Episode 223: The Oulough by Francesca Forrest


The Oulough

by Francesca Forrest

 

“Are there any bandages in this house?” Tina asked. “I’ve found an oulough, but it’s hurt.” She likes to do this: come into my—sorry, make that our—bedroom when I’m trying to study and ask me for something.

 

Tina’s not my little sister. She’s my half-niece, I guess you’d say. Her mom is my half-sister Shari. If you were ever to hear any authority figure talking about Shari, you’d hear things like “poor impulse control” and “bad choices.” One of those last landed in her in jail, and that’s how Tina came to be living with my mom and me and telling me about a wounded oulough.

 

I had not actually ever heard of ouloughs before. It’s disconcerting, when you’re nineteen, to have an eight-year-old mentioning animals you’ve never heard of. It occurred to me—this might have been intellectual ego protection kicking in—that maybe it was just that Tina’s pronunciation was off, like maybe she was trying to say, I don’t know, orangutan or something. Not that it’s likely she would have run across an orangutan in Indian Orchard.

 

“Say that again? You found a what?” I asked.

“An oulough. O-U-L-O-U-G-H,” she spelled. “I think it somehow hurt its forewing with its own stinger.”

 

Definitely not an orangutan. I pictured something like a scorpion, with dragonfly wings.

 

“Ughh, you want to keep away from things with stingers,” I said. I googled oulough, but nothing turned up that seemed relevant.  

 

“But it’s hurt. I need to help it,” she said, positively trembling with urgency and concern.

 

“Things with stingers can take care of themselves,” I said, and turned back to my lab report for Chem 121. I work until 5:30 on Tuesdays, so I only have the evening to prepare for Wednesday’s classes.

 

She didn’t argue, but she gave me a look that let me know I was only one level above people who abandon kittens by the side of the road. So I took a deep breath and asked, “How big a thing are we talking about? Maybe we can trap it and take it to an animal rehabilitator.”

 

“It’s not letting me get a good look at it, but I think it’s still a juvenile,” she said, sounding like the host of a nature show.

 

“A ‘juvenile,’ huh?” I echoed, but she just nodded. Her eyes were traveling round the bedroom.

 

“I need something to carry it in. Can I use this?” She managed to heft up my backpack.

 

“Um, no. That’s got all my textbooks and notebooks in it. And anyway, how do you think you’re going to get a wounded oulough to crawl into a backpack?” This was argument for mere argument’s sake, like I used to do with my older brother Dan when we were kids. Well, and curiosity, too. I was a little bit curious.

 

“Please? I’ll use lemons,” Tina said.

 

“What do lemons have to do with anything? And the answer is still no.”

 

“Pretty please with sugar on top? Lemons are to lure it. I know we have some; I saw them in the frigerator.”

 

“Fine.” I heaved what my mother would call a theatrical sigh, emptied out the backpack, and handed it to her. “But you have to promise not to touch this oulough thing. And just to be safe, I want you to wear…” I got up and rummaged in my bottom dresser drawer until I located some leather gloves from Christmas two years back. “… these.”

 

“Okay, but ouloughs don’t bite unless they’re provoked, and the sting isn’t deadly if you apply the antidote within 48 hours,” she said.

 

“Oh good, I’m very reassured,” I said.

 

“I also need . . .”

 

She was chewing her lower lip. I raised my eyebrows.

 

“. . . some nice oil to rub on its scales. If it’ll let me. Like argan oil?”

 

“What did I just say about touching it?”

 

“I’ll be very, very, very, very–”

 

“No!”

 

She pouted.

 

“What if I use tongs to put it on? I could put oil on a washcloth and then hold the washcloth in the tongs and put it on like that. Then would it be all right?”

 

That sounded precautionary enough for something whose reality I was having doubts about. Which moved us to the next problem, which was that hair oil wasn’t part of my hair care routine, or my mother’s. No doubt it was part of Shari’s though. She was always super stylish.

