Those four words, taken one by one in sequence, separated by seconds or minutes or months or years, seem to describe a certain class of experiences, the boundaries of which are sometimes more easily felt than seen. I can imagine the sequence taking hold of an old Iraqi woman learning to live with foreign soldiers prowling her streets. I can imagine the sequence rolling through the life of bus driver in Tel Aviv, learning to live with the threat of getting blown up. I can imagine bullied kids, study abroad students, first time backpackers, abandoned lovers, new neighbors, young explorers, and public speakers all being gripped by the sequence, in one way or another.
For the last five years I was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on one of the noisiest intersections in the borough, on the third floor of an old building with bad windows that rattled at the passing of every underground train and hissed along with every kneeling bus. When I first moved in, and was trying to sleep at night, I would sometimes sit up suddenly in bed and start laughing out loud, for the noise was so dramatic that it actually sounded like my bed was in the middle of the street. Visiting friends always told me it was the worst night's sleep they'd ever had. Somehow with time, I got used to the noise, although that noisiest of boroughs is now very far away from me, and getting farther all the time. Here in the forest it is dead silent at night, like sleeping underwater. But about a week ago, as I was lying in bed, I heard a blood-curdling scream from just outside my window, and jumped up, terrified. It was a desperate and mutilating sound. 20 seconds later it happened again. And a minute later, again. The noise continued with such punctuated regularity that I soon realized it must be some kind of natural noise, a forest noise — not the sound of violence. The noise was in fact the song of a Barn Owl, which has apparently moved into the tree that shades my cabin. Every night since then, I have heard the owl, shrieking the night away.
Last night, in the snow, I was walking back to my house very late, after an evening of Wild Turkey and zombie movies. Huddling against the cold wind, I heard a swooshing sound above me. I wheeled back, pointed my light up to the tree canopy, and saw the great owl, wings at least three feet wide, swooping down over me, and then coasting back up into his tree. I stood and stared, trying to find him again in the snowy boughs. Suddenly there he was, swooping down at me, and back up again into another tree off to my left. I stayed a few more minutes, watching for him, but he didn't reappear. It was getting cold and late, so I continued on inside, kicked the snow off my shoes, and went to bed. I don't know what the owl thinks of my sequence of four words, but I do know that he doesn't want to be forgotten.