windows to the soul

Short Story by Natalie Anderson. Trigger Warning: eye trauma, car crash, mention of suicide, harm to animals, animal death, blood

Your sister is playing with a toy you don’t recognize. It shouldn’t be a surprise, as you haven’t been home since the term started, but it is. You can’t make out exactly what animal it is until she comes over and, very seriously, informs you that “you have to give them hugs and kisses or they won’t love you,” and holds it up. You give it a kiss—that’s what she wants of you—before you even see it properly.  

You can see that it’s an owl now, anatomically incorrect with irises made entirely of glitter. A savage surge of anger, vicious and sharp, surges through you, carrying with it an urge to write a strongly worded letter to the company because owls do not have purple eyes. You know this because in fifth-grade owls were all you thought about. Your favorites were the barn owls, with their pale heart-shaped faces and shiny black eyes.

Your sister is talking, her words catching on the gap in her teeth. The owl is not watching your sister. It is watching you, and suddenly you realize that owls have always had purple eyes. Why were you angry? Your face is still flushed. It must have been your English 101 paper.


You are sitting at your old vanity (you don’t have a proper desk), studying for an upcoming exam. You think there is an upcoming exam. At any rate, you need to keep your mind sharp over break, or you will forget everything, but you cannot focus on the material, even though your study playlist is going. Your head is in the past. You are thinking about the stray cat, the one you left food out for in second grade. 

The way its ribs jutted from under its skin and the dullness of its fur, the eyes that glinted copper, like hungry pennies. In the mirror, you examine your eyes. 

The feeling of it under your hands—the rasp of fur on your skin—is with you to this day. A week after it allowed you to pet it for the first time, you found its corpse on the side of the road. You cried for months afterward. 

You peer at your eyes in the vanity mirror. They are dark brown, like your mother’s. In most lights, they are as black as the cat’s fur.

 Uncomfortable and unsettled, in a vague, formless way, you pick up a pencil—sharp, very sharp, because you hate dull pencils—and turn back to the math notes, singing along to Frankie Valli and muttering.

“You’re just too good to be true! Can’t take my eyes off of you… Z plus X… heaven to touch…”



“Where did you get the owl again?” you ask. It had a name—something about juice, you think—but you forgot it as soon as you heard it.

“Grandma an’ grandpa,” she says, drawing. The owl sits next to her, implacable and inscrutable, like an old god. “They live on the moon.”

You smile fondly at your sister, avoiding the gaze of the owl, and the smile slides off your face like hot, spoiled butter when you remember both sets of your grandparents are dead. Have been dead, since long before your sister was born, one pair from an unlucky gas leak and the others, victims of a bizarre, violent, and unexpected double suicide. The owl catches your eyes and the questions you have die in your throat.

Your sister kisses the top of the owl’s head and picks up another crayon, still smiling, and humming a song you almost recognize.


Your mother is scouring pot and pans. She is laughing at something her wife said and watching with one eye as your sister disappears around the bend of the hallway. They have the same dark, curly hair, a surprise child long after your parents thought they needed to worry about that sort of thing. Your sister is clutching the owl as she goes, and the owl’s face peers over her shoulder. For a moment you think it is staring at you, which is ridiculous because stuffed animals are not alive and cannot stare at anyone. 

Personification, you think, mind fluttering to your notes upstairs, but you have spent long enough on rhetorical devices for now and so instead you ask, “Where did she get that owl?”

Your mother hums a downward note and looks over at your mom, who is kneading dough with hands that are always cold. “Was it your parents?” Your mom nods and takes over the story, back to the rest of the kitchen.

“Grandma and Grandpa left that owl to your sister, specifying ‘on her sixth birthday’ in their will. They said that she would be ‘more deserving of its love, or something like that.’ We were pretty confused because we didn’t know anyone by that name—plus the whole ‘stabbed themselves through the eyes’ thing—and we didn’t think about it until after naming her.” She laughs, humorlessly. “It was a shock, for sure.” The bread whoomps beneath her hands. “We gave it to your sister for her birthday, while you were at school.”

Your mother, frowning at her wife’s distress, has started sneaking up on her, raising one soapy finger to her lips at you.

“We’ll tell her about the will—the suicide note, really—in a few years,” she continues, unaware of your mother, sneaking up behind her. 

She squawks and scolds when your mother throws her wet hands around her —“careful, you’ll get flour everywhere—” but there’s a smile in her voice, grateful to leave death in the past, and she turns in her wife’s arms to press a careful kiss to her wide, broad nose. 

“My rocket scientist,” your mom says softly, which is a job title, a pet name, and your cue that perhaps rhetorical devices have not had enough attention.

