by Guy Stewart
Owl hadn’t been real to her since she stopped reading WINNIE-THE-POOH on her thirteenth birthday. That day, she realized she had become Eeyore, losing her metaphorical tail in real life.
Later, her husband hadn’t been real to her since the divorce.
Even later, the rest of Clementine Dresden’s family had faded from her life one by one.
She placed the shiny paper magazine on the ‘finished’ stack, JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL BIOLOGY on top of BIOLOGY LETTERS. Tapping the edges carefully, she aligned it with the one hundred and twelve beneath it. The “shinies” were all that was left of two millennia of bound paper publishing. She recognized the names of people who had been colleagues of hers once. Then they moved on to bigger universities and colleges, all with more prestige , more money and bigger labs than Riverstone Community College. She didn’t publish because writing papers was time-consuming. She hadn’t had enough time to keep a husband, two kids, and a successful career as it was. Now she was all that was left of a life of marriage, teaching, and refusing to write research papers. Without papers, no one had ever invited her to apply for another position. She walked across her apartment to her work station, looking into the stove-top autoclave. “Empty,” she said as, joints creaking imperceptibly she sat down. She’d have to go out and collect more owl pellets tonight.
Collecting was not her favorite activity. The last time she’d walked through the Palmer Lake Park Reserve a month ago, it was still autumn, and the days were still warm. Even so, she’d pretty much exhausted herself. She’d barely been able to walk for a whole day afterward. The St. Agnes Retirement Community nurse had even showed up at Clementine’s door worried because her vital signs were doing something wonky.
Flicking on a light, she activated her virtual glasses and bent over a teased Great Horned Owl pellet. After a few minutes, she absently picked up another pellet and dropped it into a small beaker of water. She adjusted her magnification and got back to serious work.
Embedded in every one of the pellets was a mouse, a rabbit, a squirrel, or a vole skeleton. Sometimes there were more than one animal, the contents all jumbled up. At least there was supposed to be. Lately though, there’d been no skeletons at all. It was why she’d volunteered for the Three Rivers Park Reserve Owl Survey. That and the fact that her life was meaningless since her retirement. “Wha’dya’ mean, ‘since retirement’?” she said to the empty room.
Turning back to work, she teased a tiny bone out of the damp pellet. “Rib,” she said and laid it on a pre-marked, sticky pad that glowed neon in the shape of the correctly identified piece. She continued to work until she’d gotten just a bit less than a complete mouse.
The apartment security system buzzed. Scowling, she looked up. The lunch dishes had dissolved into the table long ago, and the evening meal wasn’t due for three hours. She blinked three times and the image of her fourteen-year-old grandson Dexter bar-Jonah Dresden-Xiong-Johnson-Niabuto, appeared in her specs.
Swearing under her breath, she stood slowly. When she took the volunteer Owl Survey position, she’d known she’d be walking to retrieve her own owl pellets. She thought she was in good enough shape for an eighty-four-year-old wildlife biology professor. “Silly me,” she muttered as she tapped the apartment door from the inside.
Dexter’s nose was pressed against his ereader. Clementine waited until he looked up and said, “Hi, Grandma.” He walked past her into the apartment and dropped onto her couch.
“Please come in,” Clementine said to the empty sixth floor hallway of St. Agatha Retirement Community. She closed the door and locked it. Following Dexter into the living room, she sat down slowly across from him. He ignored her until she said, “Which set of your parents are ducking their responsibility now?”
Without looking up, he said, “Your daughter and her boyfriends.”
“Plural?” Clementine asked. He nodded. “How long do you think you’ll be staying this time?”
“They’re in the Galapagos doing finch research. They left suddenly – some kind of avian flu crisis. They sent me to dad’s, but I can’t stay there. I’m having a week’s-worth of supplies sent over from my other parent’s place.”
“Why can’t you stay with them?”
“Shira and Dad are in Low Earth Orbit and have our place locked down.”
“They locked you out of your own house?”
His face went still, then he said, “Let’s just say there was an incident last time I stayed home alone.”
She said, “What about your grandfathers?”
“It sounds like you don’t want me, either.” He stood up and headed for the door.
Clementine lifted a hand and said, “It’s not that, Dexter. It’s just that mine was never the place you chose to stay.”
