Giselle Phillips (Freedom 2022)

Giselle Phillips
The Owl with the Heart of a Mouse


Chapter 1
The Mouse

Jessica traced her finger through the air, chasing dust motes floating across sun-bleached Garfield toys that cluttered the window ledge. The taste of home clashed with the vacuum of the room, which was whitewashed and sterile. Beyond the window the city moved, a never slowing beast that refused to relent for a moment, even one like this, where a heart was breaking.
“Terminal.”
The word lingered in the air like old spice, it tasted twice as bitter as it passed over her tongue. Her father placed a hand on her shoulder, a soothing attempt that did nothing to mitigate the agony, he wasn’t mum after-all.
Down the ward, babies screamed. This was the only room available, so Jessica’s mother was tucked away just off the maternity ward. A poetic appointment since this was the same room where Jessica herself had been born. She’d cried then too, she supposed. Now all she could do to stop the tears was grasp her fingers around the thin triad of sheets and squeeze, till circulation halted in her fingertips, and the pain offered her a place to steady her head.
Her mother was asleep. She was always asleep now; she had been for weeks. When she’d wake, lucidity was ephemeral, a vapour, to be clutched at as it sailed away. She’d call for Jessica, sometimes, but think Jessica should be a baby, because of all the crying down the ward. It was confusing, and Jessica did not understand. There was so little she understood, and everything was changing so quickly.
“It’s okay to cry, sweetheart,” her father said, whilst Doctor Diggory busied his gaze away, for privacy.
“I’m eleven. I can be strong,” Jessica managed, whilst the pain strangulated her to the point of choking. She felt the sickness in her stomach. It rose with every word, but she kept it pushed down. That’s what a big girl does, she thought. So, she breathed through the pain, like the lady in her mother’s yoga videos.
“Can she come home with us at least?” she asked. Both father and daughter looked at the doctor, who turned and shook his head.
“I don’t think it would be wise.”
That feeling of sickness came back, full force, and Jessica had to stand. She knew what it felt like to watch her entire world break. She’d seen it before, four years earlier, when her father left. Things had been better since then. She had two birthdays, and double Christmas. Sometimes her mother and father would even laugh when they were together now, and she could see that even though it hurt, life had become happier. But this wasn’t the same. Life wouldn’t get happier. There was a chasm opening inside her and she knew nothing would fill the space where her heart was breaking. She’d have one birthday, and one Christmas, and neither would mean anything because the one person she loved more than anything in the universe would be gone.
Terminal.
Jessica turned, and before she knew it, she was running from the ward down alternating corridors until one finally opened to the world outside. Sound crashed down on her from a chorus of angry drivers, who were all late for something completely irrelevant. She wanted to scream at them.
“You ok dear?” an old man asked. His cigarette was wagging from the corner of his mouth and his cane shook under the strain of his hand, trying desperately to support him.
Jessica shook her head, and before he could say another word, she was running again, straight over the roundabout and across the road opposite, car tires screeched as they tried to avoid her.
Now she was outside, the air seemed even harder to swallow; it stung her throat as she tried to gulp it down. Thick city air, not like her hometown.
She wished she could go home. That she’d wake up in the flat, off the road opposite the old Oak, where a swing hung. She wished that her mother would be there and take her in her arms, knowing who she was. No tubes, no medicine, just love.
But she wasn’t there. She was in the middle of a city park, and it made her feel small and lonely.
The more she felt small and lonely, the smaller and lonelier she seemed to become, until finally she wasn’t a little girl standing in the middle of a park, but a little mouse. And when she’d cry, she could only squeak. So, she squeaked, and she squeaked, as tiny tears the size of pin tops fell from her eyes.
***

Chapter 2
The Owl

By the time Jessica had stopped squeaking, rain clouds had gathered, and night was setting in. All at once raindrops big as footballs threatened to drown the little mouse, so she ran from the pavement into the flowerbed nearby, taking shelter beneath an evergreen that smelt of petrichor and summers spent. Another smell caught her tiny mouse nose—oak—like the tree outside her flat. She sniffed it in, and sighed a huge mouse sigh, longing for home.

