The office was in a skyscraper the size of an entire city block, and I’d walk the large square perimeter of hallways with an exotic young owl-hawk on my shoulder.
We all had one—an editor had rescued a nest of them on some remote assignment. Mine was a badly behaved alpha that didn’t play well with the others. But he was mine, perched on my shoulder in his cumbersome endearing way, and it weighed on me that I was responsible for finding him a home. Once during lunch I’d tried taking him on a walk in the jungle-like forest adjacent to the building. There were similar owl-hawks in the distance and I tried setting him free, but he wouldn’t go.
That afternoon I was called into Barack’s office. He was packing his belongings, loading boxes onto the helicopter pad that extended from one wall. Goodbye, he said. He was leaving the magazine, going to the small village in Africa where his father had lived. In his memoir Dreams From My Father, he wrote that he’d lied to his elementary school class, told them his father was a Kenyan tribal chief. Turns out it was true, after all, and he was going to Africa to assume the position of his successor. He handed me a photograph of someone who looked exactly like him in a navy blue cylinder-shaped beret.
Even though we’d only had Barack at the magazine a short while, there was disappointment and a small sense of abandonment. I handed him back the picture, and asked the only thing I thought of to put into words: if he’d enjoyed being with us.
He stared at me a long time, beyond what was comfortable. I focused on a glass cabinet of medals to avoid meeting his eye. His silence meant he thought it was sort of a silly question, and that he also knew what I was really asking: Whether he was going to be as sad to leave as I was to have him go.
He put out his arm to my owl-hawk. “I’ll take him,” he said, and it stepped from my shoulder to his forearm.
* * *
When I woke up it was 6 a.m. on New Year’s day, still dark. I went downstairs to write by the glow of our wobbly imperfect Christmas tree. There was a low, reverberating call from out back. Hoo-hoo, hoo. Behind our house there are 12 acres of undeveloped woodland, unusual for the suburbs, with two abandoned houses that were once a farm. We’ve seen deer and coyote, heard the fisher cats scream in the night. Later this year developers will be razing the woods to build homes, knocking down almost all the native pine and shrubs (“junk trees”) to create a more manicured cul de sac. The uncultivated woods will be reduced to about 50 feet. Sometimes my children talk about where they imagine the animals will go. Will the deer and coyote have to share a den?
Somewhere behind the house another owl answered the first and then another, a volley of airy staccatos in the dark. At this time next year there will be houses where the junk trees were, and someone else in the White House. Some things will change, some won’t. Most of us will walk our office hallways and city blocks and suburban jungles just as before, things will grow and other things will be cut back or cut down, and deer might have to bed down with coyote. I don’t know where the owls will go.