“Ah, the regal owl. Renowned for unquestionable wisdom, Tootsie Pop accounting, and mouse nightmares.”
“You would be wise to afford the owl with more respect. While the notion of the bird being wise goes back thousands of years, it is quite commonly regarded as something much more dire.”
“Oh? What’s that? Bland plumage?”
“What you consider bland is in actuality a highly effective camouflage, allowing the owl to blend in with its surroundings until it is able do to what it does best. You see, Mister Fontaine, this predator is no friendly fountain of parables or koans. The owl is a symbol of death.”
Elliott raised an eyebrow at the old Englishman standing beside him. The man did not look back but continued staring instead at the eight foot carving that took up the back center area of the antiquities shop. Somewhere behind them the rain Elliott had ducked inside to avoid continued unabated, a faint patterning beyond the glass storefront door.
Long moments had passed as Elliott stood in a puddle of his own creation before the owner had shuffled out of the back to greet him. His name was Percival, because of course it was, and he had immigrated over after the second World War, because of course he did.
Fascinated with the history of humanity and the stories that filled the centuries, Percival opened a shop and filled it with relics and talismans from the furthest reaches of the most foreign countries. He claimed that none were replicas, but Elliott found the claim dubious due to the pristine condition and low prices of most of the pieces.
“Mister Fontaine, my job is to educate before selling. Once a person is made fully aware of the rich backgrounds and culture significance of these items, they know to treat them with the dignity and care they deserve. The stories are passed on, the delicacy preserved. What do I need with thousands of dollars? What do I gain from keeping these legacies to myself?”
“You could sell them to a museum. Let them set up a display while you retire and, I don’t know, watch soap operas or the news or something. Beats coming into work every day, especially when the weather’s coming down like this.”
“Pah! I’m an old man and a lonely one, but I am not tired. I don’t want to stay by myself, wasting the days away with dreck when I can still meet new people. Not when I still have stories to tell.”
Elliott said nothing to that. The man had a point: too many people spent their days forgetting things, creating nothing. They didn’t travel anywhere, they didn’t speak with anyone. When the time came that they shuffled off into the blackness of eternal sleep, what spectre lingered past would soon fade into nothingness, remembered not at all.
He rubbed his eyes with two fingers. What the hell kinds of thoughts were those? The rain must have made him more moody than he realized.
Percival invited him to walk around the store while he warmed up. Elliott took him up on the offer and he navigated cluttered shelves of ancient knick-knacks and ritualistic thingamajigs while the Englishman told their tales. Eventually, they found themselves in front of the owl.
It was tall, broad, and intricately shaped, formed from a gray material that had to have been stone or marble due to the sheer size. Yet it felt almost like wood from the trunk of an impossibly massive tree, grainy but cool to the touch. Each feather was magnificently detailed. The talons were splayed out at the base; they looked sharp and terrible, like foot-long curved knives. The rounded eyes looked down on him with great scrutiny.
“This is a real piece of work, Percy.”
“It almost does the creature justice. The owl is a superb hunter, Mister Fontaine. Its ears are asymmetrical and feathers around them allow for the owl to pinpoint its prey with incredible accuracy. The wings are coated in a structure not unlike velvet, allowing it to swoop down in near silence, while the ability to turn its head almost completely around allows it to maximize its speed, stealth and awareness.”
“Is that why they always look so smug when I see them at the zoo?”
Percival regarded the younger man with a grim expression. “Placing such a beast in captivity is tempting dark fates.”
“The Aztecs and the Mayans both feared the owl as a symbol of destruction and death. Most Native American tribes associate them with dark sorcery, ill omens, and punishers for great crimes committed. The same can be said for great stretches of regions in Africa and the Middle East.”
“And the Norse believe a celestial cow released gods by licking salty ice blocks, and onions can stave off vampires.”
“It’s nonsense, is what it is. Percival, you’ve got a great shop and great stories. You’re a nice guy and I’m really glad you like owls. I like turtles, myself. I think they’re neat. But do you really want to spend the last stretch of your life in fear of a bird whose primary form of communication makes it sound like they lost their battle with senility?”
“I do not fear owls, Mister Fontaine, nor do I fear death. I have simply grown to respect them.”
“Alright, well… I suppose that’s fair. Don’t look a gift tiger in the mouth either, right?” Eddie patted himself down. His clothes were still a bit damp and cooler than was comfortable, but despite the goosebumps patterning his skin, he had dried considerably. “Look, I’m going to get out of your hair. I appreciate the tour and the history lesson.”
“It was a delight to have some company. Let me grab one thing before you go.”
The Englishman tottered over to the front counter and bent over. A few seconds of rummaging later and he procured an umbrella. The fabric was black and unassuming, but the stick was carved from a wood so dark red it appeared almost purple. An ivory cap curved out from the bottom of it.
“Here you go, my boy. You run risk of a cold going out there again without it.”
“Ah, man. That’s a beautiful umbrella, Percival, but I couldn’t possibly afford it.”
“Afford it? I’m not selling it to you. I’m giving it to you.”
“Return it on a sunnier day, if it bothers you so much.”
Elliott hesitated but the memory of the freezing weight of wet clothes prompted him to reach out and grab the umbrella. He nodded his gratitude and walked back to the front door of the shop. He held his free hand against the glass, over his eyes, to peer out into the night. Two bright orange eyes met him with such ferocity as to drive him backwards with a loud gasp.
“Are you alright, Mister Fontaine?”
Elliott heaved a breath and looked back at the Englishman. Percival’s brow was furrowed in concern. Forcing a smile, Elliott nodded and turned back to the door. High above, the moon was a pale yellow.
Trick of the rain, he thought. He turned to wave at the shopkeeper and opened the door.
“On a sunnier day,” he said and stepped back out into the night.