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Owls: A Memoir of Fear
February 25, 2022
On Wednesday, Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Though it has only been two days, this has already been the largest ground assault in Europe since World War Two. Russia claims that two pro-Russian provinces of Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, have declared independence from Ukraine and that Russian troops are merely a peacekeeping force ensuring that these regions stay independent. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also stated that he believes that Ukraine was part of Russia historically and that actions taken against the Ukrainian government (like the bombing of their capital of Kyiv, which is not in Luhansk or Donetsk) is justified because the Ukrainian government is run by Neo-Nazis.
None of what Putin said in his statements is true. Ukraine has always had a separate language and culture from Russia (until it became part of the Soviet Union in 1922), neither Luhansk nor Donetsk are recognized as independent nations by any country other than Russia, the Russian “peacekeeping force” launched hundreds of missiles into Ukraine without any provocation, and the Ukrainian government, led by Jewish liberal Volodymyr Zelensky, has been one of the most progressive in Europe this decade. Unfortunately, these facts are obfuscated by Russian cyberattacks on communication hubs and their flooding the internet with fake news, so it’s difficult to assess everything that is happening in the region right now.
But we can easily guess. After all, Putin has done this before.
In 2008, Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia, a small neighboring country to their south, under the recommendation of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Like Ukraine, Georgia has a long cultural history but was part of the Soviet Union for most of the twentieth century. Like Ukraine, Georgia has been a very progressive state and in 2008 tried to join NATO, a collaboration of countries that was founded specifically to defend Europe against Russian aggression. Like Ukraine, Russia claimed that a small region of the country (South Ossetia) had become an independent state and Russia was sending peacekeeping troops into Georgia to defend the pretend new country. What resulted was the first European war of the twenty-first century, and though the war lasted only twelve days, it saw thousands of military and civilian casualties, widespread ethnic cleansing and destruction of Georgian cultural sites, and the displacement of over 192,000 people whose homes were destroyed.
While Georgia survived and remains an independent nation today, the Russo-Georgian War left many scars that are still not healed. Nowhere is that clearer than in “Owls,” a story that was first published in the May 2019 issue of The Dreamcatcher. The story was written by Ani Gamkrelidze, a foreign exchange student who came to Frederick High from Georgia and who lived through the Russo-Georgian War.
We have chosen to rerelease her award-winning work at this time where, while we don’t know everything that is going on in Ukraine or where this conflict will lead, we know that people are afraid and hurting. We hope that this story moves you the way it has moved us and makes you consider the tragedy that is currently befalling the Ukrainian people.
I took off into the woods. The summer breeze softly brushed against my face as I went deeper into the darkness. I was eager to escape the cold silver light of the streetlamp. I sat between the enormous roots of an old walnut tree and rested my back against its rough bark.
“…Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty. I am coming for you all!” The seeker stopped counting. A zap of nervous energy went through my body as I held my breath and hoped he wouldn’t come my way. After all, behind a tree was not the best place to hide–even six-year-old me knew that. I heard careful footsteps behind me and froze like a statue.
Something fell to the ground with a thud so loud, my stomach did a somersault out of fear. I didn’t move a muscle.
“Time-out, time-out!” the seeker called, “Something fell from the trees.”
Everybody left their hiding place and gathered to investigate. In the dark, we could only make out something round fluttering on the ground. Nobody dared to get close, except my brother. He picked up the struggling creature off the ground and we all moved into the light so we could see what it was.
It was a little owl. Its almost luminous, fiery yellow eyes complimented its grey, fuzzy feathers. The eyebrows gave the tiny creature a fierce, outraged look. As we stared at it curiously and the owl glared at us back, there was another loud thud in the woods. We all ran toward the sound. It was another little owl, only it was a little larger than the first one.
“Hold on, guys, I think there are two of them!” somebody yelled. I was lost in the hustle. When we ended up back under the streetlamp, we had three little owls instead of one. They all had the same outraged glare.
“What do we do with them?”
“We have an old birdcage at our house. Let’s take them there,” my brother answered. We all entered the front yard. My grandma found the birdcage and we put the owls inside.
Three pairs of lively little eyes evaluated everything around them. More than the eyes, their ability to turn their heads two hundred and seventy degrees was outstanding.
“I can’t find anything wrong with them,” my grandma said. “I have no idea why they’d fall out of the tree.”
“We can’t keep them here–wild birds won’t like being kept in a small cage. Put them back in the forest,” Mom ordered us firmly.
We had no choice; there was no disobeying Mom.
We had no idea why those owls fell out of the tree.
We had no idea that two days later, bombs would be falling on our heads instead of owls.
It was a scorching hot August day like any other. My brother and I were playing cards in the yard under the shade of an apple tree. The surroundings were peaceful and calm like usual, with birds singing and the summer breeze giving us a slight relief from the typical August afternoon.
“I win!” he said contently. I slid the cards toward me and started to shuffle them angrily.
There was a loud boom in the distance and the ground shook. My brother and I stopped and looked at each other with confusion. Everything went quiet for a split second. The breeze, the birds–everything stopped. Mom burst out the door.
