The World Beyond the Light

Grey Olson, Editor

I remember the sound of the night, when it was the wind whipping down the hills, through the trees, and whatever howled out in the distance. I remember after milk and cornbread and when the stars were at their apex, Gramma shuffled into the little spare room where I slept, holding a lantern, reaching her hand out, saying “come now, child.” The floorboards creaked as we walked out, the house murmuring against the soles of our feet.  

I remember the cold. The bone-chilling cold, seeping through our nightgowns, despite the shawl I’d had wrapped around me. Gramma didn’t seem to mind it, though–she’d grown up in the hills, and now she’d settled in, like an oak gnarled against the wind. She would tell me stories of being young, time she spent with her grandmother, if the time was right and there were still logs in the fire. 

I remember the plants curling out of the ground, towards us as we made our short pilgrimage to the barn. I remember the rough-hewn door, the latch I couldn’t reach, no matter how hard I tried. It’s funny how things change when we’re away, or how we change and don’t notice until we encounter those things again. The last time I went to the barn, I didn’t even think about undoing it until I was in the barn. Everything is made easy by time. 

Once we were inside, she placed the lantern on a hook, and, bending down to me, she pointed towards the hayloft. “I want you to go up there,” she said. “That’s where my grandmother lives. That’s where I’m going to live very soon.”  

I was confused. Gramma lived in the house, tucked in a little valley for protection, close enough to, on those still days, hear the rush of water over rocks in the stream. What was she doing going to live in some hay, up in the dirty old barn? But I saw the look in her eyes, still soft in their gaze, but behind them some sense of urgency. There was no use arguing with her, and any switch from the nearest sapling could prove it. 

I climbed the ladder up to the hayloft, my tiny toes somehow making the massive steps to the next rung. One of those time things again. Last time I had to duck my head so I wouldn’t knock it against the beams, have them leave me with a shiner. 

It was quiet at the top. I got down on my knees, pancaked myself to go as far as I could under the eaves, feeling the hay bits scratching against my stomach, my chest and neck, in my hair. Through a crack in the boards, I saw the house sitting down the hill, small like inside a snowglobe. Above, the moon and all the stars in their constellations hung so beautifully, like the pearls I’d seen some Sundays on my mother’s neck.  

I do not remember how I noticed the owl. I want to say it was the noise, but I’m sure that’s a later invention. I maybe saw a flash of feather–but it was so dark in that loft I couldn’t even see my own hand. It had to be the eyes. They were so curious, studying the little girl in the faded nightgown shoving herself into the smallest part of its home. I could feel them considering me, concluding I posed no threat. I was a small child–that thing could’ve carried me away if it wanted to, I’m dead serious.  

However I noticed the owl, once it saw me, I’m sure it softened its eyes, went back to relaxation, out of predatory mode. It gave me a little smile–don’t ask how because I don’t know, but I remember feeling the rose in my cheeks I’d get whenever someone patted my head, said how happy they were to see me. I looked down at my grandmother, and saw how her eyes were fixed to me, waiting to see what would happen next. 

I looked back at the owl. She–it had to be a she–seemed to know what to do next, the thing I was wanting to see but had no idea how to say. She turned her head, first right, then left, both times going all the way around. The famed 360. Then the best part–she turned and looked down from the loft, down to Gramma, and I saw her smile. This wasn’t one of her Gramma smiles, asking if I wanted something else to eat or if I was comfy with the quilt she gave me. It was a child’s smile, happy to see her, eager to please. I’ll bet the owl was telling her the same thing I’ve told my kids when they astound me, which happens every day. “Thank you, I’m proud of you.” 

She closed her eyes and went back into the shadows. I went back down the ladder, brushing the hay off when I got to Gramma’s side. 

“Gramma, I’m not sure what you were talking about. All that was up there was an owl.” 

“Oh, I’m sorry darling, I thought that’s what I said.” 

“You said your grandmother was up there.” 

I could see her trying to restrain a fiendish little smile. “Oh, right. My mistake.” And back we went to the house. 

To me, every memory is like a little crystal, sitting on a little shelf in your mind. The last time I was up at the barn, sitting on the edge of the hayloft, looking down at the packed-dirt holes in the hay on the floor, I felt it in my hands, the smooth, cool face of the stone. And then I felt the eyes.