Jan Priddy

“Wake up!” Beatrice is told. “It is time for school.” She hungers, but not for the ones who stack blocks on the floor and share the books and papers she reads. She bobs awake.

The children build castles out of sofa cushions and spoon pumpkin custard with whipped cream into or near their mouths, and in their beds they sleep fitfully and dream owlish dreams.

Beatrice has already missed the vole and that creature went on being what it was in the day. In her plush feathers she drops silent upon the mouse and the mouse becomes food. She carries the food home.

Geoff tears the mouse and shares it out. The next and the next.

The three cousins, Beatrice and Geoff and littlest Mina, fill themselves again and again and perch in a crevice between branches where they can not be seen. They make their owlish sounds and littlest Mina smiles in a way no beak should allow her to smile.

Then they shift deeper in their hole, fall asleep in the dawn, and become children again.

At night there is no guarantee of children asleep safe in their beds. Some children harry back and forth, too weary to rest, unable to choose in dreaming. Unwilling.

Or perhaps it begins with birds. No telling. No promises of ending or beginning. There is a dreamer and there is reality, each one twice.

Beatrice climbs trees and Geoff carries gifts from adult to adult and littlest Mina smiles upon whomever holds her. They are busy children. They ask us questions and answer themselves without listening to our wisdom, and some of their answers no one else will understand or hear. This meat does not require cooking. The wind under eaves is confusing. Why clothes? 

Beatrice’s brother walks from table to chair and back again. Geoff is the quiet traveler, silence that conceals curiosity and planning. He orders and balances the world in patterns no one else is privy to. He blames no one and does not back down.

All day, cousin Mina is carried from place to place, the faces of those who imagine they love her, bend over her, and greet her smiles. Mina naps. It is not the same as sleeping, without choice or commitment. She will wake and cry and demand and be satisfied.

As the darkness turns on household lights, the three close diurnal eyes.

They fall asleep and become something else.

We start screaming at once because the plunge into water—the rain? a pond?—is unpredicted—no shift in air current to give us warning. The heat! It hurtles upon us. It hurts. We thought we knew what water does and how to respond with calm. Lifting, that slight gesture to trap warmth from the recent mouse-meal, a silhouette of body warmth pressed into this cold darkness. It is not cold. Instead. This heat. Instead, we scream. Hands. They might be drowning us, killing us in a wet, hot bath. And we are changed. We are soothed. We remember how to be this other thing, children. Yes, Mommy, I am better, I am better, Yes, Hmm . . . and then soon we are owls again.

In summer, the nights are busy with feeding. New mice and bats, the young of crows and sparrows. Sometimes the children forget to eat. The owls never forget.

Night soothes as if the moon growing full has abruptly brought a change of season, the chilly night shivering loose to warmer weather. They might remember shivering. It has been spring before, and summer after that in their dreams—a full round of seasons so recently winter. They are grown and their parents flown and all is well with owls. Until they wake again.

The children roll around in their sleep, half on and half off their beds, twisting in sheets, sometimes speaking back to their own owl selves in sleep, fretful and frowning or laughing in flight. Awake, they can never travel fast enough, days spread out, a colossal distance between them and their goals not grounded in hunger or need but in the unanswerable call to another place that Time denies. The children know that Somewhere Else is always going on without them.

Owls never fall from their perch. They drop their weight, you might say they sit upon their heels, but owls do not have heels. That is not how it seems to those who flex to lock tendons and allow safe sleep till time to fly again. They wake blinking their round eyes, lift on their wings to release and let go. Otherwise they hold still in a manner their parents never witness.

Owls dwell now, without Time inflicting itself with Something Else. Owls are, not were or will be.

Owl or child, each one pursues what might best feed.

All three wonder at wind blowing in branches, the ceaseless roar and clatter of stones shifting under the wash of tides. They thirst. They eat. They bob with anticipation. Beauty in each breath. None recall their youngest selves. The owls cannot imagine and never even try to conjure their owlet existence. Shown her own infant portraits, Beatrice is fascinated—not so the younger two. Geoff and Mina do not believe the photographs.

Mina’s mother is unsuccessful with the applesauce. The infant, strapped into her high chair seat, is unwilling to take spoon into mouth.

