The Last Owl Chick
The torrential rain started three days ago. Momma says that’s because it’s already monsoon season. That she laid her eggs too late this year. That we hatched just in time. That the four of us need to hurry and grow up.
There’s still one egg somewhere here in the nest box, but I don’t pay much attention to it. We all hatched about a week apart, and I’m the oldest. I’ve been here in this abandoned shack with Momma for a whole month now.
Momma’s so beautiful. Her back’s sleek and brown, and she has strong tawny wings. Her belly’s snowy white, and she has dark speckles on her chest. I’ve counted her spots many times while looking up at her. Thirty-six. She has a big heart-shaped face, dark eyes, a hooked beak, and sharp talons. Day and night, Momma stays here in the nest box cuddling to keep us warm. Without her, we’d all freeze to death.
I’m so ugly. I’ve got all these weird rust-colored pinfeathers sticking out of my patchy down. My flight feathers are coming in, and it hurts. I’m not a cute, fuzzy chick or a strong, sleek momma. I’m just a goof. I hate being the only baby with feathers, but I also have a pretty white facial disk like Momma. So, I’m the only owl chick in the nest that actually looks a bit like a grown owl.
Momma says I’ll be a fledgling soon. And if the rains ever let up, we’ll start flying lessons next week. I’m so excited to learn to fly with her. I guess the advantage to being the oldest is that I’m—by far—the biggest and the strongest. I like feeling bigger than everyone else in the nest. Well, bigger than everyone except Momma.
Oh, and Father. Okay, he’s really the biggest one here. This evening, Father decided to stay in the nest with us instead of going out to hunt. The last three nights have really taken their toll on him. You see, owls can’t fly in the rain.
Lightning crashes, and we all quiver together in fear.
Father says that he can’t hear anything move out there with all that noise.
The past three mornings he’s come home wet, cold, and tired—and even worse—without a kill. He looks so haggard. I’m really starting to worry about him. Father works so hard on the hunt every night. He makes sure everyone eats before he does. And since he’s the one flying around searching for mice, he really should eat the most. But he actually eats less than me. He’s getting so thin. He’s withering away
I cuddle up with Father to help him stay warm. It’s so nice having him around, but that means there will be no dinner again tonight.
We’re all hungry. But the littlest owl chick, Gunther, well, he hasn’t been looking too good. He’s six days old and doesn’t have any down yet. His eyes aren’t even open, and he’s not much bigger than the day he hatched. Momma says that he’s a runt. I think he stopped breathing a few hours ago. It’s hard to tell, because Momma’s sitting on him.
But I’m pretty sure he’s dead.
And Sigmund, he’s the next youngest. I wish he WOULD die. He’s over two weeks old and still clings to Momma all the time. I mean, come on, his eyes are open and he’s thick with down. He’s so pathetic. Such a worrywart. There’s just something about Sigmund that brings out the worst in me. He hates me too. I can tell. All day, I’ve been tormenting him. I don’t even care. Momma says that it’s a classic sibling rivalry. But we all know it’s much more than that.
Something’s off about him. I’m telling you, he just smells wrong.
Gertrude’s been with me the longest. Well, the longest besides Momma, of course. She doesn’t have feathers yet and seems real curious about mine. I was ten days old when she hatched. I was so lonely before sissy, and I really like having her around. I hope she likes me just as much as I like her. She agrees with me that something’s wrong with Sigmund.
So, here we are. All leaning on each other. Listening to the rain. Sharing body heat. Starving together.
This is the kind of hunger that hurts.
Momma nudges Gunther.
She kicks the runt’s limp, pink body out from underneath her. He tumbles. He flops. Sigmund frets like Sigmund does over every silly thing. And he hobbles away from us to check on his little brother. Stupid Sigmund. Dead Gunther. Gertrude watching. Me hungry.
And of course Sigmund’s timing is horrible, it’s like that boy has no instincts at all. Because Momma just decided, in that instant, that Gunther will be the only dinner for her brood tonight. She sinks her talons into the dead owl chick and lunges her beak and—oopsy-daisy—tears off Sigmund’s head along the way.
