Like all the owls, Sival was born in one of the many nests clustered in the attic of the library.
The first thing he clapped eyes on was a shaft of light lancing through a hole in the roof, golden and swirling with glinting dust motes. Its beauty shot through him like honey. He suddenly wanted to speak, to cry out, to share what he saw. But all that emitted from his beak was a feeble warble, which his mother, curled up exhausted next to the nest, took as a cue to cram a fleshy worm down his gullet, just a little too hard.
Sival choked, his first words stifled. Black despair poured over his initial wonder like tar. He spluttered. He gagged. He very nearly died. And so it was that when the other owlets ricocheted like tiny balls of fluff among the rafters of the attic, warbling to each other, Sival did not join in, and he did not make a sound. He only stared out the round window set into the wall beside his nest, a window that looked out on steam engines and carriages, well-dressed men and women, a riot of smoke and noise, none of it the least bit comprehensible, and thought his own thoughts.
To the elders, when Sival’s mother prodded him to their musty roost on the other side of the attic to shed some light on her son’s reticence, this was not a bad thing, this silence. On the contrary, it was a strength, for it would make him all the more easier to train.
Their training began in a backroom of the library. All the owlets chirruped with excitement at leaving the attic for the first time, but were soon silenced by the pearlescent gaze of the elders. That was the first rule they learned: talking during the day would now be forbidden. Even at night they were only allowed to hoot softly to one another, so as to not get out of habit. One particularly mischievous owlet, upon receiving this ban, hooted at the top of her voice, the power of her cry nearly lifting her off her talons.
From somewhere in the library beyond the walls of the room there came an echo. A cry, exploding with fury, louder than anything the owlets had ever heard, or could make themselves. One of the eldest – the largest, and to the rest of the owlets the most frightening – flew over to the recalcitrant owlet’s side and slashed her across the face three times with his talons, leaving a cross-hatch of gashes seeping dark blood. The owlet trembled with pain, but made no sound. Those marks would eventually fade into scars, but never truly disappear, as a reminder to everyone of the consequences of making a sound.
Their training consisted of flying back and forth in that cramped, dusty room whilst trailing stone weights from their ankles. Day after day, they wove between old cabinets and files and abandoned chairs in utter silence, save the soft sussurus of twenty pairs of wings, while the elders watched on.
At first, as it always is when you try to do something new, it was difficult. Owlets twitched their little wings desperately, dipping and rising in their efforts to reach the other side, their beaks silent but their hearts screaming. Some made it only to collapse in a sprawl of feathers, unable to rise even when prodded. Still more fell out of the air like stones, spraining their ankles, twisting their wings. If any owlet made a sound, even a peep of shock, he or she received a sharp slash of talons.
Sival fell, again and again – sometimes he could not even rise into the air while weighed down with the stones. All that time spent with his beak pressed against the window had done little for his wing strength, and the same elders that had once viewed him as an object of potential now stared at him with blank disapproval.
At night, aching and exhausted, gazing out at the night beyond his window, the moonlight bathing his feathered face white, Sival wondered: Why? He could not fathom the reason behind their training. But he kept silent, as he had since the day he was born, and there was nothing to ask except the night and the moon and the stars.
As the days lengthened into weeks, the owlets grew accustomed to the weight of the stones, and began to fly back and forth across the room with ease, pinwheeling and zipping. Eventually even Sival could accomplish the journey with little effort. The elders nodded to one another. From then on, the weights were removed and replaced by books which they gripped in their talons.
For the first time they were allowed access to the library beyond the training room. Compared to the attic and the back room, it was simply enormous, with its towering shelves of books that reached all the way up to the raftered ceiling, row after row of them, and great lamps protruding from the polished wood-paneled walls, shining like tiny suns.
Here and there squatted a green armchair, while at the front of the room, near the beveled glass doors, squatted a low desk covered in rolls of curling parchment, as well as a inkwell with a sprig of black feather poking out of it. Sival surveyed all this with interest. In the language of the owls, there were certainly no words for “book” or “chair”, but all owls have keen eyesight, and all certainly possessed pictorial classifications for the objects they saw.