This time he really looked at her, but the gaze wasn’t a compassionate one. “Grandpa Charlie and Grandpa John-Joseph won’t let me stay there if I talk to you if I wanted to.” He looked down at his book.
Clementine frowned, “We hardly ever talk.”
He glanced up again, “I didn’t say I wanted to talk, I just want to be able to do it. Restricting access to instant communication is illegal.”
He sighed. “Not literally. Morally. You’ll still let me stay if I talk with them. I’m yours so I can talk to everyone.”
“Then of course you can stay.” Clementine gestured to the couch and sighed as he sat down. Dexter had told the entire sad story of his life – and hers. She said, “What are you reading that’s so captured your attention?”
“THE CURSING OF SPIRIT OWL,” he said without looking up. With a jerk of his head, he set off the motion sensor in the reader, turning a virtual page. The motion made his wavy black hair sway. Long legs tucked beneath him, he sat with his hands pulled up into the sleeves of a green sweatshirt emblazoned with an immense orange Chinese character. Both of his ears were currently gauged with neon orange rings, larger than Clementine’s thumb. Matching virtual spectacles ringed his head like a slipped halo.
Clementine touched her own gray-shot Afro. What part of this boy was her? She couldn’t recognize a single phenotype. She said in an abrupt non-sequitur, “I’m dissecting owl pellets.” When he looked up, the gaze might have been the same one she saw in the mirror every morning. “Oh. My eyes,” she said.
She cleared her throat and said, “You look like your grandfather when I first met him.”
Dexter snorted, “Amazing you didn’t chase him off with a shotgun.” That surprised a bark of laughter out of her for the insight it showed. “What’s an owl pellet?”
She explained hesitantly, expecting disgust and retreat with each sentence. Instead, he nodded at one point, tapped his reader off and set the book down on the couch. His hands came out of the sleeves and he sharpened the focus of the halo, watching her. “Is the skeleton always complete?”
“Typically. Owls eat their prey whole. Sometimes there’s more than one skeleton.”
“Do they have special stomach acid that only dissolves the flesh and not the bones and fur?”
“Nothing special. Hydrochloric acid – the acid in the stomach – doesn’t react strongly with the keratin in fur or the hydroxyapatite and collagen of bone.”
“Are owls really ‘wise in the way of unreality’?”
“The ways of what?”
He picked up the reader. “In here, the Owls,” Clementine heard the capital letter of a proper noun, “are more than they appear. They aren’t intelligent the way we are. They’re intelligent,” he paused then continued, “like dolphins are. They’re wise in the ways of unreality.”
“You’d better give me an example of what the writer means by that. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The halo specs magnified his eyes a bit, so Clementine saw him roll them in exasperation as he muttered, “Old people.”
“What about us?”
“You don’t see beyond the here and now!” Clementine made an encouraging noise and he continued. He held up the book. “I know this is fiction, but in the book, Owls value ideas, beliefs, thoughts, dreams, and legends above all else. The premise of this book is that if you change the way a people think, it will change how they live their lives. It’s the stakes the whole series is based on. It says to me that looking at owls as just animals limits them as well as limiting us. The Owls know that only the unreal can affect the real.”
It was Clementine’s turn to roll her eyes. She muttered, “Teenagers,” then added out loud, “I take it that there was no point in the story where owl pellets were discussed?”
For a moment they looked at each other then burst out laughing. Clementine said, “You want to get closer to your inner owl?”
He looked at her work table then stood up. “Nothing better to do for a week. Sure. I’m tired of reading right now anyway.”
At the work table, she hooked another stool over and gave him a brief lesson on dissecting owl pellets. She laid out the one she’d started hydrating to the dissecting tray. “Ready?”
“Sure.” He leaned forward, sniffed and said, “Smells gross.” His eyes widened and he said, “Is this owl…”
“No! It’s not owl feces,” she said heading off his imagination. She added, “The owls vomit them out.”
He blinked several times before he said, “Oh. That’s so much better.”
Clementine smiled then added, “Tease out the bones and place them…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She shut up and they worked in silence for some time. She raised her eyebrows. His hands were steady, his movements cautious. He wasn’t confident, but that came with experience. All-in-all, she was impressed. She sat back down in her own spot, dropped a pellet in water, and went to get a few more of the sticky pads. Suddenly Dexter said, “Uh, Grandma?”
