For This Reason The Owl

Extract

On the floor, in the corner of the room, there is another cache.

Three oak leaves.

Five bright yellow broom flowers, starting to wither.

A spray of meadowsweet, strong-scented and delicate.

An owl pellet sitting on top, oriented north to south.

In the owl pellet Leah can see spots of bone, ivory white, emerging from the dark mass of digested remains.

For a time she kneels on the floor, the rush matting pressing into her bare knees, just looking at that small pile. In her mother’s desk there will be a list containing the date and the contents of this cache, and the reason for it being placed here in this dim corner. She could go and look, but she won’t bother. She’s seen too many of these lists. Too many reasons.

The sun was in the East too long… Unexpected rain on Sunday… Richard watching me at market… A dead rat in the garden…

There’s a strong urge in her to sweep the pile aside and throw it to the wind. Her hand is poised, her palm turned sideways, tension in her fingers making them feel like part of a scoop. But she doesn’t do it. There’s a kind of pity and fear mixed in with her anger. She can’t destroy her mother’s cache like that because she knows the storm that will break when she discovers it gone, and knows the look of fear in her mother’s eyes that she just can’t stand to see. It’s hateful to have a mother who is afraid…

Instead she closes her hand and stands up again. She will go outside and walk. Perhaps work on her archery. Perhaps be useful. Perhaps remember that she is fifteen and should be lying in the sun and dreaming.

Outside the sky is bright and clear for once. That’s a good thing. Some sun to help dry out the damp soil. Some sun to ripen the fruit and ripen her skin, too, perhaps. She doesn’t bother with a shawl or coat when she goes outside – she keeps her shoulders and the scoop of her neckline bare to the sun and lets the feeling of the heat press down into her skin. She lets the feeling of the heat press into her bare feet from the ground below them. It’s a nice thing to feel after the closed-in shade indoors, and when her eyes stop being dazzled by the sun she feels like running with her arms thrown up in the air.

Leah looks around briefly, wondering where her mother is. Then she sees her, off to the south side of the house where the sun is strongest, kneeling and laying out small fruits on a sheet in little rows. They look like lines of bodies, red juice staining into the cream fabric. Her mother lays them out perfectly spaced, as if the ability of the fruit to dry depended on the equality of each gap.

With the sun this strong and hot it’s hard to imagine the frugality and hardship of the coming winter. Leah knows she will be grateful for those small dried fruits when the sky is grey and the soil yields nothing to eat, but for now she would rather hunker down small between the rows of raspberry canes and pick the fruit straight into her mouth, and not think of winter. The sweet taste of fresh juice rushing into the crevices of her mouth is so much nicer than the slow, dry release of a shrivelled fruit crushed between her teeth.

But winter is a hard thing to ignore, despite the sun. Old jars inside filling slowly with stores. Potatoes in dusty piles in the back room, the window covered over with a sack and slabs of cardboard to keep the light out. And outside, where Leah stands, meat stiffening into wind-dried strips on lines outside the house. They look like totems, like warnings to the insane. She wants to twitch off a strip of meat and chew it, but she doesn’t.

She quietly picks up her bow and arrows rather than yield to temptation, and pads silently out of the garden. At the gate she feels a tugging moment of affection and responsibility, and calls out, ‘Mum, I’m going hunting.’

Her mum’s head turns briefly, and she nods, and with that consent Leah moves more noisily now, down the sun-warmed path and towards the woods.

On the way she picks meadowsweet and broom and tosses them over her shoulder, as a kind of counter-curse to that cache in the living room. She’s never seen those piles do any good. Nothing changes. Just her mum seems a little calmer when they’re there in corners or hidden on top of books, and she seems thin and worried when they’re not. It’s no different from hollowing out a swede for Hallowe’en, perhaps, and pushing a candle into the inside to ward off the spirits of the dead. But Leah does that with a certain amount of apprehension and joy mixed together. She knows that the walls between the worlds are no thinner at that time, that no brittle-fingered hands will reach to touch her shoulder from behind, that the chills of the wind are not the breath of the dead. Her fear is a thing to play with, not an all-year-round thing, not like her mother feels.

