Mr Owl the Mighty
Danny lost a little more hope that his wish would come true every night, but he wasn’t ready to give up yet. He repeated his mantra until he fell asleep, or his mouth became too dry to continue. If the adults had heard him, they would’ve tried to explain that wishing was futile, and that he had to move on and learn to live life the way it was. Danny would have none of it. He still believed in magic.
‘When I wake up, I will have my legs back,’ he whispered, his eyes squeezed shut. ‘When I wake up, I will have my legs back. When I wake up…’ He thought if he imagined it happening, the wish would be stronger, so he visualised himself getting up in the morning with two brand new legs—even better, more muscular ones than the previous pair. The sunlight coming in through the window would make them sparkle like shiny toys, and the feeling of wiggling his toes would make him laugh. He would use the bed as a trampoline, not caring about breaking it or getting scolded afterwards. He would run up and down the stairs until he was so tired he couldn’t stand, sit on a tall chair and let them dangle, and hit his knees with the back of his hand to trigger an involuntary reflex.
Danny heard three knocks. He opened his eyes, stopped repeating his mantra, pushed himself up onto his elbows and said, ‘Come in,’ thinking that Nanny Reb had forgotten to tell him something important. No answer from the direction of the door. The moonlight struggled to break through the coverage of the clouds, and the distant streetlamps offered only a faint yellow light. The silence and the shadows of his things engulfed the room.
Danny shrugged and returned to what he’d been doing. ‘It’s my birthday tomorrow. Please, God, let me have my legs back.’
Tap, tap, tap.
It came from the direction of the window. He looked over, and he would have pulled his legs up in his surprise if he still had them. Instead, his stumps moved involuntarily, then he pushed himself to a half-sitting position and pulled the cover up to his nose.
A huge owl stood on his outer window ledge, staring straight at him, its head cocked to the side. It was the largest bird Danny had seen not just in the zoo, but in any cartoon or book in the world; he was certain it was as big as himself. Its black and grey feathers glowed as though they generated their own light, and Danny couldn’t find the owl’s eyes, only two circular pits of darkness which occupied half the bird’s head.
His breathing became shallow and rapid, and he was ready to yell for Nanny Reb when the owl spoke to him.
‘Hello, Danny,’ it said, flapping its wings.
It surprised Danny so much, he forgot to call for help, swallow, or to blink for several long seconds as fear and wonder spread in his body, the first overpowering the second.
‘I can make your wish come true, Danny,’ the owl said.
Danny swallowed. His mouth remained dry, and his question came out as a croak. ‘Who are you?’
‘Call me Mr Owl.’
Mr Owl, the mightiest bird of all, Danny thought. Mr Owl the Mighty. ‘How do you know me? How can you make my wish come true?’
‘We know everyone in your world, and we hear every wish. The strongest wishes shine the brightest, and yours is a very bright wish.’
Danny didn’t understand what Mr Owl the Mighty was saying, but the prospect of getting his legs back convinced him to pay attention. He pinched himself on the arm to check whether he was dreaming, and the pain confirmed what he had already known: this was reality, however frightening and unreal.
Danny had no idea what to say or do. He didn’t want to call for help, as that would have frightened the owl away, but he wasn’t comfortable.
Can it break through the window? he asked himself. What would I do if it did? He searched for objects he could use as weapons. His old cricket bat was on the other side of the room; basically, anything usable was too far away. Maybe not for a kid with healthy legs, but he didn’t have healthy legs.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ Mr Owl the Mighty said. ‘Tomorrow, I will give you your legs back, if you still want them.’ He spread his wings wide and hopped off the ledge to disappear into the silence of the night.
Danny exhaled. His body trembled from the strangeness of the experience. He threw off the blanket, looked at the stumps of his legs, and traced the scars with his fingers.
Tomorrow. Could it be true?
‘How can you do this to him?’ Nanny Reb said while walking around in the kitchen, holding her mobile phone to her right ear. ‘You know how difficult this day is for him. You should be here by his side.’
‘This is a very important meeting, Mum,’ Nanny Reb’s daughter Theresa told her. ‘A lot of money is at stake.’
‘What does money matter if you can’t be with your son on his birthday, the day he lost his legs?’
‘Don’t you think I know what day it is? Do you think I will ever forget?’
Nanny Reb was speechless. Her chin trembled, and she was thinking of an appropriate reply. The memory of that horrible day felt like an icy knife being plunged into her heart.
‘Look. I’m sorry. We’ll see how the negotiations go. I don’t expect any difficulties, and if that’s truly the case, I’ll be able to leave soon and be home by early afternoon. Okay?’
‘I hope you make it,’ Nanny Reb said and put down the phone, followed by a lengthy sigh. She was angry, and not just at her daughter, but at herself. After one long year, she hadn’t forgiven herself, even though everyone said it wasn’t her fault.
