This is the eighth chapter of Jenny and the Snowy Owl. If you haven’t read the first seven, you should probably read them first.
A shelf full of coffee cups was spread before Jenny’s eyes, all identical. World’s #1 Dad, it said on each cup, with a picture of the Earth for the letter O. She tugged her mother’s skirt. “What does RLD’S mean?” she asked, struggling to pronounce it.
Her mother pointed out the picture of the globe. “No honey, that’s supposed to be an O. See? W-O-R-L-D-S. It means the best dad in the world.”
Jenny was confused. “Why are there so many of them?”
“So lots of people can buy them,” her mother pulled her away from the display.
“But that’s lying. There’s only one best.”
“It’s not really lying. You think your daddy’s the best daddy in the world don’t you? Well so do lots of other girls and boys.”
The answer was not really to Jenny’s satisfaction, but it served as a diversion. “Can we get a cup for Daddy?” she asked.
“Your father leaves enough coffee cups lying around. He doesn’t need another one.”
Everywhere her mother dragged her around the store, there was nothing on the shelves as captivating as those coffee cups. There could only be one dad who was the best dad, and Jenny was sure it was hers. Her mother just wasn’t being reasonable. Finally, mercy prevailed and her mother’s shopping brought them next to the shelf again. Jenny reached up and picked up one of the cups. Images shot through her mind, just like when she’d picked up the cup from the kitchen table. Startled, she dropped it and then froze in terror waiting for the crash…
Jenny awoke with a start, shivering miserably. She was lying huddled into a ball, completely naked in the corner of a small room behind iron bars like a cage. The floor and walls were cold stone, sucking the heat from her body. Her teeth chattered in terrible chills. Pain throbbed mercilessly in her side where the arrow had pierced her.
The dream was fading quickly away, but the last dwindling images were still clear in Jenny’s mind. The cup never crashed to the floor of the nick-knack shop. It fell into her mother’s purse. You think maybe it should have said #1 Thief? Thief! Jenny shuddered.
Patchwork pictures pushed themselves into her mind… falling from the sky… tearing an arrow from her hip… reaching into her pocket… the terrible breathing she was sure belonged to the giant dog. Jenny sat up in shock and disgust, trying to crawl backwards, as if she could somehow escape her thoughts. The cold hard wall stopped her. Her bare feet pushed futilely at the stone floor and she watched, trembling, traumatized… Her blue stone, her gift from the sea, was gone!
Think Jenny! What happened to it? It was if it had all happened in her sleep. There had been men’s voices after the breathing, footsteps and the eerie green glow illuminating everything as the shadows of two men fell across her. Fear had flooded Jenny’s heart, fear that didn’t belong to her, but it wasn’t the men she feared. It was a piercing red eye, staring into the back of her mind, burning into her thoughts with the same terrible intensity as the searing eyes of the hound that pursued her in her nightmare.
Jenny looked around at her inhumane surroundings. There was no bed. No toilet. Nothing but cold grey stone with iron bars and iron rings anchored in the walls. Why am I naked? She stared down between her legs, and began to cry softly to herself, tortured by her incomplete memories. She reached around to where the arrow had been stuck. Visceral pain shot through her as she touched a gnarly scar on the back of her hip. She stood up shakily, wrapping her arms around her naked chest, and walked to the bars of the cage.
“Hello?” she called out. More pain shot through her at the effort.
The dungeon’s stone walls swallowed up her voice, making it sound small and unimportant. There was no answer, but she heard noises and she could feel vibrations in the stone under her bare feet. Peering through the bars, she could see there was a second cage like hers, and past that, a heavy iron door with a small window in it, drawn closed. The sounds of shuffling feet on the other side were followed by the latch on the door turning. A man dressed in light chain mail armor pushed through the door. He looked at Jenny’s face and then into the cage next to her before pulling back and closing the door again.
“Wait!” Jenny cried out. “You can’t just leave me here!”
