In a hot wet wood at the middle of the world sat an owl in his dead tree. In his beak was clutched a mouse, caught a few miles away at a more reasonable hour. The noon day sun blared overhead, stinging his eyes. His face was not what one would call pleasant, as his brows met together in an unbreakable scowl, and his fierce squinting didn't help matters much, but through it all he seemed almost giddy.
He waited just outside of the hollow that his mate had made her nest in many weeks before. It wasn't long before her head appeared, looking tired and bedraggled. Blinking heavily, she spied the mouse, and leaped out to take it from her mate's beak. It went down in one gulp.
“Have they hatched yet Love?” the male asked as the mouse's tail disappeared down his mate's gullet.
Love bobbed her head up and down. “You had better get more Honey, your little ones are tired after a long day of hatching.”
Honey beamed, and his feathers fluffed out. “So, enough for three?”
“Four?” Honey's brow further furrowed. “I thought you had said that you laid three eggs.”
“I did, but I counted again, and sure enough, there were four little mouths.” Love cocked her head. “Well, three little mouths, one rather large one.”
“Let me see,” Honey said, pushing his way past his mate.
He stuck his head in the hole, his sun blinded eyes trying to focus in the low light. In a nest of plucked down feathers he made out four little owlets. They all looked back up at him with reflecting, moon like eyes.
“They're all beautiful Love, just beautiful! I've never seen more handsome clutch of owlets!” Honey called back.
As Honey's eyes continued to adjust he grew more and more puzzled. Three of the owlets were more gray than brown, and all looked far too serious and stern for something so round and fluffy. The fourth owlet was more brown than gray, and looked... happy.
Way too happy really.
I mean, a beak shouldn't be able to look like it's smiling so wide.
At this point Honey's feathers were all laying down flat, and he was locked in a stare with his very strange looking child. Its face appeared goonier to him by the second.
“What's wrong Honey? Everything okay?” called Love.
“The brownest one there...” Honey said, beckoning his mate to come closer, “… doesn't it seem... I don't know, a bit peculiar to you?”
Love peered down into the nest alongside Honey. “I don't know, they're all about the same to me. I think that most hatchlings are a bit ugly for a while. Though, I do suppose....” Love said as her eyes narrowed. “I do suppose that it is a bit odd that she isn't scowling as much as the others.”
“No, she's not! She isn't scowling at all!” Honey's head shot up and spun around. “I was wondering why she had such... such an unintelligent look about her. No wonder!”
Love looked worried. “Now, Honey, I'm sure that she can scowl if she wants to. Can't you?” Love called down to her baby, “Can you scowl like your brothers?”
The owlet looked at each of her brothers and then tried her best to make the same face as they. All she succeeded in doing was making the pupils in her wide set eyes contract into little pinpricks while clamping her mouth shut in a huge frown that stretched from behind one eye to the other.
Love and Honey exchanged looks.
“Oh my,” said Love. “She is a bit... homely, isn't she? I... I wouldn't worry yet, Honey. Like I said, most hatchlings are a bit ugly at first. Some... more than others perhaps. She might grow out of it yet.”
“Hurumph,” Honey grunted as he spread open his wings and took off from the branch. “Whatever. I'm going hunting.”
Love heard her mate grumbling to himself as he disappeared into the light of day. “What kind of an owl can't even scowl anyway?”
The owlets were on the verge of becoming fledglings, and they began to stretch their wings in what was becoming an increasingly smaller nest. They had grown so plump and ravenous that their mother also took to hunting to help feed their increasing appetites.
This left the owlets alone for long stretches, during which time they bumped and smacked into one another, growing more and more irritable all the while.
“Sweetie, Dear, Darling, please try your best to stay inside the nest while I'm away. You're not ready to fly just yet, no matter how itchy your wings may feel,” their mother had said on one particularly humid evening. “If you were to fall out now a jaguar could catch you before you could climb back up!”
“If I ever saw a jaguar I'd pretend to be a stump! Like this!” Then the ugliest owlet stuck her beak in the air and closed her eyes. Then her huge eyes popped open and she flapped and warked proudly.
Love had winced. “All the same my little Stump, stay up in the tree.”
After Love had flown away the brothers began to grow more and more restless. It wasn't long before they took their frustrations out on their sister.
“Get your big dumb face out of my space!” Sweetie had said, and he pushed her into Dear.
“I'm trying to practice flapping, and your big gaping beak always makes me break my concentration!” Dear said before pushing her into Darling.
“Don't look at me, your pop eyes creep me out!” Darling said before pushing her up out of the hollow and out of the tree.
