The Weekend Read
By Rose McDonagh
30th Nov 2018
We had planned to paint the barn blue and call it a library. We couldn’t find the key that first evening and so it was only on the second day that we discovered the nest. Above the central cross-beam, a thicket of pellets and feathers with two owlets in the centre of it, their faces like dandelions gone to seed. “Well that’s that out the window,” Jack said. I could not disagree, we couldn’t disrupt them.
They were enchanting, like small supernatural beings. I’d think about them at night, the two pale spectres in the dark of the barn, there all the time, awake while we slept, the impossibility of knowing what it was like to be them. What did they sense, feel, see? What did they think, even, if such a term could be applied to them?
Jack had a friend of his from a wildlife society come and tag them and weigh them. I watched them being lifted from their nest-world by gloved hands, their beaks open in pink outrage. “There are superstitions about owls, aren’t there?” I asked him.
“Yeah, barn owls predict a death in the household.” We both laughed in a nervy sort of way.
It was about two weeks after that when we heard about the missing girl. It was actually on the television news. Jack and I offered to be in a search party but the police didn’t want that kind of thing so early on. Perhaps you can see where this is going. I am certain I checked the barn properly on that first day, I searched all the corners, lifted up old machinery she couldn’t possibly be under. The place was empty. But come the following night, when I went to look at the owlets, there she was, sitting in the corner of the barn, the hood of her coat pulled down so it hung over her eyes. She was holding one of the baby owls. How she had got it out of the nest I do not know. There was no ladder. But there she sat, cradling it in her arms, the little thing hissing like a cat. The other in the nest looking on, watching the whole scene. There is a saying that an owl has more the face of a Christian than a bird and the one in the nest did have the look of a painted saint, peering down at the girl.
“What have you got there?” I said, though I knew exactly what she had.
She didn’t respond. I took a step towards her. She kept her head down. What was I going to do? I couldn’t snatch the owl from her, it might get injured. The little thing still hissing away at me.
“Please would you give the chick to me? They’re delicate, they’re awfully delicate. We wouldn’t want it to get hurt and its mother will worry.”
She mumbled something.
I couldn’t make it out.
“Please, give the owl to me.” I took another step towards her.
She muttered something again.
“I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
I knelt close to her.
“Don’t phone the police,” she said.
“Ah I know, I know, but I’m probably going to have to, because everyone’s been looking for you and we could get into trouble if we don’t.”
She mumbled something else.
“What are you saying dear?” I was not in the habit of calling people dear. I shuffled closer on my knees.
“I’ll ring its neck,” she whispered.
I leant back.
“You call the police, I’ll snap its neck like it’s a hen.” I stood up and stepped away from her. I couldn’t help projecting fear onto the owlet watching from the nest. I found myself imagining it wanted its sibling back. But of course owls sometimes eat their siblings. They are not sentimental that way.
“For God’s sake, just give me the chick.”
“You call the police, I’ll snap it,” she said.
I stepped backwards towards the barn door. “You little witch,” I said. “You just dare. I’ll snap your neck.”
I hurried back into the house and phoned the police. I couldn’t keep still, pacing the kitchen. They came out within fifteen minutes. A male and female officer. Two tall figures. I could hardly watch as they strode through the barn door.
But the chick was alright. She had not damaged it.
Jack followed the officers into the barn with a ladder and saw that the owlet was returned to the nest.
The girl was taken away, wrapped in a tartan blanket from our bedroom. Jack had brought it down thinking she looked cold; I would have preferred that he had asked me first. I watched from the kitchen, without the lights on. I didn’t think she’d be able to see me as she got in the car, but she did seem to cast a look in my direction.
When she was gone I headed back to the barn to see the two chicks in the nest. “Right as rain,” Jack said. They both looked at me with faces like Venetian masks and I couldn’t tell which one of them had been out of the nest.
The fact that the girl had been found was mentioned briefly on the regional news. The local paper ran a headline the next day, “Our Caitlyn found safe.” No more was said of her after that, nothing in the paper, nothing on the television.
We didn’t know why she had run away, why does a girl that age not want to go home? I was left with a sense that I’d carried out a small act of betrayal. I’d called her a witch, though she was just a child. There is another superstition that owls are witches in disguise. Maybe that was at the back of my mind. Over time I’ve come to think I handled it as well as anyone could. I saw her once in the town, wearing the same hooded jacket though the sun was out. She did not look at me and perhaps wouldn’t even have recognised me if she had. We often believe others think of us more than they do. We’ve got to know a few local people now. Surely we’d have heard, if there was something further to her story to hear.
So, summer came around and the owlets fledged. Another friend of Jack’s, a photographer, visited and took some beautiful pictures of them in flight. We’ve put three enlarged black and white prints on the wall leading up the stairs. We’re hoping the owls will have another brood this coming spring. We’ve rather given up on our library. I do not fear the ill omen barn owls are supposed to offer, I like to think if anything they’ll bring us luck.
