OF THE OWLS
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I awoke that
fateful morning to the tail end of a cerebral whiplash. A
two-tone shadow; half bright, half dark. The sun shone through
the thin curtains highlighting this sneering remnant of dream
space. My eyelids opened. The multi-planar shape leapt off
my second-floor attic window again, like an instant replay,
flapping its black then white wings a crazy monochrome oscillation.
I saw how the sunlight refracted through those frenetic wings.
It was a bird, but so big, so strange.
I'd been listening to them
all morning. The birds. They appeared louder than normal,
but that was a clear-cut case of me leaving the double sash
windows open last night after I came back from the Turf Tavern,
so stifling was the stillness of the summer air. That one
giant silhouette, though, that was scary-crazy. Of course
I knew it was because of the way a solid object bent light
around it, the way a solar eclipse 'diamond rings' the sun's
rays before and after apogee. My memory of the awakening painted
the bird as man-sized; it was just an illusion. But I remember
it more and more clearly. A man-sized bird perched there on
my windowsill, chattering like a rabid clown.
I'd noted the way it periodically
preened its meter-long feathers with its beak, a sound like
stropped silk. I had been listening to the scrape of its curved
claws on the windowsill. I could hear the wood splintering.
I had this vision of the subsequent scene with my landlord.
"A huge black and white
bird did it!" He'd laugh his ass off at the damage I'd
caused to his windowsill and call me a "fucking drunken
student prick" as I've heard him talk about some of our
other tenants when he's been in our communal kitchen making
himself breakfast. He didn't even live here, he was just the
landlord, but he treated the place like it was his own; used
the communal kitchen downstairs when he wanted to, stopped
by to use the communal toilet or have a quick shower in-between
his never-ending construction jobs around the town. He was
always reno-vating old property into bed-sits to sell to unsuspecting
students like myself. "Ready to fleece the rich,"
he'd say and if he wasn't working round here, he'd always
take his breaks round here. He treated this place like his
home. Even his mail came here.
It was a magpie. I had been
listening to the solemn song in the back of the magpie's throat,
a woeful warble, pre chatter. I had been listening to its
creaking lungs, which sounded like an idling turbo charger
pulsing soft and dangerous, like the poised neck bite of a
one-night stand. I even wondered if it would slip in under
the uplifted sash window. Its huge feathery head pushed through
the curtains, an arm-reach away. I could see that lethal beak,
then that feathery nose, then those yellow and red eyes.
I awoke because of the head-splitting
cackle. That thing only realised I was lying there in the
orange glow through the curtains too late. It had its black
and white head and neck through the gap in the curtains. It
was looking around, surveying my near-derelict living condition.
It was measuring up to move in, it looked like. That giant
bird wanted my bed-sit for its nest. I couldn't believe the
utter shameless trespass. Just prior to working it out, I
thought it might be a cuckoo female, something flashed up
from my memory about ornithology and feather patterns. It
was scoping out my nest for its own, waiting to move in and
oust me from my own property. But it hadn't made the 'cuckoo'
sound, so I
I couldn't believe the size of that thing.
I awoke in mid-scream, flapping my arms and flailing at the
thing, my mouth agape. I had woken myself up coming out of
an awful dream about the owl-eyed thief of dreams come to
peck my mind clean.
And there it stood like a
concrete sculpture you see on those old mansions out in the
country. It stood there piercing me with its yellow and red
eyes. I could suddenly feel the crystals of sleep in the inner
corners of my eyes like a high-alkalinity irritant. The bird's
beak opened as slow as anything I have ever witnessed. The
colours refracting through its separating neck feathers were
just psychedelic. I thought I was tripping. And this deafening
cackle like some enormous football rattle came out of it.
The shape shifted in front of my eyes as the mechanical chatter
grew to an intense jet-engine volume. Only a magpie could
make such an alien noise.
The curtains settled as I
unscrewed my face and let my hands fall from my ears. My heart
was literally hammering against my chest. I was damn-near
deafened. A soft hissing overlaid the normal sounds of the
morning for an hour after that like tinnitus. Strangely, cobwebs
clung to my face and hands like I'd been lying here, in my
bed, gathering dust for weeks and weeks. I shakily got up
out of bed then, wiping a cold sweat from my forehead. I had
never known such terror. My body knew what it needed.
I gulped down a glass of water
and went to work on my sand-filled leather kick bag that the
neighbours below me so appreciated.
Kick Bag hung there in the
accusative gloom awaiting my brutal attention. That was my
name for it. Well, you gotta depersonalise the enemy, right?