Stump bounced on the forest floor a few times before landing on her belly. Not even a little shaken, she hopped up and waddled in circles around the tree, all the while looking out for any signs of jaguars. She wasn't sure what a jaguar was, so she couldn't be sure what one looked like. But she was confident that she'd know one if she saw one.
Suddenly, she heard a sound on the other side of a bush, something like a splish splash. Wondering if that was the sound a jaguar made, she decided to totter over to see if it was anything to worry about.
On the other side of the bush was even more bush for her to push through, and then suddenly some water came up and licked her feet. She squawked in surprise, having never felt water before, and then she leapt up and out of the brush and into a pond.
“This jaguar is a tricky creature!” the ugly owlet cried.
After flailing for a moment instinct took over. She lay flat and still on the water, like a little log. The waves she had created pushed her up onto the shore. As she lay there in the mud, a big white bird with a black face came swimming over get a look at her.
“Hello there,” the bird said, an air of aristocracy about him. “Are you a squawking twig?”
“… No,” said the owlet, though she didn't dare to open her eyes. “Are you a jaguar?”
“… No,” said the white bird. “I am a swan. Trumpeter swan to be exact.”
“Do swans eat owls?” Stump said, cracking an eye.
“Heavens no! Wait, what, you're an owl? But owls look noble and wise. You look like none of those things at all,” the swan said.
Stump sat up at the edge of the water, her feathers wet and dripping. She somehow looked even uglier than she had before. “But my mother and father are owls, and my brothers are owls. Shouldn't I be an owl too?”
The swan seemed to ponder that for a moment as he watched the little owlet shake the water from her feathers.
Stump suddenly looked very sad as she looked at her reflection in the water. “My father says I'm unintelligent looking. My brothers say I'm ugly. My mother says I'm a little homely, but that I might still grow out of it, but I'm beginning to think I won't. Look at me. My feet can't grip food right, one of my toes goes the wrong way on each foot. My eyes are too big, my mouth is too wide. I can't hoot right, no matter how hard I try....” she said as she began to cry.
“Don't despair little one,” the swan said. “There is an old story among my people, passed down from the distant northern motherland. The story tells of a little cygnet who's egg was misplaced in a duck's nest. He was called an ugly duckling by all who saw him, and he was bullied and mistreated by everyone. He was driven away from home by his family and cast out by society. When he grew up it was found that, of course, he wasn't a duck at all, but a beautiful swan, and a prince among all swans at that! And then everyone loved him for he was so lovely. His long suffering was at an end, and he found his rightful place in this world. Perhaps you are the same little one.”
“You think I'm a swan too?” Stump awked loudly, her feathers disheveled and her eyes bugging out of her skull and full of tears.
The swan winced. “No, I'm afraid not. I've seen many cygnets in my time, and you're... you're something else. But take heart little one,” the swan said, his great white wings outstretched. “ When next year comes around you will be in full bloom, like a new spring flower. Then you will be what you were always meant to be. Then you will be beautiful, as I am beautiful.”
The ugly little owlet sneezed, and then she smiled an enormous smile down at herself in the water. She bobbed up and down in something that resembled joy, and then she wobbled back off into the bush.
“Thank you Trumpeter!” she called back. “I'll come find you next year! Then we'll see what I become!”
“I look forward to it!” the swan called after her. “I'm sure you will be beautiful after all!”
“No... no you didn't turn out very well at all, did you?”
Stump's huge mouth hung slightly agape. Now a year later and fully grown, she had returned to the pond's side to present herself to the swan.
“I thought your look could only improve with age, but I see now I was wrong. Your eyes are somehow bigger, your mouth somehow wider, and your feathers somehow even more drab,” said the swan.
“Oh,” the ugly owl said.
“I dare say, you look as though someone choked an owl by the neck and then drowned it in swamp water. And yet it's still alive through it all. Very unsettling,” the swan shook his head.
“And every word you say sounds like it's coming from your nostrils.”
“Gah, you are an assault on the senses! Please, leave these waters and never return!” the swan cried as he chased her away.
Stump flew away to a dark corner of the wood, away from any watching eyes. She sat on an outcropping of rock and began to cry a big ugly cry.
“I waited so long to grow up and become beautiful, and now I'm even worse off than I was before! My family doesn't want to be seen with me, no other bird will talk to me, and now Trumpeter has driven me away. I was... I was hoping to hear his kind words again!”
Stump cried so loud and so deeply that she was heard by and did not hear the jaguar who had come to the dark corner of the wood to investigate.