Caitlyn settles in the space she has made for watching, nestled down deep by the trunk of the rowan. Over time, she has worn her own path to the house, through the ferns. Tonight the woman and the man are at home. They are eating in the dining room, placed opposite each other at the table, the window lit like the windows of the pretend, plaster buildings in the folk museum. From this distance, their movements remind her of the motion of the museum’s mechanical dolls, leaning forward or back, their arms raising with a glass or loaded fork. Their mouths open and close, telling nothing. All the time she watches, her air pistol rests snug against her back pocket, sitting in the holster she made for herself in home economics. It hangs from her belt under her coat and allows her the sensation of being a cowgirl.
Since the time last year when she first found the place, when the police were called out, she has been visiting the house in secret, making her own route that loops down into the valley and up again instead of using the road. That first time, she’d been too obvious, settling herself in plain sight in the barn where the owls live. To hold a baby owl is like clutching a goblin – she would like to do it again. But the barn doors are shut fast now with a fist of a padlock and a gleaming chain, specially to keep her out.
What they’ve not done, though, is padlock the house. The back door has only one deadlatch cylinder lock and the spare key for it is kept under a stone frog on the third step.
Caitlyn has taken to visiting the house when they are out, letting herself in, pretending it is her own home, that she lives there by herself and never has to go back anywhere else. In the bedroom, she likes to put on the woman’s lipstick, wild pink colours that make the inky patches under her eyes stand out darker. In the kitchen, there is always an open bottle of something sweet, port or sherry or orange liqueur, and she likes to drizzle a generous measure into a tea cup. She’ll sip her drink slowly, striding about the hyacinth-scented living room, running her fingers over the pristine furniture. Licking the stickiness from her lips. Sashaying. When she has finished drinking, she always rinses the cup out with lemon liquid and leaves it back on the dish-wrack, untouched.
Tonight, the couple are in so there is no visiting the house. The wind is up, vexing, and she is cold already, crouched by the rowan tree. She may pick up tics and have to pluck them out later, obese full-stops that will cling to her ankles and midriff. But the rain has stayed off. A white owl swoops and flies into the barn through an opening near the roof. She pulls out her air gun and dusts it with the sleeve of her coat though it is already clean.
Readjusting her position in the ferns, she takes aim at the window of the dining room, first at one bright face, then at the other. If she assassinates one of them, gets a good clean shot to the forehead, she will take their place. The house will be hers, and so will the bulky car, and the shining bottles of nectar-drinks, and the barn where the owls live. She will never have to go back and the oil-coloured bruises on her thighs and biceps will vanish permanently, exchanged for clear, unblotted skin.
She stands up, exposed, and straightens her arms out in front of her, both hands clasping the gun, posing like a hit-man in a film. The faces in the window turn towards her.
There is a second where all gazes meet and then without naming her intention to herself, she pulls the trigger. Her eyelids squeeze shut at the same moment and there is a bang and a scream and the sound of cracking glass.
She opens her eyes and finds a white spiderweb of lines has appeared in the middle of the lit window and the two faces are still looking at her. She’d thought the pane would shatter and fall like sleet but she has not broken through the glass at all, the faces behind it remain intact.
They stare at her for a moment and then they are moving from the dining room, the hall light is on, and then the back door is open and she can hear the woman shouting, “You witch, you little witch.”
She runs down through the ferns, into the slope of the valley. She moves blindly, trusting the ground not to break her ankles. She thunders into the woods, evening-birds flapping out of her way. She keeps speeding on, her heart and her feet beating at the same pace. The wind billows and sinks and rises again, the trees hiss and shake. As she gets deeper into the wood, she begins to grin and she keeps going and she knows that the woman is right, she is a witch, and she is making the trees bend and snap to her own will. The whole wood bows and trembles to her power.
The ground was solid with frost. Small, frozen raindrops decorated the tree branches. Walking out to the barn in the morning a dream filtered back to him in flashes and starts. He’d dreamt that he was an owl. He’d sat up on the high beam where they’d normally roost and he’d watched his human wife come and go below him. He knew somehow she was looking for him. She won’t find me here, he’d thought, not with any malice, but with mild curiosity to see if she would look up and recognise. She never did.
He couldn’t recall ever having been anything other than himself in a dream. Entering the barn now, he rubbed his face to cleanse the memory of it. There was something disturbing about losing his human form and, in the dream, not minding. He’d tell Charlotte, she’d find it funny, that would burst the skin of it.
In wintertime, the owls used the barn for roosting though they had no chicks to feed. He looked up towards the solid, undreamed roof. The owls’ beam was bare except for hardened droppings. With the cold well set in, they were often still scavenging in daylight hours. They’d be out there among the fields, scanning from their resting posts for miniscule movements and sounds, scuttlings and scrimmagings.
He set up his wood bench. With some experimentation, he had learned he could work in the barn without scaring the owls as long as he moved smoothly. He fixed a piece of wood into the vice and began sawing. The back and forth rhythm of the blade, the flow of the dust, created a kind of trance. After a time, he heard the crackle of a car pulling up on the gravel outside. He put the saw down and stepped to the doorway, his breath clouding the air. It was their two-fields-away neighbour, who owned the fishmongers in the town centre. The window of the car wound down.
