Despite promising myself I’d try to get an earlier night last night, it reached 2am and I was still on my laptop. After chastising myself I got ready for bed, but my mind was too active. I couldn’t sleep.
Cambridge is a quiet place. My room at home is quiet, too: it’s at the back of the house, and looks out over the garden. I can hear pigeons and other birds in the silence, but with double-glazed windows, not a lot of sound gets through. Mostly my sleepless nights there are soundtracked by the creak of my house in the wind and the rumble of the heating in the walls and the floor.
Here my windows are thin and let in all the cold and the sound of the world outside, and last night, at around half past two, I heard an owl.
At least, I think it was an owl. I’m a city girl, born and bred in the suburbs of London. I don’t know about different species of birds and I tend to refer to flowers by their colours — “Look at all the purples!” is something I’ve been known to say when showing friends around the college gardens, because they do have a lot of purple flowers. In some ways I’d like to know more about nature, but in some ways I’m happy with my simplistic way of understanding it.
So I heard this owl, if it was an owl, and not some other night bird that sounds vaguely like how I’d imagine an owl might sound, and it seemed to be calling me outside. Enticing me into the darkness and the loneliness of the night. It wanted me out there. And I couldn’t lie there in bed listening to it and not obey.
I put on my dressing gown over my pyjamas, slipped a pair of shoes over my bare feet, and crept outside as quietly as I could so as not to wake the other students on my corridor.
It was a clear night, and above me I could see stars. I’ve spent time in the countryside at night and seen more stars than this, but at the same time, I would never see so many back home because of the glare of streetlights. Here there’s a balance between the overwhelming constellations of rural areas and the intermittent pinpricks that are all you see in the city.
The gardens were empty and quieter than they’ve ever been. The grass was cold where it touched my bare feet; my slip-on shoes don’t cover much. It felt magical.
And then I heard the owl again. This time it wasn’t drawing me nearer. This time it was warning me. The world around me was still and dark and my skin tingled with a sense of possibility, but the owl cried out and I jumped.
I didn’t belong there. That was not my world. I’m human, a city-dweller, and I belong in the day and the light where the noise of human activity is never far away. Was it the owl that had drawn me out there only to send me back inside? Suddenly, despite being in the locked college garden, I felt unsafe. I was alone, but I felt as though I was being watched.
I wouldn’t be beaten that quickly. I stayed a little longer, looking at the stars, at the dark garden, listening out for the owl’s call. It was silent for a while, and then it reiterated its warning: if this is magic, it isn’t for you.
The garden suddenly felt a lot less safe, and in my pyjamas and dressing gown I felt exposed. I went back inside, and there were petals stuck to the soles of my shoes, as though the owl had sent flowers along with the warning.
I’m not saying that there was anything particularly untoward about this encounter and for those of you who spend more time with nature than I do, you might think me silly for reading so much into it. But moments like this are the moments when I feel something — something I like to call magic, even though I’m not sure I believe that’s what it is. They’re moments when the past and its myths don’t seem so far away or so absurd.
During the daytime I laugh at the story of Blodeuwedd because a woman made of flowers who becomes an owl, destined to be hated by other birds, seems ridiculous and fanciful. But at night I wasn’t so sure that what called me out into the garden was an ordinary bird, and the petals that followed me back inside left a chill down my spine.
These are the moments when I feel something that I can’t describe. It’s a yearning, and a passion, I think. But it’s also confusion, and ignorance. It’s what drives me to read the books I read and write the stories I read. I guess it’s the closest thing I can come to defining what it feels like to really care about and be interested in something, except it’s more than it.
Something inside me catches hold of the threads of these moments and tries to follow them through to their completion, hoping to find a tapestry that will give me the whole picture.
So I’m making a journal of the things that seem magical to me. The lines of poems that leave me with that tingling feeling, or the petals of a flower that seems hardly real. Drawings and quotes and pictures, all stuck in. In The Raven Boys Gansey’s journal is described as being at least as much about the tactile pleasure of creating it as about the contents, and I think that’s what this will be to me.
I started with a drawing of an owl. I don’t know if the bird I heard last night was an owl and if it was, I doubt it would have been this type. But I’ve never drawn an owl before, so I followed a tutorial, and regardless of the ornithological accuracy of this representation, it’s enough to remind me of that moment where myths followed me through the door of my building and wouldn’t let me sleep.