Garden of Earthly Delights
By lunchtime we're well off the beaten track outside Nassau. It's steamy hot, and we're hungry. No food to be found, but in one town we spot, at the entrance to an abandoned condo development, a derelict gate with a tower. The tower features a tiny room with a window opening: a potential roosting site for Barn Owls. Through the doorway, we can make out a rusty metal staircase leading up to the top. We park down the road and walk back. There's no sidewalk. We hug the edge of the surprisingly busy road. A guy in a beater car slows down, window open. I worry he's going to ask what we're doing there, but instead he asks what we're looking for. Almost embarrassed, I tell him we're looking for birds. Smiling, he offers, The owls live up there, before driving on.
We climb the shaky stairs slowly, but the owls aren't home today above all these cars, in this cloying heat. Many generations of rodent bones litter the floor in loose, dirty piles, mixing with bird droppings, feathers, soda cans, and food wrappers.
roofless pink walls
sheltering young trees
open to change
In early Dutch paintings there's often an owl, a ghost-faced, expressionless Barn Owl calmly perched in a corner. A human-sized owl with limpid eyes sits in a pool in Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. Owls perch in shadowed windows, among branches, looking out as if to say, Only I can really see what's happening here. Or maybe, Don't forget about death. Some sort of dark wisdom.
The most ungodly, terrifying bird sound must be that of a Barn Owl, whose blood-curdling screech sounds like a woman being murdered up in the hay loft. But to its rodent prey the hunting owl sounds like nothing: the leading edges of its wings create no turbulence. Those silent wings swoop down without warning in the dark.
dog in the distance
or is it an owl
A chickcharnie, a creature of Bahamian folklore specific to Andros Island, perches as a wooden sculpture in our hotel lobby next to a cage holding a sullen green parrot. Human-sized, with red eyes, a thick, hooked bill, feathers, and talon-like claws for fingers, the chickcharnie inhabits pine forests. The stories may have been inspired by a now-extinct, giant, flightless owl, related to the Barn Owl, that stood over three feet tall and may have survived into the colonial era. If you're kind to a chickcharnie, your life will be filled with luck. But if you're not, it will spin your head around like an owl's.
We hire a guide on Andros who takes us on sandy trails through the pine and palmetto forest. He wears a pink batik shirt. The chickcharnie, we learn, appreciates bright colors. We visit blue holes, deep round sinkholes in the limestone bedrock that, fathoms below, open to the sea. The color of the water is uncanny. Eyes wide-open to the sun, unblinking, palm fronds for lashes; portals to another dimension. In one blue hole, minnows nibble the soft skin of our toes. In another, we jump in from the rim, twenty feet above the water, and climb out on a rope ladder. It takes me a long time to step off the edge, to let myself fall into the cool water.
wondering which element
One stand of pines hosts a Barn Owl nest. No longer occupied, the dry cluster of sticks is dusty with old droppings. On the ground amid rusty pine needles: a single intact feather, perhaps a wing feather, pale, with the faintest hint of sandy brown and a pattern of darker brown patches. I run a finger over the soft, fine fringe of its leading edge and tuck the feather into my sunhat. Later, I smuggle it home in my luggage.
mangroves at night
the presence of others
not always a comfort
Kristen Lindquist is a poet and writer living on the Maine coast. Her work has appeared in Down East Magazine, Bangor Daily News, and various literary journals and anthologies. Her books include Transportation (2011), a finalist for the Maine Literary Award, and Tourists in the Known World (2017). Three of her poems have been shared by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac. An avid birder and naturalist, she writes a long-running nature column for a local paper and maintains a daily haiku blog, Book of Days.