By Brit Mandelo
On her way out of the coffee shop, Harvey flashed a last flirtatious grin at the blonde barista behind the counter. The girl lifted her hand in a wave, smiling, before the door shut between them. A surge of warmth rolled down to Harvey’s toes. Being out of her apartment made such a difference; it was as if she’d come back to life. She trotted down the steps into the sunny winter’s day, and as she lifted the cup to her mouth, she noticed a scrap of paper tucked into its cardboard sleeve.
She plucked free the wrinkled bit of receipt tape. The word Lucinda stared up at her in smudged blue ink, followed by a phone number. Harvey glanced up through the window and caught another glance of the barista’s lustrous hair.
“Lucinda,” she murmured. The syllables were sweet and slippery on her tongue.
The warmth returned, and it had nothing to do with the sip of rich coffee she took to soothe her prickling nerves. She hadn’t gone out with the intention of finding a date but she couldn’t ignore such a pretty girl. It had been months since—the summer. She tucked the paper into her back pocket with sweat-damp fingers. The daytime crowd milled by unaware.
They moved around and without her, like a stream around a boulder, rushing and noisy, a sudden immense pressure on every side. A sick chill washed over her; the ground tilted. She’d spent too long cooped up alone to deal with so many people all at once. She pressed her back against the wall of the building and lifted her gaze from the street. The sky was crisp, bright blue with wispy clouds, soothing and simple. The vertigo faded by degrees, but then a flash of color, gold-brown like wet blonde hair, swirled at the corner of her eye. Her breath hurtled to a stop in her chest. She turned sharply, slopping hot coffee over her sleeve.
It was a tawny owl, balanced on a street lamp down the block. The bird shifted, piercing gold eyes catching hers, and with one great flap took to the air.
Harvey found herself gasping, doubled over with a hand to her throat. The puckered ridge of a small, fresh scar under her fingers was a visceral reminder. Those cuts had hurt, had taken a long time to heal. Wet hair like tearing silk, the taste of copper, a skull-thumping pulse, the burn of nails scoring down her cheek and neck as she shrugged away fighting hands.
After another moment spent breathing while the attack ebbed, she forced her spine straight and shook herself. The owl was gone. The other people on the sidewalk were giving her a wider berth, glancing at her from the corners of their eyes. Her face burned. Clearly, she needed to fill her head with someone new, someone beautiful, and stop letting something as simple as a bird raise memories better left buried. She needed—no, she deserved—a fresh start. She would be better.
Harvey nuzzled at the pale, soft skin of Lucinda’s lower stomach. Her hands mapped the other woman’s legs from muscled calf to rounded hip, thumbs tracing the edge of lacey underwear. Her pulse thundered in her ears. Thrills hot and sharp bolted through her each time Lucinda allowed herself be maneuvered, pulled into position, tugged and scratched. The blonde met each rough-tender touch with a gasp of something like surprise. Leah had been that way, tractable and sweet, but she had also known how to push the wrong buttons at exactly the wrong time. Harvey stripped the red panties off and bent to her task, delighting in the way Lucinda’s fingers combed through her short hair. It had been too long. She should have gone out before, once the scratches had healed, instead of waiting. She deserved to try again.
“Oh, Harvey,” Lucinda said, which was flattering. Then, she tugged on Harvey’s hair. “Look!”
She glanced up and froze. The tawny owl sat preening itself in the winter-bare tree outside her window, gold eyes watching them.
“Isn’t it majestic?” Lucinda murmured.
“Right, majestic,” Harvey said.
The owl’s stare bored into her. It rustled its wings and made a soft hooting call. The discordant sound scraped up her nerves like cold, serrated claws. Once was a coincidence. Twice, like this, twice—
She took the bottom of the curtain in her fist and jerked it closed so hard that the bar rattled in protest. Lucinda raised a curious eyebrow but made no comment. She reclined on her back, hands out to gather Harvey to her body, and didn’t protest the sting of Harvey’s nails if her hands were rougher.
Afterwards, her pale skin mottled with marks, Lucinda rose and dressed. Her expression was tight around the edges, but when Harvey moved to climb off the bed, she pressed her down again with a soft kiss. Her lips were like silk. Harvey brushed a hand over her clothed hip, smiling. The tension left Lucinda’s face.
“I’ll let myself out. I promise I’ll call,” she said.
Harvey watched her go with held breath. The moment Lucinda’s heel disappeared past the doorframe, she let out a sigh. A moment later, the front door creaked open—its hinges needed to be taken care of—and then closed with a sharp click. Harvey lay alone in her bed. Her skin crawled. She wasn’t satisfied, though by all rights, she should have been. She unclenched fists she’d made without realizing it and slid off the bed, heading for the shower. Standing under the spray and feeling the water on her fingers, it was hard not to remember. Damp hair wrapped hard in her fist, tender flesh under her fingers. The way it had felt.
“I’m not a violent person,” she whispered to herself, bracing palms on the cool damp tile. “I’m not.”
“I can’t believe you did this to your beautiful hair,” Harvey said, plucking hard at one of Lucinda’s dreadlocks. The other woman flinched and leaned away from her on the couch . “What was wrong with it before? I liked it.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t think to ask.”
“It’s fine,” Harvey made herself say.
A couple of weeks wasn’t such a long time, she thought. People didn’t adapt to a partner so quickly, didn’t think to ask a new girlfriend’s opinions. It wasn’t something to get mad about.
Except, she was. The anger settled on her like a heavy blanket, charged and electric. She plucked at one of the thick, waxy dreadlocks again. They were leaving marks on her couch. She bit her tongue.
“So,” Lucinda said. “Have you seen that owl again? I thought I caught a glimpse of it the other day.”
“Yes,” she said.
The sound of her own voice, low and threatening, startled her a bit.
“Oh,” Lucinda said. A brief silence settled.
Harvey had seen the owl more than once. At work, out doing her shopping, at the bar, at home, it appeared everywhere, watching her with glinting eyes and flexing its talons. That wasn’t natural. For one thing, she’d looked them up, and owls were nocturnal. It sure as shit shouldn’t have been following her during the day.
And its color, the weight of its stare, the knowledge it seemed to have—
“Maybe it’s your spirit-guide,” Lucinda said.
Lucinda leaned away from her. “Why are you acting so weird? I went to this woman last summer, Anne. She runs a bird rehab a few hours out of the city. She told me all about them.”
“Your new-age bullshit isn’t going to help me with this goddamn bird,” Harvey said. “It’s bad luck, and it’s not normal.”
“I was just trying to help,” Lucinda said. She rose from the couch. Her muscles were taut, shoulder lifted. She sucked her bottom lip under, looking down at Harvey. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you lately. You’re being so harsh.”
“Harsh?” Harvey echoed. The anger tilted into rage, filled with flecks of something like desire. She stood without intending to, loomed over the other woman. Her heart raced. “You want harsh, I can give you harsh.”
She struck with her open palm, catching Lucinda across the face. The blow knocked her off balance; she stumbled against the coffee table with a cry, going down in a mess of limbs. Harvey tasted blood—she’d bitten her own lip. Her body trembled with pent-up need. Lucinda scrambled to her knees. Harvey grabbed a handful of her waxy, ugly hair and jerked. The dreadlocks slid through her fingers too easily. Lucinda screamed, a frightened bark of sound.
From outside, the shriek of an owl wailed like a siren, carrying under it something like an answering girl’s shout. Harvey stopped in her tracks, chest heaving, and her nerveless fingers lost their grip. The fever of the moment went cold, doused.
Lucinda was crying.
Harvey collapsed onto her ass on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t.”
Lucinda stared at her, red-eyed, blood streaking her chin from a split lip. “I need to go,” she whispered.
Harvey sat catching her breath as the other woman gingerly stood and wobbled out the door. The silence after it closed behind her was sharp and accusatory.