“Stop it for a second—” your mom says, and calls your name. “There’re some boxes of your old stuff upstairs. Would you mind going through them and sorting what you don’t want?”

You head upstairs, glad to have something to do that doesn’t include anaphora or epistrophe. 


The first two boxes are mostly books and a few old papers, and it doesn’t take long to justify sending your Middle School Diaries collection to the nearest nonprofit and move on to the last box.

This box, unlike the others, is mostly full of old toys. You hold each one and let memories flood back—your first bear, with black-bead eyes and fur rubbed away to nothing. The dog with eyes as dark as the space under your bed it kept you safe from. 

And a cat. 

It takes you a second to remember the cat at first. It feels intimately familiar, like an ex you haven’t seen in years because the breakup was bad. 

Oh. This cat. You remember now when you got it, the day after the stray died. How you sobbed even harder and threw it at the wall because it was almost the same as the other cat, all black fur and glinting eyes. 

The other cat, the real cat, the cat that had once been alive, had orange eyes, like little harvest moons. In death, the cat had no eyes, only bloody holes where some asshole had shot them through with BB bullets. 

You rub your thumb over the crack in the stuffed cat’s wide, purple eyes, from where it hit the corner of your dresser and lay on the ground, cracked eye and all, until you shoved it under your bed a few days later and forgot it. Your parents must have found it and put it in with the rest. 

With a cry, you drop the cat. You hadn’t realized the glass eye of the cat was so sharp, and a few drops of blood well up on the pad of your thumb. Sucking on your thumb, you drop the cat into the donation bag. 

The cat’s eye is too sharp to responsibly allow a child to have. You fish the cat out and shove it in the trash, blood still wet on the edge of the cat’s eye.

You stare at the rest of the animals, with their shiny black eyes, like a parliament of barn owls. 

Except barn owls have purple eyes, dark violet eyes, and your toys’ eyes are all black, black to the very heart. 

You drop all the animals into the donation bag, one by one, thumb throbbing.


Later that night, you are laying in a hotel bed, waiting for your partner to show up for your date. (A long-standing joke, since before you started dating—meeting up in unusual places.) Your watch beeps the hour from the nightstand. They are officially late, if by only moments. 

You trace the cracks in the ceiling with your eyes—it is not a particularly pleasant hotel—and grab your phone off the nightstand.

What color are barn owl eyes? you type into the search engine. Purple, violet, purple again. You pull up images of barn owls and zoom in on their eyes. All have an undeniably purple tint. You drop the phone onto the nightstand, wondering why you bothered looking up something you had always known, trace the ceiling cracks again, and feel like hundreds and hundreds of eyes trace the lines of your body back. 

The door chimes as your partner unlocks it, apologizing for their lateness and pulling off a jacket. You wave off their apologies—being late is part of the game—and they lie next to you, giving you a kiss that sends little goosebumps up and down your arms. The pair of you are still for a moment after you break the kiss, taking comfort in each other, like a pair of parentheses around an ordered pair. X, Y to true love. 

You reach out to tuck a lock of hair behind their ear just as they turn away with a frown, reaching behind their back and pulling out the black cat you threw away earlier. Your heartbeat skyrockets, for reasons you can’t explain. 

“What’s this?” They quirk an eyebrow at you coyly. “Something for tonight?” They hold it out to you and you take it, turning it over in your hands. It isn’t the same cat after all, and your pulse slows.

“I don’t know,” you say. “It looks a little like one I used to have.” It looks a lot like the cat you used to have. The eyes are whole and uncracked, and you think they’re a little darker—or are they a little lighter?—than the sparkly purple eyes of your cat, but it’s hard to tell for certain, and they’re otherwise identical.

“Huh,” they say. You slowly kiss the top of the cat’s head, feeling like you’re moving in a dream, and gently place it on the nightstand. 

They poke you, breaking the trance. “Aw, I bet you were adorable as a little kid! With your chubby wittle cheeks—!” They squish your face between their hands. You reach out and do the same. 

“I bet you did too,” you say, but through the layers of bunched up skin and fat it sounds like “ai bech yu dihd too,” and you both break into peals of laughter.


The following morning is dark and cold, with frost spiraling dizzily over the windows and fog clinging to the ground like a lover; your breath clouds like cigarette smoke as you scrape the windshield and unlock the car.

When you slide into your seat, you jump with surprise.

The cat is in the passenger seat, watching you with huge, dark purple eyes. Your heart is beating fast, an evolutionary holdover from when shock and surprise meant run as fast as you can and the heart needed to be ready to propel you out of reach.

