Owl Pellets

Jen didn’t like the owls. She didn’t like the noise they made. That Jurassic World screech. It was a horrible, greedy sound. A wicked sound. 

Get some exercise“, meant that Jen should go and wear herself out for an hour while mum had one of her Zoom meetings at her kitchen table office. One hour was ten laps around the block. Fifteen if she really went for it. Cycling around the block had been boring from the start, but after three months it had become really boring.

After a while, Jen realised it didn’t really matter where she went, so long as she was back in sixty minutes. She set herself a challenge to see how much of the local area she could cover. Every road, every side-street, alleyway, and track in the neighbourhood, an hour at a time. Then one day, tyres bumping over gnarled roots on an overgrown track known locally as The Fairy Path, Jen heard the owls. 

Eerie screeches mingled with the squeal of brake-pads as she skidded her bike to a stop. The strange sounds Jen thought she’d heard came again, echoing along the narrow, muddy track. Terrified, she looked all around, searching for the source. Something so white it seemed to glow in the dimness of the tree-lined passage drifted silently over her head. 

The barn owls had made their nest high in the hollow trunk of an ancient elm. Jen stood and watched as the adults took turns flying out, only to return carrying tiny wriggling things with brightly coloured wings. Maybe they were butterflies or dragonflies, maybe they were tiny birds. 

The piercing calls of the owlets, hidden somewhere within the elm never seemed to stop, even as meal after meal arrived. Jen really didn’t like that sound. Not just because it had given her such a shock, but because she felt like there was something wrong about it. Something more than hunger, more than greed. Something wicked, she thought.

She couldn’t remember where she’d read it, but Jen knew that owls coughed up the bones, fur, and feathers of their prey. Pellets, they called them. Searching around the base of the elm, she found them. Half a dozen or so dark, damp looking sausage-shaped things. Jen picked them up in an empty crisp packet, pulling the bag inside out like a dog-walker cleaning up after their pet. 

That evening, mum was chatting on the phone to aunty Anne. Aunty Anne’s husband, uncle Dave, delivered parcels. It turned out that uncle Dave had seen Jen pushing aside brambles round the back of the old boarded-up church, making her way onto the Fairy Path. He’d called out to her from his van, but she hadn’t heard him. Jen was in trouble. Mum was furious. No more rides around the block on her own. She couldn’t be trusted. 

Jen knew she’d done wrong. Knew mum wouldn’t be happy if she found out she’d been going further than she was supposed to. Even so, she was surprised just how upset mum was. It was Jen’s ride along the Fairy Path which seemed to upset her the most. 

Days passed. A week.  Jen’s bike leant untouched against the garden shed. 

Mum was in a meeting in the kitchen, but no hour’s exercise for Jen. She had to occupy herself quietly in the house. That was when she remembered the owl pellets. 

Jen found the old magazine where she’d first read about them. To find out what owls had been eating you needed to soak their pellets in water, then carefully tease them apart. The article included pictures of some of the bones you might find. Tiny delicate jawbones, ribs, and vertebrae of rodents and birds.

What Jen found didn’t match anything in the magazine. Each was no larger than the tip of her finger. The bone – if it was bone – so paper-thin that no sooner had she uncovered one it collapsed in on itself, seeming to melt under the glare of the bathroom light. Skulls. 

Tiny skulls with disproportionately huge sockets, where Jen felt certain great big insect-eyes once sat. She remembered the bright, twitching things she’d seen the owls carrying in their beaks. The insatiable screeching of the hungry owlets. That horrible, wicked sound. 

Jen thought of her ride along the forbidden path.

Then she remembered its name.