The Truth About Owls
By Amal El-Mohtar
26 January 2015
This story was first published in Kaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios (Twelfth Planet Press, 2014). You can read a short interview with the editors here, and Amal El-Mohtar's introduction to the story here.
For Tessa Kum
Owls have eyes that match the skies they hunt through. Amber-eyed owls hunt at dawn or dusk; golden-eyed owls hunt during the day; black-eyed owls hunt at night.
No one knows why this is.
Anisa's eyes are black, and she no longer hates them. She used to wish for eyes the color of her father's, the beautiful pale green-blue that people were always startled to see in a brown face. But she likes, now, having eyes and hair of a color those same people find frightening.
Even her teachers are disconcerted, she's found—they don't try to herd her as they do the other students. She sees them casting uncertain glances towards her before ushering their group from one owl exhibit to another, following the guide. She turns to go in the opposite direction.
"Annie-sa! Annie, this way!"
She turns, teeth clenching. Mrs. Roberts, whose pale powdered face, upswept yellow hair, and bright red lips make Anisa think of Victoria sponge, is smiling encouragingly.
"My name is A-NEE-sa, actually," she replies, and feels the power twitching out from her chest and into her arms, which she crosses quickly, and her hands, which she makes into fists, digging nails into her palms. The power recedes, but she can still feel it pouring out from her eyes like a swarm of bees while Mrs. Roberts looks at her in perplexed confusion. Mrs. Roberts' eyes are a delicate, ceramic sort of blue.
Anisa watches another teacher, Ms. Grewar, lean over to murmur something into Mrs. Roberts' ear. Mrs. Roberts only looks more confused, but renews her smile uncertainly, nods, and turns back to her group. Anisa closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and counts to ten before walking away.
Owls are predators. There are owls that would tear you apart if you gave them half a chance.
The Scottish Owl Centre is a popular destination for school trips: a short bus ride from Glasgow, an educational component, lots of opportunities for photographs to show the parents, and who doesn't like owls nowadays? Anisa has found herself staring, more than once, at owl-print bags and shirts, owl-shaped earrings and belt buckles, plush owl toys and wire statues in bright, friendly colors. She finds it all desperately strange.
Anisa remembers the first time she saw an owl. She was seven years old. She lived in Riyaq with her father and her grandparents, and that morning she had thrown a tantrum about having to feed the chickens, which she hated, because of their smell and the way they pecked at her when she went to gather their eggs, and also because of the rooster, who was fierce and sharp-spurred. She hated the chickens, she shouted, why didn't they just make them into soup.
She was given more chores to do, which she did, fumingly, stomping her feet and banging cupboard doors and sometimes crying about how unfair it was. "Are you brooding over the chickens," her father would joke, trying to get her to laugh, which only made her more furious, because she did want to laugh but she didn't want him to think she wasn't still mad, because she was.
She had calmed down by lunch, and forgotten about it by supper. But while helping her grandmother with the washing up she heard a scream from the yard. Her grandmother darted out, and Anisa followed, her hands dripping soap.
An owl—enormous, tall as a lamb, taller than any bird she had ever seen—perched in the orange tree, the rooster a tangle of blood and feathers in its talons. As Anisa stared, the owl bent its head to the rooster's throat and tore out a long strip of flesh.
When Anisa thinks about this—and she does, often, whenever her hands are wet and soapy in just the right way, fingertips on the brink of wrinkling—she remembers the guilt. She remembers listening to her grandmother cross herself and speak her words of protection against harm, warding them against death in the family, against troubled times. She remembers the fear, staring at the red and pink and green of the rooster, its broken, dangling head.
But she can't remember—though she often tries—whether she felt, for the first time, the awful electric prickle of the power in her chest, flooding out to her palms.
There are owls that sail through the air like great ships. There are owls that flit like finches from branch to branch. There are owls that look at you with disdain and owls that sway on the perch of your arm like a reed in the wind.
Anisa is not afraid of owls. She thinks they're interesting enough, when people aren't cooing over them or embroidering them onto cushions. From walking around the sanctuary she thinks the owl she saw as a child was probably a Eurasian Eagle Owl.