“She won’t eat,” her mother complains.

“Maybe she isn’t hungry,” says her father. “She’s gaining weight just fine. The doctor says we shouldn’t worry.”

“But she’s not eating enough to feed a bird!”

Geoff takes to hiding in corners, humming to himself sometimes and pretending he is not there.

“Come on out,” his father begs. “We are having your favorite for dinner.” The truth is no one is certain what Geoff likes to eat these days. Geoff drops food on the floor, closes his mouth, and turns his head away. What his father offers is grapes and crackers with peanut butter and cheese, foods the father loved himself at that age. He crouches to peer under the corner table where Geoff hides in the living room. “Come out,” his father says. 

Geoff is humming and his father strains to follow the words. He calls to his daughter, “What is your brother singing? Is it some song you taught him?”

Beatrice shakes her head and picks at her plate. She is neither hungry nor interested in her brother’s song. It is a foolishness she has already outgrown.

“House? Is he saying house?” her father says. 

“No, Dad.” She stirs the pieces of her sandwich and frowns. Geoff should stop it. “Stop it! Stop it!” she calls without looking.

Never mind. He sings. Hunting those wild rodents, voles and mice and bats and shrews, pounce upon their bodies, snap them so they’re good to eat, whoo-oo the little rodents, whoo-oo, the little vole bat mouse shrew!

Her mother puts down her phone and turns look at her little boy.  “What is your brother saying?” she says to her daughter, and then, “Eat your lunch so we can go to the park.”

Beatrice pretends a bite. “What park?”

“Honey,” she calls to the father of these children, “will you see what Geoff is on about?”

The father has already abandoned his paternity to return to his own business.

“Mo-om, what park are we going to?”

“We are going to the playground and then to the Japanese gardens. You have been there before.”

“The garden with the big fish?” Beatrice means the bright-colored koi.

“Yes, but you have to eat your lunch first.”

Beatrice turns her head left and takes a tiny bite. She turns her head right and nibbles another tiny bite. She puts the piece of sandwich back on her plate. She wants to cough. “I want to see the big fish.”

“Yes, dear. Finish your sandwich and we will go.”

The trip to the Japanese Gardens exposes the children to a mannered version of nature.  Paths lead between trees encouraged to grow in a twisty, wildlike manner, everything purposed and controlled. The children watch koi from the edge of the upper pond, and then from the bridge that crosses over one end of the pond. The fish are silver and white and copper, orange and gold. They are fleshy and spotted and spangled with bright colors. They are food.

These children consider leaping into the water. They consider biting the fish. Eventually Geoff judges they are too heavy to lift, Beatrice agrees, and they both follow their mother through the park that is fresh with trees and charming artifice. The mother pauses with the children before they leave.

Beatrice is lifted onto a stone Foo Dog and her photo taken. When it is Geoff’s turn to ride the lion, he screams and kicks and will not sit.

At that same moment while her mother lifts the flailing boy, Beatrice sees a chipmunk gathering fir cones. She stamps, and snatches it to her mouth before her mother notices what she has done.

“What are you doing? Put it down!” She catches her daughter’s hand. “Put it down!” Surely Beatrice has not just killed a chipmunk, surely she has only found it lying there. “Poor thing,” says the mother and leads her daughter and son away.

Mina wakes with a mouse tail hanging from her mouth. Her mother yelps and blinks and calls to the father and both parents listen to their child squawk and shrill in a most un-baby-like manner. They pluck the object from her mouth. They toss it in the trash without looking. They look at one another.

“What was that . . . do you think she is okay . . . who can we call?” So they telephone the grandparents on each side of the family and then the doctor. No one believes the story, and then since little Mina smiles so contentedly and she grows normally and her hearing checks out and her eyes track as they should and her next poop is normal, they laugh at their concern and pretend everything is fine.

It cannot have been what they sometimes think it was, not a tail in their child’s mouth. It was something else—a shoelace or a scrap of cloth or string. A twig, even. It was really nothing. Neither parent wants to go digging after whatever they found in their daughter’s mouth.

Surely it was nothing. Why worry?

Or perhaps it was something.