“Morning. Thought you’d want to know,” the neighbour said, “They’re looking for the girl again.”
“Oh are they?”
“Imagine the police will be round here.”
“I’ll keep an eye out.”
“She’s really done something this time.” The neighbour leant his elbow out of the window.
“Something crazy.” He looked pleased, to have this to tell, like he was talking of his own heroics.
“She’s gone and stuck a knife in her step-father.”
“Christ. Is he – ?”
“No, he’s in hospital. A penknife in the leg.”
“What could’ve possessed her?”
“Some daft argument, people are saying. About skipping school or something. Lucky, missed the artery.”
“She’s a wild girl.”
“Yeah. You know the older brother is in prison for possession of stolen goods?” The neighbour leant further, his breath puffing, steam from a train.
“I didn’t know.”
“Sometimes I wonder. Same family. I wonder if there really is such a thing as bad blood. You know what I mean?”
He gave a small nod, only meaning he did know the phrase. He looked around at the gleaming frost. “It’s colder today.”
“Aye it is. Anyway, keep a look out. She might come hiding.” The window wound up. He watched the car pull away.
He told Charlotte over lunch. “They’ll be worried about her, out in the cold,” she said, tearing apart her bread and dipping it. Her animosity to the girl had cooled in the time since the cracked window.
“She’ll be alright,” he said.
“How do you know?” She looked over her soup, her sharpening gaze.
“I suppose I don’t.”
He didn’t tell about the owl dream. It seemed only silly now.
Later when he was doing the dishes two police officers stopped by. They wanted him to open up the barn. He showed them in. They shone torch beams into the corners, picked up the boards he was going to use for the shelves, looked behind the touring bikes they’d bought. One of the owls was roosting, settled down in its spot, claws gripping the beam. It watched them with eyes minimally open, two fragments of coal in snow.
The police completed their search, tramped back to their car. “If you notice anything, let us know.”
He heard no more about it that day. At night, the security light they’d fitted clicked on and off. Click, nothing there. Click, neighbour’s cat. Click, a small, tawny vixen who always appeared at the same time. Click, nothing again. When this happened, he got the urge to search around the room he stood in. He had a sense there was a little wild animal inside the house, invisible.
The next morning, while he was reading the newspaper in the kitchen, he saw the neighbour’s car pull up in the driveway. The sound of the door slam ringing in the chilled air.
“Guessed you’d want to hear.”
“What’s this now?”
“They found her. The girl. She was in the shell of the mill.”
“Was she…. was she OK?”
“Fit as a fiddle.”
“Glad she didn’t come here,” he said, glancing back at the house. “And that she’s alright of course.”
“Police found her huddling with a makeshift fire. A near thing she didn’t freeze to death. She’ll be charged I imagine, grievous bodily harm or that. She’d thrown the knife away, and her shoes. But the daft thing was the clothes she had on were all spattered in blood anyway.”
“Not exactly a master criminal.”
“No. She left with the police quiet as you like. I spoke to Joan about it.” The female officer who the neighbour was friendly with.
“That’s that over then.”
“Makes you wonder though,” the neighbour said, puffing out his cheeks. “Like I said. Bad blood.” The window wound up.
In the afternoon, he worked in the barn again. The quietness was so deep, it seemed to slow time. As he was taking up a new piece of wood, his eye caught something on the barn floor. A couple of glints in the far corner, among the sawdust. He took a step towards the shine. There were three things; a crisp packet, a crumpled soft drink can, a penknife wiped clean. She had been here then, after the police. In the night or early morning on her way to the mill, somehow she had got in. But he had locked the door. The padlock, he had undone it today to get in. Had she picked it and then carefully closed it up again? He looked around him. There was no other way. The owls came and went through a small circle of stone where a window had been once, high up. No reaching that. She’d not even tried to hide the objects themselves. They looked like the remains of a modern-day spell. Cautiously, he took a cloth from the bench and wrapped the litter and the knife without touching any of it. He took a few steps round in a circle, wondering what to do. The police would need to be informed. It dawned on him he shouldn’t have picked them up. Weren’t they, in a pathetic way, part of a crime scene? He laid the parcel on the barn floor and wandered over to the house to phone.
The evidence was collected, the police saying mildly that he ought not to have moved it. But they told him no charges had been pressed against the girl. Her stepfather perhaps just wanting her home. Relieved the objects were gone, he returned to the barn to simply look, as he often did.
Both owls were there, eyes closed, heads tucked forward as if in prayer. Resting from their hard winter life. He’d buy a new lock, to keep them safe. He wasn’t concerned about any possessions in the barn, only about them. They had enriched his day-to-day with an uncanny presence, and he worried for them in the harshness of winter. But these two were crafty, they would have learned their territory, the best hunting grounds, and that would serve them well in the cold nights which offered little prey. A dab of luck and the two owls would survive and flourish, ready to be parents again come spring.