by Kathleen Sands
During the summer of her fifth year, my baby sister refused to eat her breakfast egg. She put a bite into her mouth, waited a moment, spat the bite onto her fork, deposited fork and food onto her plate, and sat back in her chair. “Leathery,” she pronounced.
I tried to put the fork back in her hand and whispered in her ear. “Eat.” Perhaps she knew a few words I didn’t, but I was two years her elder. It was my duty to look out for her.
She jerked her head and hand away. The fork clattered on the floor.
“Parthi, be quiet and keep your hands to yourself.” Father’s voice was calm and kind as always, but my face heated anyway. I wasn’t the one who’d done something wrong. “Florence, you’ll have to finish your breakfast before leaving the table.”
She regarded him as he turned and talked to Mother about something else.
The rest of us ate, excused ourselves, and went about our business while Florence sat straight-backed, eyes closed, humming quietly as her egg congealed. The household moved around her all morning, servants and tradesmen coming and going, Mother and Father avoiding the eye of the storm, me bewildered and anxious. Our midday meal was served at the library table because the dining table couldn’t be cleared and set. After Cook complained, Florence and her egg were moved to the small chair and table in the nursery. Shortly before supper that evening, I was dispatched upstairs to check on her. There she sat, reading a book, humming away, the egg yolk on her plate gone quite orange.
I kept my voice calm and kind, like Father’s. “Are you going to eat that?”
She stopped humming and looked up from her book but didn’t speak.
“Why won’t you answer me?”
“You know the answer.”
“Why won’t you do as I say?”
“The commandment says, ‘Honour thy father and thy mother.’ That’s Nightingale and Fanny. Not you.”
We stared at each other for a moment before I went downstairs to report.
Florence was washed and dressed and brought to the dining room, where she ate nicely with the rest of us. No one spoke of the morning’s rebellion. Her cold egg was scraped into the scrap bin and later dumped into the poultry yard.
Two years after Florence refused to eat her egg, we were sitting in the drawing room after supper when she announced that God had spoken to her in the night, asking if she would be willing to sacrifice her life of pleasure in order to serve those in need.
The rest of us smiled. A child claiming to hear the voice of God in this day and age? I felt important allying with the adults. “What pleasures does God want you to sacrifice?” I asked. “New shoes for Easter? Charades? Sugared pears?” Father’s amused expression emboldened me to continue. “Puppets? Caraway comfits?”
Mother looked up from the paper strips coiling in her lap. “What about giving Mademoiselle Fanchon to some poor girl who has no doll?”
My breath held. That doll had a wardrobe of summer and winter dresses, capes and shawls, petticoats and chemises—even a lace wedding gown and veil. She belonged to Florence, who never played with dolls. I looked down, my face warm.
Florence answered like an adult but looked at me. “Yes, I’ll give up sweets and games, but not the doll.”
My anxiety about Mademoiselle Fanchon cooled. I smoothed my cuffs.
“But I think the voice really meant something more important. I think it meant that I should never marry.”
Mother looked down to coil more paper leaves and petals to stick onto her eternally incomplete quillwork picture. Father bent over his Indian ivory chess set, scrutinizing the board. I pretended to study a page in my Tennyson, murmuring lines under my breath: “She only said, ‘My life is dreary, / He cometh not,’ she said.”
Florence watched us for a moment before returning to her book.
* * *
Never again did she broach the idea that God spoke to her, but I did, once. It was fifteen years later, after she had dismissed her fifth suitor. When she announced the dismissal at supper, Father looked down and picked at his food. Mother laid her cutlery across her plate and folded her hands in her lap.
I didn’t understand and I didn’t want to. No one had ever proposed marriage to me. I had long ago reconciled myself to Florence’s superior prettiness and wittiness, secure in my position as elder sister, but I still stole peeks at Mademoiselle Fanchon, entombed within the cedar chest in all her bridal splendour.
My voice sounded to my ears like that of a rock. “I suppose you are going to pretend that God spoke to you again. You expect our parents to support your virginal caprices indefinitely while you blithely reject suitor after suitor. And then you pile blasphemy upon selfishness, claiming the responsibility to be God’s. You are the epitome of pride. Even the voice of God could not drown out the sound of your own self-approbation.”
Father and Mother sat, stunned.
I wanted to call back my words. Too much, too hard. Oh, my baby sister. Instruct by example, not reproach. Please, please let her falter or wince, allowing me to resume control.
Florence looked at me, calm as ever. “Parthi, God has instructed me in my duty, but you persist in contradicting that instruction. The pride is yours, as is the blasphemy.”
