Authors: Wendy Delsol
Hulda opened the front door and looked furtively up and down the street. She pulled me inside with a finger pressed to her lips. “Follow quickly” were her only words.
I trailed the swinging lantern to the back of the store. Hulda shuffled quietly between the rows of fabric. I let a finger brush over their surfaces: nubby wools, cool silks, plush velvets. Once again, Hulda led me through the door marked
, down the rickety stairs, and into the chamber with the oval table. She motioned for me to sit. I went for the closest seat, but Hulda flapped and clucked and puffed until I scooted over to the second chair. And I had thought my ninth-grade biology teacher was uptight about assigned seats.
Hulda sat in the high-back she’d occupied the night before, the Owl’s chair. Everything about this room gave me the willies. The carved back of my chair was jagged and uncomfortable, the lit candles cloyed the air with the smell of smoke and burning wax, and I had always disliked windowless spaces, basements in particular. I shifted in my seat, glancing down at the wooden arm, which was now carved with only robins, judging by their painted red breasts.
“Uh, Fru Hulda, is it me, or is this a different chair than I had last time?”
Hulda looked at the figures of robins perched among branches in the bloom of springtime. “Ah, so you will be our Robin. How appropriate.”
“I thought I was
“The chair picks the bird for each member of our society. Though there is symbolism to be heeded from the little-owl reference, you are, from now on, our Robin.”
Sounded better than puffer or peacock, anyway.
Hulda straightened her skirt. “It is highly unusual for us to meet outside of the council.” She looked around like we were being watched, which did not help my overall feeling of unease. “There are those who would disapprove. We never like to arouse suspicion. But I could think of nothing else all day, and I knew we were destined to connect. When the bones ache, there’s a friend to make.”
Afi’s bones hurt, too; he called it arthritis. But whatever, at least she used the word
. I relaxed enough to breathe, though only one quick ragged intake.
“Tell me. Have you noticed anything unusual?” Hulda clamped bony fingers under my elbow.
I thought —
you, for starters
. “Uh. Not really.”
“You will. Your powers will grow. You will be contacted.”
“By the essence awaiting birth.”
“Could you be a little more specific? Contacted how? Phone? Text? FedEx?”
“The child always comes as a dream.”
I rubbed my cheeks. “I’ve pretty much convinced myself that you are a sickness-induced dream. So that would be a dream within a dream.”
Hulda finally released the hold she had on my arm with a soft tap. “I know this must be very difficult for you. Especially in these modern times, so many have forgotten the ancient ways.” She looked at me with such furrowed intensity that her long gray spiky eyebrows rose like antennae. “Tell me, do you believe you have a soul?”
Nobody had ever asked me about my soul before. I’d had conversations about God, angels, ghosts, UFOs, and even the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot — but not my soul. It felt somewhat personal, but I didn’t hesitate to reply. “Yes.”
“And do you believe in fate?”
A little trickier. A master plan for this spinning ball of billions? “Just for the big stuff, I guess.”
“And would one’s birth be included in your list of big stuff?”
“Finally, then, would you allow that there are those among us with special powers?”
Crossing Over with John Edward
was one of my favorite shows. “Yes. I suppose. But not me!”
“Why not you?”
“It’s just, I’m not . . .”
I wanted to say
. I wasn’t special. At least not in that way. Maybe in other ways. Right? Everyone thought they were. Or was made to believe so, anyway, by those who loved them. My
my personal cheerleader, had always made me feel exceptional about anything and everything — ironically, even my childhood fascination with birds. From a very young age, I’d sketched them, pulled books about them from the library shelf, and made up stories about their winged adventures. That much I remembered. My
liked to tell stories about my childish claims to understand them, translate their chirps to language. That part I didn’t remember, but knew she had been quite amused by — even boastful of — this purported bird-whispering skill. Though I wondered what she ever made of my professed love for and intentions to marry Big Bird, the hottie of Sesame Street. Regardless, I’d outgrown such flights of fancy and delusions of grandeur a long time ago. “Not interested,” I said.
