A Companion to Owls

Linda Bell

I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls. Job 30: 29 

 

Joseph Dwight Robbins was jobless and spent a lot of time in bed. He had a cash flow problem. He didn’t have any. After rent there was only enough to buy some generic brand food. Joseph’s home was Windsor Apartments, a boarding house of sorts ruled over by a Mrs. Joan Jeffries - one of those late middle-aged women who straddle the boundary between the sexes. Joan Jeffries had a deep, raspy voice, chin hair and broad shoulders. What Joseph found most disturbing was her enormous breasts almost bursting from her faded cotton blouse which she would wear for an entire week, even in the sultriest of summers.

Three days ago Mrs. J., as she referred to herself, had knocked, unannounced, on Joseph’s door, startling him as he never had visitors. He always handed Mrs. J. his rent so that she didn’t have to call to collect it. He heaved his body out of bed and shuffled across his room. Hurrying didn't suit Joseph these days.

“Who is it?” he called. He wasn’t opening the door to anyone he didn’t know.

“You know who it is Jo. I need to talk.”

“I’ve paid.” Joseph called out, hoping this would send her away. 

“It’s not that, let me in.” Joseph fiddled with the rusted security chain until the door opened. The breeze from the open window in his room sucked the smoke from Mrs. J’s cigarette into his face. He waved it away. She didn’t apologise.

“I need help.” This statement launched Mrs J. into a mucous-filled coughing bout. Joseph stared at the floor in an effort to avoid the onslaught. Thumping her chest as she recovered she blurted, “There’s an owl in my kitchen. I don’t know what to do.” 

“Right,” was all Joseph could think of saying. 

“I know what you’re thinking, the booze’s done her brain in at last. Well it hasn’t - there’s an owl in my kitchen.” Joseph wasn’t sure about her brain or the booze or the owl but he knew the quickest way to get her to leave was to sort it out.

 

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Joseph stepped into the hall next to Mrs. J. and pulled the door closed behind him. The narrow, greasy space didn’t offer much in the way of standing room for two. No matter how much Joseph squirmed and shuffled he couldn’t avoid being in contact with Mrs. J’s fleshy chest. ‘Chest,’ 

rather than ‘breasts’ seemed appropriate to describe the shelf of soft flesh between Mrs. J’s armpits and waist. 

 

Extracting herself from the situation, Mrs J. wheezed her way downstairs to her private ground floor quarters, followed by a reluctant Joseph. She let him in first. “Have a look, see what you think.” Her grubby hand felt the wall inside the door and flicked on the light. There was so much furniture and clutter in her living area that Joseph wasn’t sure where to look. “There, see, look.” She was jabbing a chubby finger in the direction of the window where a magnificent bird with huge dark eyes was perched on the back of a less than magnificent chair. 

 

Joseph had seen few owls in his life - maybe two in fifty-five years, so the sheer weirdness of the situation was what struck him. Here in a grimy, sleazy, inner-city-boarding-house-landlady’s living room was a creature of such majesty and mystery it made Joseph gasp. It didn’t move. Joseph was sure it was startled. “What am I supposed to do with it?” He whispered.

“I don’t know but it gives me the creeps. Look at it. It doesn’t move. It’s so big.”

 “I think it’s scared.” 

“Are they dangerous? I mean, they kill things with those claws don’t they?” Mrs J. hissed into Joseph’s ear.

 “Yes,” Joseph replied “But it’s not going to kill anything here.

“What shall we do with it?”

“Maybe just open the window and it’ll go out,” suggests Joseph.

“How’d it get in?” She asked Joseph as ifassuming he would know. “I don't know but I think two of us might scare it, how about I just see what I can do, eh?” He said, hoping desperately she would leave him alone with the creature.

