By Helen McClory
Prompt, from Leah Umansky: Write in the second person. Include one or all of the following images: star, snowflake, owl, a famous tv character.
Christmas Eve finds you sitting alone in an emergency bothy on the side of the mountain in the Scottish Highlands, soaked to your underwear, poking at damp logs and trying to get a fire to catch. It’s taken you all day to get here, though it was not at first a strenuous journey. This is a families-and-their-dogs type of summit, busy most holidays and weekends in good weather. The hut is only provided on the off-chance of bad weather and foolishness, which there are plenty of in this instance. The day started out blue and frosty. You dawdled, ate snacks, took breaks to cry into your sleeves when there was no sign of other walkers. Towards noon, a sudden turn. Sleet and driving rain, to the point where people were muttering on their way back down, turn back, pal, it’s not going to let up tonight. But dreich was what you needed. Any excuse to put your head to the ground and trudge onwards. Whatever was it possessed you, at the summit, to leap down off a last rock, like you were someone with a need to be leaping? Then over on the ankle, the pain stratospheric. You rub the swelling. Not serious; pathetic, mostly in the pantheon of bodily injury. Leaving a dull throb; you hold that throb to yourself like a gift. True you could have louped down the mountain on your good leg, or caved and called for help. But you have your reasons.
Somewhere in a secret pocket there’s one of Janno’s lighters. It takes a while to locate, while you shiver open the rucksack’s knots and zips. You’d love a nip of something brash and peaty, though you don’t drink, you remind yourself. What else? No lantern, no sleeping bag, not much in the way of food. A gritty energy bar and some old teabags from another trip. No pot or stove to coax the worth from them. There though, the fire’s catching. You get to work on your damp boots and your wet socks, then rub at your slab-cold feet. After an hour, misery ebbs, and you take the measure of everything around. In the firelight you can make out dirt floor, doorless cupboards, log basket, rough ladder up to the sleeping loft. You won’t be sleeping up there, not with your ankle the way it is, and so far from the only heat.
There’s a knocking at the door – who knocks at a bothy? It’s meant for all comers. You wince over, getting your feet clarty. At the door, there’s nothing. Winter dark and its stars in a weatherless sky. The barely visible windsheltered side of the hill. Then, there’s an owl. It is standing right in front of you, looking up.
You’ve never seen an owl in the wild before. You don’t even know if their range is this far North. Certainly high up on a mountain seems unlikely. What species is this? It’s very large, almost the size of a toddler, though that implies something weak and awkward. You are unsure of owls, in general. You are the awkward one here. You hop to one side, and the owl walks in. Perhaps it has a broken wing. Disorientated. It moves to the fire, and jumps onto one of the wooden benches. You close the door and slowly seat yourself back down where you were. The owl gives you a friendly glare. Eyes like amber in a hunched mottled body. Nothing happens. For some time, you both sit watching the fire, which smokes and crackles. You wriggle your toes at the grate, and then stop, in case the owl is offended, or mistakes them for small baby mice.
Eventually your eyes grow weary, and you pull on your dried socks and stretch out on the bench, mindful of the creature beside you. As you sleep you dream brilliantly of the owl. In the dream, the owl, grown larger still, removes its coat and balaclava of feathers. Under it all is a squat-necked woman, or a man, or a child of any gender – you can’t be sure. The owl-person, still seated by the fire, takes out a set of knitting needles and begins to tick away on them. You want to ask something, but if there’s anything worth asking, the heat of the fire and your reluctance to break silence hides the words away in the back of your mouth. Nothing but a sigh escapes, full of ambiguity as sighs always are. Are you content? Stymied? It is not the time to lock your emotions into any particular definition.
At a point before dawn you wake feeling a sudden pressure on your shoulder. You try very carefully not to panic. The owl flaps its wings a few times, and the door creaks open. You are sure the owl’s head must turn all the way round to check on whoever is here now. You don’t have any power of motion, beyond moving your legs, which seems risky. Now you think, what if the owl is insane and attacks you in a frenzy. This presumes owls can go mad. Rabid, then.
The pressure lifts: the owl is walking over to greet the new guest. You get up. Flurries blithering in. A snowflake lands in your eye, not that there is much to see anyway. Water trickles down your cheek. Nothing has come; the door stands open with the owl on the threshold. And then, in a moment marked by no sound, it is gone. You wait, then close the door after. The fire falls in on itself while you sleep. In the morning you look around, packing, telling yourself not to look. Time to go.
You stand at the door now. It’s Christmas day. Whiteness like down spreads soft below, as far and far as you can see.
Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. Her first flash fiction collection, On the Edges of Vision, was published by Queen’s Ferry Press and won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, will be published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016. She can be found @HelenMcClory. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.