Morning is my favorite time of the day because you can sneak out unnoticed.
The night is dark, and our big old house is still sleeping. Its wooden floors are so squeaky and unforgiving to any movement, you can only get out with no sound if you know all the right spots to step and are 12 years old.
When I got to the porch that morning, the town down in the valley greeted me with early lights. Coming down is easy, but it’s going back up that matters.
There was a dim light in the barn. Of course, he’s already there.
“Good morning, dad!” I said, opening the door a little as if asking for permission.
“Come in,” his husky voice responded.
When I entered, he was in the corner with his owls, as I expected. One thing was different this morning — there were a lot more of them than usual.
“Daddy, why do you spend so much time with owls?”
“Shhh,” he whispered. “Be quiet and watch.”
I sat near him on a braided chair and froze.
A huge barn owl closest to us was looking at me. Her eyes were two black holes vanishing into somber nothingness. After a minute of this lifeless gaze, she activated a complex blinking mechanism, and two giant eyelids swept through these surfaces and returned to their position. Her stare was back. Mesmerizing.
Other owls perched at different places were doing the same, never taking their eyes off me or my dad.
“When they stare at you like that, they are waiting for you to die,” dad said. “And believe me, you don’t want to die with them around.”
A dozen pairs of eyes were gazing at me as if waiting for me to drop dead any second. I couldn’t handle it anymore.
“Bye, Dad,” I pecked him on the cheek. “I’ll be late for school.”
“Have a great day,” he said. “Say hi to Anders.”
Uncle Anders lived two blocks from my school in the valley town. I went to his place every day after classes. He was probably the closest living soul to me because it was comfortable to just sit with him in silence. Uncle Anders would never interrupt me, and at times I felt I didn’t even need to speak for him to understand me.
Today I came as usual when a typical school day was over. I was sitting at his table, tears still on my face, eating bread with salmon. It seemed that Uncle Anders had the best bread and the best salmon in the world, so I couldn’t think about anything else. I was happy just sitting there and chewing.
“How’s Mikael?” Uncle Anders asked.
“Dad?” I tried to swallow a big piece. “He’s ok. He had so many owls today.”
“How many?” Uncle Anders seemed a bit concerned, which wasn’t typical.
“I don’t know,” I struggled to chew and talk. “About twice the usual.”
He sat at the table in front of me and patiently waited until I swallowed the last piece.
“Why did you cry today?” he asked and removed a tear from my cheek.
I bit my lip and lowered my eyes.
“I have something for you,” he said. Then he went out of the room and returned with a pencil in his hand.
“A pencil?” I was surprised. I reached out to take it, but he didn’t let me.
“Wait,” he said. “It’s a magic pencil.”
“What’s magical about it?”
He put it in a box. Then he showed me a sharpener.
“When you are ready, take this pencil and write,” he said. “Only stop to take a breath when you need to sharpen it. It’s very soft, you will need to sharpen a lot.”
He stared in my eyes so intensely, I stopped breathing.
“Put all the filth you have in there,” he pointed at my forehead, “into this pencil. Don’t stop until the pencil is gone completely. I will give you a new one when you need it.”
I sat quietly. Uncle Anders stood up to clean the table. He never let me help him with dishes.
“Now, sit there…” he started.
“… to become a part of the room.” I finished with him.
That was his favorite task for me. While he was cleaning up the kitchen, I was sitting in his deep chair with my legs up, frozen. It always took me a few minutes to quiet my mind and “become a part of the room”. Surprisingly, it worked every time.
The only rule was simple: I needed to hear what the inanimate objects in the room were trying to tell me. Maybe I could finally understand something important.
It was hard. I tried to focus. What are these objects telling me…
“Uncle Anders!” I called. “Why do you need this phone?”
That thing on the corner table was like those old rotary dial phones, but it didn’t even have a dial. I don’t think I ever noticed it before. I wondered why you would need a phone that can only call one destination.
“Oh,” Uncle Anders returned from the kitchen and looked at it. “It can call up there.”
His finger pointed up. I looked up as well.
“Up there,” he said again, opening the window and pointing up outside, trying to show me he’s pointing at the sky, not at the ceiling.
“Do you talk to someone from up there?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “They no longer answer. Who knows what happened there.”
He walked up to the table and put the pencil box and the sharpener in my bag. After that, he disconnected the phone from the line and put it in the bag as well.
“Why, Uncle?” I was surprised. “We don’t even have a landline. What do I do with it?”
“Just keep it,” he shrugged. “It’s dead to me, anyway.”
When I returned back home, I stood on the porch for a minute, preparing myself. Coming down is easy, but it’s going back up that matters. I exhaled and quietly opened the door.
Sneaking in is harder than sneaking out. The house doesn’t sleep and is waiting for any chance to betray your steps. One wrong spot, one centimeter off the tested trail, and you set off a squeaky alarm, heard by the entire world.
Passing the hallway, I glanced in the kitchen and froze. Mom was standing there with a knife in hand.
“Come here, baby,” she said.
I didn’t move.
“I’m divorcing your father. Do you want bread with avocado?”
I still didn’t move. Then in a few seconds, I resumed my stealth walk. My feet quickly made it to the staircase by memory. There the game became much harder. I knew which steps to skip, but it made the chosen ones trickier. The third step was almost right. The seventh was flawless. Finally, I made a big mistake on the eleventh, and it readily announced that I was home.
I sighed, passed the last two steps, opened my room door, and got inside. I put the bag on the table, extracted Uncle Anders’ phone, the sharpener, and finally — with great care — the pencil box. Then I took a few sheets of paper, sat on the chair, and looked at my new possessions.
After that, I stood up, made a few bold, loud steps to the door, and opened it wide.
“I only like salmon!” I shouted down the stairs and slammed the door as hard as I could.
Paper was waiting for me. I sat at the table again, and suddenly, the phone rang. I was staring at it wound up in its cord, ringing loud, until the clap of wings outside got my attention.
A big owl sat on the sill. There she froze, looking at me.
I opened the box and took out the pencil.