In March, the owls started walking into our school.
March, April, it was all we talked about.
By May, they were all over town, Barn owls on the roof of every house, Tawny owls blinking on bookshelves at the library, Snowy owls in the corner shop by the penny sweets, pecking through pink shrimp and white mice.
Eagle owls swooped raids through the pharmacy, building nests in shopping trolleys from paper bags and antidepressants, blingy rectangles of turquoise eyeshadow, shampoo for head lice.
They stared at us, flying low, dropping pellets on our skulls; knots of carcass, lip-gloss and erectile dysfunction medication.
By June we were all getting a bit sick of owls.
These days, we hide. We try to ignore them.
Rumour is the Council are releasing poisoned mice as bait.
Rumour is, if you touch an owl without gloves, you die.
Rumour is our teacher has a gun.
We sit three meters apart, to give the owls room to move among us. We sanitise our hands, wear masks, but otherwise carry on as normal. I’m re-learning about isosceles triangles, Kings, Queens and beheadings, with the little kids.
We’ve been allocated a warehouse school with no windows, with diamonds, hearts and stars painted on concrete, one for each kid.
I sit inside my heart with my exam textbooks, but these days I prefer the simple life; I listen to the toddlers sing, clap, twitch and fidget, inside their socially-distanced stars. I like to remember when I too was a little teapot, short and stout. Here’s my handle. Here’s my spout. These days I can’t be a teapot, these days I have to be a responsible member of the human community.
A month ago, I started going to the Art Cupboard. To curl and breathe. Just for five minutes. The cupboard is full of owl art, smiling twit-twooing moon splashed drawings the little kids had been doing at the start of all this, when we still liked birds. Tiny clay owlets, papier-mâché nests bulging with old news.
Whenever I get hungry in the cupboard, I eat. I don’t want to go to the canteen—vats of institutional food, humid plastic pods, all those owls walking clip-clippity-clop on the roof, listening to me eat roly-poly and pink custard.
All week I’ve been eating a pasta-art owl. Maggots of hard dry macaroni, white glued to paper, glittered gold. Pick-pull pick-pick-pull, snap and crunch it down, chew sand of glue-glitter, teeth grit-grind. I’ve not been feeling much at all, lately, but when I come out that cupboard, I come out sparkling.
Halfway through Insy-Winsy spider, I start retching.
Mrs Robbie stands over me, in her blue plastic onesie with face shield.
My belly growls.
“Have you had owl contact?”
“No,” I say.
Down came the rain and washed poor Incy out.
“Well, I ate a bit of owl,” I say, ready to confess about the cupboard, going in empty, coming out glittering.
She clicks a fuzzy sound on her Walkie-Talkie.
She throws a clear plastic tarp over me.
A low siren sounds.
The truth is, the macaroni is nothing. This month I’ve eaten a cornfield made of matchsticks, a salt-dough mannequin of Shakespeare – all kinds of shit. But all anyone ever wants to talk about now is owls.
So, I’m loaded into the ambulance and say, yes, yes, I ate one of the owls that crawled out of the sky, no, I don’t know why, because owls, because I wanted to hear my stomach growl, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
Three people with cold blue plastic glove hands feel my belly.
The hospital is white and squeaks when people walk in it.
Humans circle me.
“We’re going to run some tests.”
“Ok,” I say.
An owl shivers in the corner of the room.
Another flies into glass, a wet thud.
“Code Seven, owl blood,” says a cold hand man, and a nurse runs out the room.
“Code Seven,” he shouts. A low-slow siren moans.
The medics all stare at me.
The owls all stare at me.
A cleaner comes in with a black plastic bin-bag, and fills it with broken owls, who punch about inside.
More doctors walk in.
“Rest now,” says the cold hand man. An owl jumps on his shoulder, he breaks its neck, a snap.
“Code Seven,” he says.
“Code Seven,” voices shout down the corridor, “Code Seven, Code Seven.”
A machine buzzes and bleep-bloops.
Cold hand man injects me with clear liquid, and when I sleep I sleep the sleep of owls,
full of hollow tapping talons and the sound of voles digging under snow, waking into the black snap of night with blood on my tongue, little stars, small twitches heart-beating in my claws.
® Elisabeth Ingram Wallace
[This piece was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy]