Anne Nowselski and Marilyn Ackerman

Marilyn Ackerman
“The Little Girl Who Wasn’t There”
Inspiration Piece

The Bialis
By Anne Nowselski


Julia pumped up the wheels of her old bike. It had been years since she’d ridden. Back when Matthew had been a boy, they’d go on the bike path near their neighborhood, riding just to ride. Sometimes he would get far ahead of her, almost out of view. But she always caught up.

She wondered if she could keep up now. At forty-six she still felt fit. She dreaded the day when there would be aches and pains greeting her in the mornings. Those days were still a long way off, she hoped.
She tested the bike, spinning the front wheel, then checked to make sure the brakes were still tight.

Over twenty years ago, she had picked it out at the dump’s swap shop. The bike itself was an ugly pink with mysterious scapes and dents. Matthew had been embarrassed by it, especially when they came across his friends along the bike way.

Now the seat was a little torn, and she’d smoothed it out with a generous amount of duct tape. Climbing on she felt strange. As she pushed out of the garage with the balls of her feet, she thought it was at once familiar and foreign. Like putting on old shoes.

She snapped the kickstand and then went and closed the door. It sliced down like a guillotine and locked with a clang. Then she adjusted her helmet again. Just like she once did for Matthew. She smiled thinking of that little boy, all those years ago when they had first moved in, a newly single mother and a boy of five.

Slowly, she rolled the bike down the driveway, pleased with herself when she didn’t fall over. Soon air was rushing by her ears with a familiar buzz and she was feeling the strain in her legs as she pumped up the first hill. Then she rounded the last house and she was on the bike way.

It was an early spring day. Snow piles still lined the sides of the pavement, but only as leaky brown lumps. A chill held in the air, which probably was why there were few people out. But for Julia, she had needed to get out. A restlessness had come over her recently, urging her to move. To do something.

Denise, her friend of many years, had called it a combination of empty nest syndrome and pre-midlife crisis. And had listed an extensive reading list on both, and also encouraged Julia to take a bunch of classes that ranged from hot yoga to baking classes. None of which was quite what Julia was interested in. She was taking this time to figure things out, and laying on her stomach for an hour or icing a cake did not seem like a way to go about it.

In truth, Julia had been relieved when Matthew had gone to college, and then relieved when he had landed a good job, even if it was far away. Then finally, two weeks ago, he had settled down. And she did not have that teary eyed feeling of being left behind. She was grateful that he was going to be alright.

For herself, she was less focused than him. She had worked at the office shuffling papers to pay the bills. But now, now as Denise urged her, she had these two months sabbatical to figure out what she wanted to do. And Julia did want to do something for herself. But for so long she had been like a leaf drifting in a stream, she couldn’t find her goal, couldn’t focus.

As she peddled, she noticed she had no destination. It could have been an hour or only a minute, she wasn’t sure. She had passed a few places she remembered, an old post that marked a walking path, a place where she and young Matthew had bought lemonade from a classmate. They were like glimpses into a past.

Up ahead, a yellow backhoe was blocking the bike way. A large gaping hole with several workers standing around were there. She slowed down, a detour sign pointed to a ramp that would take her back up to the road where she could hear the cars whipping by. She decided to swerve back to the walking path. It ran behind some houses and paralleled a tiny stream eventually coming to a park.

She nearly missed the path, but the weathered wooden post was there. Someone had stacked four stones on top of it. The path itself was nearly invisible with broken branches and leaves hiding it. She was soon bumping over rocks and tree roots. The little stream was a muddy snake to her right. Not the most comfortable ride, but if she remembered correctly there was an ancient oak that Matthew had once climbed. She would like to see it again.

The trees were tall, blocking the view of the houses that she could only catch glimpses of, as if they were a wall of a cloister. It was quieter here, secluded in a way that even the long stretches alone on the bike path could not be. She saw only dried leaves and branches. No birds chirped, though she saw a bluejay flit about. She was alone.

She was just beginning to feel the sense of calm come over her, a sense of relief. Her bike dipped quickly underneath her, teetering her to the side and she fell into a patch of damp leaves. The smell of rot filled her nose as she struggled to disentangle herself from the bike. When she was standing again, her heart rate slowing, she saw that she only had some minor scrapes and bruises.

A chuckle bubbled up from her chest. Then she was laughing.

“You there!” Someone shouted.

Julia whipped around and peered through the trees. No one was there. Just the damp leaves and grey trees. The bluejay had landed on a nearby branch. She turned then, to pick up the bike again when the voice called again, “Please! You must help!”

She looked back at the bird, it was staring at her strangely. Not like a bird should, but with its black eyes staring at her earnestly.

“Come help! Follow me! No time to waste!” The voice called again.

“Where are you?” She demanded as she got her phone out.