Disbelief. Fear. Agony. I could see the panic in her eyes widened with terror: she was breathing heavily. Without a word, she grabbed us both and we ran. Something rang like thunder, yet there were no clouds in the sky. Unlike thunder, it was everywhere–all around and persistent, I could feel it vibrating through my body.
I couldn’t dare to look up at the sky.
We made it to the back of the house and went down into the basement. My grandma followed soon after us. She fed a bent iron rod through the handles of the basement door to lock it from the inside. And we waited.
Nobody spoke. I felt the waves coming from the aircraft engines ring and vibrate through my body. Time to time, there was a loud boom and the ground shook. I didn’t know how long it lasted. My mind had decided to focus on the cobwebs in the corners of the room along with the canned goods my grandma had prepared for the winter.
If a bomb hits, all of these cans will be ruined…
Two minutes or two hours later, I felt the continuous vibration throughout my body subside. All of what just had happened rushed through overwhelmingly into my brain. I started to breathe sporadically. My legs felt like someone cemented them to the floor. I couldn’t move. I felt a tight embrace. My mom held me in her arms tightly. I could feel her rapid heartbeat on my chest. We all broke down like we were hit by a tsunami.
“What is happening, what is happening?” I cried out.
“It’s a war. We are getting attacked,” my brother said in a monotone voice without taking his eyes off the spot he was staring at on the floor.
We waited. Our senses sharpened to feel that menacing vibration in the air. It didn’t come. My grandma took the rusty iron rod out of the door handle and we crawled out back into the daylight.
Everything had decided to go dormant. Birds weren’t singing, leaves no longer swayed in the summer breeze. No hustle and bustle of dozens of kids playing outside. There was only smoke, silently rising up in the air from the town.
We turned on the television, only to see burning cities and injured, suffering people in the streets. What felt like only a few minutes later, the ominous vibration returned and pierced my chest unpleasantly. Running. Hiding. The ground shook with explosions again. The vibration was the only thing I could feel, it had dulled all my other senses.
What is war anyway?
Right at that moment, war for me was comprised of questions – Why? What did we do to deserve this? Why is this happening?
The ringing of the aircraft engines subsided. The tsunami of realization washed over us again. We crawled out to the eerily peaceful surroundings.
My mom lit a candle and we prayed. We prayed this would be the end of it.
The sinister feeling returned once again.
Running. Hiding. The tsunami. The wait. And again.
This day seemed like would never end.
To our relief, the night finally came. The ominous feeling left.
It was dark and musty in the basement. My mom and grandma had brought down some blankets. We were going to have to sleep there. I could feel the cold cement floor through the blankets. It was unusually cold for summer.
I couldn’t sleep. I could barely make out jars on the shelves in the pitch darkness. My grandma and mom were talking, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking about what would happen next. How long will we have to sleep down here? What if the enemy soldiers come? What will they do?
I felt a nudge.
“Kids, we’re going to go to see if we can get gasoline. No matter what happens, don’t go anywhere,” said Mom.
We had no choice; there was no disobeying Mom. They left and we locked the door from the inside.
What if there are enemy soldiers in the town? What are we going to do if they capture mom and grandma? What if they come to our house?
Someone knocked on the door. I jumped.
“Open up,” Mom called. My brother got up and opened the door.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“We’re going to your other grandma’s house up in the mountains. It’s safer there,” she said.
She helped us pack some clothes. Our neighbor had agreed to drive us there. My grandma poured the gasoline into the tank of the old Lada that had belonged to my grandfather. My mom, brother, and I got into the car.
“Grandma, aren’t you going to sit up front?” my brother asked.
“I’m not coming, sweetie.”
“But why?” he exclaimed.
“Because someone’s got to take care of this house,” she smiled. “I’ll be okay, don’t worry about me.”
The headlights of our car were the only ones on the road. The engine was grunting and rattling. The nature was still. The only thing I could hear over the car was the rush of the river, though it seemed like it wasn’t as violent as usual. The moon was full and bright and hung high in the sky. Its silvery glow illuminated the forest and the road. The sky was packed with stars, like the universe had chosen that night to look over the earth. One even fell.
“There’s a falling star, make a wish,” Mom said.
“I want a puppy.”
Mom looked at me.
“We can’t have one, can we?” I said downheartedly.
“Right now, we should wish for peace,” she said.
I shut my eyes very, very tight and concentrated on the word.
A week later, on my brother’s birthday, the same word was on his mind when he blew out the candles. Peace was on everybody else’s minds too.
My brother and I, along with all the other children who were old enough to know what was happening, had to put aside our childish wishes. None of us wished for bikes or puppies anymore. Everybody’s wishes were replaced by a longing for peace.
We didn’t play hide and seek that summer anymore.
Every night, I could hear the owls hooting in the woods. I didn’t want to hear them. The hooting brought a sharp, piercing feeling to my heart. We shouldn’t go back into the woods. What if more owls fall?
Every summer at night, I can still hear the owls hoot.
It never fails to feel unsettling.
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