As I write this, I’ve just read about another day of protests and resistance in the US and elsewhere in the world and I wish all of those protesting strength and endurance and safety. I have no grand words to say right now but I think the words “there is no peace without justice” convey what’s on my mind. Also, if you’re not doing so already, follow Bernice A. King on Twitter.
May’s story prompt for The Word Count Podcast was an evocative photo of an owl and my story imagines a story from the owl’s point of view.
- Listen to me read my story on the podcast.
Owl, Girl, Rooks
It’s a late winter night the first time Owl sees the girl. Owl is swooping low over the frost-bitten field, listening to the rooks settling into the elms by the river. The rooks are causing a ruckus as they always do at dusk. Noisy wings and noisier squawks rake the skies, but even through the din, the girl’s presence captures Owl’s attention.
She’s just a baby, wrapped in a blanket, being carried into the red house near the edge of the woods, but Owl, who can hear the flicker of a vole’s breath through grass and thicket, who can spot the shudder of a field mouse beneath the snow, sees the baby’s heart.
Beneath fleece and flannel, skin and bone, Owl spies the small muscle beating warm and wet in her chest. Owl sees something else too. A tiny shadow wrapped around that heart, a flutter of night grasping at muscle and blood.
Owl does not hoot to herald the child’s arrival as might have been done in days gone by when people looked for omens and auguries in the skies, but Owl does not forget that murmur of darkness clinging to pulse and breath.
The girl grows up in the red house, in a room on the second floor, her window facing the woods. Owl sees the girl through the window almost every night. The sound of her warm wet heart, and the murmur of the shadow around it, are part of Owl’s world now, same as the ruckus of the rooks, the rumble from the motorway, and the whisper of rats and mice beneath the trees.
Owl watches as the girl learns to crawl and walk and run in the garden, as she skins her knees, as she builds a fort of sticks in the woods near owl’s tree. Watching her, Owl sees the joy and glory, the tears and tantrums of a girl’s life. And always that black shadow, rustling at the edges.
One night, the girl sits beneath Owl’s tree. Owl isn’t sure if she’s hiding from someone or something, if it’s a game or just a moment of chosen solitude, but there is something different about the girl that night. It’s not that she’s grown taller or that her hair is styled differently. What’s different is that the wet, warm sound of her heart is almost muffled by the shudder and shiver of the shadow in her chest.
Listening, Owl thinks of trapped things: rodents squirming in talons, frogs wriggling in a beak, wings beating against bars of bone.
Owl watches as the girl heads back to the house. Watches as the light comes on in her room. Watches as the light goes out.
Afterward, Owl flies to the river, watching as the rooks settle for the night, sheltered beneath the canopy of elms. They are jostling, huddling together, finding safety in each other.
Owl has seen the rooks come and go for a long time. Has seen the flapping and flailing of their wings, has heard the clacking and cawing of their beaks disturbing dusk and dawn, has seen their number grow, year by year.
The rooks do not remember who they were before they settled in the elms. They do not remember how they came to be what they are, but Owl remembers. Owl remembers the first time each rook settled on a branch by this river. Owl remembers where they came from, even if the rooks have forgotten. And, perhaps, when Owl hoots–the sound of it an omen and an augury–the rooks might remember too, even if it’s just in the flicker of their dreams.
It is a cold winter night when Owl takes flight and swoops low over the frost-bitten field toward the red house. The sky is deep with stars, but the light is still on in the girl’s window.
Owl listens for the heartbeat that should be there, but the wet, warm sound is almost gone. When Owl settles in the tree outside, the girl is on her back in bed, her cage of ribs shuddering and shaking as the winged shadow wrapped around her heart tries to shake free of bone and blood, tapping on the girl’s sternum with its pale rook’s beak.
On the bed, the girl looks asleep, and Owl knows there have been other nights such as this, when the girl wasn’t sure she wanted to wake.
Owl thinks of the baby being carried into the house all those years ago, thinks of the faint black wings fluttering around its heart even then.
Owl has lived a long time and is familiar girls and rooks, with life and death. Life is all around Owl, all around the girl. Life permeates the woods. It’s in every leaf and root, every whisker and wing, and at all times, death is coiled tight, tight around that life.
Owl also knows there are winged shadows in each of us, searching for a place to roost, a place to rest, for comfort and companionship, and inside each cage of blood and flesh, each winged shadow thinks itself alone.
For years uncounted, Owl has seen shadows break free of breath and bone, shake out their rook wings and find their place in the elms by the river, forgetting what they were.
Owl has no real opinion on the fate of girls or rooks, but the branches of the elms seem full enough, noisy enough, already. Perched on the windowsill Owl hoots–once, twice—as omen and augury.
Far off, in the trees by the river, the rooks stir in their sleep, dreaming of where they came from and what they once were. In the room in the red house, the girl stirs as Owl takes flight, as the winged shadow quiets beneath her ribs, as her wet warm heart continues to beat a little longer.
© Maria Haskins 2020
Cover art made by me, using Canva.