Critique Group – Read, or the Owl Will Eat You

If it’s Tolkien, we must have a hefty serving of deus ex machina, right?

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Read, or the Owl Will Eat You – by James (This is not the real title. He doesn’t have a title yet.)

My life ended the day I awoke to the sight of an owl perched at the foot of my bed.

I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, so at first I just rolled over and closed my eyes again, hoping I was dreaming. If I was, it meant the nightmares that visited me every night were over, replaced with advertising for one of the many nature documentaries I favored. My hope quickly faded when it hopped along the sheets until its little talons were digging into my neck. It pecked at my ear and I fell out of the bed.

“Where did you come from?” I demanded. Well actually, I think the first thing I did was yell. Or scream. Yes, my voice had a decidedly screamy quality to it. I’m not used to owls waking me. Who is?

Still on my bed, the smug featherbrain cocked its head to one side and hooted. You know how they always say owls go “who, who?” This one didn’t. It sounded maybe like a cross between a cat’s purr and a pigeon cooing. I think they call it trilling. Whatever, I’m a linguist, not an owl-ologist. I stood up and backed away from the little bird. It hopped along after me and trilled again.

“What, did the real estate market for nests collapse? Why are you in my apartment? Shoo!” And now I was arguing with an owl. Its call went up a few octaves as it shrieked at me. I picked up my phone from the nightstand and shook it at the bird. “I’m calling animal control.”

It hooted indignantly and fluttered silently out of the bedroom. I followed it into the living room just in time to see it wing its way out of my open window. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten I left it open so I could listen to last night’s rainstorm. There had been a screen, but now it sported a big hole. I guess the owl was a vandal as well as a trespasser.

My phone rang, its screen burning brightly with the picture of Khanh Trinh, my friend. I hit the answer button. “Hello?”

“Tom!” His excited voice was a little tinny. Probably another new bluetooth set. “Tell me you finished, buddy.”

“At 2AM,” I groused. Khanh wasn’t just my friend. We worked for the same employer. He develops voice recognition software, but it’s my job to train it. Being multilingual comes in handy. “Yeah, I finished the last of the conversational Sango vocabulary last night. Why? Don’t we present it to the VP tomorrow?”

“That was before Nancy Greymar herself showed up early and demanded a personal demonstration.” He was speaking a mile a minute now, and if I knew Khanh, he’d be pacing a divot in the floor out of agitation. “I don’t know Sango from gibberish, and if we don’t give a good demonstration, she could pull the plug on our project. You have to get down here. Mr. Arik is talking shop with the old hag right now, radio frequencies and antenna design or something. I think she wants to inspect the cell tower first, so we have a bit of time. Maybe an hour.”

“All right.” I wiped my eyes and groaned. The clock on my dresser told me it was 9:30AM, so my plans to sleep till noon just weren’t in the cards. “Call me a cab. Have it meet me in forty-five outside the Seven Rishis.”

He gave a squawk of protest. “Forty-five minutes? But—”

“It’s plenty of time, and I’m not doing a demo on an empty stomach, Khanh.” I shut off the phone and tossed it on the bed, then hurried my way through getting ready for work. As a speaker of twenty languages, I have a skill set in demand and can usually get away with dressing however I want. If this was a meeting with my team, I’d just pull on a polo. In the company food chain, however, I was a fluffy bunny to Nancy Greymar’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. With her, you suit up.

That was probably why I was greeted with catcalls when I stepped into Seven Rishis twenty minutes later. “Nice suit, Tomcat!” Darcie, the barista, had an American Midwestern accent I couldn’t quite place. “Want your usual, or are you ordering off the menu today?”

“The usual, please. To go.”

She grinned at me and started work on the drink, then called back to the kitchen. “Penny, Tom’s here. Same old crap, give it legs!”

A cheerful sound of assent emanated from beyond. In case you haven’t figured it out, I eat at the Seven Rishis a lot. Probably more than I should, if I’m being honest with myself. But it’s close to home, they sell authentic Indian food, and the staff are a genuine treasure. Darcie is a tall, willowy blonde who I’ve seen steal the hearts of half the clientele. “Auntie” Agnes is a wizened weekend part-timer with more salt than the Atlantic, though she wasn’t here today. Then of course there’s Penny.

“Hello, Mister Tomas!” As if on cue from my train of thought, Penny chirped a greeting from the kitchen. She’s short, round, and dark—Darcie’s complete opposite, but the best street food cook I’d met outside of the Kerala region. She held up a bag for me to take. “Rava dosa to go, and one medium masala chai. That will be $9.99, please.”

I paid her with a ten.

She smiled and fished in the register, then slid my change across the counter. I reached for it, but she kept her finger on top of it. “You look so serious today, Mister Tomas. And so fancy. Penny for your thoughts?”

“Just work.” I picked up the bag and enjoyed the savory smell of warm coconut chutney. “I have to give a presentation today, that’s all.”

Nodding, she lifted her finger off the penny. “Well, you look very handsome.”

I grinned at her. “Thanks.”

A steaming hot beverage slid across the counter and stopped between us. Darcie called out from her workstation. “I upped you to a large, on me. You look like you need the caffeine boost. Go knock ‘em dead.”

“Thank you, Darcie.” I saluted her with the cup and ducked back outside.