How could it not be her fault, at least partially, when she was driving the goddamn car?
Danny and Nanny Reb had decided to go for a trip to the Brighton seaside, given it was a sunny day, not hot enough for a swim, but perfect for a stroll and a nice fish and chips. Theresa had been working as always, but that wouldn’t bother them; they would see her later. And what a wonderful day it had been.
They were on their way home in the evening, happy as ever, Nanny Reb driving.
No driver could be careful enough if the other ignored the rules. She hadn’t noticed the car speeding towards them at the intersection until it was too late. It crashed into them on Danny’s side, spinning their car around. They were strapped in, but the impact crushed Danny’s legs below his knees. Nanny Reb miraculously came out of the accident with a concussion caused by the airbag. Danny’s legs couldn’t be saved.
She stopped playing the scene in her head and wiped the tears from her face. She felt so sorry for that innocent little boy. Shut up, she told herself. You’re a strong adult woman; you can handle it. He’s a child, and he needs you.
Nanny Reb continued to decorate the slice of carrot cake for Danny and tried to brainstorm on how to make him focus on his actual birthday and not the accident.
Will that ever happen? Will he ever enjoy this day? Unlikely.
A new idea came to her then. It was too late for it this year, but next year, she would create a special day for him on his name day. She had heard from Anna, her Hungarian friend, that over there your name day was even more important than your birthday. A nice tradition, and she could plan a big surprise party for him. She couldn’t change the past and the date on the calendar. She could only make the best of the circumstances. However, next year, Danny’s name day would become the main event.
Nanny Reb licked her finger and allowed herself a smile.
Danny kept tossing and turning and having nightmares, visiting the past and the future, thinking about possibilities in his waking moments. Dream and reality seemed to be blurred in the morning, and he woke up with a strong headache. One distinct detail remained sharp in his mind, clearer than the other dreams: an enormous owl sitting on his window ledge and promising him it would grant his wish.
He threw off the cover and stared at his stumps. What a silly dream. Of course they’re not back. I’m ten years old now; I must learn to deal with it. They’re never coming back.
As he finished thinking the last sentence, he started to cry. He tried to hold it back when Nanny Reb came in, singing happy birthday, holding a tray with his favourite carrot cake and hot tea on it. When she saw him crying, she stopped singing, put the tray on his bedside table, and hugged him.
‘I’m okay,’ he said, sniffing. He didn’t want Nanny Reb to see him cry. It was embarrassing. He was ten now.
It should have been his mum doing this, anyway. Why did she always have to work? Especially after the crash. Danny didn’t understand the correlation, but he knew it was something to do with that; or rather, him. His mum found excuse after excuse to be away, even on his birthday. It was the other reason he wanted to get his legs back so much—he hoped they would entice her to spend more time with him, like before. Get used to it. It was just a dream, he told himself, and the thought brought back the tears.
‘It’s okay, honey,’ Nanny Reb whispered. ‘Let it out. Everything’s okay.’ She held him for a few seconds longer, stroking his head, then looked at him and said, ‘Have your cake. It’s going to make you feel better.’
Danny wiped off his tears and forced a smile onto his face. He had learnt to hide his sadness not long after the accident because it was easier to dodge the adults who wanted to comfort him, to pretend to be all right rather than listening to them or answering their stupid questions.
Nanny Reb watched him eating his cake and drinking his tea, got up, and prepared warm clothes for him, laying them on the bed. ‘What would you like to do today?’ she asked.
‘Maybe I’d like to play at the river.’
‘Okay, that’s all right. Let me get my welly boots.’
‘I’d like to be alone.’
‘Oh, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. It’s quite wet and slippery out there, you could—’
‘Yeah, yeah, hurt myself or drown or break my neck or lose my arms.’
Nanny Reb stared at him for a while. ‘I don’t think that’s necessary, young man,’ she said sternly.
‘It is. Nothing’s going to happen. I’ve been bound to this stinking chair for long enough, I’m perfectly capable of navigating it myself, even around the river and the trees. I want to go there alone. Is that such a big request on my birthday?’
‘All right. But promise me you’ll use the panic button on the chair if you have the slightest trouble.’ She smiled, but Danny knew she was sad for him, and that was the other thing he despised. The expression of sorrow and pity from the adults, as though he was a special boy of some sort. He wanted to be normal like the rest of the kids, to go home dirty after playing in the mud, be scolded for ruining his trousers instead of being told how dangerous it was to play on the ground in his condition. They always had to remind him of his condition, didn’t they?
Once Nanny Reb had told him again what he shouldn’t do and how careful he must be, she left him alone. He ventured down the path leading to the stream, confident that a little incline wouldn’t cause any problems.
