THE WHITE OWL

And Other Small Stories

CORVUS & LAVINIA EDWARDS

THE WHITE OWL And Other Small Stories

Corvus & Lavinia Edwards Collected, Written, & Edited by E. M. Edwards

Thirteen Tales of Small But Fierce Terror

2011 LONDON WOLF HEAD PRESS

FOR CLARA

Great tyrants had small beginnings.

I. II. III. IV. V. VI. VII. VIII. IX. X. XI. XII. XIII. XIV. XV.

Wolf Head Fierce Friends The Eggnog Is Poisoned Brown Layers Mountain Bears Small Teeth The White Owl Bronze Age Diamond Grass Some Horses Eat Meat They Hang People Arrowheads In The Blood. XIII Be They Rook Raven, A Cautionary Afterword Our Authors

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 1

I Wolf Head

Not all wolves are raised outside. Some live in houses. They don't go to your school, so you wouldn't know them. They have blue tongues, which they hide. But they might live on your street. Or in your town. Even though they have the heads of wolves, they throw parties. You might be invited, but then you might not. If you are, you'll see them running from room to room with their tongues lolling out. Their eyes are terrible and are of all colours but mostly orange. You might be served cake, but be careful. Their cake is not the same as yours and it has a red centre. Which oozes and if you stop and stare, they might notice. They might notice you. And you'll find them standing in a circle around you, saying nothing. Tongues hanging out, blue in the moonlight for they only throw parties at night. This is how you know that they are wolf-heads. Mooneaters. But don't call them that or stare at their cake, just eat it. You have to or they'll know you're not one of them. They know already, of course. This is part of the game. That's why we invited you. Surprise. Now its your turn to run, but not far. They're fast, and they knew this was coming. Can we have your cake?

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 2

II Fierce Friends

If you come over you'll find we're fierce friends. Like bottles and knives we're eminently useful but have sharp edges. Not that the bindings which we make are brittle, they are elastic. We clutch tight and don't let go. Shush. Don't take alarum. We're only playing Vampire Squids. That's why we turned off the lights. There isn't any down there in the depths. So deep, that only robot submarines go. Humans are weak, they break easily and get bubbles in the blood. Not us. We're fierce. We are Vampire Squids, and we're at home in the dark and in the fierce pressure. No you can't have a torch. They're just for us. For signaling each other and confusing our prey. They, the prey, don't get torches either. But then you and they, are both the same. Don't fret. We'll protect you. From the other Vampire Squid. They'll not reach you. We'll get to you first. Never mind those sounds, that's just us, circling in the dark. See our flashes? We'll soon have you in our grip again. And you'll be safe.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 3

III The Eggnog Is Poisoned.

Have some eggnog. . . We can be friends. . . The eggnog is poisoned. . . Don't drink the eggnog. . . You did? We can be dead friends. . .

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 4

IV Brown Layers

In Ancient Egypt they worshiped the Nile. It was a big brown god: brown and white layers of river and mud studded with logs that they also sometimes worshiped. Logs with teeth and long swishing tails. In summer, in flood, they ate children. Our river too has a log in it. We don't worship it, not the river. A big log: we call it 'Brown Layers.' All day, all summer long it just lays there, soaking up sunshine. Children, mostly boys, like to come down to the banks of the river and throw rocks at Brown Layers. Loud boys, cruel boys with sharp laughs and hard hearts. They carry stones in their pockets. We go down too, and watch the water churn. We bring boys sometimes, and other children. We point out Brown Layers when the level is low or the sun high. We suggest new and daring games. We sometimes push them in, sometimes we throw rocks. Brown Layers is not wholly brown: see the swirl of red and white? A lucky few see something even more miraculous - just before. Before Brown Layers turns. An eye. What an eye! Old and wise as that river in Egypt. What? You don't know anymore if you want to touch Brown Layers? Or play our games? Too late now, you worship by proxy for us. Like rocks, like boys, we have hard edges, studding our secret places like mineralized teeth. Like Brown Layers. In Ancient Egypt they worshiped a river that ate children.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 5

