A snowy owl perched atop a building at the Trenton Elementary School. Could it be Ookpik? PHOTO COURTESY OF NED JOHNSTON

The wisdom of Ookpik: A Christmas story to read to your children



Ookpik glided silently over the quiet fishing village, unblinking eyes drawn to the warm glow streaming from windows in the tiny buildings far below. A thick, white coat of feathers, freckled with hints of brown, held back a night so cold that even the brightest stars refused to twinkle. The Milky Way arced across the sky, frozen in place, like random spatters of ermine on an infinite canvas of deepest black.

Weary from a long journey that began in the place of his birth, far, far to the north, Ookpik searched for a place to rest. As the faint glow of a winter’s dawn appeared in the east, he circled and descended.

***

Walking fast to school later that morning, frost from the puffs of his warm breath freezing on the scarf obscuring most of his face, little Timmy spotted Ookpik near the chimney of Mrs. Timmons’ house.

“Look! It’s a snowy owl,” he said to his friends, pointing to the roof. The group stopped to marvel at seeing such a rare visitor so early in the winter.

Although his eyes appeared closed, Ookpik saw the children, choosing to remain motionless. “My mom says owls are the wisest of all the animals,” Timmy said. “That’s right, they just know stuff,” said Timmy’s sister Laurie.

“Hey, how come there’s hardly any smoke coming from Mrs. Timmons’ chimney?” asked Timmy.

“My dad said she doesn’t have a lot of money,” said Billy. “Maybe she’s only making a small fire in her woodstove.”

As he entered the warm, steamy air of the hallway, Timmy wondered what it must be like to worry about not being able to stay warm in winter.

***

During lunch recess, Timmy noticed something on the top of the brick wall of the old mill across the street. It closed years ago, its cavernous spaces, once filled with light and noise and busy people, now empty, silent and cold. It was Ookpik, looking down on the playground.

Right below the spot where the owl was perched was the steel door where people would line up on the day before Christmas to pick up food at the village pantry. Intense, yellow eyes wide open, Ookpik stared back at Timmy, looking away only when startled by the ringing of the bell calling the children back to class. As he headed inside, belly still full from his hot lunch, Timmy looked back over his shoulder at Ookpik.

“I wonder what it must be like to be hungry at Christmas?” he said to himself.

***

Heading out after class, the pale colors of the late December sunset filling the western sky, Timmy and his friends decided to take the long way home, down past the harbor. They liked seeing all the boats afloat at their moorings, bows proudly pointing into the wind. His attention drawn to a flock of seagulls squawking excitedly, Billy pointed towards the lobster boat Hope lying on its side on the pebble beach. “Is that the same owl we saw this morning?” Billy said.

Squinting in the low, flat light, Timmy recognized Ookpik, his leathery talons gripping the handrail atop the main cabin of the tilted boat. More bored than bothered by the screeching protests of the seagulls, Ookpik watched his new friends with curiosity.

“Isn’t that old man Wheatley’s boat?” said Laurie.

“Yes, it is,” said Billy.

“What’s it doing on the beach?” she asked.

“I heard he hasn’t been well and hasn’t been able to fix the motor. He has the parts but left the boat there until he feels up to making repairs,” said Timmy.

“But I saw him the other day. He looked fine to me,” said Billy. “What’s wrong with him?” said Laurie. “I don’t know,” said Timmy. “When mom told dad, she whispered. Then dad said if old man Wheatley could just get that boat working again, he might be able to turn things around.”

“Sometimes you can’t tell by just looking at someone that something’s wrong,” said Laurie. “My mom says the hardest things to heal are the ones you can’t see.”

Timmy wondered what it must be like to be sick without anyone else to help.

***

Racing through the kitchen door at home, Timmy and Laurie headed straight for the cups of hot chocolate steaming on the table. After eating a second cookie, Timmy turned to his mom. “Mom, why do owls bring such bad luck?” he asked.

“Why do you say that?” she replied.

“Everywhere we went today, we saw an owl. And everywhere it was, bad things were happening,” he explained.

“I hope we don’t see one on our house,” Laurie added.

“What makes you think the owl caused the problems?” Mom asked. “Was the trouble there before the owl appeared or after?”

“Before,” Timmy and Laurie said at the same time.

“So why was the owl there?” asked Laurie.

Timmy thought and thought. “Maybe, just maybe, he was there to remind us that there are folks out there who need help?” said Timmy.

“I’d like to help. But what can we do about it?” Timmy asked.

***

The next morning, on the way to school, Timmy scanned the rooftops for Ookpik. He was not on Mrs. Timmons’ house. He was not at the old mill. He was not down by the pebble beach.

While taking attendance, Timmy’s teacher, Miss Pennyroyal, asked if any of the children had seen a snowy owl. Several hands, including Timmy’s, went up.

“I don’t know if it’s such a good thing,” Timmy said.

“I know. I spoke with your mom last night,” Miss Pennyroyal responded. “We’re going to see what we can do.

That afternoon, as Timmy headed home, he noticed the village was bustling with activity.

He saw Mrs. Timmons volunteering at the local bakery making dozens and dozens of fresh blueberry pies for the food pantry. He realized there would be plenty of food for everyone.

Timmy recognized several men from families helped by the food pantry, heading down to the pebble beach carrying boxes of tools. Before long, they’d have old man Wheatley’s boat purring like a kitten.

Just before he got home, Timmy noticed a large, flatbed truck parked outside Mrs. Timmons’ house with a group of fishermen unloading and stacking cord after cord of dry firewood for her stove.

As he walked up the steps to his house, Timmy paused one more time, scanning the rooftops and utility poles along his street to see if Ookpik might be there. But still, the owl was nowhere to be found.

***

With 10,000 stars twinkling above, Ookpik gazed from his perch on the steeple of the village church. The sound of people singing Christmas Eve carols filtered up from inside. As a warm glow streamed from windows in the tiny buildings far below, Ookpik fluffed up his thick, white coat of feathers, freckled with hints of brown, and lifted his strong wings. Where he had seen cold, there was now warmth. Where he had seen hunger, there was now plenty. Where he had seen despair, hope had been restored. What he saw on this Christmas was the spirit of community.

With powerful flaps of his broad wings, Ookpik lifted up into the night and turned south to continue his ancient journey.

Editor’s note: Ookpik is the Inuit name for a snowy owl.

Earl Brechlin

Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *