The Owl Dancers

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
S.B. Jonassen


At 8 o’clock P.M., Tammy Snyder pulls the shade string, compacting the sun-repulsing fins of her mini-blinds. Her moist arms glow, orange. She has not raised the blind in many years. She says, “Let’s allow some light inside tonight.”

The sun is sinking late on Tammy’s 40th June birthday.

“One cup of coffee in the evening never killed anyone, right Chimera?” Tammy regards the head-cocked beagle. “Anyway, we don’t want to sleep tonight, do we now?”

“No.” Tammy hauls up the windowsill. “We will not sleep tonight.”

Late day bird song intrudes upon the small cabin. The sounds ebb and surge, like raindrops on a tin roof. Last night, this down winding twitter would have made Tammy’s stomach queasy. Instead of hearing, Hurry! Hurry! Time to sleep— tonight’s birds seem to sing, Hallelujah.

“There!”

The coffee grinds send steamy lines into the orange sun shaft. It was unwise, Tammy knows, to have drunk Colombian dark on a hot June night. The shower is still wet on her skin, the lilac powder coagulated at her fingernails—and yet the sweat, in a flash, pushes up through her every pore, as the dark liquid whirlpools inside her second mugful.

“I say it’s time for a morsel or two.” Bent at the waist, Tammy Snyder tips the bag towards the ceramic bowl on the floor. It is encrusted with painted bones. Dusty, round dog feed jangles inside the previously vacant crater. “Eat, Chimera, eat! It’s my big birthday. There won’t be much sleep for you tonight, old girl.”

The beagle shuffles, ears flapping, to the bowl. She sniffs, and then looks up over her shoulder, brow wrinkled.

“It happens, old girl. Why should we fight it?” Tammy sips off the top of her second mug. “It’s not the worst thing in the world, after all.”

Chimera regards her mistress with a quizzical expression. Her brown earflaps face forward. Tammy pouts down at the beagle and says, “Well, it isn’t!”

Every year, a persistent bout of insomnia encroaches upon Tammy Snyder, like an ailment, in response to the sultry summer heat. Raised in the cool mountain shadows of a ski slope, the heat of this Southern valley presses her into fitful wakefulness. And it does so with nightly regularity.

Tammy reviles the heat. The heat makes her skin slippery from the moment she steps from the bed until her evening shower. It has been like living in purgatory—but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Tammy Snyder grew up out of doors. Most of their A-frame house was window, sliding door, sunroof, and wraparound deck. Everything outside was welcomed inside: cats, dogs, dragonflies, mosquitoes, bumblebees and gnats. At the dinner table they’d find red-backed ladybugs in the spinach salad; horses shuffled and nickered in the paddock beyond the mailbox; the creek was built for long distance ice skating. That crusty white mountain invigorated Tammy, made her human. Snow crunching beneath her galoshes, the sting of her nose-tip, a squall in late May, icy-white breath…

Because they land smack-dab in the middle of June, her birthdays make Tammy especially sleepless. Even 30 years after the crash, Tammy’s birthdays are long, hot days smelling of sweat- and tear-salt. She accepts no gifts, no phone calls, no visitors, no well-wishing. It was why she moved from the beloved ski mountain in the first place, as a sort of penitence for having survived her family. Humidity made foul her spirit. Especially on this, her significant day.

“But please tell me, Madam Chimera! Which days lack significance?” Tammy asks. “They died on a Tuesday, a plain old Tuesday, there was nothing significant about it. Why should birthdays matter? They shouldn’t. Especially not mine. Especially not this one.”

The beagle settles onto her haunches, jerks her pink tongue into panting.

“God, it’s hot. And no chance of rain tonight, old girl. We’ll get no reprieve.”

Tammy Snyder was in the car too. She was 10 years old when she survived her brothers and parents without so much as a bump or bruise. And how could that have happened anyway? It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.

“Tonight,” Tammy Snyder declared, “We’ll will not sleep at all.”

 

At 10 o’clock, Tammy waters her hanging spider plant, taking care to dribble the droplets onto the soil-base in a mottled, random way, such as rain tends to fall. The soil expands slightly, darkens, and then recedes. Chimera looks straight up. A perfect globule of translucence splashes on the beagle’s wrinkled nose bridge, breaking into quartered droplets. Tammy giggles. Last night she would have wept.

