The drifts blunt the contours; turn the solids into quivering phantoms.
Splintered diamonds rain down.
A dust of fine powder paints things in silver: an army of bleached ghosts.
A few hours of snow can dramatically change the face of the city.
The winter is delayed this year.
It finally arrives in January, 2022.
A snow-storm hit early in the month and left Toronto buried in thick sheets of light gray.
The mounds accumulate – cottony masses.
Life shifts indoors.
Omicron adds to the misery.
Harish watches from the top-floor, rear window.
It keeps the insomniac occupied.
Watching by night- or day-sky the birds, trees, and highway the sole occupation of an in-between young immigrant in a Covid-19-hit economy.
He takes pictures, if anything of interest turns up.
A solitary hobby demanding patience and alertness.
What else is there?
TV bores. Reading, not a habit.
The flurries and a strong wind increase a sense of urban isolation.
The only connection with external civilization through the phone
He returns to the rear window.
The backyard affords a wider view.
The GTA (Greater Toronto Area) is already under 10-inch layers.
A vertical curtain sweeps across the cold neighbourhood.
Frigid wind whips up the trees.
“Taken the morning medicines, Harish?”
“How is cough and fever?”
“Not fully recovered.”
“Take steam and gargle three times daily.”
“And, last thing. Take ample rest.”
Harish smiles – mothers!
The day is dull.
He scans the horizon.
Slight movement catches his eye.
A bird appears out of shimmering mist and settles down on a bare branch.
He gapes at the winged visitor.
The feathery guest is white and striped; the dark-brown spots make the white plumage and body a stunning work of surreal art. Bright yellow eyes contrast sharply. Wide wings and a hooked nose.
In the drifts, it stands out as a spectacular creature sent from the heavens as a sign or a messenger from the gods.
It alters the landscape.
Three years ago, in the company of a birder, young Harish, a student in Toronto, stood rooted, seeing the heavenly gift with huge wings land up on the fence of a farm.
A totem for the immigrant battling stress and depression.
“It is an auspicious sign!” the birder had told him. “Rarely you see the Snowy Owl during the day. A divine sign for the viewer.”
Bineshii is the man responsible for Harish’s increased interest in photography and ornithology.
He came from The Anishinaabe people, one of the First Nations of Canada.
His name in Ojibwe language means bird. Bineshii often shared the wisdom of his tribe with his Indian pal.
He was a top photographer and artist. They met during a local walking tour called “Know the Trails Nearby”, where Bineshii volunteered as a guide for the enthusiasts interested in exploring Canada’s wildlife, trees, and parks.
The Saturday tours found Harish like-minded company to learn about the flora and fauna of his adopted country.
It was an interest he could not pursue in India.
His father bluntly refused Harish to do a course in ornithology in Mumbai or an apprenticeship to a reputed press photographer because “these are not jobs; neither stable nor respected; neither high-paying nor lucrative as are the government positions. No father will give away his daughter to such a fool wasting youth in these things and who does not want to earn good money.”
What else could you expect from an aging and bitter man, who had spent three decades of his life working in a hardware store in Mumbai, commuting three hours to-and-fro from a cramped suburban home in a slum area?
He understood money only – the rest was crap!
End of discussion.
Harish did not want to be his old man’s replica – bitter, disillusioned, without hope.
Mother encouraged him to follow dreams at any cost!
He worked hard in the evenings, saved money, and came to Canada for a better life. In the evenings, he worked part-time and saved, sharing accommodation with fellow students.
Harish joined the local birder group and learnt about the birds and photography from Bineshii.
“The Snowy conveys the message from the universe that…”
“…that?” asked Harish breathlessly, standing near the highway and watching the bird sitting quietly on a pole.
“…that fresh changes are about to happen in your life.”
“Changes for good?”
“Yes. Mostly, for good. Something unusual will happen soon.”
Bineshii must know, immersed as he was in nature and the tribal wisdom of his people.
Bineshii painted the Snowy Owls in water colours and sold them online and through a collective called First Visions.
He was celebrated for these life-like figures, coming from another reality, a creature made popular by Harry Potter.
“Nature and her denizens have their own languages, earlier best understood by the so-called primitives but the modern humans have lost that ability now,” said the artist who could understand and mimic many birds, taught by the elders of his tribe.
Harish concurred. “Right. I also feel the same. We have lost that kind of knowledge in our forward journey. Sad, is it not? Only hope is folks like you trying to preserve that memory and skill. Soon, even it will be lost and forgotten.”
A painful silence followed. They watched the Snowy Owl from afar.
“We are the disinherited humans, Harish. Self-exiled. Banished to the ugly urban jungle by the narrative of one-sided progress. Humans are cursed! They can no longer enjoy the splendours of the kingdom of nature.” Bineshii sighed. Gloom writ large on his face.
Harish could strongly feel the pain of those most rooted in nature, now displaced by the cynical forces of development and growth.
The excursions were his only route to understand and recover that connection. Time when he felt alive and happy, documenting the species and their dwindling habitats along with the professionals.
It all comes back now – quickly.
The Snowy flits across the gray yard in a short flight – sheer beauty on a pair of wide wings, surreal figure in a surreal scene.
