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Owl Pellets

bone and hair and gristle

By Madoka MoriPublished about a year ago Updated about a month ago 10 min read
Boneyard of a Barn Owl, Carrizo Plain [Wikimedia Commons]

It was the third day of our holiday, and Oliver was explaining owl pellets. He squatted amidst the fallen masonry of the barn, poking at the owl pellets with a stick.

“You see, an owl swallows its prey whole,” he said, “all the hard and unpalatable parts - the bone and hair and gristle, the things it can’t digest - it later coughs up as a pellet like this one.”

I know, I wanted to say. I know that. Everyone knows that.

“That’s interesting,” I said.

He used the stick to break one apart. “See the bones? Probably a mouse.”

He gestured at the tumbledown building around him. “My guess is a barn owl, considering. They really do live in old barns, you know. It’s not just the name.”

I said nothing.

“It looks like poop, but it’s not,” he said, “you can come closer to look. It doesn’t smell at all.”

“It’s okay,” I said. But I must not have modulated my tone correctly and he looked at me askance. It’s a fine line: sound too interested and you come across as sarcastic; not enough, and… well.

“Look, I know this wasn’t your number-one pick for a holiday, okay? But we’re here now. You could at least try.”

“I am trying,” I said, but he had already stood and was marching down the muddy lane. The long, purposeful strides of someone readying themselves for an argument.

But I was trying. I was.


We had ended up coming here, to Suffolk, because Oliver wanted to see the owls. I wanted to go to mainland Europe somewhere.

“Somewhere? Like where?”

“I don’t know… Portugal, or Prague, or somewhere. Somewhere we’ve never been.”

“Look, I mean if you had a place in mind, fine,” he said, “but I’ve wanted to go to this place for ages. You know that.”

“But I don’t want to go,” I said.

“But you don’t know where you do want to go,” he said, which was true.

I remember when that used to be a good thing, not knowing where I wanted to go. I used to travel a lot. I’d hop on a flight after work on Friday evening, jetting out from Heathrow on some rickety little budget airline to Vienna, Florence, Budapest; wherever. With a group of friends, with a lover, alone. It hadn’t mattered where, the fun had been in the act of going itself. I didn’t use to need a reason other than I’ve never been.

When had that stopped being reason enough?

When we first met, Oliver admired my willingness to go anywhere at the drop of a hat. He confided in me after we had been dating for a few months that he was, at first, intimidated by my adventurous spirit. He was worried that his lifestyle was to prosaic for someone like me.

Yet now here we were discussing a weekend trip to Suffolk, of all places. Prosaic always seems to win out in the end.

He took my hand. “It’s not just an owl sanctuary, okay? It’s a wildlife preserve. It’s peace and quiet - nature as far as the eye can see.”

“But it’s in Suffolk,” I said, but the protest was half-hearted at this point and he knew that he had won.

“It’ll be fun. I promise. And it will give you time to think about where you want to go in Europe, and you can pick the next holiday. Okay?”

It sounded completely reasonable. Completely fair. Oliver always did. That’s why I ended up spending a long weekend in Suffolk, in an owl sanctuary.


I caught up with him where he stood waiting under a copse of trees by the lane. It was raining and muddy, the water seeping into my hiking boots. As I approached he held up his hands in mock-surrender.

“I don’t want to fight on holiday,” he said, “can we just call a truce?”

You’re the one who snapped at me, I wanted to say.

“Sure,” I said, “truce.”

He took my hand and smiled. “I think this weather is making the both of us cranky.”

He looked out over the soggy fields. The rain had steadily amplified from a drizzle to full-on rain. Wind blustered the raindrops to-and-fro, keeping my soggy hair plastered against my face no matter which way I faced. The sky was slate grey smeared with black.

“It doesn’t look like it’s getting any better,” he said, “want to pack it in for today and go get dinner?”

“Sure,” I said. The return smile felt tight on my face.


Oliver’s latest interest was raptors in general, owls in particular. Everyone who knew Oliver joked about his interests: Ollie’s Obsessions, his mum called them. They followed a fairly predictable cycle, and rarely lasted more than three or four months. We were currently at the apex of his interest in owls; I expected no more than a few weeks before they were eclipsed by whatever came along next. The previous interest was board games. The one before that, photography.

Oliver’s house was filled with the detritus of his previous interests. Before coming to the Suffolk countryside, I asked if he had an overnight bag I could borrow.

“Miss Wanderlust doesn’t have a travel bag?” He said, not looking up from where he lay reading on the couch.

“I can choose between a roller-bag, or a suitcase large enough to smuggle livestock,” I said, “I don’t think the Suffolk countryside will be kind to either.”

“Check the storage closet,” he said.

The storage closet was really more of an odd trunk room or repurposed segment of corridor, the kind of strangely laid-out floorplan that you get in London when a series of landlords subdivide an old house into apartments, and then subdivide again. If Oliver ever moves then the storage closet will almost-certainly be advertised as a full bedroom. That’s just London real estate these days.

As a room the storage closet was tiny, and so completely filled with boxes that you couldn’t get fully inside. There were moving boxes, repurposed appliance boxes, and a fair few of those stackable see-though plastic ones that you can buy from Ikea, bought as a doomed attempt at order. In the far corners of the room the boxes were piled to the ceiling.