V Mountain Bears

Where we live there are mountains. Not far from where people drive and sit in their houses eating dinner. In those same mountains are bears. They don't come down very often. When they do they are sickly or old, or just confused. They make messes, they eat dogs, sometimes they are shot or poisoned. There is a boy on our street who is very afraid of bears. We tell him a bear has come down from its mountain and he cries and won't come out. We tell him it's not a bear like that, and that we didn't really see it anyway. One day the boy goes to the end of the street where the back yard of a house they tore down five years ago when the boy wasn't even a boy but some other thing - a thing that crawls and pees on itself and can't play any games - has become a jungle. A small one, full of trees and sometimes, we tell him, bears which have come down from the mountains. He doesn't like it when we tell him this, even though he has learned not to be afraid. Learned that we are not always entirely truthful about these rumours. But he's a fat boy, perhaps because he is afraid of bears and does not join us on those walks and hikes between the town and the forest which covers up the base of the mountains like two green hands. We have baked him a pie. It's not very good, but he eats it anyway because it is very sweet. We don't join him. It is too sweet for us and not very big, we explain. And there is poison in it. Not that we say anything about the poison

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 6

because we're too excited about the tracks we've found, about the strange markings and the ursine scent we think we've noticed hanging thick and heavy. Someone's dog is missing, but likely it ran away or was run over by a truck. We mention all this, only after he's had the pie and is feeling sleepy and his stomach isn't so good - but he's sleepy most of all, and just a little bit afraid now. You can smell it, like a memory of those piss-stained days when he wasn't a boy but a thing that couldn't play. We take him to the place where we saw the bits of fur and a half-chewed collar. He doesn't want to go, but we show him. He cries and now he has peed down his leg like a dog. We laugh though we're sad because he knows there isn't any bear. Just this hole in the foundations full of broken bottles and trash and used tires. But he falls down a few times, and cuts his face so we run away. Later that night we hear the boy's mother calling. The boy hasn't returned for his dinner. Have we seen him? No. There's an old man with a red pebbly nose like a strawberry that's gone rotten and a baseball cap with a grizzly on it, putting up LOST DOG flyers. We explain, carefully, having cleaned up all evidence of our baking, and hidden the bottles of poison where the homeless teenagers sleep in the bushes, that we haven't. The next week there is a story in the local paper about how a bear came down from the mountains and ate a boy. This is sad but we live near the mountains, and sometimes, bears come down and eat boys. We could move away but then we'd miss the mountains.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 7

VI Small Teeth

Have you seen our necklaces? They are made from real human teeth. We make them ourselves, not the teeth, but the necklaces. Yes, they are small, but humans are small too, at least when they are children. Bones are white. Not as white as teeth but almost as smooth. It's true, some teeth are harder to extract than others. They can be difficult to get out of the jaws. We find them in skulls which we find, somewhere. Have you been downstairs yet? Seen our workshop? Lots of old rusty tools and some odd stains on the floor. Very curious. Don't mind them though, or the coppery smell. Old tools do a lot of rusting. We tried scrubbing away the stains but it didn't work. They just grew larger. Not like us, we're still small. So are you, but at least you have all your teeth. You haven't lost any yet. We like your smile, it is fine and white if a little crooked at the corners. Come down with us, and we'll prove to you we're not lying. The teeth are real, human teeth. You'll see a bucket we keep that is full of them. You have to lean in close, closer. There. We have more teeth now with which to make necklaces. Not all teeth are large, some are small like children.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 8

VII The White Owl

There is a white owl in the wood. When it screams, people say a lady is murdered. That's not true. We know this: there are no owls living in our wood. We've heard a lot of screams. At least three, maybe four but we were younger and it might have just been a white owl. Perhaps forests had owls in them, back then. He says someday the screams will stop and then it will mean that the owl-thing has flown away for good, and that we'll finally have found a real new mother. Someday, we think instead, we'll find that owl in the wood. An owl with white feathers, yellow eyes, and a scream like murder. We make feathers from old pillows and masks from paper. When it is getting dark we run around the trunks of the trees, flapping furiously. We never find any other owls just ourselves. It is a remote place and no one, not even owls it seems, goes there. We do. No one comes when people go missing, not like they do in the movies. When we scream, we like to think that a lady is murdered.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 9

