– Fierce Fiction by Julie Paul – April 22, 2019
David and I were still awake at 3 am. The moon wasn’t full, that wasn’t the reason, but the Perseids were doing their August trick, showering meteors like streaks of sleep dust from the sandman, mocking us.
I reached over and belted myself in with David’s arm, even though it was hot in our room. I needed the comforting.
Until yesterday, when I’d taken her to a small lake outside of town, our daughter, Anna, hadn’t worn summer clothes once. I thought it was about breasts, one growing faster than the other, or maybe because of her belly, but from what I could tell, Anna had become more proportionate as she’d grown taller.
I hadn’t been all that worried: she hadn’t stopped eating or gone berserk with exercise the way my friend’s daughter had the year before; she wasn’t sneaking out, getting older guys to boot liquor for parties. Until yesterday, I’d just put it down to fashion.
Beneath the safety strap of my husband’s arm, I cried. I was at a complete and utter loss.
Then he said, “Shhhh. Listen.”
An owl hooted, just outside the window. It hooted again, sending its quiet plea into the darkness.
“Cool,” he said. Cool, at a time like this? “We should go find it.”
But it was cool. Our city street was lined with trees, but no owls had come a-calling before.
“We’ll never find it,” I said.
Then I heard Anna’s bed creak. I removed David’s arm and sat up.
“She’s heard it too,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Yesterday—a hundred years ago—we’d been the only swimmers at the lake.
“Now will you take your layers off?” I begged Anna, from the water. “No one can see you here.”
To my surprise, Anna stepped out of her jeans and pulled off her hoody. There she stood, my pale, beautiful girl in a black bikini, hugging herself as if she’d never been hugged before.
“Come in!” I cried. “It’s nearly bath water.”
Anna walked to the edge and yelped when the water hit her feet, but she didn’t run. Instead, she took a few steps and dove right in. When she surfaced, she was both a new person and my long-hidden daughter, dark hair smoothed against her skull, generous smile bigger than it’d been in weeks.
“Happy now?” she asked me. Smiling still.
Was I happy! We swam for twenty minutes, alone in that small lake, floating and laughing like we’d always done before daring to climb onto the private raft at the other side.
It was when Anna lifted herself onto the floating dock that I saw them: her inner arms, laddered with cuts—no, scars—at least twenty per limb. Whiter than her white skin, they seemed mostly healed. But I knew what they were—had been schooled on this latest trend, never thinking I’d have to face it. Still, I asked all the same. “What happened to your arms?”
“Oh, I keep scraping them on my dresser drawers,” Anna said. Then, with a face as pink as lemonade, she flopped onto her belly and changed the subject to her job search troubles.
There had been more than scrapes or lines. There were hashtags. Asterisks. Little stars to mark the spaces.
Searching for an owl in the darkness seemed better than lying there sleepless, making a list of dangerous items around the house. Would we have to go through the babyproofing again, only locks instead of elastics on the cupboards? Knives were obvious but what about forks? The can opener, the sharp edge of the old peeler?
Already I’d mentally locked away anything that might turn into a weapon. Boxcutters, scissors, staples. Nail clippers, frameless mirrors, even Q-tips: maybe they were as dangerous as those commercials showed, that sharp stick beneath the soft tip, hidden until damage was done.
What had I missed? What signs had I filed under “normal teenaged behaviour”? That day when Anna wanted to wear high heels to school and I’d said no. Or the day Anna flipped out because there was no cereal in the house—had she begun it then? Or maybe it was the day the boy she liked said he only wanted to be friends. Or during her first period, two months ago, or after failing the math test? What about us forbidding her from bringing home the girl who’d punched her mother in the face?
Where had I failed?
Because he was into anthropology, David tried to get me to see it another way when I started crying yesterday, once Anna was out of sight.
