By Stephanie Flores
The great horned owl looked toward the east from her nest high above the forest
floor. Tongues of fire lapped at the distant forestry, devouring its greenery and leaving charred bony remains. Smoke choked out all light in the sky and entered her lungs with every breath. She shifted her body weight. Twigs dug into her underside, but her eggs were safe and warm. Even as the wall of fire advanced towards her nest, the safety of her eggs was all that mattered. Last week, an unbearable heat rose from the east. Thick ribbons of smoke rising toward the heavens soon followed. Other birds, prey and predator alike, flew past her nest as they made their escape. Yet she remained where she was. Her eggs wriggled underneath her body and she heard faint scratching sounds coming from within them. They were due to hatch soon and she could not leave her owlet to fend for themselves. Even if the fire spared her nest, a famished eagle would not be as merciful.
A pang of pain jagged into the owl’s underside. Not the slight discomfort that will occur when her owlets claw out of their eggs, but the deep gash of hunger. Her mate left a few hours ago to fetch her some food. As the smoke drove prey out from their hiding places, he should have caught something and returned by now.
The owl let out a hoarse cry, a reminder to her mate. “I am here. I am hungry. I will see the birth of our young. Please stay safe.”
The roar of the flames drowned out her cry. In the distance, she saw a pair of broad burnt wings struggling to remain afloat. Embers gnawed away at its feathers and with a single weak flap, the wings pummeled into the smoke. The owl let out another cry.
Ash poured out of the sky and stung her eyes. She took a laborious breath, in and out, as the remaining oxygen was fading.
The owl turned her head towards the east. The wall of fire reached toward the soot-colored sky and was swiftly advancing toward her nest. The owl shifted her body weight once more. Her body won’t be able to shield her eggs from the greedy tongues of fire. Fear and maternal instincts warred inside of her, one ordering her to flee and the other begging her to stay. The owl rose to her talons and spread her out to their full length. If she leaves now, she might be able to escape. She’ll fly to a thick lush forest, find another mate, and build another nest. She’ll lay another clutch of eggs and…..
The owl tucked her wings close to her body and repositioned herself on her eggs.
The wall of fire drew nearer. The panic cries and the chittering of other animals had died out, and the roaring of death filled the owl’s ears. Her mottled brown feathers were stained an ashy-black and she tasted grime on her break. There was no escape now, even if she gave into her survival instincts. Thick layers of smoke obscured the passage to freedom. Airborne embers would burn away her feathers, and she would plummet to the ground.
Eventually, the fire began to gnaw at the branches surrounding her. Leaves turned black before dissipating into the smoke. Tiny twigs glowed red.
The great-horned owl shifted her weight, fully shielding her eggs from the destruction around them, and closed her eyes.
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Stephanie Flores is an emerging author from Connecticut, currently enrolled in Southern Connecticut State University’s Creative Writing MFA program.
Besides reading and writing, she can be found admiring rocks in her free time.