 

“Would cooking oil be all right?” I asked. “There’s a big bottle of corn oil in the kitchen.”

“I don’t want it to think we’re going to eat it,” she whispered. I thought of pointing out that most animals aren’t brainy enough to put two and two together in that way, but I was pretty sure if I did, she’d take the opportunity to tell me that an oulough’s brain is second only to a dolphin’s, or that they’re allergic to corn. Fortunately, I remembered the ancient bottle of baby oil that lived in our hall closet behind various allergy remedies and antibacterial ointments. I suggested that to Tina. She gave me a quick, tight hug me.

 

“It’s like Mom said: you’re all right.” She dashed out of the room before I could utter dire threats about what would happen if her oulough left its fewmets, or whatever, in my backpack.

 

Only after she’d gone did I realize she’d forgotten about the bandages. All for the best—we don’t have any, and probably she would have insisted on tearing strips off her shirt.

 

About an hour later she came back into the bedroom looking pleased.

 

“The lemons worked. It hopped right into the backpack. I’ve rubbed the oil in and settled it under the porch. I can tell it likes it there. Ouloughs don’t like direct sun. When I left it was preening.”

 

You can get under our front porch because the wooden latticework that blocks off that space has a hole in it on one side. The dirt under there is very soft and fine—I remember from when I was little. It had been one of my favorite hiding places. I wasn’t surprised that Tina had discovered the spot and liked it. But an oiled-up creature under there would get very dirty very fast. I asked Tina about this.

 

“It’s fine,” she said, offhandedly. “I only oiled its top scales, not the ones that actually come in contact with the ground.”

 

“And you said it was preening?”

 

“Yeah! I didn’t want to try oiling its wings because I was afraid of making them too gunky. So now it’s taking some of the oil from its scales and spreading it through its feathers.”

 

“How about the injury?”

 

Tina shrugged and pushed her bangs back toward the tangle of the rest of her hair. “Maybe it was just thirsty. Maybe that’s why its forewing was drooping. And maybe the stinger spot I saw is just a mosquito bite.” She scratched a couple of her own: rosy circles with ruby dots at the center, speckling her arm.

 

“Thanks for letting me use your backpack.” She held it out for me to take. It was slightly dusty on the outside and no dirtier on the inside that it had been before I loaned it to her.

 

“If the oulough’s under the porch, could I get a look at it?” I asked. “Or is it something I’ll have trouble seeing?”

 

Tina crossed her arms and gave a cold look. “Do your eyes work?” she asked, and you could have burned a hole through steel with the scorn in her tone.

 

“Aimee!” my mother called from downstairs. “Could you do me a favor and pick up some egusi seeds at All Africa? I’m going to try making egusi soup.”

 

My mother gets cooking enthusiasms. It’s not as simple as wanting to experiment with this or that cuisine; it’s more like, one month she wants to try things that come wrapped in leaves, so she’ll learn stuffed grape leaves and zongzi in bamboo leaves, and then she’ll see some Buzzfeed list about ten flowers that are used in food, and she’ll be cooking with flowers, and then a Puerto Rican bakery will open up, and so she wants to learn how to make tripelatas and quesitos. That’s how she got into Nigerian cooking: All Africa opened up down the street from her work.

 

“Once when we had alphabet soup, my mom found T-I-N-A in my bowl and M-O-M in her bowl,” Tina murmured, her offense at my question about the oulough apparently forgotten.

 

“Want to come with me in the car?” I offered. Tina nodded.

 

“We can check on the oulough on our way,” she said.

 

I had to get on hands and knees to look through the hole. Anakin, the energetic Rottweiler next door, found this action most barkworthy. He planted his paws on his chain-link fence and shared his opinion with the world.

 

It was definitely dark under the porch, with just a few diamond-shaped patches of light on the dirt at the far end, where the sun was shining through the lattice. To my surprise, something moved in the unlit part, and twin glints of gold caught my eye. A cat, I told myself, but it unsettled me a little.