I ADORE her!
Now both my little brothers are dead. I can’t say this is a bad thing. Am I supposed to feel sad? I don’t. I’ve been trying to get rid of Sigmund since he first came out of his shell. I’m telling you, he smells wrong. And the other one? He means nothing to me.
It’s such a relief—Sigmund being dead.
I watch Momma tear her dead babies apart. Then she makes a soft clucking sound to let me and Gertrude know it’s time to eat. We gather around and Momma feeds the boys to the girls. Have you ever eaten something and only felt hungrier afterward? I think that’s called an appetizer. That’s what my baby brothers were—appetizers.
But there will be no other food tonight. And that’s when the hunger was born inside me. The hunger that could not be satiated. The hunger that would never truly be satisfied.
Suddenly, Momma knocks the last egg out of the nest. And for the first time since I hatched, she leaves the nest box. I’m scared. Terrified, really. Where did she go? Why did Momma leave me? What if she doesn’t come back?
But then she brings the broken egg back for us, and sissy and I accept her offering. We suck the bloody egg and eat the embryo raw.
But I’m still so hungry…
I love sissy, but I’ve always swiped food from her at every meal. So even though I’m only ten days older, I’m twice—maybe three times—her size. Little sissy. So little…
And I’m hungry. Still so very hungry.
My little sister—No.
My youngest sibling—No.
The weakest one left—Yes!
She looks delicious. Like an itty-bitty, fuzzy snack. Like a blood-filled, pink-skinned, down-kissed, raw bundle of bliss.
What’s wrong with me? I mean. I love her, right? She’s my kin. My family. My blood. Mmm. Delicious blood. I’ll wait for her to fall asleep. Yes. With her belly full, her pink bald head nods off. A few shreds of soft white down tease me. Those dark juicy eyeballs. No. No. Keep them closed. That’s a good girl…
So cute. I could just gobble her up.
I watch her sleep. She smells so delicious. I bet I could get her whole head in my mouth before she even wakes up. Once you get the head down, the rest slides down real easy.
Now I’m so hungry that I’m angry.
I bend over the owl chick, open my mouth wide and swallow its head. It wakes and wiggles in my throat. Horrified. Its feet kick frantically as it tries to escape. Scraping. Tiny useless claws flittering. It can’t get away. I’m too big for it. I tilt my head back, and its legs just flutter desperately in the air. I feel it struggle in my mouth.
Silly food. There’s no escape. I will swallow the owl chick whole. Alive. Warm. Struggling. My only regret is that we can only do this once.
All the commotion ruffled Momma.
I really didn’t want her to see me like this. Here I sit with Gertrude halfway down my throat. Her ass-end and scrawny legs kicking from my beak. The owl chick slowly suffocating inside me. And me with a sis-eating grin on my face. I am caught. There can be no excuse. What are the words for what I’m doing? Murder? Cannibalism? And of a family member! A younger, weaker sibling. A baby girl. For shame! Guilty as charged. Surely, I deserve punishment.
But Momma seems—proud.
I thought for sure she’d be mad.
Then Momma leans toward me and grabs one of Gertrude’s exhausted but still-twitching legs. Momma tugs. At first, I think she’s trying to rescue little sis. After all, she must want to save her child. To pull her dying baby out of my greedy throat, like any good mother would do. But Momma isn’t just pulling. She’s pulling and biting. And jerking. And tearing.
A game! So, I bite and yank too. Momma and I each clench an end of Gertrude in our beaks, and begin a vicious and violent tug of war. Back and forth. Jerk and pull. Bite. Rip!
Momma tears Gertrude’s leg off at the hip. Pink muscles dangle and red blood drips from both our mouths as I watch Momma swallow the severed leg. Then she blinks at me.
Winks at me.
Savoring the rush of warm crimson, I swallow the rest of Gertrude whole. And for the first time in almost a week, the hunger finally goes away. At least for awhile, I get to feel full. Because I’m the oldest and—
I deserve this.