Far above her little mouse eyes, on a low branch, on that very oak tree, an owl the size of winter’s moon had landed. A ghostly apparition, terrifying and beautiful in equal measure.
“Hello little mouse,” it whispered, followed by a drawn-out hoot that cut the night, and drove needles of terror through the little mouse girl.
She poked her tiny mouse head out from under the bush. With eyes wide, she squeaked.
“Are you going to eat me?” It seemed like a normal question to ask an owl when you were a mouse. Being eaten didn’t seem like such a terrible outcome, Jessica thought, as she was sodden, cold, and full of such sorrow.
The owl swooped from the branch and landed before her, a great snowy thing with spherical amber eyes and a beetle-black beak. It moved closer to the little mouse, bent low, and surveyed her with its looming stare.
“And suppose I am?” it asked, eyes glaring at the little mouse.
Jessica squeaked a little squeak and buried her face in her little mouse paws.
The owl hooted again.
“And suppose I was just going to eat your heart,” it continued.
She sniffed, “My heart?”
“Hearts are delicious, you see.”
Jessica took pause for a moment. She touched her little mouse heart; it was racing beneath her chest in terror. When it stopped racing, she knew it would ache all the same as it had before, perhaps twice as much for the reprieve of fear, or even five times as much for her being so small.
“You can have it. If you wish it.”
“You would give me your heart, little mouse?”
“I have no need of it. For you see, mister owl, it has broken. And I don’t want it.”
“You don’t want it?” the owl questioned, with a doubtful pondering in his wispy voice.
“No, all it does is ache.”
“If I eat it, you will feel no sorrow,” he whispered.
“Yes.”
“You will feel no heartache.”
“Yes.”
“You will feel no joy.”
 The little mouse paused again. Tiny beady eyes shimmering in the pale night light.
“Joy?”
“Yes, little mouse. No joy. For to be heartless is to feel nothing at all.”
Jessica slumped down into a small heap, the world wearing heavy on her shoulders.
“Suppose I could feel joy one last time? As a keepsake. And then you could take my heart away and eat it; before the Doctors do.” 
 The owl stepped closer.
“Where would you go, for your final keepsake of joy?” he asked.
“Home, before Mum was sick.”
The owl stepped forward and extended a clawed foot in the mouse’s direction. She squealed in terror and closed her eyes, but nothing happened. Soon she peered through little paws and saw the owl’s outstretched leg.
“We’ll go for a ride, little mouse.”

 Jessica stepped forwards, and wrapped her little mouse paws around the ankle of the great moon-like owl, that shimmered in the nightlight like an angel. In moments they were rising from the ground, great gusts of cool air and droplets of rainwater sprinkled around them, spread to the winds like pearl flecks.
If Jessica could hold her eyes open, she would have thought them beautiful. But she was holding on too tightly, too afraid of letting go. In a moment of time spent, they were gone, flying far above the city
“Look little mouse,” the owl said.
Jessica squinted, paws tingling with fear, little mouse pads sweating. She wrapped her little mouse tail around the owl’s talon to steady herself.
“Do you see?”
Jessica could see a great many things: towering buildings of the grey city that seemed to have long had all colour washed away, and large green spaces cultivated as countryside which were nothing more than illusions of clean air.
The owl took them higher and higher until she could no longer make out the roads or the buildings or the parks. Until they were just lines and dots on a map of the earth below.
“See what?” the little mouse asked, wiping a rogue tear from her eye.
“How even the greatest, most insurmountable things can become smaller, given a different perspective.”
Jessica nodded, though she didn’t really think she understood.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Far, far away from here.” the owl hooted, and on through the night they flew until they came to a village, which was small and smelt like oak.
They landed by a tree where a swing hung.
Jessica held her breath as she stepped from the owl’s outstretched leg. Her eyes were bleary from tears, and she struggled to balance from the excitement.
“Am I, home?” she asked, for she dared not guess at the answer. Hope had crushed her before.
The owl nodded.
“One last day. As you wished,” he whispered. 
 The owl sounded sad, though Jessica did not know why.