During her favorite Thursday afternoon science module, Beatrice feels compelled to thrust out her chin and drool and hack. She coughs up a pellet onto her preschool desk as the substitute teacher Ms. Hansen, who was a Biology major at one time, writes “hypothesis,” on the whiteboard. It is an advanced school, but Ms. Hansen is accustomed to working with older children than these, who are five and six years old and cannot pronounce “hypothesis.”

The lump seeps moisture into the paper on Beatrice’s desk.

David, the child on Beatrice’s left, says “Ew!” while Jessie on her right leans closer to get a better look at the lump on the middle of Beatrice’s scratch page. The class as a whole goes quiet and stares. Ms. Hansen considers Beatrice, who has already asked complex questions even she recognizes are inappropriate for the child’s age. But Ms. Hansen is inexperienced, still uncertain what appropriate questions might be. She puts down her marker and walks to the child. When she bends over Beatrice’s desk to see what that is, that thing, she recognizes an owl pellet.

“Where did you find this?” she says to the child.

Beatrice peers up at the substitute teacher she genuinely adores and says, “Me.” She smiles and opens her sleepy eyes till they are wide and round and glimmering green, and the effect is quite owl-like to anyone who sees.

Ms. Hansen does not notice. She recognizes nothing beyond the pellet. She picks it up. It is oddly damp. She has dissected pellets in the past. She holds this one high and returns to the front of the class. She diagrams on the board. Now she feels herself on firmer ground. This is a “teachable moment.” She explains owl digestion, and that the pellet likely contains the fur and bones of several rodents. “We will dissect this one,” she says. “May we?” she remembers to ask the owner.

Beatrice shrugs. She is quite finished with the knot of discards. She pants once more and then closes her mouth, swallows, squints, and take an interest in what will happen next.

Ms. Hansen strides across the room and roots under the class sink until she finds a glass vase to which she adds warm water and the pellet. The bundle begins to come undone. She mutters too softly for most of the class to hear.

Back at the front of the room, she announces their task. They will soak the pellet and then take it apart, ever so carefully. “We will discover what this owl had for supper.” She beams, positively beams. Beatrice has never seen this teacher in such a state.

By then, Beatrice herself most earnestly wishes to examine what she has produced.

The next day Miss Brown is still gone, and Ms. Hansen begins the deconstruction. The class is initially fascinated, but Ms. Hansen recognizes these students do not possess the motor skills necessary to retrieving minuscule bones and, excepting Beatrice, no patience to watch it happen. She removes a tiny skull from the bundle—the class moans in fear and wonder—and then sends the children back to their discovery areas to play. She stays after class that day, and assembles the bones to make skeletons, a puzzle of another order.

Her project ultimately recovers the bones of several rodents—at least seven different mice and perhaps the hind quarters of a vole. There is no complete skeleton, though that only becomes clear after two weeks of evening effort and consultation with a college friend. Mark Jensen works for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, but spends his weekends birding. He insists over the phone that finding only partial remains of several rodents in an adult owl’s pellet is not rare. They agree to a meeting over coffee, which leads to a discussion of the mating habits of owls, and finally a very long evening and a much longer and quite sweaty night.

Soon after, fearful of bacteria, Ms. Hansen disposes of the remains. A parent has heard about the pellet project and complained to a member of the school board about this Ms. Hansen. She is not invited back to substitute at Beatrice’s school, and no more is said about the pellet in class. Except, of course, Ms. Hansen leaves teaching entirely the following winter to marry the zoologist and miscarry a clutch of four otherwise healthy squabs.

 Perhaps understandably, Ms. Hansen does not share any part of this story with future employers.

It is only by accident that Geoff is found to have a collection of pellets laid out in neat order under his bed.

The house cleaner Mrs. Morrison, hired to clean the bathrooms and kitchen, has been told not to bother with the children’s rooms, but out of the goodness of her heart and her love for order, cannot leave well enough alone. In previous weekly cleanings, she simply picked up toys, hung clothing, wiped down the furniture and ran the vacuum over the carpet. One afternoon, she notes the vacuum has sucked up something from under the bed. The object does not clatter like a block nor bump, trickle, or rattle. A sock? She carries the vacuum outside and opens the back of the machine onto a newspaper and finds nothing but dust, long red hairs, twigs and what seems to be garden matter—cots of dirt, wool, and feathers. Mrs. Morrison packs away the mess without spreading it about.