The shuffling footsteps faded and were gone. Jenny’s shoulders slumped. She listened as the footsteps disappeared down the corridor, trying to imagine its shape from the echoes of their armored boots. The guard had looked at something in the other cage. Is someone in there? Why didn’t they answer? Maybe they were afraid of something.
“Hello?” she said more quietly. “Is someone else here?”
The left side of a thin face pushed timidly and silently through the bars of the second cage to look at her. The face belonged to a young girl, perhaps Jenny’s age. She’d probably once been pretty, but her face was emaciated with hunger and her blonde hair was a tangled mess of unwashed knots. Eyes that had long forgotten sadness peered at her from deep, hollow sockets. She held a thin finger to her lips.
Doubt pushed its way into Jenny’s thoughts as she pictured herself starved to that condition. For the first time since she set foot on the beach to be greeted by a tiny crab, she felt truly frightened. The pain in her side and the images from the stone stabbed into her the thought that she could die in this place. What do they want from me? I can’t die! I’m supposed to free the Secret. The sense of frustration was torturous. She stared at the girl in the next cage, still holding her finger to her lips.
“I’m Jenny,” she finally whispered as quietly as she could.
The girl nodded quietly.
“Do you have a name?”
Jenny saw the very edge of a thin smile. “This isn’t a place of names.”
“So I’ve heard. I like names.”
“You can call me Sonyë then, but it’s not really my name.”
“It sounds like a name, a pretty name.”
Sonyë’s glance darted momentarily away as if she’d heard something and then she looked back.
“Do you know why they took my clothes?” Jenny asked.
“Humility is the friend of interrogation,” Sonyë answered. “Maybe there’s something they want to know.”
“That should be fun,” Jenny laughed, in spite of her condition, and causing new spasms of pain. “I’m sure I have more questions than they do. Do you know anything about the Keeper of Secrets?”
“The prophecy of the Talí?”
“Yes! Ruelda said he could explain everything and that’s why I had to go to Bandor!”
“You came to Bandor?”
“Yes… only then something happened. I killed a little bird, only Snowy says they’re not birds, and then I was at home, only everything was very queer and Snowy said we had to come back.”
The dark circles around Sonyë’s eyes showed a hint of color for a moment, a deep burnt orange. “Only the Traveler can come to Bandor,” she said. “Those who are here have never not been here.”
“That’s just not true. Snowy came here twice too. And Bart came…” Jenny winced. The pain in her side was growing worse, though the wound from the arrow was barely there now. The thought that Snowy might not be here now, that he might be dead, stabbed at her heart, the way the wound stabbed at her loin. Tears welled up again in her eyelashes.
Sonyë’s sunken eyes grew dark again, a blue-black raccoon mask beneath her matted hair. “This bird that you killed… you killed it here, on Bandor?” she said.
Jenny nodded. She explained to Sonyë all about the beautiful stream of hummingbirds, about how she could orchestrate them with her fingers in her dream. “I didn’t mean to kill it. I thought they would just play with me like they did in my dream.”
“And you watched it die?”
“Yes… no… I don’t know. I woke up in my bed when it died and then maybe I only saw…” For an instant she knew what had happened to the stone. The thought flashed through her mind and was gone again as quickly as it came. What if you’re trying to help them steal it? she thought, but she wanted to trust Sonyë.
The dark orange flashed through Sonyë’s face again. “…only saw it die in a daydream?” she finished for Jenny, as if trying to help her avoid the answer.
“Sort of,” Jenny squirmed.
“Your friend was right,” Sonyë explained. “They only look like birds to you. In reality, they don’t look anything like birds, but you wouldn’t understand your eyes if you could see their natural form.” Her face suddenly looked pretty. “What you saw, what you struck, was a dream.”
“I killed someone’s dream?” Jenny wondered aloud, trying to picture what a dream’s natural form would be shaped like. “Oh my God!” she gasped. “I killed the dream I was dreaming didn’t I? That’s why I woke up in my bed!”