Her knuckles ached. She was shaking, her muscles liquid and weak. She covered her face. Now that the anger had abandoned her, nausea took its place. Lucinda hadn’t been trying to push her buttons; she was no Leah. An apology was due, and she had to make it stick. She sat for a long time without moving, empty-headed, unable to force herself to stand.
After some while, she dragged herself to the bathroom and turned on the taps, eyes on the rippling, steaming water as the tub filled. Stripping was like undressing a doll’s body, not her own. She choked back a sob, her eyes burning. The water stung when she lowered herself into it. Her toes turned bright red. She flipped the taps off and settled in. The hot water loosened her body, soothed her throbbing knuckles. She closed her eyes and floated. No ideas for how to make it right came to her, though she thought desperately. Instead, behind her eyelids, she saw the bright red blood on Lucinda’s chin.
The problem was that she couldn’t wash away how much she had enjoyed it, underneath the guilt, the sharp smack of skin under her hand both gratifying and fulfilling. That, if she was being truthful, frightened her, but she would just have to control herself better. Other people managed it every day.
The next morning, after leaving a third profusely apologetic message on Lucinda’s phone, she walked downstairs to find that the hood of her car was covered in deep gouges. Something had scratched away the paint viciously, leaving furrows that wouldn’t be cheap to fix. A shiver worked its way down her spine and she glanced to the trees, but the owl wasn’t there.
“I don’t want to see you anymore,” Lucinda said. She stood with her hands on her hips, chin up, in the middle of Harvey’s living room. “You scare me.”
“But I thought you said you forgave me,” Harvey said.
The other woman sighed and ran a hand over her dreadlocks. Her split lip was swollen. Harvey imagined the way it had felt when her knuckle struck just that spot.
“I forgive you, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to date you,” she said. “I came over to talk it out. I think you should get some help, Harvey. You’re not—well.”
“I bet you’re already fucking somebody else,” she spat. She could just picture Lucinda and those flirty glances she always seemed to give, handing out her number to another woman. “My last girlfriend thought that was the way to go. You’re just like her.”
“Harvey, seriously,” Lucinda said.
She picked up the paperweight from her coffee table and hurled it overhand. Lucinda ducked and the glass shattered against the far wall, but Harvey was already striding toward her before she could straighten. This time, her fist was closed. She landed an awkward blow on the side of Lucinda’s head.
“Stop!” the blonde shouted, her hands out to ward off another punch.
Harvey tackled her to the floor and planted a knee on her stomach. Her breath was coming in gasps. Blonde dreads tangled in front of Lucinda’s face, her blue eyes wild and wide. Harvey wrapped her hands around the pale column of her throat, the rush coming again, promising it would all be better if she just took care of the problem.
A heavy thud and a shrieking that stabbed at her ears like needles startled her so badly that her grip slipped. Lucinda jammed an arm between them to protect her face. Harvey cursed. Outside the porch door, the owl flapped madly about, clawing at the glass. She yowled back at it and flung herself off Lucinda, scrambling to the door. When she got her hands on that fucking bird…
“Jesus Christ,” Lucinda gasped behind her while fumbling at the front door.
“No—” Harvey said, but she was already running, the door hanging open in her wake.
Harvey glared at the owl, torn briefly between who to chase, then turned to pursue Lucinda. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but it had to be something, because she couldn’t let Lucinda get away. Not with this. She bounded out the door. Her feet slipped on the deck, sliding on a patch of iced-over slush, and she grabbed for the railing to right herself.
“Bitch!” she yelled, taking the steps two at a time.
Lucinda ran at full speed across the parking lot. Her arms pin-wheeled as she fought to keep her balance on the snow and ice that no one had bothered to salt, but she didn’t fall.
