FICTION (May 2018)
Just in Case by Jane Fraser
On the first evening, it is only a snatched glimpse through the open window of the car. Fleetingly, its amber, wide-eyed stare holds mine just long enough to feel that it is making some deep connection.
As we drive the last few hundred yards home along the single track lane that leads to our house, I feel its eyes pierce me still; and I am filled with disquiet.
I close the door to the half-dark world that has unsettled me, flick on the light and switch on the television, and take comfort from the blabber of characters unknown to me.
“What’s up, Aggie? You’ve gone quiet,” says my husband, “are you ill or something?”
“No, I’m fine,” I say. For there are no words to convey this sudden and inexplicable shift. He is by now used to fluctuations in my moods and perhaps this is just a woman thing. He’s wiser than to pry further and with no more questions, wraps me in the shawl of his arms, far from the other-worldliness of the last half-hour. Temporarily, I feel lifted.
But when night comes, broken sleep fudges the boundaries between the real and the imagined. I am running along the freshly-painted broken white lines marking out the centre of a road. They are reflecting a sickly light across my face. I can see my pallor under the moonlight. There is no traffic, just me alone in my flimsy cotton nightdress. The landscape is familiar to me, not far away at all. I recognise every curve of every bend, every incline, the overgrown hedges at the edges of the road that I skim with the tips of my outstretched fingers as I journey on; though I don’t know where I am running to. There is an aching heaviness in my limbs, perhaps because the wind is impeding my progress: an unusual direction, off the land, chilling my cheeks. My lips feel parched; on my tongue there is the taste of metal. Just when I think I can run no further, I sense it there behind me, hear its slow wing beat, before it takes me in its talons and lifts me high into the sky, gripping me safely in the hook of its beak as we glide forward together to who knows where.
I find it difficult to get back to sleep after this. By day a rational individual: by night, a believer in superstitions, soothsayers, even my mother’s old wives’ tales. Things come in threes.
The next day breaks bright, laced with frost and I dust off the debris of a disturbed night and the gloom that cloaked me the previous evening. It was only a white owl. It was just a rare sighting. I busy myself with my work in the studio, never ceasing to be amazed at the views I breathe in: such vast open skies and vast open seas – uninterrupted vistas of the three mile sweep of sand between the limestone promontory that crawls out in to the Atlantic like a worm and the tidal island of Burry Holms that twice daily rises like a turtle out of the sea. And in March, it is unpeopled, magical, and all mine. Sometimes I could feel almost blessed if it wasn’t for one thing. But, I don’t talk about that anymore; not now.
This same evening, beyond the dusk, before the dark, it seeks me out. It is the second sighting. It sits in marbled stillness amid the bare branches of wind-crippled blackthorn at the edge of the field. But tonight the air is quiverless and the bird bathed milk-white by a rising moon. It swoops low, its wings full-spanned, stretched wide in all their feathered lightness, in all their creamy whiteness, hovering, searching, dipping over the hedgerows and the acres of stubbled fields which roll almost to my front door. It is as though it is demanding admittance, wanting to come across the threshold, for me to invite it in. In the half-light, I notice that the fine hairs on my forearms are standing on end as its eyes fix mine.
It has followed me home; I know it. This same owl I saw that first night. It is surely coming to me with a message. I realise how little I know or understand; only that I feel bonded to this creature in some mysterious communion. I can no longer keep my misgivings to myself. I beg my husband to explain what he thinks the significance of this owl is, to bring the logic I crave to the situation that has come into my life.
“Why do you always have to look for deeper meaning in things, Aggie?” he says, “why can’t you just accept things at face value? It’s just an owl, for God’ sake, it’s after voles and vermin, not you.”
You Celts, he says, “you’re all doom and gloom, not happy till you’re crying and drowning in your own misery. D’you like being unhappy, or what?”
“I’m not unhappy,” I protest, “I’m just unsettled by it, that’s all.”
