Personal Essay: Whistle Back

Whistle Back

Ella Salome

My mother is a bird enthusiast. I say this because she doesn’t have the education to be considered an ornithologist, or the constancy of habit to earn the title of birdwatcher. But she knows more about birds than anyone I’ve ever known; excluding my year eight maths teacher, who was the world’s leading specialist on bowerbirds, and my Nanna Nancy, who was our family’s leading specialist on just about everything up until she died a few years ago. 

Back when I was a kid, Nanna used to care for abandoned baby ring tailed possums. Being used to a pouch, they liked to snuggle into her bra while she ran errands or moved about the house cutting fruit for the older ringtails out back. She thought it was hilarious to have tiny faces peeking out of her cleavage at the second hand book store, where I can only assume she spent a lot of time judging by the size of her private library. Her house was a neatly organised chaos of information and beauty, stacked on dark wooden shelves, stored in tiny boxes, wrapped in tissue paper and sorted into drawers by category. Nanna had an eye for understated or unusual antiques of any kind. She saw the beauty in the most practical, well made, everyday things. She knew herbal remedies, and did her research on the brands of food she bought. She was clever, witty, and a little bit magical.

Mum inherited the magic too, I think. When I was about five, a white barn owl somehow found its way into our bathroom. In our old rural Victorian farmhouse, the bathroom was connected to the rest of the house only by a large airy laundry, which Dad built before we were born. The door to the front porch was rarely closed, the louvered windows were rusted open, and the wooden walls were painted dark green. The room never seemed like part of the inside of the house, but rather an enclosed piece of outside. This may explain how an owl could wander two rooms deep into our human domain before realising its mistake. As I remember it, Mum simply walked into the bathroom, and came back out seconds later with the owl perched on her arm. The owl was huge, perhaps enlarged by my own relative smallness. Mum looked fierce and enchanted, like Boadicea, the Celtic war queen, or one of the other brave and mystical women we read about together. She moved with steady, gentle steps out the front door and into the night, where the owl calmly took flight. Its talons had drawn blood on her arm, but I doubt she minded. That’s the kind of price you pay to be at one with the wild.

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