It’s ridiculous. Of course the cat would be in your car. You think you remember now, grabbing it impulsively on your way out. If you’d left it, the hotel staff might try to find the poor child missing their beloved toy. Or perhaps not, considering the bored-looking man who took your hotel keys that morning. 

For minimum wage, though… practically Santa. 

The car was locked until a minute ago, a voice in your head says.

Of course it wasn’t, you think. How else would the cat have got in my car?

You call your mom and start the car as the dial rings. Early as it is, you know she wakes earlier.

“I’m on my way home now,” you say, turning on the main road.

“How was your date?”

“Mom,” you groan, if only for show. Your eyes have drifted to your passenger’s, and you wrench them away.


“It went great,” you admit with a smile. You aren’t sure how you got someone as wonderful as your partner, someone who loves you so much as they do. “Hey, did you and mother have a chance to drop off my old stuff from yesterday? Or take out the trash?”

There’s a crackle of static on the other line. “No, not yet. We were planning to go after the donation place opened today, and you know we don’t touch your trash can. That’s your job. Why?”

“Nothing really. I just wanted to look through the cat—the box one more time before they get given away.” You shake your head a little. You must have been up later than you thought if you’re mixing up words. “Don’t take them until I get a chance to say goodbye, yeah?”

You are looking at the cat again, by accident, and you had hardly even realized. Its eyes are entrancing. Last night, your attention had been—elsewhere—but in the weak light of the early morning, they seem magical. How beautiful, you think. How did I not notice them before?

“Sure,” your mom says. Then everything happens quickly. 

Your car has drifted into the other lane—not by much, but it doesn’t need much. The road is curving, sharply, to the left. 

Headlights refract off the fog, splintering and spattering across your field of vision, like a herald of danger. A car is approaching.

You wrench the steering wheel, panic, like cold water, rushing up your spine, making your motions too big.

Your heart is beating fast. Thousands of years of evolution has primed your body for moments like these, but you are trapped. 

There is nowhere to run. 

The car is going faster than your fragile human body could ever hope. You cannot outrun this danger. Everything is too fast and everything is too slow. 

The car shudders down the hill. 

There is a tree directly in your path—nothing you can do—a flare of sick panic—you have no time to do anything. You have enough time to pick out the fine details of the tree’s bark, rough and strangely beautiful—the car heaves once as it crashes, like a heart giving out. 

Airbags spill out, slamming into your head as they inflate. Your forward motion carries you, like an eager bride down the aisle, to meet them. 

Everything is too quiet, as if from a great distance. You hear your mom’s voice. Your name, over and over. The quiet feels… peaceful.

The cat is still perched on the passenger seat, staring serenely, though everything else has been strewn throughout the interior. There is something wet dripping slowly, more of a roll, really, down the side of your face. Everything smells of gasoline and wiper fluid; everything is lit with hazy light. The sun must be rising over your shoulder. You feel like laughing, feel lazily, deliriously happy. 

The light reflects, too bright, off the shattered rear view mirror. I should be in pain, you think, turning away from the mirror. Someone is yelling from outside the car. Your mom is yelling from inside the car, tinny from the speakers, the shrill of fear and helplessness painting her voice with bold strokes. 

You feel very tired. It would be easy, so easy, to just close your eyes—you wish everyone would be quiet and let you sleep—the light must be reflecting into the cat’s eyes, just a bit. They gleam, once, a deep, imperial purple, and everything catches up all at once. The sound of voices, now too close. Everything hurts. Your temple and your thumb throb. The sun must be sinking, suddenly setting, a reversal of natural order—everything is going dark—

You close your eyes and sleep.  


You are released from the hospital a few days later, with a long list of activities to avoid.

It is snowing outside, a white powder good for piling up on the roads and sidewalks and not much else. The return to school is delayed. The upkeep of all the information you have accumulated throughout the semester seems unimportant. You will remember or you will forget. There is no point fretting.

Your phone lights up with a stream of texts from your partner. They start normal enough, coming a half-hour apart, fifteen minutes, ten. 

how r u feeling after the hospital? so exciting O_O

u want me to bring soup or something? what do you get sick people lol

hey thinking about u♡♡♡

They get more and more worried the longer you ignore them, the texts coming in one at a time. You can tell they’re trying not to worry too much, which is good. You’re not sure you care about them all that much.

sweetie u there?

r u alright? 

babe? did i do smth? 

you know i love you so so much

The phone vibrates with an incoming call. You just watch the way the light plays in the cat’s purple eyes, how they lighten from violet to magenta, and then suddenly catch a shadow and plunge into indigo as the call goes to voicemail. 

babe please pick up♡

The cat comes everywhere with you now. Your parents exchange glances when you set it on the table next to you during meals, but you are glad they have not said anything yet. You would hate to have to do something about it. 

