Memoir as Fairy tale by guest writer Shirley McNeil, Ph.D.
The Tale of Little Owl
Once upon a time, in a small village nestled in the valley between two mountain ranges, a king searched for a wife. There had been a Great War. The King had crossed oceans, fought many battles and had returned to his homeland victorious. His Lady Mother presented a lovely young maiden from their valley, and then another, but he found them all rather dreary. After all, he had grown up with these girls. He had traveled beyond the boundaries of their land and what had charmed him once no longer attracted.
As he was out one day with his warrior friends in the village, he spied a young woman he had never seen before. Her skin was as pale as his was dark. Her costume decidedly more sophisticated than the local maidens. His men inquired and informed him that she was visiting a relative in the town and was from many leagues to the East.
He applied all his trickster charm and she was soon as enchanted with him as he was with her. His Lady Mother did not approve of this foreign white woman but her cries were to no avail and the two were soon married.
In the first year of their marriage a son was born to them and there was great rejoicing in the land. The King’s mother was grudgingly obliged to accept the new Queen. The happiness did not last long. The King had become careless of the Gods and refused to follow the old rituals of thanksgiving. The child had not been given a spirit name. In their anger, the Great Spirit Gods took back the breath of life and the child lived no more.
The King and Queen went into deep mourning. In their sorrow, they became ever closer like young trees whose branches entwine. The King’s Lady Mother blamed the young Queen for all the misfortune because she was not from the valley and did not respect the old ways.
In due time, the young Queen was again with child. There was joy – and yet fear that happiness would be snatched from them again. They determined to watch over the child with special care.
On a stormy, dark November night the child was born. The birth was handled with all the ceremony necessary to insure a long life. It was a girl child. The Queen cared for her tenderly but secretly grieved that she had not given her husband a boy to replace the one who had died.
The King gave every appearance of not caring whether it was a boy or a girl child. She looked like him, with hair as dark as the winter night and the green eyes of the trickster. The King’s Lady Mother smiled into the green eyes. She would train this one to be a spirit tender.
The child had great lungs and would keep the household up all night. She seemed to be listening to something in the night others could not hear or see. Her father gave her the spirit name, “Little Owl”.
Little Owl was allowed to run wild in the house and the garden. Behind the big house was a garden leading to a forest. Her greatest joy was discovering what new wonders were happening in her forest each day. Sometimes, the ants would be building a nest inside the giant old cedar that had fallen. Sometimes there would be tiny sweet strawberries covering the soft green floor of the forest, sometimes delicate ladyslipper orchids. Sometimes, she would lie on her back in the moss and look up through the tall trees, watching the patterns formed by the movement of the branches.
She could hardly wait until evening to regale her father with the day’s adventures. He would listen to her and laugh and laugh. Sometimes, he told her stories about his early days in the forest.
One day, she saw the most amazing spider in the forest. It was suspended in a clearing and had a white body with long brown legs. She went running to find her mother, but she was busy with sewing and would not come to see. As soon as her father returned that evening, she pulled him towards the forest. She was so excited, she could hardly speak. When the King saw the “spider”, he laughed and laughed. Her spider was actually a very rare orchid, suspended high on its stem above everything else.
Her grandmother would take her for walks in the forest, teaching her how to listen to the spirits of the plants, which were safe to eat and which were deadly, which could be used to make a salve for burned skin. She would teach Little Owl in stories. There were stories about The Ancient Ones inside The Mountain, Coyote Man behind the trees and the Salmon people in the rivers.
Little Owl was sent to school in the village. The other children did not understand her spirit stories and she did not understand them. She began to feel “other”.
The King was out hunting one day when a cougar scared his horse and he was thrown to the ground. Though his men tried to revive him, his spirit had already left his body. When his Lady Mother was told she tore at her hair and began to howl like a wolf. The Queen did not believe she could go on living without him. A part of her spirit went with him. Though she went through the days of mourning it was as if she was not there.
Little Owl did not understand why her father had gone away. Her grandmother and mother would sit staring at nothing or crying and would not answer her question. “Why? Why?”
The Queen was a shadow of her former self. She told her daughter, ““You must use your Christian name now,” and Little Owl became Catherine, after the saint. “You must learn the ways of my people now. Be a grown up and watch over your sister and brother. For you are the oldest and your father would wish it so.”
And so the happy days of the forest were gone and in their place, learning the running of a household, helping her mother and studying about the big world beyond the valley. For her mother was determined she would not be as uneducated as the valley people.
She told her mother that she felt different from the other children at school. Her mother smiled proudly and said, “You are different. You are the first born daughter of a King and Queen”. But deep in her heart, Catherine Little Owl knew she was “other”.
Time passed and Catherine went away to school in the great world beyond the valley. She found herself in a culture of “otherness” and learned that this is what it was like to be in the world. She studied the great philosophies and religions and felt she still knew nothing.
She traveled throughout the world, observing diverse cultures she had read about in her studies. At times, she experienced some of the wonder she had felt as a child in the forest. Yet, there was always something missing. She was always the “other” in these places, with these people. Yet she kept searching. Perhaps in the next country she would feel the “oneness”.
Many years and many journeys later, the woman formerly known as Little Owl, settled in a lovely place known as The Emerald City. There were trees as big as those in her childhood forest, high mountains with snow on the top, and soft moss of brilliant green. The people of this city celebrated the diversity of their citizens. It was okay to be “other” there.
Catherine was drawn to a cottage near a remnant of old growth forest. It was a magical place and she knew she must live there. She began to envision a garden, became obsessed with the plans. She dreamed about plants and flowers and patterns of colors. One day she began to dig. No one could stop her. From morning to night she dug and planted. The garden became her meditation, the digging her prayer.
One summer night she fell into bed exhausted. A dream came to her: She was digging in the garden and her grandmother appeared. It was her grandmother and yet not her grandmother. The woman smiled at her sadly and told Catherine she would die the next spring in April. There was such a certainty and finality about the statement that Catherine awoke alarmed and frightened.
At first she grieved but she wanted to enjoy every day left to her. Her beautiful garden bloomed in all its glory that summer, as if knowing it were her last. She visited all her friends and family, even those she had not seen for some time. If only I could see my garden again next summer, she thought. It would be even more beautiful.
Finally she sought the wise woman of the neighborhood who was known as a seer of dreams and visions. She listened to Catherine’s story and asked her many questions. Then, she told Catherine to return to her garden, that the answer was to be found there.
Rather than working with her eyes on the ground, Catherine sat looking at her garden, looking for the answer. Day after day, she watched the spiders, the birds, the ripening of the berries. On a particularly sunny blue-sky day, she sat watching her favorite green hummingbird feeding on the fuchsias. She felt at peace with herself and with all of nature. Her eyes followed the tiny bird as it flew higher until she was looking up at the leafy patterns against the sky. All at once, an overwhelming sense of recognition jolted her out of her reverie.
Suddenly, the woman formerly known as Little Owl knew the “oneness” she had experienced as a child, and she knew that it was Catherine who would die but that Little Owl would live.
And so, Little Owl joyfully tended the spirits in her garden and in the Great Garden and felt the “oneness” more than the “otherness” to the end of her long and happy life.