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The Bard Owl

by Melissa Wozniak 10 months ago in Short Story · updated 6 months ago
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Perchance to dream

Artem Podrez / Melissa Wozniak

At first, Rob tallied each day of Milo’s homeschooling with a valorous pencil mark behind the computer until the wall resembled a prison sentence and he stopped counting. The coffee ring on his pine desk grew permanent and the knot beside it became a Rorschach test that shifts according to mood. Tonight it is a clown, and a clown is not a welcome sight in the shadows of a dour gray… Thursday? Monday? Rob moves the mouse, checks the date. His face is chalk dust in the flickering glow, harsh angles and parched eyes.

The dog needs an insulin injection. Milo needs to be fed.

The company also needs copy for ten more luxury properties in Cabo San Lucas—urgent, stat—even though flights are empty and everyone is parked on their couch in stir-crazed accord, banging on pots and believing the world will be saved by humans staying put. Clear skies over Delhi! Dolphins in Venice canals! Rob squints at the screen and writes, Greet the day in the azure waters of your private infinity pool before dining on a sumptuous feast of marmalade on brioche. Impotent fingers send a wave of disgust to his throbbing temples. He has never felt more like a castaway in his own life.

Useful things: food, medicine. Feed your kid, take care of your dog, sweep the Cheerios from the rug and wipe down the toothpaste spatters on the bathroom mirror. Check if Milo has hoarded chicken bones and greasy pigeon feathers under his bed again, trying to build a bird. Restore order to this 600-square-foot castle.

Draw the shades. Turn on music to drown out the ambulance making the left turn into New York-Presbyterian.

Feed your kid.

Rob pads down the hall in three-day-old socks to find Milo belly down on the kitchen floor, scoffing a line of raisins through a plastic straw. This is perfectly OK, Rob tells himself. “Hello anteater,” he tells Milo.

“Hello,” Milo says. “This is plutonium and I’m a stegosaurus and this is how I’m going to survive the asteroid.”

“You won’t just survive,” Rob replies, “you’ll have superpowers.”

“Yup. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct, they just moved to Dagobah.”

“Want some food for the journey? Something to bring to Yoda? I hear he likes carrots.”

“Pasta,” Milo says, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “With butter.”

Rob sighs. For the past three months, all his child has eaten for dinner, with the exception of floor raisins and the occasional GoGo squeeZ, is pasta with butter. Farfalle, bucatini, shells without cheese. Limp curtains of lasagna piled like leucistic kelp. Pick your battles, Rob tells himself. He’s doing just fine.

“What’d you learn in your afternoon session?” Rob asks. “What was it again? Math?”

“Science,” Milo says. “Maeve has green hair now. She’s got a weird head, and it kind of looks like a broccoli. Winston was out sick, but I think he’s faking it, because he’s always sick when his mom works a double at the hospital and leaves him with Jenny because Jenny lets him watch Chef Pee Pee all day. Eleanor is boring as usual.”

“I’m sorry you can’t see your friends in person, Scout. I know it’s hard.”

“No one is real. We’re all bubbles. Pop pop pop. Can I have screen time tonight?”

“I’m setting a timer. When it goes off at eight, lights out, is that clear? Do you have homework?”

“Nope,” Milo says, sidling around the table to hug Rob’s waist. “I love you, Daddy.”

When he leaves, his presence hangs like the soot of a fireworks finale, the sudden emptiness heavy in Rob’s chest. The dinner dishes go into the sink and Rob goes back to the computer, where his last atrocious sentence sits: Egyptian cotton sheets envelop you in comfort after…

Even the cursor is laughing as it blinks ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!

…ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! until half past ten, when the door down the hall creaks open and Milo appears, arms folded like wings, and in a very small voice says, “I have homework.”

Rob concentrates hard on the clown-knot in his desk to calm the blood surging to his neck, red-hot blood teeming with anger that immediately explodes into shrapnel of guilt. Everything feels exaggerated and irrational these days.

“I forgot,” Milo says.

“That screen has been on since dinner, hasn’t it?”

“I forgot,” Milo says again. His voice is escalating. He sniffs his nose violently and Rob thinks, It can’t be the virus because of the sheer amount of time it’s been there.

“I have to write a report,” Milo says. “About a bard owl.”

“A what? Bard? As in Shakespeare?”

“Bard owl,” Milo repeats.

“I can’t understand you, Scout. Please blow your nose. And not on your sleeve.”

“Bard owl!” he howls. “Bard! Owl!”

Milo’s emotions are also exaggerated and irrational these days. The child psychologist calls it anxiety. She suggests breathing exercises and visualizing pink clouds. The one thing Rob knows to work is to hold his son in his arms and wait until their hearts beat the same, just like he did when Milo was a baby. Rob spent much of Milo’s first months holding him as he slept, and during that time his pen flowed on paper, pouring out sonnets and stories and letters for him to read when he gets older. It has been seven years since Rob wrote something he was proud of.