“Why can’t Grape Juice sit on the table?” your sister whines. “How will he know that I love him otherwise?” When your moms still say no, she sets the owl down just outside the dining room, whispers to it, and kisses its forehead.
“I’ll come get you in a moment,” she promises. “Mom just doesn’t want you to get all dirty.” 

Your mom corners you the next day.

“Are you feeling alright? Doctor Emery said we should talk to him if anything’s wrong, or unusual, and I just want to check and see…” She trails off.

“I feel better than ever.” You are lying. Something is wrong, but you do not know what it is yet, and you are sure that whatever it is, the doctors could not help. 

“If you say so,” she says. She doesn’t trust you. Of course she doesn’t; her eyes are grey. She could never understand. 

“You know, your grandparents gave you that cat,” she says, clumsily trying to change the subject. “It arrived in the mail the day that stray died. I still don’t understand how they knew so quickly. And then we heard that they’d killed themselves. I never got to ask.” She gets quiet.

You didn’t know. You’re glad that it came from them, one last gift before they died. You say nothing. She fidgets, wanting to keep the conversation going, uncomfortable in wake of your silence. It’s the longest conversation you’ve had with your parents since the crash.

“You haven’t done any studying recently,” she says. “It’s okay if you’re not feeling up to it, but we used to have trouble getting you to relax for a while. I just noticed.”

“My priorities are different, I suppose. A car crash and hospital visit will do that to you.”

Someone else wouldn’t have noticed it, but you have known your mom your whole life, and you know that the tightening of her hands and face means that she is guilty, and scared, and uncomfortable confronting the fact that her child could have died while she sat on the line, powerless. 

“Yes, I suppose,” she says and leaves you alone after that, the way you knew she would.


To appease your mom, you make a show of pulling out your backpack full of papers, meaningless papers, of sharpening a pencil, closing your door loudly (though not banging it). You sit at your vanity, the toy cat next to you, and a single paper and pencil placed neatly before you. 

You open your Spotify app and open a random playlist, clicking shuffle. ABBA begins playing through your phone’s speakers. It isn’t really important, but you have to keep up appearances. 

And the look that he gave her made me shiver

Cause he always used to look at me that way…

You don’t intend to study anything but the cat’s eyes. They are so deep, unimaginably so, and you feel as though you could find the code of the universe if you look long enough and hard enough, if you devote yourself completely.

Then I thought maybe I should walk right up to her and say

Ah-ha-ha, it’s a game he likes to play…

The color of galaxies, of deep space, of Homer’s wine-dark seas (the ancient Greeks did not have a word for blue, and you think it is right that they used purple to describe the unknowable, fathomless depths of the ocean). Lavender, mulberry, plum.

Look into his angeleyes

One look and you’re hypnotized…

The color of grapes and sweet jam and bird feathers, and the smooth, gooey skin of sea cucumbers. Is there anything not encompassed in the pits of the cat’s eyes? 

He’ll take your heart and you must pay the price

Look into his angeleyes…

You meet your gaze in the mirror. At this small distance, they are a light brown, like syrup; from further away, they are like the darkness of deep water, where there is no air and silt and mud swirl around fishes and frogs, silent spectators of a drowning. Your partner, who has blue eyes so pale they’re almost translucent, loves the way they change when you get up close, like a secret just for them.

You’ll think you’re in paradise…

You think of the wide range of purple hues in the cat’s eyes, and you know that your changing eyes are nothing but a lie, a hiding of their toxic true nature. 

They should be purple. It would be better if they were purple, if they possessed the same alchemical properties as the cat’s. The cat’s eyes reveal. Yours do nothing but sit, hatefully, in their misbegotten eye sockets. They should be purple. 

And one day you’ll find out he wears a disguise…

You know what you need to do. It will hurt, but only until your eyes turn purple the way they should, the way they will when the old, unsuitable eyes are gone. You pick up the pencil, roll it between your fingertips, feel the point with your thumb (it is sharp, incredibly so, like it was prepared for this purpose), raise it slowly to your eyes, breathless with anticipation (you have always hated dull pencils).

Don’t look too deep into those angeleyes…

You know it is what you deserve. You never loved the cat, never kissed it, or hugged it as you fell asleep. You are glad that you are finally able to give it the devotion it deserves.

The cat watches, incomprehensible, as you crack your eyes open.