Harvey might have caught up to her, but after barely a stride, fire ripped through her scalp. She yelped, frozen by the pain, her hands flying up to touch the source. Blood slicked her fingers. She whirled and dove to the ground to avoid the owl’s talons as it swooped at her, beak open, eyes ablaze with gold light. The cold concrete stung her hands and forearms. She scrambled to regain her footing, looking over her shoulder as the owl circled above her. Caught between letting Lucinda get away and the blades of those talons, Harvey retreated. The owl caught her once more on the steps as she fled, its claws sinking into the meat of her shoulder. She flung her arm back, battering at the soft, feathered body. With the contact came a flash of its hunger, alien and huge. The talons tore free with a rip of fabric and flesh. The owl tumbled onto the steps behind her, disoriented.
“Leah,” she gasped.
The bird was beginning to right itself from her blow when she slammed the door between it and her. Blood spattered the floor. The pain was overwhelming, but worse was her failure. How had she thought she could handle a new start? She hadn’t taken care of the fallout from her last girlfriend. Outside the glass balcony door, the owl was preening in the tree again, its feathers red with Harvey’s blood. She fled into the bathroom where it couldn’t see her.
Lucinda had said the woman’s name was Anne, and she ran a bird rehab. She couldn’t be hard to find. Then, it would all be over.
Wind chimes strung out of bones and thick grey twine clattered together as the wind rose in a sharp gust. The cold stung Harvey’s chapped ears and the back of her neck around the high woolen collar of her coat. She stood at the bottom of a porch between two snow-drifts that had blown up against the concrete steps. The hand-painted sign tacked onto the railing read “Wild Bird Rehabilitation.” She spied the skull of some small animal, a rat or a vole, woven into the weather-bleached bones twisting above her head. The night Lucinda had run away, a storm had blown into the city and dumped slushy, freezing snow everywhere. The roads hadn’t been cleared for two nerve-wracking days, and she’d spent them waiting for the police to come knocking on her door or for the owl to find its way inside, somehow. The snow had started again halfway through her drive, but she didn’t turn back.
In the pockets of her greatcoat, her fingers clenched spasmodically—one hand around a leather-backed notebook, the other, her car keys. The metal edges dug in hard, chasing away the shudder threatening at the base of her spine. It was the wind that drove her up the steps more than courage. The razor edges of each gust felt paradoxically like boiling water dumped over her cold-scored bare skin. Her hand shook and fought her attempt to make a fist when she drew it out of her pocket to knock on the wooden door. The sound was anemic, fluttery. Waiting on the porch with only the dead-animal wind chimes for company made each moment stretch. Harvey stared down the winding country driveway. Her car was a green speck on the side of the route that had been plowed just enough for her to rumble down it. All the way up to the steps, her footprints punched through the pristine half a foot of snow.
It was solitary. The expanse of ice-crystallized woods and bare fields spurred an instinct in her to draw her shoulders up around her ears and hide. Anything could see her here, dark coat a smudge against blinding snow, especially if it were flying overhead with a hunting eye turned to the ground. She huddled close to the door to wait.
The door opened with a crack of breaking ice. She jumped, boots slipping on the slick porch, caught her balance and gasped. The woman in the doorway raised an eyebrow. Her hair was red-gold streaked with grey, bound in a ponytail that left her face stark and plain. She was in her late forties. Harvey cleared her throat.
“Hello,” she said. It sounded awkward. She clenched her jaw against an oncoming shiver, cold to her bones. “I’m—”
“Why don’t you come inside,” the woman said, glancing down the drive to her car. “That’s a long walk, and you’re not dressed for it.”
When the woman stepped to the side, she shook her boots free of snow and walked into the house. The foyer wasn’t much warmer than the outside, but as she unbuttoned her coat and looked around, she saw the promising glow of a fire to the right of the entryway. She snagged her notebook out of the coat pocket before hanging it on one of the empty pegs running along the small hallway.
“I’m Anne,” the woman said. She offered her hand. Harvey shook it, her stiff fingers clumsy. “What made you think today was a great day to visit the bird rehab?”
