Tim pressed the cold brim of the mug to his lips and breathed in the fresh scent of mint leaves. He felt the flicker of the warm smell light up the darkest parts of his body and ease the heaviness in his mind. As he drew the mug away from his mouth, he peered down inside at the tea bag as it swelled in the water. Under the quiver of the campfire it almost looked like a heart. The pulses of the leaves against the filter paper mimicked the plus of a steady heartbeat.
The fire before him danced in ribbons of red across his face, the ashy smell of the smoke burnt against his eyes. He rubbed his hand across them pushing away the pockets of soot that had begun to settle in the lines of his face. The forest was darker than he remembered. The trees somehow looked larger, they multiplied in shadowy circles that stretched out around him. The woods whispered a song of creaks and flutters, briefly soothing the dull ache in his chest.
He drew his gaze away from the mug and up to the top of one of the tallest trees.
A bare branch jutted out towards the glowing moon. A little owl perched on the edge, blinking its round dark eyes. Its feathers grew a radiant white but in the light of the fire shone in plumes of gold.
“Ya still there, old man?” Tims voice echoed out into the dark,
“I see you.”
The owl had been there all night, sitting in quiet vigil.
“Why must you stay?” Tim’s voice wavered in a tune of sorrow. “Leave me be. ”
The owl's eyes glistened, holding the vision of the gaunt man below. He would not.
Tim took a hard drink of his mint leaf tea, but felt his stomach churn as soon as he swallowed. He fell forward, his hands clutching heavy at his shirt. The piercing pain made him think of fish hooks. Grinning metal hooks ripping into soft flesh, tearing apart into flourishing red..thick inky red blood, oozing like custard..out onto his hands and..and..
He steadied his breath. His back trembled as he inhaled, shuddering weak like a butterfly's wing. He lifted up his fevered brow and fired his eyes up towards the owl, “See old man!” he cried, his voice sharp like a horse whip “I am here, now go!”
A sudden roar came from inside Tims stomach and heat flushed to his face, his belly clenched and he felt hot liquid shooting back up his throat. Thick crimson streams fell from his lips and dropped onto the mossy ground, flowering the soft green floor in scarlet. A lone white feather lay before him buried in the red.
Tim lay his hands down and dug his fingers into the dirt and pulled out the feather. Its delicate fronds were stuck together like clay, masked in a blanket of blood. Tim felt dizzy, the forest echoed tremors in his ears. He hung his head low and his body fell quiet. The owl remained still, clicking it's pointed beak in amusement.
* * * * *
Tim could remember the first time the owl had appeared. It was a warm velvety evening in Summer. The sky was slowly fading into patches of orange and gold as the sun settled down across the land. The jasmine bushes were growing full with trundles of flowers. The honey scent of their bursting buds trickled through the air. Tim had sat out on the veranda that day while his son Morgan played in his bedroom. He could hear the sing songy notes of Morgan's voice as he told stories to his teddy bears about the fairies that lived in the trees.
The owl had come that night once the sky fell dark. A quiet but deliberate tap tap tap had come on the glass of his son's bedroom window. Morgan had yanked up the old wooden window and met eyes with the powdery face of the owl. He watched the owl open up its wings, boasting the grand size of them, its feathers gleaming white milk.
“Hello!” Morgan called, his voice twittering like a music box.
There was a big woosh, woosh, woosh of the owls wings as it perched on the window sill. It reached out a golden claw to Morgan and cocked its furry head as if to say,
Morgan had scurried on his sock draped feet to grab himself a sweater but as he went he misjudged the location of his lamp and tripped over the cable pulling it from the bedside table. It tumbled to the floor with a SMASH. Waking Tim from his slumber, sleep rattled from his mouth in a gasp, “What was that?”
He paused only seconds to hear the quiet tinker of Morgan's voice,
“Wait for me” a gleeful song in the heavy silence of the room.
