A Death Redeemed
The owl's gift
Jenny Sutler’s grandmother, Odela “Mama” Rose, had been dying for three years. The night the owl called for her, Mama Rose laid a gentle hand on Jenny’s arm and told her, “Don’t blame the messenger.”
Jenny rushed barefoot into the December night and scooped up a rock. The hard edges of the chipped stones in the drive bit into her feet. If she could knock the bird from its perch atop their little wood-framed house, she could drive away death at least for that one night.
“Go away!” Jenny peered at the roof, straining to see the owl. Instead of tears, her eyes flashed with anger.
The owl’s cry felt like a betrayal. Jenny and Mama Rose loved watching the birds as they hunted, swooping like ghosts across the twilight fields. Sundays, the three of them—Jenny, her mother, and Mama Rose — were faithful congregants at the Free Will Baptist Church. Other days, Jenny and Mama Rose gathered herbs and dried flowers, smooth river rocks and owl feathers for a different sort of worship. If they were lucky, they’d find an owl pellet and tease apart the undigested fur and hair to discover the tiny bones within. They saved the dry, yellowed skeletons, tucked away in a felt-lined shoebox. Jenny’s mother, Alice, wrinkled her nose at these tokens, but Mama Rose and Jenny insisted they save them. There was powerful magic in each death.
Mama Rose shuffled onto the porch. Her breath clouded the frigid air. She was a petite woman, and until the sickness, she’d called herself plump. Now her flesh was so thin her bones pressed against her skin.
“Come back inside,” Mama Rose called. “You’ll catch cold. Owl crying means someone in the house will die, but the reaper comes for us all in the end. Besides, there was only one cry. It takes three to be certain.”
Jenny cast one last look at the roof, then nodded and came inside to fetch Mama Rose’s special tea, the one that calmed her stomach after the cancer treatments. Alice, Jenny’s mother, wouldn’t be home until late, long after they’d turned down the heat and switched off the lights.
“If it doesn’t snow tonight, we’ll walk the field tomorrow,” Mama Rose said. She settled in her rocker before the fireplace. “We’ll see if Mr. Owl has left us a gift.”
Jenny helped her grandmother undress for bed. She set a cup of warm broth on Mama Rose’s nightstand, in case she might try it later. Afterwards, Jenny settled before the fireplace in their living room, reading by the orange glow of the flames and waiting for her mother to return.
Friday nights, Alice drank and danced at the VFW Hall. She claimed membership in the veteran’s auxiliary based on her late husband’s service—so Jenny knew at least this about her father—he’d served and fought in some foreign land.
Close to midnight, a light flashed in the front window, and Jenny heard the crunch of car wheels on the long gravel drive. She set down the book she’d been reading and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders before she stepped outside. Alice’s Ford wavered from one side of the narrow drive to the other.
Twenty feet from the carport at the front of their house, the car leaped forward. A flash of gray and white blurred across the headlights. A thump of flesh against metal followed. Before her mother struggled from the car, Jenny was there, kneeling in the rough gravel.
“Turn off the motor!” Jenny held a hand across the bright headlight, as though she could hold back the car.
“What was that?” Alice braced one hand on the car’s fender. Crimson lipstick smeared across the corners of her mouth. As she bent over Jenny, the juniper scent of gin mingled with the hot gasoline and oil odor from the Ford.
“A barn owl.” Jenny answered as she wrapped the stunned bird in her blanket.
With a huff, Alice leaned into the open car door and turned the key. The Ford fell silent, except for the ticking of the cooling engine.
Jenny traced a finger along the cinnamon-colored feathers, amazed at how little the owl weighed, like he was made of air and down. The owl blinked up at her, his round black eyes and heart-shaped face oddly human. She forgot her anger at the bird.
“You’re not taking that in the house.” Alice left the car parked sideways in the drive and swayed toward the front door.
“I’ll leave him out here.” Carefully, Jenny laid the blanket-wrapped owl in a corner of their porch, out of the winter wind. Jenny lifted a corner of the blanket. She could not see any blood on the bird, so she hoped he was only stunned.
“I hope you weren’t the one calling on our roof. Rest here tonight, and I’ll check on you in the morning.”
Inside, Jenny found her mother in Mama Rose’s room. The old woman lay in bed, her thin, gnarled hands resting outside her quilt. Alice had pulled up a chair beside the bed. She bent over Mama Rose and brushed a hand across the older woman’s wispy hair. The small lamp on the nightstand cast a circle of golden light behind them.
“Did you take your medicine?” Alice lifted the brown plastic pill bottle next to the bed.