He stands transfixed.
“Often, we wait for months for such a rare sighting! The lucky witness was the harbinger of the gods,” Bineshii had observed then.
It was coming true again!
The Snowy sits on another bare tree, a few yards away. Settles there for a few long minutes. Then flies again and returns to the tree in his backyard and sits still in the wind and drifts.
Nothing could rival it!
Snow falls gently on its dappled body.
Harish is transported into a distant land of snow, ice and the Arctic. Its flying native sits right here.
The Snowy perfectly still.
His sagging spirits are revived by this unexpected visitor.
The fog of gloom lifts.
The hurt of being dismissed summarily by the supervisor. The sentence delivered brutally: Please do not come tomorrow. Covid-19 has affected businesses.
Harish could not comprehend. His mind was blank.
How can it be? Such cold behaviour by the supervisor? Without any warning clue?
Heart-broken, he stepped out into the cold evening, shoulders sagging.
Fired! So shabbily! In a first-world country.
He could not sleep. Withdrew into a shell. Vacancies were less. Savings running out. He cut down on the meals.
“Not seen you for long. Any problem, bro?” Bineshii sounded concerned over the phone.
Harish shared the anguish of a jobless man with a foreigner who had become family.
“Do not worry, bro!” Bineshii assured. “You can freelance as a photographer for a paying media market. I can introduce you to some good places.”
The most exciting was an online daily that needed a photojournalist to cover events in the field. He got appreciation for his compositions of the homeless, the street scene, and human-interest stories in and around Toronto.
The money was not big or regular but a source of income had opened up. Job-satisfaction more than compensated for the leg work and long commutes chasing stories.
Getting the by-line was enough for him.
The Snowy again takes flight. This time to a distant tree. Harish sets up the camera and zooms in upon the celestial guest on this frigid day.
The yellow eyes, the spotted body – contrasting creation.
The eyes seem to be probing him from that distance and height – Harish felt a tingling of excitement.
Goddess Swarasti’s vehicle.
He clicks photos of the friend from the tundra.
Again, it returns to the yard-tree and sits facing his window, as if sent by an invisible force.
A sign from the heavens!
An ethereal sight.
He feels connected with something higher in that instant. The Snowy circling and coming back for him.
A gift from God.
A sign that humans are not the overlords; there are other species out there.
The Snowy on this day, landing on the opposite tree at the very moment he arrives at the rear window. A bare tree in the yard shivering in the cold. Now, a temporary perch for the Snowy. Sheer coincidence!
Or, a sighting decided by the universe?
“He brings luck to the viewer,” Bineshii had confirmed. “Sightings are rare these days. The Snowy is hard to find in the urban waste. Having him in the vicinity is a blessing.”
A benediction indeed by the Primal Creator!
He watches the creature with the devotion of a zealot, forgetting the pills, anxieties, and depression.
You are not alone on this planet! There are others working in the snow and rain!
As the Snowy sits still, Harish feels the universe speaking to him directly. Nature with its wintry wonders. The splendour of ice, snow, sun, and wind. The magical clouds and trees and flowers and lakes and oceans. The plants indoors whispering, breathing, smiling at their keepers. Outdoors, dancing in the breeze to birdsong. The charm of the dawn and dusk.
A cosmic dance.
The Northern Cardinal and American Robin, among others, spread cheer with their colours and flights.
Whole new worlds of sky, water, and land, full of life and vitality.
Beyond the human world and its limitations.
A natural order adapted to changes and evolved over millennia.
Our cousins, fellow travellers, in this short journey.
As Harish watches the Snowy Owl, he feels part of the cosmic family – tiny, fragile but interconnected with other species, stars, and galaxies.
For a second, he sheds the outsized ego of being human and joins as a revolving atom, a greater and bigger orbit, part of other orbits in the limitless space.
A tiny speck among mysteries of space – the Milky Ways, blackholes, huge planets, and stars out there.
A little virus.
Covid-19 put paid to that arrogance.
What have we done? Marauders or humans?
The visitor from the Arctic, in search of food, seems to be asking these mute questions.
The Snowy gets up on her wings and flies across the gray sky.
And, at that precise moment, his cell phone rings.
The HR of a photo agency calling.
As Harish emerges from the trance, he remembers he has applied for the position of the staff photographer.
This call was unexpected.
As he takes the crucial call, Harish sees the Snowy Owl returning.
Harish feels the lightness of being at this second sighting.
The Snowy circles, rests on the branch for a few seconds.
Harish is thrilled!
The round eyes connect with the human eyes and then the Snowy flies higher in the white sky, a herald of the gods disappearing in the rain and snow, returning to a destination that the mortals do not have any clue about, except the blessed ones…
Want more fiction? Check out these fantastic offerings from contributors and staff.
- Order Up
- Jormungand Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3
- In the Mediterranean at Midnight
- The Wilderness Between Us Part 1 & Part 2
Sunil Sharma is Toronto-based senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 23 published books. He loves to listen to the stars, birds, winds and watch the sky. Tries to understand the eye-language and enthusiasm of the pet dogs---feel the pain and weight of the leash, trapped in a home- cage, bound with the chains, watched by Covid-19.