She wanders from cage to cage, environment to environment, looking at owls that bear no resemblance to the pretty patterns lining the hems of skirts and dresses—owls that lack a facial disk, owls with bulging eyes and fuzzy heads, owls the size of her palm.
Some of the owls have names distinct from their species: Hosking, Broo, Sarabi. Anisa pauses in front of a barn owl and frowns at the name. Blodeuwedd?
"Blow-due-wed," she sounds out beneath her breath, while the owl watches her.
"It's Bloh-DA-weth, actually," says a friendly voice behind her. Anisa turns to see one of the owl handlers from the flying display, a black woman named Izzy, hair wrapped up in a brightly colored scarf, moving into one of the aviaries, gloved hands clutching a feed bucket. "It means 'flower-face' in Welsh."
Anisa flushes. She looks at the owl again. She has never seen a barn owl up close, and does not think it looks like flowers; she thinks, all at the same time, that the heart-shaped face is alien and eerie and beautiful and like when you can see the moon while the sun is setting, and that there should be a single word for the color of the wings that's like the sheen of a pearl but not the pearl itself.
She asks, "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Do you not know the story of Blodeuwedd?" Izzy smiles. "She was a beautiful woman, made of flowers, who was turned into an owl."
Anisa frowns. "That doesn't make sense."
"It's from a book of fairytales called The Mabinogion—not big on sense-making." Izzy chuckles. "I don't think she likes it either, to be honest. She's one of our most difficult birds. But she came to us from Wales, so we gave her a Welsh name."
Anisa looks into Blodeuwedd's eyes. They are blacker than her own.
"I like her," she declares.
A group of owls is called a Parliament.
Owls are bad luck.
The summer Anisa saw the owl kill the rooster was the summer Israel bombed the country. She always thinks of it that way, not as a war—she doesn't remember a war. She never saw anyone fighting. She remembers a sound she felt more than heard, a thud that shook the earth and rattled up through her bones—then another—then a smell like chalk—before being swept into her father's arms and taken down into shelter.
She remembers feeling cold; she remembers, afterwards, anger, weeping, conversations half-heard from her bed, her mother's voice reaching them in sobs from London, robotic and strangled over a poor internet connection, a mixing of English and Arabic, accents swapping places. Her father's voice always calm, measured, but with a tension running through it like when her cousin put a wire through a dead frog's leg to make it twitch.
She remembers asking her grandmother if Israel attacked because of the owl. Her grandmother laughed in a way that made Anisa feel hollow and lost.
"Shh, shh, don't tell Israel! An owl killed a rooster—that's more reason to attack! An owl killed a rooster in Lebanon and the government let it happen! Quick, get off the bridges!"
The whole family laughed. Anisa was terrified, and told no one.
Why did the owl not go courting in the rain? Because it was too wet to woo.
"What makes her 'difficult'?" asks Anisa, watching Blodeuwedd sway on her perch. Izzy looks fondly at the owl.
"Well, we acquired her as a potential display bird, but she just doesn't take well to training—she hisses at most of the handlers when they pass by, tries to bite. She's also very territorial, and won't tolerate the presence of male birds, so we can't use her for breeding." Izzy offers Blodeuwedd a strip of raw chicken, which she gulps down serenely.
"But she likes you," Anisa observes. Izzy smiles ruefully.
"I'm not one of her trainers. It's easy to like people who ask nothing of you." Izzy pauses, eyes Blodeuwedd with exaggerated care. "Or at least, it's easy to not hate them."
Before Anisa leaves with the rest of her class, Izzy writes down Mabinogion for her on a piece of paper, a rather deft doodle of an owl's face inside a five-petaled flower, and an invitation to come again.
Most owls are sexually dimorphic: the female is usually larger, stronger, and more brightly colored than the male.
Anisa's mother is tall, and fair, and Anisa looks nothing like her. Her mother's brown hair is light and thin and straight; her mother's skin is pale. Anisa is used to people making assumptions—are you adopted? Is that your stepmother?—when they see them together, but her mother's new job at the university has made outings together rare. In fact, since moving to Glasgow, Anisa hardly sees her at home anymore, since she has evening classes and departmental responsibilities.
"What are you reading?" asks her mother, shrugging on her coat after a hurried dinner together.
