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The Little Owl and the Moon

‘Your face looks just like mine!’ exclaimed the little owl as he gazed up at the moon. He gave a hoot of sheer joy and bobbed up and down on his branch. But the moon was not pleased.

‘Turn around,’ it said and watched as the little owl pirouetted clumsily on his branch. ‘No, absolutely not. You look nothing like me.’ And with that, it turned its back on the little owl.

‘But your face looks just like mine!’ insisted the little owl and he hooted once more. Huffing and puffing, the moon slowly swung around, amazed at such temerity. The little owl quickly became nervous. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other then put his eye against a hole in the tree trunk. There was a grub inside.

‘How dare you!’ said the moon, its voice quivering. ‘Do you know who I am? Do you know what I do?’

The little owl gave a small cough then replied, ‘Of course I do. You sleep in the day and you wake in the night,’ he paused then added, ‘just like me!’ And he bobbed up and down on his branch again.

‘O, littlest of owls,’ said the moon condescendingly, ‘surely you are not so uneducated? Tell me that you know my name.’

‘I am not the cleverest of owls,’ conceded the little owl bowing his head, ‘but I do know of your name for you are famous in the upper registers of the trees. White Faced Owl is your name.’ And with great dignity, the little owl bent both his knees and curtseyed to the moon. But the moon was not pleased.

‘You call me, what?’ it spluttered as pink blotches spread over the white of its curves. The little owl glanced up then shuffled along his branch. ‘O, littlest of thick-brained owls, I am the one who overturns the oceans! I soothe the seas! Ebb and flow are my playthings! Do you not understand what I am?’

The little owl cooed apologetically and looked down at his feet. ‘I am sorry,’ he said, ‘it is clear that I am not a clever owl for I have never heard of the Oceans or the Seas. I do not know Ebb and Flow.’

The moon hung in disbelief.

‘Are you saying that you, owl, do not know the majesty of the seas?’ The little owl opened his mouth as though to speak but closed it again and looked away.

‘Little owl,’ prompted the moon, ‘have you truly not heard of the oceans?’ The little owl stared out into the night sky then slowly shook his head.

‘O, littlest of owls,’ said the moon, ‘do you know what water is?’

At this, the little owl glanced up. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Water is for drinking and for bathing,’ he paused then added, ‘but I may be wrong for I am not a clever owl.’

‘You are not wrong,’ said the moon kindly. ‘Where do you go for water?’

The little owl turned his head to look over his shoulder. ‘My water is over there. It is a little way from here but if you follow me, I will show you.’

‘Certainly,’ replied the moon, ‘I will follow with my eyes.’

The little owl gave a small hoot of joy and regained some of his earlier enthusiasm. He spread his wings and dropped from the branch. As he glided low over the ground, he could feel the eyes of the moon on his back. The breeze slid over his feathers and the little owl opened his beak to taste the cold air. He gave a chirrup of happiness and picked up speed, fluttering his wings as he weaved between the dark branches.

‘Are you following?’ he called up to the moon.

‘I am following,’ the moon replied.

Out of the corner of his eye, the little owl could see a silver glow falling on the barks of the trees. He gave a low whistle then flapped his wings even harder. With his beak tightly closed, the little owl lifted up and over even the highest of the branches. Here above huddling forest the sky stretched out in every direction and the air was cold but crisp.

‘Are you following?’ he called up again to the moon.

‘Yes,’ replied the moon, ‘I am following.’

The little owl gave a small hoot of joy then flew higher still. Slowly, the sounds of the forest fell away and the sky was full of silence. After a while, the little owl began to coo, softly repeating the same notes over and over.

The moon watched then asked, ‘Little owl, what are you doing?’

‘I am singing,’ said the little owl, ‘so that I do not get lost, for the sky is very still.’ With that, the little owl continued to sing and his throat gently vibrated against the thin air. He sang:

White Faced Owl and Little Owl

Move to Ebb and Flow

To the Ocean, to the Sea

Together they must go

Soon the little owl grew distracted and began to turn his head this way and that. All around him glints of light were beginning to pierce the sky.