It was easy for him to handle the way down. He spent some time watching the water, then he decided to go back to the house. So he started up the slope, and it went well in the beginning, but soon his arms became tired and achy. His forearms burned with each movement, and the wheel turned less after each push, yet he still refused to call for help.
It had been a year since the car accident, so he wanted to prove to himself he could tackle this. However, the pain in his muscles got too intense, and he let go of the wheels, cursing. The wheelchair rolled down the slope, and he couldn’t stop it. He held back a scream. Instead, he closed his eyes and waited for it to be over like at the hospital appointments, knowing that he would end up in the water, he would be yelled at, and he would have to listen to the you-must-be-careful speech. He hated himself for failing.
But he had a bit of luck, after all. He remained dry and in his chair, stopped just at the edge of the stream, the left wheel on solid ground, the right one held by a thick branch.
How he would get out of this mess, Danny didn’t know. He assessed the situation and found that if he made another mistake, the wheelchair would fall into the stream, and that would be unacceptable.
The copse was silent other than the splashes of the gently flowing water and the occasional rustle of the leaves. The water was topped by a thin layer of steam, as it was warmer than the surrounding October air. He was glad he was wearing a coat and gloves; sorting this mess out could take a while.
He leaned to the left and yanked at the chair. The branch moved further into the wheel. Danny realised he would need to get out of it and pull it back to the shore.
It had to be done now as Nanny Reb never gave him longer than half an hour anywhere before checking on him. Avoiding her worried expression was worth getting himself dirty. He would tell her he wanted to throw some pebbles, and that was how he got muddy.
Danny pushed himself forward and slid down at the front, clutching the arm of the chair. He heard flapping wings behind himself, but he refused to look around. His forearms burned again, and he was grateful for managing to lower himself to the ground. It felt cold and wet under his bottom.
He yanked at the chair, holding his breath, pulling it forward, shaking it to the left and to the right. As the realisation that he wouldn’t be able to move the chair on his own deepened, despair found him. No, he told himself. No crying. Despite this, the tears burst out of him like water through a broken dam.
‘I see you are in trouble, child,’ a high and raspy voice said. He turned and saw Mr Owl the Mighty standing right beside him. Danny’s eyes widened as he comprehended how huge the bird was: taller than an average adult, its long beak pointing downwards, its talons razor sharp steak knives.
He backed away and searched for the animal’s owner. He found no one.
‘Do you remember me?’ the owl asked. Danny’s breathing grew shallow and rapid, his heart beat fast, and he climbed back on his stuck wheelchair, forgetting that he had a birthday, his name and that he was a boy. Everything became abnormal suddenly, as though a crooked mirror reflected the world. It wasn’t a dream, unless this was a dream, too.
‘Please don’t hurt me, Mr Owl the Mighty,’ Danny said, not knowing any other way to address the animal. It let out a series of short caws, sounding like evil laughter. Cold sweat watered Danny’s armpits.
‘It must be bad,’ Mr Owl the Mighty said, gesturing with its beak at Danny’s legs. ‘It’s like if I lost my wings, isn’t it?’
Mr Owl spread and flapped them, its legs leaving the ground for a second. Danny saw holes in them, which made him scrutinise the bird from top to bottom.
His fear escalated into terror as he realised that the enormous bird was dead, its flesh rotting underneath the feathers, worms wriggling everywhere, its eye sockets black emptiness not just in the middle of the night but in daylight too.
‘I have been watching you, child.’
‘What do you want from me?’
‘I have an offer, child. You have been suffering, and I don’t like to watch you suffer. I know how painful it must be. I lost my wings once, and it was very painful, but I got them back.’
Danny nodded, although he had no clue where the conversation was going. The situation was so weird and otherworldly, he secretly waited to wake up in his bed, swimming in his own sweat. But wasn’t this what he wished for every night? To have two healthy legs again, the last year being the worst nightmare of his life?
‘What offer?’ he asked, his breathing steadying now.
‘There are other lands, child. There are other rules. I can grant your wish. It’s a very strong wish. And I can give you more.’
‘Who are you? What other lands? Can you speak normally so I understand?’
‘I’m Mr Owl the Mighty, and I am from behind the mirror. It has different rules. You must come through the mirror and see for yourself.’
‘The mirror. I heard your wishes through the mirror, and I will grant them. You will be one of us, with strong and powerful legs. Even more powerful than before.’
‘I don’t want to be like you. You are dead and rotting.’
‘No. Not dead. I’m standing right in front of you. The dead cannot do that, can they? A temporary bad thing. You come through, you will get your legs back and I will overcome the bad thing, then we will find someone with a strong wish that helps you to overcome your bad thing.’
Danny hesitated. He couldn’t decide whether the owl was luring him into a trap, using him for some goal, or whether he genuinely wanted to help him. ‘Who are you?’