Anisa, legs folded up underneath her on the couch, holds up a library copy of The Mabinogion. Her mother looks confused, but nods, wishes her a good night, and leaves.
Anisa reads about how Math, son of Mathonwy, gathered the blossoms of oak, of broom, of meadowsweet, and shaped them into a woman. She wonders, idly, what kind of flowers could be combined to make her.
There are owls on every continent in the world except Antarctica.
The so-called war lasted just over a month; Anisa learned the word "ceasefire" in August. Her father put her on a plane to London the moment the airports were repaired.
Before she started going to school, Anisa's mother took her aside. "When people ask you where you're from," she told her, "you say 'England,' all right? You were born here. You have every bit as much right to be here as anyone else."
"Baba wasn't born here." She felt a stinging in her throat and eyes, a pain of unfair. "Is that why he's not here? Is he not allowed to come?"
Anisa doesn't remember what her mother said. She must have said something. Whatever it was, it was certainly not that she wouldn't see her father in person for three years.
The Welsh word for owl once meant "flower-face".
When Izzy said Blodeuwedd was made of flowers, Anisa had imagined roses and lilies, flowers she was forced to read about over and over in books of English literature. But as she reads, she finds that even Blodeuwedd's flower names are strange to her—what kind of a flower is "broom"?—and she likes that, likes that no part of Blodeuwedd is familiar or expected.
Anisa has started teaching herself Welsh, mostly because she wants to know how all the names in the Mabinogion are pronounced. She likes that there is a language that looks like English but sounds like Arabic; she likes that there is no one teaching it to her, or commenting on her accent, or asking her how to speak it for their amusement. She likes that a single "f" is pronounced "v", that "w" is a vowel—likes that it's an alphabet of secrets hidden in plain sight.
She starts visiting the owl centre every weekend, feeling like she's done her homework if she can share a new bit of Mabinogion trivia with Izzy and Blodeuwedd in exchange for a fact about owls.
Owls are birds of the order Strigiformes, a word derived from the Latin for witch.
During Anisa's first year of school in England a girl with freckles and yellow hair leaned over to her while the teacher's back was turned, and asked if her father was dead.
"No!" Anisa stared at her.
"My mum said your dad could be dead. Because of the war. Because there's always war where you're from."
"That's not true."
The freckled girl narrowed her eyes. "My mum said so."
Anisa felt her pulse quicken, her hands tremble. She felt she had never hated anyone in her whole life so much as this idiot pastry of a girl. She watched as the girl shrugged and turned away.
"Maybe you just don't understand English."
She felt something uncoil inside her. Anisa stood up from her chair and shoved the girl out of hers, and felt, in the moment of skin touching skin, a startling shock of static electricity; the girl's freckles vanished into the pink of her cheeks, and instead of protesting the push, she shouted "Ugh, she shocked me!"
In her memory, the teacher's reprimand, the consequences, the rest of that year all melt away to one viciously satisfying image: the freckled girl's blue eyes looking at her, terrified, out of a pretty pink face.
She learned to cultivate an appearance of danger, of threat; she learned that with an economy of look, of gesture, of insinuation, she could be feared and left alone. She was the Girl Who Came From War, the Girl Whose Father Was Dead, the Girl With Powers. One day a boy tried to kiss her; she pushed him away, looked him in the eye, and flung a fistful of nothing at him, a spray of air. He was absent from school for two days; when the boy came back claiming to have had a cold, everyone acknowledged Anisa as the cause. When some students asked her to make them sick on purpose, to miss an exam or assignment, she smirked, said nothing, and walked away.
Owls have a narrow field of binocular vision; they compensate for this by rotating their heads up to two hundred and seventy degrees.
Carefully, Izzy lowers her arm to Anisa's gloved wrist, hooks her tether to the ring dangling from it, and watches as Blodeuwedd hops casually down on to her forearm. Anisa exhales, then grins. Izzy grins back.
"I can't believe how much she's mellowed out. She's really surprisingly comfortable with you."
"Maybe," Anisa says, mischievous, "it's because I'm really good at not asking anything of her."
"Sure," says Izzy, "or maybe it's because you keep talking about how much you hate Math, son of Mathonwy."