Sonyë smiled, but her fragile beauty faded as if her haggard child’s face was sucking it back in. “Dreams don’t die,” she said. “It’s not their nature.” Her head darted to look in the direction of another inaudible sound, and then turned slowly back. “They’re coming for you.”
“If it didn’t die, what happened to it?”
“That’s impossible for anyone else to say. You were the one who watched. What did you see?”
“It just lay there twitching on the gr… ow!” Another sharp pain shot through her and subsided. “On the ground. It looked like it was going to die.”
“Sometimes you see more than meets your eyes, Jenny.”
The words rushed through her like the first breath of air after her lungs spat out the seawater. They spun her dizzy, though she couldn’t be sure how much of that was the constantly creeping pain. Watch with your heart, Jenny the Traveler. It was too late for that now. Whatever had happened to the little bird that wasn’t a bird, it was gone. She couldn’t see it anymore.
An audible clank of another door somewhere down the corridors signaled that Sonyë was right, at least that someone was coming. Think, Jenny. Nothing was making sense.
“I need to find the Keeper,” she said. “Ruelda said he would tell me what happened to the seed I planted. She said he has the answers to all my questions.”
An even stranger look came over Sonyë’s face. “Jenny, don’t tell him anything.” The footsteps Sonyë had already heard were now loud enough for Jenny to hear them outside approaching the door. “Just promise me you won’t tell him anything.”
Sonyë didn’t answer. There was a slow shuffle at the door, four feet this time. The hinges creaked open. The quieter pair of feet stepped through the door with the guard close behind. Jenny’s pulse vanished as the Strange Man from the park walked toward her. Each step echoed inside her, louder than her heartbeat against her deafened ears. He was neither slouched, nor impoverished in appearance, a tall, thin man with bony fingers she remembered all too well. He was dressed in a strange robe like one she remembered from a play she’d been a part of in fifth grade. In his hand, he carried a shackles and chains.
Jenny crossed her arms over her chest and turned away to hide her nakedness. The Strange Man stopped and glared through the bars into her cage. She couldn’t look at his eyes. More than the dream of his fluorescent green eyes piercing through her in the darkness, or the utter humiliation of her pubescent body standing bare before him, the insurmountable fear that he would recognize her forced her eyes to the floor.
“She hides her eyes in shame like a dog,” the Strange Man chuckled to the guard, and then to Jenny he said, “You should be well-suited to a leash. Back away from the gate.”
The sound of his voice rattled her frozen soul. It was jovial, full of humor, and horribly unsettling. Jenny did as she was told. The guard lowered a spear and the Strange Man unlocked her cage and slid the door aside. He locked the shackles around her neck and then her wrists, pinning her hands helplessly beneath her chin.
“Let’s take a walk, thief,” he said gayly, jerking sharply at the chain, cutting the edge of the cuff against her neck.
Jenny stumbled from the cage. The shackles were incredibly heavy. Sonyë stood next to her bars, not at all afraid as Jenny imagined she might be. She could see Sonyë plainly now, as naked as she was, but starved half to death. Her body was nothing more than bones, painted with colorless, translucent skin. The skeletal hollows around her eyes completed the look of one walking in death. Her eyes pushed through their black mask, begging Jenny to keep the promise.
“I’ll come back for you,” Jenny mouthed silently.
The Strange Man led her out into the corridor with the guard following behind. A few times she lagged under the heavy weight of the shackles, and the sharp point of the guard’s spear stabbed at her bottom, goading her to keep pace. There were no other doors, just a long writhing hallway of darkness that eventually came to a spiral stair leading upward. It was as if someone had fashioned an elaborate dungeon just for the two prisoners.
The top of the stair opened into a large hall through another iron door. Magnificent floors of resplendent marble inlay replaced the rough-hewn porous pavement that had been gnawing at the bottoms of her bare feet. Grand pillars supported an arched ceiling, and Jenny found herself stabbed twice more, as she gaped at a beautiful hand-painted ceiling, surrounded in its entirety by statues of angels.