There is a rustling in the bushes outside the cabin window.

Chimera says, ‘A-roo-roo.’

A red fox eats berries there nightly. Most nights he frightens Tammy. With his slender, berry-stained jowls and phosphorescent eyes. But tonight he poses no threat. There will be no attempts made to frighten him underground. Or drone out his high-pitched howling with radio broadcasts of far away, crackling baseball games.

“Gonna go get him, huh Chimera? Get us a foxy-loxy?”

The beagle whirls on its hind legs, into a spinning yelp. Gallops to the screened-porch door. She looks foxy herself, Tammy thinks; mostly russet-brown with a hint of white on the chest and tail-tip. Last night it would have irked her, the beagle’s busybody patrolling at such a bedtime hour.

“Gonna get us a foxy, huh old girl? Gonna get him?”

The beagle leaps upright and paws for the screen door handle, squealing with eagerness.

“Oh look.” Tammy opens the door a narrow width and the beagle scurries onto the shadow slats of the porch, then bullets into the shrubbery. “A moon is rising.”

The lake makes the heat worthwhile to Tammy. The lake steams and ripples like a hot cup of Colombian. A moon rising over the lake is a dollop of cream in her coffee mug. Chimera’s ecstatic yelping grows dimmer. There will be a hooting owl tonight, in the poorly insulated eaves of Tammy’s sequestered cabin. But that will not perturb Tammy, as it did last night and the night before.

“An acceptable night for an owl dance, I suppose.”

 

Owl-shaped lanterns once hung throughout the oak branches in the Snyder backyard. Same time of year, decades ago, at the northern end of the States. About the time school let out, early summertime evenings, when Dad packed the freezers with hot dogs and steaks, when mom decorated the oaks with blinking lights and lanterns. Their backyard, behind the hill upon which settled their A-frame home, cozy. Newly middle-class Americans in good cheer, truly believing in the goodness of the future, the profitability of hard work and cautious spending. Her parents, who thought they were giving their children something better, much better, than they’d had been given. The backyard. Where friends and neighbors gathered, as if to take precious sips of the delight that the Snyder home produced in seemingly endless supply. They’d danced beneath the moonlight, wearing puffy vests and double-wrapped scarves, cheerfully striped. The crisp, mountain air steamed out of smiling faces and into the moonlight—merriment abounded.

Only a child sees such things, Tammy muses, only a child commits such things to memory and then sucks them out on a hot sleepless night—even amidst the persisting heat of adulthood—like an ice-cream cone.

The plastic, sharp-beaked lanterns. The faces of the people glowing too, from the inside out, like fireflies. Her mother and father, dancing arm in arm. Heels in the air, knee slapping, like wine-fed drunkards. Big brother, Thomas, swinging her up onto his bulky-strong shoulders and prancing about the lawn grasses like a spry pony. Dancing, dancing, dancing! Little brother, Daniel, exhausted from a day of exuberant play, straining to keep his eyes open, so that he might further partake in the late evening reverie. All of Tammy’s lifeblood, linked together, dancing. Dancing out the brevity of their lives.

Who could have guessed they’d be taken so soon? And in such a stunning, indifferent fashion?

Perhaps Tammy Snyder was a sorceress of invention. Perhaps those dancing, steamy-breathed figures in her backyard dazzled to a lesser degree, but it was the way Tammy referenced, having no memory of the fateful crash, and their ending. She recalls the slip of tires on black ice, the spinning, the smack against the guardrail, the long drop sideways—yes, she almost certainly recalls that, can feel the flip-flopping in her stomach—and rolling into the ditch. But she does not remember impacting the tree. Or what she saw next…

 

“Owl dances should be danced in numbers.”

At midnight, the moon has risen and Tammy pours the tepid coffee from the carafe into the sink drain. She is humming a song her mother used to sing. It is a poignant melody lacking words, but she hasn’t thought of it in decades.

“Where in the world is the old girl?” Chimera is still gone missing. Tammy wraps her silvery-brown hair into a braided-bun, and sets her weight onto the creaking porch wood planks. She wonders if she’s been color-blinded by her hefty age. The yellows and reds of her marigolds are gray. The lake water is blackened, save for a quivering stripe of white moonlight. Small quips of beagle-taunts filter through the tight-weaved netting of orchestrated cricket symphony. “That foolish old hound.”

