Fiction: Wise Owls by Lynn Mundell

owl candle

The summer I turn 14, owls are very in. Owl coffee cups, earrings, pencil boxes. My favorite are the kind with big eyeglasses, just like mine. My older sister Denise finds me a T-shirt with one that says “Wise Owl” in cursive above it. Owls have super-power hearing, I tell Denise. They were a sign of victory in ancient Greece, too. Sometimes a larger kind of owl eats a smaller kind. Okay, okay, enough with the owl facts, Denise says. Owls are cute and let’s leave it at that. When I wear my owl shirt, you can read the words perfectly, like Dr. Banyan’s easiest vision test illuminated against the exam room wall. You’ll develop soon, Denise says. She’s cutting off the price tag along with some of my hair. Like film? I say. Like a habit? Like mold? Ha Ha, she says in words, not laughter. Like breasts, Brainiac.

 

Owl courtship rituals invariably involve calling.

When Denise tries on the T-shirt, Wise Owl stretches across her big boobs until the S licks one nipple and the O perfectly encircles the other. She smiles at herself in the mirror, like she’s finally seeing someone she’s wanted to meet for a long time. Everywhere we go, Denise and her owl breasts are extremely popular. Grown men become animals around them—large, hairy, wild. They stop and stare like bucks in the woods right before they’re shot. Denise explains the wolf whistle, which starts out high and goes a note higher. Maybe so high that only our dog Missy and I can hear it because Denise just keeps walking while the owl’s glasses stare down the men. At the park the JV baseball team sees Wise Owl and stops its warmup. The boys hoot like owls. Half of them crawl around while the others grind against their backsides. The whole time, Coach Bill blows his whistle that sounds like Grandma’s tea kettle. What are they doing?, I ask Denise. It’s sex, she says. It’s called doggy style—the oldest move known to man.

 

Owls are far-sighted, spotting things yards away while everything close is a blur.

I learn about my first period during fifth period Spanish. It’s the day I’m finally wearing Wise Owl, which Denise has stretched out so it sort of hangs on me. I think I’m ill from the cafeteria sloppy joes until Sunny Sanchez leans across our desks to whisper that I’m surfing the crimson wave. Sunny wears her hair gathered back like a bushy badger tail. What? I whisper back. Surfing? Who’s surfing? Profe’s chalk is scratching across the blackboard—a sound perhaps I alone love. God, you’re so stupido, Sunny says in her normal, loud voice. You’ve had your period. Mucha sangre. Everyone is rubber-necking like I’m road kill until Profe angrily raps her ruler on her desk. While they’re distracted, I slink out of the room, wishing I were dead.

 

Many owls live alone, but small species may roost together.

At home, Denise makes me a hot water bottle, then hands me a cup of purple wine from a box she says Mom always keeps in the laundry room cupboard. This is what I love about Denise. She always knows what to do. She lights our patchouli owl candle but blows it out once the owl’s mortarboard starts melting into its glasses. It gets better, Denise says. Nope, I say. That’s the problem with candles shaped like anything but candles. They look crappy in no time. Denise does her enunciated laugh—Ha Ha. I’m so overjoyed I’m finally developing, I say. Like a mystery, she says. Or a category 5 hurricane, I say. I drink the wine, which tastes like bad Kool-Aid, and start in on her trigonometry. Denise got a D on her last test. D for Denise—it’s her signature grade.

 

Predators of owls include buzzards, cats, and humans.

By winter it’s too cold for Wise Owl, so Denise wears a thermal shirt under it, which is much less sexy. But it’s too late—the entire pack wants to take her down. Twice I see boys pinch her butt in the school hallways, and then I hear that it was someone’s girlfriend who spray-painted “slut” on her locker. That’s because girls act like animals around Denise, too, only the smart kind—leopards who drop from trees to surprise their prey, or lionfish whose venom is disguised by their beauty. In Model UN, Sunny’s voice carries across the room: She’s like the library, always open for business and anyone can use her for free. Sunny and her herd are looking at me, but I know they mean Denise. I’m not that dumb.

 

An owl’s flight is nearly silent.

In May, Denise leaves Wise Owl washed and folded on my bed. I try it on and—miracle of miracles!—it finally fits. In the gloom, I almost look like Denise. But I put it under my other shirts in my bureau. It’s so faded that it reads “Wi w.” By now owls are going out of style, anyway. I should have known that being something old-fashioned like wise wouldn’t last for long. Denise is faded, too. She’s pale and somehow shrunken. I overhear Mom tell Grandma that Denise will barely graduate. Denise doesn’t laugh as much—or even say Ha Ha. Since she’s outgrown it, I say Ha Ha every time Sunny calls me Four Eyes or Bookworm. Once in PE, Sunny says, Your sister’s an easy A, and rubs her own backside. Denise knows more than you ever will, I say. I give Sunny a shove that makes her land on the basketball court’s hard wooden floor. Sunnyside down! I yell, making the mean girls laugh sharp and long, like cartoon jackals.

 

Some owls are on the endangered species list.

 At the mall Denise buys an oversized sweatshirt with a little mushroom under a big fern on it and the words “Hard to Get.” That’s off the wall, I say. Keep thinking, she says. You’ll understand. I pick up a tank top with a fox on it that says “Foxy!” in glitter. As I hold it up to my chest, an older man walks by and nods and winks. No, Denise says, in a new, mom-like voice, putting it back. When she turns away, I stuff the shirt into my bookbag. Foxes are mean, pretty, and just as smart as owls, one of the animals they stalk. Maybe that’s why they’re in style over and over again. They’re everything they need to be to survive in the wild.

Lynn Mundell’s writing has appeared most recently in New Flash Fiction Review, Atlas and Alice, SmokeLong Quarterly, Thread, and Monkeybicycle. She is co-editor of 100 Word Story and its anthology Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19). Learn more about her at http://lynnmundell.com/.

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