The Night Before
Chapter One in Birds of Prey
Firenze preened his feathers briefly before shaking off the cold and peering out over a snow-covered field. The voles would be hiding today, he thought, but he knew how to listen for them. Besides, he liked the challenge.
Norenna gently toed her way along the branch and nestled in beside him. His sister had only seen a single summer. Firenze, older and wiser, had seen four. He was responsible for both of them now.
“Ready?” He prodded her with his beak, shifting on his talons and preparing himself for takeoff. The sun was slowly sinking on the horizon, but long beams of light stretched like arms across the rugged landscape; this was the siblings’ favourite time to hunt.
“Last one to the fence post’s a rotten pellet!” Norenna shouted as she suddenly leapt from the branch and flapped her wings silently against the winter air.
Firenze was smarter than to try and catch her by the same flight path, instead veering to his right as he abandoned his perch to weave between two ash trees. Swooping past a solitary leaf clinging to the last rays of autumn sunshine, he aimed for a long-dead poplar that marked a shortcut to the far corner of the field.
His powerful wings propelled him easily past the tree, and slowing to a glide, he took in his surroundings.
The fence around the field marked their home. As an owlet, his parents had forbidden him to fly any farther than one post past the wood where they had their roost, but over time, he’d been allowed to stretch his wings and grow familiar with every inch of the field.
Firenze strayed far beyond the fence these days, mostly looking for other Barns. He’d come across an elderly Horn a couple of weeks ago, but the old she-owl was feeble, and nearly blind. She was just passing through, she said, and when Firenze tried to ask her about where she was headed, she had politely asked him to leave her alone. She was waiting for someone, she told him, though Firenze couldn’t imagine who; it seemed like he and Norenna were the only other owls for miles.
Beyond the wood where he’d found the old Horn was the blacktop, where the growlers rolled up and down constantly. They made a terrible noise and shone bright lights that made it difficult to see whenever Firenze got close. He never got too close for fear. His parents had told him countless stories of stupid birds that flew too close to the blacktop and lost a wing or an eye to a growler. In all the stories though, they were never Barns. Barns were smarter than that, his mother told him. Barns could hunt, and didn’t need to scavenge their game from the blacktop. Firenze’s mother had said that the growlers killed large game just to trick birds into coming down from the sky for an easy meal. He wasn’t sure how much he believed the last part.
He felt a twinge in his gizzard. He missed his parents.
Norenna came out of nowhere and tapped Firenze on the back with a talon as she soared past. “I’m faster than you!” she screeched.
He chuckled and began to beat his wings again, but let her enjoy the pleasure of beating him to the fence post. He pitied her; she had barely known them before they disappeared.
“Stonefeathers!” Norenna teased him jokingly. Perched on a thick round beam running parallel with the ground, the white of her face reflected off the snow even in the dim light. She winked and bumped him affectionately as he landed beside her. He laughed.
“You’re getting faster, I think. Perhaps stronger too. You might even make it to the blacktop one of these days.”
“Honest?!” she said excitedly. “Oh please Firenze! Please take me with you!”
“Maybe when you’ve got another summer behind you.” he said. He would take her before then, but he wanted to pretend otherwise. He needed her to stay motivated and keep working up her strength. In truth, he planned to take them far beyond the blacktop, as far as they could fly. Until we find them.
“Now.” he announced. “It’s nearly first dark. Any idea as to where we’ll find a meal?”
Norenna had seen snow before, but this was the first night it truly covered the ground. He was curious to see what she might do.
Sensing the test, Norenna squinted at him and turned one ear to the earth. She listened, only for a moment — before leaping high from her perch and flapping her wings rapidly until she was twenty feet in the air. Veering, she sailed towards the ground with talons bared, and landed in a flurry of snow and feathers, digging frantically for her prey.
“Ahhh! No! No! No!” she stopped, her shoulders shrugging as she folded her wings in by her sides. “He got away.” she said despondently.
Firenze couldn’t help but smile. “You were close though.” He laughed, in truth, she did exceptionally well. “Pretty good for a first time snow digger if I do say so myself.”
She smiled too now, proud of her efforts. “Now you try!” she hooted.
“Let’s listen together.” Firenze said. Norenna joined him back on the fence and this time they both turned their ears to the ground. Slowly, silently, they both heard it. A tiny heartbeat, and the scratching sound of claws on dirt. Simultaneously, the barn owls took to the sky, circling opposite each other once before coming in for the kill.
“Yours!” Norenna shouted. She pulled to one side as Firenze slammed his talons into the earth, spraying them both with snow. He squeezed. In one second the mouse was his.
Firenze tossed his catch to Norenna who gobbled it down eagerly. In another second, he was back in the air, circling for another morsel. Barns were born to hunt.
A few more passes over the field yielded a vole and two more mice. The siblings ate their fill before returning to their hollow in the wood, suddenly relishing the warmth of their nest. It was well insulated from the wind, and when both owls were at home, the hollow remained exceptionally warm despite the coldest temperatures.
In the months since their parents had gone, Firenze had done his best to raise Norenna. He’d taught her to fly, and shown her how to hunt. But there were some things even he didn’t know, and there were no other Barns to turn to.
Once they found a mate and a roost, Barns didn’t go anyplace else. All the owls Firenze ever knew in his short life seemed as if they’d always been where they were, and always would be.
There were the Wingsons, and the Featherbys, and the Beekes, all of them Barns. All within ten a minutes’ flight of Firenze’s own family.
Then one day, everyone was gone. He checked roost after roost. Hollow after hollow. Places he’d spent hours as an owlet with friends were suddenly devoid of life. Norenna had cried every day for two weeks.
Confusion and fear gripped Firenze like an iron vise those first nights, but he’d had Norenna to think of, so he did only what he could, flying a little distance every day to try and catch a glimpse of the others; always coming back to tend his sister and make sure she was safe. The thought of that first evening in a world without owls sent a pang through his chest.
As the pair cozied up against the walls of their home, Norenna asked for a story, as she did every night after they broke their fast. She asked Firenze to tell her about the other Barns, and what life was like before, when he was just a few summers old.
Tonight he thought he would tell her favourite. It was his favourite too, though for different reasons. It had replayed so many times in his mind that now he retold it often, hoping to catch some element he might have overlooked in each previous telling.
Norenna loved it because to her it was the echo of a memory she’d been too young to fully capture. Firenze loved it because he always wanted to revisit the details, though he was also fond of recalling the memories. It seemed like such an ordinary story, and yet, what followed changed his life forever. It was the story of the night before.