‘Whose eyes are those?’ he asked and the moon turned to survey the night.

‘They are not eyes, little owl,’ it replied.

‘But they wink at me,’ said the little owl as he marvelled at them.

‘They are only stars,’ said the moon.

‘But see how they wink at me?’ And with great purpose, the little owl closed his right eye to the stars.

After a while, the little owl began his descent and the air around him grew warm. He gave a whistle as he spotted the water then swooped down low over a fence. Perching at its side, he drank then hopped in and dipped his head beneath the cool water. As the dust floated from his feathers, the little owl cooed happily and he splashed about singing. Suddenly, he remembered the moon.

‘Here is my water,’ he said proudly as he turned to face it. ‘Can this be the Sea?’

The moon peered down between the trees and laughed. ‘O, little owl, it is not the sea.’

The little owl took another sip of water then asked, ‘Is it the Ocean?’

‘Oh, no,’ said the moon and it laughed again. ‘It is not the ocean, little owl, it is a birdbath!’

In the water, the little owl grew silent.

‘Little owl?’ prompted the moon, but he didn’t reply. He clambered out of the water and sat down on the rim of the bowl.

‘Little owl?’ tried the moon again.

‘A birdbath,’ said the little owl quietly to the stone bowl. ‘You are a birdbath.’

The moon watched him. ‘Is this the only water that you know?’ it asked.

‘Yes,’ said the little owl sadly, ‘but it is a good water.’

‘That is true,’ replied the moon. ‘Come with me and I will show you more.’

So the little owl followed the light of the moon over the city. Strange smells and sounds rose up from the grey streets. The houses glowed with heat and light, and when the little owl grew tired, he perched on the roofs and watched the foxes scavenging below. Cats disappeared over fences and the little owl spotted several birdbaths in the gardens. On through the night he flew, struggling to remain with the moon until, finally, the city began to clear. The gridlocked buildings fell away and the air tasted clean once again. Roads merged and meandered off quietly into the dark. But, by now, the little owl was exhausted.

‘You can rest here,’ said the moon and illuminated a large oak tree. The little owl bobbed his head gratefully and settled down on one of its branches. He folded his wings and lifted up his right leg, slowly opening and closing his talons. Then he did the same with his left.

‘Where am I?’ he asked.

‘On a green land beyond the city.’

‘Oh,’ said the little owl and nestled against the tree trunk. He sat and watched the fireflies dance and was enjoying the quiet of the night when, suddenly, a hoarse wail broke out. The little owl started in fright. ‘What is that?’ he called.

The moon listened to the groaning then said, ‘It is a human. Come, let us look. He is close.’

So the little owl followed the moon’s light over a row of beige tents to a small hill. Alone in the dark was a man with a guitar. He sat with his back against a tree and strummed and yowled. Occasionally, he would pause to swig from a bottle on the ground, then he would wail some more. The little owl perched close by.

‘What is wrong with it?’ he whispered.

‘Nothing,’ said the moon. ‘He is singing. I will translate:

With each word your tenderness grows
            Tearing my fear apart
            And that laugh that wrinkles your nose
            It touches my foolish heart

The little owl narrowed his eyes as the man’s mouth continued to open and close.

‘This is terrible!’ he exclaimed. ‘What is a nose? Let us go!’ And giving a shriek, the little owl took off into the air.

‘It is not so bad,’ protested the moon as it followed him back over the row of tents. ‘Long ago, men used to sing about me. They would watch and wait for me and count the days of their lives by me,’ it paused then added, ‘but the world is not now the same.’

‘What is a foolish heart?’ asked the little owl.

‘That is a good question,’ said the moon. ‘Stop your flight, little owl. Come down to this branch.’ And the moon shone its light onto a small tree and the little owl perched upon it. ‘Now we are here. Look down and see the water.’

The little owl bowed his head and saw that the water stretched out before him like a mirror of the sky. Dark and glossy ripples played at its edges, lapping against the grass banks. And where the water caught the glow of the moon, it glimmered.

