My mother pushed me out of a tree when I was six months old. When my tiny body choked up my soft insides that night—a skill most babies are born with, owl demon or not—she carried my downy form to the top of the highest pine. I had seen her fly many times already, watched her swoop down on an unsuspecting vole or rabbit. Human babies are soft, weak things, but each night when I transformed into my owl self, I was another bird of prey learning to survive. That night, my mother spread her wings, flapping in demonstration, and as I tentatively did the same, she knocked me from the branch and I dropped meter by meter toward the forest floor.
My role on this earth was the same as all my half owl sisters, my mother and my grandmother before me. My kind took no mates. We hunted and hunted and then, if the earth decided another of us was needed, another was made. My mother coughed me up with her heart and lungs and taught me how to strike down the rage that hid inside a man’s chest. I never knew her as anything but a teacher, a means to survive.
My tiny wings flapped frantically. I called for my mother, my talons clutching at nothing. Three-quarters of the way down the tree, the wind caught beneath my wings and I leveled out. I glided gently to the bottom, trembling against the bark once I could stand. My mother landed beside me in a great thump, sending dead leaves up around us. She appraised me, sunken eyes unmoving as her head twitched from side to side. Then she took me in her massive claws and carried me back to the top to try again.
They always feared us in the north. Like our sister wolves and the southern sea beasts, we were seen as omens of death and destruction. Wherever we soared, we brought mortal fear with us. We were nocturnal thieves, ripping out the hearts of mortal men through their rigid breastbones and choking back the blood in one gulp. We were strix and stikini and night-hens.
We were lonely creatures.
I lived east of a cold village, in a dense forest that few entered even by day when I was what some might call harmless. I had fled here when my mother sent me away, when I had grown too big for her to swallow up again. I built myself a reputation in these new woods, and those who did venture close did so with great trepidation. The children who once played beneath the canopy were held back by their mothers, though I held no ill will towards them. Not like the grown boys, the angry men, the ones who brought on my wrath.
But by day I was merely a part of the trees, a wild girl hidden from greedy men.
In my damp, crudely built shelter—a round home carved into the side of a great hill and widened with clay—the cold remains of a stripped-clean hare still clung to a spit over the dwindling fire. I sat before my open door, before my blood-stained bucket, arms wrapped around my knees, and waited for the dwindling sunlight to vanish. The door faced west, but the forest obstructed those last orange rays, and so when I felt the stirring in my stomach my first thought was, Finally.
I coughed up my own lungs, my liver, my stomach, my heart. Purged from my body, they spilled into the bucket, new blood seeping into the grain. My fingertips tingled with the transformation as they pressed white-knuckled into the floor. Feathers, white and gray, sprouted from every pore on my body—downy at first and then wide and crisp. My body shrank but toes grew, turning sharp and scaly. For a moment, while my body was halfway between human and strigine, I felt as if I was floating. My skin, still the flesh of a woman, was tickled by the soft down that lined it. My eyes and ears, keen and owlish, still linked my human mind to reality. They picked up on every spot in my house that needed scrubbing, every whistling break in the dried clay that must be patched before winter, every hole in the floor that could have hidden a field mouse or a vole.
I smelled the blood of the organs I had heaved up moments ago and though the iron scent should have enticed me. I remembered that those were my organs, they were not for consumption, not while the sun had only just vanished. The breeze from the doorway brought new scents with it. Water, cool air, hot blood—gamey, Leporidae. But the scraps of that tiny thing resting over the cold coals made me nauseous in this state. I spread my barred wings and soared through the doorway, listening instead for the screams that raised my hunting heart.
I saw the village lights bright in the cascading darkness. Beyond it were smaller clusters of lights, smaller communities, even lone farms bravely isolated. As the darkness thickened, the lights faded out and the land was left to my nocturnal sight. But it was my ears, sunk into my skull, that caught the first shriek on the wind.
It came from one of the smaller communities, more populous than a single farm, though hardly bigger. In one home, a lamp still flickered, shaking with a flurry of shadows. I perched on the windowsill, peering inside to watch a husband or a father throw a small figure to the ground. The air was thick with the smell of rancid wheat and salt, and my feathers fluffed. I tipped my beak against the windowpane, striking a soft rhythm as the man raised his arm again. He stopped, looked at me with his red-lined eyes, and lowered his fist. I saw him say something, but the words didn’t matter to me. The way the vein in his neck pulsed told me all. I tapped on the glass again, and he charged forward.
“Get out of here, bird!” he roared as he swung open the window. I fluttered back, wide wings holding me in place, and as I turned to go my talons scraped across his knuckles. I drew blood and a vengeful call from the man, but nothing that satisfied me. I hovered around the open window, taunting him, and in his final act he climbed from the window after me. “I’ll kill you, beast!”
