She rummaged through grease-coated bins of ancient tools and junk — things far older than her and certainly useless. She had no particular outcome in mind; Greta wasn’t looking for anything. But the most spectacular things always seem to happen when we aren’t looking.
The old tool shed on the back of the farm sat adjacent to an old red barn on an old dusty plot of land. Nothing grew on that farm — at least as long as Greta had been alive — which was exactly nine-years and forty-two days. She learned to count using her birthdays and the old calendar that was left in the kitchen when Ma died three years earlier. On that day, Greta was six-years-old plus one hundred days. She knew three years had passed, but she didn’t know that the days moved with the years, so as far as she was concerned her birthday always landed on a Monday. And that was fine – a good way to start that week, she thought.
No one came when Ma died, because no one knew who Ma was. Only Greta. No one knew Greta belonged to Ma, or that Ma even had a daughter. When she did pass away, over under the clothes line while hanging delicates one morning, Greta spent two hours trying to wake Ma from her deep slumber and then covered Ma in the sheets from the basket. That night Greta heard, from her bedroom window in her sleepless house, a strange screeching hiss that she never heard before.
She tried her best to visit Ma and sit near her until the rot set in. Ma smelled awful for weeks, but luckily she died towards the beginning of autumn, and the snow and thaw reduced Ma to a pile of bones that Greta took and buried in a shallow grave next to the old oak tree. Greta didn’t cry moving Ma’s bones, but she did cry out in frustration when the hole took longer to dig than her seven-year, eight-day-old arms could handle. Into the night and under the guidance of a full moon, Greta used Ma’s gardening spade. There she heard that unmistakable hissing, screeching sound. She wielded Ma’s spade like a weapon and stood in fear.
“Who’s there?” she cried out.
Greta couldn’t see through the cover of night. The screech rang out again and there, up in the old oak tree, Greta saw the culprit. A barn owl, illuminated by silver moonlight, spied on Greta from the safety of its branch. Greta lowered the spade.
“This isn’t easy, you know,” she said. “The ground is still hard.”
The owl screeched once again and flew off. Greta tried to watch the owl until it was absorbed by the evening. She returned to her little grave, settled with a shallow plot, and buried Ma.
Later that evening, near the wood burning stove, Greta warmed her little hands. The winter would have been unbearable if Ma didn’t spend the whole year before piling wood and kindling, and canning fruits and vegetables, drying meat, and storing grain. More than they’d ever need, Greta reminded Ma. Ma only smiled and coughed some into a napkin before stashing it in her apron. Greta thought to herself, at least now she had enough to get by, and that summer before Ma died, she learned to build a fire. Ma showed her.
“Here,” Ma said weakly. “Put the kindling here. Strike a match like this, but be careful of your fingers. Don’t put too much wood in because the fire needs to breathe.”
“The fire breathes?”
“Everything in nature breathes if you listen carefully.”
Greta struck her first fire on her sixth birthday. Now that she was almost ten, Greta noticed the wood pile was low. The basement full of jars was sparse. The stove crackled and Greta boiled water for Ma’s tea leaves and while she waited she chewed on the last of her dried meat. A screech was heard outside. She removed the pot of water and walked along the old cottage floor to the back door where, in the old oak tree, the barn owl sat. Under its claw and pinned to the tree branch was a dead rabbit.
“I would love some rabbit stew,” she mumbled. Greta returned inside.
The next day, struck with boredom, Greta set out for the old tool shed. Her usual routine for the last three years was to wash her face with the well water, eat porridge off the stove, and walk around the perimeter of the property. It was marked with heavy, ancient stones on each corner and in some spots Greta came to low, broken stone walls. She stayed within them, in the safety of the property, close enough to Ma, and memorized the landscape. Greta learned to count even more; She made it to one hundred steps, one hundred times, plus eighty-two. And, every so often, Greta laid her head on the dead, golden-brown land and listened for breathing.
Dissatisfied in the silence she came to expect, Greta changed her routine and walked to the old tool shed. The door was open and hung off the hinges, ready to collapse into the earth. It swung lazy and heavy in the late spring wind as the metal creaked and bellowed for Greta to enter. She carefully stepped into the musty room; everything looked coated in a thin film of black — not quite dust, decay, or dirt. It looked like an old memory, mostly forgotten. Greta took a deep breath in the clean outdoors and stepped carefully up into the shed. The darkness engulfed her and she disappeared inside.
The interior of the shed seemed far smaller than Greta thought. Whether it was the row of too-high tool benches, the low-hanging hooks that swung delicately from the ceiling in her presence, or the mess of old dirty bins filled to their brims with junk — Greta made sure to tread carefully. Ma told her.
“Don’t cut yourself on anything rusty, now. Stay out of that shed.”
The words floated around Greta and wrapped her in caution. Ma was gone, and Greta was bored, and the land wasn’t breathing. Greta crouched down in front of the first box and picked it apart. She pulled old tools with manual cranks, hammers — a wrench. Nothing of note. But again, Greta wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Elbow-deep in the second bin, Greta heard the screech of her elusive friend. In the corner of the room, in plain sight (how could she have missed it?), the owl sat perched in a corner. Shrouded in the cover and safety of blackened windows; The owl must have lived in the shed. Greta was probably a bother.
“Sorry,” she said. “I was just bored.”
The owl made a low sound not unlike a coo and settled in, as if to let Greta know it didn’t mind. She watched it as it blinked in a slow and hypnotic rhythm. It made Greta sleepy, but she continued her search for nothing. Greta picked a few more items before she found the thing she wasn’t looking for. From the bottom of the bin she pulled out an old key. Greta held it high and far from her face to marvel at it before giving it a hard shine on her pants. Ma would have lost her mind at that, she thought.
“I wonder what you belong to,” she said. Greta’s owl friend screeched, frightening her. It dismounted from its perch and left the tool shed.
“Wait!” Greta stumbled out, shocked into the daylight, to see the owl disappear into the old barn.
She followed as fast as her legs would allow and stepped into the cavernous space. Greta’s shoes scratched along the dirt floor and she marveled at the size and emptiness of it all. A shell, as if she were inside Ma’s ribs. The air was filled with the stench of mothballs and decay, like everything else on the land. With the key clenched tightly in her hand, Greta craned her head back and searched the rafters for her white and gold friend. A flutter led Greta’s eyes to the back corner of the barn, where the barn owl sat on top of a rusted, dead tractor. Behind the owl she noticed a gentle glow, like sunrise, although there were no windows. A thrum-thrumming filled her ears but it wasn’t her own heart.
The owl let out a gentle screech and flew behind the tractor. Greta ran to catch it and peeked behind the machine. The owl was gone, but she found the source of the glow — a small door, not much larger than her. The thrum-thrumming grew louder when Greta looked at the key in her hand and back to the door where a small lock hung. She carefully placed the key in and turned it to the left. The lock opened with a clunk, and the door breathed open.