There once was an old bear who was a shaman for the creatures in the Cantley area of Doncaster. Though he was a powerful shaman – some said, the most powerful in all of the borough – one winter, he was plagued by owls.
Owls in his medicine bag. Owls on his prayer mat. Owls in his wardrobe. Owls in his hat.
That Solstice, he visited his great friend Rabbit, who lived in nearby Bessacarr. Rabbit was also a powerful shaman. Some said she was even more skilled than Bear. Certainly, even Bear agreed that she had a much better hedge and nest side manner than him, and she was frequently consulted by many of the animals in her area. However, some Bessacarr creatures were too posh to be seen consorting with a shaman. Consequently, Rabbit met them in the less swanky cafés and pubs in central Doncaster. Rabbit’s clients often tried to disguise themselves by wearing big, woolly hats, or dark glasses. This fooled no one in The Minerva, the Tuck Inn, or The Horse and Groom,who knew a Bessacarr hedgehog when they saw one.
The day that Bear called round, however, Rabbit was at home, giving her front room a good fettling, when she heard a single, loud knock at her door. Instantly, she knew it was Bear. Nothing to do with psychic powers, it was more a case that there were few large, wild creatures in the hedgerows, gardens, and patios of Bessacarr. The knock was far too loud to be a vole, or a shrew, or a yellow-throated mouse.
“Come in, Bear,” said Rabbit, putting down her favourite dusting wand – the one with the tip covered with moleskin, and wren feathers – and gesturing in the direction of the tea things in the kitchen. Instantly, the kettle boiled, then floated over to the teapot, warmed, and then filled it.
“Did the bones predict me?” asked Bear, as he ducked his head and entered Rabbit’s small bungalow.
Vole bones were Rabbit’s favourite divination tool. Bear said this was so Rabbit could scare her clients, many of whom were indeed voles. Rabbit said it was so she could shout, “Roll them bones!” when making predictions.
“I haven’t done any divination since Tuesday. No, I knew you were coming because the owls have been so bad.”
“Perhaps I should make a single called “It’s Raining Owls”. Because that’s what it feels like.
“And don’t you dare shout, ‘Hallelujah!’” Bear added, glancing at his friend.
Bear took a seat on the huge, translucent prayer mat which Rabbit kept ready especially for him. Rabbit owned more rugs than chairs, although she did have several pieces of doll furniture which were used by shrews who weren’t too proud to be seen entering a shaman’s house.
“Tea? Coffee? Cocoa? Punch? Eggnog?” asked Rabbit, as the tray glided in, then settled in front of Bear.
“Tea, please. You think of everything, my friend,” said Bear, reaching for the chunky Doncaster Rovers mug which he used whenever he visited Rabbit.
Bear was a huge Rovers’ fan, in every sense of the word. A few years ago, he was banned from attending home games for a year and a day, after he roared on to the pitch, and threatened to turn some Ackrington Stanley fans into wolves, and ferrets, and traffic wardens. This was considered a bit much by the referee, who was himself a grey wolf, as well as the human staff at Keepmoat Stadium, It was an improvement over the time he threatened to eat an entire seating section of Scunthorpe United supporters.
“Not everything,” said Rabbit. “For I do not know why you are so troubled by owls.”
“You’d be troubled, too, if you were me.“
Bear opened his cloak. A barn owl flew out, and roosted in Rabbit’s cast iron chandelier.
“How many does that make so far today?” Rabbit asked.
“Seventeen. Three in the coal scuttle, seven in the yurt, two in the post along with a copy of ‘The Watchtower’ – “
“The Jehovah Witnesses have started to include wild fowl with their publications?” exclaimed Rabbit. “Most organisations tend to favour address labels, or pens. Although ‘Hedgerow Monthly’ have started to send dried herbs, and holed stones.”
“I didn’t say the Jehovah Witnesses put the owls there. The magazine just happened to arrive around the same time.”
“And the others?” asked Rabbit.
“In the bath.”
“What, all five?”
“They were only little owls. It was still a tight squeeze: I was having a bath at the time.”
Rabbit thought Bear looked a bit damp when he arrived at her bungalow. Now that she looked more closely, Rabbit could see that he was still covered in bubbles, and foam, and that what she’d assumed was a new cloak, was actually a large, purple bath towel with a picture of Bear’s power animal, the Yellow Rubber Ducky.
“But that one’s a barn owl,” said Rabbit, who knew her owls, as she looked up at the chandelier.
It was hours before teatime, so the owl was still asleep.