I wanted to correct him, returned to do so, but when he chased and swiped at me, I heard his heart racing in his chest. I watched the flush rising over the collar of his shirt, and as he stumbled over the straw and earth of his small town, I struck. Talons sliced through flesh and the rigid tissue connecting his ribcage. They sunk into the hot mess of blood and muscle. In the open air, his heart made no hum-drum sound, not even a hiss like water over a rocky brook. It was silent, as I was when I soared away from his collapsing body. When I was again smothered by the silence of the woods, I landed atop one of the great pines and choked back the sagging organ.
When I was young and weak and a little fearful, I hunted rabbits and mice in between these murders. I killed soft things that squeaked rather than screamed when they felt my talons. They barely filled my appetite. A whole woman squeezed into the shape of an owl throwing herself through the night takes a lot to stay aflight. As I grew older and braver, I cut my gamey diet back to daytime only, and now the thick blood of a still-beating human heart is the only thing that can satisfy my owl stomach.
My toothless jaws forced back my meal, and I felt the warmth of new energy in my wings already. But still I craved more. The moon was sinking then, just past its zenith, and I still had time for another hunt. Swallowing two hearts took time. An early kill was rare and lucky. That night should have blessed me. I preened while I waited for that next shriek. The man’s blood had stained my feathers.
The space between me and the village was pierced by another cry. This one was softer, echoing the way sounds do in my inner ears when only I can hear them. I took flight. My veins coursed with human blood, no longer just my own, and another shout brought me to a small home at the far western end of the village. I landed on the windowsill, though this window was already open. Inside, the house was dark and quiet, and I wondered if I could have been mistaken, if my trajectory was off somehow. But then a whimper, weak and hidden beneath the quilt of a bed. A few chestnut hairs and a sliver of flesh peeked out from the patchwork. I saw the form, whatever it was, trembling, heard the heartbeat and breath coming in staccato bursts. The scent of the room was heavy with fear, yet there was only one heartbeat. I fluttered my wings, gave a soft, curious hoot, and the frightened figure jolted upright. A young woman, hardly older than me, hair plastered to her face in sticky patches, stared at me in fear. And then she lay down again.
“A dream,” I heard her say. “Only a dream.”
She placed a hand on her chest, tapping above her heart a few times, and I could hear it slow to the rhythm of her fingers. I hooted again and she looked at me. Her eyes were dark, inside and out, but they held no fear of me. I shifted, talons scratching idly at the wooden sill. True, I was no danger to her, but she should have been at least startled by me. I certainly shouldn’t have brought her any sense of relief. “Did you come to wake me, friend?” she asked.
I didn’t respond. I am an omen of death and destruction.
“If I leave the window open, will you watch me while I sleep?”
I held my wings out to my sides, feathers fluffing, making myself large. I have the heart of a man in my stomach.
“Oh, you are lovely. I think I’ll sleep quite well with you here.”
She rolled over, pulling the quilt up past her shoulders, and in minutes I heard her breathing and heart rate slow.
I waited for her to wake in a panic, to realize what she had left herself vulnerable to, but she slept soundly. I should have left, flown back to my perch. The hours of night were fading quickly. Instead, I found myself curious about this fearless girl. Her house was small like mine. It had corners and edges, but it was still small and sparsely filled. She slept in the only bed and beneath my windowsill perch was a desk full of vials of strong-smelling things. She lived alone here.
This village was my hunting ground as well as my neighbor. I was well familiar with it and its inhabitants. A woman living alone, surviving with only herself, was an anomaly. The village men were primarily farmers, shepherds. They treated their women like their stock, trading and breeding and beating. No wonder this lone woman was plagued with nightmares.
I felt a tugging in my chest, and my skull swiveled to find the deep black of night already fading to a sharp violet. If any sunlight fell on those feathers of mine, my humanity would be lost. I spared the still-sleeping girl one more glance and then took flight, back to my home in the forest, back to the bucket full of organs that I swallowed again, body convulsing and growing on the floor of my home.
My role was to hunt. My niche fit into the cavity between a man’s true ribs. I waited in silence until I heard the crimes of my next victim. I perched on trees until the call of hot blood drew me in. I was an omen of death and destruction. I didn’t watch over strange women.