But another day, in the spirit of a Full Cleaning, she gets down on her hands and knees to look under the bed. It is a darkish room and she sees what appears to be a row of dust bunnies, seven small objects lined up near the far wall. She turns the vacuum off and uses the brush attachment to pull them out. On the one hand, the peculiar bundles, dark and gray, look like something that belongs in the trash, something she might already have seen in the trash. Bits of feather and plush, pale twigs perhaps, and something she does not want to recognize as a tiny paw. They are so similar in size and shape, they appear to be . . . somethings rather than nothings.

Mrs. Morrison, whether through embarrassment or alarm, chooses not to share this story with her employers and informs the parents only that her schedule has become too full to continue cleaning for them.

In flight air flows and we wait for the small night creatures to reveal themselves. We lift with no sounding beat of wings, no ruffle, fluffle, shuffle of feathers. We are silent and silent be. We three. Those grounded scutter and shift and rush across the rare empty spaces and down we drop as swift as stone, as quick as if we were not there at all, silent and sudden, snap the neck of the tiny morsel, and it is food.

The years pass and perhaps the dreams end. They appear to end.

Beatrice grows to be a tall woman, her eyes quite round and the color of moss. Her determination is legendary within her profession, indeed frightening to those who know her best. Once set upon her goal nothing short of lightning—and perhaps not even that—might stop her. It is her absolute confidence that once sighted, any target is hers. When she fails to gain her ends at a first attempt, and of course she misses often enough, she marks the challenge as if with a grid and works it through from end to end until she finds the weakness and prevails.

Her brother also grows tall, taller than either of his parents and with the clear tenor voice of his father, often humming as he goes about his day. He is trusted absolutely to be fair and honest and just in his work, always reaching for equilibrium between two opposing parties, each certain they will be cheated, and Geoff there to prove a compromise. No one leaves unsatisfied.

Littlest Mina nearly stays gone. She dreams on and on. She sleeps. She is slow to walk, slow to read, fussy and far behind her cousins. Only pity returns her to her parents’ side. Her mother and father take her for counseling before she enters preschool. They offer her pets and art projects, a dollhouse the size of a car. It is only horses that finally settle her. She is the most silent of the three whether training horses to dance or in her secret habit of feeding mice in the nighttime. That much at least is owed.

They conceal their need, their passages. They do not leave, but take leaving.

Rumors of transformation and loss sweep through homes like flakes of ash, so thin and light and pale they vanish when touched, leaving only a whisper of soot.

In nearly every case children grow out of their dreams. Some few migrate and are never heard from again.

The tabloids and some mainstream news agencies cover claims by alarmed parents that their children have flown off in the night and not returned. Soldiers report children walking out of abandoned caves, near-naked, thin-boned, and without history or language. Most sensible people consider these stories absurd. In any event, the phenomenon seems to end with most children safe at home. 

In the years after, fear of transformation spreads a curse over childbirth and rumors arise whenever parents gather. Social scientists have explanations—population pressure, fear of death among the young, a generation unwilling to share.

Those returned have no children of their own. The three cousins grow so very tall and responsible and grounded—so adult. What happens in the night while others sleep safely surrounded by cotton sheets and family, might be a dream. In daylight they look us straight in the eye and dare our question. They do not describe whatever they might see.

We pretend not to notice.

Still, like the uninvited fairy who curses a baby princess, our cousins are sometimes shown a babe by an unthinking friend or proud grandparent or neighbor. An unwise invitation to admire or congratulate.

Beatrice might study a child in its loved one’s arms and lean her face so very close the adults cannot help but shudder. She breathes in, eyes closed, and she might whisper “Owl” and only the infant smiles to hear it.

©2018 by Jan Priddy

JAN PRIDDY's writing has appeared in the Brevity blog, CALYXThe MacGuffinThe HumanistNorth American Review, anthologies on running and race, and forthcoming in Brevity magazine. She has BFAs in studio arts from the University of Washington and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. Find her at http://janpriddyoregon.com

Back to issue 5 - spring / summer 2018