Kick Bag was its name and taking it hard was its game. It
stood there with its virtual sneer on its virtual face, willing
me to fuck with it. It was expecting me to take out my frustration
and fear on it. It wanted me to unleash my anger and forget
the enormous bird. It could help me forget. It had such a
tempting demeanour, hung there like that, the weight of a
hung man, strapped from the ceiling support beams in this
old Georgian house. The landlord had done a bizarre thing
with the ceiling. It had a sort of under-ceilingthat's
the only way my morning brain will allow me to describe it.
He had 'built' the ceiling in a concave sorta pyramid-from-the-inside
shape so that I could see the ceiling supports, the rafters,
and THEN the ceiling. It was like living in a pyramid in many
ways, and I guess that's what really excited me about the
place when I first came to view it some three years ago.
Tenants below me came and
went, all of them ceiling bangers. But nobody ever seemed
to tell the landlord, or he never really gave a toss if one
of his paying-over-the-odds tenants whined a bit about the
psycho in the attic room. I got used to the damp and the creaking
of the floorboards. Many didn't and left that house after
their first six months.
I'll be twenty years old in
three months' time. I'm what you call a Stayer. I learned
that in my youth. Find somewhere you like and stay, no matter
what. Make it work for you. Most importantly, the place had
somewhere I could hang Kick Bag. It was soft brown leather.
The skin had cracks all over it, and I'd had to tape it up
more than once in the contact zone. A grey waistband of gaffer
tape held in its sandy guts. I think I saw the beams in this
place and signed a deposit cheque on the spot.
I approached Kick Bag in my
wretched boxer shorts. I'd had the boxer shorts on for like
three days, but the sweat I was gonna have in just a few minutes
meant it was pointless to change them just to spar with Kick
Bag. I say spar. It wasn't a passive partner in my workouts.
I'd had wooden poles about 3-inch-diameter inserted through
the kick bag at appropriate intervals to punch height and
medium kicking height, supported by 3-inch-diameter bright
red plastic eyeholes so that the leather wouldn't rip with
the first kick. It was like one of those fixed, wooden Wing
Chun kick dolls, but the fact that it was made of leather,
was full of sand and free hung so that it could spin and technically
counter attack was the major difference. It could dance with
your moves, it could spin out counter attacks and anticipate
high or low countersit
was nearly alive in a very abstract and performance-mirroring
sense. I imagine if I were ever to be attacked in a late-night
alleyway by a free-standing pole-skewered 6-foot-tall leather
kick bag, it wouldn't stand a chance. I was training myself
to fight these swinging assassins, which was probably the
worst thing a martial artist could do were it the only training
my body received, the only conditioning to the thrust and
sweep of parry and attack. My colleagues at the Dojo in town
saw that I never became conditioned to merely swinging enemies.
Those bastards, they certainly knew how to keep one alive.
Kick Bag says punch high.
Swings a pole around smooth and slow like a kitten playing
with a ball of wool. I always listen to Kick Bag, even though
sometimes he knows if I've hit off centre and forces me to
make a very rapid ducking parry cum low punch counter. He's
a mischievous fuck, is Kick Bag. In his own centripetal way
he is an interesting whirling dervish of an opponent. Totally
false, I understand. I do understand there's no surrogate
for a real living breathing insane opponent who wants to bite
your nose off, but he sure can take some good hits, joint
locks that would dislocate the elbows, wrists, ribs and thighs
of real opponentsone
needs a testing ground where the most savage work can be tried
out in relative safety. One needs the freedom to practise
the killer moves, the neck breaker moves again and again in
the privacy of one's own zone. Who gives a shit for a few
ceiling-hammering neighbours? They'll be gone soon enough
anyway, moving on to quieter ceilings in nicer areas where
they can raise their 1.6 children and tend their non-communal
rear garden at their leisure.
After my workout, the room
was laced with a cloud of sparkling orange and grey dust from
my activity with the bag. I looked at the digital clock by
a.m. on the dot. Time everyone in this house was awake anyway,
but no banging on the ceiling below me. I didn't even know
if there were any tenants currently in #8. I was panting and
favourite state of being. I did some final stretching out
exercises, did thirty squat thrusts and thirty star jumps,
then went to the double sash window and opened the curtains
to let the first light of the day in, still puffing and blowing
out the remaining cobwebs of my aggression.
I saw the enormous claw marks
on the windowsill and nearly shit myself. I stuck my head
out and saw the bucket load of still-cooling caustic-white
bird crap running down the red-brick wall. A fear I'd never
known before kicked seven colours out of me.