She came to me in the forest that day. I awoke, my human skin wrapped around my organs once again, and heard a soft whistle like none of the birds with whom I shared the forest. I crept from my home and saw her crouched beside one of the sharp-smelling bushes nearby. My heart rate kicked up—the feeling was new in my grown body. She plucked at the bush, and I recognized it as the one that had cured my sleeplessness in the first weeks after I had left my mother. She filled a basket at her elbow with the plant, and I saw other green things tucked in there as well. She was stealing from my forest.
Her eyes flickered towards me, and I ducked back inside, suddenly aware of the pale blue dress that fell to her ankles and the thin coating of filth that clung to my bare skin. “Hello?” she called, her voice growing closer. “Does someone live out here?”
I saw my bed, a thin swathe of hide draped over straw and earth; my bucket, still shiny with the blood of last night; the rabbit, what remained, still speared on the spit and now buzzing with flies. I remembered her desk, orderly and decorated with shiny glass bottles. “Come no closer,” I called through the window. “Or… face my wrath.”
Her footsteps, now close enough to be heard, ceased. I cursed this human form of mine and its inability to sense anything. “You sound young. Do you really have so much wrath?”
I said nothing, staring at my door and expecting at any second she would burst in to find this sad version of living. “Young things can hold a lot of anger,” I tried. “Are you willing to risk it?”
She was quiet, and I hoped that was enough to drive her away, but then she spoke again in a voice laced with mirth. “Yes, if I can see who is so angry.”
She was right there, right on the other side of my door. I stood concealed for the moment. I imagined her disgust on seeing me. Her hair last night had splayed in neat strands across her pillow where mine hung in clumps. I trembled and pressed my hand to the door. “You should leave,” I said. “Go. This isn’t a place for you.”
“I’ll be gone soon,” she said, and her voice moved away with her. “I need this spearmint. I’ve had some trouble sleeping. Do you know if there is any lemon balm around?”
I sat down in front of the door and crossed my legs, staring at the dark wood. “What’s lemon balm?”
“Leaves like this one—soft but with edges—and a smell that makes your lips pucker.”
I remembered the puckery leaves and how they helped dissolve the rocks in my stomach when a piece of dead rabbit wasn’t as dead as I’d thought. “Around the edge of my house. Between the prickly shrubs.”
I heard her move, heard the soft sound of excitement and then the plucking. She thanked me and promised she did not often steal from the forest, but her own garden was also a victim of thieves. “My neighbors are of the opinion a woman dabbling in medicine will anger some greater law,” she told me through the walls. “They have an older gentleman prescribing leeches and songs, but those do little to settle my mind at night.”
“You should mind those greater laws,” I said, remembering how she had smiled at my fierce form the night before. “Some of them are in place to protect you.”
“And some of them are in place to bind me.” Her tone was sharp, bitter, like the plants she plucked. “Either way, I hope not to be back soon. Though I appreciate your company, the trek is a little too long for me.”
She bid me farewell then, and I pressed my ear to the door to hear the trailing sound of her footsteps. It was midday, but I felt the ache of phantom feathers in my bones and wished they would sprout already so I could fly to her.
Every instinct told me this was wrong. I should’ve been hunting, not pining. But when I landed on her windowsill for the second night in a row and she saw me, she opened the window immediately.
“Hello there,” she whispered to the night. She dared not touch me. At least she had that sense. “I was hoping you would stop by.”
I hooted and preened my wings.
“Are you here to watch over me again?”
I said nothing. She didn’t need me to. I watched as she pulled on her nightclothes and sipped from a steeped cup of the herbal concoction she took from my forest. “Goodnight, friend,” she said as she crawled into bed.
That night, I didn’t hunt. I watched her sleep. I stayed until the pull of the sinking moon and the burn of pink light on the horizon was too much. And then I flew home.
When sunlight rose after that second night, I curled onto my hide-made bed, feeling the first pangs of hunger now that my stomach was securely back inside me. It had been months since I had gone without food and never before had I simply chosen not to hunt. What had I been thinking?
The third night, the last night I counted, I forced myself to stay at the edge of my forest until I heard a scream. The fearless woman had not visited me that day, and her absence had reminded me of my directive. I would hunt that night. I would not seek her out.
It took hours, longer than usual, but still I waited. The crescent moon was already sinking when I finally took flight, wings beating hard and fast toward the frightened cries at the farmhouse in the far west. A man, one hand buried in the thick hair of a little girl; a target, huge chest exposed by pride; my talons, inches deep inside him while the girl fled in fear. His bulbous heart filled the vacancy of last night’s idleness.
I was the apex predator of my small world.
High on a distant tree in the west, out of sight but not out of range, I cleaned the blood off of my feathers. The strange feelings of those past days were forgotten. There couldn’t be anymore nights spent watching over the woman who had no fear.
