portion of the artwork for Valerie O'Riordan's fiction

An Owl with Hands
Valerie O’Riordan

First there was the bank manager with his sneer and condescension—and then, cowering on the salon doorstep, an owl with hands.

“Christ,” said Claudine, the pedicurist, “that’s one ugly little cunt.”

“Oh, you’re one to talk,” said Janet, the boss, “with yer big goggley forehead.”

But the owl wasn’t pretty. Its orange eyes wept puss like cracked soft-boiled eggs and the talons had the merciless hook of fish-gutting tools. There were no wings. The hands, toddler-sized, waggled and snatched, like they’d dropped their final cigarette.

“Them feathers are manky,” said Claudine. “I think I’m allergic. I’m gone all dizzy.”

“Yer hungover,” said Janet. “Now shut it. Have we a cage?”

She didn’t need one. The owl swung, like a monkey, up onto the middle shelf of the storage unit, and squatted there amongst Janet’s varnishes and emery boards, hooting anxiously whenever Claudine sniffed. When it shat, it dumped its business in a slithering heap next to her shoes.

She said, “I swear to God, Janet—once more and I’m gone. It’s like the fuckin bat-house in the zoo in here.”

“It’s not a bat,” said Janet. “I keep tellin’ yeh.”

“Well, it’s not a fuckin’ duckling either.”

* * *

Janet reckoned the owl could save her business. It was their Unique Selling Point. She got a new book on Business Makeovers out from the library and ordered a replacement sign for over the door. Nails 4 U became Birds of Prey.

“See,” she said, “we’re birds—an’ the bird’s a bird—an’ the customers are our prey—with the nails an’ the feet. Get it?”

“No,” said Claudine, “I’m just a fuckin’ bird, amn’t I?”

She locked herself in the toilet with the classified ads.

There weren’t any customers. Janet tried to paint the owl’s nails, but it wouldn’t stay still—the fingers kept twitching and she spilled a bottle of Goodtime Green all over Claudine’s suede jacket. The owl shrieked.

“Hold still, yeh feathery bitch,” Janet snapped, “yer supposed to be a mascot—”

The owl screamed and shat on her other hand.

“Oh, God,” she said, “I’m sorry, pet, I’m sorry.”

Claudine came back from the toilet.

Janet whispered, “Claud, look! I swear she’s giving us a little cuddle.”

The owl’s head was sort of nestled in the palm of Janet’s hand. Its wet eyes dribbled.

Claudine shrieked. “Me coat! That’s it—yeh can keep yer menagerie an’ yer poxy salon. Wha’ do I get out a this? Dead mice in me handbag an’ filth on me clothes.”

The owl hooted as the door slammed. Its left hand gripped Janet’s wrist.

“That’s right,” said Janet, “you know where yer bread’s buttered.”

* * *

Without the pedicures, the bank repossessed the salon. Fat men in suits took Janet’s solvents. Claudine got a job next door with Fishy Feet, but she came out to watch the removals. There was a smell off of her like a chip shop. She said,

“You’re lookin’ happy. Have they got yeh on uppers?”

“No,” said Janet, “you wouldn’t understand. I’ve a fucking brilliant new business plan.”

“Oh, here we go.”

Janet said, “There’s more to life, Claud, than perfect hands an’ feet.”

Claudine frowned. “Give us yer head.”

“Wait—”

Claudine yanked down the hood of Janet’s raincoat. The owl was in there—perched on top of the head. Its two hands—undersized, yellowish, unmanicured—rubbed Janet’s scalp. Little flakes of dandruff were dislodged. The owl was giving out little hoots of contentment, like a suckling baby. So was Janet. Claudine watched them—in the rain, hooting, happy.



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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 39 | Winter 2013