"Augh, that prick!"
Izzy laughs, and Anisa loves to hear her, to see how she tosses her head back when she does. She loves how thick and wiry Izzy's hair is, and the different things she does with it—today it's half-wrapped in a white and purple scarf, fluffed out at the back like a bouquet.
"He's the worst," she continues. "He takes flowers and tells them to be a woman; as soon as she acts in a way he doesn't like, he turns her into an owl. It's like—he needs to keep being in charge of her story, and the way to do that is to change her shape."
"Well. To be fair. She did try to kill his adopted son."
"He forced her into marriage with him! And he was a jerk too!"
"You're well into this, you are."
"It's just—" Anisa bites her lip, looking at Blodeuwedd, raising her slightly to shift the weight on her forearm, watching her spread her magnificent wings, then settle, "—sometimes—I feel like I'm just a collection of bits of things that someone brought together at random and called girl, and then Anisa, and then—" she shrugs. "Whatever."
Izzy is quiet for a moment. Then she says, thoughtfully, "You know, there's another word for that."
"What you just described—an aggregation of disparate things. An anthology. That's what The Mabinogion is, after all."
Anisa is unconvinced. "Blodeuwedd's just one part of someone else's story, she's not an anthology herself."
Izzy smiles, gently, in a way that always makes Anisa feel she's thinking of someone or something else, but allowing Anisa a window's worth of view into her world. "You can look at it that way. But there's another word for anthology, one we don't really use any more: florilegium. Do you know what it means?"
Anisa shakes her head, and blinks, startled, as Blodeuwedd does a side-wise walk up her arm to lean, gently, against her shoulder. Izzy smiles, a little more brightly, more for her, and says: "A gathering of flowers."
Owls fly more silently than any other bird.
When her father joined them in London three years later, he found Anisa grown several inches taller and several sentences shorter. Her mother's insistence on speaking Arabic together at all times—pushing her abilities as a heritage speaker to their limits—meant that Anisa often chose not to speak at all. This was to her advantage in the school yard, where her eyes, her looks, and rumors of her dark powers held her fellow students in awe; it did her no good with her father, who hugged her and held her until words and tears gushed out of her in gasps.
The next few years were better; they moved to a different part of the city, and Anisa was able to make friends in a new school, to open up, to speak. She sometimes told stories about how afraid of her people used to be, how she'd convinced them of her powers like it was a joke on them, and not something she had ever believed herself.
Owls purge from themselves the matter they cannot absorb: bones, fur, claws, teeth, feathers.
"Is that for school?"
Anisa looks up from her notebook to her mother, and shakes her head. "No. It's Welsh stuff."
"Oh." Her mother pauses, and Anisa can see her mentally donning the gloves with which to handle her. "Why Welsh?"
She shrugs. "I like it." Then, seeing her mother unsatisfied, adds, "I like the stories. I'd like to read them in the original language eventually."
Her mother hesitates. "You know, there's a rich tradition of Arabic storytelling—"
The power flexes inside her like a whip snapping, takes her by surprise, and she bites the inside of her lip until it bleeds to stop it, stop it.
"—and I know I can't share much myself but I'm sure your grandmother or your aunts would love to talk to you about it—"
Anisa grabs her books and runs to her room as if she could outrun the power, locks the door, and buries her fingernails in the skin of her arms, dragging long, painful scratches down them, because the only way to let the power out is through pain, because if she doesn't hurt herself she knows with absolute certainty that she will hurt someone else.
Illness in owls is difficult to detect and diagnose until it is dangerously advanced.
Anisa knows something is wrong before she sees the empty cage, from the way Izzy is pacing in front of it, as if waiting for her.
"Blodeuwedd's sick," she says , and Anisa feels a rush of gravity inside her stomach. "She hasn't eaten in a few days. I'm sorry, but you won't be able to see her today—"
"What's wrong with her?" Anisa begins counting back the days to the last flare, to what she thought, and it wasn't this, it was never anything like this, but she'd held The Mabinogion in her hands—
"We don't know yet. I'm so sorry you came out all this way—" Izzy hesitates while Anisa stands, frozen, feeling herself vanishing into misery, into a day one year and four hundred miles away.
