“Every angel is terrifying.”-Rilke
Owls are like angels. With their big eyes in heads that spin all the way round, and their feathers so warm and protective, and their inquisitiveness. For sure you’ve got the inquisitiveness, asking where I live, what I do after school. If I was an angel, I would want to know everything, too—and especially who, and I would have Heaven’s Universal Library and a Galactic Security Camera for instant answers, which is perfect because there’s a lot to know with the End Times coming. But back to owls. They can be small, like the seven-inch saw-whet, or spectacular like the great horned owl with its 48-inch wingspan. Owls can lull you into a trance or haunt your sleep or wake you with ghostly hoots and whooos, and you don’t know why, but you’re trembling, shivering.
It’s how I shiver with your immortal body just three rows behind me. I’ve found out who, Raf.
Once, Mother looked at me with too-wide eyes, wringing her hands, her cotton nightdress stained with Lipton tea. She shook my little brother’s shoulders and wailed to the ceiling, “I’m hearing voices, having a breakdown, can’t you see?”
It was my job to deal with emergencies. Only, I never knew how, because I was six, and wanted to hide, not save.
What I did know to do was to go undercover. I sneaked into school two hours late after Mother’s pacing kept me up nights. I stole quarters from the teacher’s desk for laundry. On the night Mother freaked out her worst, I remembered Officer Friendly’s visit to our school, and his instructions to dial 911 in an emergency. I ran to the neighbor and called the number. That’s what landed me with the Martins.
It’s been six months now, and they’ve started taking me places. On Sunday the Martins took me for dinner at Pastor Charlie’s, and here’s what he said about owls. They are witch’s mediums. If you have an owl in your house, Satan can mess with your mind. I had a yellow owl notebook that my school counselor, Dottie Brine, gave me, telling me to write in it as a journal, but I wasn’t thinking about that. Instead, I got spooked about owls in houses all over town, and how witches were getting into people’s brains, making them evil.
The day before that, we went to see Dr. Kryven. I talked to him first, then sat in the cramped waiting room, overhearing snatches of talk with Mr. and Mrs. Martin.
On the floor outside his office, the white noise machine that scrambles sound had shorted out. Quietly, slowly, I stood and walked over to the door, listening. The doctor said things about my inability to trust and a bunch of scarred-for-life-stuff. Something about being drawn to the wrong people, a result of early trauma. I inspected my knuckles, all gummy from art class.
“She will need support or intervention in order to have healthy relationships,” Dr. Kryven said. I turned my hand over: glue. I picked at the white edge, trying to get traction.
The doctor added that I was a bright, imaginative young lady. “But she’s become enmeshed in her mother’s mental illness.” He said that connecting experiences were terrifying, and that I had developed a coping mechanism. “She has a compulsion to fantasize, attempting to control the situation.” I peeled the thin glue-skin membrane down to the heel of my hand.
I held the translucent palm aloft, then lay it on a side table. Last year at Calitz County fair, the palm reader said we would have a Republican President after Jimmy Carter, and now we do. Also, she said an X on the lifeline is an angel who crosses your path. These angels were destined for heaven but chose not to go because there was someone they had to help on Earth.
I have an X, right at the top, and when I peeled my skin, it was shiny and baby new.
“Maybe this is why she doesn’t invite friends over,” suggested Mrs. Martin. “Perhaps if we got her involved in the family business,” said Mr. Martin.
I know they’re trying. They like me a lot more than Tabitha, their other foster kid. They kicked Tabitha out when they caught her in bed with a boy. Mr. Martin was so mad, you could see the veins pop out in his neck, and he made her sleep in the garage until the social worker came and got her.
Me, I’ve never been able to talk to a boy, and girls are hard enough. They are so stuck-up in high school—even Stacy is showing signs. And no, I don’t want to go door-to-door selling May-All Organic Cleaner.
None of that matters now. You kissed me.
You looked at me with your big owl eyes as we stood behind the tennis courts yesterday. I can still feel the heat in your hands as you traced fingers up my spine, pressed them into my shoulders, opened them at the tender places beneath each ear, cupped my lifted head. You brought your hands to the back of my neck, and I pressed myself into your kiss. Who says I need to be in control? I was completely free.