Eyes brimming, Mother left the table.
“Girls!” Father’s low voice signaled a warning.
Florence turned to him. “I’m sorry about upsetting Fanny. I’ll apologize to her presently. But”—here she turned to me—“I wish Parthi to understand that I will subordinate myself to none but God.”
I rose from my chair and leaned on the table, trembling. “What I understand all too well is that you refuse to do your duty as a daughter of this house.”
“Parthenope!” Father’s voice sat me back down, but Florence was already excusing herself from the table to go after Mother.
On my twenty-fifth birthday the following year, Father explained the terms of my dowry to me and asked whether I wanted him or our family lawyer to manage the account until a husband took over, I chose him. Of course I did. Who would hold my interests closer to heart than my own father?
I suspect he didn’t even ask Florence that question when she reached her majority two years later. He probably just signed the documents that made her mistress of her own money. I found out that he had done this when she paid the priest who organized our stay in Athens. Never before had I seen a woman write a cheque.
After the priest left, I spoke. “Father allows you to sign?”
“He doesn’t need to allow me. It’s my money.”
“Yes, of course, but I certainly wouldn’t risk it. Someone might take advantage.”
She blinked at me, eyebrows raised. “Someone might try, yes. I shall be careful to avoid that situation. Thank you for the good advice.”
I couldn’t tell whether she was being facetious. Her face never gave much away.
The trip to Athens was Florence’s attempt to ease the tension between us. She knew I’d always wanted to see the Acropolis, and she asked me to join her for a trip abroad. She was putting her dowry wealth toward travel, not marriage.
As we walked through a grove of ancient olive trees at the base of the hill, she stopped and bent down.
“Oh, Florence,” I said. “Don’t pick that up. It’s dirty.”
She picked it up and cupped it: a gray-brown lump of fluff, an apple-sized dustball. She peered up into the leaf canopy, then back down to her hands. “A fallen nestling.”
I stepped back. “It’s dead.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Well, it soon will be. Let it die in peace.”
She stroked the dirty fluff, touched the little beak, felt the tiny talons. “I think it’s an owl.”
I crossed my arms. “Doesn’t look like any owl I’ve ever seen.”
“More owls in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Give me your reticule.”
Clasped to my belt was the velvet drawstring bag Florence had embroidered with my initials, laboring over the simple work for months. The result was less than stunning, but it was one of the few things she’d ever made for me. I crossed my arms over my belt and locked eyes with her.
She raised her eyebrows and waited, hands filled with dirty fluff.
I emptied the contents of my reticule into Florence’s inelegant but capacious carpet bag, which she had naturally dropped onto the dirty ground, and held my velvet purse out and open.
She deposited the dustball with great care, clasped my reticule to her own belt, and smiled at me.
Picking up the heavy carpet bag, I followed her back to our rented room.
I have yet to see the Acropolis.
* * *
That was the end of my reticule. By the time we’d steamed home, it had become the owlet’s sanctuary, cradle, and chamber pot. While our amazed parents looked on, Florence removed the occupant and rolled it in a napkin, yellow eyes staring, claws contained, and set it upright in a tea cup. She opened the beak and, using one of my new painting brushes that she’d plucked down to a few hairs, deposited droplets of water into the gullet until the thing would swallow no more. Peeling yellow shreds of fat from the breast of a freshly killed pullet from our poultry yard, she force-fed the owlet until it fell asleep, a paring of raw meat still hanging from its beak. It did not wake when she deposited it back inside the reticule and clasped the cord to her belt.
Mother stroked her Irish linen tablecloth, now littered with dead olive leaves and smeared with pasty white excrement. “What about the rest of the chicken?” Most of the feathered carcass lay splayed on the table, all wings and beak and eyes.
Florence shrugged. “She’ll need a fresh carcass every day. Tainted meat is bad for invalids. The dogs can have what she doesn’t eat.”
Father smiled his spotlight on Florence while Mother and I waited in the wings. “She?”
Florence smiled back. “Of course. She was born in Athens. Her species is Athene noctua. Her portrait is on the money.” She flicked across the table an ancient coin we’d picked up on our trip.
Father captured the coin, displaying like a magician the owl on one side and the goddess’s head on the other. “And therefore, nolens volens, Athena.”
Mother and I dutifully looked at the coin.
* * *
Every month I made the rounds of our tenant farmers. I didn’t collect rents, of course—the tenants came to the house quarterly to settle with Father—but I chatted about births, deaths, prize bulls, sick cows, and so on. I delivered store-bought preserves and received homemade ones. I tut-tutted at minor wounds, applying salve and sympathy. I’d always done this alone, but after we returned from Athens, Florence decided to accompany me. I asked why.
