White

White flecks landed on her dark fur jacket, crept into her hair, melted on her silk scarf.  She sat on the playground swing, catching snowflakes with her feet, gripping the chains with gloved fingers.  She pushed off the ground and swung herself high into the air, wincing as the cold air whistled past her uncovered ears.  She was flying now, her hair fluttering behind her and her scarf untangling from her shoulders to catch the wind.  She felt beautiful, free.

And the others looked on, their dark eyes despising.  She was too old for such beauty.  It was time for her to become an adult.  Why would she not let her childhood go, as they had?

Inside the classroom, she tried to watch outside through the foggy window.  She took the sleeve of her jumper and gently wiped a portion clean, gazing out at the bare, pencil shapes of the trees, the white flakes raining down.  She watched cars slowly being covered and an empty chip packet crumple under the weight of the snow.  Her teacher bade her pay attention and she snapped her head to the front.  The words on the blackboard blurred before her eyes, unintelligible.  She longed to turn back to the white of the snow.

At lunchtime, they hid her schoolbag in an empty locker.  They sniggered and scoffed as the wandered aimlessly without it.  Then she walked outside, her hands rubbing together to keep warm.  She didn’t let them heard the growling of her stomach.  She knew they would tease her if she went on the swings again, so she sat on one side of the see-saw, watching the other children sit in groups under the shelter, gossiping and laughing and talking about her.

When it was time to go home, her schoolbag was still hidden and nowhere to be found.  She looked for a little while, crawling under desks, opening secret drawers and carefully rifling through cupboards.  The teacher saw her and shooed her out before she could explain.  She walked home without it, pulling her jacket around her, her face hidden by the fur-lined hood.  She caught the white flecks in her open palm then rushed home to show her mother what she had found.  When she arrived on the doorstep, the white flecks had gone away.  She stepped inside and took off her shoes, unwrapping her scarf and hung her jacket on its hook.

Her mother had made her a cup of sweet tea.  She popped each of her special tablets in her mouth then took a steaming gulp of the sweet mixture.  It filled her with a good feeling.  She watched sleepily as her mother opened her letters.  She didn’t ask her why her hands started to shake or why her eyes welled up with tears.  Instead, she walked over and wrapped her small arms around her mother, wishing she could squeeze all the sadness out of her.  Her mother’s arms stayed limply at her sides and her eyes turned away from her daughter’s small form.  She hugged her mother tightly until her arms ached and then she started walking slowly to her bedroom.

This was where she lived.  It was a very small room; her mother’s was much bigger.  The window never opened and she couldn’t reach the curtains to pull them apart.  She lay on her hard little bed and listened to the snow brushing the window.  She wanted to go out and play but she knew her mother wouldn’t let her.  Her eyes searched the ceiling instead, following the maze of cracks and making shapes.

For a short while she fell asleep, and when she awoke it was dark.  She could see nothing around her at first, but then, slowly, she was able to make out her dresser, the small table and her box of stuffed animals.  There was a little light coming through the window so she thought it might be morning soon.  If she listened, she could hear the rats scuttling along the floorboards or the sound of her own breathing, or the snowflakes gently falling on the roof.

Silently, moving very slowly, she made her way out into the kitchen.  She packed a little bag with a few pieces of chocolate, a bread roll and a little packet of her favourite breakfast cereal.  Then slowly, she put her jacket on, wrapped her scarf around her neck and slipped her feet into her snow boots.  Carefully, very carefully, she opened the door, making sure it wouldn’t squeak and wake her mother.  Then she stepped outside.  The cold engulfed her, freezing her legs through her thin trousers.  She threw her hood over her head and stuffed her hands into her pockets.  Then, walking a few steps out into the open, she opened her mouth and allowed a few white flakes to settle on her tongue.  She was filled with a wondrous euphoria.  A wide smile spread across her face and she turned circles, throwing her arms out wide.  She felt completely, irrevocably free.  In the dark of night, nobody saw her, nobody laughed at her and nobody stole her belongings.  They didn’t look at her fearfully or treat her like a tiny baby.  They didn’t push her over on the playground or shout when she did speeches in front of the class.  They never saw her as she stole away from the house.  Nobody noticed as she disappeared into the dark.  But she liked it that way.

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The Taxidermist

This won an award.  Even if my English teacher last year didn’t think so, at least the judge reading it thought it was good.