‘So many questions. It makes me think you don’t take your wish seriously enough. I can find another child. A stronger wish.’
The bird flapped its rotten wings, generating a gust of decaying wind, making Danny put his hand in front of his nose.
‘No, don’t go, please. I’m serious. I’m more serious than ever. What do I need to do?’
‘You have to come through the mirror,’ the owl said.
Danny tapped his pockets and checked his wheelchair, but there weren’t any mirrors with him. He looked around and found a small puddle where the water of the stream had settled. It was clean and steady enough to reflect its surroundings.
‘Would that be good?’
He sighed, lowered himself from the wheelchair again, and crawled the short distance to it, getting his clothes muddy. He imagined two beautiful, naked legs: perfectly shaped, muscular, fine hair covering the pale skin, and some bruises because of the intense playing he had done.
He reached the puddle and stared into it. The reflection showed a frightened boy’s face with anticipation and hesitation in his eyes. The owl appeared behind him, small, wriggling things falling from between its feathers on which Danny didn’t dare focus. He looked at the bird’s beak as it whispered, ‘State your wish, child, the way you stated it last night.’
Danny closed his eyes, and paused.
The owl made the decision for him, and Danny’s head plunged into the cold water. He opened his eyes and mouth and screamed, thrashing around, feeling sharp knives scratching the back of his head and his shoulder blades. The owl was standing on him and pushing him down, and he tried to throw the bird off. Mud rose from the bottom of the puddle and made the water murky, mixing with his blood.
He wasn’t alone. In the darkness, entities moved. They swam towards him from an impossible distance, beyond the bottom of the puddle, beyond the ground, beyond sanity. Limbs made up the entities, sewn together with invisible threads, animal, human, and nameless species. They frightened Danny even more. He thought he was hallucinating, and if he was, he was dying because of the lack of oxygen.
He tried to say through his last breath, ‘I take my wish back, I don’t want to die,’ but only muffled yelling and bubbles came out.
The entities swam closer and closer to him, their movement strange and fluid like an eel’s. They surrounded and encircled him, floating in the darkness.
‘Let me go,’ Danny screamed. He summoned the last of his strength to fight and throw Mr Owl the Mighty off his back.
An entity created from the limbs of mammals swam forward and stopped right in front of him—a star fish that had many legs of different kinds. He couldn’t tell how close it got: a few centimetres or metres or kilometres depending on the size of the creature. He had no time to figure it out, though, because it started to shake, and a pair of legs grew out of its centre. It pushed the toes into Danny’s mouth first, then forced the entire leg through.
Gagging took over the screaming and thrashing around. He was tired, thirsty for oxygen or oblivion, so he just endured.
A sudden, tingling sensation appeared at the end of his stumps, as though they had been numb for a while and now pins and needles spread through them. Then the pins and needles spread over his knees, calves, heels, and toes.
The entities hooted and clapped with their strange limbs.
‘Mum, I’m on the way home,’ Theresa said on the phone. ‘The meeting ended very quickly. It only took half an hour to reach a conclusion.’
‘That’s wonderful, dear. So what’s your ETA?’
‘I’ll be home right after lunch.’
‘Oh really? That’s so amazing. We’ll wait for you with the meal, then. Danny is playing at the riverside.’
‘Great. See you soon.’
Nanny Reb put the phone on the kitchen table and looked at the clock on the wall. It had been half an hour since she left Danny on his own, so it was time to check on him and tell him the wonderful news.
It wasn’t all doom. Theresa would be here soon, and they were going to have a wonderful lunch together, then maybe play a board game or watch a film.
Halfway down the path leading to the stream, a bad feeling overwhelmed her. No sparrows were singing or ravens cawing, there was no breeze, or any animal sounds.
She quickened her pace, and noticed the empty wheelchair stuck at the very bank of the river even before she got to the end of the path. She jogged as fast as her aching joints allowed and yelled Danny’s name.
She paused in the clearing when she noticed a giant owl standing in the mud, its wings spread wide. Nanny Reb could have sworn the bird had looked right at her and nodded before it took off.
After an hour of panicked searching and yelling Danny’s name at the riverbank, she started to lose her voice. Her joints were on fire, and she was about to go back to the house and call the police when she saw a frail little boy emerging from a large puddle, his clothes wet.
An otherworldly stench hit her nose, making her retch. It was the stink of death. She had smelled the same next to the mangled corpse of the drunk driver that had caused their accident a year ago. The boy had the face of her Danny. No, it couldn’t be him because he was too pale, his eye sockets black emptiness, his clothes hanging on him like rags, and he stood on two healthy legs. She wanted to call his name, but the word stuck in her ragged throat as the strange boy ran into the forest.