The little owl tightened his grip on the branch and gave a low whistle.

‘Is this the Ebb and Flow?’ he asked with wonder.

‘You will see,’ said the moon and it lowered its face to the surface of the water.

Out of the silence, the roots of the trees began to groan, the leaves swayed and the pebbles rattled against the ground. The surface of the water began to move.

Small waves grew in the dark, slowly tilting backwards and forwards as though they were remembering how. Soon they learned and they began to feed on the motion, and grew larger and more powerful and wild. High in the trees, the little owl held his breath as the black waves spilled over the banks and coated the grass.

‘Now,’ spoke the moon to the waves, ‘up!’

And the moon pulled at the heartstrings of the water and up it reared, roaring as it foamed and thrashed down upon itself. The little owl trembled and watched the waves desert the edges of the banks as they were sucked in fast towards the centre.

‘Up!’ spoke the moon again and the fountain arched fiercely into the sky. The little owl grew afraid and took to the air.

‘Ay!’ he cried as the waves crashed together and were wrenched apart. ‘Ay! Ay!’ And the waves threw themselves down and were swallowed up in the black and writhing mass. The little owl fluttered his wings hard and looked at the moon with fear. ‘Can this be you?’ he cried.

The moon nodded and watched the dark and glittering waves tumble over each other. Then it withdrew its face from the water and the fountain was released. With a noise like thunder, the waves splintered and collapsed back down into the deep. And the water surged back to the edges and beyond them. The trees and the leaves shook then the night grew still and silent once more.

Small against the stars, the little owl circled the tree until the water had receded. Then he perched, carefully wrapping his talons around the wet and slippery branch.

‘It is majestic,’ he said in awe. ‘I have seen the Ebb and Flow,’ he paused then added wondrously, ‘I have seen the Sea!’

But the moon laughed.

‘This is not the sea, little owl,’ it said. ‘This is a lake, and it is a small lake. A sea is many times larger. An ocean many times larger still.’

In the dark, the little owl’s eyes gleamed.

‘And how beautiful they are,’ continued the moon. ‘Wild and vast, they swell and they fight. And their depths are full of song.’

‘But I cannot cross the lake,’ whispered the little owl, ‘for where will I land?’ The moon grew quiet and watched as the little owl closed his eyes. ‘How will I see the Ocean? I will never hear its song!’ And, with that, the little owl gave a small sad cry.

‘But little owl, you crossed the sea to this land,’ said the moon.

‘I didn’t!’ cried the little owl, shaking his head.

‘You did. You came on the boats with the white people.’

‘I didn’t!’ And the little owl shook his head more firmly.

‘O, but you did!’ laughed the moon. ‘It was the owl that came before you many times over.’

‘Did I?’ The little owl quickly opened his eyes.

‘Little owls have short memories,’ said the moon.

The little owl contemplated this in silence for some time then he flew to the ground. As he walked on the muddy grass beside the water, he sang:

Little Owl crosses the Sea                 

Over Ebb and Flow                           

The white people cross with him

On a boat they go

 

‘That is a good song,’ said the moon kindly.

‘Then where is my home?’ asked the little owl peering down into the water. A large catfish stared back up at him. ‘And who am I?’ He turned to look at the moon.

‘Your home is far away,’ replied the moon and it gently pulled the waves to and fro so that they rippled over the surface of the lake. ‘Your home is across the sea and to the east. But now, little owl, your home is also here. The world is not now the same. As for who you are, I cannot say. Who do you think you are?’

‘I am the little owl.’

‘There, then,’ said the moon.

The little owl gave a small hoot and flew back to his branch. ‘There, then,’ he repeated. ‘I am the little owl but it seems there are many things that I do not know.’

‘And it seems I may know too much,’ said the moon. ‘The years turn, lives come and go and in the dark I remember them alone.’

‘What of the stars?’

‘The stars cannot talk, they are made of light.’

The moon glanced out at the sky then said, ‘Come, little owl, it will be morning soon. I will take you back to your forest. Are you very tired?’

