Barbara Lorna Hudson grew up on a farm in Cornwall, where there was a ruined farmhouse with barn owls in residence.
After studying at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Universities of Chicago and Newcastle, she worked as a social worker for several years before becoming a social work lecturer at the London School of Economics and then at Oxford.
On retiring in 2000, she began to write fiction. She has had two novels (Timed Out and Makeover) published, and a number of short stories. She spends a lot of time eating and talking at Green Templeton College, Oxford, where she is an Emeritus Fellow.
This story was inspired by a report about the broadcaster and wildlife expert Chris Packham protesting about the annual massacre of migrating birds in Malta.
Website: www.barbaralornahudson.co.uk Twitter: @barbaralhudson
Do you remember the Barn Owl?
A scream. A silence. And then a squeal. As she waits in the lane, the child shudders though she knows these are just the familiar night sounds of fields and woods around her home. Patience, she tells herself. Be patient, soon the bird will come. With not the faintest whisper of wings, it will fly along the fence beside the field. The barn owl, the silent hunter. The owl is white below, but its feathers are buff-brown above. Yet it looks pure white, ghostly white. The heart-shaped face is beautiful and cruel.
The roost is in a ruined farmhouse beyond the wheat field. Built and abandoned in the seventeenth century, this was home to a couple with children but no further descendants. The house stands among trees, and when the wind stirs the branches and the moon shines overhead, you can sometimes see shadows move inside and imagine pale faces at the empty windows. A local historian says the family was probably wiped out by the Great Plague, though how the Plague reached this isolated spot is hard to guess. Others in the village claim the house was the scene of multiple murder and suicide. But there are no records to confirm either account.
“They probably just moved away,” said the girl’s father when she asked about these stories.
“Anyway, we don’t believe in ghosts,” her mother added quickly, which made her uneasy; she had not thought of ghosts till then. Since that conversation she has kept away from the old farmhouse, and after sunset she even tries not to look in that direction.
She is nervous in the dark. On winter evenings she hurries home from the bus stop, trying to ignore the country noises that make her tremble although she knows them well. Beneath the hedgerow small rodents rustle among the weeds, and birds tweet sleepily in the bushes. Pigeons startled by her footsteps rise up with a great clatter of wings. From the woods come the hoot of tawny owls, the bark of foxes and deer, and sometimes the piteous squeal of a doomed rabbit. Once she heard badgers fighting, a sickening cacophony of yelps and growls. Even when she’s safe and cosy in her bed, with a little cat-shaped nightlight glowing on the dresser and her parents in the room below, these sounds make her shiver.
Yet on some nights the lonely little girl conquers her fear and comes out to see the barn owl. There might be a pair; she can’t be sure, though she never sees two at once. If there’s a pair, it is usually the male who hunts while the female remains at the roost. Afraid of the dark and the ruined farmhouse, but she doesn’t fear the barn owl—her father says the only creature that need be afraid of owls is the little vole bustling about in the undergrowth. The child is sorry for the vole and half-hopes it will survive another night. But she understands that owls must eat.
On this night, while she is waiting, the child hears voices and laughter in the lane—two boys from the village. She recognises the voices—nice boys, who are in the class above hers and travel to school on the same bus. Are they, like her, interested in owls? Is that why they are here?
She wishes she could join them and share the excitement of watching the owl. If they become friends, she could show them the badger sett, the tree where the tawny owl sleeps by day, the spot by the stream where her father once saw an otter. In daylight they could venture into the old farmhouse and look for the barn owl roost — if the boys were with her she wouldn’t worry about the ghosts.
But she has never dared speak to the boys and she is too shy to approach them now; she crouches behind a large hawthorn at the side of the lane.
When the boys come into view, she sees there’s a man with them. He is carrying a crossbow and arrows. “Is this the place?” he asks quietly and when the boys say yes he tells them roughly to shut up.
The man and the boys take up position beside the fence. The child realises what they are planning; she’s seen a stuffed barn owl in a shop window. She is afraid, for the owl and for herself, and panicky and confused. As the muddle in her head clears, one thing becomes obvious: she should try to stop this. If she scares the owl off it surely will not return this night. From beyond the field she hears the owl’s eerie screech as it leaves its home in the farmhouse.
To alert the owl and save its life she has only to stand up and wave her arms and call hello to the boys. Yet she does nothing. She remains frozen, crouched motionless in the shadows. She seems to be paralysed—her voice won’t shout and her limbs won’t move.
The owl flies towards them and the man pulls an arrow from his canvas knapsack, raises his bow, places the arrow, and takes aim. The girl opens her mouth to cry out, but no sound comes. The man shoots. The pale body falls and the man jumps over the fence; he yanks out the arrow and blood spurts from the hole and stains the lovely white breast feathers. Laughing, the man picks up the corpse. “Show’s over!” The two boys are silent for a moment and then they too begin to laugh. The man claps them on the back and they do the same to him, like grown-up mates. Then they high-five each other, the boys getting blood on their palms. The man stuffs the dead owl in his knapsack. Still laughing, they turn and disappear down the lane.