“Hmm,” she responded without turning. After the silence lengthened uncomfortably, she looked at him. “Yes, Grandson?”
He held up a skull and said, “Are mouse or squirrel or frog skulls supposed to look like miniature people skulls?”
“What?” Clementine said. Dexter held the skull gingerly between thumb and pointer finger. At first she saw only what she expected: a skull, slightly larger than his rather wide, adolescent male thumb. Then she saw what was there. She cursed and leaned forward.
“It looks like a people skull,” he said again.
She took it from him, looked at it closely then looked down at the pile of owl pellet. Without speaking, she nudged him off his stool. He grudgingly gave it up, saying, “Excuse you.”
“Mmm hmm,” Clementine said.
Dexter added, “I guess I see where Mom learned her manners and communication skills.” Clementine looked up. “Mom would always rage about how you neglected her once she turned eighteen. She said you never called her, came to see her in college or her apartments, you never even texted her.” He sniffed, “I used to think she was exaggerating. Even though I’m not even eighteen yet, it’s started.”
Clementine sighed, “Guilty as charged.” She got to work again.
Dexter watched her for a while then said, “I can see that’s good and bad. I forget about everyone else when I’m reading.” She looked up abruptly, frowned. She opened her mouth, closed it, then looked down at the half-dissected pellet then back up to him.
“You don’t find human skulls in bird puke very often, do you?”
“It can’t be a human skull,” Clementine said immediately.
“I may not be a virtually unknown wildlife biology professor at Riverstone Community College, but I can figure out that mouse skulls won’t look like Human skulls. Mice got big teeth, ‘cause they’re rodents, right?”
“Right,” she said.
“Can you still use the sticky pad even if it’s not a mouse?” he asked.
“It can’t be a human skull,” Clementine exclaimed.
“Do you always reach conclusions before you look at the evidence?” he said.
She opened her mouth to deny it but stopped herself, “This is uncomfortable because it’s not what I expected and as far as I know, human skulls don’t come in this size.”
“What about unborn babies?”
“Fetuses?” she shrugged, “The bones don’t calcify until after delivery. This one is clearly made up of bone.”
“Could the owl’s stomach acids have reacted with fetal cartilage to form bone?”
Startled, she gave her grandson her complete attention for the first time since his birth fourteen years earlier as she said, “No. Cartilage in hydrochloric acid is broken down into its complex molecules – but no farther. It’s what happens when osteoblasts repair a bone – they dissolve the bone but not the cartilage. When the bone is repaired, and the acid is reabsorbed, the cartilage can regrow.”
Dexter strode across the room, sat down on the couch and picked up his reader. Clementine watched him intently until he looked up and rattled off the components of owl stomach acid followed by the make-up of human fetal cartilage. She had to ask him to repeat the first half of the owl stomach acid list as she hastily scribbled on a sheet of paper attached to her ubiquitous clipboard. When he was done, he said, “You really ought to get a digital clip board.” He tapped the book twice then asked, “Charge is almost gone. Can I use the USB on your computer?”
“You really ought to read paper books,” she countered.
He couldn’t help it. He laughed then said, “Touché.”
She turned back to the table and picked up the tiny skull, this time with tweezers. She laid it on the pad she’d set near and the light glowed, its outline blue and in the shape of a human skull. “What?” she said.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, walking back over to the work table.
“Normally the shape outlined is a mouse skull and in neon,” she said. She slid back over to her own chair, rummaged around in her pellet and pulled a portion of the skull free, shook it clean then placed it on her own pad. The outline was clearly that of a mouse, matching a portion of the skull and in neon. “Squirrel bones are outlined in yellow, rabbits in red, and voles in green.” She gestured to the blue pad and said, “It’s like the Project people expected me to find these skulls.” She looked up at Dexter, eyes growing wide in amazement. “They were expecting someone to find one of these… these…” she gestured at the pad, she didn’t know what it was.
Dexter supplied the missing words, “Fairy skeletons?”
“Fairies are imaginary.”
He pointed to the glowing pad and said, “Evidence before you contradicts that hypothesis.”
She swallowed hard then moved back to her stool, gesturing to the one he’d been on. “Then finish the pellet dissection, and we’ll see what we have when all the evidence is in one place.”
He nodded and sat, his posture this time telegraphing intense interest rather than resignation. He reminded her of the few truly dedicated wildlife biologists who had crossed the path of her long and lonely career.