 

“So ouloughs have golden eyes, huh,” I remarked, brushing off my knees as I stood up.

 

“When they’re sleepy. It’s probably tired from everything.” Tina yawned, and yawns being contagious, I did too. Anakin kept on barking.

 

“He did that when I brought the oulough here, too,” Tina said.

 

“What kind of noise do ouloughs make?” I asked.

 

“It sounds sort of like someone shaking bells,” Tina said. “Like a whole bunch of crickets at night. Hey, what’re you doing?”

 

I’d knelt back down and tossed a pebble into the hole, aiming at Golden Eyes. I don’t know what got into me. I love cats—I like animals generally—and wouldn’t normally pester one by throwing stuff at it, even something tiny like a pebble. I guess I just wanted proof positive that it was a cat. A startled mrawp would have gone a good way in that direction, but Golden Eyes didn’t make a peep.

 

“I’m sorry. I just wanted to hear it,” I said. Tina looked at me sidelong. I couldn’t interpret her expression.

 

“Where’d you find out so much about ouloughs, anyway?” I asked, once Tina was seatbelted in the back of the car and we were on the road.

 

“From a coloring book,” she said. “‘Creatures Then and Now.’ It was my mom’s. It had all kinds of stuff in it: Thompson’s gazelle, wyvern, dodo, oulough—lots of creatures. She colored almost all of them when she was a kid. Not the big boring ones, though, like blue whale, where your hand gets tired going blue, blue, blue over the whole page, and then the crayon gets bendy and breaks.” I heard her sigh. “I wish I still had that book.”

 

“What happened to it?”

 

“My mom took it away when we had a fight. She said, ‘Fine, you little brat, then I’m taking this back.’ She can be a real bitch sometimes.”

 

I caught Tina’s eye in the rearview mirror.

 

“You better not use language like that around my mom,” I said.

 

“It’s okay; my mom said herself she can be a bitch—when she apologized.” Tina yawned again. “Is it far to this store?”

 

“Not too far. I’ll get you some chin-chin; it’s a sort of fried-dough treat. You’ll like it.”

 

But what attracted Tina’s attention at All Africa were the piles of smoked mackerel in the freezer.

 

“Can we get a bunch of those? For the oulough?”

 

“Ouloughs eat fish? Smoked fish? Do they run smoke houses, too?”

 

“I didn’t know they were smoked,” Tina replied in dignified tones. “But ouloughs like fish, and those are really silvery.”

 

“They like fish—and lemons.” I said.

 

“They like lemons to smell and fish to eat,” she replied.

 

I bought five smoked mackerel.

 

“Where exactly did you find this oulough?” I asked on the drive home.

 

“By the pregnant tree,” Tina said.

 

“Come again?”

 

“I’ll show you when we get back to the house.”

 

Then, as we turned onto our street: “That one.”

 

It was the silver maple two doors down, a big old tree whose roots have lifted up the sidewalk where they run under it. It has a giant burl about human waist height. When we were little, Dan told me it was a giant tree tumor. That terrified me. To be honest, the burl still kind of terrifies me.

 

“It really does look pregnant,” I said, shuddering.

 

“Mom told me sometimes when guys are high, they try to do it with a tree, and the tree gets pregnant, and that’s how come you see trees that have those. It’s the baby growing in them. Only the baby can’t get born the way a baby normally would, cause trees aren’t made that way, so it just keeps growing and growing, inside the tree. The baby can grow up in there. It can even grow old. It can only get born if the tree gets hit by lightning.”

 

“Wow,” I said, stunned by the story. I pulled into our driveway. Tina unbuckled, jumped out of the car, and ran back to the tree. I followed her and gazed up at the crown of the tree. Its leaves were just beginning to pick up a touch of autumn color.

 

“Mmmhmmm,” Tina continued. “And if they do get born, their skin is grey-brown like bark, but not so rough-feeling, and their hair is greenish, like leaves or pine needles.” She ran her hand over the curve of the burl. “It’s like a room in there, a glowing, wooden room. And you can see out, you can look out at the whole world, but no one can see you. You’re in this safe room that’s just your size,” she murmured, more to herself than me.