VIII Bronze Age

In the Bronze Age, axe-heads were sharper. This one is dull. But it is old. We dug it up in our garden. It's heavy and here's the socket where it once fitted onto a stick. It's three thousand, three thousand and five hundred years old, we're certain of that. We've had it tested by the man at the museum. He wanted to keep it. They fall off in fields and rivers, he says, or when there's been a battle. Do you like battles? We're having one now. That's why we couldn't part with it. Hush. Don't worry, it's only pretend. That's pretend blood coming out of your leg - but we know it feels real. Things felt real in the Bronze Age. This one is made of stone, it's from before. People were stupid then, like you are. They hadn't figured out how to make bronze and have proper battles. See how it has a smooth pointed end and a smooth round one? It's not sharp like the axe-head from the Bronze Age, but it fits just right in your hand. It has a heft to it. And weight, like a stone. And it stops the screaming.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 10

IX Diamond Grass

We have a diamond in our box the size of a fist. It's not glass, it's harder and sharper than that. It can cut a finger clean off. Though nothing much is clean after. Diamond grass grows out back. We scrapped off bits on another diamond and used them as seeds, watered from a sticky watering can which is covered in red. It's a lazy grower and once up it just waves its stalks in the air and does nothing. But if you run through it fast, it will cut you like diamonds. In winter the regular grass looks like diamonds too, though it can't hurt you. Not like diamond grass, which will kill you.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 11

X Some Horses Eat Meat

Do horses eat meat? Ours do. They have teeth. Of course, all horses have teeth. But some teeth and some horses are different. Some horses eat meat. We are those horses.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 12

XI They Hang People

Of course they hang people. How else would people know to be good? You can't make them, that doesn't work. We might be good sometimes, but we're not people yet. They don't hang children. We don't think so. Someone would have told us if they did. We think we should practice at being good before we get older. Not yet though. There are things we still can do, and they won't hang us, no matter what. Besides, they wouldn't catch us. We don't leave behind any evidence. Not a trace. You could put down that dust they use on TV all day and not find any of our fingers. But things go missing. We don't know about it, is what we say. It could have been anyone, someone who doesn't know that they still could be hanged for taking a pair of scissors or someone's keys. Not everyone who grows older grows wiser. They might not have been told that they still hang people - though not children. We watch out for these sorts when we go to the store or strangers visit. You have to be careful. Hangmen rub their hands when they hear of people like these. And their hands are like leather gloves, even though they don't wear any. Leather gloves worn over bones. Stained, and a bit smooth in places and rough in others. A night when the wind makes the beech trees quiver and the pair of pines in the back garden creak loud enough to wake the crows, they're

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 13

dreaming of measuring out rope with leathery hands. Of necks and the drop and the strange jerk at the end. We don't dream of rope, but we're very good at tying it. Can we show you some of the knots we've made? This one is easy, this one is hard. This funny one like an ankh is the hardest of all. It goes over like this. It slips and it sticks. No, we never try it on ourselves. It's just for guests. It's special. We keep small models in our pockets and a large one tied to a rusty hook that sticks out of the back of the shed. We measure up with our eyes the ones who obviously don't know about hanging. The ones who look like foxes and wolves and sly dogs who might like to chase us. They didn't practice being good, we think, when they were young. Someone obviously didn't tell them that they still hang people. Though, not children. Stand still, stretch your toes a little. Stand there. Don't worry this is just pretend. Drop your hands to your sides now, and we'll show you. A noise to frighten the crows from the pine trees.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 14

