She was waiting. She imagined herself as an animal. A strong buck in the rutting season, its breath visible in the early morning air, crashing through briers and underbrush, storming through an open field, its strength and courage only matched by its speed and agility. People thought deer were weak animals --- nothing more than easy prey for wild dogs and hunters --- but she had once seen a doe protect her fawn by charging a grown man and throwing him against a metal fence. The man suffered cuts all up and down his spine, and had to get dozens of stitches. She thought of the owl that probably lived in this tree, unafraid of anything in the night. It could turn its head all the way around, and its wide yellow eyes could see the strange forms of the night as if it was midday. But what would it see? A field mouse scampering across the road to the abandoned lot down the street, where its hole lay beneath the hood of an old car. It could only reach that hole by exposing itself to great danger --- by running out along the length of the street and the lot. Then the owl could easily see it and swoop down, kill it and eat it.
Suddenly she did not feel safe having the owl above her head. She felt as if she was the mouse, scampering toward her hole. The uncertain knowledge of what was above her head made her bite her lip, and want to cry. But she fended it off when a car slowed down to look at her.
* * *
“Be careful with the knife, even though it’s not sharp.”
Against her better judgment, she gave her granddaughter a butter knife. The bark was too thick for her small fingers. They each took a sprig of the twig and began to strip it of bark. A pile of daffodils were at the foot of the steps. Far overhead, a cloud covered the sun, and the warm, late spring day suddenly cooled.
“Do you want a sweater, honey?” she asked her granddaughter.
“No thanks, Grandma.”
“Are you sure? I’m chilly and I’m going to get myself one.”
“Ok, if you’re going in.”
She went into the house and pulled a sweater over her head. The little girl’s pink zip-up was on the kitchen table, among a scattered field of crayons and coloring books. When she returned, she knew something was wrong. The girl was hiding her hand. Her happy face was blank.
“What is it, sweetheart?” The grandmother asked. “What happened?”
“I don’t want to,” the girl turned her head away. Her lips were curling down at the corners.
“You can show me. Don’t worry. I won’t get angry.”
“It was the knife, Grandma.”
“Oh,” the woman leaned down. “Please show me your hand. You have to.”
The little girl offered her hand. There was a small scrape across the thumb. The grandmother took her hand and planted a kiss across her palm.
“It’s not that bad. Don’t worry. A Band-Aid will do the trick. Come on inside to the bathroom.”
“Can I still cut the bark off the branch?” the girl asked quietly.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, honey. But here. Take the scissors. You can trim the stems from the flowers.”
“What was it like when you were a girl, grandma?”
The woman stripped the bark from the branch, and the girl carefully snipped the stems from the daffodils. They sat on the porch step, taking their time and exchanging words sparingly --- both unconsciously trying to stretch a moment that would soon be gone.
“I grew up on a farm, and we had a lot of animals. And sometimes I would pretend I was an animal. But not any barn animals.”
“Why not?” the girl asked.
“I suppose I had enough of farm animals. I would pretend I was a sleek animal in the woods: like a deer or a red fox. If I was a fox, I would hunt along a row of stacked wood that some farmer had left to season, and sniff around for a mouse, and I would catch one.”
“Weren’t you sorry for the poor mouse?”
“Yes,” the woman answered. “I have to say I was sorry for the mouse. That is why I was a deer most of the time. Especially a buck. They are male deer. They are swift and strong and have great antlers. I would pretend I was a buck a lot.”
“When I was afraid it made me feel better.”
“Were you afraid a lot Grandma?”
The woman paused and looked down at the little head.
“No more than other little girls.”