 

“You should draw it—I’d like to see,” I said, catching her hand and heading back to our house.

 

When Tina came to stay with us, one thing I knew right away was that she liked to draw. She arrived with nothing but a Frozen duffle bag containing an Elsa nightgown, a few T-shirts and pairs of jeans—and a notebook of drawings. That was it. And she homed right in on my Copic markers and asked, “Can I use those?” At the time I said no, and pretty sharply, which, yeah, I’m kind of ashamed of not being more welcoming, but those markers are expensive, and little kids have a habit of leaving caps off or wrecking tips.

 

“You want me to draw a tree baby?” Tina asked.

 

“Yeah, in its house. I want to see what it looks like. And while you’re at it, could you draw the oulough, too? I didn’t get a very good view of it before we left.”

 

“Just its sleepy eyes.”

 

“Yeah, just its eyes. I’m trying to picture the whole thing: backpack sized, with scales and a stinger and a double set of wings.”

 

She grinned. “You don’t even know about its beak.”

 

“That’s right, I don’t. What should I know about its beak?”

 

“It’s not a triangle shape. It’s like, it’s like a starburst.” Palms up, fingers spread in demonstration.

 

“Yeah, I can’t really picture that. I need you to draw it.”

 

“And it has a mane,” she said, gaining enthusiasm.

 

“So how about I let you use my markers?”

 

“What are the two of you conferencing about out there? I’m waiting for my egusi seeds.” Mom was leaning on the porch railing, looking amused.

 

“Don’t tell!” Tina whispered to me. Complete mood change: she sounded panicked.

 

“Okay, but–”

 

“Please? Promise? If you tell, it’ll make trouble! The police could come, or DCF.” That’s the Department of Children and Families, in case you’re lucky enough not to know.

 

“Okay, okay, I promise. I won’t say anything,” I said. I skipped the sagging bottom step, then hopped from the second directly onto the porch, and Tina copied me. My mother smiled at her warmly. Tina gave her an artificial good-girl-at-school smile in return. I felt bad for my mom, but worse for Tina.

 

Memories of when Shari came to stay with us for a summer, back when Dad was still alive, flashed into my mind. It was the year before Tina was born. I was ten at the time, and Shari was a glamorous fifteen.

 

“Our dad married your mom on the rebound,” Shari had announced to me. “My mom ditched him because he was too bossy.” I had opened my mouth to defend my father, but Shari kept talking. “It’s cool of him to send me to robot camp, though. I’m going to build the most badass robot, and then I’m going to give it to my boyfriend. He’s a NASA astronaut—well, he would have been one, except for he’s got a rare blood disorder, so they made him quit the program.” She passed me her phone so I could see him. He had a skinny face, longish brown hair, and dark patches under his eyes, like he’d been punched. Maybe it was the blood disorder. The phone chimed, and she took it back.

 

“He says to meet him at Diamond Life.”

 

“You are most definitely not going out to a club.” That from my mother, coming into the bedroom to set a pile of fresh-from-the-dryer laundry on my bed. “You’re too young. Keep your thoughts on robot camp. You’ll have a great time there, I promise.”

 

“Yes ma’am,” Shari had said, and then she smiled a smile that, though nobody knew it back then, she was going to pass on to Tina.

 

That night rustling sounds had woken me, and I’d seen Shari, crouched by the bedroom window, holding a compact mirror up to catch the light from the streetlamp outside as she applied eye shadow from a plastic case in her lap.

 

She’d put the makeup back in a bag, straightened up—at that point I noticed she was wearing fabulous white suede boots—and carefully lifted the window sash. That window is right above the porch; someone Shari’s height could easily drop to the porch roof and from there to the ground.