“For practice.” She didn’t mean practice in landlording. She had strong-armed Father into paying for an expensive private tutor in statistics. Now her dinnertime conversation was peppered with demographics and inference and probability. Father tried valiantly to keep up with her, but of course Mother and I just ate quietly. So I presumed Florence’s “practice” in visiting the tenants would be counting sheep or graphing weather patterns or some equally arcane activity.
She surprised me by saying she was bringing the owl along. My velvet reticule long since relegated to the dust bin in shreds, Florence had sewn a new drawstring bag out of sturdier stuff. Where she went, there went the owl, huddling inside the bag (embroidered with a red A for the fantastical name Florence had bestowed on it), cord clasped to her belt. When I asked what the owl had to do with “practice,” Florence said, “She needs to be civilized.”
Definitely true. That owl was a little savage. I had presented it with a glorious cage of Caribbean mahogany and gilded brass, which it had promptly torn apart. If anyone touched it when Florence was out of its presence, the beak clamped down hard on a finger while the talons raked the innocent hand. It hooted after awakening inside the bag, softly at first, then crescendoing to a frightful shriek if Florence didn’t immediately remove and caress it. I imagined what havoc it might wreak within the cramped unfamiliarity of a tenant’s cottage: pellets dropped in the soup pot, caps ripped off heads, flesh and clothing slashed.
“Must we take the owl with us?” I formed my doubt into a question in order to allow Florence to arrive at the proper conclusion of her own accord.
She continued stroking and chirping at the owl, persuading it to submit to the carrying bag.
I smoothed my gloves and picked up my basket of small gifts for the tenants. “Let’s leave it at home today. We’ve got enough to carry, and Hannah is too busy to accompany us.” The final word.
Without looking at me, Florence said, “I won’t ask you to carry her.” Owl bag clasped to her belt, she was out the door.
Off we went, cottage to cottage, dispensing currant jelly and noblesse oblige. I did the list-making, baby-kissing, and knee-bandaging. Florence and Athena did the entertainment, the owl perching on cabinets, making short flights across rooms, and allowing itself to be hypnotized by forehead-stroking. All well and good until the Burgess cottage. The daughter there had a large seeping ulcer above her left ankle, which I had treated with butter for weeks with no improvement. The girl cried and fought when I doctored her, necessitating restraint by her mother. This time, though, she was so enchanted by the owl’s antics that she lay as still as Lot’s wife while Florence dressed the wound with vinegar and allowed the girl to stroke the owl’s breast feathers.
I held my breath, waiting for the beak-and-talon attack, but it didn’t happen. Under my sister’s eye, the owl was an angel.
Florence didn’t wait for my monthly rounds to treat the girl again. A few days later, I smelled vinegar on her. “Did you visit Agnes Burgess today?”
She nodded, attending to a parcel she was unwrapping.
“I suppose her wound is completely healed now?”
Florence didn’t acknowledge my sarcasm. “No, of course not. But it is noticeably improved.”
I found this hard to believe, but I’d never known Florence to lie. “What’s that you’ve got there?”
She removed a glass jar from its packing and opened it under my nose. “Smell.”
An acrid odour knocked my head back. “Get it away!”
Laughing, she recapped the jar and nestled it back into the straw. “German creosote. Coal tar. It will heal the ulcer faster than vinegar.”
“It smells disgusting. I wouldn’t use it for any reason.”
Her hands stilled, and she looked at me—a long, cool examination. “You really have no idea how spoiled you are, do you?”
Shocked, I stood silent.
* * *
At home, the owl was not so angelic. It left ugly black pellets on the bed pillows, killed a young thrush that hopped into the drawing room through the open French doors, and tore apart my fur cuffs. It stared at us from atop cabinets, pediments, and bookshelves. It grunted, barked, and hooted in the middle of the night, waking us at ungodly hours. But even as its wildness increased, it still demanded to be fed by hand—Florence’s hand, of course.
After our Athens tour had been cut short, there’d been occasional talk about picking up where we’d left off, so I dropped the hint. “Why shouldn’t Athena accompany us to Greece this summer? It’s her homeland, after all.” We were watching the owl bow and bob as it stood on the table, affecting politeness. “We could release her back into her native habitat.”
Florence stroked the owl’s head, making it close its eyes. “I don’t think she can ever be released into the wild. She’s never learned to feed herself.”
“Of course she can. She murdered that baby thrush right readily.”