“There’s only an inch or two of snow in the city,” she answered. “It started coming down again while I drove. I didn’t expect it to get so bad, and I was already an hour out, so I kept going.”
Anne frowned, the smallest wrinkle appearing by her mouth. Harvey read disapproval in it. They stood in the space between the house and the outside, hovering, as if the other woman couldn’t quite decide what to do with her. She looked around. The living room had couches with fuzzy throws spread over them, a low fire and scattered books. To the left was a dining area and heavy oak table scattered with papers.
“Tea, coffee?” Anne offered, taking one step away and turning on her heel. “You can have a seat on the couch and warm up.”
“Tea, thank you,” Harvey murmured.
The couch was deliciously warm and she closed her eyes for a moment, letting the heat soak through her thin sweater and jeans. She really had dressed wrong—city girl at heart, city girl in practice. Her fingers were so pale they seemed to be turning a little blue. She dropped her notebook on her lap and rubbed them together. The friction stung in the best way. As she sat alone in the living room, she noticed piece by piece that despite its inhabited appearance it was impersonal. The books were all on birds or nature, the throws were clean and artfully placed, not so much for personal use. Of course, it was a sort of business here, not just a woman’s house. The owl on the cover of one of the magazines on the end-table had the same ear-tufts as the one she’d come to think of as the Omen Owl, the Bad Luck Owl. She swallowed. The picture didn’t capture the rest of her bird, though—it didn’t have those piercing, intent eyes. In it, she could see the majesty Lucinda had so insisted on. The thought of the other woman made her flinch.
“So, what brings you here without a bird?” Anne asked from behind her.
Harvey turned on the couch, one arm slung over the back, and saw her approaching with two steaming mugs of tea. She sat a careful distance away from Harvey and put their mugs on the coffee table. Her posture was a slouch, legs slightly apart, flannel shirt bunched up around her elbows and hanging low on her thighs. She was a broad person, taking up space with personality and body alike. Harvey reached out for the mug to warm her hands further and fumbled for her planned introduction, her ticket to speak, though now it seemed flimsy.
“I’m a journalist,” she said. “I’ve heard about you from friends and I thought it would make a good piece for the human interest section.”
“And you drove out from the city then hiked through a football field of snow, for that?”
Harvey glanced sidelong at her. “You’re one of the only wild bird rehabs in the area.”
“You don’t seem like a birding type,” Anne said.
“I’m not,” she admitted. “But I needed the story.”
“Why’d you come out here?” she repeated.
“I told you,” she said.
“You lied,” she countered.
The silence was as frosty as the weather outside. A gust rattled the windows. Harvey sipped the hot tea. Its bitter, astringent taste made her mouth pucker. No sugar, no honey, just sharp herbal flavor.
“Who told you to come?” Anne asked.
She wondered if she was imagining the softening in tone.
“A friend,” she said finally.
“A friend who told you to go to the back-country wise woman,” she murmured. “Not a friend who told you to write a story about the fucking bird rehab.”
The profanity drew a surprised twitch from her. She put the tea down. Her hands were too warm now; they still shook, but she had no excuse.
“Okay,” she said. “All right, yes.”
“What was the friend’s name?”
“Lucy,” she said. “Lucinda. She said you do—traditional things.”
“Probably one of the ten or twenty fresh young things I see every year that want a spirit journey or a self-help guru,” Anne said. She leaned toward Harvey on the couch, spreading an arm across the back. Her forearms were thick with muscle. “I walk them out to the woods and give them some things to think about. They coo over the birds, think they see an omen, and I get a hundred bucks to run my rehab.”
“So I’m an idiot,” Harvey said.
“I didn’t say I couldn’t help.”
Harvey weighed her with a stare, the strong hands and easy posture, wearing her body like a comfortable glove. She had a good jaw. She found not a trace of mockery in the woman’s face, though she’d expected it.
“I have a problem with an owl,” she said.
“I don’t do extermination,” Anne replied.