I wonder at that moment whether it’s fear, or just fear of fear that’s made me the person I am, but know this white owl in winter it will return once more. There will be a third time.
I try bed, restless, anticipating – perhaps even willing – that characteristic screech or midnight hiss that owls are supposed to make, to begin. My mother has often told me old Welsh tales of women who take their clothes off and put them back on inside out to stop an owl’s hoot. Or of those who hurl salt, hot peppers and vinegar into the fire in the hope that the owl will get a sore tongue. But outside all remains calm. It is only inside my head that my mother’s words knock against my skull: “Things always come in threes. Take it from me, I know.”
Dawn wakes me early, forcing itself through the peep in the curtains. It is still before 6 o’clock and I am sleep-heavy, my breath sour, that metallic taste on the tongue again. Lack of rest has made me queasy as though a million butterflies are fluttering inside me. I swing my legs over the side of the bed and feel the need to steady myself. I want light and open the curtains wide to allow the day into my bedroom.
The view that meets my eyes never fails to amaze me. But this morning it almost overcomes me. I put the emotion down to poor sleep. The burrows are brushed with the burnished bronze of sunrise and the conical dunes, a lunar landscape, sharply defined and stark with shadow that will lift with the rising sun. This depth of feeling I have never experienced before. It is almost like illness. Like misery, my husband would say. And I acknowledge silently that he is right; that I cry when I feel at my happiest. And I feel over-full with an unexplained emotion and notice that tears are spilling from eyes and I hadn’t even realised.
As the day dawdles by, the euphoria passes. I know my bird will return this evening. There will be a third time. It’s out of my control. I can sense my husband’s irritation: “For God’ sake, Aggie, get a grip, he says. “Look, it’s new day, cloudless, almost perfect. What more could anyone want?” We are both silent then, neither of us daring to utter the one unspoken word that could answer that question.
Of course it comes the third time: a muted wing-flap in the dying sun. The land is pink-tinged, smudging imperceptibly into the bleeding sky. Against this canvas, the owl sweeps and swoops at full span, its ivory plumage almost touchable it glides so close. It is the silence that is so shocking; such a big bird, yet it is strangely noiseless for reasons I do not understand. Other lesser birds are frenzied at this just before dusk time before they settle for the night. But this owl is serene; so silent. It circles above and then it does what I know it must. It comes to within inches of me with its message. I read its eyes, startlingly bright in its flat, heart-shaped face. It connects for what I know will be the third and final time. And then it is gone into the long spring shadows.
Now that it has gone, there is only the waiting and the honey-tipped feather it has left behind. Days, weeks, one month, two months, three dread-filled months, yet nothing. But my body and mind still do not accept the nothingness and I merely exist in a constant agitated state of expectation that won’t go away however hard I try.
I wake habitually early, dizzy and spinning. My husband tells me that I am not myself, that I am off-colour. He wears his concern on his face like I wear my sickly mask. He attributes everything to my over-active imagination, a Celtic pessimism and the damned owl. He doesn’t dare mention my hormones; he’s wiser than that.
I’ve grown to accept endings over the years, that fate did not deal me the cards I desired. I have become immune to the never-endingness of impossibilities. I have learned by now not to dare have hope and have grown wise to not dwell on the tell-tale signals of loss: untimely blood spots, the cursor pointing to an empty void on a computer screen, all those silent heartbeats .But at forty-five, the idea of possibility seizes me. It could just be. When I begin to tell my husband what is happening to me, I watch his expression change. It says that his menopausal and barren wife has finally gone over the edge: deranged by full moons, old wives’ tales and visitations of white owls at sundown. But I plead my case. There has been no monthly bleed since the beginning of the year.
I insist he climbs into the loft and brings down the Moses basket that has been stored there for almost half a life time: just in case as my mother would say. I tuck fresh white sheets over the tiny mattress and place the single feather in an empty crib.