Ukranian: Будинок сьомого менуету –
After we were stuffed on hot dogs, potatoes, s’mores, and everything else, we put out the fire, stirring water in with the ash to make sure there were no stray embers, then headed inside. I made popcorn, and we all gathered in the media room to decide what to do before bed. Larsa was eager to play video games, but Stefan didn’t have the energy for it after all the wood-chopping he’d done, so we opted to watch a movie instead. I was quite glad to be the one to introduce Larsa to the joys of “Beetlejuice.”
Once the movie was over, Larsa hopped up from the couch, eager to escort Killian up to their room. Somehow, Killian was able to convince him to help tidy up the cups and bowls first, but I didn’t insist that they stay for too long. I let them know that they could make themselves at home, and I’d make breakfast for everyone in the morning. We exchanged hugs, and Larsa raced up the stairs.
“That was a good move, giving them a room that’s not directly below ours,” Stefan noted as he leaned against the counter and drank another glass of water.
“They should have fun while they’re here,” I told him. “It’s good to see Killian happy.”
“Yeah,” Stefan agreed. “As incorrigible as he can be sometimes, Larsa deserves to be happy, too. I was a little worried about how he’d do, coming all the way here to study.”
“He’s so sweet,” I agreed as I gazed out the kitchen window. “It’s hard to imagine anyone being mean to him.”
I didn’t hear him respond. My eyes went to his reflection in the glass, and I noticed him looking my way. I turned around and smiled at him.
“Something on your mind?” I asked him.
He shrugged and shook his head.
“Oh, I know!” I said with a sort of laugh. He gave me a questioning look. “You’re just exhausted from all that wood-chopping. I should let you get to bed. Did you want–”
“What is that?!” he exclaimed, pointing towards the window.
I thought he was joking at first. It was just the type of thing someone would say to make you look and then tease you for falling for it. But then I heard the soft scratching of claws on the windowsill outside. I turned around to see the owl peering in at us through the window.
“Oh, that’s just Chopin,” I told him.
“You named it after a musician?” He was incredulous. I guess I can’t blame him, except that he was way more on edge about it than what seemed reasonable.
“Well, I didn’t name her that. It was–” Wait, what had Jean-Marc said about that?
Stefan crossed his arms over his chest. “So someone else knows this owl, too? This particular owl?”
“Well, yeah, she can fly wherever she wants.”
“And you know that person?” He sighed and shook his head. “Never mind. I’m sure you’ve gotten to know the few people who live around here.”
“Sure,” I said, wondering whether he was just tired or actually– I don’t know, could I label it as jealousy? Maybe he was just being over-protective? No, that’s not what I mean… he wanted me to be overly cautious. “No worries.”
I reached across the table to open the window, but Stefan grabbed my hand. He was fast, too–he had fast reflexes even after a day of work! I looked up at him.
“Don’t let it in,” he told me. Not demanding; somewhere between that and pleading.
“You don’t want to meet her?”
“She’s a lovely owl,” he said with a sigh, “but she should stay outside.”
I blinked and gave him an uncertain look. “Umm…”
He let go of my hand as though suddenly realizing that he was still holding it. “Well… I could really use a shower before I go to bed. Do the knobs need any special instructions?”
“Not really,” I told him. “I need to head upstairs anyway, so I’ll be nearby if you need help.”
I topped off my water bottle, and we left the kitchen together. We made sure the downstairs was locked up, and soon enough we were up on the third floor. While Stefan was in the shower, I changed into pajamas and laid on my bed to check my phone messages and e-mails.
I was nearly done when I heard the scratching of claws on glass. I sighed; Chopin had figured out that I was in my room. I dropped my phone on my blanket, clambered off the bed, and crossed the room to push the curtains open.
“You are persistent,” I told Chopin when she hooted at me. With another sigh, I opened the window, and she flew inside in an instant. “Oh, you’ve brought another message, have you?”
Chopin landed on my bed where I’d been lying, hooted as she looked down at my phone curiously, then back at me.