“Ok, I’ll go in the bedroom and have a lie down and leave you to it.” Mrs. J. shuffled off into the 

only other room and shut the door rather too loudly. The owl didn’t respond. Its unblinking gaze was starting to unnerve Joseph. He sat down on the misshapen sofa and tried to breathe slowly 

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and calmly and be as still as the owl. He realised in that moment that he’d reached fifty-two and knew virtually nothing about owls. His ignorance had caught up with him and now, faced with 

this beautiful and unnerving wild bird, he was unable to do anything because he didn’t know anything.  He knew nothing about its behaviour, its habits or its responses. He realised he could’ve lived his entire life and neverhave given a thought to this wondrous creature. He was quite overcome.

 

He sat as silent as the owl for a few more moments. All he could think of doing was ringing up a wildlife rescue group to come and take it away to some forest and let it go. There was a 

grubby phone on Mrs. J’s table near the owl. Joseph stood up as slowly and smoothly as he 

could so as not to startle the bird. He leaned over and picked up the smeared handset and dialled 

directories, holding the foetid mouthpiece as far away from his own mouth as possible. Then, he rang, Rescue Them Now.  A brusque woman took the address and details, saying, “Someone’ll be round soon so don’t do anything to make it panic.”

 

He replaced the handset and continued to sit still. He thought that opening a window close by would give the owl the freedom to fly away should it want to. He realised what an obvious solution this was and this gave him an excuse to berate himself for being so stupid in the face of the obvious. Joseph got up as slowly as he could and crept towards the window above the kitchen sink. He was surprised that the owl didn’t turn its head as he walked past. He fiddled with the rusty fastener and pushed the window open as far as it would go.  

 

Just as he was trying to push it even further he sensed movement behind him,  the owl’s magnificent wings brushed his head as it flapped frantically in an attempt to fly through the opening.  Joseph ducked instinctively and the creature struggled through the confined space and took flight. By the time Joseph leaned over the sink to look out and up, he could no longer see it. All that was left was a large splodge of sticky owl dropping on the window ledge and a feather in 

the sink.

 

 

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Joseph stood for some moments, staring at the sky almost willing himself to see the bird flying free, but he couldn’t. It was gone. He felt moved, almost teary. For a few minutes he’d shared his life with a mysterious creature of the night. He didn’t even know what type of owl it 

was. Suddenly, like a wave of nausea, the sheer vastness of his own ignorance gripped him with 

full force. It was more of a shock to him than either the presence of the owl or its sudden 

departure. He felt in that single moment an unnerving sense of panic as something dawned on him. He knew so little. He had been given so much time. He had lived alone for the last ten years since Leila left him. He hadn’t worked. He’d had hours, days, weeks, months, years to himself in which he could have found out anything he wanted to know and he hadn't. He had filled his mind with the trivial details of existence. 

 

Returning to the present moment he was aware that he was still standing in Mrs J’s sordid living room and that she was still in her bedroom thinking there was an owl in her kitchen. He could not face her. Not now. She must have fallen asleep or she would be calling out wanting to know what was happening. Joseph found a used envelope and a pen and scrawled ‘Flew out of window.’ He didn’t close the window - fume-ridden city air smelt better than the stink of unwashed body, fried eggs and stale cigarette smoke. He closed her front door as quietly as possible and returned to his now fresh-by-comparison little living space, closed his window and took to his bed. It was 11am and he had just encountered and set free a wild and beautiful creature. 

 

Under his cheap and cheerful doona he pondered. What had he done yesterday morning? He’d woken early as usual with the light streaming through his unlined curtains at dawn. He’d stayed in bed with his mind blank except for the awareness in his body of wanting to go to the toilet. After attending to that he’d made a cup of tea. Then he’d returned to bed to lie and drift in 

and out of sleep for the next hour or so until he was again driven out of bed by physical need- 

this time his rumbling stomach. That was about ten o’clock. Then what had he done?

                                    

 

 

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“You there? Jo, where’s the owl?” Mrs J. was banging with her pudgy fist and the door was rattling in its frame with the sheer power behind the knuckles. Joseph opened up and Mrs J. bulldozed her way in. “What did you do? Come on, you left without telling me.”

“You were asleep.”

