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THE VOICE THAT WAS
Two days after the chorus night Shasta was out for a prowl by himself. The prowling instinct was strong within him now. He loved to creep into the forest alone and climb a tree above some run-way to see who was abroad. The deer drifted past like dreams, lifting their feet delicately and wrinkling their noses upwind; or a fox would sneak along, ears, eyes, and nose on the alert, but never seeing Shasta above him on his perch. And sometimes the wolves would come, two or three in single file, and Shasta would make cub noises at them, and take a huge delight in watching their astonishment as they looked up into the trees.
On this particular night he had not perched long in. his chosen tree when he heard the dreary wail of Goohooperay come sobbing down the dusk. Shasta only knew Goohooperay as a voice, a dark unhappy voice that wailed along the twilight and climbed up and down the night. Goohooperay’s body lived in a hollow hemlock, and slept there all the day. It was a brown body and downy withal, and beautiful with fat sleep. But when the sun had set behind the Bargloosh, and the gloaming was beginning to gloam, then Goohooperay squeezed his body out of the hemlock, and the fun began.
It began by his sitting just outside his front door and ruffling his feathers and stretching his great wings. That was to get the sleep out of him and think what a nice bird he was and set his wits to work. And when everything was in proper working order he opened his hooded head and loosed out his voice; and then it was that, near and far away, the forest people gave heed to the whooping cry and answered in their hearts. Those who had been asleep in the thickets during the drowsy afternoon stretched themselves and yawned. The cry seemed to say “Good hunting!” and that now they must bestir themselves and get abroad. To some it boded well, and would mean a fat kill; but to others ill, and being killed themselves, for Goohooperay himself was a killer, and very far from being a vegetarian. But that is the way with owls; it is not a pleasant way or a sugary way. If you are an owl, you do owlishly; and Goohooperay was very much an owl.
When he had sent his voice far along the dusky trails Goohooperay would spread his wings and go sailing after his voice. And as he glided through the tops of the spruces, or went swooping down the gorge, he did not make the faintest sound to tell you he was there; only a great winged shape would come slanting through the tree and--swoop!--some rat or leveret would wish it hadn’t been there!
It was some time before Shasta learnt that Goohooperay had a body as well as a voice. Often and often when that melancholy sound went drearily past, Shasta would shiver with something that was almost fear, and would wait for it to come again. And sometimes other voices would answer Goohooperay’s, and the echoes would be mocking in the hollow gorges, but always there was something peculiar about his, which set it apart from the others, so that you could recognize it again.
Goohooperay was feeling particularly cheerful this evening, and whenever he felt like that he always put an extra miserable wobble into his voice. It was very misleading of him, though he didn’t mean to deceive. As a matter of fact, he was a most contented soul, and had never had an unhappy night in his life. As for the “Hump” or the “Dump” or any thing silly like that, Goohooperay would have sobbed with amusement if you had suggested anything of the sort. But he loved pretending to be sad. To sit on a dead limb and hoot and hoot, till his heart seemed to be breaking, gave him an exquisite delight.
When Shasta heard the long, haunting cry which he had heard so often before, he had a sudden desire to find out if there was a body which sat behind the voice. So, without any hesitation, he slid down from his tree and travelled towards the sound. Twice before he reached the hemlock Goohooperay wailed his melancholy pleasure-note, and unwittingly guided Shasta to the spot.
At first Shasta could not see plainly what manner of person Goohooperay might be, for the shade of the hemlock was very black, and Goohooperay’s front door was well within it. But when Shasta stole up to the very foot of the tree and gazed up into the enormous eyes above him, he realized that the voice had, indeed, a body behind it.
For a long time the bird and the boy observed each other in silence. Goohooperay felt that it wasn’t his place to begin a conversation, and Shasta didn’t like to; but at last he plucked up courage and began. But the beginning, the middle, and the end of his conversation were only odd little wolf-noises that he gurgled in his throat. They were not in the least like words, but that didn’t matter, for behind each gurgle there was a thought which, by some secret means which human folks couldn’t understand, spilled itself out of Shasta’s head into Goohooperay’s, and made the meaning plain.
It would be impossible to tell exactly what they said to each other in the shadow of the hemlock, for owl language is not translatable like Arabic or Greek. If it were, there would be a Brown Owl Grammar and a Brown Owl spelling-book, and some other pieces of monstrous literature which we are mercifully spared. For the Brown Owl’s library is not bound in calf--though you can sometimes catch the flutter of its leaves in the flowing of the air--and the letterpress of the twilight is too dim for human eyes.
Suddenly Goohooperay’s great yellow eyes stopped gazing at Shasta, and glanced outwards into the dusk. There was such an intense and solemn look in them that Shasta looked, too. Just beyond the shade of the tree he thought he saw something that went slowly past, but he couldn’t be sure. It had no shape. It was as if a piece of the twilight had broken adrift from the rest. A little waft of air accompanied it with a whispering sound. Then, whatever it was, it had gone by, and everything was as before.
Shasta was startled. He turned quickly to Goohooperay and asked him what it was. But Goohooperay only swelled out his feathers hugely, and was dumb. Then he hooted his long cry, listened intently to catch the effect, and, spreading his wings, floated away.
And that was how Shasta learnt that Goohooperay was a body as well as a voice, and how he saw, for the first time in his life, the passing of the Spirit of the Wild. For, indeed, that Spirit is little spoken of in these our times, and I think seldom seen, for our eyes are not accustomed to the old beautiful shadows that are for ever going by. It is only the animals who see them, or those who walk continually in the great spaces or have their dwelling within sound of the trees.