The cab rounded the corner, so I wolfed down the food in two quick bites. Just as I tipped back my chai for a sip, hard little needles dug into my shoulder. I yelped like a kicked dog and spilled the fruits of Darcie’s labor down my shirt. If you haven’t already guessed, I don’t handle surprise very well. It was the owl again. He preened himself, looking smug.

“Seriously?!” I tried to brush him off, but he only nipped my hand and dug his talons in even harder. It hurt. “Fine, fine! You can stay, just loosen up a bit.” He relaxed his grip, and my shoulder stopped feeling like hamburger. I brushed the droplets of tea and the bits of cardamom off my front. “You ruined my shirt.”

The bird hooted contentedly and fluffed up his feathers. Or maybe it was her feathers. How do you tell with owls, anyway? Whether owl or—owlina?… owlrietta?… owlette?… whatever—its persistent magnetism towards me had turned a sharp outfit into a wreck. I woke up my phone and checked the time. The cab was early, so I might have time to change if I could convince him to wait. I walked up to the window, ready to explain the change in route.

“Don’t you bring that thing in here,” the driver growled at me. Perhaps he was normally a really cheerful person, but today he was grouchy. Maybe he didn’t like Wednesdays. Maybe his breakfast hadn’t agreed with him. Or maybe it was just me.

“What thing?”

“The bird.” He gestured a meaty arm in the direction of my shoulder. “I don’t take no pets.”

“It’s not a pet,” I protested. “It just won’t leave. Look!” I pushed at the owl, and it bit me in response. “Ow!”


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14 replies

  1. I like it. My initial thought was that a linguist would know that someone who studied birds (and by extension, owls), is called an ornithologist… but having the whole confusion about what you’d call a female owl shortly thereafter somehow made this more believable, and drove home the point that he really just doesn’t know anything about birds.

    • The ornithologist note is a good point. I used an incorrect term to emphasize the lighter narrative tone, but I could probably have him use the correct term later on.

  2. For anyone interested in the rest of what I’ve written, here is a link to the first two chapters.

  3. Very intriguing. The setting is playing with me because it sounds like a guy living in New York, but you dropped hints that this is an “out of this world” setting (“Sango vocabulary”). Definitely checking out the link.

  4. I enjoyed this. It drew me in. I really like the way the dialogue interleaves with the action.

    Here are the story questions that I would expect to have answered in the rest of the book:
    1. Why is the owl there?
    2. Why does that end the guy’s life?
    3. How does technology and linguistics play into that? (I’m an IT geek who also loves languages.)
    4. Is there a romantic interest with the blonde girl, or does his lack of reaction indicate lack of interest?
    5. Is Tomas from India? Or does he just like Indian food?

    And some minor observations:
    6. Why doesn’t he tip the baristas? (Does that say something about his character? Is he generous? Does the place allow tipping? Does it matter? I don’t know.)
    7. “Smug” was used to describe the bird twice.

    Thanks for submitting this piece. This was my first experience as a reviewer. I hope this feedback helps. 🙂

    • Thank you for the feedback. Pointing out the questions you have is very helpful. I’m happy to say that as of chapter three, I have addressed all of them except your first question. Gotta leave some mystery for a while.

      As for tipping, I didn’t think of that because I never tip at counter-serve takeaway. I only tip for delivery or table service. Is this a typical expectation?

  5. James, I likey! You’ve got a great voice in your writing. Love the humor.

    The first paragraph threw me a bit as I tried to figure out how the first line linked with next paragraph other than the owl.

    Maybe cut some of you longer sentences in two or three. Too many commas gets confusing.

    Why wasn’t the guy more freaked out by the owl? Yeah he screamed but getting us more into his feelings there would help.

    Changing his shirt over spilled tea yes, but owl talons are powerful. Would it pierce the suit jacket and possibly the guy’s skin? Causing a blood stain problem.

    Over all, I wanna keep reading. Good stuff.

  6. I won’t be critiquing this one. This version is post-critique. I gave James suggestions that he has already implemented in this version.

  7. Nice story. First it is a little choppy to me not bad maybe smoother transitions. Yes the knowing what an person who studies owls is important, I am impressed by the research to find a little know language and the fact the character appears to be real, which I have always found important. This has potential to be a wonderful story.

  8. Wow! I really enjoyed this, especially because I love languages. It really drew me in with the mystery of the owl. Why is it there? Why is it awake during the daylight hours?
    What did Tom do wrong to make the bird arrive? It must be there for a reason, and because of its abnormal behavior and apparent ability to understand English (“‘Fine, fine! You can stay, just loosen up a bit.’ He relaxed his grip, and my shoulder stopped feeling like hamburger.”), it seems as though the creature was sent there by another being or power.

    A few comments though.
    – The language in which the first few paragraphs were written seemed too passive, at least for my liking. Maybe if you formalize it could draw the reader into the story.
    – If Tomas watched a lot of nature documentaries, wouldn’t he know what a female owl is called? I can understand why he wouldn’t use “ornithologist” as a previous critiquer mentioned because of his grogginess after a long night. And even if I, personally, knew what an ornithologist was, I still probably would have said,”owl-ologist” anyway.

    Overall, this was a great submission (and I loved the humor in it).


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