The Owl and the Maiden

Once upon a time there was a proud, beautiful young woman. Though she was haughty, many men wished to marry her, but none of them was good enough. Her father despaired as she rejected suitor after suitor. Eventually there came a day when her father lost his patience and declared that he would pick the most suitable husband for her and that she would marry that man whether she loved him or no. They fought bitterly, but in the end her father prevailed. He was sad, for he loved his daughter very much. So he carefully considered all the men who wished to marry his daughter.

‘He must be patient, for my daughter is tempestuous and haughty. He must be kind, so that he does not abuse her when she is too harsh and hard. He must be wealthy, so that she and their children will never want. He must have a strong sense of himself, so that he does not become henpecked and beaten. He must be intelligent, so that he might find a way to win her heart.’ And so forth. It was a very long list. And, in the end, he found a man who was an excellent match for his daughter. Handsome, intelligent, patient, kind, wealthy, confident, and with no illusions about his bride. The man understood that the girl did not love him, but he admired her spirit and her intelligence, and he felt confident that in time she would soften towards him.

He told her as much the last time he saw her before they were married, and that was the mistake that sealed his doom. The proud girl determined that she would never love this man, no matter what he did. And so, the night before her wedding she slipped out of her father’s house and went deep into the forest until she found the roost of the owl. ‘Owl!’ she called. ‘I desire a favor.’

The owl regarded her with its great pitiless eyes. ‘What favor do you seek and why should I grant it?’

‘I wish for you to take my heart. I am to be married tomorrow, and I have sworn never to love. Will you help me keep my vow? Your payment is my very heart.’

The owl blinked and bobbed its head around, considering. It fluffed its soft grey feathers and flexed its razor sharp talons. The girl stood defiantly, head high, waiting. Finally the owl swooped down with no warning and plunged its beak deep into the girl’s breast. It tore her heart out in one stab, tossed it in the air, and swallowed it. The girl gasped in shock and pain, and collapsed on the forest floor. She awoke in her bed at dawn, her nightdress stained with blood. She smiled, satisfied.  

For the first few years of their marriage she didn’t miss her heart at all. Her husband was kind, and she was content to be a good wife to him, knowing that she had already exacted her revenge. But when she had her first child, the nanny and the housemaids began to whisper that though she was a good mother, there was something cold about her that made them uncomfortable. She was proud of her son, and she took pleasure in caring for him and spending time with him. But she could not love him, and nothing could completely disguise that fact. 

At the birth of her daughter it became even more obvious that something was missing. She cuddled the girl, sure, but never cooed endearments, never embraced her spontaneously. Her husband and son loved each other and the baby girl so well that her own lack of passion seemed almost cruel by comparison. People in the village began to whisper that she was a monster, or a witch. 

The rumors about her circulated and, like fire, eventually consumed the town. One day the townspeople came before her husband and confronted him. They accused her of selling her soul to the devil, and of planning to devour her children, and many other monstrosities that would have been silly in other circumstances. He managed to talk them into a truce, but it was uneasy, and none of them slept well that night. She laid awake in the dark, listening to her husband breathe, thinking about her beautiful children in the next room. She had come to regard her husband highly. Her father had chosen well for her, and had she not given her heart to the owl, she would have loved him passionately and been very happy. She thought long and hard about what to do. After many hours, she determined to find the owl and ask for her heart back.

So again she went deep into the forest to the owl’s roost. ‘Owl!’ she called. ‘I desire a favor!’

                The owl regarded her with its great pitiless eyes. ‘What favor do you seek and why should I grant it?’

‘Seven years ago I came to you and I asked you to take my heart. I have come to regret my decision. I wish to reclaim my heart from you, and I will pay any price you ask.’

The owl blinked and bobbed its head around, considering. It fluffed its soft grey feathers and flexed its razor sharp talons. The girl (now a woman) stood defiantly, head high, waiting. Finally the owl spoke. ‘You seek to reclaim that which you paid to me. The price will be dear. Turn around.’ The woman turned around and saw a giant cage at her feet. She shrieked and leaped backwards, for the cage was full of mice. ‘Your husband and two children are in that cage. Find them and you may reclaim your heart. You have until dawn tomorrow.’

                The woman grabbed the cage and ran home. She ran into her bedroom and found her husband gone, though the bed was still warm as if he’d just left it. She ran to her children’s room and they were likewise missing. She looked in despair at the cage full of mice – a hundred of them! And wondered how she would ever accomplish her task.

                The next day and night were a terrible trial. The woman examined each of the mice for distinguishing features, but they were all the same. She spoke to them, asking her family to reveal itself, but none came forward. She collected their favorite things and hoped that some mice over others would gravitate towards them, towards the red ball or the well-worn hunting knife or the book of rhymes. But all the mice wandered over the trinkets indifferently, and the woman learned nothing. She sang to them, she called their names, she closed her eyes and tried to feel which of them was her kin. But without her heart, she had even less chance than others of passing the test.

                At dawn the owl flew into the window. It blinked at her and bobbed its head towards the cage. ‘Have you made your choice, then?’ it asked.


The woman began to weep. ‘I cannot. I cannot tell which of these are my family. Please give me a different trial, this is unfair. With my heart I could tell. Give me my heart and I will find them in an instant!’

                The owl flexed its razor sharp talons, then coughed as if it were coughing up the bones and fur of a woodland creature. Her heart landed on the table before her. ‘Very well,’ it said. ‘Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it was an unfair test. See if you can find your family now.’

                The woman grabbed her heart and immediately saw her children and her husband. How could she have missed them before? They were so obvious, not like the other mice at all! She joyfully plucked each one up and placed them in a bowl in the table. ‘There! You see?’ Like lightning the owl darted its beak into the bowl and ate first the woman’s husband, then her son, then her daughter. The woman shrieked in anguish and disbelief and dove at the owl, hoping to pull her beloved family from its cruel throat. 

                The owl flew easily out of her grasp. ‘You said you were willing to pay any price,’ it said. ‘And so you did. You have your heart, and I have my breakfast. My part of this bargain is fulfilled. Do not trouble me again.’ And it flew away.

                And for the first time the woman felt the full force of a mother’s love. And a wife’s. And she fell to the floor nearly unconscious with grief for all she had lost. Later that day the townspeople came to her and demanded to speak with her husband. They found her sobbing on the kitchen floor, arms wrapped around the cage full of 97 mice. ‘Where is your husband, witch? Where are your children?’ they said.

                ‘Dead,’ she sobbed, ‘all dead and all my fault.’

                The townspeople searched the castle and found no sign of the family. And so they dragged her into town and they burned her alive. Deep in the forest, the owl blinked its great pitiless eyes and coughed up the bones and hair of the three juicy mice it had eaten for breakfast.


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