Digging through the boxes was an archeological expedition through Oliver’s past interests. Nearest the door were the more recent ones: a box of photography equipment and two of various board games. Moving further in I found boxes of Oliver’s interests that I never knew about, from before we started dating. Here was a box was filled with carefully painted miniature soldiers and scenery, here one containing a clarinet. There were boxes of SCUBA diving equipment and woodworking tools, bookbinding materials and oil paints. Fossils and computer boards and sourdough starters and seeds and leatherwork and running shoes and sprouting trays. To one side a half-assembled bicycle, the other a classic Singer sewing machine.

As I dug through the strata of Oliver's past interests looking for an overnight bag, I found a box half-full of women’s clothing. I checked to see that he was still on the couch before opening it up to have a closer look.

There were dozens of items, of all sizes and styles. A pair of hip sneakers lay nestled together with a rather fussy blouse. Some tracksuit bottoms with a neon skull-and-crossbones motif folded underneath a pair of jeans two sizes smaller, itself beneath a pinstripe skirt in a yet-different size. Formalwear, casualwear, streetwear. Some loud, some cute, some severe.

Deeper in, under the clothes, was a shoebox; and in the shoebox, pictures. Pictures of Oliver with an assortment of ex girlfriends, some I knew about, some I had never seen before. Here he was with Emily, the girl he dated before me, at an upmarket wine bar. They gazed at the camera with serious half-smiles, both of them dressed in business attire. Here he was with an Asian girl with an undercut, both of them wearing ripped tshirts as they hung off each other, mugging for the camera in some seedy dive bar. Here with a blonde hiking in what looked like Northern Italy, beaming, both wearing backpacker’s rucksacks and slathered with sweat. Here he was with a girl with dreadlocks at a festival, both of them caught mid-giggle, obviously high. Each picture another girl, another location. Another version of Oliver.

I carefully returned all of the photos to their shoebox, then put that and clothes back in their original places. After a few more minutes of searching I found a sports bag in a box of musty kickboxing equipment.

“Find one?” He asked when I emerged. “You were in there a while.”

I held up the bag I had found. “Yup, got one.”

He turned back to his book. It was titled Owls of the World: A Photographic Guide. I wondered how long it would be until was in its own box in the storage room. I wondered which of my clothes would end up in the ex-girlfriend box, which of our pictures.

I went to pack.


We were staying in a rental cottage on the outskirts of the nearest village to the owl sanctuary. We thought the walk into town would take fifteen minutes but it ended up taking over half an hour, during which the weather deteriorated further. There were no restaurants in the village and only one pub, which at least meant we didn’t need to spend time trying to decide where to eat.

I was quietly hoping for the kind of countryside pub you see in movies, a twee hidden gem steeped in rural charm. That was the hope, but of course in reality it was exactly what I knew it would be: the cheap, dark-red carpets found in every crap pub, malodorous with spilled beer; a huddle of red-faced middle-aged men in supermarket denim; the constant rankling cacophony of the fruit machine in the corner. The few customers stood in a single group at the bar, turning to stare at us when we came in. They were all male, and all leered when they saw a woman under the age of forty. They turned back to their pints and erupted in laughter from a remark we couldn’t hear but was definitely about us. We took a table.

We sat there, the two of us, in a cheap nasty pub with the rain tapping at the windows from the darkling sky, and looked at the menu.

“They have a veggie burger,” said Oliver.

I have a pet peeve. For some reason, when people find out I'm a vegetarian they are filled with the need to point out every vegetarian option to me on a menu. Like I’m not looking at the same menu. Like I don’t have eyes. The annoyance is made worse because I know they’re not doing it out of malice, but every time I sit down at a restaurant I become the focus of an infuriating litany of oh this is vegetarian and this thing doesn’t have meat. I know it’s petty, I know. But it drives me up the wall, like an officemate who won’t stop humming or an aunt who chews too noisily at Christmas dinner.

“The nachos just have beans, no meat,” said Oliver.

A few months ago, after a long and stressful day, we met for dinner and I snapped at him for it. It turned into a full-on row about my passive-aggressiveness towards someone who was just trying to be helpful. We patched it up, but now I get the annoyance of him pointing out the vegetarian options coupled with his teasing about my getting annoyed by it.

“Quite a few of the pizzas… oh right,” said Oliver, looking up with a playful expression, “I’m not allowed to tell you, am I?”

Fuck you, I wanted to say, but instead I said nothing at all.

It isn’t just that I used to be someone who travelled spontaneously, someone who was intimidatingly non-prosaic, someone who didn’t take any shit; it is the fact that those qualities are what Oliver claimed to like about me. But now those character traits which used to be - which are - who I am are deemed excessive and inconvenient. I have to choose between swallowing a retort to keep the peace, or being blamed for starting an argument. I hate that I choose the easier, less contentious option. Like I'm betraying who I am to try and fit someone else's idea of who I should be. Like I am being rendered down, digested, with anything of vitality drained away. My personality stripped away layer by layer and bit by bit until only those hard and unpalatable parts - the bone and hair and gristle - remain.

Ultimately I will be regurgitated and cast aside. “You’re no longer the person I fell in love with,” Oliver will say, and he will be right.

Short Story

About the Creator

Madoka Mori

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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    Creative use of language & vocab

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    Well-structured & engaging content

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  • Robin Andrew Blair7 months ago

    Nice. Well written, good structure, good descriptions. Not the kind of story I usually care about, but it held my attention.

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