Hulda sat back in her chair with crossed arms. “Not interested, you say. Your pupils are large, your breathing is rough, your cheeks are flushed, and your ears are ringing.”
“How do you know my ears are ringing?”
“Same way I know you don’t like clowns.”
. I exhaled loudly. My ears were ringing, and it was very annoying. Plus nobody really liked clowns, right? “Fru Hulda, do I have a choice?”
“No.” Hulda’s answer was kind, but definitive.
I lowered my head to the table and tapped my forehead lightly against its rough hewn surface. So many questions. So confused. So totally bummed it wasn’t a serious illness. I sat up.
“So let’s say I have a dream about some soul, or essence, or baby, what then?”
“Then, if they haven’t already through the dream cycles, the vessels who are candidates will be made known to you.”
“Made known how?”
“Is different for everyone. For me, is always smell. When a woman is a prospect, she smells like crushed arnica root.”
Right, that’s a big help,
because when you crush
the arnica root, that makes all the difference
“Fru Grimilla feels vibrations,” Hulda continued. “Fru Birta sees candidates in colors, red too hot, blue too cold. She looks for something in a very specific shade of yellow-green.”
Which at least explained Birta’s chartreuse wimple — the color, anyway.
I was still unsure of the timing of the whole process, though it seemed a fairly delicate question. “So, the essence gets assigned, for lack of a better word, when exactly?”
“Two weeks after.”
“After?” I asked.
Hulda looked at me impatiently. “Coupling during ovulation.”
“So assignment comes right about the same time as . . . ?” I thought I knew the answer, but it wasn’t like I had committed the whole reproductive cycle to memory.
“A woman’s menses. No essence, she menstruates. An essence, the pregnancy continues.”
“Does every soul require a meeting and vote? I’m not sure I have the time. I’ve got homework, a social life.” Technically I did not have a social life, but what did she know?
“No. Only those in need of guidance.”
“And what is the significance of second chair? Fru Grimilla made it sound important.”
“Second chair is second-in-command and makes decisions when the first chair is not present.”
Forget baby on board, more like baby at the wheel. “Fru Hulda, I’m not ready to be second chair.”
“You will learn quickly. This I know. And what’s done is done. Besides, I haven’t missed a Stork meeting in twenty years. You will have plenty of time to observe.”
I’m sure my mathematician mother had a formula to calculate the likelihood of an event after a prolonged — say twenty-year — period of inactivity. Kind of like ninety-nine years without a hundred-year flood. At least Hulda looked healthy, for her age, anyway. “What if I have more questions? Can I get ahold of you?”
Hulda took a deep breath. “For one so young, I must make an exception.” She reached a leathery hand into the pocket of her long gray skirt, producing a large old-fashioned key, which she handed me. “This will open the back door. Wait for me inside, but do not open the door to the office. I will come along soon.” Hulda, again, looked side to side as if under surveillance. “Something else. It’s important.”
“You must tell no one. Not your family. Not the vessel, not the vessels who still wait. And certainly not the child, ever.”
“Uh. OK.” I couldn’t imagine getting that conversation going, anyway. Uh, excuse me ma’am, but you smell like dried unicorn dung, so I’m going to beam a hovering soul into you. It’s a girl, by the way. She’s going to like butterflies and be lactose-intolerant. Congratulations!
“Your thoughts are swirling.”
Jeez. It was bad enough when she knew my ears were ringing and that clowns had Charles Manson eyes. “So when I figure all this out — if I figure all this out, what then?”
“You call a meeting of the council.”
“How do I do that?”
“You start scratching.”
“What will that do?”
“Once you start scratching, we will all get the cap, and we meet at nine p.m. And it is very important that you waste no time. It must be as soon as you have sufficient information. You must not hesitate. Do you understand?”
“Yeah. But I don’t get it. By clawing at my own head, I’m gonna give you all a rash?” It seemed too stupid to believe.
There had to be a better way to communicate. Hadn’t these old gals heard of e-mail? “Will I still get it?”