I wanted you to touch me, and how did you know? Powers. And when you said you’ve been watching me a long time, and when you got angry after I didn’t call last night, well—angels are warriors.
I know about angels. I started going to church when I was seven, when I walked myself to Vacation Bible School. Seraphim, on fire, have six wings; and there’s Michael the archangel; and Cherubim have creamy, round barn owl faces. They play a huge role in the End Times, where all the evil people and things get destroyed. You’ve got to know who everybody is in heaven.
Everybody has their rules. Pastor Stan talked about “heavy petting” in youth group, and it made me think of lead-weighted cats. He leaned into the circle and looked at our faces, one by one, and said it was a slippery slope and we’d better not be going down it. When we held hands for prayer, Sheila’s hand in my left was bumpy with silver rings, and in my right, Ronny’s was drenched with sweat. Ronny is short and snuffly with allergies and pimples, nothing like you, with your wing-bearing shoulders and chiseled neck. No wonder you’re old for your grade, being so high above the other boys.
Mother told me bad things happened to me when I was little, too little to remember. One time she warned me, in her shaky voice, right before Stacy’s third grade slumber party: “Don’t let any of her big brothers touch you.”
At Youth Camp last summer, Jason Ivanova—a skinny, blond kid as short as a third-grader, I liked him, but that was before I met you—led me from the campfire to the boathouse, and I could feel my heart pounding in my stomach and in my head. I felt wrong and so, so scared when his hands crept up my shirt. I said I had to use the bathroom and ran, sprinting back to Girls Cabin Three fast as I could.
Now I understand. I’ve been saved for you. I’m a newly awakened night creature that has found its hungry self.
There’s a melting in my thighs when I think of our time together. When we talk, my voice rich and husky and wise, I feel smart and beautiful.
You’re the healing angel. It’s what the palm reader meant.
Stacy says you have abuser warning signs, and you gave Leah Mendoza a black eye, but Leah’s always been a klutz, and Stacy’s jealous anyway. Dottie Brine informed me you were held back twice because of antisocial behavior. What does she know?
When you touch me, all the warnings stop.
I forgot to tell you what happened after we got home from Pastor Charlie’s. Mr. Martin handed me a hammer. “Take this outside. Smash it into the smallest pieces you can.” Along the curb were pebbles and pine needles and a straw wrapper. I wasn’t sure how to smash an owl. It was heavy ceramic with black and copper-colored feathers. I set it on the curb and swung the hammer. My right leg cramped from squatting. I swung while chips flew and white dents appeared in head, face, and beak. Evil thing, I thought. I’m not letting you control me.
I felt stupid by the mailboxes under the September sun. I thought I saw Liza, the college girl across the street, behind her dusty blue curtains. I looked at the owl and it looked back with one dented eye and there was no hooting, no message, nothing. It was just somebody’s art, like I make in art class, when I get glue all over my hands.
Mr. Martin came out and said that was enough and took the hammer and the owl and threw it in the garbage can.
In geometry now is where everything begins. You and I will stop coming to class soon, just like we planned. We’ll escape the things I fear most, like the Martins when they get mad, and the End Times. I’ve got these pills I take that make my thoughts soft. Black dry erase numbers raining down, the smell of alcohol wafting from the white board, and oh Raphael, I know you are there, just three, four rows back. My heart beats fast like a bird’s.
I can fake-follow everyone’s rules, all those feathery, shifty, black-eyed things flitting from one branch to the next. If I get it right, I won’t have to see Dr. Kryven anymore. Raphael, my angel, you know who, what, why, where. How—with your hidden feathers, your protecting call, you will save me from all the crazy, everywhere.
Christi Krug coaches writers and leads retreats and workshops at the Oregon Coast. Recent work appears in The Saturday Evening Post, Kosmos Journal, and GRIFFEL. She is the author of Burn Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Creative Breakthrough and has been chosen as a 2022 Centrum Emerging Writer Resident.