“I’m right here. Hurry! She won’t last long!”

She shook her head, still trying to see what she could be missing. “I can’t see you. Who needs help? I can call 911.” The phone was poised in her hand.

“Nineoneone? Look up, look up! Yes! Yes, that’s it,” the bird hopped closer, landing on a branch only an arm’s length away. The voice seemed to follow with it. “Come! Come now!” Then it flitted away a few feet and waited.

“The bluejay?” Julia asked aloud. Then it began to dawn on her. It probably wasn’t really a bluejay at all. It was one of those really fancy drones that mimicked birds. They were getting very advanced now, weren’t they? Only last autumn her neighbor had been testing one that looked like a large dragonfly. It had not flown like this dronebird, instead getting stuck in her tree so they had to use a long pole to get it down.

She followed the dronebird for a few steps, then it darted back a few more feet along the path. She went after it. And then it would dart off again. They went on this way for awhile. The small creature always out of reach. Eventually she came to the large oak that she recognized. It was huge, its branches spanning in a wide circle that no other tree or bush grew in.

The dronebird flew off again, dipping down to the muddy bank of the stream. The thing landed on a rock that was next to a thick slimy branch stuck partway in the water. As Julia neared, something beneath the branch squirmed. She crouched down and saw the black eyes of a small creature. It was no bigger then a rabbit. With a furry face that may have been white once. It could be a winter fox, maybe a baby one, it was so small.

“Oh,” Julia whispered, “You poor thing. Just hang on. I’ll get help,” she still had her phone out, and she started searching for an animal control number.

“What are you waiting for? Take up that branch!” The dronebird commanded.

“I can’t do that. It’s a wild animal. It might bit me,” she said absently as she scrolled.

“Help her! Stop dallying on that slate-thing and do SOMETHING!”

The tone startled her, making her almost drop her phone. The feathers of the bird rustled, then it swooped in nearly pecking her hand.

Automatically, she leaned down, and as the creature coward she gripped the slimy branch. She gave it a rough jerk, that only produced a whimpering cry from the animal. “Shh, shh, don’t worry little one. Let me just…” she leveraged the branch again, heaving it up and holding it.

For a moment the critter did nothing, frozen in terror. Then it cautiously stepped out of the mud hole. Julia saw a glop of mud on its back, and reached down automatically to wipe it off. It was then it darted off through the leaves.

Julia let the branch fall back and then wiped her hands in the stream as best she could before sitting down on a rock. The bluejay hopped next to her.

“It’s not a drone,” she said aloud looking at the bird.

“Drone? I’m the least boring Azuel you’ll ever meet!” It chirped.

“I’m talking to a bird,” she replied, “And the bird is talking back… there’s a term for this. Psychotic break or something like that. I’m having one of those. Or maybe when I slipped in the mud, I hit my head against a rock.” She touched her helmet, “Or maybe I’m asleep under that oak over there and dreaming…”

“Human, you are as awake as I—oh look! She comes back!” The bluejay fluttered landing on Julia’s shoulder.

The little creature was caked in mud as it came through the dead leaves. Its little paws like a cat’s, it’s tail whipping back and forth as it neared. But the Julia could not take her eyes off its back. For there were wings, though grimy and dirty, they were unmistakably feather wings like an owl’s.

“What is that?” She asked in wonder. It was something out of a storybook or movie. And Julia felt a deep sense of awe as the tiny mythical creature came closer.

“She’s a bialis, a winged fox,” the bird explained, “Oh, she says thank you very much for coming to her aid. She will never forget your help for the rest of her life.”

Whispering, Julia replied, “I’ve never heard of a bialis.”

It was just within reach, and despite the grime that covered it. Julia was mesmerized and reached out to touch it, just to make sure it was real. It’s narrow nose sniffed her hand, then it snapped its small jaw on her hand.

“Ow!” Julia yelped pulling back.

The bialis dashed off with an awkward run glide until it came to the oak tree. It paused and glanced back at her, the dark eyes wide. Then it disappeared into the tree.

“How lucky you are!” The bird chirped in her ear. “The bialis said she has marked you. And you can go to her world if you like.”

“She bit me,” Julia muttered as she rubbed the bloody teeth marks on her hand. Yet even as she did so, the wound faded until it was like an old scar. “I need a rabies shot now…” she said with a shrug.

“But you can go to the mythical lands!” The bird said.

“I can’t just… I can’t just leave.” It was a ridiculous thought. She had no idea what was in the tree, if there was anything. It could just be a strange joke. Things like this happened to children in storybooks, where they were whisked off on an adventure. Not something for the likes of her.

And yet. She walked to the old oak and stared up at the long branches. The small woods was silent, as if holding its breath. It was a quiet that was waiting for her.

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