The Greathorne twins, Olivia and Owena, hatched on a beautiful May morning and looked right into the luminous eyes of their loving mother. A hop or two back on the branch was their proud Papa.
The loving parents gave their owlets some time to adjust to bright moonlight and spreading out space. When the girls had stretched and blinked and settled into calm curiosity about their new surroundings, their parents hopped softly toward them.
“We call thee Olivia,” said Mama, tapping gently on Olivia’s still damp head. Papa dropped a shred of fresh meat into Olivia’s beak.
“We call thee Owena,” said Mama, tapping her other daughter’s pate. Owena had her maw open for the food before Papa even had a chance to hop her way.
That was the last time Owena was ever second behind Olivia. From the very first, the girls’ personalities shone through.
Owena was the explorer. Even on that first hatching day, she was angling to fly, watching Papa as he soared away in search of food. She would plant her little talons on the rough bark of the branch, and she’d imitate his arking and swaying. When Papa returned with his catch, she would first eat ravenously, then watch as Mama flew off. Owena would strain forward as Mama did, twisting her head this way and that, her sharp eyes searching for things that skitter in the tall waving grass.
Olivia was quite different. She was content to stay closer to the nest. She listened. She imitated what she heard, and soon her raw croaks became melodious croons. Olivia, it was clear, was musically gifted.
The twins, different as they were, loved each other dearly. At dawn they would huddle together and talk just before they slept. Olivia dreamed of conducting an owl orchestral chorus. She would teach Owena little tunes and they would harmonize together. Although Olivia had the much stronger, truer voice, when they sang together, the harmony was very, very pleasing.
Owena dreamed of faraway places. She would make up stories of wonders she would see and share them with her sister. Olivia’s eyes would shine with excitement–until they suddenly dropped into sleep.
Mama and Papa were deeply pleased with both their girls, and they encouraged their different interests. Before long, both Owena and Olivia had learned to fly. Owena, of course, flew first, after several careless tumbles and premature attempts. The urge to go just pushed her, and one morning, from her imitating Papa stance, she suddenly lifted up and soared. Mama and Olivia shouted in amazement.
Papa heard the joyous cries of his family, and he circled back. Sweeping around his adventurous daughter, he led her out on her first flight. He’d intended to be cautious and stay close to home, but Owena’s urge to explore gave her great strength. They left Mama and Olivia cheering them on far behind. It was the first of many exploratory flights Olivia took with her father. She quickly picked up hunting skills and was soon bringing delectable tidbits back for the family’s dinner.
Olivia faithfully followed Owena’s lead, and with her sister’s hearty encouragement, became a sturdy flier. But she never had Owena’s panache; her flying was strictly for the purpose of getting from here to there, and her hunting to make a meal. Owena’s flight was beautiful–and sometimes nerve-wracking–to watch. Her hunting dive was deadly and swift.
“Now that you’re flying,” said Mama one morning, “it’s time for the next level of learning. Girls, you’re going to school today!”
Olivia and Owena preened in excitement and, after breakfast, Papa flew them over to Mrs. Knowle’s Tree of Knowledge. There were eight or nine other little owls just about their age assembled there. And there was Mrs. Knowle, puffed up and frightening, sternly waiting for them.
“She was MY teacher when I was an owlet,” Papa whispered. “Scared the scat out of me, but I learned a lot.”
The girls shared a glance, and they made sure they had spaces close together on the branch campus.
Owena soon realized she hated school. Olivia didn’t mind sitting still and learning, and Mrs. Knowle often pointed that out. Owena, on the other talon, always intended to listen. But, as Mrs. Knowle droned on, she would find her eyes flickering from side to side, and soon she’d be staring at a spot far away where she could see the little rippling trail of something moving through the meadow. Without her awareness, her wings would spread, and the next thing she knew, she’d be airborne.
Olivia would trill to her quietly, but Mrs. Knowle always caught her. The teacher would whip her head around and glare until Owena came sheepishly back, lighting softly on the branch and cooing apologies.
“Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Old Lady Knowle would demand, and Owena would hang her head.
“It’s true,” she would think. “Olivia is so good. I’m a bad owlet, and I can’t seem to change.”
Owena grew to dread going to school. She talked her mother into letting her stay home sick one day. but that was almost worse. Mama was so concerned, she made Owena stay tucked under her wing until Olivia finally came home. All Owena wanted was to soar. She didn’t want to be bored at school. She didn’t want to be stuck under her mother’s wing.
She wanted to fly.
Things finally came to a head at school. Owena had just returned from another involuntary flight and Old Knowle, all puffed up with indignation, was waiting for her. She’d dismissed the rest of the school, although Owena saw Olivia waiting for her, hidden on a branch of a nearby tree.
“Well, Missy,” sneered the teacher, “enough is enough. It’s time you learned to stay still. After dinner, I am going to your parents and I am going to demand that you be grounded.
“Grounded!” gasped Owena. “Errr…what exactly does that mean?”
“It means,” snapped the teacher, “that you will not be allowed to fly until you have learned to perch!”
“Not allowed—” breathed Owena. “For how long?”
“For as long as I decide! But at least two weeks.”
Owena tried to imagine that. She remembered the awful frozen feeling of staying home sick that one day, stuck under Mama’s wing. She thought of all the times she flew without even realizing she had lifted into the air.
She knew, without trying to be defiant or ornery, that she could not be flightless for a day, much less two weeks.
“I’m very sorry,” said Owena to Mrs. Knowle politely. “But I cannot be grounded.”