I wish I knew what she was afraid of…

No matter how many times she thinks that, she can’t bring herself to ask. She can see all the obvious fears. The fear of running out of food. The fear that something will break that cannot be replaced. The fear that a woman and a young daughter living alone in a house are a target that cannot be resisted by some of the men in the village. She can see how all those fears hunch through her mother’s shoulders and make her into something scared.

But this is something deeper, something that Leah is afraid to unravel. The question always sits in her throat, unvoiced.

Mum, what happened? What are you afraid of?

She gets to the point of opening her lips, but her tongue won’t move and her throat won’t unswell and she feels like she did when she was thirteen, trying to voice the unspeakable fact that she was becoming a woman and starting to bleed. That seemed so easy now, compared to this. That was a brief confession, and it was all over. But this. This was different…

In the woods she tries to forget about her mother and focus her mind instead. Despite her oddness and fear her mum has taught her so many things. How to make bows, and arrows that fly straight. How to stand silently with an arrow nocked and be no different from the trees and the plants around her. How to make her breathing part of the sound of the wind and the blink of her eyes no different from the flicker of sun through the leaves.

There are deer in these woods. Now there are fewer people living in this part of the world they are coming back, moving silently through the fields and forests and reclaiming their land. Leah hasn’t shot a deer yet. She saw one once, but she couldn’t bring herself to let loose an arrow at something she had not the confidence that she could kill. Instead she focuses on rabbits, and has brought plenty of them home. Probably, she rationalises, rabbits are harder to hit than deer – but they are much easier to kill.

At last her eyes catch movement in the trees. Not a rabbit or a squirrel. It’s a pigeon, fat and unaware, sitting on the grey branch of an ash tree. Leah moves her arms as if she is unconscious of the movement, lines up the shot, and lets loose the arrow. The pigeon falls from the tree like a stone, the arrow ridiculously large in its fluttering grey side. A couple more like that, and dinner will be sorted.

She pads quietly towards where the bird fell, watching the ground for brambles and thorns. Her feet are still bare, as they always are in the summer, a little tide of dirt about the edges like the sole of a moccasin coming up to curve about them. There’s no need for shoes in the summer, and half the time in the winter, too. No need for shoes for the quick dart out over frost to the woodpile or to fetch a tool from the shed. Certainly no need for shoes as she walks through the mossed rocks and debris of the woods’ floor in high summer. She would rather feel the ground beneath her feet and walk silently towards her prey than have her toes shoved into sacks of leather and squashed together.

Her mum will look at her feet later and sigh. Maybe she should go and wash them in the stream – but then they will be wet, and then dry earth will stick to them, and then they will be muddy again. There’s no way to win.

There’s the pigeon, lying between the crook of two fallen branches. Its soft feathers are bloody where the arrow’s shaft protrudes from its breast. Its eyes are bright but glazed, and she feels a stab of pity. But it is a quick thought. She picks up the bird and works the arrow out of its flesh and slips it into the bag at her hip. Later she will have to pluck it and stuff the feathers into a sack for keeping, with that dead smell rising around her and her fingers itching with frustration.

Poor thing.

Since when did killing things get so hard? She used to be able to strike the life out of a bird with glee, as if it were a triumph. Recently she has started to think about the brief and bright life in each one. She tried to talk to her mother about it the other night, and her mother started to cry, so she stopped. Maybe it’s to do with getting older. Maybe every extra month makes her feel as if life is more special.

Ah well…

She sighs, looking about. The birds have noticed this brief moment of terror in their ranks. Most of them have flown away. The ones that haven’t are calling out in anger at the intruder below them. It will take time before another pigeon is trusting enough to be brought down.

‘Fuck it,’ she mutters under her breath. Maybe Richard is up at the river with his rod and line. Maybe he will lend her one and teach her to fish, if only she can get the courage to ask. Fish aren’t the same as birds. It’s easier to not think about their death.

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