Of Candles, Salt and Owls: Athena

by W.F. Lantry

read it in the correct order


In Persia, owls were not like ours. There was no Athena, no concept of wisdom. They had other birds for that. It was bad luck if an owl perched on the roof of your home, and even worse if it were near the threshold. They were visitors from the underworld, the afterlife, and since they flew when no other birds were in the air, they knew only the darkest secrets. They knew where the rings were hidden, the rings the lost soldiers wore into battle, where the coins of the fallen lay, only revealed in moonlight. They knew where the lover fell, when her beloved failed to meet her in the forest. They knew where her jewels had lodged between tree roots.

And on the most difficult nights, filled with open eyed languishing and lament, when the half moonlight danced through your window and onto the wall of your chamber, you may have seen the shadow of the owl perched outside. You had to confess everything to the form, your worst secrets: how you wandered through the silent alleys of the town in the heat of the day, and every thing you learned there, how you looked across the river and saw a woman washing clothes on the bank, how you longed for her, desired her, and how you dared not swim across the stream, fearing nothing worse than drowning, fearing the owl would come for you in the daylight, to escort you back to his home of shadows, where he kept all the gold he’d gathered from the fields of ancient battles.

I never made those confessions. Owls are different to me. When I looked out my window on those nights, I could sometimes catch their silent wings descending between the dark trees of my garden, falling on mice and small rabbits, carrying off snakes in their talons. They are able to do all the things I cannot, they see what I miss, and sometimes they perch on the various limbs, calling out, reminding me.

Somehow I make it to the dawn, and the garden has been emptied of snakes. No rabbits have broken delphinium stems, and mice have not carried away the seeds. Small records of struggles can only be seen by the most careful eyes: a tuft of fur on a rose thorn, a whiptailed stalk. Gardens are more savage than we know.

I was sitting on my back porch with my coffee, overlooking the night’s events, when I heard the front door open at her hand. Celeste swept through the rooms and to me. “And whither,” I said, “are you rolling, little apple?” “To the countryside,” she said. “Wear sturdy shoes!”

We went outside the Beltway, and started rolling through Maryland, heading North. “I was up all night,” she said, “just thinking. I need to clear my mind. Things have gotten so complicated, and I’m used to clarity. I feel uncentered.” I didn’t ask why she thought the countryside would make her feel more centered. The hills were just a jumbled course of rocks and stones and trees.

“I know just the place,” I said, “Lily Pons.” “That’s not a place, that’s a Soprano!” she said. “It’s named after her,” I said. “It’s best at midsummer, there are more flowers, but it’ll be quiet, and we can wander around for a while.”

I’d only been in July, when the lotus held their tremendous pink blossoms well above the leaves, and the water snowflakes crawled out along the banks, escaping the riot of tropical blooms. We got out of the car, and it looked like a different place. The valley was covered with ponds and small lakes. Here and there a bridge guided us across a marsh. Where the paths disappeared, the earth nearly swallowed my steps. The flat soles of her boots were her only concession to nature, and being lighter, she didn’t sink as far into the mud. We saw the last migrating herons stopping for a quick meal. The Canada geese were arrows above our heads, and redwings turned above the trees. Nothing else was moving. It was exactly the quiet she desired.

When something turns, there’s always a point in the middle like this one. A still place, unmoving, as everything else spins. Her clothes were the only colors around, jewel tones of green and gold. I watched her watching the surfaces, waiting for a moment I’d pictured for weeks.

But not there, on that curved bridge in November, with the world gray around her and the geese moving off. She was moving with them, and I followed her back to the car. “There’s a mountain I’ve heard of,” she said.

There are no mountains in Maryland. I’m used to the Sierras, granite knives far above timberline, alpine meadows and snow. You don’t climb there without thinking, you don’t climb in a jewel tone dress. I knew she just meant a hill. The locals call it Sugarloaf.

There’s a parking lot halfway up. We reached it at mid-afternoon. It’s only a few hundred feet to the summit. Trees blocked the view to the east, but we could see the river far in the west. This seemed a much better place.

In 1862, a few Union soldiers saw the Confederates coming, exactly from this spot. They tried to run, but they were caught in the forest. Only the owls know exactly where. I thought it best not to mention the incident. There we were, a small wind blowing her hair, the late sun brightening jewel tones, a few tardy hawks riding the mountain’s lift south. “Now,” I thought to myself. “Certainly now.”

But not then. The earth, the wilderness, had turned her around. She was persuaded the way back was south. I knew the car was northeast. Once, my life had depended on knowing topography, but I let her lead and wander. It was turning to evening when we found the car. I could hear the owls, calling already through the dark.

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