The lakeside grasses are spongy and sparkling. A hot breeze shuffles the hairs on Tammy’s neck, laps wetly at her thighs. “Come to me, Chimera!” she bellows. Swarms of winged insects hover above the mossy lake edge. Tammy whistles through her fingers and the beagle’s frantic yowling grows nearer. A bead of sweat meanders between her shoulder blades at the tantalizing pace of a lover’s fingertip touch. It surprises Tammy. How un-extraordinary it feels, disrobing herself in the moonlight.

“Let’s go, old girl!” Tammy wriggles her underwear around her hips with her thumbs. Shuffles it aside with a naked foot. “Hey there, moonshine!” Chimera bounds from the farthest reaches of lawn shadow. At once joyful, the beagle circles her mistress in chipper greeting. “You get that crafty foxy-loxy berry thief?”

Hands clasped high above her head, up on tippy-toes, Tammy stretches out the body that survived her all these 40 years. It still feels beautiful and vibrant. Inside moonlight. The first milky—

Tootle-hoot-hoot!

—from the cabin eaves. Tammy strokes her middle, palms down. Moves her hips in sinuous circles, moves her hips to the beat of tootle-hoot-hoot! Says,

“Together we are two, Chimera!”

The circling beagle says, “A-roo!”

“Let us dance!”

 

At 2 o’clock in the morning, Tammy dives into the surface of the lake.

It feels lukewarm, not an unpleasant surprise, like Chimera’s licking kisses. It flushes around her body made invisible in its yielding grasp. Last night she would have feared this. Last night it would have taken Chimera’s drowning to spur her dive. However, tonight the lake bottom pulls her inside its mystery without hesitation. Tammy’s breath quickens. Eyes-wide below, she sees the water mass that engulfs her. It glows like thousands of emeralds. The bump of fish-muscle against her calf arouses Tammy. The feel of lake grasses tickling her belly enlivens her. Had she submerged herself last night, the glowing lake would have held a thousand sets of nefarious eyes within its skull.

Bursting to the surface in a bubble of fresh-water displacement, Tammy says, “Oh!”

And then, “Happy birthday, baby.”

Pivoting at her midsection, Tammy darts below the surface of the lake. It’s like a recollection from a dream state. Or a life lived well. On the surface, a mirror—but below that mirror… thousands of emeralds.

Was this what Tammy’s life was lacking? And the owl dancers? Were they a mirror too? Or had Tammy spied their vast, deep-lake treasures?

 

At 4 o’clock in the morning, Tammy soaks in moonlight like a sunbather, splayed on a flat rock the size of her entire cabin. A large-voiced bullfrog announces his presence, and then makes the lakeside exceedingly silent again. Presence. Silence. Presence. Silence.

“Nice to meet you,” Tammy Snyder tells the bullfrog. “I am old too.”

There have been stars in the sky with which to fill Tammy’s eyes for countless summer nights. However, the bedroom ceiling obscured even the brightest, not to mention her anxiety. Tonight they appear, in their luminous glory, as nameless points of light.

“Hello. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

A hot breeze wafts the mirrored-flat lake into ripples. They bend the moonlight and tree shadows, quiver the cloud patches. A trillion tree-leaves whisper: live.

Tammy says, “I am not sleeping tonight. I am awake.”

Tammy wants to be bitter, but there is nothing hungry inside her cells. Chimera dances in small bounding strides that follow the lead of her blunt nose, in and out of the shadow-striped lawn. Tammy is not bitter. She has never felt jaded, forsaken or impoverished. She has never wept without gratitude for the weeping. The car crashing into the tree had set her beloved family free. Tammy’s suffering, barb-sharp for 3 decades, seems moderate, even tolerable now. All at once. The steam rises from the lake as if it were a hot cup of Columbian. Tammy’s pain seems relatively small within the context of a world teeming with weighty woes. Soon, she will go into the cabin and brew a fresh pot. There is nothing lacking. Nothing hungry inside her cells.

 

At 6 o’clock in the morning, a red sun breaches the eastern horizon, fading the moon into a paper-thin yellow leaf.

Tammy Snyder rises from the rock: a woman. She pats her naked thigh, praises Chimera, and bursts forth into the rest of her life.

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E-mail: SBJonassen[at]juno.com

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