The disfigured shapes twist and turn, talking to one another, laughing at him, staring with vacant eyes.  But the taxidermist is already asleep, his lips curving into a tiny smile.  The shadow-animals grow and curve around the walls and ceiling as, outside, the wind claws at the rafters, the tiles on the roof.  The largest animal is pushing against the window, peering through the gaps in the curtain.  She can see the wilderness, and her lion-paws scrape against the window pane.  The taxidermist rolls over in his sleep, uttering a low moan.  The animals fill his dreams as well.

In the morning, when the winds have calmed and the shadow-animals have diminished, the taxidermist wakes once again.  He partakes in his small breakfast, sips habitually at the bland tea and eyes his artworks, lined up against the back wall of the room that doubles as his bedroom and workshop.  The glassy eyes of the animals already mounted meet his gaze.  He can remember those leering shadows from the night before, though in his mind they comfort him.  They are his friends.

His meal consumed, the plates washed and stacked, he makes his way over to the animals.  He strokes the thin fur on the badger’s paw, carefully dusts the beak of the duck, peers into the solid eyes of deer and caresses the lion’s muzzle.  Then he turns to the unfinished piece on the work bench.  The owl’s delicately spread feathers point towards the heavens, in anticipation of flight.  The taxidermist’s calloused, practiced hands reach for the needle and thread.  He gently sews the plumes together over the light wood of the model, delicately arranging the feathers so that the stitches cannot be seen.  Then he picks up his paintbrush and delivers a few careful strokes of paint – a combination of Naples yellow and raw umber – to the owl’s beak.  The animal is finished but for one aspect.  The dark eye-sockets still stand out blank against the pelt of feathers.  The taxidermist reaches for his jar of eyes.  The glass objects stare out in many different directions, taking in the workshop, the animals, the blank sockets in the owl’s tawny face.  Two are carefully picked and installed with a touch of white glue.  After a moment’s adjustment, the taxidermist steps back.  The owl stares now as the other animals do.  But this is not another to add to his collection.  It is to be collected in the afternoon.  A tinge of sadness touches the taxidermist’s heart.  He strokes the sturdy feathers on the owl’s head, checks to see whether the paint on the beak is dry, then sits down in his chair and leafs through an old book.  His fingers find a well-read page, marked with coffee-stains and fingerprints.  He reads aloud the words that he has already committed to memory.  He reads them to the owl.

At dusk from the island in the river, I’ll wait for the moon to rise, then take wing and glide to meet him.  We will not speak, but hooded against the frost, soar above the alder flats, searching with tawny eyes

That evening, in the bitter twilight, a vehicle comes.  It splutters down the frosty road, knocking down tree branches and flattening grasses.  It reverses into the narrow driveway of the taxidermist’s secluded house and the boot flies open.  Large, greasy men climb out and drop unceremoniously a garbage bag on the front doorstep.  They ring the doorbell three times.  The taxidermist comes, with the precious owl clutched to his chest.  Reluctantly, he gives it over to the men, and they kick the garbage bag towards him.  The vehicle throws up a few handfuls of snow in its wake.  The taxidermist opens the bag and peers inside.  He lifts the carcass out with shaking hands, laying it on his workbench – now empty – as his eyes grow wider.  The blank, dead eyes of the enormous bear stare back at him.  Its cold claws scrape at his clothing.  With reverence, he lays it on his workbench.  He will begin in the morning.  When darkness falls, there is a new shadow adorning the wall.

 

Before daylight comes again, the house is plunged into commotion.  Another vehicle roars up the dirt track.  With cries of anguish, the protesters rush into the taxidermist’s house.  They screech when they see the bear carcass, the glassy eyes of the badger and the deer.  They knock the animals over one by one, and the lion’s muzzle cracks as it hits the floorboards.  The taxidermist is run out of the house.  He sits on a small patch of ground, his night clothes wrapped around him, his eyes still clouded with sleep, as the first flames grow like vines out of the windows.  Soon the house is wreathed in gold, the smoke forming a billowing tornado into the clouds above.  Tears bud in the taxidermist’s eyes as he watches the foundations slowly crumble until, like dominoes, they topple onto one another and the house becomes nothing more than a pile of wood.  And in amongst the sounds of crashing beams, of splintering wood and combustion, the haunting, thunderous roar of a lion is sent out into the cold night.  It disrupts the birds in nearby trees and sends the protesters, in a melee, back to their vehicle.  The taxidermist is left alone in the winter night, his only possession the smouldering ruins in front of him.

Slowly, he takes a piece of paper from his pocket.  It is a page, ripped, from an old book.  He reads the words aloud, sending them like a message into the night.

… And when the morning climbs, we’ll part without a sound.  Fulfilled, floating homeward as the cold world awakens.

(Poetry written by John Haines, excerpts from If The Owl Calls Again)