Huge cathedral doors of solid wood at the end of the hall opened into what appeared to be a throne room that bore no throne. A lone, robed figure holding a tall, wooden staff stood where perhaps the throne might have once stood. His back was turned. Thick, dark grey hair flowed from his head, alive as if in a current, and he spoke with in a voice as grey as his hair.
“Where is it?” It was almost a hiss the way it whispered to the wall beyond him, and echoed back around her from every direction the way the Mastiff of Bandor’s breathing echoed from the alley walls in her dream.
Jenny was quiet. Sonyë’s plea implored her to tell him nothing. The guard’s spear poked at her again from behind. She could feel little rivulets of blood trickling down the backs of her legs from the prodding.
“Where is it?” He spun around. The words were no louder, but they carried power, reverberating from the walls so that she heard them several times at once. His stern grey eyes peered from beneath thick, grey brows, over a thin nose with a crook at its middle. The staff in his hand held a red stone identically-shaped to the cold blue one she’d lost, and it flared red, carrying the anger that was missing from his voice.
Jenny was about to blurt out that she hadn’t stolen anything when she realized the question was not meant for her.
The Strange Man spoke, “We’ve searched her clothing and combed the area where she fell, Excellency. There is nothing. We thought perhaps…”
“Search her then!” The red stone flickered with his emotion.
The command itself violated Jenny, and it was only then that she realized in horror what she had done with the stone. Why would I do that? It must have been the last thing she did before blacking out. The Strange Man pulled her mouth open, pushing a bitter finger in, poking between her cheeks and gums and underneath her tongue. His eyes began to glow fluorescent green as he reached down between her legs. Maybe she only imagined that, but the thought of them finding it was all too much for her.
“What do you want?” she shrieked. “Why don’t you just tell me what you want?”
The Strange Man stopped. The man with the staff was upon them in two long strides. He pushed the Strange Man aside and thrust the staff into her face. She could feel the red stone probing her mind, digging through her thoughts like fingers sifting for something fallen in the clay. He reached his other hand toward her and clasped it shut, stealing some imaginary answer from the air next to her head, and shaking his clenched fist before throwing it open in empty frustration.
“You are the one who invaded Bandor,” he said. “Why don’t you just tell me what you want?”
“Ruelda said I have to find the Keeper of Secrets.”
Her captor straightened and looked at her in surprise. He looked nervously at the Strange Man and then back at Jenny. “No one has called me that since the Time of Times,” he said. “Who is Ruelda?”
But this is the Time of Times, Jenny thought. “She’s a cute little old lady with a tail. She said you could tell me what happened to the seed I planted.”
“The Talí sent you to Bandor?”
“Meddling monkeys,” growled the Keeper. “What have you done with the key?”
Key? Jenny was awash with relief. The Keeper wasn’t looking for the blue stone. “For someone who keeps secrets, you have a lot of questions,” she said. “You were supposed to answer my questions.”
The Keeper smiled a thin, grey smile. “In good time.” He nodded his head to the Strange Man. The chain mail of the guard’s arm, wrapped around Jenny’s shackled neck, lifting her nearly from her feet.
“I don’t have it!” Jenny screamed as the Strange man completed his search, forcing scraggly fingers into places where they didn’t belong. Her hands chained by her throat powerless to stop him. Another sharp pain from her side nearly knocked her unconscious.
“Your Excellency, she doesn’t have it.”
“But she does!” raged the Keeper.
He didn’t find it! Jenny was in shock. The red stone glowed so brightly she was sure she saw flames coming from the top of the staff. The brighter it burned, the colder the hidden blue stone grew, freezing her into cramps more painful than her wound. She tried her best to conceal it. The Keeper stepped close again, and Jenny spit furiously into his face.