But the night was quiet after that. The sun was still far, but I felt myself growing restless. I was far from home. I should fly back east to be safe. If I heard another call, I would stop, but the shelter of my own trees was nothing to avoid…
I landed on her windowsill again. The window was already open, she was already asleep, but still I stayed. I watched her breathe, easy and deep. Her fingers and toes twitched idly where they poked out from beneath the quilt. I saw her eyelids shift, flutter, and for a moment thought they would open to see me. Maybe she would smile again. Maybe she would speak to me like she had in the woods.
She didn’t wake that night and by dawn I was back in my home, already wishing I could see her again as I stuffed my lungs into my mouth.
For weeks, I spent my nights with the fearless human woman. I tried not to skip meals, but the draw to spend the night watching this soft woman sleep or have whispered conversations with her was often too strong. If I got there early enough, she would still be awake and she would tell me how lovely it was to have such a wild thing watching over her, how beautiful my feathers were in the moonlight. How it was nice to have a friend in this lonely town. “It’s larger than the one I grew up in,” she told me, “but so much colder. No one speaks to me. They speak of me plenty. I don’t know what they say, but I always see them whispering and watching.” She stared a moment. “I much prefer your watching.”
She told me the same on the rare occasions she visited my forest. Not how she preferred my watching, for I didn’t give her so much as a glimpse of my cursed human form, but how her neighbors offered nothing but cold whispers. “I caught one of them in my garden early this morning,” she told me, her mouth full of the dark berries my voice had led her to. “Pulling up my rosemary by the roots. I chased him off—he was young. But he took the rosemary with him, and now I have nothing to keep away the mice.”
That night, I sat at the edge of her garden rather than her windowsill and guarded her sprouting medicines. The night was quiet and warm, and I found myself counting the stars while I waited for any trespassers. Near dawn, while I fluffed and fluttered and warmed myself for the quick flight back, I heard the clumsy shuffle of human feet. “The gate slams,” a nasal voice hissed. “That’s it. Now come on, Ma says she’s using this ugly patch here to keep herself young.”
Three children, hardly more than half my age, knelt in the soil and began yanking up bundles of clary sage. Hatred burst in my chest and I screeched, startling the cluster to attention. Their eyes, pale and almost sickly, filled with fear instantly, and I let myself hold onto the joy that gave me. I chased them about the garden, trying to herd them through the gate, but I must have woken my fearless woman in the chaos. “Go!” she cried at the children, appearing at my back while she waved her broom at them. “Get out! Nasty creatures.”
They hopped the fence instead and scattered. I settled on a fence post, though still fluffed, and she stood beside me. “That should keep them gone awhile,” she said.
I had never had anyone look at me like she did. Even those I saved, the victims of my victims, fled in terror when I stole the hearts of their husbands or fathers or neighbors. The children who once played at the edge of the forest had always screamed and run back to town when I’d shown my wings at dusk. My mother never taught me the merits of friendly, curious humans. She never warned me to guard my own heart against gentle women.
It was midday. I was resting, sitting outside my home in the woods with a cup of herbal tea: she had prescribed it. “If you’re anxious, I have some lavender,” she’d said when I confessed the racing of my heart. “The violet flowers that grow in the field cut by the creek. If you come out, I’ll make you some tea.”
Her voice had been coy, but when I remained stubborn in my home, she simply left a pile of the violet herb on my doorstep and bid me good luck with my cure. On this warm day, I sat with the door open, sipping periwinkle tea and daydreaming of my fearless woman sitting with me. The birds were excited: it was spring so their love songs filled the canopy. I had hunted late the night before, early in the morning after a night of sleep-gazing, and had returned home on the moon’s tails with a full belly. It was meant to be a good day.
I felt a tingling on my skin well before I heard the distant roar of angry voices. The thin hairs on my arms stood on end, and the bird song stopped. I stood, walked forward and then began to run. My fear was heavy and hot. It sat like coal in the depths of my belly, and my mouth tasted like ash.
At the west edge of the forest, I stood and watched them build the stake—the wood pillar surrounded by straw and dead tree limbs and anything that would burn quickly. I watched them drag her down the hill on which the town sat, down to the base where the stake and the crowd waited. The dress, pale blue, nearly the color of my tea, twisted around her ankles, and she stumbled while she tried to keep up with the men who held her. I watched from the shadows of the trees, clutching at the bark of a great oak. She was stoic as I had never seen her. All her joviality during her afternoon visits to the forest, all her rage and excitement during our nighttime bouts guarding her garden, all her loneliness—all that remained was emptiness, loss. I envied her that. I felt my own heart pushing at the base of my throat.