“Oh, that’s just a bit of Terran technology,” I told her. Then I sat down next to her. “I was about to get ready for bed, you know. My friends are visiting me, and we’re going to do all sorts of fun things together.”
The owl hooted again, then hopped around my bed as though inspecting it.
“Hey you can’t sleep here tonight,” I told her. “Thank you for bringing the message, but I have to let you back out so I can sleep. Plus, my friends might be surprised if they see you flying around the house. I don’t know whether they’d be more startled or you.”
“Do you actually know what the owl is trying to communicate to you,” a voice said from the doorway, “or are you just making it up as you go along?”
I froze. I hadn’t heard the shower turning off. Or the bathroom door opening. But my door had been open the whole time so that Stefan could say good night after his shower. Well, I must have forgotten about that when Chopin showed up at the window. I looked up and saw him standing in the doorway in flannel pajama pants and a silk robe. He had a towel around his shoulders, and his hair was still partially wet.
Stefan sighed. “Forget about it. Do you need help getting the owl outside?”
I furrowed my brow as I stared at him. “I don’t get it,” I admitted. “At first you thought it was cool, but then you kept insisting that I keep it outside. What is it with you and owls?”
He opened his mouth as though to give me an actual explanation– then quickly closed it. He sighed. “Owls are beautiful; I can’t deny that. But what they symbolize…”
“What they symbolize is different in every culture, Stefan. Unless you can give me an actual reason to worry about her, you should just come in and meet her.”
Stefan’s mouth scrunched to one side. He watched the owl warily. After another sigh, he walked in and knelt on the edge of my bed. “Why Chopin and not Mozart or Beethoven?”
I shrugged. “Well, a dog got Beethoven.”
He gave me a bemused look.
“Anyway, I think ‘Chopin’ suits her.”
Stefan didn’t respond to that. Instead, he held a hand out towards the owl. She hooted and hopped over to him, then looked up at his face. He stared back at her. There was worry in his expression– he was trying to hide it, but I could tell it was there.
“You’re a big owl,” he noted. “You’re lovely, but why do you insist on being in her life?”
The way he was talking, it sounded as though he’d forgotten I was right there.
“You don’t plan on leading her astray, do you?” he asked Chopin, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Stefan, she’s just an owl,” I told him. “She can’t possi–“
“How did you understand that?” he asked suddenly. He hadn’t exactly snapped at me, but he did seem surprised.
“Ummm… I could hear you…”
“But I said it in Swedish.”
“No you didn’t.” He looked like he didn’t believe me, so I went on. “You were speaking English the entire time.”
He blinked, then narrowed his eyes. “Heh…”
“What do you mean by leading me astray, Stefan?”
His expression hardened and he just stared at the owl.
“Are you referring to the underworld again?”
He glanced at me, but his frown didn’t go away. Instead, he tugged the little piece of paper free from Chopin’s leg. “Who is sending you notes by owl?” he asked.
“This was for you, right?” He held up the rolled scrap of parchment. “You’re too familiar with this owl for this to not be yours.”
How was I going to explain it without telling him about the ballad of a magical world and why I had to learn it? And the alternative was to let him think that I had someone in the area I’d met and was exchanging notes with. I sighed and untied the string from Chopin’s leg.
“I have a question for you,” I said, changing the subject. “Why are you so fixated on owls and me going astray?”
Stefan glanced at me for only a moment before looking away. That wasn’t like him; there was clearly something he didn’t want to admit to me.
He turned completely around and sat hunched over on my bed to unroll the paper. He must have read the passage a few times, because it took him a while to look over his shoulder at me– and even that movement was slow and deliberate.
“Leila… Could I ask you to show the owl out now?”
“Please, Leila,” he added, his voice softer despite his heightened emotions. “I need you to explain to me what this is, and I don’t want any distractions.”
He held up the unrolled parchment with Evander’s beautiful, old-fashioned script on it. His eyes were red and glistening. I could tell that his mind was racing– and I bet his heart was, too. I held out my arm for Chopin to use as a perch. She cooed softly at him, then hopped onto my arm with no further prodding and let me walk her over to the window. She flew out into the night without another sound.