 

I must have shifted in bed, because Shari had looked back. The light from outside shone on her dark, sleeked-back hair. She put one finger to her lips. “Don’t tell on me, okay?” she’d whispered. “I really need to see Paul. With his condition, he could die at any time. I’m like the only friend he’s got. We love each other.”

 

Ten-year-old me had been awed by the tragedy and drama of it all and nodded solemnly. In the intervening years I’ve often wondered if the blood-disorder-astronaut story was something Shari had invented for my benefit, or whether it was a line the boyfriend had fed her that she herself believed. I’ve never had the chance to ask her, so I still don’t know.

 

I didn’t tell on her. Instead I just watched at the window as she jogged, ninja-silent and lithe, up to the corner, where she climbed into a waiting car.

 

She did build a pretty awesome robot at robot camp. I wonder if she gave it to Paul. I hope not. After she went home, she sent me a postcard telling me she was pregnant, and then she and her mom moved out of state. Then Dad got sick, and around the time Tina was born, Dad died. Sometimes life gets to be too much, and you fall out of touch with people, my mother says.

 

I handed the egusi seeds—and the smoked mackerel—over to my mother, then headed upstairs. Tina was kneeling on the carpet of our bedroom, her notebook on her lap. The gourmet popcorn canister that I keep my Copic markers in was standing on the carpet about two feet in front of her, unopened.

 

“I didn’t touch them,” she said, looking up at me. “I waited for you.”

 

Technically, she had too touched them, since she’d taken them off my desk, but it was true that she’d held off on actually using them.

 

“Thanks, I appreciate that.” Her shoulders relaxed. “Go ahead,” I said, sitting down on the other side of the canister. She hesitated a moment, then carefully lifted the lid off.

 

“You know, you don’t have to worry about my mom calling the police or anything,” I said, “no matter what kinds of things we’re talking about.” Tina lifted an eyebrow, and I remembered what I’d said to her in the car when she said “bitch.”

 

“I mean, she doesn’t like bad language—and you shouldn’t use it—but she wouldn’t, she’d never–”

 

“You can’t ever let teachers or neighbors hear you say anything about sex,” she said darkly. “Otherwise they think you’re abused and they remove you.”

 

I wondered if that had ever happened to Tina, or whether it was just a fear that Shari had instilled in her.

 

“My mom’s not like that,” I said.

 

“My mom said you were all right but your mom is nosey and tries to wreck things.”

 

“My mom . . .” I wanted to say something like My mom only ever wanted to help your mom. My mom wanted to keep her from making mistakes. But if one of the mistakes was teen pregnancy, wasn’t that saying that Tina was a mistake? I knew my mom didn’t consider living, breathing, actual Tina a mistake, but the concept of Tina . . . I couldn’t really blame Tina for not being all that enthusiastic about the person who’d tried to prevent her conception.

 

“My mom saved a picture you drew for her,” Tina said. She opened to a page in her notebook with a folded piece of photocopy paper taped to it. She unfolded the paper, and sure enough, there, in smudgy pencil, was a picture I didn’t remember making but that had the quirks of ten-year-old me’s art style: Yu-Gi-Oh! anime eyes and hair, plus super-elongated, superthin limbs. The figure I’d drawn was clothed entirely in black, with a black scarf over her mouth.  “She said you drew her as a ninja,” Tina explained. She tilted her head, gazing at the picture. “I like it. It’s good,” she said.

 

“Now you’re going to draw me a picture,” I reminded her. “What are you going to do first, the oulough or the tree baby?”

 

“Oulough,” she said, hand hovering indecisively over the Y04 marker (Acacia) and Y38 (Honey). She chose Honey, but passed the marker to me.

 

“I have a better idea,” she said. “I’ll describe it, and you draw. Starting with the golden eyes.”

 

After the eyes, we got the mane down—a feathered mane, the feathers being E18 (Copper) and R89 (Dark Red), and the complicated starburst beak, and the double set of wings (more Dark Red, but with tips of black and bars of Acid Yellow), and the powerful clawed feet—for digging—and the scorpion stinger.

