A deeply touching story from a new contributor about children who are … different. See more of Judy’s work at www.judysalz.com.
The shiny brochure from Camp Yes-You-Can, a new summer camp for disabled children, secluded deep in the Adirondack Mountains, promised a magical summer that would change lives. Carefully selected from applicants around the world, three sets of parents enrolled their offspring, hoping the experience would enhance the quality of their limited existences. The campers, each with different handicaps, lived together in one cabin.
At the end of the summer, Eddie, the tall handsome owner and sole counselor, told each child, “Nothing is impossible. Hold on to that thought, practice what I’ve taught you, and remember me the first time you succeed.” Only after their children returned home did their parents discover what each had learned.
Overwhelmed by the din around her, Lydia squeezed her eyes shut and tried to cover her ears, but her wings couldn’t reach. She attempted to scream, but produced only a squawk. She’d heard her mother’s voice for the first time at two years old, when her cochlear implants were first activated at the clinic in London, and the sudden loudness remained indelibly imprinted in her memory. The volume had softened with time and familiarity. Now, six years later, her pulse raced.
The intensity and variety of sounds brought the word ‘deafening’ to mind and made her all the more frantic to shut off the noise before her hearing would be lost forever. When she finally opened her eyes, her wings fluttered to balance herself, or she would have fallen from the high branch. If owls could cry, tears would have been flooding down her cheek feathers. Her mother had read her a book describing which animals have the sharpest senses, and since that time, she’d dreamed of becoming an owl. Her heart skipped a beat. It worked! Thank you, Eddie!
Suddenly hungry, Lydia heard a mouse scurrying in the distance and she glided silently toward the sound, snatching the creature from its lair. Her hoot of delight brought her mother into her bedroom.
“More than okay, Mummy. I could hear everything!”
“Of course you can. Your Daddy and I saw to that when you were little.”
“No! I could hear like an owl! I was an owl.”
Smiling broadly, she sat down on Lydia’s bed and took her hands. “Dreams can be very real, can’t they? Tell me all about it over breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry.”
A cool hand pressed to her forehead. “You sick?”
“I just ate.”
“Lydia, enough game playing.” Her mother’s slippers thudded to the floor as she stood abruptly. “You just woke up. People don’t eat in their sleep.”
Her mother’s scream pierced Lydia’s ears when she produced the field mouse’s tail suspended between her thumb and forefinger.
Born with a spinal deformity, Danny’s twisted and withered legs had never been able to support him. His handsome face and well developed arms contrasted sharply with his deformed lower limbs. Even at the early age of nine, his agile mind and hands had enabled him to master the piano keyboard and aboriginal art, but he longed to walk and run like everyone else.
Mesmerized, Danny stared as his legs painlessly straightened and lengthened. One foot at a time, five toes fused to one, then separated to three, each covered with scales and tipped with a long thick toenail. Sitting in his wheelchair in the open pasture of his father’s station, just out of sight of his house, he heard his mother call him.
“Time for lunch!”
Oh, no! Not now! “Aw, Mum, give me another half hour. Please?”
“All right, but then I’m coming to fetch you.”
He felt his neck lengthen and his lips protrude, becoming a beak. His hands disappeared as his arms shrank to small wings and he watched wide-eyed as feathers covered his skin. When the metamorphosis was complete, Danny stood for the first time in his young life. Straight, tall and perfectly balanced, his head held high, he began walking slowly at first, then faster and faster until he was in a full-out, effortless run, with the hot Australian wind blowing in his face. Exhilarated, his neck pouch bulged again and again as he trumpeted his joy.
I did it! Thank you, Eddie!
A half hour later, exhausted and hungry, he returned to his wheelchair just in time for his terrified mother to witness his transformation back to himself.
Her screams summoned Danny’s father. The burly man with strong beefy ranchers hands shook his wife’s shoulders, but her shrieking continued, so he turned to Danny. “You okay, mate? What happened to scare your mother like this?”
“She saw me change back from the emu to me.”
Powerful wings carried Petey along the thermals high above the California coast. Seeing through the bald eagle’s eyes, his mind struggled to comprehend the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes moving beneath him. Blind since his birth eight years ago, the slight, fair-haired boy screamed out for his mother, fearing he would crash into the rocks along the shore below.
His hand reached out when his mother sat down beside him on his bed. Her familiar reassuring touch calmed him.
“Mama, I saw the sky and the ocean!” Tears ran past his unseeing eyes, but his voice rose as the words tumbled out. “Now I know what blue looks like and green trees and brown rocks and white clouds and the yellow sun. I want to see everything.”
Arms enfolded him, rocking him gently. “That must have been amazing, sweetie. Where were you?”
“I was an eagle flying in the sky over the coast.”
“Were you on its back?”
“No. I was the eagle. I saw through its eyes.”
He felt his mother’s grip loosen a bit. “What a lovely dream.”
“Mama, you don’t understand.” His fingers searched under the blanket, closing around the feather and bringing it out. He opened his fist, displaying it to his mother. “It wasn’t a dream. It was real. My wish came true. I can see any time I want now. Thank you, Eddie!”
“Petey,” his mother’s arms trembled as she enfolded him in a hug. “I know how hard it is for you being blind and how much you wish you could see the world around you. But pretending can’t make it happen.”
“Mama! I wasn’t pretending. I got the gift at camp. Every kid did.”
“How to change into the creature that’s best at what you can’t do. Eagles have the sharpest eyesight, so that’s what I chose to become.”
He heard his mother’s quick intake of breath.
“Don’t worry! Becoming an eagle doesn’t hurt and I can change back whenever I want.”
It was warm in his bedroom, so Petey couldn’t understand why his mother’s fingers had turned icy cold and damp.