“Not that kind of problem. Not that kind of owl,” she corrected with a choking laugh. She knew she sounded like a lunatic, out of control of herself with fear and suspicion. “It won’t leave me alone.”
“An owl,” the older woman annunciated carefully. “Won’t leave you alone?”
“I’m sure it’s here somewhere,” she said. “It’s been following me for a month. Same bird, day and night, when I’m at work or home or the grocery—”
Her own escalating voice stopped her, halfway to a shriek, and she gripped the knobs of her knees hard enough to bruise. Her breath was suddenly stuttering and heavy. She swallowed, reached for her tea and took one more bitter sip.
“What do you think it is?” Anne asked.
“I don’t care,” she said.
“You don’t believe in any of what I’m about to say , I’m assuming,” the older woman said.
“I want it gone, and I’m out of explanations,” she replied .
Anne stood and walked to the windows. The wind rocketed against the glass, trails of white drifting down from the sky. The clouds were black and blue. Harvey’s car would be buried again, soon, judging by the weight of the falling flakes and their speed. She fought the urge to flee; she needed to know what was happening. It was unnatural. It made no sense. If she wanted it fixed, she had to stand her ground, and she held onto that thought.
“It’s starting to really come down,” Anne said. “You’ll be stuck here.”
“I can go now,” she said quietly.
“I have a guest room by the aviary,” the other woman said.
“Not all of the birds I take in can be released again. I keep the ones that survive,” she said. “I’ll show you.”
Harvey wanted to protest—she’d had enough of birds for an entire damned lifetime—but there was a coolness in the older woman’s eyes. If she were too irritated, she could throw her out into the approaching blizzard, Bad Luck Owl still trailing her with its accusing yellow stare. Harvey stood, knees creaking, and followed Anne down the hall of the sprawling ranch-style house. She glimpsed a kitchen as they passed it and then she heard the first soft rustles of sound.
Dread crept up her spine like a spider with blade-tipped legs. A strange woman’s house, a blizzard, a room full of birds, her owl out there somewhere hunting her—unease was a gentle word for what she was starting to feel. Anne opened one door and Harvey was surprised to see a screen door on the inside of the house, leading to a huge room that must have once been divided by a wall. It had small trees, perches, nesting materials, toys, everything she’d ever seen in a bird cage but quadrupled.
Inside there were owls hidden in trees, a leg pulled up here and there in their rest. Their sleepy stares made her skin itch. Anne slipped in, closing the screen door firmly between them, and the nearest bird, a crow, let out a welcoming caw.
Harvey shook her head. Crows, owls, a pigeon in the corner—these were not animals who coexisted. They couldn’t. She knew that. So how were they, here? Anne murmured to the crow, her red-and-grey hair glinting under the domed safe-lights. Her voice sounded like nothing Harvey had ever heard before.
The woman looked up and caught her staring. The return glance was more of a glare. After a moment, Anne slipped back into the hall and closed the door. The bedroom on the other side of the hall was empty and pristine except for a daybed and a desk. She gestured to it.
“That’ll be yours. Don’t touch the door to the aviary. They aren’t fond of strangers,” she said.
“All right,” Harvey agreed.
“I want to talk to you about your owl,” she said.
The tone was less than welcoming. Harvey wondered why anyone would ever come to this woman for advice. She was too sharp, too rude, too unreadable. Maybe her usual “students” liked the mysterious and aloof bullshit, but Harvey was losing her sanity by inches, and she needed real concrete help. The seething frustration that sprung up in her chest soothed her with its familiar tension.
“I can go,” she said. “I’ll find someone else.”
“That owl isn’t a bird,” Anne said. She gestured for Harvey to sit on the couch again. She did, mollified. “Real birds can’t do what you’re saying it’s done. They don’t care. They want to eat, mate, and have comfortable places to rest. They don’t follow people. Not even pet birds do that.”
“So am I hallucinating?” she asked.
“Has anyone else seen it?” Anne countered.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then no,” she answered with an edge. “Who did you piss off recently? Who passed on still angry at you?”