 

Tina directed me: “No, make it longer,” she would say, as I sketched out a wing, or “that should be thicker” or “I think a brighter yellow.” Then at one point, softly, “It’s beautiful.” I got absorbed in drawing the scales of the oulough’s body, so it was a while before I noticed the silence on Tina’s end. When I looked up, she was gripping her face with her hands, fingernails buried in her cheeks, her lips pinched.

 

“What?” I asked. “Is there something wrong with the scales?”

 

“It looks kind of like a cockatrice,” she replied.

 

It was true. What I’d drawn looked a little like the cockatrice from the Spiderwick chronicles.

 

“A cockatrice doesn’t have a starburst beak or a stinger. And it doesn’t have a double set of wings,” I pointed out.

 

Tina’s frown only deepened. “Do you think I made the oulough up?” she asked suddenly.

 

Whoa, ambush question, I thought, but I didn’t let the thought travel to my tongue.

 

“I . . . Wasn’t it in the coloring book?” I managed at last.

 

“It’s been a long time since I had the coloring book. Maybe I’m not remembering right. I wish I had it here!” Now suddenly she was wobbling on the edge of tears.

 

“Did the coloring book say it grants wishes?” she burst out, as if I were an uncooperative witness she was cross-examining.

 

“I don’t know—did it?”

 

“I don’t know. I thought so, but maybe I’m not remembering right. Or maybe . . .” I didn’t quite catch what came after “or maybe.” She might have said something about her mom and stories, but her voice was losing strength. It didn’t help that she’d hugged her legs to her chest and was burying her face in her arms. When she raised her head, her eyelashes were wet.

 

“Do you think the wishes should go to my mom? It was her coloring book. Maybe it’s her oulough.” Her head fell back into the cradle of her arms, but I could just make out her muffled words: “She needs the wishes.”

 

I hesitated, then put a hand on her shoulder. “Everybody can use a wish or two. If it came to you, I think it’s your oulough. You’re the one that took care of it when it was hurt.”

 

“You guys about ready for supper? Come try some egusi soup,”  my mother called from the kitchen.

 

I glanced at Tina. She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Your mom cooks weird food sometimes,” she muttered.

 

“I think you mean she cooks delicious food sometimes,” I said. Tina gave me a look.

 

“Okay, yeah, she cooks weird food sometimes,” I admitted, “But weird can be delicious.” Tina shrugged whatever and stood up. “We didn’t finish,” she said, eyes on the picture of the oulough.

 

“We’ll work on it more after supper.”

 

I was woken up from a deep sleep that night by Anakin barking. He’s not bad that way usually, not like some dogs who’ll bark all night long. In fact, I can’t remember any other time Anakin’s woken me up. Maybe that’s what made me look out the window: some kind of foggy-headed sense that if Anakin was upset, I should pay attention.

 

The golden glow of the streetlight showed me a strange scene: my mother, in the T-shirt and sweats she sleeps in, struggling with something at the side of our porch, something that my sleepy brain took a moment to realize was the muscular bulk of Anakin. I bounded downstairs two and three steps at a time. Our heavy front door was open, and cool September air was pouring into the house. I pushed open the outer screen door. It swung shut behind me with a sharp clack. Anakin was still barking. My mother had both hands on his collar and was trying to pull him away from the hole leading under our porch.

 

“Can you– Can you grab him? Can you hold him– for me?” she panted, her arms jerking forward and back as Anakin thrust his head into the hole, snorted, pulled away, then pushed in harder.

 

“Damn it,” my mother muttered. “He must smell a woodchuck or something under there. Just what we need. At least it’s not a skunk. We’d know if it was a skunk. You got him?”

 

I’d grabbed Anakin’s collar. I grunted a yes, and my mother let go. I thought my arms might be ripped out of their sockets as Anakin made his next assault on the hole.

 

“I’m going next door,” my mother announced from halfway across the driveway. “I don’t know how he got out, but the Pereiras can damn well–” Her last words were drowned out by her banging on the Pereiras’ door.