Half an hour later, Dexter said, “Those are all the bones I can find.” She’d finished her own, typical mouse skeleton twenty minutes earlier and was looking over his shoulder. He leaned back into her. Instead of jerking forward, he leaned back harder. Clementine put her hands on his shoulders.
She said, “It’s not complete.”
“Yeah, it’s missing bones. There’s only one complete foot,” he paused. “Or hand, or whatever. The other three are missing various bones. Only one set of wing bones remain.”
Clementine said, “The owl probably tore it off then dropped it unintentionally.”
“The lower legs are kind of short.”
“It doesn’t have ribs, either.” She reached out and tapped a small, acorn-like shell laying where the rib cage would be. “It’s more like a beetle’s wing cover than human bone.”
“Chitin?” Dexter asked.
Clementine squeezed one of his shoulders, saying, “So you pay attention to more than just fantasy, eh?”
He grunted then turned to look at her with one eye. “So now what, Grandma?”
She stepped away and went to the living room. After a bit, he followed and sat down next to her. He didn’t sit too close. Theirs had never been a touching relationship until a moment ago. “I’ll have to decide what to do with this data. It’s clear that someone else knows about the fairy bones, otherwise the outline wouldn’t have appeared on the pad.”
Dexter nodded, “They think there’re fairies around here, too otherwise they wouldn’t have given you a fairy-outline-loaded pad.”
She nodded, then said, “It also indicates that the Department of Natural Resources or someone in it, knows that fairies are a part of the ecology of a marshland.” She waved toward the Palmer Lake Park Reserve. Dexter seemed to deflate, his face, animated only a moment ago, fell back into its previous neutrality. He turned away from her. She said, “What’s wrong?”
“This discovery, if it’s a discovery that fairies are real will…will…” He paused for some time before he finally said softly, “…breach the redoubt of the fantastic to terrible effect.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
He looked at her, his face a wasteland of desolation, and said, “I made it up. Don’t you believe in anything fantastic?”
“Science is fantastic.”
“Science is prosaic, not fantastic.”
She snorted, “Hardly prosaic…”
“I mean prosaic in the sense of its real definition, Grandma! I’m not insulting your bitch – it’s just that science is straightforward, matter-of-fact, simple, plain, ordinary, routine, mundane even predictable.”
“Of course science is predictable! That’s the root of good science: the ability to predict results given initial conditions.”
“Ah, so you admit that finding out that fairies are real is fantastic?”
She sharpened her gaze. She’d never suspected her grandson, or anyone between the ages of fourteen and eighty-three, of having a flexible mind or the ability to do more than act predictably given their current cultural parameters. She certainly didn’t. The evidence was giving her a headache. She said, “Given that one of the definitions of ‘fantastic’ is ‘strange’ and that word includes the adjectives extraordinary, peculiar, bizarre, and odd; I’ll grant that finding fairy bones in an owl pellet is fantastic. I have no evidence however that there are living fairies anywhere. I have no evidence that this is not a hoax being perpetrated on me by the government.” She paused thoughtfully, “I have no idea if owls can somehow magically know something that isn’t real.”
Dexter studied Clementine for some time before he said, “I mean this respectfully and without malice, Grandma and I confess that I’ve always loved you better than any of my other relatives – including at times all of my parents – but why would any government agency want to allow a retired community college professor with no reputation at all to discover a hoax?”
She opened her mouth to hotly respond then closed it with a snap. She squeezed her hands together into tight balls. Despite that, they trembled. Her pulse roared in her ears. Her chest felt tight and her lower back abruptly ached. She said, “Either I’m having a heart attack or a revelation.” She studied Dexter. He lifted a hand and leaned forward, his other hand thumbing his reader to life. She continued, “But I think that this is more revelation than manifestation of heart disease.” She was silent for some time before she finally said, “To answer your question, there’s no reason I can think of. Which means discovering the fairy bones in the owl pellet was a chance occurrence.”
“The wisdom of whom?”
“The Owls, of course!”
She stared at him, shook her head and muttered, “Teenagers.” She held up her hand to deflect his rejoinder, saying, “I don’t believe in the supernatural and all evidence points to the owls in this park reserve being simple, nocturnal predators of the order Strigiformes.”
Dexter said, “I agree – in this world that’s all they are. But what about in the world of the unreal?”
