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Stirring of a hidden chord

THINGS verging almost on the miraculous can take place even in a very ordinary country community. Some years ago in our village a wonderful string of events began with nothing more than a mere tapping, and that at the window of the most unlikely person in our midst. For the most part we were dour and uncommunicative, as Scots can be, yet we did involve ourselves in village life, with kirk and school and conservation. Our fellow villager, Miss Aird, retired civil servant, held herself aloof, an outsider, almost an outcast. She gave the impression of wearing a placard saying: Do not disturb. No one even knew her first name. She might never have participated in our communal life had it not been for the great March storm.

This particular March came in like a lion. Before midnight we had lost hundreds of oaks, beeches, and elms, which lay straddled over fields and in the woodlands. Something else happened during the storm, as we were to hear, something that produced the extraordinary sight of Miss Aird's gaunt and angular figure stalking down the village street the morning after and knocking at the door of Sorley the schoolmaster, a bird watcher and ornithological expert. ``I have come to consult you,'' she said. ``I want to know how to deal with a broken wing.''

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The story came out. She had been wakeful because of the howling and shrieking of the gale, when all at once, in a lull, she had heard a tiny scrabbling and persistent tapping at her bedroom window. Out there, huddled against the pane, was a bedraggled, storm-battered bird. She, who kept her door closed to all comers, had opened her window to an owl. She had taken it in and here she was now, asking Sorley's advice about how to splint a shattered wing and wondering what on earth owls had as their diet. Was it only mice, or would mince do as well?

We began to find her almost approachable, with a dry, caustic sense of humor. We met her at the butcher's buying shredded meat, in the local library studying bird books; and she even appeared at the schoolhouse with the owl in a basket to show Sorley how she had dealt with its wing. It must be a barn owl, she said. Her field guide described it as a long-legged, very pale bird with a white face. ``Its voice,'' she quoted, ``is a long, wild shriek; hissing and snoring and yapping sounds also occur.''

A group of schoolchildren had gathered round, listening with all their ears and staring at the owl. ``Hissing, snoring, and yapping!'' one boy said with a sly snigger. ``Just like Allie.'' It was true. In our village was another outcast, a backward boy of 7. Miss Aird had not wished to talk to us; Allie couldn't. All that came from him was a sort of gibberish. We could make nothing of it or of him. The most we ever said to him was an awkward ``Hullo, Allie!''

We certainly didn't foresee that Miss Aird, who knew nothing about children, would have a way with him. We were increasingly surrounded by the unexpected. On the principle of a pebble dropped in a pool, spreading circles, one surprise led us on to another, jolting us, discomfited, out of our mold.

The first time Allie caught sight of Miss Aird with the owl perched on her shoulder, the oddest look came over his face. ``Come and see my bird,'' she called to him in what we thought of as her civil service voice. ``Say owl,'' she went on. He stared from her to the owl with growing wonder. He couldn't bring out the word, and she didn't insist. He shuffled off, mouthing something. ``Well, that's an end of that,'' someone said. ``Rather a beginning,'' Miss Aird retorted sharply. It was indeed impossible to forget the expression that had transformed the boy's face, as if some hidden chord in him had been stirred.

AFTER that encounter, Allie took to turning up every day at Miss Aird's door. We had never considered that his strange mutterings might indicate a desperate struggle to express himself. She had. She didn't talk down to him, but spoke as to an equal, slowly, in her precise way. ``Touch the owl, Allie,'' she said. ``He won't peck you.'' Cautiously he put forward a finger, withdrew it, hesitated, then gently stroked the downy feathers. Encouraged by so much boldness, he let out a funny half squeak, half squeal. ``Now say owl,'' she ordered him again. ``How - ow-howl,'' he began, then, in a sudden burst, out it came: ``Owl!'' The bird leaned forward, its dark eyes flickering, and gave a squawk. ``There's the owl talking to you,'' she said. ``Howl - owl,'' Allie repeated, over and over, delighted.

In this communication between bird and boy it was as if the owl had found an affinity with the only one who could talk to it in its own language: Hoo, hoo, ow - owl. Allie flapped his arms, imitating the bird, and gave gurglings and chuckling whoops as he watched it go hopping and fluttering across the lawn and through the shrubbery, tumbling, scuttering, scrabbling comically, almost clownishly.

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``Hear that!'' we exclaimed at an incredible mirthful sound - it was Allie laughing. There's something ``normal'' about him after all, we said. Then, following a further, disconcerting train of thought, we wondered: What is normal? Are we so normal ourselves? Who are we to judge, anyway?

March went out, the last snows melted, April filled our gardens with aconites and crocuses, there was a perfume of lilacs, flowering hawthorn and mossy earth in the air, birds singing from dawn to dusk. The owl fluttered his wings more and more. What lay in his flickering eyes, in that enigmatic tawny-amber stare? What was he hearing as he tilted his head, listening? What was stirring in him in answer to the continuous calls from his own kind among the larch trees?

One shimmering green-gold evening in May, the owl was more restless than ever, making little runs and hops. We didn't see it happen, but some of us heard the boy cry out, ``Howl - owl!'' in a wail of desolation that we would never forget. The owl had spread out its wings, then, after a moment's wavering, a swirling and flapping, went flitting up and up into the leafiness of spring and was gone.

Allie stood gazing up into the trees, tears rolling down his cheeks. Miss Aird put her arms round him with brusque kindliness. She knew, as we did not, how to comfort him. ``Our owl may not return,'' she said. ``He's back with his own family. But you'll see how other birds will come. You'll have robins and finches, thrushes, linties, and blackbirds as friends. We may even sometimes see our own owl up there in the branches.''

Whenever we hear night birds call around our village we are reminded that it took a civil servant spinster, a lonely and neglected boy, and an owl to bring us to an agonizing reappraisal of the role we had played in these various interlinked events. It was not one to be proud of. We had never made any real attempt to draw out Miss Aird or break down her reserve, had never once tried to communicate with Allie. We knew nothing of the art of communication. While we remained earthbound, the pair of them had soared. Not only owls have wings.

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