“Maybe it’s the new rite of passage,” he’d said. “The modern way to mark this time of insanity.” When that didn’t make me feel better, he continued. “Scarification was huge in certain cultures. And I don’t think she has a death wish.”
I’d jumped when he said that. “But what if she cuts too deep?” I asked. “What if it’s a step?”
His only answer had come as a thick embrace. It wasn’t much comfort—our daughter was the one who needed arms around her. If only I could wrap Anna in a sling again, wear her all day long, put her to sleep between us the way I had for her first two years. Despite so many warnings about over-coddling, that had never been a mistake.
Now Anna’s door was opening. She, too, had been summoned.
“Did you hear?” Anna whispered, from our doorway.
“Yes,” I whispered back. “Let’s go find it.”
What the bird would tell us was anyone’s guess, but we needed to get closer, to confirm that it wasn’t all in our heads or just a ringtone we were hearing.
An owl ringtone. Who, who who who?
The three of us descended to the front door and walked out into the night. Clouds had rolled in, blocking out any chance of seeing meteor showers. The owl called again. It was such a deliberate cry—no chatter or gossipy nature to it, no demanding plea. The owl had no competition in the night sky; there was a confidence in its calls.
It was just like my grandfather, delivering the readings at Mass when I was a child. No matter how odd the story—water to wine, hands into Jesus’s gaping wounds—or how impossible the instructions, any doubters became instant believers when he read. His voice demanded good posture, a clear head, a pure heart. This. Is the Word. Of the Lord. The amen that followed was nearly evangelical in enthusiasm, nearly tipping over into sacrilege for the subdued Catholic Church.
Yet despite this early exposure, I’d given Anna nothing to believe in—beyond herself and a mostly beautiful world beyond the door. At Anna’s age, I’d gone to a Catholic school, knew good from bad, heaven from hell, how to sing a hundred hymns. When I’d recited the prayer before Communion—Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed—it had felt like renewal, like another chance at getting it right.
But the Church didn’t always make a person this warm and fuzzy. Maybe Anna’s cutting was as Catholic as you could get: self-flagellation. Maybe the anorexics were the modern-day dervishes, shunning the body and the pleasures of the flesh for some bigger plan. If that were true, then bulimia was religious too. Sinning, punishment, forgiveness at the toilet-as-confessional.
It was too late to give Anna a taste of ceremony or a new look at religion; David and I had both gone AWOL on church before we’d even met. Was it unfair of us to keep this away from Anna? Had she missed out?
The owl called again. David cocked his head, pointed to the tamarack tree at the edge of the front lawn. We shuffled over to stand beneath it, and it hooted once more.
“Mom,” Anna said. “Doesn’t it scare off its food, making all that noise?”
I didn’t know the first thing about owls. My hand itched to find the mouse, to Google it. But I’d been on the computer all day, looking up case histories of cutters, clogging the search engine with questions to cover up the ones I could not ask: What is so bad about this life we’ve given you? Where did we go wrong?
“Maybe it isn’t hunting right now,” I said. “Maybe it just needs to talk.”
Each low hoot vibrated softly in my chest as the three of us stood there, listening. After a minute, we heard a distant reply. The owl—our owl—seemed to compress itself into a tight ball of brown and white feathers before launching into the air on its massive wings. Then all we saw was the shape of it vanishing into the cloudy night, closer to whatever stars might be falling beyond.
A question had been asked, and an answer had lifted itself out of the darkness.
About the Author – Julie Paul
Julie Paul is the author of three story collections, The Jealousy Bone, The Pull of the Moon and the forthcoming Meteorites, as well as the poetry collection The Rules of the Kingdom. The Pull of the Moon was the winner of the 2015 Victoria Butler Book Prize and was named a Top 100 Book of 2014 by The Globe and Mail. “Little Stars” will be published in Meteorites by Julie Paul © June 2019, and is published here with the permission of Brindle & Glass, an imprint of TouchWood Editions. Julie Paul lives in Victoria, BC.
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