Owl Island by Randy Sue Coburn

Excerpt from Owl Island

Phoebe lay in the dark, breathing in the scent of White Shoulders, the only perfume Pearl ever wore, a fragrance so similar to that of wisteria blossoming just outside the bedroom window that it seemed something she naturally exuded, like the vines. Lying in her childhood bed, inhaling Pearl, she was spellbound, watching every sweep of Pearl's long, elegant fingers as she moved her hand through the air and intoned the words that never varied, night after night:

"Magic Circle, Magic Circle, keep my little girl safe. Keep her sleepy-bye and happy-bye all night long. Don't let any bad dreams in, just let in good dreams. Don't let anything in except mommies and daddies and kitties and bunnies and fairies and lambies and pretty things."

"And Peter Pan," Phoebe reminded her mother. Peter Pan, who lost his shadow and flew wherever he pleased with his own personal fairy, who—better yet—could make ordinary children like her fly too, was the very definition of magic. She'd met him on TV, and begged her mother for the coloring book depicting his adventures. Peter Pan was also on The Land of Make Believe map, emerging from the hollow tree where he lived. No Magic Circle would be complete without him.

"And Peter Pan," Pearl would say just before the Magic Circle closed around her bed.

As Phoebe grew older, she never quite stopped believing that someone like him would land in her bedroom one night, searching for his shadow. And he would come to her.

Eventually.

He would come to her when she was no longer conscious of wishing for him.

He would come to her without a face, without a body.

He would come to her bedroom, not flying in through the window, as she had once expected, but over the airwaves, a voice out of the pink GE radio her parents bought for her sixth birthday.

The radio was a babyish thing by the time Phoebe was fifteen, when the map of The Land of Make Believe hung incongruously alongside posters commemorating rock concerts and anti-war demonstrations. Her birthday present that year had been a made-to-order Martin 000-28, her first grown-up guitar. But the pink GE was still what Phoebe listened to while she did homework and her parents were downstairs in their studies, preparing classes for the next day. Phoebe always kept her radio tuned to KARP, the alternative Seattle station that broadcast out of an old doughnut shop north of the University district. Just about anyone who had enough albums to make up a play list could get a show of their own on KARP, and all the deejays had different specialties—blues, folk music, jazz, rock.

It was a dreary Sunday night in November when he came for the first time, not just to Phoebe in her bedroom but to everyone who happened to be listening within KARP's narrow broadcast range. "Good evening," the voice on Phoebe's radio intoned, "This is Whitney Traynor—you can call me Whit—saying it's time for you and me to be. . . imaginary friends."

If he had said he was Rags the Clown or Cowboy Bob, if his words were delivered at a high pitch of forced glee, he could have been introducing a kiddy cartoon show. But this name had weight, this voice held mystery. Whit's words penetrated the Sunday gloom seeping through Seattle like fog, a dense vapor of stale sermons, forced family gatherings, and the distressing prospect of an entirely too predictable new week beginning tomorrow.

It was his accent that first took her—a thick, slow, Southern syrup. Then came the tune that would be his theme, a crackly recording of Lucienne Boyer singing Parlez-Moi D'Amour. The next song was Hank Williams doing I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. Phoebe laughed out loud at the segue, the goofy logic of putting those two songs together—like slapping grits down on a plate of coq au vin. Then she picked up her guitar. Even at fifteen, Phoebe was too petite to get her arms comfortably around a standard Martin D-28, but her 000-28, with its Brazilian rosewood back and spruce top, felt like a part of her. It had smaller proportions and a larger indent in the middle, giving a more feminine shape than the D-28, but the sound was every bit as full and gorgeous. Sitting on her bed, Phoebe effortlessly strummed all the right chords while singing harmony with Hank.

"Did you hear that, boys and girls?" Whit said, coming back on the air with a raspy sigh of appreciation. "Don't ever listen when they say you can't write a song without a bridge. One of the greatest songs ever written and no bridge in sight, not so much as a log thrown over the water. Nope, what we have here is a direct plunge into the drink. Let that be a lesson to you. If you want to be special, break the rules. And here's another little tip before we get back to the music. You know that thing they say is wrong with you? That thing you think you're supposed to be ashamed of? Don't try to hide it. Don't ever try to hide it. No, children, what you've got to do is make it bigger. Make it bigger so nobody can miss it. 'Cause chances are, that's the very thing that makes you worthwhile and sets you apart."

Oh, honey pouring into Phoebe's ears.

The chief criticism running through her young life was that when her mind was made up, she would not listen to what other people had to say, even if those other people were her loving parents who had only her best interests at heart. Phoebe's first sentence, as Pearl liked to remind her, was "Phoebe do it by self." She had demanded her own patch of garden to plant and weed, dressed her dolls in raggedy-stitched apparel she made from outgrown play clothes, and preferred taking tumbles to riding a bike with training wheels. By the time she was old enough to attend the exclusive private school in Seattle where Pearl taught English, she was used to doing things her way, by self. A trait her teachers did not find charming. Phoebe was too stubborn, they said, too intense to play well with others. She didn't seem to want friends so much as confidantes, one or two other girls happy to participate in games and fantasies of Phoebe's invention. She was an only child, that probably explained it. They just generally tended to be precocious when young, didn't they? She'd grow out of it.

But she didn't.

Now that Phoebe was in public high school, they said what was wrong with her was that she thought she was smart as her teachers. Well, wasn't she? Wasn't it some kind of proof that although she regularly skipped classes, running off to Ravenna Park with similarly inclined students to sing or flirt or smoke clove cigarettes (and the occasional joint), she still kept a nearly perfect grade point average?

There were no new songs for her to learn from Whit's first broadcast on KARP. She knew them all, even though his play list could not have been more eclectic. Somehow, he found musical connections to cushion his leaps from Nina Simone's I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl, to a satirical Tom Leher piece advocating plagiarism, to Hang On Sloopy, which Whit touted as the greatest rock and roll song of all time, prompting a half hour of angry calls from listeners. Phoebe was so smitten by then that she almost called in to agree with him. But she didn't want to make his acquaintance on the phone. She didn't want to risk sounding inarticulate or dumb. Instead, she took out a box of cream-colored Crane stationery that had been a present from Pearl and started writing a letter meant to make Whit realize how lost he would be without her. His shadow had been found, and she was it.

You don't know me, Phoebe began, but I am your audience. I am the person your show is meant for.

She included a photograph of herself singing at a high school talent show, the Martin slung over a sunflower print mini-dress with an empire waist that emphasized her bosom, already round and full. Although Phoebe only measured five foot three, her legs and arms were so long and lean that standing alone onstage, she looked much taller. The camera caught a three-quarter view of her face, with enormous violet eyes set off to startling effect by long black hair and thick, inky lashes. Her pillowy, high-bowed lips were pursed, as if kissing the note they held. It was easy to imagine every member of Phoebe's invisible audience wearing an expression every bit as rapt as hers.

Whit's reply came within the week. Do you know for a fact, he wrote, that you're only fifteen?


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Original artwork by Nick Fennel

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