Clementine shrugged. “I don’t know anything about an ‘unreal’ world.” She sat up slowly and slid to the edge of the couch. Her trip into the Reserve and hours of intensive work were making simple soreness grow into real pain.
“I do,” Dexter said.
“Yes,” he said, jerking his head toward the e-reader. “More than what’s in THE CURSING OF SPIRIT OWL.” She raised her eyebrows. He added, “I’m not stupid, Grandma. After all, I am your grandson.”
He smiled so brilliantly and with such conceit that she knew he was teasing. She patted her Afro and said, “That’s true. I will deny neither observation.” Again, their gazes caught and they both burst out laughing.
He was the first to grow serious and say, “The unreal world is everything that can’t be quantified.”
“There’s nothing real that can’t be quantified.”
“Hate is real.”
She snorted, surprised and said, “I’ll grant you that.”
“Quantify how much you hate grandpa Charlie,” Dexter snapped.
Her lips twisted to one side as she struggled to control her temper before she finally said, “I’ll conditionally accept your premise that there is an unreal world. But it is nothing beyond emotions. There are no spirits or ghosts or witches or yeti or Loch Ness Monsters. There are also no such things as aliens, faster-than-light travel, shared simulated reality, or The Singularity, either.”
“I’ll grant your premise, but raise the query: ‘what do you do now?’ Your Owl Survey people thought that you finding fairy bones was at least a possibility, otherwise they wouldn’t have programmed the pad to respond to them. You found them accidentally. Now what?”
She looked at him for a long time before she said, “I could do several things – the most logical one would be to report the fairy bones to the Three Rivers Park Reserve Owl Survey. Another thing I could do to snatch research grants from them is to write my own paper and send it for publication to a scientific journal like NATURE, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, or the new sciencedaily.com Original Research section.”
Dexter stared at her, saying, “You didn’t hear me say, that ‘a discovery that fairies are real will breach the redoubt of the fantastic to terrible effect’?”
“I heard it but I have no idea what you mean.”
He shook his head, picked up the ereader, pulled his hands inside his sleeves, and hunched over THE CURSING OF SPIRIT OWL. She watched him until he suddenly looked up and said, “The title of the book?”
“What about it?”
He tapped it, “It doesn’t mean that the Owls cuss, it means that someone cursed them.”
“Maybe the fairies did it,” Clementine said. The first look he gave her was angry. Then he frowned. He put the ereader down and stood up.
He planted his hand on his chest and said, “This character is Chinese for ‘owl’.”
“It can also stand for ‘delicate’ in case you were wondering.”
“And ‘fierce’, in case you were wondering.”
They burst out laughing again. Clementine said, “So you think that your Owls, and by extension real owls, are symbolic of the unreal?” He nodded as his stomach rumbled noisily. She added, “You also sound like you’re really hungry. How about some supper and then we’ll see if we can kill two birds with one stone and get me some more pellets and maybe witness an owl hunt?”
He shrugged. His stomach growled again and he said, “Deal.”
The evening meal dishes were dissolving on the table when Clementine and Dexter headed down the hallway to the elevator. He said, “I never noticed all the potted plants and art.”
“The plants are maintained by this couple who used to run a plant care business. The paintings,” she paused before one that was obviously a copy of van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, “Are sometimes hideous.” She walked down four more and paused, “Some of them are brilliant.” A blue and white Earth rose over a Lunarscape.
Dexter leaned forward, “There’s something wrong on Earth,” he stepped back. “There’s something wrong with the stars, too.”
“Exactly. Let’s go, it’s getting late. We’ll take the elevator, though I usually use the stairs. But we’ll be walking tonight.” In the lobby she thumbed herself out of the building.
A security guard said, “Cold out tonight.”
She tapped a box clipped to her shoulder, “I’ve got my body heater – and locator.”
He smiled, dipped his head and opened the double doors of the Community.
Once they were outside, Clementine said, “How does the Owl’s knowledge of the unreal entangle the fact that they are eating fairies the way they eat normal prey? Hasn’t that ‘breached the redoubt of the fantastic’ already?”
Snorting, he shrugged then said, “Yeah. That’s one of the holes in my premise.”
“That all owls have the ability to tell the real from the unreal.” A cold, raw wind whirled around them. “How are you supposed to find owl pellets in the middle of the night? Do you have a special ‘owl puke’ detector?”