XII Arrowheads In The Blood

We make no noise as we come down the slope because we have arrowheads in the blood. Our finely knapped teeth spark flinty smiles. Beneath our feet, leaves hold their breath. Our footsteps fill up with brown-coloured water. Oily swirls make rainbows in them as it sloughs from the soil. Bogs have secret hearts. We also. You don't know what you'll find when you dig: bones and fossils, shark's teeth entombed beside the shells of ancient sea-creatures. Or babies wrapped in rotten sacks, skin the colour of tea and hard toffees. Old tires with green fuzzy heads which form islands in the mire. Our secrets glitter. Romans came here. Other Romans, not just us, and died without going home. They left broken things and hoards of silver. They thought they'd come back but they didn't. They went the same place the babies did, we guess. The people they fought threw spears and raised iron-age boars. We have one of their teeth on a piece of string. A boar's tooth, not a person's. Though we have those as well. Some ate hearts. We don't doubt. They would find ours hard to chew. There are sharp points inside them, like bristles, like nettles made out barbed-wire.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 15

Sunlight is rare, as is the calls of the birds. They stand stiffly, warily, on the stark branches above us. They know what we carry. We have arrowheads in the blood. If we wanted, we could draw them out. Fling them high and watch the feathers fall like a snow-shower. We don't even have to dig them up. We were born that way. Mostly, and the rest we figured out. It's secret magic, of the sort the people who killed Romans knew. Not that it helped them but it helps us. We'd have, if we weren't them, have driven us back. Not given us one single pig for a few worthless iron arrowheads. Someday we hope we'll find a whole shark.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 16

XIII XIII

Our hive once had thirteen queens. Now there are only three. Don't ask us where the other ten have gone. You might find some sign of them down in the system. Things like that happen when you're giant flying ants. Queens can get worn out. Or have accidents. Everyone is too busy gathering the sugar to stop and find out. We can't always keep track of them or what happens down in those tunnels. See our tunnels? We built them ourselves out of spit and soil. The hard work of thirteen. We need lots of room for the grubs who are always, always hungry. They must be fed, and it's not easy finding enough sugar even with thirteen queens. You're our third queen, by the way. We voted on it while you were in the kitchen. We think you'll be very good at it. Sugar is getting scarce, and the grubs are voracious. If they don't get more food soon, some of them might die. Our hive is strong. But we must keep our grubs alive. So we're glad you're here. We're glad you're one of us now. A hive needs its queens to stay fierce, and to keep its grubs fed. A nest without grubs is like a nest without queens: dead. Here is some sugar. It's not much. It's all we could find. We found it under the table. Sugar is scare at the moment, but we're doing the best that we can. Can you crawl down there and take it to the grubs?

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 17

That's what a queen does, if she doesn't go missing. You don't want to go missing do you? Or have an accident? Not like those other lazy queens. That's why we voted you queen. We know you'll do your part and work hard for our babies. Now crawl inside. It's dark and doesn't smell very nice, but that's just the grubs. They're messy eaters. Those hard things? Something left behind by the other queens perhaps, don't mind the white sticks. See how they love you? How they crowd and squirm all around you just to be near? They smell the sugar on your mandibles, and on your skin. Watch out. They nip a bit, but they're just hungry. They're always hungry. That's where the other queens went, we think. Once we were thirteen. Now we are two. Would you like to be a queen?

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 18

XIV Be They Rook Raven A Cautionary Afterword

Be they rook raven, Crow or butcher-bird, Sea-eagle, hornbill, Or the Great Macaw Remember O child, That once all birds Were dinosaurs.

Edwards / THE WHITE OWL / 19

XV Corvus & Lavinia Edwards

Are a pair of dangerous children & first time authors living outside the conurbation of London. Not far from a wood which may or may not have owls, but definitely has foxes and mires.

Any resemblances to the murderous narrators of The White Owl and Other Small Stories, are entirely fictional. Though not the fierceness, that is well documented.

E. M. Edwards is their father and guardian. Though whom he guards, you or them, is a matter of some conjecture.