The teacher begin to warble angrily, eyes bulging, head twisting, but Owena did not stay to listen. She lifted gracefully off the branch and flew to where Olivia hid. Olivia had heard the whole exchange, and her golden eyes were wet.
“I know,” she whispered to Owena, “that you have to go.”
“Tell Mama and Papa that I love them!” said Owena. “I love you, too.” And she was flying, soaring away on an updraft, leaving Olivia sadly watching and the teacher wildly ranting.
Owena flew until she left her anger behind, and then she opened her eyes and watched the world unfold. She flew out of the homely woods to the end of the familiar meadow. She flew over rivers that shone silver gray in the moonglow. She flew over lakes in which she saw fish swimming away from her moonlit shadow. The first day, she slept in a strange pine tree, startling at noises she wasn’t used to, but in the evening, the urge to go further erased the daytime fears.
Owena flew and and she flew and she flew.
She met all kinds of owls–who knew there were so many? She ate exotic foods. She explored bare rockfaces of rugged mountains, and she enjoyed little respites in cozy, protected valleys. She saw settlements of people, those odd beings who build huge dwellings for themselves and for their animal friends. She met new owl friends who lived in the animal dwellings, structures they called barns.
She learned to fly against the wind; she learned to navigate in the rain. She was propelled by the overwhelming need to explore further and to know more about the wide world she lived in. On and on she went.
The weather changed. She noticed the leaves changing color. She noticed how they fell to the ground after a time; then, Owena only felt protected in the still-green pines when she stopped to sleep for the day. She felt the wind grow colder; she noticed the extra layer of fluffy feathers she sprouted to ward off the chill.
And Owena began, for the first time since she left the branch campus, to slow down. She slowed down, and she began to think of her Mama and Papa, and especially she thought of Olivia. She wondered what kind of music Olivia was making these days. She wondered if Mama and Papa were very, very angry and disappointed with their fly-away daughter.
For the next few days, she pushed herself to move ahead, but it grew harder and harder, and finally, one evening, she arced a new course toward home.
She noticed changes as she flew, unswerving as an arrow, to the place of her birth…a hard skin on the surface of the lake, fewer little critters dancing about to be eaten. Things, it seemed, were burrowing into those cozy drifts of fallen leaves.
Owena experienced, for the first time, snow. It was beautiful, and she learned it could be deadly, changing the look and smell of the once-familiar world. She thanked her stars for the homing instinct that seemed to be built in, a sense right behind her eyes, and she let that instinct lead her.
It led her home, on a clear and moonlit night, home to the tree where her life began. And before she could even see that tree, she heard a beautiful song.
It was Olivia, and she was singing, “I’m dreaming of a flight Christmas…”
Owena let the song float her down to the branch, where there was tremendous excitement. Oh, they were all so happy to see her, Mama and Papa and her sister. They demanded to know where she had been and what she had seen. They plied her with questions and delicious shredded meat, and they listened, bright-eyed and joyful, to her tales of discovery and adventure. Olivia beamed at her with the utmost admiration.
Finally Owena wound down, and she leaned back and looked at her parents, and she sighed with contentment and relief. “I was so afraid,” she said, “that you’d be so angry you would never forgive me for flying away.”
Her parents looked at her lovingly.
“Come see this,” said her mother, and they hopped around the trunk of the tree to a glittering scene. Papa had bent down one branch of the evergreen so that it was vertical. From it hung strands of silver–silver strands captured and shredded from the careless litter of humans–that caught the moonlight and glittered. There were dried seed pods hanging from the branch, and, “See this?” asked Mama, proudly.
Owena gasped. It was a big pine cone, decorated with leaves and nuts so cleverly that it looked just like a young owl–just, in fact, like Owena. And there was another, very similar, but clearly Olivia, a little farther on.
“How….” started Owena, not even knowing what to ask.
“Ah,” said her mother softly. “You never knew your father was an artist.”
Her father ducked and turned his head shyly, and then swiveled it back to say, “Nor did you know this about your Mama: she is a poet. Say your lovely words for her, darling.”
Mama hopped to a spot near Owena, cleared her throat, and spoke.
“One of my girls must sing her songs.
The other one must roam.
Owena has to spread her wings.
Olivia sings her home.
You are destined to follow your yearning:
To be whom you’re meant to be.
But at Christmastime, you’ll always know
Your heart is in this tree, my dear.
Your heart is in this tree.”
“What is this ‘Christmas’?” Owena asked in wonder.
“Oh,” said Papa, “it’s a wonder-filled, magical time, when we celebrate the Son of Man, who broke through all the veils that separate us.”
The moon shone in a velvety sky; stars twinkled, and the world, for just a moment, was as still as eternity.
Owena whispered, “Wherever I am, I will always know to turn around and come back to the tree when the Christmas season beckons.”
Mama said, “Your sister knew. She never had any doubt; she told us you’d come back. In fact she wrote a song for your return.”
Her parents opened their wings and she hopped into their embrace. Below and behind them rose Olivia’s clear true voice:
“Owl, be home for Christmas…”
Owena flew, in her lifetime, thousands of miles. She saw the most wonderful sights and met the most amazing creatures. But when the wind blew cold and the warm underlayer started lining her feathers, she always turned around and kept her vow. This owl, she had promised, WILL be home for Christmas.
And she always, always was.
Merry Christmas to the grandest of kids: Alyssa and Kaelyn, Alex, Brennen, Gabrielle, Kirsten, Maddie, Mia, Patrick, Quincie, Ronan, and Ryan.