She laughed, saying, “I wish I did. But no, the owl’s nest and their feeding and hunting perches are plotted by trained ornithologists.” She took out her old-fashioned cell phone with a modified GPS application. “The trees – or telephone poles or high tension power towers – are marked and the GPS lets me know where I am in relation to them. Besides that, one of the birders took me on a tour when we started the project and I’ve been to each one a half dozen times.” The sidewalk from the Community to the trails that wound through the park around Palmer Lake, more a bog than lake, was ten meters from the entryway. They walked over the badminton sand pit then onto the asphalt trail. Clouds scudded across the sky. A half-moon rose, fracturing on a thin skin of ice that had started forming over the water and cattail reeds.
“It’s cold, Grandma.”
“You must have a personal space warmer – you’re a twenty-first century kid.”
Dexter snorted, “Yeah, with parents who think a little suffering never did anyone any harm.” He huddled in his sweatshirt and Clementine abruptly felt sorry for him. But her own space warmer created a bubble of heat barely large enough to cover her standing upright. If she reached out, her hand would be in the cold air and would do him absolutely no good.
“I’m afraid your mother got that from me.”
“So she says,” he said. “Funny – that’s the only thing all of them have ever agreed on in the course of my history.” Clementine expected more. Some whining. Some “woe-is-me”ing. But he huddled and followed her as the trees closed in around them and the wind died down.
Clementine said, “I harvested the owl trees farthest from the Community a week ago…”
“How far away is that?”
She waved vaguely to the eastern edge of the Reserve, “A mile-and-a-half…”
She sighed, “You have no idea how long the science community lobbied to standardize the metric system in the US.” She shook her head, closed her eyes, then said, “A bit over two kilometers.”
“Grandma! Logically speaking, if you walked the two kay here, you’d have to walk the two kay back.”
She sniffed, “I’m old, not dead, thank you very much.” He walked closer to her after that, moving around to her left, as if to protect her from the gusting wind. She smiled and took his arm. “Thank you, sweetie.”
“Mom used to…” Three bright lights, about the size of wrens swooped over them, diving toward the asphalt trail. Dexter ducked, saying something vulgar. He said, “Sorry, Grandma.”
She knew she couldn’t exactly go chasing after the lights and had her phone out again when a sound like a sweater flapping in the wind passed over them, whistling sharply. “Great Horned.”
“That’s what the Owls in the book are!”
“That’s because they’re the greatest owl. Come on.” While she couldn’t run, she walked fast. Glancing at the GPS, she could guess which owl was hunting based on the direction it had been flying. There was a single pair in the park, though it was raggedly square, so territories with other owl pairs sometimes overlapped. The ornithologist said that there were at least six different identified owls that hunted in the Reserve.
Clementine and Dexter reached one of the pellet collecting trees. She grabbed Dexter’s sweatshirt. Instead of pulling free, he froze. Their breath came in cloudy puffs under leafless trees. Pine trees and ornamentals that had escaped suburban yards had mixed with the native plants. Growing in the dryer soil at the edges, they screened them from the wind. She pointed to a dark shape huddled to their left about three meters off the ground. A light flickered, revealing a talon clamped over a branch. Dexter wasn’t looking and she tugged his sweater again just as two other lights appeared deep in the woods. They swept past the owl, surprising a shriek from the bird and a fluttering of wings as it dropped from its branch, skimmed the trail, heading directly toward Clementine and Dexter.
She backpedalled, bumping into her grandson. He cussed but held on to her. The owl did a barrel roll toward the frozen lake as the two lights buzzed all of them. The owl fled screeching into the woods; Clementine and Dexter stooped and then the lights were gone.
“Come on!” said Clementine, heading for the tree the owl had been sitting in.
“What are we doing? We saw the fairies! We saw the Owl hunting them! What more do we…”
“Proof.” She led them off the trail and soon stood beneath the tree. She looked up, then pulled off her mittens and switched her cell to its flashlight application. She aimed it at the ground then knelt suddenly, muttering, “Oh, my God.”
Dexter squatted beside her. His pants pulled tight over bony knees that rose almost to his ears. He said, “Gross.”
