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Owl Speech

by Sophia Jirafe

Disclaimer: Characters used are not mine. Not for profit.

Harry holds his arm out, stiff and strong from years of athletics. It dips just slightly as Hedwig takes off, her pointed wings opening as she flies upwards, flapping frigid air into your face. She's a bright, sharp flurry of motion in the dark sky, like a snow angel that's left the ground, and the starlight lends her a pale sort of luminescence. There's no moon tonight.

You watch her fly higher, standing together in the snow, wrapped tight in too-big sweaters (Christmas presents from adults who don't know you've stopped growing), mufflers and robes, just a little too full from dinner but still looking forward to the stash of sweets in your drawers, dwindled now from three days ago. You shiver a little, and you look at Harry, and he's shivering a lot, but from the look on his upturned face, he can't feel it.

Hedwig glides to the top of a dark, shaggy pine, reaching for the branch with her talons with effortless grace you can't help but wish for. Not to do it yourself -- never yourself -- but to have a companion with such wild, fierce beauty, an uncageable spirit used, out of all the absurd, humiliating things, to deliver one's mail. You can't imagine carrying a bird of prey on your arm, trusting it to ride quietly and to do as you say, so you rely on school owls and bought a rat instead.

"Look," Harry whispers, and you see Hedwig settling onto the pine branch, fluffing her wings and stretching her neck. You can just catch the tiny gleam of her eyes up there, searching.

"Will she --" you start to ask, wondering about mouse guts and small, bleeding carcasses, but Harry grasps your wrist, shushing you. The grip of his bone-thin fingers around your bone-thin wrist is oddly like talons.

"She's waiting," Harry says, his quiet voice carried on the slight, chilling wind, his warm breath churning up tendrils of frosted air. "For the other one."

You scan the trees, the dark star-studded skies, your own breath freezing in front of you, wondering why he's not wearing gloves, wondering why you're not wearing gloves, wondering why he's still holding your wrist. Then his fingers dig in sharper, as though he were a bird taking wing from your stiff, outstretched arm, and you look in his direction.

"There," he breathes, and you catch a swoop of white, like a trailing comet, flash into another, higher pine. Hedwig sees it too.

You're both silent for heartbeat after heartbeat, straining to hear. Then it comes.

Like snow falling, like something ghostly sighing, the low hooting drifts from Hedwig's tree. After a moment, it's echoed in higher pitches from the other owl, three short sounds. Then Hedwig hoots again, the pattern unchanged. And the echo.

You don't know how long you listen, standing there freezing by a frozen lake, Harry's cold hand rearranging the bones in your wrist as the two owls speak. Long enough for the snow to start falling again, for several constellations you can now recognize to change position, for dinner to become less immediate and more of a memory. And still Harry watches, his face upturned, not feeling his shivers grow.

After a while you turn to him. "Come on, mate," you say, but he shakes his head.

"Wait," he says.

And as if they were listening, were waiting for his word, the two owls leave their trees, snow shaking from the needles as they take off, and plummet with breathtaking speed in twin orbits to the ground. Screeches replace the soft hoots, as each comes up with something small and dark in its talons.

Like that, the spell is broken. The smaller owl flutters northward, towards the forest, and is lost among the dark tangle of trees; Hedwig flies back towards you, a white blur in the faster-falling snow.

"Ugh," you say, making a face. "Is she going to eat that in front of us?"

Harry laughs, and it makes him a stranger suddenly, as he turns to greet his owl. He also drops your wrist, and it's like he never held it in the first place. Except for the fingermarks you'll have tomorrow, you think.

"That's why I started bringing her out here," he tells you, his voice at its normal pitch. "I didn't know the owlry would feed her, so I thought I better let her hunt. Then she met her ... friend."

"You came out here at night, when you didn't even know the grounds yet?" you ask, surprised. "And how did we not know about it?"

He shrugs. "I guess I was quiet."

Hedwig arrives, and drops her kill in front of Harry, then lands on his arm.

"Clever girl," he croons. "Kill yourself a nice fat mouse tonight?" He stoops to pick up the small, bloody mass of fur, and examines it while you turn away. "Oh, clever girl, a lovely big vole," he says with pleasure. When you look back, he's feeding it to her, the bones crunching horribly, and you grimace.

"Cor, Harry, the owlry does feed them!" you protest, but he only laughs that strange, high laugh again.

"She likes her bit of meat," he tells you. "Don't you, Hedwig?" She turns her head, widening her eyes, and stretches her neck out again, swallowing.

You keep looking up, watching snow mix with stars, wondering where the other bird has come from. Somewhere far? Or somewhere within the forest? And what do the owls say to one another?

"Come on then, Ron," Harry says. "It's bloody well freezing out here."

You lift your buried feet and shake the snow off your boots, and follow him back to the school, lit up bright and warm and known.

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Sophia Jirafe

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