“You know what a bard is, don’t you, Scout?” Rob asks finally.

“Someone who tells stories.”

“So this report you have to write. Do you want it to be about an owl that lives in a barn or an owl that tells stories?”

“An owl that tells stories.”

“I think that’s a great idea,” Rob says.

He unplugs the laptop and brings it to the floor. He closes the dreadful document about Egyptian cotton sheets and opens a fresh page. They curl up close and pull a blanket around their shoulders.

“Tell me about these bard owls. Where do they live?”

“Here. In Brooklyn.”

“Where? In the big library by the park?”

“No way,” Milo says. “That’s where other people’s stories live. You can’t take other people’s stories. You have to make up your own. Bard owls live in the willow ash down by the bike path where we go when we want to be quiet, because the willow ash is smart and has been there a long time.”

“And you have to be quiet to hear your story,” Rob adds. “Which is really hard to do in the city.”

“That’s why everyone here is crazy. They talk all the time and listen to other people talk and then their head goes in circles and they start making up things that aren’t true because they can’t hear themselves anymore. So a bard owl has to come and help them out.”

“Owls fly around at night. Is that when they help people?”

Milo thinks for a minute. “They appear in their dreams,” he explains, “which doesn’t work because everyone forgets their dreams. So they come back during the day to remind them, but they have to go undercover. They can’t fly around as an owl because owls scream and all people would do is talk to each other about seeing an owl and post pictures of the owl and then they would be crazy again. So they turn into a pigeon.”

“A pigeon?”

“No one pays attention to a pigeon. But when you do, it talks to you. You know what it says?”

Milo cups his father’s ear. In it he coos: “Yooou…”

“How do you notice these things?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“No, Scout. Definitely not.”

“Your story can be anything you want it to be. That’s the best thing about it.”

“Those pigeons that roost on the fire escape outside the kitchen window we run off every morning. You think one of them is a bard owl trying to talk to us?”

Milo starts typing with two bony fingers:

In a brown building on Seventh Avenue there lived Milo and his dad and their dog Maggie who likes to dig the wrappers from Shake Shack out of the trash when she’s not supposed to but really she’s a good dog. Every day after school Milo and Daddy and Maggie went walking in the park down by the bike trail where there are trees and not much else. They liked to sit with their back against a tree and make up stories about the people they saw like how the woman on her phone running with a double wide stroller is actually a secret agent for the CIA because no one would think twice about spilling their guts around a cute baby and especially not two. But then the world got covered in germs and they couldn’t go to the park anymore and when they did all people would talk about is the germs so it wasn’t fun to make up stories anymore and how can trees have germs anyway? So they stayed inside mostly and that’s when the bard owl started coming and that was three months ago.

Milo and his dad didn’t know it was a bard owl at first. They thought it was just a dumb pigeon leaving poop on the fire escape so they banged on the window every morning until the pigeon flew away. They weren’t doing so good after being inside so long. Daddy sat at one computer and Milo sat at another and Daddy hated his job and sometimes his face got really red and sometimes he’d throw things but never really that hard and not at Milo. Milo’s head felt like there were bees swarming around a lot of times and in his chest too. They didn’t talk to each other like they used to because the people on the computers talked all day and that was enough.

One night it was a very bad night. Milo messed up even though he didn’t mean to. Daddy’s face got red and the bees woke up but then it was a good thing because they realized there had been a bard owl to help them all along. They got really quiet and saw they could make up stories again. Daddy writes stories for a living, but he doesn’t think so. He tells people about beautiful places in the world full of palm trees and suntan lotion and expensive beds to sleep on and when people read what he writes they picture it in their minds and it makes them excited thinking about it and sometimes it’s the thing that gets them through the day especially now. Milo makes people on the computer laugh mostly because he’s not paying attention but what is there better than laughing? Milo and his dad decided that they don’t have to wait for people to stop talking about germs and they’re going to write stories together every night just like this one. That is what makes them happy, which means the bard owl did his job.

Science says that there are between six hundred and sixty-eight thousand bard owls living in Brooklyn. They have black eyes except for when they’re red and white feathers except for when they’re gray. Bard owls come out at night but if you have bad dreams or can’t sleep don’t worry because once one decides to visit you he won’t give up until you hear what he has to say. When everyone in Brooklyn gets a visit from a bard owl no one will talk about bad things anymore because they will know the story of what makes them happy and that’s the most powerful thing in the whole entire world.

This among other reasons is why you should never kick dirt at a pigeon.

The end.

Short Story

About the author

Melissa Wozniak

I spent my life looking for the map until I realized I had to draw my own.


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