“What is this?” the inky black cat rumbled as she stood over the ugly owl. “Are you a squawking stick?”
Instinctively Stump stopped crying and became very still. She closed her eyes and held her breath.
“Hey, come on now, I saw you moving before,” the jaguar said.
For a moment longer Stump remained motionless, but then she slowly opened one eye and cocked her head to look up at the spotted black beast towering above her.
“Are you a jaguar?” Stump asked.
“Yes,” the jaguar said.
Stump opened her other eye and turned her body to face the cat.
“Please,” Stump said, “please eat me. I have no other place left in this world to go other than the belly of a jaguar.”
The jaguar lashed her tail and pinned her ears back. She now had a better look at the squawking branch, and she didn't much like the look of it. Something about how its eyes seemed to be looking in two different directions at once.
“No thanks,” the jaguar hissed. “You look like you'd give me indigestion.”
Then the jaguar turned and disappeared into the shadows of the trees.
The ugly owl looked down at her feet.
“I'm not even good enough to be someone's dinner,” she said.
For a while Stump wandered around the forest floor on foot. She secretly hoped that a snake might bite her if she stepped on it, out of spite if nothing else. For how long she wandered she did not keep track, but after a while she came to a pretty little spot that had beams of evening light falling down from the canopy. There she found an old dead tree that had recently fallen, once the oldest and mightiest in all the wood. Even on its side it was still very tall, and it had taken many smaller trees down with it.
The ugly owl flew up to the top of the tree's side. She sat there for a while, her head hung low, but then she suddenly snapped it back up again.
“If I am not considered good enough for an owl, or a swan, or to be the meal of a jaguar– then I'll become a part of this old tree instead!”
She fluttered to the top of a nearby branch sticking out of the tree and stuck her beak in the air. She slowed her breathing and closed her eyes.
Had no one known she was there, they wouldn't had known that there was an ugly owl standing there at all. The passing eye would have only seen an old dead branch on an old dead tree.
For a moment the wood was silent.
Then a voice spoke under the ugly owl's feet.
“Would you mind getting your claw out of my eye?” it squawked.
Stump shrieked. She leapt down from her perch and stood nearby, eyeing the branch up and down. She thought she saw an eye blink for but a second.
“Excuse me,” she said, “are you a squawking branch?”
“I suppose,” the voice said. “That's one of the more flattering things I've heard us called.”
“Us?” Stump tilted her head.
The branch opened his big yellow eyes. “Yes. Us. We're potoos!”
“What's a potoo?”
Branch smiled a big, gooney smile. He held his wings outstretched. “Look around you!”
Stump looked to see the stumpy limbs of trees all around her come to life. Round yellow eyes popped open all around her, and glittering pink mouths dropped open in slack-jawed smiles. All around sat a bunch of brown-feathered, big-headed birds.
“Hello!” all of the potoos awked in unison.
Stump blinked. First one eye, then the other.
“We like to hide in plain sight you see. It's a very fun game we like to play. The other animals seem to appreciate it. By the by, your display was very impressive,” Branch said. “You looked just as though you had really become a part of a tree. I wouldn't have been able to tell that you were there had you not landed on my head just before. You were really quite lovely.”
Stump felt the feathers on her head rise. “Oh... oh thank you!” She then paused and looked around at all of the smiling faces. “You... you didn't think I was ugly?”
“Oh, no, you're ugly,” Branch said.
Stump felt the feathers on her head snap back tight.
Branch cocked his head and laughed an ear splitting laugh. “But who cares? Look at us, we're all ugly!”
All of the potoos mumbled in agreement and nodded their heads.
“Oh,” Stump said. Then she thought for a moment, her eyes passing from one ridiculously happy looking bird to the next.
“Too bad I'm an ugly owl, and not an ugly potoo,” she said with a deep frown that was trying to be a scowl. “ I wish I could smile as wide and as carefree as all of you.”
Branch looked confused, one eye listing to the side more than usual. “But miss, look at yourself. You are a potoo! You are as ugly as any of us! Maybe even more so!”
Stump felt a sudden lump of pride rise up in her chest, despite herself, and her frown cracked.
“Stay with us,” all of the other potoos insisted. “Please, stay with us!”
Stump covered her eyes with her wings, and cried joyfully, from the depths of her heart. “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly owlet!”
Branch smiled even bigger, if that were possible. “Hey, show us your hiding technique again!” he said. “I'd like to be half as good as you.”
“Yeah!” the other potoos said. “Show us again!”
So she did. Then, with grins from ear to ear, they all followed her lead and melted into the wood together.