So when the elders taught them the various symbols to recognise on the spines of books, using a wooden board inscribed with them, it did not take the owls long to commit them to memory, and to seek out the correct books accordingly. The elders showed them strips of paper, upon which the symbols were arranged in various orders. They taught them tricks to get the right books, such as memorizing the first and last cluster of symbols rather than the entire row. And though it was never spoken, implicitly the owls knew that books were sacred things, only to be carried and never opened. They spent their first day in the library flying to various parts of the library to fetch the right correct books. Many errors were made at first, and the elders’ beaks tightened in distaste as book after wrong book were deposited at their feet by their tentative students.
It was here, however, that Sival excelled. His visual memory was excellent, and that very first day, after absorbing the layout of the library, he brought every book correctly, and the elders looked on with silent approval.
He was burrowing his head beneath his wings that night, filled with quiet, satisfied pride, when he heard a scuffling noise from the corner of the attic. Thinking it might be a mouse – they sometimes made nests in the walls – Sival padded over to investigate, only to find the source of the sound to be owls were bent over an open book, their necks jerking back and forth in inquisitiveness. Sival peered at the book, too. Neither paid him the slightest attention, accustomed as they were to the strange little owl who never spoke, and did not join in their games.
Hundreds of scratches, like the markings of talons on the attic walls, covered the pages. Strange. They looked just like the symbols on the shelves and the spines of the books, only multiplied a thousandfold. One of the owls gave a hoot of irritation, ripped out a page with her talons and stuffed it into her nest. The other followed. The sound of quiet tearing filled the attic. Sival returned to his nest, his sleepiness evaporated, thoughts broiling with those symbols. What did they mean? What were they? Who were they for?
Finally the day arrived. Why this particularly day was so important, no owl knew, but there thrummed in the air a sense of expectation none were immune to. The elders prodded the owl into the little niches set into the wall by the desk – like books, thought Sival, we’re like the books lined up on a shelf – and then the first creature came in, just like ones Sival saw strolling on the ground outside his window.
What a monster it was up close! So tall, so thin, and such strange, limp sort of wings, no feathers at all! It stepped up to the walls of niches, reached out one arm; there was a soft clunk, as something fell through a slot in the ceiling of Sival’s alcove to land at his feet: a wooden stick, inscribed with symbols. Dutifully Sival bent his head and committed them to memory. Then he soared out into the dusty reaches of the library, eyes sharp and scanning for the right shelf, before depositing the book at the tall creature’s feet and nestling back into his niche. He watched the creature pick up the book and turn to the creature next to it and open his strange flat mouth and speak.
“I say Mr Offinal, you’ve got some damn smart birds in this library of yours.”
“Nothing smart about it,” replied the other creature, in an oozing voice that made Sival think of the slimy backs of worms. Its eyes looked different from the other one: they were obscured by round pieces of glass that glinted in the lamplight, the kind of material that made Sivel’s window. “They’re just well-trained.”
Whatever the creatures were saying, Sival could not understand it; it was all just a jumble of nonsensical sounds to him. But he watched as the one with glass opened the book, pointed to the pages, hooted some more in that slimy voice, and slowly an understanding formed in his mind.
Those scratches, somehow, were another way of speaking. Somehow, those scratches were the same as speaking, but on paper, preserved forever. He didn’t know how this thought occurred to him, but the moment he did, he knew that he was right. It was if another world had unfolded around him. To somehow communicate through these scratches, let others know what you were thinking – it was like magic! What was the secret? How had the creatures done it?
So it began what Sivel thought of as his true training. Fetching books was easy – any owl could do that. But to understand the scratches in the books? That was another thing entirely. He stole pages from the nests of the owls who had ripped apart the book and squinted at them by moonlight. But no matter which way he looked at them – if he was even looking at them the right way, that is – they remained stubbornly incomprehensible, no more than dead insects on the page.
He began listening closely to the sounds the creature’s made. Rather than go to sleep like the owls when no tokens clattered at their feet, he stayed wide awake, listening and listening. For weeks the sounds remained unintelligible. Then slowly some sounds began to stand out: the creatures always made the same sounds when they left, and when they came in.