“Yes well, tell me now.”

“I opened the window.”

“I saw that,” she muttered, “but what did you do? It’s gone.”

“So, it's really gone?” She sounded disappointed. Joseph had a silly thought that maybe she’d stolen it from the zoo. The spectre of Mrs J. charging through the turnstile at the zoo with a zipped-up travel bag containing a stunned owl, made him smile. “How did you get it out?”

“It flew out.” 

“Don’t be difficult, Jo.” She seemed exasperated. “I want to know exactly what you did to get it to fly out.” Her blotchy face was tilted back in all its puffed glory, pleading with him to tell her how he’d done what he’d done. “Mrs J. I’ll tell you what I did. I walked across to the window right.” He thought he’d act out the whole episode for her so he got up, walked over to his window and tugged at the fastener. The window flew open and a warm breeze blew in. “I leaned over your sink like this and I opened the window.”

“Right, yes, I know, I hadn’t got round to those dishes, I was tired this morning. She squirmed a 

little,  remembering the food-caked plates in the sink. “I pushed open your window and 

I was just about to turn round and the owl started flapping its wings and next second it was gone. 

Just like that.”

“Just like that.”

“Nothing to it.” 

“Well thanks, really. I did get a shock, I mean it was just there. So how did it get in?”

“Do you only have one window like me?” he asked. She nodded. “And I opened it.” Joseph frowned.

“That’s what you just said.” 

“So it was closed before that?”

“Always closed, can’t stand the traffic.” 

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“So how did it get in then, if you never open your window?” Joseph voiced the question hanging in the air between then. They were oddly bound together by their shared confusion. “I need to sit down.” She set herself down heavily on Joseph’s only armchair. He imagined for a moment the strain on the broken leg at the back . She leaned forward and Joseph avoided looking at her well-

worn cleavage. “I had my breakfast as usual and I went into the bedroom for my cigs. Always have a smoke after breakfast to relax me for the day. You know, get’s me ready to face things. I came out of the bedroom and it was there.”

“Just there.”

“Yep, perched there. Thought I was going gaga I did so I stopped and looked at it and saw it was real. I got scared then and I came up to you.”

“And I came down and let it out of the window that you always keep closed.”

“Well I’m stumped. Must’ve been a ghost.” Joseph laughed.

“Don’t Jo, that’s mean. I’ll be scared now.”

“Come on, there’ll be some explanation.” 

“I need a smoke. I’ll have to go. I’m really nervous now though, going to my place.

If it got in with the window closed what if I go down and it’s there again? Or what if something else has come in?” She was frowning now and looking more wizened than usual.

“Ok, I’ll come down, but I’m not staying. I’ll just check the place.”

“Oh thank you Jo, thank you, you’re so kind.” He followed her down the stairs. At her door she gave Joseph the key so that he could go in first. He pushed open the door, looked around, checked the bedroom, embarrassed by the stale female smell the grubby underclothes strewn across the bed. “Looks fine, must fly.” They laughed together at his unintended joke. He hadn't laughed with Mrs. J. before. A squeamish intimacy hung between them.

“Thank you so much Jo. I can’t thank you enough.” She was smiling as if she actually liked him. She waved and as she closed the door she winked at him. 

 

Standing in the hallway, Joseph was about to climb the stairs back to his flat. He thought he might go back to bed to recover from the whole exercise. But he didn’t. Instead he walked down the hallway, stepped out into the street and started walking. He didn’t need to go out for food or 

anything. This was the first time he’d gone out for a walk for its own sake for longer than he 

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could remember. He noticed how busy the street was. How many people were out and about, living their lives, going about their daily business. He looked up at the blue expansive sky. He looked at the trees lining his street. He’d never really noticed them before. He realised he had never actually looked at them. Ever. What type of trees were they? He didn’t know. But he 

would find out.

 

For the first time in as long as he could remember he just wanted to be outside just for the sake of being out in the open in the fresh air. He didn’t know where he was going to, he was just going to walk and look