I rolled my eyes. “That thing hurt like nobody’s business.”
“The first time is always the worst.”
“And the second time?”
“A little better.”
“Only a little?”
Hulda shrugged in reply.
“Do I get to have a normal life in the meantime?” I asked.
“Then can I look at some of your fabrics?”
Hulda nodded. “For you, twenty percent off.”
At breakfast the next morning, my mom wanted to talk about Stanley. Why did I avoid him?
She had made it clear to me, months ago, that the divorce was inevitable, that she could never forgive my dad for being unfaithful, and that the return to Minnesota symbolized her new start. Still, I couldn’t help but think that my dad was a big drink of life, whereas Stanley was a sip, as in insipid. Anyway, it was just the wrong time for a heart-to-heart. I hadn’t slept well. Hulda had me so paranoid about the essence coming to me in a dream that I couldn’t relax. Branches had tapped at my window, and a nightjar may have been going for Guinness Book bragging rights on number of calls by a single bird. All night it sang its name:
Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will
. No wonder it was of the species
. If it were going for the record, it would have to best 1,088, one of the stranger facts I knew. Another thing I knew about the whippoorwill, that I had lain awake thinking about, was that its song was considered a death omen.
In this sleep-deprived state, I was no match for my crafty mom, who extracted a promise from me to have dinner with her and Stanley that night. He had offered to cook. What a sucker.
School that day was a grease fire. Wade, it appeared, was not content with Monique as the only chew toy dangling from his muzzle. He cornered me at the drinking fountain between second and third periods. I hadn’t heard anyone behind me, so I had lifted my head and turned quickly after my drink. He was too close, uncomfortably close, forcing our chests to bump. The bastard stepped back, dropped his eyes to the point of contact, and had the audacity to lick his lips. Nasty, little thin lips that they were.
“The new girl,” he said as if nothing had happened between the hours he spent lingering at Afi’s counter and that moment. “We finally meet, but you really didn’t have to throw yourself at me.” He looked down at me. Dang, he was tall. “I would have found you.”
“Wade!” a voice that could chip marble called from our left. I turned to find Monique with her hands on her hips. “What are you doing?”
“Keep your panties on,” he said gruffly. “Just introducing myself to the new girl.”
“They’re staying on,” Monique said. “I can promise you that.”
“Relax,” Wade said, stepping around me and coiling his arm around her waist. “You got nothing to worry about.”
Monique looked over her shoulder, her brows lifting in scrutiny. “Nice outfit,” she said in a phony voice.
I looked down at my Anthropologie floral shirtdress, striped tights, and Pucci flats. What would she know? She wore Old Navy. I took a big bracing breath of air and looked around. We had attracted onlookers, one of whom, naturally, was Jack.
In Design, nervous lines crimped Penny’s forehead when I mentioned my idea of a
look for our project. Not even the flash of tawny faux fur or russet suede from my book bag had piqued her interest. And I told Penny I’d write the dumb column. At least it was better than sitting by myself at lunch, though I still thought appointing a Norse Falls High fashion columnist made about as much sense as funding a Hawaiian interstate.
I followed Penny through the lunch line and to Mr. Parks’s room. We were the last ones in. The desks were arranged in a circle again, and I had no choice but to take the one next to Jack. At least today he was without the cap. I noticed that his espresso-brown hair had a cowlick, which sprayed above his left brow in a fountainlike arc. He ignored me by shoveling his food, hand to mouth, with the rote mechanics of an oil derrick. He appeared to be eating some sort of brown-rice casserole with lumps of indistinguishable meat and a few branchy clumps of green, presumably broccoli stalks, but quite possibly pine boughs. It did not escape my notice that, unlike the rest of the room, Jack’s meal was a sack lunch, definitely homemade. No flash of cellophane wrapping, nor scrap of cardboard packaging to be seen. He drank from a thermos. Even the sack itself was of sturdy cotton cloth. When finished, he dropped the Tupperware container and bent silver fork back into it and extracted two green apples.