by Meghan Beaudry

The beam of my flashlight illuminated the angular face of a barn owl. Beside me in our family truck, my three brothers scanned the trees with their own flashlights, the lenses covered in red cellophane. Shout-whispers of “Three!” and “There’s one!” broke the silence. On the camping trips of my childhood, we kept tallies of the animals we saw: javelinas rooting through the field or alligators whose heads emerged from the swamp. But the owls, with their silent wings and mildly reproachful expressions, were my favorite. I kept quiet as I studied the barn owl. In my family of six, we each clung to our own tiny secrets and moments of solitude. I would look back on these quiet moments in nature as time spent developing the calm, knowing voice in my mind — the beginning of my own inner wisdom. A second later, “my” owl swooped towards the earth, gliding noiselessly through the night. “Four!” my younger brother whispered.

On one of our trips, my brothers and I discovered a family of barred owls nesting in a tree near our camper. One owl parent guarded a nest of fuzzy-headed owlets while the other hunted. Having experienced their penetrating gaze, peaceful demeanor, and ability to swivel their heads to observe the world from every angle, it wasn’t surprising to me as a child to learn that owls symbolized wisdom. What I didn’t yet know was how my own wisdom would carry me like wings through the darkest hours of my life. That clear-eyed observation and thoughtful decision-making could be developed, the way the fledgling owlets in the nest tested their wings.

Over a decade after the camping trips of my youth, I would slip out the front door of my house the second I heard my husband’s car pull into the garage. I memorized the closing hours of the nearest Starbucks, where I would nurse a coffee for the next few hours and write. On days when the Starbucks closed early, I drove across the street to McDonald’s, or sat in a lawn chair in the new outdoor section of the mall nearby. By fluorescent light or mall streetlight, I filled my notebook with worries and lists. One page in particular I returned to again and again. On one column of the paper: the way my husband watched TV shows in advance so he could cover my eyes at the gory parts. How he washed the dishes after each meal and vacuumed the floors, not because he cared about the mess, but because he knew I did. In the other column: his infidelity and the way his mood could instantly shift from smiling to red-faced and volatile. The bizarre accusations he screamed at me as I sat frozen on the couch, like the time he said I was trying to control him by asking him to stop shouting. And in the middle of the page, a giant question mark.

I waffled over my decision to leave with every cardboard box I packed full of clothes or books over the next few months. My notebook became crowded with more lists and worries and questions, so I bought a new one. I doubted myself even as I signed the papers and moved into my new place. Would I be able to afford living on my own? Would people I’d grown close to on his side of the family still speak to me? I had taken my marriage vows seriously. What would breaking them say about me as a person?

One night after the trial separation from my husband, I walked my two dogs through my new unfamiliar apartment complex. The trees cast elongated shadows onto the sides of the buildings. It had been years since I’d walked alone at night, a single woman in the dark. I carried the pepper spray my mother had pressed into my hand and held my keys between my fingers. I glanced to my left, then abruptly stopped walking. A screech owl perched on a neighbor’s stairs — a rare sight within city limits. At fewer than six feet away, I could see individual feathers and the curve of its beak. Tufts of feathers crested above the owl’s eyes like ears, as if the owl were listening intently to the sounds of the night. The owl swiveled its head to watch me, its gaze calm, unafraid, knowing. Even my dogs stood still and silent, as if we were all part of a nocturnal painting.

I tucked my pepper spray into my back pocket as it occurred to me that in leaving my marriage, I had  already avoided the greatest danger to me. Quiet relief flooded my body as I contemplated my newfound freedom and peace in the serene company of the owl. Perhaps wisdom wasn’t the certainty that my future would be the one I hoped for, or even the ability to prevent periods of darkness. Wisdom was trusting in calm and thoughtful introspection to carry me safely through the dark and into the light.

Photo by Chris F. via Pexels