Swallow fluffed out her blue and orange feathers and shook her head. She watched for Master Owl with a careful eye from her favorite branch on the Silver Birch near the field. Today she had something important to tell him.
The barn owl swooped down to catch a mouse, grasped it with his talons, and glided up to her branch before touching down. Master Owl looked at her, clicked his beak three times, then swallowed his mouse.
“Top of the mornin’ to ya, my young apprentice,” he said, then fluffed out his own brown and white feathers.
“Good morning, Master,” Swallow said. “I have made a decision about the migration.”
Master Owl turned his head to a ninety-degree angle.
“I’ve decided,” she continued, “that I’m going to stay here for the winter.”
Swallow puffed out her pink, orange chest. She clicked her own beak several times.
“My young apprentice,” Owl said, “that is suicide. You know your tiny body cannot survive a winter here.”
“I can survive.”
“How will you find food?”
Swallow fluttered her wings and said, “I will eat the worms from Farmer’s compost and the berries I have gathered and dried over the months.”
“What of warmth? Surely you will die of cold if you stay here.” Owl turned his head upright again and stretched his legs one at a time.
“No, Master Owl, I will not die. I have the barn to keep me warm when you are gone, and when you are here, I will have your soft underbelly feathers to keep me warm.”
Master Owl hooted and looked straight at Swallow. He hopped to a higher branch, looking down at Swallow now.
“Why do you want to stay here rather than fly off with your flock?”
“I am not like my flock, Master. I am my own bird. I want to see winter and snow and feel the icy wind under my wings.”
Swallow watched as Master Owl expanded his wings to full width. They were enormous. At least ten of her fit on one wing. His feathers were longer than her entire body.
Owl took flight and circled the tree. Swallow wasn’t sure why. She only knew him to do that when he was frustrated with her not understanding her lessons. But this was different. She understood perfectly what she was doing. Knew what she wanted and had planned for months to make her dream a reality.
When Master Owl landed again, he perched even higher up on the Birch than before. He raised his head, bobbed up and down, and looked at Swallow again.
“Young apprentice, you must listen to me,” Owl began. “You cannot do this. The wise choice will be to fly south for the winter and return when the berries are fresh, flies are abundant, and the ground thawed. You risk too much.”
“I risk what I must to live my dream, Master,” she said, standing tall.
“Your dream is to die?”
“My dream is to experience winter. Whether good or bad. To be part of it. To see things die and grow again in the spring.”
“Then you are a silly swallow who does not understand what I have taught.” Owl clicked his beak in annoyance and hopped down the branch, making the entire thing wobble under his weight.
“I am not a silly swallow. I understand much you taught me, which is why I planned this out. I am not afraid to be different. Not afraid to be myself. I want to know winter, so I will know winter.”
“And what if I should get hungry and eat you? Have you thought of that?” Owl moved to the same branch as Swallow and stuck his head in her face. His beak less than an inch from her.
“Then you will be the one at a loss.”
Master Owl stumbled away from her. His eyes widened. She moved closer to him.
“How would I be at a loss if I ate you? It is you that would lose your life, Swallow.”
“I may lose my life even if you don’t eat me. That is not the point. Living my dream is. If you got hungry and ate me, I would die knowing that I lived my dream. That I wasn’t afraid to be myself and wasn’t afraid to back down even with the threat of death. I would die happy and fulfilled.”
Master Owl looked into the field, his eyes locking on another mouse.
“You, Master Owl, would die too,” she said with heavy intent.
He looked back at her.
“How would I die? I am the Master, knower of things, the wise owl…”
“Yes, a wise Master who has taught me many things.” Swallow hopped closer to him. “Including what guilt and regret do to us.”
Master Owl lowered his head.
“If you ate me, you would be filled with sorrow. You would stare at my regurgitated bones every day, knowing that you lost control and consumed your dearest apprentice and friend. Your guilt would eat you alive, and soon, you’d join me in the after.
“So, Master Owl, my plan to experience winter is not silly or unthoughtful. I have put a great deal of planning into this, and I am willing to risk what must be risked, to feel what I want to feel. But if you are unwilling to take that journey with me, because of your fear, then I will experience winter alone. The point is… I will experience it. This is my choice and I am telling you that I made my decision.”
Master Owl bobbed his head up and down again and hopped to a branch below Swallow.
“Today,” he said, “you are the Master, and I the apprentice.” Then he stretched out his wings and bowed his head.
Alaina Ewing lives in the Pacific Northwest and writes science fiction, fantasy, young adult, mainstream, and just about anything that fits her mood. Her novel The Heart-Shaped Emblor and short story “Blood of the Mother” (in the anthology Witches, Stitches & Bitches) are printed by Evil Girlfriend Media.