Ash Tree

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The owls have spurned my box. They preferred the cracked chimney of a tall ash tree by the river. Now we hear the youngsters clashing and snoring throughout the night, and the adult birds ferry a stream of flesh into the low boughs.

We went to see them by torchlight and found three well-grown children nodding and shrugging on the bark. Each one is subtly different in size and style; quirks of age and sex are spelled out in feather length and tone. I see them and think of commercial packaging; the same branding stamped on a range of quantities and varieties. One looked me squarely in the eye at hissed like a cat; beak parted like an origami salt seller.

Their wails are endless, and I stand on the stubbles and listen to their rasping phrases beneath a hanging smear of rain. The sounds hang around the mist on the low ground like a file panting rust. Water gabbles below the old ash tree, and the soil is dark and heavy. There are sudden tangs of mould and fallen grass, and walking moves us through chambers of warm and cold air like a hotel corridor. I hear water voles rippling through the rummel, and fat mallard rush against the rain.

It is not long before the adult owls return with a rat. There is a swell of huffing complaint, but the young birds are only satisfied for a heartbeat.

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