I watched them tie her to the stake. A man, round and dressed in billowing black robes, came forward with a thick book clasped to his chest. “You’ve been sentenced to death on counts of witchcraft,” he called to her and to the crowd and to me. “You are found guilty of dabbling in potions, growing suspicious vegetation, and having connection with a familiar, a known ill spirit.”
I sank to my knees and saw myself as they must have seen me, as an owl, an omen. I saw myself perched outside her window night after night, heard her speaking through the window to this owl, this thing they feared, heard my devilish shrieks as I chased young boys from her garden of suspicious vegetation. I saw this monster that could take the lives of grown men, demure and quiet outside the strange woman’s window. I remembered all the sweet words she said to me, how many times she called me beautiful. I wanted to tell her now that she was wrong, but my feeble human legs refused to move, and I was trapped. They brought the torches forward, and she lifted her gaze from the man in his robes, looking straight ahead beyond the flames, beyond the hungry crowd surrounding her. Her eyes fell on me, what should have been me, cowering too far in. The torches swung in front of her and then, finally, even my human eyes could see her fear.
I stepped out from the trees in all my bare skin, all my matted hair and filth and wretchedness. The townspeople were wrapped up in their animal screams and paid my distant form no mind, but she saw me. Her dark eyes grew wide, and her lips parted, like they often did when she slept. I pressed my hand to my chest, tapping a slow rhythm over my racing heart. Her mouth moved, a silent call for me or her owl friend or some god of hers. Whatever she said was silenced by the roar of flames that rose swiftly and ferociously around her.
I watched the fire consume her. I stood there, my own lungs filled with the acrid scent of her burning flesh, and when the wind blew east I felt the burn on my own skin. I wanted so desperately to fly to her that it felt like if I spread my arms far enough they would sprout feathers on their own and I would soar. But instead I clutched my arms close around my body, wrapped around my churning stomach that stirred with the taste of her smoked skin. Her voice rose—pleas, shrieks. The last I heard of that soft sound that had made me feel like more than just a monster, she was choking on the smoke that wrapped around her. And then she was drowned in it.
The townspeople watched for a long time. I saw the wives and daughters of men I had slaughtered. I saw the children, now grown, who had once played in the shadows of my forest. In front of them all, I saw the man in the robe with the fat book of rules clutched in his red hands. There was a violent surge in my stomach—a reaction to the revulsion I felt towards him or my body finally collapsing under the weight of her death. The sun was still too high for this. It was impossible, I thought. I heard my mother’s warnings as I swallowed my organs at a dawn long past, the sunlight peeking over the horizon. All is lost if your heart sees that sun. You will be a beast of the sky, the same as the rest. You are beyond them, stronger, smarter. But I didn’t want to be smarter or stronger or anything more than one of the creatures of the woods. I was watching my humanity burn, the last shred of anything worth being human for.
I felt the surge again and my fingers dug into the grass before me. I was doubled and heaving and in moments the green was splattered with red and brown. My organs spilled out and I trembled among them as the feathers and talons sprouted. I flapped my wings in the daylight. I rose to a high pine branch, staring down at the cluster of the murderers before me. I took flight.
The town by day was far uglier than I imagined. There were stray animals that seemed to be starving, rats that were feasting, pools of stagnant water sunk into the ground in the pens of livestock. As I soared over it and heard the murmurs of my observers below, I thought how lovely this land would be when trees grew here once again and the earth reclaimed itself.
The man in the black robes fell first. His chest was soft and the cry he gave when I sunk my talons deep inside made the taste of the blood splattered on my beak even sweeter. His heart was a fat thing, pulsing weakly even before I severed all its feeding veins. I heard the screams of those around him, around me and the still-smoldering stake, and idly I wondered why they did not scream for my fearless woman when she burned. I dropped his heart beside his limp body to be feasted on by the rats and flies. When my mother spoke against waste and vengeance, she did not know this man.
Their screams rose as I swept down on each of them. I moved from man to woman to child, stealing each of their hearts and tossing them to the dirt. I destroyed all that had jeered at her on the march down the hill, all that had pulled her from her home, tied her to the post, lit the flames beneath her. When the men pulled out their crossbows and the boys pulled out their slingshots, I moved too sharply for them to make contact. I slaughtered all of them who had destroyed the one creature to think me anything but monstrous. The sunlight stung my night-made eyes, but my talons never missed their mark. I left them to rot at the edges of their town. I flew back to my forest.
Madeleine Sardina is a senior Creative Writing and Literature student at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. She has been published in Glyph, Jackalope Magazine, and the Santa Fe Reporter, and has a short story collection due out in December 2017.