“I am aware of that,” said Bear, who knew more about owls than he cared to. “It wasn’t in the bath, or even my home. It only turned up just before I shifted my towel.”
“First things first,” said Rabbit.
She twitched her nose, and an old tin bath filled with hot water materialised in front of the coal fire. Rabbit gestured at Bear, who slipped off his towel, and stepped into the tub.
“Raddox, Lush, or supermarket’s own brand?” Rabbit asked.
“Lush, please. They don’t test on animals, and all their products are vegan,” said Bear. He sighed with pleasure as a couple of bath bombs appeared out of thin air, dropped, then fizzed, into the hot water. The room was filled with the scents of lavender, basil, and rosemary.
“This is the life,” said Bear. “You really do know how to make a house, a home.”
“Women’s magic?” said Rabbit, with a moonlit twinkle in her dark eyes.
“The best kind,” he replied with a smile.
It was a standing joke between the two friends, who had once been subjected to a lecture on male/female polarity by a drunken Gardenerian in the Druid’s Arms in Bentley. The Wiccan ended up being turfed out by a pair of ceremonial magicians from Dinnington, who couldn’t hear themselves drink.
Once Bear had finished his bath, and was well wrapped up in a large, comfy towel with “The Warren Hotel, Kensington” embroidered in fancy script in one corner, he moved his mat nearer to the fire, so his fur could dry. Bear was heavily involved with green issues, and disapproved of blow dryers.
Rabbit took her mug of mint tea, breathed in the scent, and said, “Now, tell me about your owl problem.”
“Our owl problem, you mean?” asked Bear, as an eagle owl flew out of his towel.
“Amazing,” said Rabbit, as the eagle owl joined the barn one, who was still sleeping on the chandelier. “I’ve had that bath sheet since it was a flannel. It’s never done that before.”
The bungalow at 3 The Burrow, Hedgerow Manor, Bessacarr, was filled with hooting, feathers, and bird poop. It was twilight, and the owls had been awake for nearly half an hour. They were circling overhead as best they could in such a low ceilinged house, occasionally bumping against the chandelier, the bookshelves, and each other.
“I’m sorry,” hooted an eagle owl, to a great horned one. “Get out of my way, you long-necked dooffus!” screeched a screech owl to all the other owls.
Bear was asleep in the sitting room, oblivious to noise and owl shit alike. In the kitchen, Rabbit was meditating, in front of the coal fire which she used to brew her potions, medicinal, and otherwise. So deeply entranced was she, that Rabbit didn’t feel the spark which transferred from the flames, to her brown fur. Her nose, however, began to twitch.
“Burnt toast,” she muttered, followed by, “Burnt me!”
She hopped up, returning to the present time, and place, a bit more quickly than was usually deemed sensible among medium-sized mammals who followed the path of the shaman. Rabbit began ruffling through her jars of herbs, until she found the one marked “Feverfew”. One sandwich of butter and fresh, green herbs later, she felt able to face the day – or rather, the evening.
“Avaunt, foul fiends of migraine!” she added for good measure, sticking two claws in the air, in the traditional manner of all South Yorkshire mages.
“Did I smell something cooking?” said Bear, as he yawned, stretched, and accidentally knocked a little owl from its flight path.
“I don’t eat friends.
“Which is why it’s just as well I haven’t introduced you to this salmon,” she replied, as a platter of fish materialised in front of Bear.
As her friend ate, Rabbit said, “We may need to bring in a specialist.”
“Who? Father Christmas?” Bear looked up, and bits of fish scattered from his jaws. “I do hope you’re not going to suggest we call in the owl service.”
Rabbit’s whiskers twitched. “Of course not. This isn’t a children’s book, this is reality. Besides, I much prefer Lloyd Alexander’s ‘Chronicles of Preordain’.”
“So what did you have in mind? ‘Rhyme Time’ at Central Library? A large net? Or perhaps a taxidermist?”
“It’s a who, not a what,” said Rabbit.
Bear clambered onto his back paws, bumping the ceiling, and scattering owls as well as his towel.
“Not him! By my drum, anyone but Arnold!”
Rabbit washed her ears while Bear raged. She knew it was going to be a long evening, and just hoped that the china cabinet, and teapot collection, survived the storm. They weren’t magical, but they were genuine Clarice Cliff.
“Arnold! That miserable, nasty, mangy old mage? I’d sooner ring for a plumber!”
“You don’t have leaky pipes, you have owls. The worse case I’ve ever seen.”