“She didn’t eat it. She doesn’t connect hunting with eating. Hunting is instinctive with her, but she understands food only as it comes from my hand.” True—the dead thrush ended up on Mother’s linen table cloth, nary a bite out of it.
So. We were stuck with the tiny tyrant wherever we went, for however long it lived. “Well, then. Shall I sew a few more bags in preparation for the trip?” The owl needed a ready supply of carrying bags to replace those it shredded and soiled. After Florence had made that first bag, she’d wheedled me into sewing more according to her pattern. I was the better seamstress, after all. I even embroidered the A on each bag, reasoning that any sewing practice was useful.
Florence continued stroking the owl, not looking at me. “I can’t go to Greece with you this year. I’ll be in Germany. Pastor Fliedner’s community at Kaiserwerth-am-Rhein has accepted me to train among the deaconesses.” Her voice was as calm as though she’d said she was thinking of wearing ecru this summer instead of white.
A long minute elapsed before I could respond. “You’re converting to Lutheranism? But our family has been Church of England forever!”
Literal Florence just had to correct me. “Since 1534. No, not converting. Just going for nurse training.”
I didn’t even try to contain myself. “Nurse training? That’s worse than Lutheranism! What is there to be trained in? Every cookery book contains recipes for tending the sick. ‘Boil a whole calf’s head until the eyeballs fall out, remove the head and set it aside for jelly, strain the tea, and administer four times a day to any patient suffering from weakness, lethargy, or anemia.’ You and I have groaned over that one a dozen times!”
She tightened her mouth. “Well, I won’t be the one boiling up the calf’s head. I’ll be learning to train and supervise professional nurses for private homes and hospitals.”
“Nurses for hire? Paid nurses? Lower-class girls of fourteen years old who dump slop pots out of windows and scrub floors on their hands and knees. You are the godchild of the Governor General of India. You have an independent annual income of five hundred pounds sterling. What’s next? Supervising leech collectors? Are you mad?”
Her tight mouth relaxed into a tiny smile. “Maybe. But I’m going to do it anyway.” She slid the engraved bracelet off her wrist and tried to slip it onto mine.
I snatched my hand away. She couldn’t bribe me, not even with our grandmother’s wedding bracelet.
Her smile widened as she tried again.
So—perhaps an attempt at reconciliation rather than a bribe. I let her do it, feeling the weight of the gold.
She covered the bare place on her wrist with her other hand. “And, since this community is an ascetic order, no pets are allowed. I know you’ll take good care of Athena while I’m away.”
I closed my eyes, still registering the new weight.
* * *
We practiced before the departure. At first I watched from a distance while Florence held the owl and cooed at it. “Talk to her,” she said. “So she will learn to associate your voice with food.”
I reluctantly moved my chair closer and chimed in on the cooing, but I felt silly and unguarded. The proximity frightened me, those wild yellow eyes staring while the sharp curved beak took shreds of meat and fat from Florence’s fingers. True, its beak never grazed a finger, not even by accident, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. The owl was no longer a dustball, but a creature with the size, speed, and weapons of a large cat.
While the owl was in mid-gulp, Florence transferred it from her hand to mine. I stiffened under the grip of those strong talons but held steady as the owl swallowed its prize. Florence fed it another scrap, then handed the next one to me. I held it just above the staring eyes as I’d seen Florence do and tensed as the owl took the morsel.
Florence glowed. “See? You and she are friends already.”
Awash with relief that it was over, I stroked Grandmother’s bracelet.
* * *
My skittishness near Athena was particular, not general. I had no trouble being around or even touching most animals. I didn’t even mind invertebrates. Desiccating in a drawer was an insect collection that I had put together long ago for some natural history lesson of Father’s. Florence had refused to participate in this activity, saying she didn’t want to kill anything. I had done all the catching, suffocating, arranging, and pinning. The day after Florence and I fed the owl together, I put on my boots and tramped through the woods behind the house, turning up stones and dead branches to uncover beetles and worms and caterpillars. These I plucked from their lairs and deposited into a glass bottle which I corked and carried home.
We began that evening’s meal as we had the previous day. Florence started the owl off with a few shreds of raw chicken, then passed the carcass to me. I fed it a few more shreds, then up-ended the capture bottle into my lap. Out fell a black cricket and a striped wood borer, which I poked with my finger. The cricket didn’t move, but the wood borer set off across the terrain of my skirt. I gently pinched its sides to pick it up and hold it above Athena’s eyes, its six helpless legs waving farewell to its short life.