It is spring, so there may well be young birds at the roost. If there were two owls, the dead owl’s mate will take over as provider. The next night the girl watches for hours, hoping to see a second, widowed owl. In vain—it seems there was only one.
The evening after that, the little girl borrows her father’s torch. Telling herself to be brave, she crosses the field to the farmhouse ruins. She feels driven to find out if there are owlets awaiting their parent’s return. Beyond this, she has no clear purpose, but it somehow seems the right thing to do.
There’s a wooden gate where the front door used to be. The ground floor houses abandoned farming stuff: a rusted ploughshare, a tractor box, a single broken wheel. The dusty air makes her cough and the sound disturbs some unseen creatures—there’s scuttling and a couple of squeaks. Two small dark things whisk from behind one straw bale and vanish into another. A stack of straw half-conceals a huge fireplace with an ancient bread oven. She steps into the fireplace and peers up the chimney, shining the torch. Her hand is shaking and the beam wobbles as it illuminates the chimney—nothing but bare blackened walls. She treads on something soft and lets out a cry, but it’s only a piece of sacking, the size of a human being.
The owl, she remembers, would exit from an upper window. Compelled to go up, she looks around for the staircase. There is none, only a wooden ladder with an open hatch at the top. She climbs the ladder slowly, with a stupid feeling that at any moment an arm—or an angry bird—might emerge from the hatch and knock her down, or some sharp-toothed creeping thing might attack from below. She hauls herself through the hatch on to a strong wooden floor. This space too has been used for storage: a coil of rope, rusty tools, and a rotting cardboard box with a doll’s head peeping over the top, a china head with big round eyes. She takes a closer look; the doll’s cloth body is in shreds, and a toy bear beside it has ears and limbs but nothing else except its dusty glass eyes.
Another fireplace. And high up, on a shelf, she can make out two small whitish shapes, rocking slowly back and forth: owlets. She hears the owlets’ strange snoring calls. They are begging for food, but she has nothing to give them.
The light is fading now. As if pursued, she half-climbs, half-tumbles down the ladder and runs across the field and down the lane to her home.
The only answer is to tell the grown-ups. Bird lovers themselves, her parents would surely arrange a rescue, take the owlets to the owl sanctuary. But how could she bring herself to confess that she had watched the killing of the adult bird and done nothing when she could have saved it? No, she will not tell anyone, ever. Fear of disgrace overrides her compassion for those baby owls.
A week later she returns to the farmhouse, dreading what she will find, yet needing to know the outcome. In that upper room there is only silence and the small white shapes are lying still. The horror of it, she thinks, is the punishment she has deserved.
Ten years have passed. The young woman has come to stay with her parents. She’s a student now. She has never lost her love of wildlife.
She’s just back from a trip to Malta with fellow birders. It was the end of April, in the two weeks of Malta’s spring hunt, the time when migrating birds pass over the island on their way to breed. The birders sighted a flock of dainty soft-coloured turtle doves and were delighted; an endangered species none of them had seen before.
A truck approached and pulled up right next to them. Half a dozen hunters with dogs and guns emerged. The young woman and her friends shouted and gesticulated but they were manhandled and pushed roughly aside. One of the hunters made a phone call and minutes later the police arrived from the nearby village. Each group accused the other of assault, and the Maltese authorities finally allowed both the hunters and the bird-watchers to leave.
The young woman has come home bruised, but defiant and angry. Her parents have read about the episode in the newspaper. They think one ought to respect the cultural traditions of other countries. “You and your friends should mind your own business.”
And she replies, “No. Protecting wildlife matters more than your dislike of judging other people’s cultures. And there’s the cruelty — a lot of birds aren’t killed outright and they die a horrible slow death. We felt we must stand and be counted. We should do what we know is right even when we’re afraid. That’s what you taught me.”
“We know how much you care about birds. Do you remember the barn owl? For years you went out regularly to see it. Then you suddenly stopped; you seemed to lose interest. It’s sad—nobody has seen a barn owl round here since then.”
She walks to the derelict farmhouse. Like a killer needing to visit my victim’s grave, she thinks; yet she has not felt this compulsion until now, ten years after the event. The confrontation in Malta has reminded her of that time she failed to stand up for what she knew to be right.
The old house has fallen further into ruin. The gate has gone from the doorway. Ivy and elder have invaded, and the dank air reeks of rotting vegetation. But the ladder is still sturdy and she climbs up. A pair of jackdaws fly out of an upstairs window and she is suddenly afraid.
In the empty upper room she fancies she hears a snapping beak and an angry hiss.
Not yet forgiven.