‘No,’ said the little owl, ‘I have rested well and am strong. You have shown me many wondrous things, and I am ready to go.’

So once more the little owl took to the sky and followed the light of the moon. As he flew back over the city, the night began to melt away and the world was unsure whether it was waking or sleeping. A deep blue began to transform the sky and the little owl and the moon were silent as they went.

They were nearing the forest, when the moon said, ‘Do you ever think about the end?’

‘What end?’ said the little owl watching the stars as they winked and disappeared.

‘Our end,’ said the moon, ‘when we no longer exist.’

‘But I have always existed,’ replied the little owl. ‘I will always exist.’ Down below, he spotted the birdbath that was his water and he gave a small hoot of recognition.

‘But when you are old?’ pressed the moon.

‘Then I will become a grand owl and I will be respected.’

‘And after that?’ asked the moon.

‘Then I will travel on.’

‘To where?’

The little owl was silent. ‘To where?’ he repeated slowly. ‘I don’t know. Where will I travel on to?’

Now it was the moon’s turn to be silent. ‘That is one of the few things I don’t know,’ it finally said. ‘But everything goes in the end.’

‘Everything?’

‘Yes, even the rocks and the trees and the seas will go. I will go too.’

‘Oh,’ said the little owl. ‘As long as we all go together.’

Then the moon shone its light down onto the little owl’s tree. The little owl gave a small hoot then stretched out his talons and swept down upon his branch. As he tucked his wings beneath him, he looked up at the moon. It was staring out at the sky, watching the orange light glow around the clouds. As the light changed, the white of the moon’s curves began to grow thin and vanish.

‘There are many things I understand,’ it said, ‘but where did the moon before me go?’

‘And the little owl before me?’

The moon smiled down at the little owl. Across the park, the sun began to rise.

‘Little owl,’ said the moon, ‘it is time for me to go.’

‘But what will happen to us?’

‘We will keep on turning. We will turn until we can turn no more.’

‘And I will turn with you,’ vowed the little owl bravely.

‘Yes,’ said the moon, ‘for your face is just like mine.’

And with that, the moon melted from the sky. The little owl gave a small hoot of farewell and climbed into his hole in the tree trunk. He glanced up at the sky once more then nestled down and dreamt long and well.

THE END

 little owl

C is for: Children – Pipers Piping

It started with the music; a lone pipe twisting inside the heart of the mountain. And though there was no breeze, its voice carried down through the darkness to the silent village. The Pied Piper was playing his last.

Inside the depths of stone, the children listened as he played and followed the melody with their eyes closed. The Piper watched them, silver tears sliding down his cheeks. He hesitated before the final note then drew it out long and trembling until he ran out of breath. Slowly, he pulled the pipe from his lips. The ground began to quiver, the stone walls began to creak and a rumbling swept through the cave and up into the pipe. It rattled and it smoked and it cracked down the middle, and splintered out into a thousand wooden pieces. The children gasped and the Piper vanished from sight.

They searched for him until dawn but the Piper could not be found. And so the children sat and cried, ignoring the morning light which crept through the stone cracks; the first for many years. Soon, however, they grew curious and inched forwards to dip their fingers into the pools of light. One by one, they felt the warmth of the sun in their bones and memory stirred. They packed away their shakers, their tambourines and drums, and painted on each cheek the sun and the moon just as the Piper had done. With their flutes, the children weaved together the Piper’s last song. Then, soaked in tears and light, they crept out of the mountain.

In the morning, the villagers woke to the sound of bells. Smoke curled around the mountain; its face was wrenched apart. Small shadows were seen dancing down the mountain path and the old folk crossed themselves in fear. All day, the clatter of drums and cymbals grew. All day, the shadows loomed larger. By dusk, the villagers could see the red-and-yellow patchwork of the tunics; the bells that were sown to the tips of hats.

Memory had pulled the children back to the village and there they stopped before its gates. Setting down their drums, they took out wooden flutes and began to play a most wondrous tune. It was the sound of long-aching dreams, of beauty and of promise; the very air around them shimmered with yearning.