 

There was definitely no smell of skunk. What there was was an overwhelming, unmistakable fragrance of cloves. The scent an oulough gives off when it’s frightened? Or angry? Did the coloring book say anything about odor? I’d have to ask Tina.

 

Mr. Pereira appeared with a leash and a stream of bewildered apologies. My mother’s anger had evaporated; she was reassuring Mr. Pereira that everything was all right and that these things happen.

 

“Do you smell cloves?” I asked her, but she didn’t hear me.

 

Then I noticed Tina silhouetted in the front doorway. I hurried over.

 

“Anakin was after the oulough, but Mr. Pereira’s got him now,” I said.

 

“The oulough’s mad—listen.” Tina was standing very still, a look of concentration on her face. All I could hear were crickets, someone a few houses away listening to Late Night with Delilah, and the buzz of the streetlight.

 

“Aimee, take Tina back to bed,” my mother said, then turned to wave a final goodbye to Mr. Pereira and the leashed Anakin.

 

I took Tina inside, but to the kitchen. I stopped at the fridge.

 

“I think so long as the oulough’s under the porch, there’s going to be trouble with Anakin,” I said. Tina nodded soberly.

 

“The oulough might sting him,” she said.

 

“And we don’t have any antidote. So I was thinking, what if we took one of the smoked mackerel and used it to lure the oulough up onto the roof of the porch? No one would bother it there.”

 

Tina looked doubtful. “They’re burrowing creatures. They like being underground.”

 

“But they have wings. Two sets. Doesn’t that mean they like flying, too?”

 

I could have just taken the fish out, could have just announced the plan. I’m practically an adult, as my mother never tires of telling me, and Tina’s just a kid. But the oulough was Tina’s—not hers in the sense of owning it, not like a pet, but just . . . her story. Her business. So decisions about it ought to be hers. I wasn’t thinking that in so many words, but it was what I was feeling.

 

“Okay,” Tina said. I unwrapped one of the mackerels, handed it to Tina, and put the rest back in the fridge, next to the leftover egusi soup.

 

“You were right about weird food sometimes being okay,” Tina said as the door swung closed. “That soup was good.”

 

In our bedroom, I opened the window wide. The breeze flowed in over me, Tina, and the smoked mackerel.

 

“It looks so pretty,” Tina said, turning the fish so the light from outside raced along the silvery skin. She wrinkled her nose. “But I don’t like the smell.”

 

“Do ouloughs have a smell?” I asked. “Do they smell like cloves? Maybe when they’re angry?”

 

“I don’t know what cloves smell like.”

 

“I’ll show you in the morning. We can have a spice-smelling session. Mom’s—my mom’s—got all different kinds.”

 

Tina stuck her whole upper body out the window, and I had flashbacks to Shari doing the same thing.

 

“Careful! Here, maybe I should do it,” I said, but she pushed me away.

 

“No! I can do it. I’m being careful.”

 

There was a soft thud—the mackerel hitting the roof of the porch. Then Tina slid back into the bedroom.

 

We stood side by side at the window. A sharp, aromatic smell reached my nose.

 

“There, that. Do you smell that? That’s the smell of cloves,” I said. But it was only there a moment, and then gone, a drive-by smell.

 

“Maybe—Listen!”

 

Wind in the trees and a sound like something skittering across the porch roof—maybe.

 

“Did it get the mackerel?” I asked. I hadn’t seen where the fish had landed.

 

“I can’t tell. I think it’s in the trees now.”

 

She paused, listening to the same sounds I’d heard while we were outside—streetlight, music, crickets.

 

“I think it’s calmer now,” Tina said. She glanced over. “You think it’ll be safe if it stays in the trees?”

 

“Should be. We’ve got four more mackerel we can feed it. We can always buy more if it looks like it’s going to stick around for a longer while.”