I clasped my free hand with Florence’s and held my breath. The owl had never before been offered living prey. Would it recognize the beetle as food? Would the waving legs and antennae distract it? It had always eaten soft flesh and fat; would the hard carapace give it difficulty?
Never hesitating, the owl took the wood borer from my fingers and calmly crunched it again and again, golden eyes slow-blinking in eerie satisfaction. Florence and I breathed and squeezed hands. I shook a few more insects into my lap and fed the owl until it would eat no more.
After Athena was sated and bagged for the night, Florence hugged me. “You’re so clever. I so much wanted to be able to leave home with a free heart. Thank you.”
For the first time in many years, I felt like an elder sister. “Of course you should leave with a free heart. And you must remember to wear your galoshes out in that cold German rain.”
She looked at me in amazement, and we both smiled.
* * *
The night before Florence’s departure, we all adjourned to the drawing room as usual after supper. And, as usual, each of us resorted to our individual quiet pursuits. Father had lost interest in chess years before, so this night he sat reading his newspaper. Mother’s quillwork project languished unfinished in a cupboard somewhere, so she, too, was reading. My project for the evening was to memorize part of “Endymion,” so I sat with Keats in my lap, whispering to myself: “On every morrow are we wreathing / A flowery band to bind us to the earth / Spite of despondence.” Florence sat, staring into the distance. Staring at her future, no doubt—her future away from home and family.
I excused myself.
Instead of going to my room, I entered Florence’s. I had rarely been in it during the year since our return from Greece. Her trunk and carpet bag stood in a corner, packed and ready for the morning’s departure. All else looked as usual except that the silver bowl on the dressing table no longer held buds of astringent lavender but a dirty mass of twigs, feathers, and grass—the owl’s nest. The tarnish and scratches marring Aunt Mai’s wedding gift to our parents saddened me, so I picked up the bowl and moved it to a bedside table out of view. Now all that rested on the dressing table were Florence’s monogrammed brush and comb and the silver-lidded crystal boxes for hair pins and loose hair. Like home and family, these were being left behind, witness to her decision to forego hair-dressing in Germany.
I picked up the comb and brush and sat, waiting.
Florence entered and paused her step but smiled at seeing me in the old accustomed place. After moving the bowl back to its original setting, she deposited the sleepy owl into its silver nest, then sat at her vanity, back to me, and closed her eyes, my signal to begin.
I stood behind her, unpinned her curls, and brushed them out, slowly and gently. When she heard me pulling loose hair from the brush to put into the crystal box, she opened her eyes and watched me in the mirror. I stood for a moment before handing the hair to her. She rolled it between her palms to form a compact tangle before tucking it into the silver bowl around the sleeping owl. Holding my breath and suppressing my fear of those powerful talons, I tucked in the next brushful myself. The owl opened its eyes and stared at me but otherwise did not react.
When her hair was brushed and braided and wound around her head under her nightcap, Florence stood and embraced me, whispering into my ear. “I know you don’t understand why I have to go. Please believe me—it really is God’s will.”
A small, hard coal still flickered inside my chest, but I smiled.
* * *
I lay awake most of that night, waiting for the severance. Florence tiptoed into my room in the wee hours and bent over me. If she noticed tear-streaks on my face, she said nothing about them, only whispered, “Dear Parthi. I shall miss you, but I feel better leaving part of me in your care. Adieu, ma sœur aînée.”
The tightness of my throat hoarsened my voice.“Adieu, ma bébé sœur.”
Then I lay, eyes aching, listening to the bang and clatter of her departure. Elder sister. Baby sister. No more. We had said adieu, not au revoir, both of us feeling the finality. No matter when—or if—we saw each other again, the sisterhood would be in the past. I heard Father and Mother and Stephens accompany her out the door. I couldn’t remember ever being anywhere without her. Now it would always be so.
But I wasn’t alone. From the next room I heard the soft morning sounds of the owl in its nest of Florence’s hair inside the silver bowl. Mews and cheeps at first. Barks and hoots as its hunger increased.
“Part of me,” she had said. The owl part. That’s what she’d left behind. The not-sister part.
But now Florence was the not-sister. Now Athena was indeed the sister part. We had both been left behind.
I waited for the first shriek, and there it was. The second. The third. Head-splitting. Ear-deafening. A more vehement sound than I had ever made in my life. A sound which I dearly wished I could make at that moment.
Kathleen R. Sands has taught literature, writing, and other humanities courses at several universities and colleges. Her collection of short fiction, Boy of Bone, received an honorable mention in the New York Book Festival and was recently published as a book app entitled The Face Phantom. More of her stories appear in The Carolina Quarterly and two dozen other magazines and anthologies.