But the villagers had heard it once before. They crept to the gates and stood in the shadows, listening to what had robbed them so cruelly. And as they wept, the Piper’s children – merry and as beautiful as unblemished fruit – played on. Soon, anger swelled in the villagers’ hearts. They thought on their empty homes, on the small empty graves and on the mockery of these painted imps. A man picked up a stone. And with sticks, the villagers beat the children of the Piper to tears. They drove them back into the mountainside.

That night, the villagers gathered at the parish and lit a candle for every child lost those twenty years ago.

-THE END-

* This is a slightly longer version (by a whole seven words) of the story that won third place in The Literary Consultancy’s Christmas Competition. The story had to be about one of the gifts from the Twelve Days of Christmas.

** The Literary Consultancy said: ‘We have selected three which we feel display particularly strong, clear and/or original prose, strong storylines and creative play within their chosen genres. In addition, each interestingly explored the prompt of ‘Twelve Days of Christmas,’

*** They said of my story: ‘We enjoyed this haunting re-write of a famous fairy tale, The Pied Piper, which provides a good twist on a well-worn story.’

So, all in all, jolly decent stuff. Hurrah. Where are the party hats?

pied piper

B is for: Bird on a Wire

The first time I saw it, I didn’t understand what it was. I didn’t understand how a bird of that shape and that size could hover for so long. Why was it there? What was it protecting?

Blackbird, crow, raven; it wheeled above the building where I worked and showed no signs of fear as I walked towards it, my neck craned upwards. I marvelled at the sight of it; pitchy black and sailing on a blue and cloudless sky – and then I saw the wire.

On top of the roof was a small aerial and bound to it was a long rod. It thinned as it stretched into the air, curving slightly in the wind. Attached to the end of it was a strip of light and flexible wire, and attached to that was the bird. So, it wasn’t a real bird, then, it was more a kind of kite. A flat, black, cut-out kite, its wings spread, its head bent. But in the sky, it was deceptive.

I stood watching until my shift began, unsure of whether to smile at it or not. For some reason, it left a bad taste in my mouth, like a practical joke gone wrong. Who would anchor a bird to a building, and why? I swiped my pass and pushed through the doors. The why was easy enough, though. The glassy-eyed owl statues weren’t working. Stooped on the corners of buildings, they were too static to fool the birds – and the birds were smart.  They needed a better scarecrow.

So the bird on a wire became a constant. Day in and day out he was there, weaving over the same patch of blue. And I could never learn to repress the small jilt of exhilaration I felt when I saw him lingering over the building. So instead, in the mornings, I grinned at him. Sometimes I even winked because whatever the ruse was, it was clear to me that he was in on it too.

It was strange, then, that the bird on a wire could slip so quickly and cleanly out of my mind. Every time I turned my back on him, he seemed to stop existing. And so I shook him off on every journey home, forgetting him like a bad dream. Maybe that was partly why, despite the thrill, I also felt uneasy watching him. He was like a shadow snagged on a nail, unfortunate and out of place. But that was before he started to struggle, before he started to fight.

Throughout the summer, the other birds kept away. In the local park, lime-green parakeets burst out of trees as I jogged by, winging their way over my head like freshly made bullets. A family of magpies paraded on the grass and robins flitted in and out of the wire fences that cordoned off the tennis courts. During the day, they breathed and ate and sang and, at night, they returned to their nests to sleep.

There was no luxury for the bird on a wire though. When it got tired, it hung down dead with its wings outstretched, like a prized fish on a rod, a Jesus bird nailed to the air. Sometimes in the evenings, it looked like someone had taken a pair of scissors to the sky. They had cut out the shape of a bird and the flat blackness was all the emptiness of space that lay behind it.

Soon the weather turned and the bird on a wire began to get anxious. The other birds were migrating.