“Jessica. Jessica? Where are you?” Her mother’s voice called from the window of the flat, and Jessica, forgetting she was a mouse, and that she felt so small, sprang from the ground a little girl once more. She ran to below the window.
“I’m down here mum, I wanted to swing!”
Her mother shot her a disapproving look, but on seeing her daughter, she softened.
“Did you want a push?”
“Yes!”
 When her mother had climbed the stairs down from the flat, Jessica assaulted her with a cuddle. She breathed in her rose scented skin, the mild coconut shampoo, and a scent that runs even deeper. A scent that cannot be described because it was just simply her. It was mum.
“What’s that for love?”
“Being the best mum,” Jessica whispered.
Fighting back tears, determined not to waste a moment, she grabbed her mother’s hand, running for the swing.
“I want to go over the top this time, mum!”
“All the way over? So, you might fall into the sky?” her mother asked teasingly.
“All the way!” Jessica said again.

The day passed like that, moment upon moment, and Jessica stored every second up in her heart, like a piggy bank, till it was ready to explode. They rode bikes to the shops and brought ice-cream by the pier. Jessica told her mum about her latest maths quiz, which she had barely remembered before, but now wanted to impart to her, along with every second of her life. She told her about friends that teased her, about the way her father didn’t make macaroni and cheese the same way she did, and it was worse for it. She asked her mother to plait her hair, to sing with her, to dance with her. She cooked with her, trying all the while to absorb every second. To memorise every cadence in her mother’s voice and every scent note of her skin.
When the moon was high, and she was being tucked into bed, her mother asked if she wanted a story, and even though she had told her she was too old for them, Jessica agreed, not wanting to miss a moment. She listened to three chapters before she felt her mother’s warm kiss on her forehead, and the swaddle of cosy sheets. And despite how hard she fought to not let the day end, it did, as days always do.
“I love you, little mouse.” She whispered.
And Jessica knew it was true.


When Jessica opened her eyes, it was to the face of a celestial owl, with stars in its eyes and a beetle-black beak.
“Where’s mum?” she asked. Her little mouse paws fumbled to get out from the giant swamp of bedsheets, for the swaddling had been for a girl, and she was once again so tiny.
The owl hooted low and extended its leg. “In the hospital,” it sighed.
Jessica climbed onto the talon.
“You told me I would feel joy,” she whispered, clutching her heart. “But all I feel is great sorrow.”
The owl moved its face close to the mouse, as though it was sharing a great secret. And Jessica, though her heart was breaking, once again listened.
“There is no great sorrow, without great joy, little one. And whilst you may feel as though you are breaking, it is only because of the extent to which you are loved.”
“But it doesn’t ease the pain.”
“No.”
“Then what use is a heart? You might as well eat it.”
The owl surprised her then, as it chuckled, and flew from the window into the sky.
The cold air whipped at Jessica’s fur, and she wrapped her tail about the noble bird once more, eyes closed.
“Open your eyes, little mouse.”
She did, just in time to see them loop around the swing set and come over the top, until there was nothing between her and the open sky but stardust and dreams. They flew higher and higher until all light below faded away and the cold winter’s night cradled them both.
“Is this heaven?” she asked, breath stolen by the chill of the air, and the beauty of the halo of stars that seemed to burn into both her eyes and her soul.
“Yes,” said the owl.
Jessica squeaked and tightened her grip.
“I don’t want her to die,” she murmured, as though it was a secret.
The owl knew, in that moment, that his heart was breaking too.
“I know, little mouse.”
“Can we not go back?”
The owl hooted low, and came about, so the moon was their baring and the night appeared to stretch out for eternity.
“We can never go backwards, little mouse.”

 Jessica watched as countryside morphed into the city, and she knew that something was changing inside her. What had once seemed vast and overbearing stretched out into a scrapbook of life. They flew through the city, passed apartments and houses, all with families, and people, some happy, some not, but all doing their best to survive. Jessica was hit with the overwhelming realisation that this was life. That it was good days and bad days, and heartaches and laughter. And as much as she wanted to separate the two, she couldn’t. Because to live without a heart was to live without the very thing that made living bearable. Love.
“Can you take me back to the hospital?” She whispered.
***