The owl had dropped the partially eaten fairy. It wasn’t wearing a glittery green miniskirt. It didn’t seem to be wearing anything at all but was covered with pale fur, the longest fur grew from the top of its head like Human hair or a mane. Though obviously humanoid, the eyes were set more on the sides of the skull and the arms were the same size as the legs – both pairs were stick-thin. Only one of the wings had survived the hunt. Otherwise, the owl hadn’t had time to eat it.
Clementine had to hold on to Dexter as she stood up. She’d seen lots of things die before. She’d intentionally killed or sacrificed more than her fair share. She understood ecology, food webs, and Spencer’s attempt to draw parallels between his economic theories and Darwin’s use as a metaphor for natural selection. Somehow seeing fairies as prey for owls felt wrong. Even Owl in WINNIE-THE-POOH presumably ate mice and other rodents rather than fairies, but AA Milne never went into details. Pooh ate honey as a real bear might. She shuddered when she found herself wondering what – or whom – Tigger considered prey.
Dexter still knelt beside the tiny body. She touched him on the shoulder and said, “I don’t have to write anything about this.”
He looked up and over his shoulder at her and said, “It’s not that, Grandma.”
“Seeing this…” his voice caught in that certain, adolescent, overcome-with-grief way.
“…breaches the redoubt of the fantastic to terrible effect,” she intoned, shaking her head slowly. “Poor Winnie.”
“What?” he said, rising effortlessly from his crouch.
“Winnie the Pooh was my Spirit Owl.”
“Exactly,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re wrong about old people not seeing beyond the here-and-now.”
“You said earlier tonight that the Owls in your book were wise in the ways of unreality.”
He was silent for a long time before he said, “I guess I was just a lot less…”
“No, not less smart. You’re smart to believe. Look what happened to me when I stopped believing that Winnie the Pooh, and Tigger, and my own Owl were wise beyond the ways of unreality! I used to believe something similar to what you believe. What that means to me, is that not only are your Owl and my Hundred Acre Wood Owl’s values, beliefs, thoughts, dreams, and legends legitimate in the world of their stories, but that they’re legitimate here and now.”
“You read books like THE CURSING OF SPIRIT OWL?”
“Not like them, but the Pooh books I read were the reason I became a wildlife biologist. Those and RABBIT HILL and PETER RABBIT. The books by Robert Lawson and Beatrix Potter all had rabbits who valued ideas, beliefs, thoughts, dreams, and legends above all else. When I finished reading them, I felt like I could change the way people think in order to change their lives. They certainly changed mine. I knew – up until I was thirteen – that only the unreal can affect the real.” She sighed, her breath coming out in a great cloud. The temperature was dropping. Shivering, she said, “Come on, Grandson. Let’s get back to the Community.”
“You’re not gonna tell the world about the Owls and the fairies?”
“The Owl Project already knows. No reason for me to go more public than that.”
“But writing a paper for your journals could make you someone, Grandma! If you got attached to this, you’d be famous forever!”
She snorted then said, “ ‘Be famous forever’ or breach the redoubt of familial bonding to terrible effect?” She took his arm again and steered him back along the trail toward the Community. “You’re the first member of my family that I’ve had an actual conversation with in over ten years, Dexter bar-Jonah Dresden-Xiong-Johnson-Niabuto. Why would I throw this away for a bit of limelight that will last no longer than my own sorry life?”
He looked down at her, leaning back as they walked. He said, “What’s a ‘limelight’?”
She gripped his arm tighter and gave it a little shake. “Rapscallion!”
He lifted his arm slowly until it draped over her shoulders as they walked together in silence through the two hundred acre wood. “You know something, grandma?”
He looked down at her and grinned, “I think your Owl and my Owl would have been good friends.”
She laid her head on his shoulder. “I think you’re right.”
About the Author
Guy Stewart a writer, a father, a teacher and a counselor.
Guy is also a husband supporting his wife, a multi-year breast cancer survivor. He maintains multiple blogs, including a SF/YA/Childrens writing blog called POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS, and Guy’s Gotta Talk — About BREAST CANCER.
His first novel, Heirs of the Shattered Sphere: Emerald of Earth is out now.
About the Narrator
Katrin is a medieval archaeologist specialising in historical textile techniques. She has written “The Middle Ages Unlocked”, an introduction to the English Middle Ages, together with historian and fiction writer Gillian Polack. She also spins, weaves, knits and blogs about all these things at pallia.net.