“So you have a regular stream of clients who are troubled by owls, do you?”
Rabbit was silent. In fact she had quite a few clients with owl troubles, but those problems generally revolved around the owls’ eating habits, not their appearance in letterboxes, and baths.
“Arnold is Doncaster’s greatest authority on banishments,” she reminded Bear. “And the poor dear has dandruff, not mange. I’ll ring him, shall I? No time like the present.”
Crossing over to a small occasional table, she lifted a brass bell.
“Must be on speed ring,” murmured Rabbit, as a dapple grey Shetland pony appeared on her hearth rug.
“Owl problems?” he asked Bear, shaking his blonde mane.
“Who asked you, you mangy old excuse for a pony?”
“I did,” Rabbit said quietly.
Bear shut up. There were many rules among the members of Doncaster’s magical society, and, despite his many years as a Yorkshire shaman, he by no means knew them all.
Arnold did know them, Bear realised. Silently, Bear admitted that he was no match for Arnold, not in a month of Sundays. Still, Arnold stirred up a long leash of uncomfortable thoughts, including hunger, in Bear.
Once the big shaman had calmed down, Arnold began asking Bear a series of questions about Bear’s eating, sleeping, and hibernating habits.
“Hibernation! So that’s what’s making me so cross. I should have gone into hibernation two months ago. No wonder I’m so tetchy, I’m sleep deprived!”
“And why is that?” Arnold asked.
Bear paused, then muttered, “I forgot.”
“A bear who forgets to hibernate is a lousy excuse for a bear, not to mention a shaman,” Arnold said crisply, “How could you forget? Yearly hibernation is part of your innate nature.”
“I don’t know … I tried setting an alarm clock, last spring, but it got broken.”
“Oh really? And how and why did it break?”
Bear hung his head.
“I threw it,” he said softly.
“Oh ho!” exclaimed Arnold. “I hope you didn’t hit anyone else with it. An alarm clock can be a dangerous weapon if it falls into the wrong hands.”
“Keep your mane on, it was only a small clock. And no one was hurt … well, several geese did threaten to sue me, but they calmed down eventually.”
Bear sipped the fresh cup of extremely hot tea which Rabbit had brewed for him.
“I used to use post-it notes, but they kept getting stuck to my fur.”
Bear paused then said, “What does all this have to do with my owl problems?”
Arnold closed his eyes, and stood on three legs for awhile. Eventually he opened his eyes, and said, “What function do you think these owls serve?”
“The power that makes me want to smash my head against a wall?”
“But their purpose,,,what is it?”
“To spread poop and feathers and noise throughout Yorkshire? How the hell would I know?” Bear asked bitterly.
“The poop and the feathers go without saying. But their purpose; think about their purpose.”
“To annoy me?” Bear suggested.
Arnold shook his mane. “Try, instead, to remind you.”
“Of what? The only thing I’ve forgotten this winter is …” He paused, then said, “Stars of my mothers! I’d forgotten to hibernate. These owls were meant to be living, breathing reminders of that, and I not only forgot to hibernate, I forgot a crucial point.”
“Which was?” the pony asked.
“I don’t speak owl,” said Bear.
Arnold was the first to leave Rabbit’s house, pleading a hair appointment. Rabbit silently slipped a bottle of anti-dandruff shampoo into the pony’s bag. She also hugged the old shaman, and wished him a lovely Solstice.
“And a peaceful Solstice to you, too, my dear,” Arnold replied.
Bear was slow to leave Rabbit’s house for his hibernation cave. Eventually his bits and bobs, such as his towel, were packed away in his bag,
“Straight to bed, mind, when you get back home,” said Rabbit.”I don’t want to find out that you’ve stopped up for a fortnight just so you could shout at the telly every time someone mentions Brexit,”
Bear looked sheepish, but didn’t reply, unless you count the kiss on the nose which he gave Rabbit.
“Blessed Winter Solstice to you, too, old friend,” said Bear.
“And to you. And now, go home!” Rabbit waved her wand, and Bear and his bag disappeared. “I do hope he’s gone back to his cave,” Rabbit said softly. “The last time I tried to send someone home using magic, they ended up in the cheese aisle of the local Sainsbury’s.”
If you’ve read all the way to this point, you’ve presumably enjoyed this little story. Why not buy my books?
Bear took a seat on the huge, translucent prayer mat which Rabbit kept ready especially for him. Rabbit owned more rugs than chairs, although she did have several pieces of doll furniture which