The question stopped her breath in her throat like a stone. She coughed, again and again, then cleared her throat with a rasping noise.
“You’re saying it’s a ghost?”
“You don’t believe in the spirit, do you,” Anne said.
“No,” she answered. “Electrical impulses, yes. Souls, no.”
“Then explain your owl,” she said.
Harvey wound her fingers together and squeezed until her knuckles turned white and sparked pain up her arms. She knew the brown of its feathers, the dappled golden brown of honey, of a girl’s hair wrapped in her fists and streaked with bright, wet color.
“What does it want?” she asked.
“To hazard a guess—you,” Anne said.
Harvey jerked, looking up. Anne was already turning away to clear the mugs from the table. She bit back the urge to say no shit and took a calming breath. The blizzard outside was howling now, sheets of snow pounding down onto the ground. It wasn’t letting up, and she was trapped.
“I knew that,” she said. “What can I do to make it go away?”
“Remember what you did to make it angry, and make up for that.”
She snapped her mouth shut and ground her teeth. “I can’t talk to a bird.”
“Have you tried?” she asked.
The conversation ended there because the older woman left the room, wandering down the hall. Harvey heard a door open and close. She wondered if Anne had gone to her aviary to be with her impossible menagerie. She clenched and unclenched her fists.
The house creaked with the pressure of the storm. Harvey sat on the couch until the fire went out, fiddling with her cell phone and drawing in her notebook, nonsense swirls. Anne Caulfield was a liar and a terrible hostess. She hadn’t come back to talk, hadn’t offered any food or even shown her where the bathroom was, though she’d found it on her own. She heard a door slam once, maybe to the yard and woods out back.
The dread-spiders had come back with relatives and associates. Her whole body was one knot, waiting for something to happen, but nothing quite did. The stone in her throat had migrated to her belly. Someone you’ve wronged, her mind kept repeating sibilantly. Then came the flash of memory, the brown and gold and red, a wet nasal cry echoing in her ears and chaotic struggling flesh under her fingers, curved to grip and squeeze.
The house was wrong. It was all wrong. The isolation, the storm, the birds cooing and rustling down the hall as if gossiping; all of the pressures lumped into one thing: trap. She had been trapped. The certainty of it locked her to the couch, her eyes longingly tracing the vague shapes of the outside in the dark. There must be a foot of snow. She would die of hypothermia out there.
True dark came like a blanket draped over the world. The door in the kitchen banged again. Harvey twisted to see Anne come inside, brushing snow from her clothes and thumping around in huge rubber snow boots.
The woman’s face was closed off, her red hair a frizzy damp halo. There was something fearsome in her eyes. Harvey reigned in her legs’ urge to make for the front door and run until she couldn’t run anymore. Her instincts would not stop shrieking at her to leave, to run, to hide. There would be no help from this quarter.
“It’s late,” Anne said. “I’m going to bed. They should plow the road in the morning and you’ll be able to leave.”
Harvey only nodded. The woman walked down the hall into the dark.
After a long, silent moment, Harvey made her way stiffly to the guest bedroom and closed the door, locking it for good measure. The sheets she slid between fully clothed were cold as ice and just as crisp, starched to sharpness. She kept her eyes open. The aviary across the hall made a thousand tiny inescapable sounds that grated on her ears. A sort of madness settled on her. Anne was up to something. She knew it. The nature-loving bitch was plotting, scheming. But sitting up in bed, her hands fisted in the covers , the notion seemed insane. She lay back down and tried to settle. She was just stressed and angry and ready to lash out—those were not new things. Would she really attack a woman in her own home, her own bed, for a bad attitude? She buried her face in the cover and sighed.
There were footsteps in the hallway. She froze. They meandered past her door without stopping and her muscles slowly unkinked. She heard other sounds, scuffling and clinking like a refrigerator raid, late-night. That relaxed her. A door closed.
