and gave his da a glaring look and resumed hopping -- slightly less noisily than before.
There was a series of soft short hisses from Mrs. Plithiver. "Difficult one, that one! My! My! Glad your mum's not here to see this. Eglantine!" Mrs. Plithiver called out suddenly. Even though she was blind she seemed to know exactly what the young owlets were doing at any given moment. She now heard the crunch of a nest bug in
Eglantine's beak. "Put that nest bug down. Owls do not eat nest bugs. That's what house snakes do. If you keep it up, you'll just grow fat and squishy and won't be prepared for your First Meat ceremony, and then no First Fur, and then no First Bones, and then no, well, you know what. Now your mum is just out looking for a nice chubby vole with soft fur for Soren's First Fur ceremony. And she might even find a nice wriggly little centipede for you."