 

Tina nodded. Her face was grave. “I still don’t know about the wishes, though. I still think … If there are wishes, they should go to my mom.” She locked eyes with me. I felt like she was trying to draw an answer from me with eye power alone. Sorry kiddo, I haven’t got a clue wasn’t going to cut it as a reply. We hung in silence for a moment or two.

 

“I don’t really have any idea about the wishes or how they should work,” I said at last. “But what about this. What if, for as long as the oulough is here, you study it real hard, take notes—I can give you a notebook. You can make sketches and stuff. Write down what you notice about how it sounds when it’s angry and how that changes when it calms down. Or like what I noticed about its smell.”

 

“Like on Destination Wild.

 

“Yeah. And then you can share your findings with your mom when you visit her. Since she’s the one who first told you about ouloughs, she’ll probably be interested.”

 

Tina pulled on her lower lip. She looked stuck somewhere between uncertain and hopeful. Another small gust came in through the open window. Tina shivered. I pushed the sash down.

 

“You know your mom once climbed out that window. She was sneaking out to meet your dad,” I remarked. A bad move. Tina hunched over, face grim.

 

“She called him ‘the copper man,’” she said.

 

“Not ‘the astronaut’?”

 

“No, copper man. Because him and his friends used to break into abandoned buildings and strip out the copper wiring and sell it.” She glanced up at me.

 

“That’s against the law,” she added.

 

“Yeah, it is,” I said.

 

Tina picked at a sparkle on her nightgown.

 

“But enterprising,” I said, in spite of myself. “And adventurous. Maybe that’s why your mom liked him.”

 

Tina gave a minute shrug, a barely-there motion of the shoulders. “I never saw him much,” she said.

 

“So your mother never told you the astronaut story?”

 

Tina shook her head. I told it to her. She managed a hint of a smile.

 

“Mom makes all kinds of sh– … stuff up,” she said.

 

“Yeah she does!” I agreed.

 

Tina’s smile faded. She pressed her face to the window, framing it with her hands so I couldn’t see it. “Both my parents are criminals,” she said softly.

 

“Your dad was clever—he just took it in the wrong direction. And your mom’s a born storyteller. And an inventor. Did she ever tell you about the robot she made?”

 

Tina’s eyes went anime wide, with shines and everything. “My mom made a robot?”

 

“Yeah, she did. She was going to give it to your dad.”

 

The light left Tina’s eyes. Her whole face seemed to shut down. “She did all that, but she still. . .”  Tina didn’t finish the sentence. All the stuff she didn’t want to say about Shari was expelled in a long exhale. Then, in a very small voice, “I wish things could be different.”

 

“Bet your mom would join you in that wish.”

 

“Maybe if both me and Mom wish it, the oulough will grant it,” Tina suggested.

 

“Sounds very likely,” I said.

 

Tina stared out the window for a moment, even though now all we could really see was our reflections in the glass. Then she turned to me.

 

“I do want to keep that notebook,” she said. “I want to write down everything about the oulough.”

 

“Okay, then. Starting tomorrow.”

 

Tina nodded. “Tomorrow.” Then she got back into bed. I turned off the light and got back into mine.

 

END

 

 

About the Author

Francesca Forrest

Francesca Forrest has lived in the United States, England, and Japan and used to boast about having given birth to children on three continents. If she’d started earlier, she might have tried for births on the rest. Currently she works as a copy editor, spending as much of her free time writing as possible. She’s had short stories and poems published both online and in print, along with one novel, Pen Pal. She also volunteers as a tutor in a medium-security jail. She loves knowing which plants in a landscape are edible and the folk names of wildflowers. You can follow her online and on Twitter.

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About the Narrator

Julia Rios

Julia Rios is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Daily Science FictionLightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Currently a Hugo Finalist in three categories, Julia won the Hugo award in 2017 and 2018 as Poetry and Reprint editor for Uncanny Magazine, as well as being a previous Hugo Finalist as a Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.

Julia is a co-host of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, a general SF discussion podcast, and an Escape Artists Storyteller, having narrated for all four podcasts.

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