Against the odds, she had begun to drift to sleep when a strange noise pulled her up from her half-dreams. The lock to her door clicked open visibly in the twilight of the moon streaming through the windows and she sat up in a rush. The door swung open. The hall was dark but she saw the yellow eyes and let out a low moan, scrabbling off the bed and pressing her back to the wall.
The owl hooted at her and ruffled its wings from its perch on Anne Caulfield’s arm. Her up-tilted face was that of a vengeful deity. Harvey fumbled for anything she could throw on the desk and came up empty, her hands bare and useless. Her heart raced to a thundering beat. An icy sweat prickled down her back.
“I suspected as much,” the woman said.
The owl on her arm hooted again, blinking. Its heart-shaped face wasn’t able to smile, but Harvey knew it was mocking her. It had to be. It shifted its monstrous talons carefully on Anne’s arm.
“I wonder—” Anne said. “Did you come here because you knew it was time to pay the piper, or because you honestly didn’t believe I would be able to talk to this beautiful girl and know what you did?”
“What?” Harvey sputtered through her fear.
“I didn’t think you were that good a person,” Anne sneered.
Words were shriveled hard things in Harvey’s mouth, ashen in flavor. She had no excuses because there was a terrible knowledge in her captors’ eyes, yellow and human brown.
“Leah,” she pleaded.
The owl flew at her, talons first; she raised her hands in front of her face and screamed. The knife-edged claws ripped along her forearms, biting easily through cloth and flesh. Heavy wings buffeted her head as the owl screeched, its talons losing purchase as she collapsed to the floor. The sound of it rang in her ears. The owl landed next to her with a heavy thud, its head bobbing in anger, a low hiss coming from its break. It blinked rapidly. Harvey rolled onto her stomach and moved to stagger to her feet, panting, but her blood-wet hands slipped on the floor and she landed in a heap.
“Fair trade,” Anne said.
Harvey caught a last glimpse of her lounging in the doorway with a smile on her face. Then, the owl was her whole vision, and the girl that was the owl with her bruised throat and the water of the lake still streaming from her hair. Harvey didn’t say she was sorry. Feathers slid through her fingers like liquid as she pushed against the owl that was everywhere, the owl that was the world, the owl that was sinking now inside her chest like a second heart.
The morning was bright and shatteringly white with its coating of snow. Anne walked the bandaged, wobbly young woman to the door. Her eyes were golden-brown where they had been hazel. Her mouth formed soft cooing answers as easily as it did words. The owl-girl who had once been Harvey smiled beatifically at her and flung herself into a clumsy hug.
“You’ll learn to wear the body soon,” Anne murmured into the shell of her ear.
“Fair’s fair,” the owl-girl who was Leah murmured back. “How did you learn to speak to birds?”
“I know how to listen,” she answered.
“Harvey was a bad listener,” she said.
“Did you know when she came, what she’d done to me?” the owl-girl asked.
“No,” she said. “But I knew when I saw you in the trees. You’re not my first hungry ghost.”
“You’re a nice woman,” the new Leah said.
She fidgeted, smoothing fingers down her aching arms and playing with the thick bandages. This bare-fleshed body and its attendant pains—it had been so long it was nearly a new sensation. A thick silence settled between them. She looked up from under her eyelids, head bobbing low and birdlike for a brief moment.
“You can stay awhile if you need to adjust,” Anne offered.
“All right,” she said. Her smile was tentative and fresh. “Until we can clear her car—my car—out.”
“I’ll make tea.”
The owl-girl tested her human hands by taking Anne’s arm and drawing her into another embrace. The flannel was luxuriously soft under fingertips that felt as sensitive as a baby’s. She let out a humming sound and the older woman hugged her back, the press of a hand on the back of her neck a warm caress. Her found-life was full to bursting with possibilities.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She is a fiction editor for Strange Horizons Magazine and has two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling. Her work—fiction, nonfiction, poetry; she wears a lot of hats—has also been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, and Ideomancer. She is a Louisville native and lives there with her partner in an apartment that doesn’t have room for all the books.