Owls do not mate for life, though death sometimes parts them.
The memory is like a trap, a steel cage that falls over her head and severs her from reality. When the memory descends she can do nothing but see her father's face, over and over, aghast, more hurt than she has ever seen him, and her own words like a bludgeon to beat in her own head: "Fine, go back and die, I don't care, just stop coming back."
She feels, again, the power lashing out, confused, attempting both to tether and to push away; she remembers the shape of the door knob in her hand as she bolts out of the flat, down the stairs, out the building, into the night. She feels incandescent, too burnt up to cry, thinking of her father going back to a country every day in the news, every day a patchwork of explosions and body counts, every day a matter of someone else's opinions.
She thinks of how he wouldn't take her with him.
And she feels, irrevocably, as if she is breathing a stone when she sees him later that evening in hospital, eyes closed, ashen, and the words reaching her from a faraway dimness saying he has suffered a stroke, and died.
"Anisa—Anisa!" Izzy has taken her hands, is holding them, and when Anisa focuses again she feels as if they're submerged in water, and she wants to snatch them away because what if she hurts Izzy but she is disoriented and before she knows what she is doing she is crying while Izzy holds her hands and sinks down to the rain-wet floor with her. She feels gravel beneath her knees and grinds them further into it, to punish herself for this, this thing, the power, and she is trying to make Izzy understand and she is trying to say she is sorry but all that comes out is this violent, wrecking weeping.
"It's me," she manages, "I made her sick, it's my fault, I don't mean to do it but I make bad things happen just by wanting them even a little, wanting them the wrong way, and I don't want it anymore, I never wanted this but it keeps happening and now she'll die—"
Izzy looks at her, squeezes her hands, and says, calm and even, "Bullshit."
"Anisa—if it's true it should work both ways. Can you make good things happen by wanting them?"
She looks into Izzy's warm dark eyes, at a loss, and can't frame a reply to such a ridiculous question.
"Think, pet—what good things do you want to happen?"
"I want—" she closes her eyes, and bites her lip, looking for pain to quash the power but feels it differently—feels, with Izzy holding her hands, Izzy facing her, grounded, as if draining something out into the gravel and the earth beneath it and leaving something else in its wake, something shining and slick as sunlight on wet streets. "I want Blodeuwedd to get better. I want her to have a good life, to . . . be whatever she wants to be and do whatever she wants to do. I want to learn Welsh. I want to—" Izzy's face shimmers through her tears. "I want to be friends with you. I want—"
She swallows them down, all of her good wants, how much she misses her father and how much she misses just talking, in any language, with her mother, and how she misses the light in Riyaq and the dry dusty air, the sheep and the goats and the warmth, always, of her grandmother and uncles and aunts and cousins all around, and she makes an anthology of them. She gathers the flowers of her wants all together in her throat, her heart, her belly, and trusts that they are good.
The truth about owls—
Anisa and her mother stand at the owl centre's entrance, both casually studying a nearby freezer full of ice lollies while waiting for their tickets. Their eyes meet, and they grin at each other. Her mother is rummaging about for caramel cornettos when the sales attendant, Rachel, waves Anisa over.
"Is that your mother, Anisa?" whispers Rachel. Anisa goes very still for a moment as she nods, and Rachel beams. "I thought so. You have precisely the same smile."
Anisa blushes, and looks down, suddenly shy. Her mother pays for their tickets and ice cream, and together they move towards the exit and the picnic area.
Anisa pauses on her way through the gift-shop; she waves her mother on, says she'll catch her up. Alone, she buys a twee notebook covered in shiny metallic owls and starts writing in it with an owl-topped pen.
She writes "The truth about owls—" but pauses. She looks at the words, their shape, the taken-for-granted ease of their spilling from her. She frowns, bites her lip, and after a moment's careful thought writes "Y gwir am tylluanod—"
But she has run out of vocabulary, and this is not something she wants to look up. There is a warmth blossoming in her, a rightness, pushing up out of her chest where the power used to crouch, where something lives now that is different, better, and she wants to pour that out on the page. She rolls the pen between her thumb and forefinger, then shifts the journal's weight against her palm.
She writes "ان الحقيقة عن البوم معقّدة", and smiles.