Tim thudded to his feet, thumping down the hall, thinking an intruder may be coaxing his son out the window. He rattled open the bedroom door, the moonlight flooded his eyes making him wince for a moment, but cleared just in time to see Morgan's flannel pyjamas leaning out the window, “STOP,” Tims voice boomed, and with one strong hand he pulled his son back through the window and onto the floor.
Dazzled and confused by the swift thump onto the hard floor Morgan gazed at his father teary eyed, his little lip quivering. Tim pulled his son to his chest and held him tightly so his hair tickled his nose, “Who was there?” he asked, holding the boy's chin up to him.
“An owl,” the boy said softly, sniffling slightly, “He wanted to show me outside.”
Tim pulled the boy to his chest once again, shifting his eyes out the window to where the owl now stood on a far off branch, its cat shaped head cutting white the dark.
“You must not go with him my son,” he said trying to hold back the anger on his tongue, he pulled the boy's face to meet his gaze,
“He is no owl. You must promise not to go with him.”
Morgan nodded his head and pulled away from his father, uncomfortable with the firm grip of his hold, “I promise I won’t.”
But Tim knew the owl would be back. The house had been marked.
“What does he want?” Morgan asked quietly. Tim looked at the faraway face of the owl sitting on the branch. He knew exactly what he was. He furrowed his brow, “He is trying to get out.”
Still seated underneath the umbrella of pine trees Tim sat staring into the fire. It was only a matter of time now. He held his wrist up to the light and peered at the skin which had now begun to form small pin prick marks. He ran his fingers over his arm feeling that the skin had started to harden. He lifted his head once again to the owl who had not moved all night. The forest had shifted into complete darkness so all that could be seen was the owls flickering eyes, the fire danced in golden sparks in the deep black mirrors of the owls steady gaze.
“Don’t you understand what I am leaving behind,” Tim called out towards the treetops, but his voice felt tired and his words fell at his feet.
He thought about Morgan back inside his bed at home and wondered what would happen to him. He pictured the trembles of sunlight creeping through his bedroom window and the golden orbs of light on his son's eyelashes as he slowly blinked himself awake. Tim sighed heavily, his ribcage falling heavily against the flannel of his shirt. He listened to the hum of the night, the black empty sounds that crawled from the darkness.
Slowly his eyes began to sag and sleep wrapped itself around his bones.
He heavily trundled to the ground, the cold kiss of the earth pressed against his ear. The smell of the damp grass filled his senses. His eyes blurred at the sight of the owl moving slowly like rose petals and landing on the ground. He could feel the touch of the velvet feathers against his face. The hook of the golden claw, outstretched in the dark. And a stab, bleeding and blunt, into the center of his forehead.
A crescent shaped scar opened up, wide, shining and red. His body surged with heat, fire spread from his fingers and up his chest.
From his skin burst flowers of white feathers, multiplying like fungi, they bloomed and they twisted, sprouting in glistening streams. The scorching pain that pulsed through his skin with every growth of feather caused Tim to cry out, but no sound came, just a dull garish expression moulded to his face, his mouth an open gash with tears bleeding from his eyes. The dizzying rock inside his brain thundered and crashed as he writhed in the dark, turning whiter and whiter.
And then nothing.
As the morning whispered through the forest in a collage of gold and pink, Tim awoke. His eyes fluttered wide as he saw a towering view and the tops of the trees dipped in sunlight. His senses felt sharpened, he could see the texture in every branch and hear the gentle tread of every insect pattering through the grass. Then down below, he saw his own body, slowly rising, and stretching. Peering at each limb with childlike wonder with an uneasy waddle of someone learning to walk with a new set of legs. He watched himself, or what was once himself, walk fawn legged, away into the trees and into the misty morning sunlight.
And now for himself, here up in the treetops, in his new feathered frame. Cloudy and small. Forever his newself, until he found someone. An unfortunate soul picked at random, or a willing prey like himself, sacrificing his own soul to spare that of another.
Yes, and maybe then he too could trudge back, led footed and new, down through the trees and back to his son.