One creature, a small one, liked to sit in an armchair and while a bigger creature spoke to her from the book. Sival made friends with her, perching on her shoulder and watching intently each time she visited as her fingers pointed to the words and pictures as she read. In this way, month after month, he connected many of the sounds with the words, and many of the words with meanings.
Years passed. Over time, the more he understood of this new language, the further apart he grew from his feathered brethren. They paid little enough attention to strange silent Sival before, but now blatantly avoided him, as if sensing his new wisdom. By now only one of the five elders still remained. She spent most of her time in the attic with her head tucked under her wing.
Eventually Sival stole a book, and found himself able to read swathes of it, though not understand all he read, as some words, despite him being able to make the sound of them in his mind, were not attached to any meaning. These he skipped. He read of creatures who journeyed to far off lands, of creatures who lost their homes, of sad creatures whose parents and friends did not understand them, and his little owl heart warmed and soared and grieved along with them. It was then he realised he was lonely. Very lonely. Perhaps that had been one of the reasons he had so immersed himself in his new task: to forgot the fact that while owls around him slept side by side at night and were even starting to pair up, he still slept alone in his little nest by the window with only the moon and the stars for company.
One day when the small creature visited again, coaxing him onto her arm from his alcove, Sival looked her deep in the eyes, then flew towards the table at the front of the room. She followed, a little cautiously. “What is it?” she whispered. “Do you want to show me something?”
Sival tried to nod. He bobbed his head once. It gazed down at him with its dark enormous eyes, uncomprehending. He pattered, talons clicking over the wooden surface of the desk, to the inkwell. Picked up the black feather between two talons, as he had seen a creature hold it many times. The little creature watching on made a funny sound in her throat, one she always uttered when happy. “Oh, what are you going to do, little owl? Write?”
Relief radiated in Sival’s feathered breast at that. She understood! And now, maybe, he could make her understand him. Slowly he began to write, scratching the wet tip of the feather across an empty page of parchment. Above him, there was a quick intake of breath, but he ignored it, concentrating. Splotches of ink coated his talons. He tried his best to copy the symbols from the books. When he finished, he stepped back and surveyed his work. The words weren’t half as good as the ones in the books, but it would have to do. To his disappointment, when he looked up, the small creature had disappeared. He swiveled his head. Where had she gone?
In a sudden flash the parchment was snatched up from beneath his feet, sending him tumbling across the desk. Lying on his back, he found himself gazing up into the face of the creature with the glass circles over his eyes, the slimy voice, who peered down at the words Sival had written. Beside him, dwarfed, stood the smaller creature, wide-eyed and staring at Sival. Sival felt a surge of pleasure at hearing the creature with the glass circles read his words aloud, even if it was in that unappetizing voice.
“Hello. Nice to meet you.” It peered down at the smaller creature, who ducked its head beneath its gaze. “You’re quite sure it wrote this?” The smaller creature moved its head up and down strenuously. “Oh yes! Yes, I saw it with my own eyes.”
So they didn’t believe him, did they? Well, he would make them listen. He would make them understand. Quickly, dipping the feather into the inkstand again, he repeated his performance, this time with the larger creature watching.
When he finished, hands shot out and grasped him tight around the waist. He squawked and squirmed in surprise, dropping the black feather.
“Oh, don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him. What are you going to do with him?”
The creature grasping Sival said nothing. Its forehead glistened with moisture like the condensation on Sival’s glass window on winter nights. It twisted its fat neck to look around at the library, at the owls huddled in the niches, at the few circling among the shelves like tiny puffs of clouds, and those perched on armchairs or lamp holders, silent and watching with their quiet tawny faces and liquid dark eyes. Its talons tightened so hard around Sival he was afraid of being crushed, and suddenly he was afraid of something else, something he could not put into words or pictures or thoughts. Something he wasn’t sure he even understood. Had he done the right thing? He had only wanted to talk to his friend. Clamped in the creature’s sweaty hands, a worm of doubt curled in his gizzard.
