SI Vault
William Service
June 30, 1969
He was small when he arrived, and has never grown above six inches tall, but the full measure of him is much larger than that. He is a feather filtering through the sunlight here, a humiliated cat over there. He is a chirr sound, he is a nibble on a toe, he is a sudden whoosh, he is a missing chicken neck. But most of all, he is HEX.
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June 30, 1969


He was small when he arrived, and has never grown above six inches tall, but the full measure of him is much larger than that. He is a feather filtering through the sunlight here, a humiliated cat over there. He is a chirr sound, he is a nibble on a toe, he is a sudden whoosh, he is a missing chicken neck. But most of all, he is HEX.

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Owl has an optical system remarkable both for its capacities and its limitations. In the dimmest light he spots out of the corner of his eye, from perhaps 20 feet away, a small moth dropped to the floor—and the only reason I know it's there is because I dropped it for him. Yet as long as it doesn't move, he is weak at registering prey by its form and color alone: a fat moth on the wall may well be ignored. Unless Owl is very hungry, in which case he prowls and scans his familiar world for something suspicious and any foreign shape is then recorded in many perspectives if it looks even remotely like food. His decision that something is food is usually correct, but we sometimes see Owl, by our exquisite standards, making a fool of himself over a cigarette butt or bread crust against the background of a plate.

Strangely, anything closer than eight or 10 inches Owl can scarcely see at all, which means that he can form no useful image of what he holds in his talons. Sagacious Owl, bird of Athene, goddess of wisdom—he can't even see his own feet. And now I can offer two possible reasons for another observation, Owl's odd habit of closing his eyes when he eats. First, he can't really see what he's got, so why not? Second, some of the things he eats are known to thrash around a little. Who wants that in the eye? Does he think to guard his eyes, or is it automatic? Since they close when he drinks water also, let us call it automatic, without being perfectly sure what automatic means.

Growing up to Become an Owl

The odds are against the success of an owlet. A major factor is the development of his optical system. At first only the motion of large objects would attract his attention and not dependably. Soon, however, he began to try to sight in on things with a swing and bob of the head. Functionally, nevertheless, he was blind. He had been living contentedly in his coffee can on a shelf, never going more than a few feet from its entrance. To show him off to a friend who was at supper with us, we set the owlet on the table with dessert. He marched, hip-hop, across the table, up one side of the guest's ice cream and down the other (who said something in a resigned tone of voice, and smoothed the prints out of his dessert) and continued on his way, off the edge of the table. Owl took four falls in this fashion, until finally he learned how an edge looks.

Grounded, the flightless owlet never showed the slightest fear of anything. He is slow afoot, too weak to defend himself, rather strong-smelling (an owl smells about the way you would expect an owl to smell, perhaps somewhat better—far milder than, say, a long-haired dog, mole, tomcat or person). For such a creature, what use is fear? The grounded owlet, if an orphan, has one resource: face. And so he presented beak and furious yellow stare face-on to anything that approached, and went chirr at it. An animal that looks back at you with two eyes at once tends to stand high in the local food chain, i.e., not one of nature's victims.

It has been reported that many owl fledglings leave home before they can fly and are supported by the parents as they clamber about on the ground and up trees—air support for the ground forces. It seems a chancy way to raise children, yet there are new owls every year, so it must work. Our fledgling stayed near the mouth of his coffee can for about a week, but then, long before he could fly, set out into the world on foot—a world which he could scarcely see, which would have to be worked into shape through trial and error and which he could not hope to exploit for food. The child leaving home with his clothes and a favorite toy in a bag tied to a stick is better equipped to make a living. Nevertheless, off Owl went, presumably coded with the knowledge that his parents were maintaining overflights and would give the evil eye—the HEX—to whatever came his way.

The hex works on the cat, who has never granted amnesty to any other weaker household creature luckless enough to go before him. The cat's name is Harold Claggart and he is inclined to say, in chill officialese, "It is regrettable that the prisoner was deceased in an attempt to escape from confinement." Claggart is an expert on other animals. Some dogs he flees, some he ignores, some he fights, others he keeps so tar away from he never has to fight or flee. No great hunter, only lust and combat truly stir him; nevertheless, he knows how to and will kill a chance squirrel or mole or bird, will ignore toad and wasp, will munch a grasshopper. A pragmatist. How does he react to Owl? On introduction he was curiously on stiff legs; he advanced his nose carefully. The little owl, shut-eyed, leaned forward and delivered the nibble and buzz he gave everything which came to him. Claggart, not charmed, pulled back. In the next few hours the two of them defined the poles of their relationship: mild aversion, indifference and that instinctive flicker from eye to muscle, muscle to claw or eye to gland and back to eye that I will call curiosity. Two rival gangs have agreed to a truce but the gunmen are a bit edgy, that is what Owl and Claggart remind me of, and their infrequent face-to-face encounters are from the same movie.

One day Owl, under a protective umbrella of his human parents, firing his hex in all directions, was exploring on foot. Still flightless, he had just learned to pounce. (Let's say "learned" to pounce: maturation was required as well as study. For a couple of weeks he did not pounce at all; the transition was the short two-legged hop he would make in getting from place to place; it remained only to link that hop onto a moving target.) Owl saw in front of him the twitching tail of the sleeping cat. He pounced on the twitch. Infantile as the bird was, beak and talons were still needly, and the cat must have felt each one.

In cartoons a cat so attacked goes straight up in the air, his mouth open yowling, his hair electrically bristling. Claggart—to get it as accurately as possible, I will drop in the phrase—got hastily to his feet. A standard cat posture: arched and twisted body, ears back, a nasty show of teeth, the weight shifted off one front leg which makes a menacing half-movement. It is a movie again. The bully who is really a coward and is not going to fight it out, instead sneers and snarls out of it as best he can. The tail having been whipped out of his clutch, Owl had made some kind of retreat but was still staring at what was looming up in front of him. You can say he was aware of the magnitude of his error but was brazening it out. Or you can say he was staring aghast at the consequences of his act.

Claggart slouched off and lay down again. I insist on the strangeness of the cat's reactions. He lightly spikes people who get too cuddly with him. He has finally come to allow Jason to nuzzle him, but claws him for any too-sudden or buffoonish approach. My mother-in-law's black poodle can bark and harass until she actually arrives on the cat, then he spikes her. And although Claggart was watched, spied upon, every instant he was with the young owl, he has never been seen to make a threatening move nor has he ever been hit or yelled at when near the owl, which might instill some kind of fear of the bird. Once in a similar situation, I put Claggart and a visiting hamster together, free. The cat may have been about to go for the hamster, but he was easily soothed back into mere watchfulness and then indifference. That was the night in which the same hamster squeezed out of its cage and was killed by the same cat. No, it is not mildness which keeps Claggart in his place, nor is it fear of or loyalty to the household gods. It is HEX.

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