Chapter 3
The Heart

They arrived on the window ledge looking into the hospital room. Garfield hugged the glass, faded colours turned out to the world like an echo of an ebbing life. Jessica knew not long remained. She didn’t know how she knew; it was a knowledge that comes in a moment of intangible understanding.
“Will you come in with me?” she asked.
“Of course.”
 They slipped in through the window, though Jessica wasn’t quite certain how the owl made it inside. They landed on the bed.
  Jessica climbed up the bed till her little mouse paws could cradle her mother’s face, and she squeaked. It was just after 8 o’clock, but they had already turned the room for rest. No one would be in to check on her for another hour.
Her mother opened her eyes.
“Little mouse…” Her voice was raspy from sleeping so long. It caught on all the wrong notes. “How did you get so small, little mouse?” She picked Jessica up in her hands and kissed her on the head.
“I don’t know? You left me. And you didn’t know me anymore. You thought I was a baby,” she whispered, voice cracking underneath the weight of emotion. “I couldn’t take it, so I ran, and then… I cried, and the more I cried, the smaller I seemed to become and now, now, I think I’m stuck.”
Jessica noticed her mother no longer looked sick, a warm glow filled her cheeks, and a restfulness had settled on her. Her mother swung her legs out of the bed and placed Jessica in the chair by the window, stroking her tiny head delicately.
“The sky is beautiful tonight, don’t you think?”
Jessica nodded.
“Have you been on an adventure?”
Jessica nodded again, afraid to speak, like words could shatter the moment.
“Tell me about it, love.”
“I went over the swing set.”
“Did you?” she asked, delighted.
“You were right. If you go over, you fall right into the sky.”
Her mother smiled, and poked her belly, tickling her till she couldn’t help but giggle. “Did you, did you fall into the sky, sweet one?”
“Yes.”
 Her mother’s eyes turned to the great white owl standing on the bed, and his wings ruffled, abashed.
“I suppose you took her, papa?”
Jessica looked at the owl now, whose once lamp-like eyes, with a menacing stare, seemed to soften. And the realisation of who he was dawned on her.
“She needed a friend,” the owl said.
Jessica gasped.
“Grandpa? You were going to eat my heart!”
On that word, her mother picked her up and rubbed her nose into her chest.
“Hearts are delicious, don’t you know?” she laughed, and Jessica laughed too, because she supposed they would be. And as she and her mother laughed together, she felt a little less small, and a little less like the weight of the world might crush her, until once again she was a little girl, cradled in the arms of love.
Her mother pulled her tightly to her side, and they sat on the bed.
“Stay,” Jessica whispered, once laughter had eased, and the gentle hand of sadness took hold of her and squeezed.
“You know I can’t, baby.”
“It isn’t fair.”
“No, it isn’t.”
The owl let out a low, mournful sound, and time seemed to hang across the ward. Hospital machines silenced; all rounds froze. And for just a moment, the city relented, when a heart was breaking.

“It’s time, my love,” the owl said to Jessica’s mother. And Jessica clung to her side all the harder.
Her mother gently unlaced her hands.
“Do you know why a heart breaks?” her mother asked, as she kneeled in front of the little girl.
“Because it hurts.”
“So we can take a piece with us when we go. Grandpa took a piece of mine, many years ago. And now, I’ll take a piece of yours, and you’ll take a piece of mine. And by the end, we’re all just puzzles of love. Mixed up and beautiful. And we keep going darling. We keep loving. You promise me that.”
Jessica cried, and choked up the words, “I promise.”

Jessica’s father received the call at 9 o’clock. He had been worried sick, searching for his daughter for hours, but when he walked into the wardroom that now contained nothing but an empty bed and his daughter, all frustration and anger vanished.
His daughter was asleep in the chair by the window, two snowy feathers grasped in her hand. He looked out the window at the night sky in wonder at the silhouette of two birds flying across the silver moon.
Jessica did not stir when he lifted her, and she slept soundly that night on the car ride home. She dreamed of the swing-set so very far away, and in this dream she was freed from the limitations of grief, she was no longer a girl, but flew as an owl with the heart of a mouse.
***

Bio: Giselle Phillips is a 31-year-old writer from the South of England. She has been published in an anthology created by the twitter community #vss365. Whilst many of her works remain unpublished she regularly updates her Blog and writes poetry on twitter. She hopes to one day publish multiple stories, including a poetry book. In her spare time, she reads plenty, sketches and writes.

1 comment :

  1. This is absolutely precious bit of writing. I love it. Giselle should keep writing I am sure she will go far.

    ReplyDelete

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