One evening, I left work. I zipped up my coat, put on my gloves and began to make for the station. For the first time, I decided to shoot a parting glance at my talisman, to give my brooding shadow a grin. And so I turned, the cold biting into my cheeks, and what I saw stopped me dead. For high above in the half-light, the bird on a wire was fighting the leash. He weaved in the wind, dancing, alive and furious – carved so darkly black against the gathering clouds. And frantically tugging and writhing, straining against the rod, bending, pulling it, nearly snapping it in the wildness of his panic and his rage. And I stood below and I watched on, silent and scared.

That night, dark thoughts of the bird accompanied me home. I wondered for the first time if he was capable of anger, of hatred. In my mind I saw him again, wrenching, twisting, battering at the invisible wall. And slowly I realised that it was not because he was chained to a building that the other birds had fled. They had not fled from the wire, they had fled from him. He could slip the leash but he could never join them. He was not their martyr but a death bird. A monster bird, a shadow bird, with no songs and no feathers and no colour and no bones and no sinews and no blood. And so, welling up with rage and emptiness, he was dark and silent and full of fury. Steaming in hatred, a wraith of bad will. And so he would wish evil upon the other birds, and he would chase them to the ends of the earth and swallow them whole and steal their spirits and find a way to become flesh and blood.

The next day, it was gone. The wire swayed in the breeze, a sliver of black clinging to it. The sky was empty and clear. I continued to go to work but it was no longer the same. Not long after, I quit my job.

© 2012 Aliyah Keshani All Rights Reserved

A is for: A Mouth Sucker

The teeth feel freshly carved. The edges are back, the gunk chiseled off. The teeth have got their shape again. My very own Stonehenge! I sit up and gargle gently with the cool pink wash which dribbles out red. Little globs of blood spin around the white sink. I look away and pretend they didn’t come out of my mouth.

I slip back on the sunglasses, smooth down the bib and slide back into my seat, legs up, feet pointing skywards. I hope I haven’t stepped in gum or worse on my way over. I think they would be too polite to say.

The teeth are positively humming now. I can feel them vibrating, tingling with purpose. Like a car engine revving up. They want to try out a growl, a little snarl just to see how much more terrifying they are now that they gleam. (Or are supposed to gleam. In fact, they are only a couple of shades lighter than they were. ‘See how white they are now?’ Dr P insists. I’m coaxed into nodding.)

I want to bite on something, clamp, chomp, crunch. Give me a hunk of bread! I want to enter Crufts. They suck up all the moisture in my mouth, a kind of vacuuming, I think. Even my lips feel cracked, caked with air. I’m glad it’s not me peering inside but they show me the photos all the same. Thanks, camera pen. Thanks, Dr P.

Now it’s time for the polish. It perfumes out of my mouth and clumsy tongue gets confused. The taste is not bad but tongue, of course, would rather roll in custard (which is how we ended up in this mess in the first place).

The little machine whizzes around my mouth, probing squeakily in between teeth. I strain to keep my mouth open, move blurt tongue helpfully out of the way, grit, bare, bunch, widen, close – I try to pre-empt all of Dr P’s movements whenever I can, like a good patient should.

And by the end, my gums feel like pressed bruises. Zinging. All sweet and sour. I swing my legs back off the recliner and pay attention as Dr P shows me the story of my teeth, the journey they have taken today. He doesn’t like me asking questions though. He doesn’t like getting ahead of himself. So, methodically we step through the day’s events and I try not to interrupt. But I like asking questions; my brain is a little overcrowded, just like my teeth.

Dr P covers his mouth and turns away to cough. He is a polite man. He scribbles about my teeth on a white index card then puts it in an envelope with my name on it. It’s nice being tidied and packaged away. Dentistry magically transforms Dr P’s scrawl from messy to professional. And I, as ever, am greatly impressed.

Dr P explains how the payment package I signed up for doesn’t, of course, include today’s checkup and cleaning. That, in fact, I need more frequent checkups and cleaning. And that I could pay more for more if I wanted. This is my cue to go. I grin and run. The bell tinkling behind me.

© 2012 Aliyah Keshani All Rights Reserved