They took him away from the library, to a new room, one with more chairs and tables. They placed him in a cage, which was like a nest with no way out. Everyday the little creature came and opened a little door in the cage and slipped him some food. Sometimes, when the other taller creatures were absent, it even slipped him a book, or some parchment to write with. It always looked tremendously surprised and excited whenever it read what Sival had written.
Why take me
“Oh, because I forced uncle to promise to let me keep you! You’re the most wonderful creature I’ve ever owned!”
Though he missed his mother, missed his roost by the window, the soft warbles of his clan, this comforted Silvan somewhat. He had been chosen, singled out; his years of learning had all paid off.
Other times the creature would lift the drapes from his cage and sit by him and talk until its hooting grew soft and its eyes quiet. Sival felt safe with it. Still, it would be nice to be allowed to fly around a bit, and he wrote this request the morning after he had arrived, scratching away while the creature stared. It picked it up once he finished it and read it, eyes darting back and forth, tongue poking out between its soft beak. Then it lowered paper and looked at him.
“Let you out? Oh but uncle said I wasn’t to. He said I mustn’t. He said you were a – a demon. You know, I had to beg him to let me keep you as a pet. Do you understand what I’m saying? Sometimes I feel like you understand everything.” It passed one talon across its face. “Oh, I suppose it won’t hurt. Just a little while. I’ll shut all the doors and windows.”
It opened the cage door. Sival hopped out, stretched his wings with a quick flutter. Then he leaped from the edge of the desk and soared and flew and spun around the room, heart beating a fast exhilaration. He had forgotten the joy flying afforded. Then the creature left, having been called away by another creature in the building, and he was alone.
He explored the room that he had gazed upon for so long from the confines of his cage. He perched on the windowsill and peered outside. From his time in the attic, windows were familiar. But this looked out on something different. Not a road, swarming with the tall creatures. Instead…he cocked his head. Pressed his face against the glass. Outside came shouts and cries. It was a street, a great expanse of grey. Strung along it from tall sticks were white lengths of rope, and strung along the ropes were tiny bundles, like the kind the creature wore on its fleshy talons when it was cold.
He looked a little closer, eyes focusing.
A squawk of shock tore from his throat.
They weren’t bundles at all, but row upon row of owls, pegged upside-down to the ropes by their talons. His mother. His clan. Smoke rose from their charred feathers in black tendrils. They were being killed. They were dead.
When the small creature returned to coax him back into his cage, Sival bit it on the finger. It shrieked, even louder than the shouts outside. More creatures poured into the room, all of them hooting louder and louder. Tight talons gripped Sival, shoved him roughly back into his cage in a puff of loosened feathers. Sival lay on his side, eyes dull. The cage lifted; the world beyond the wire swayed, changed colours.
He had not meant to bite the creature who had been so kind to him. He had not meant to bring death upon his clan, for he knew now, with a strange knowing, a strange certainty, that it was he who had killed them. If he hadn’t written those words, if he hadn’t tried to read the books…
He was placed in the hands of a creature with a yellowed, jutting mouth and a missing eye, who stuffed him in a glass cage shaped like an upside bowl. In there, day after day, Sival wrote down names, symbols arranged in a line, which the creature read to him, spitting the words into a little brass pipe attached to the top of the glass cage. Blurred faces peered at him, magnified by the curvature of the glass so that their mouths looked big enough to eat him as they had eaten his clan. Sival wrote. Each time he spelled something right he received a slip of gristle; when he got it wrong, he got nothing. He went hungry. He wrote until his talons ached, symbols after symbol after symbol. No longer were words his freedom, but his prison.
And one night, when the sight of those burning bodies roared in his mind and words swirled like hundreds of writhing black worms in his vision, he threw himself again and again against the glass cage, again and again, battering himself against the glass, until it slid off the table and splintered with a crash on the floor.
Despite his disorientation, he took to flight, aiming for the square of light, the open window. The creature with the jutting yellow mouth leaped to its feet, shouting, talons reaching out, but Sival was quicker. One final wingbeat, and he was free, soaring away and up into the white sky, the wind ruffling his feathers, high above the little brown buildings that lay beneath him like so many closed books. The sun beat hot upon him, a dead blank eye.
Sival flew towards the light, towards the horizon, headed for a forgotten land of no name.