“Put her back in her cage,” he hissed. The staff shook violently in his hand.
The pain inside her was too much and Jenny felt her knees collapse. Her dead weight choked her against the shackles, as her head swooned in darkness. When it lifted, she found herself back in her cell. The sound of the iron door slamming shut rang in her ears. Her clothes lay in a heap on the stone floor, but she couldn’t remember how they got there. It made no sense that the Strange Man would give them back. She peered through the bars but Sonyë was not to be seen.
I wonder what they want with it? Jenny knew what they wanted. She could still see the image of the strange ancient key dangling innocently from her key chain as if it had always been there. But it hadn’t always been there. It had never been there, and it wasn’t there when she’d returned to Bandor. This place is so queer! So awful and so queer!
The unbearable agony dizzied her again. She turned away from the bars, clinging to one of them for support. The arrowhead must still be lodged there, pushing deeper and deeper into her abdomen. She staggered a few steps toward where her clothes now lay in a heap, but the pain overwhelmed her once more. Blackness swallowed her vision and the rushing of the entire Sea of Umann filled her ears. Searing heat, like a knife of fire, tore her inside.
Jenny screamed and collapsed to the floor, clutching at the wound left by the arrow, but the wound was completely gone now, healed as if she’d never been shot. She could feel her stomach filling with blood, sickening her with nausea, until she was retching a crimson pool onto the floor of her cage. Finally, it passed, and she collapsed, naked and exhausted into the splash of blood and bile, panting as she watched the thirsty stone floor slowly drink it up.
As her eyes regained their focus, she saw a silver object shining in the seeping puddle. It was the arrowhead! Feebly, she reached for it and picked it up. She could feel the Umann healing her body inside, just as it erased her footprints from the sand, and erased the wound from her back. Strength flowed into her and she sat slowly, blinking incredulously at the object in her fingers. It was no ordinary arrowhead. She polished some of the blood away to reveal the same mysterious key that she’d found when she came home from school.
“Are you alright, Jenny?” Sonyë’s voice whispered from the other cage.
“I think so,” she whispered back, certain that she wasn’t. “I’ve found something.”
Jenny stood up, trembling again from lying on the cold floor. In timid humility, she reached up between her legs. Her uncomfortable blue companion fell easily from its invasive hiding place into her hand. Wiping some of the blood from her face and chest with her pants, she slowly dressed, and then returned the stone to the pocket of her jeans where it belonged.
Once she was clothed again, she returned to the bars of the cage and looked nervously at the window of the iron door. No one was there. Sonyë could be seen peering from her cage again. “You didn’t tell him anything did you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I told him he asked a lot of questions.”
Jenny held up the key through the bars. “I think they were looking for this. He seemed to know I had it when I didn’t even know.”
Sonyë stared at the key in silence.
Jenny reached her arm through the bars, pushed the key carefully into the lock from the other side, and held her breath. Slowly, she turned the key in the lock. There was a loud click as the bolt slid away. For the flash of an instant, Jenny stood on her porch. Instead of her house key, she slid the strange ancient one into her front door lock. She looked nervously back over her shoulder at the black ribbon twisting out across the park and into the darkening sky.
The cage door slid open and then it was gone. The stone walls were replaced by a beautiful blue sky beyond a wooden dock. The gentle sounds of waves lapping at the piles, and bickering gulls fell upon her ears. She was stood in the doorway of a small wooden shack, the key that had freed her from her cell on Bandor still clasped between her fingers. Now her familiar key chain dangled beneath it.
She lifted the key and turned it back and forth to examine it closely. On one side of the key head was a small oval bump. Directly opposite was a small oval indentation. It had almost no other distinctive markings, but what looked like four tiny letters engraved on the indented side.
“Well, aren’t you queer?” Jenny puzzled. “What kind of a key does that?”
“Returned… returned,” answered a familiar voice. “Oh calamity. Returned.”
© 2013 Anne Schilde