by Rose Jermusyk.
An owl was once content to make its nest high in the eaves of an old barn for the winter. A farmhand went in one day to oil the tools so they wouldn’t freeze, and saw the owl’s wide eyes catch the light as they looked upon him. Having never seen an owl in his life, the farmhand ran away screaming in terror to find the landowner, and tell him that a strange and terrifying beast was in the barn.
The landowner knew this farmhand to be of the rather skittish sort, and so decided he had better see for himself what all the fuss was about. When he went into the barn he looked up into the eaves. There was the owl preening itself. The landowner had also never seen an owl before and meant to make a quiet exit; but, when the owl turned to look in his direction, shaking out its feathers a bit in the process, the sound of the ruffling feathers sent the landowner into a frenzy so that he was soon running down the main road into the village.
The landowner cried and cried for help so that not one of his neighbors could ignore him. Everyone rushed out to hear his tale of the noisy, wide-eyed beast in his barn. They all agreed to follow the landowner and the farmhand back to the barn to get a look for themselves before devising a plan of action.
The barn door was opened just a crack, but before anyone could peek in and take a look the owl asked “Who?” and the door was quickly shut once more. Not one of the villagers had ever seen an owl before, let alone heard its common call. They all believed it was asking them “who is brave enough to face me?” and – looking around at one another – decided the great huntsman should go in and rout out the terrible beast.
The great huntsman of the village had his long ladder brought to the old barn so that he might climb into the eaves for battle. When he entered the barn door he looked up to see upon what beam the beast was sitting, and saw the owl’s wide eyes catch the light as they looked upon him. The great huntsman took a deep breath and leaned the ladder against the beam.
The clatter of the ladder against the beam gave the owl a start so that it shook out its feathers a bit, the sound of the ruffling startling the huntsman. The great huntsman took a deep, steadying breath and began to climb the ladder rung by rung. Rung by rung the huntsman climbed, and inch by inch the owl backed away with its talons tapping the timber beam.
At every talon’s tap, the huntsman shook. At every shake, the ladder rocked. At every rock, the feathers ruffled. With every ruffle, the owl inched further away until its back just touched the wall and – startled – the owl opened wide its eyes so they caught the light; and, the huntsman froze upon the ladder. The owl began to flap its wings wildly; and, the huntsman hurried down the ladder.
The ladder clattered, teeth chattered, and the owl cried “Who?” as the great huntsman shut the barn door behind him, crying.
The people of the village were dumbfounded. They knew that if their great huntsman could be made to weep as a small child, then their small village didn’t stand much of a chance. They demanded that the farmhand do something since he was the one who first found the beast. The farmhand said the landowner should do something since he owned the old barn now housing the beast. The landowner said he would gladly burn down his barn and the beast within had his neighbor the great huntsman not left his own ladder inside. The great huntsman continued to weep as he cried out that he didn’t care about his ladder just so long as the beast was dead and gone.
So it was that every villager went home, and – once there – took a piece of kindling from their own fires. Then, they all surrounded the old barn of the landowner and set it ablaze.
Inside, while the villagers were getting their kindling, the owl was finally glad that the villagers had stopped making such pests of themselves; and, when the villagers first set fire to the old barn, the owl seemed to beam with pride at what a cozy nesting place it had happened upon for the winter. Yet as the fire grew and grew, the warmth of the old barn became less cozy and more stifling. Soon it was filled with smoke so that the owl could barely breathe. The owl’s round eyes filled with tears of heat and woe when – suddenly – a portion of the old barn’s roof caved in. Even through those tears the owl could see to follow the saving ray of sunlight that came streaming through, and he flew away unseen.
Yet the owl was not unharmed, feelings had been hurt. Thus began a quest to educate mankind, a difficult undertaking.
Men tended to lash out violently against the owl as it became clear they could not understand it. Women tended to brush it off impatiently when they saw how much time it may take to understand it. Children, however, wanted to tend the owl as a friend; their hearts react to curiosity the way canvas is stretched upon a frame, they wait to be painted with those infinite shades of gray and many more marvelous colors.
The owl set the sight of its wide eyes upon a particular lad and set about following him, asking him “Who?” every now and again. The boy listened intently to the question whenever it was asked and noted what times the owl was most likely to ask it.
One day, the boy did the owl proud and began to ask the question for himself. He asked his father “Who?” and his father answered “No.” He asked his mother “Who?” and his mother answered “Not yet.” He asked people on the street and they answered “Go away.”
So the boy went out into the wide world to ask the question. He asked a bear, but the bear growled impatiently and shuffled away. He asked a fox, but the fox just stood quite still and looked at him for a long time before darting away. He asked a seagull as it strutted across the beach, and the seagull answered
The boy sat down just where he was and continued to ask the question. The seagull strutted to and from the boy and continued to give the answer.