The Way Out

By Joanna Hoyt

Mwebum and Dad are arguing again downstairs. They think I’m asleep. I can’t sleep. I wriggle down under the blankets and put my pillow over my head and hug the doll Mum made me, but I can still hear. I won’t call for them. I don’t want them to come into my room with their downstairs nighttime voices.

There are other sounds downstairs. They aren’t very loud, I can just barely hear them, but they’re nasty. I can imagine the things that make those sounds—slimy shapeless blobs dragging themselves around. But those are downstairs things. They won’t come upstairs. They won’t. That noise wasn’t from my door, it was from downstairs, all the way down, it just sounded funny because of this pillow over my head….

I uncover my head, cup my hands together and hold them up so my soul can come back from listening at the door and land in them. I can’t see it in the dark, but I know what it must look like. Not a big white bird like the Holy Spirit in my Bible with the pictures. A sparrow, dusty brown and small but old enough to fly.

I put my hands over my ear, let the bird fly into my head, away from the dark and the sound of their voices, toward the safe places I made in my mind. I fly in and in until I can feel the wind thrumming under my wings and see the green slope of the place with the horses.

Here come the horses down over the hill, black and brown and gray and golden, long tails streaming behind them. I can smell their sweat as they run under me. When I used to come here as a girl I sat on their backs to ride them. It was hard getting up, but once I was up I never fell off, even when we went like the wind through long grass swishing against my legs. Now I don’t have to climb, I just flutter down and grip the lead mare’s tossing black mane with my bird feet. I don’t weigh anything, I don’t slow her down as she gallops away.

But the clean sweat-smell is changing, turning sour, and there are little jerks in the rhythm of her feet. She’s turning, they’re all turning, galloping back up the hill, and now she’s in back. The river has turned brown and thick and oozy and started to swell up out of its banks, up and up and up. It did that when I came here as a girl the night after Aunt Louise died. I almost drowned that night, woke up choking. That’s why I stay a bird now. I let go of the horse’s mane, fly up and up, higher than the water, higher than the hill. The blue sky is graying, roughening, falling like a roof….

There. There’s always a crack, a place I can fly out through if I see it in time. This time it was trying to trick me; it looked almost like a bar of cloud, but it isn’t thick cement gray like the other clouds. I can see through it to another place where the flood can’t come.

***

Golden grain fields all around, and the castle ahead. I fly over the moat and past the guard-house and nobody challenges me. When I was a girl they let me in. I was brave with them, I had a horse and a sword and sharp eyes to spot danger coming. But the night after the day I stepped on Jessamyn’s turtle and it died—that was an accident, really it was, I was running and I didn’t see it—I tried to go back to the castle but I wasn’t brave, I was just me, and I didn’t know how to help, and I didn’t know what to do when they looked at me. So now I come as a bird, so they don’t notice me except if I warn them that I’ve seen enemies coming. I keep my human voice for that. I always warn them in time, and the drawbridge comes up, and the portcullis goes down, and we are safe.  This time I didn’t see enemies, and the drawbridge is down, and in the hall the bard is singing about the bird who warned the watchmen, and the Queen and her ladies are listening, and out in the garden the servants are laughing.

But the laughing is getting thinner, higher, it isn’t right. I fly down from the back of the Queen’s chair shouting “Danger! Danger!” Only this time I can’t find my human voice, just a bird’s voice, jay-shrill. A lady hits at me with her fan. Her fingers are turning into claws, they are claws. And her eyes… Sometimes the enemies had eyes like that. I fly up above her head, flap in circles, try to make them look at her and see the danger.

They look. They look with terrible eyes like hers, eyes that try to suck me down into a dark place with no air. I fly up toward the high window that always stands open to let the sea-wind in. The shutters are closing over it. I pump my wings until they hurt, and I squeeze through the crack between the window-frame and the shutter just in time, into another place, the place where they’re dancing.

***

They’re all here: Lindy, who moved away, and Jessamyn, who got run over by a car, and Uncle John, who can’t dance in the day because of his polio, and Uncle George, who doesn’t talk to people in our family any more, and Aunt Louise and Great-Grammie Julia who both died last summer….all dancing, together, higher and higher and faster and faster, never getting tired, dancing on the grass in the sun, dancing under the bright new leaves on the beech trees. Now they’re starting the petronella, everyone spinning one place over. Uncle John is next to Jessamyn, laughing.

Uncle John spins left just as Jessamyn spins right, and they hit each other, they fall down, and Grammie trips over them, and she falls; everybody falls, and when they get back up they don’t dance, they squinch their eyes up and say What did I expect, after what you did last time? and Just get out of my sight.

The music sort of shakes and stops, and I can hear the sound that the slimy shapeless blobs make, coming closer and closer.

I look up. High in the sky floats another cloud that’s not a cloud. I could get out through it to another place, and from that place into another…

I look down. The blobs are getting closer. Behind them grass and trees crumple into slime, into nothing. The people on the grass don’t notice the blobs yet. They can’t get up into the sky, they can’t get away. I can’t leave them. The blobs aren’t coming after them. They’re coming after me.

I fly down, down, closer and closer to the growing pulsing blobs. They don’t have any eyes, but they see me. I don’t like them seeing me. I keep flying toward them.

Now I can see pictures flashing in their slimy sides. Jessamyn crying about her turtle when it died. Me crying too so people would know it wasn’t my fault. Leola crying about Jessamyn when she died. The people at Aunt Louise’s funeral, looking at each other, muttering, thinking whose fault it was. Mum looking the way she looks when someone disappoints her, her lips tight together, not saying anything.

The last picture is me alone in the dark, scrunched up on my bed with my eyes shut and my hands over my ear.

I fly into the picture. The dark fills my eyes and my beak like slime. But I keep pumping my wings, and the dark pulls back a little, and I let my soul spread out to fill up my human body. Behind my eyes I can still see the pictures that the blobs carried. But I can see the other true pictures too. Me flying kites with Jessamyn, the kites pulling and twirling in the wind, both of us laughing. Mum and Aunt Louise singing “My Anchor Holds” in harmony. Me picking raspberries with Mum, getting the whole patch picked just before the thunderstorm hits. Mum teaching me to swim, holding onto me in the water, telling me over and over that I can put my face down and pick my feet up, I won’t sink, I won’t drown. Me not drowning, diving down into the swirls of light and dark in the water, coming up laughing.

I open my eyes and uncover my ears. They’re still arguing downstairs. Outside the window the crescent moon shines and the peeping frogs sing. I hum along with them. I hum “My Anchor Holds.”

___

Joanna Hoyt lives with her family on a Catholic Worker farm in upstate New York where she spends her days tending gardens, goats and guests and her evenings reading and writing odd stories. Her tales have appeared in publications including Scheherezade’s Bequest, Daily Science Fiction and The Mythic Circle.


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