His mother’s No! came too late.
The richly hued trees were ablaze with gold and red foliage. Autumn in the Adirondacks always created a tapestry of breathtaking brilliance, but Eddie knew it would go unnoticed by the distraught parents and worried children converging on the small rustic conference room of Camp Yes-You-Can. Seated on rows of log benches, they awaited his entrance. As soon as the tall young man appeared in the doorway his campers mobbed him.
Eddie blushed. He thought he had prepared himself, but the unrestrained rush of affection overwhelmed him. Tears glistened in his eyes, accentuating his iridescent irises. They sparkled with flashes of blue and green like the finest Australian opals as he looked from face to adoring face.
When the hubbub subsided, he turned those eyes to the stony faced parents, and, with an impish grin, he shrugged.
“You all must have been terrified when you witnessed your children’s first transformation.” He waited to speak again until the angry outburst that rose from the room ran its course, then petered out. “I know my parents were.”
Danny’s father stood abruptly. His even voice belied the passion behind his words. “You had no right meddling with our children without our consent. None.” His hand lashed out, grabbing Eddie’s throat. “Whatever sorcery you employed must be undone.”
Eddie’s face momentarily became hideously malformed, then transformed back and Danny’s father recoiled, releasing his grip.
“NO!” Danny’s voice joined the other children’s screams and wailing. “No! Don’t hurt Eddie! Don’t take the gift away!”
Eddie shushed his flock, faced the parents and spoke again.
“Now you can begin to understand why you weren’t forewarned or asked for consent. None of you would have given permission. My mother wouldn’t have either if the gift had been explained before. I was born with no formed features on my face. No nose, no lips, no eyelids, no external ears. By the time I was ten years old, countless plastic surgeries had given me a facsimile of a human face, but it was grotesque and repulsive, like you saw, and people shied away from me.”
Eddie turned his opal eyes to the children. “I longed to be normal… to see a kind smile on a stranger’s face rather than a look of disgust or pity. To experience what I lacked.”
All three heads bobbed in agreement.
“The gift, given to me as a child by my home school teacher, permitted me to transform myself and gave me the ability to pass it along to others. How could I not?”
Petey turned his cloudy eyes to his mother. “I have the rest of my life to see now. Not all the time, but when I want to. I know what colors look like, what you and dad look like. I can see everything in my mind now. I couldn’t before. Please don’t take it away.”
Danny’s father began to stand again, but his son’s hand on his arm restrained him. “Daddy. Listen. Can you imagine what it felt like the first time I could run? Free and strong. And normal. And happy. ”
Eddie’s face was somber and his voice was low. “I took an enormous risk doing what I did. I knew I could be sued or even killed by an enraged parent.” He shrugged and his grin returned. “I also knew if I didn’t pass the gift to them I couldn’t live with myself.” His hands spread apart. “Your children are happier and more complete than they were before. How can that be a bad thing?”
Lydia’s mother rose. “So there are others beside you with this gift, as you call it. Why is this not common knowledge?”
Lydia’s hand shot into the air. “I can answer that!”
Eddie smiled and pointed to her. “Yes, you can. Come stand beside me so everyone can see and hear you.”
She hesitated, and in that instant transformed into the owl, flew to Eddie’s desk, landed, then transformed back. The children laughed, but the adults were frozen into stunned silence. Eddie helped her down.
“Okay, girl. Tell them.”
When Eddie took the children outside, the parents stayed behind in the club house to talk.
Danny’s father scratched his head. “I’m still baffled. Lydia’s explanation seems so plausible on the surface, but in order to believe it you have to buy in to this whole supernatural mumbo jumbo. Is anyone else having trouble with it?”
Petey’s mother raised her hand. “I am.” She spoke slowly, as if choosing each word carefully as she articulated her thoughts. “They say seeing is believing. Believing, perhaps, but not understanding. We all have witnessed our children’s transformations often enough to accept the reality of it. Lydia is a child, and like all our children, they don’t yet have the sophistication to separate out the logical from the illogical…”
Lydia’s mother broke in. “You mean they haven’t internalized your prejudices.”
“Please,” Petey’s mother looked pained. “I’m not inferring that your daughter is gullible or lying.” Her hands separated as if begging forgiveness. “I just wish I could accept it on faith, like she and the other kids did.”
“That’s my problem exactly.” Danny’s father agreed. “How do I accept that a man, any man, wakes up one morning a mere mortal like the rest of us, and suddenly is empowered with the ability to change into something else? A wolf, no less.” He shrugged. “Although that’s no more plausible than an emu, an eagle or an owl. And then he realizes he can pass this talent to others.”
Petey’s father finally stood and broke his silence. “If it happened to me I’d be terrified, and yet this guy didn’t turn a hair. I haven’t spoken until now because I’ve been trying to understand what differentiates him from us.” He pointed to Lydia’s mother. “When you said ‘prejudice’ it suddenly clicked. This man lived in the 17th century, when the supernatural was accepted as an explanation of anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes it was the work of God and sometimes the work of the devil. Witches were burned. No wonder he warned his students to keep it a secret. He was fearful for their lives and his own. Today we are brainwashed as we mature to believe that everything can be explained by science. Anything else is hogwash or mumbo jumbo, as Danny’s father put it. Or on the lunatic fringe. And we are fearful of being labeled as crazies and ostracized.”
“So the secrecy goes on. When Lydia first transformed into an owl in front of me I thought I had lost my mind. That I was hallucinating. Do you have any idea how comforting it is to meet all of you and find out I’m not nuts and I’m not alone?”
The general laughter broke the tension among the struggling parents.
Petey’s mother voiced the unanswered question. “How many thousands of others also guard the secret of their gift?”