The Owl


Most of the birds which stayed at home when I moved away were older birds. Birds get to a point in old age where they barley move – they just sit in the same position and make small noises. It's like they're deep in a dream, stuck in one point in the past. It begins to blend in with the rest of the house. Their smell becomes the smell of the house and their quiet calling becomes the sounds of the house, merged with the rest of the family - the fridge clicking on at night, the rumbling of the washing machine and the shutting of doors. So eventually you don't even notice them – you only notice the absence of them. And the fact that they're not there - it begins to stick to you like the feeling of cheap hotel beds.

Back at home the older birds weren't all mine. There were my dad's, a couple of my mum's and a few more for my brothers. Again, these ones didn't fly much any more. They just stayed in their cages in their respective owners rooms. They didn't take much tending too either, didn't call like younger birds, just sat there and occasionally needed feeding. They gave the house a kind of dusty warmth which you missed elsewhere. It was like the combination of all of those little hearts beating and tiny brains clicking over made everything seem singular, eternal.

Then there were some birds who were sort of communal. Ones that had been passed down the family for generations. Sort of like a family heirloom. They sat in the living room, the hallway or the kitchen; hidden away in corners and shelves, placed on mantelpieces like ornaments.

They seemed almost like the glue which held our family together.

“That family with the birds,” people would say.

And while me and my siblings have differences we could all come to an agreement on the love for one or two of the larger old birds that hung around the house. Everyone chipped in on looking after them – no one ever complained.

The oldest bird of them all was perched in the hallway, on a table, under a mirror. He was a massive Eurasian Eagle-owl. Passed down so long in the family no one really knew how old he was any more. His feathers looked like dry old parchment that had been scribbled over with a pen a hundred times over. His feathers seemed to collect the static in the house, it was brushed all over him like dust. His eyes were huge, a deep round amber that shone in the darkness.

Years back when I'd found my Dad with the bluebird downstairs he'd been there – I can remember seeing those eyes, following me in the dark as I'd crept down the stairs, deeply sunk into his rotating head. That was mainly what he did, watch people with those amber eyes – filling his large body with secrets and feelings.

And he never called, he never spoke to anyone. Sometimes at his most aggravated he would rustle his feathers but that was all. He just sat there, watching and growing.

And there was an inch of sadness about him, which was unusual, because in most ways he didn't really have much emotion at all – most of the older birds were emotionless.

The funny thing was he seemed to command such respect in the house. Owls are not clever animals, by anyone's judgement and we used to love playing tricks on the stupid birds. He looked a little bit dopey sitting there in his perch, watching everything and not talking. It was like he didn't really have a clue what was going on. But everyone treated him with care, not in a patronizing way, but in a respectful way. It was as if he knew better than to talk like the rest of us, better than to squabble and squeal and moan and cry.

As children, when we were naughty, our parents sent us to go sit on the stairs, next to him. I remember it vividly. We didn't really resent it. It was definitely a punishment but it was just how we dealt with stuff like that in our family. It became routine.

Sitting on the harsh carpet, his silent judgement was unavoidable. It wasn't godly, it wasn't absolutist. It felt like the scratchings of strain from a thousand generations of our family – and then hundreds of others. It was itchy and selfless. He looked deeply into you with those eyes and read you so quickly it was embarrassing. It felt like being caught naked in public: deeply embarrassing, horribly revealing, with a mixture of silent, deep rooted excitement.

We were usually in tears within a few minutes. Mum or Dad had to come and take us away. Although there were never any hysterics, just sorrow, adrenaline, love and grace.

Such a release to be so utterly understood.