Max and the Wild Things

Max lay in bed in the loft of Mr. Rosiello's cabin. Through the skylight just above him, he gazed at the towering black pines and tried to remember all the details of the long evening....

After the heavy red sun had sunk behind the hills and pulled the last purple curtains of light, the sky and lake lost their colors and grew dark. That's when Max, out canoeing with Mr. Rosiello, spotted two blobs floating in the water a way off.

``Loons,'' he whispered confidently to Mr. Rosiello. But, paddling closer, he decided they were turtles.

``Awfully large heads,'' commented Mr. Rosiello as he tried to imagine the size of their armored bodies. ``Try to lift one up with your paddle and let's have a look.''

``I can't reach it!'' Max panted. With a paddle in his right hand, he stretched out over the bow of the canoe. Mr. Rosiello held him by the knees as the canoe tipped from side to side.

Twice the sodden body slid off the slick paddle. They had to get closer. As the canoe glided alongside the lumps, Max dropped his paddle. Without a thought, without a breath, he reached out with his bare hand and plucked one out.

Beneath a soaked downy covering, his fingers became aware of a warm fragile body. Max held the animal straight out in front of him with its face toward Mr. Rosiello.

Utterly shocked, Mr. Rosiello could barely form the word - ``Owls?''

``Babies!'' Max whispered, wide-eyed. Shifting into high speed, he thrust the small drooping body into Mr. Rosiello's hands and turned to reach for the other one still bobbing in the water. To get a better look, he held the second owl up in the sky's fading light. As he did, it stretched its yellow talons toward Mr. Rosiello's owl.

``Oh!'' cried Max. ``I think they want to be together!''

``Take off your shirt! Quick!'' Mr. Rosiello barked.

Instinctively, Max knew what Mr. Rosiello had in mind. He pushed his owl close to Mr. Rosiello's and released it into the old man's grasp. In one motion, he yanked off his shirt, wrapped it around both owls, and then gently took the bundle in his own hands.

``Good!'' said Mr. Rosiello in a clear, commanding voice. ``You hold 'em. I'll paddle. It's only about 50 yards to shore and the water's still.''

As Mr. Rosiello deftly plowed through the calm water, a sudden great hush filled the night.

With their talons buried in the cotton shirt, the owls stared at Max. Their black marble eyes opened wide and blinked like old dolls with clumsy heavy lids that didn't work together. Max stared back. Calmly, he realized he was holding something wild.

Before this moment, wild had meant frightening - like catamounts with vicious teeth and claws that could rip a human being apart. It meant unreachable - like the dark heart of a mountain forest.

Max had never expected to come face to face with a truly wild thing. But now, as the silent shadows of the trees floated closer and closer, he peered deep into owl eyes, and a small place inside him opened wide to let the wild in.

Suddenly, the bottom of the canoe was scraping on rocks and sand. Mr. Rosiello flung down his paddle and hauled himself out. With all the racket and rolling, one of the owls began to clack its hooked beak. It sounded like two dense wooden sticks striking each other. Then the other owl started.

Mr. Rosiello glanced at Max helplessly. ``Mama mia! Now what's that supposed to mean?'' Shrugging his shoulders, Mr. Rosiello pointed up the path to the cabin.

While Mr. Rosiello was busy dialing telephone numbers and talking to the state police and various strangers, Max balanced the bundle of owls on the picnic table. Their soft heads were dry now. They resembled the tight little pompoms his mom made from yarn - trimmed just unevenly enough to look hand-made. That's what these guys look like, Max thought, handmade. Every detail of their white faces was exquisite, giving them more the look of sculpted models than of nearly drowned wildlife.

Then Max heard the pickup truck bouncing down the twisting, bumpy hill.

``An animal rehabilitator,'' explained Mr. Rosiello, who had been watching the boy and the owls. ``He takes care of injured wild animals and then puts them back in the wild.'' Then he added, ``where they belong.''

When the long-bearded man stepped into the cabin, Max winced at the huge wire cage and large leather gloves he carried. The man simply nodded at Max and Mr. Rosiello. But, in his thick Maine accent, he spoke to the owls. ``Eh-ah, clack, clack, clack, clack -

now, what have we heah? Clack, clack, clack.'' Carefully, he unwrapped the shirt.

The owls were still damp. But in the cabin's light, Max could see their beautifully patterned wing feathers pulled up close against their sides. They had no feathers on their bodies yet, only soft brown and white down.

``Yes, yes, yes. You're missin' your mama now, aren't you?'' coaxed the man. He turned to Max and said, ``Great Horned babies.'' Then, clacking with the owls, he slipped on the gloves, grasped one bird firmly with both hands, and placed it in the cage. Then the other.

When Max saw the owls behind the wire, he felt the space that had opened inside him shrink. ``Wait!'' he urged. ``Do they have to go now?''

The animal rehabilitator recognized something familiar in Max's face. ``Course, you can come up for a visit. 'Taint but a few miles uproad.''

Max's expression didn't change.

The man sat down on the bench beside the table and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands dangling between his legs. ``These owls have had a shock. Probably the people with leftover Fourth of July fireworks scared 'em right out of their nest. They're just beginning to fly. When they headed out over the water to get away from the noise, they couldn't get back. They would have surely drowned if it hadn't been for you.

``Now the owls need to be fed the way their mama fed 'em, and that's tricky work with those sharp, clackin' beaks. They're used to livin' high in the pines. I got a huge cage with a tree in it just waitin' for 'em. I built it for the peacocks, but they'll have to wait now till the owls have finished with it.''

Still, Max stared straight ahead at the owls.

``This the first time you held a baby animal?''

Max shook his head.

``First time you held a wild baby animal?''

Max nodded.

Then the man nodded. ``I know. You wanna keep 'em close. You like what you felt when you held 'em, when they needed you. After a couple months, they'll learn how to hunt mice and rabbits for themselves. Then you'll hardly recognize them with horns on their heads and their dark adult feathers. They'll be almost two feet tall and they'll spread their wings out like this'' - he tucked his head between his shoulders and held out his long arms like great wings.

Max's face softened as he looked directly at the man.

``But it's more'n that, isn't it?'' the man said quietly. ``It's a fearsome thing and a wonder to know a wild creature. You want to get closer to know it better, but you can't because when you do, you tame it. And when you tame a wild thing, you no longer have a wild thing. Besides bein' against the law, you couldn't keep the very thing you want to keep - the wildness.''

So, with a promise that he could visit the owls the next day, Max let the wild things go.

Now, as Max was drifting off in the loft beneath the huge pines, Mr. Rosiello called from his couch in the room below, ``I wish stories in real life ended before bedtime. Guess we'll have to go to sleep before we know the finish to this one. Who knows what will come of it?

``Yeah,'' Max said. ``WHOOOOooooo knows?'' And he let his eyes close.

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