“Just now. I’ll sleep soon.”
Alice smoothed the covers, then bent to kiss Mama Rose’s brow. “Good night. Sleep tight.”
“No bedbugs to bite.” Mama Rose chuckled, then burst into a fit of coughing. “And no worries over owls tonight.”
Jenny rushed forward to pat her back. “There was an owl in the drive. Mom hit him with the car, but I think he’ll be okay. Jenny fidgeted with her grandmother’s covers, twisting and straightening the linens. “I could sleep in here tonight.”
“Oh child, it will be all right. Remember, it’s only the things we fear that have power over us.”
“We should let Mama Rose rest.” Alice wrapped her arm around Jenny’s shoulders and led her from the room. “Speaking of rest, you’d best turn in.”
“I’ll be up soon. I want to finish one more chapter in the book I’m reading.”
Jenny waited at the bottom of the staircase. With each step upward, her mother appeared to shrink. Her shoulders sagged as she ascended into the dark upstairs. She’d slipped off her shoes and carried them in one hand, the other hand clutched the rail. When the creak of the bedroom door opening reached Jenny, she left the landing.
In the living room, Jenny tried to get back into the story she’d been reading, but her thoughts kept drifting back to the owl. She should have asked Mama Rose how to keep him away. There were herbs and spells to bring your true love, potions to soothe a troubled heart. Surely there was something to change the course of death.
She had bent to break up and stir the coals in the fireplace when the shriek of an owl sounded. “No.” She dropped the poker clattering to the brick hearth and raced outside. Standing on tiptoe, she scanned the roof. Then, remembering, she ran back to the porch, to the blanket she’d left there earlier. The owl was gone.
Back inside, she paused at Mama Rose’s room. Jenny eased the door open and peered at her grandmother until she could make out the rise and fall of the woman’s chest. Sighing, Jenny closed the door. She’d set one foot on the stairs when she felt the touch of frigid air on her bare ankles. She must have left the door open.
Cold blue light shone past the open door and cast moonlit tree shadows on the floor of the entry. Jenny stood there, one hand on the knob, and studied the trees that lined their drive. Behind the tree line lay the owl’s hunting ground. Jenny searched the sky for signs of the bird of prey, but nothing but wind moved over the grass. She swung the door closed.
A pinprick of warning raised the hair at the back of her neck. In the living room, a stooped figure stood warming his hands before the dying coals. Jenny opened her mouth to shout, but the words came out as a gasp. The stranger turned. A small, thin boy, barely half Jenny’s height stood before her. His eyes were round and black. The stranger’s reddish-brown hair fell in a widow’s peak above his pale brow. He wore odd clothing—pants and a vest that looked to be made of leaves. Or feathers.
Jenny wrapped her arms around herself, shivering as she noticed the tiny feathers sprouting from the boy’s shoulders. He held one of his arms cradled in the other and Jenny hoped he remembered the care she’d given him. “What do you want?”
“From you?” The boy smiled. “Nothing. My business is with someone else.”
Jenny darted a glance toward her grandmother’s room. She moved to block the boy from the hallway. He was small—he must be light as the bird whose form he’d taken. She’d toss him out before he could get to Mama Rose.
As though he knew her thoughts, the boy stretched, growing twice his height. Although he kept his human form, his shadow held the shape of wings. Jenny backed down the hall until she stood before the door to her grandmother’s room. The boy followed. His shoulders scraped the sides of the hall, and he had to bow to keep from knocking at the ceiling.
“I’ve been called to this home to escort a soul to the afterlife. Did you not hear the summons?” His voice rumbled and grew shrill.
Jenny flinched, like a mouse cowering in the fields, but she didn’t move from her place. “We heard. You can’t take her.” She gripped the door frame and braced her arms against it.
“Death has called me here. I smell it in the air—corruption sweet and rotten. I hear it in the rattle of her breath. I see it in the bruises on her skin. I taste it in the iron of her blood.”
The stranger lifted his hand to her. Although his face held a look of compassion, Jenny thought of sharp talons and the cries of small creatures. Tiny bones wrapped in fur.
A creak sounded from the floor above and Jenny’s mother’s voice wafted down. “Jenny? Are you still up?”
“It’s okay. Don’t come down.”
“I’ve come to take someone from this house. I’ll not leave alone.” The stranger nodded toward Mama Rose’s room, then cast his gaze above them. “You choose.”
What should she say? If she called, her mother would come down the stairs. Would the owl-boy take her instead? Ashamed, Jenny shook her head. She couldn’t trade her mother and she wouldn’t go herself. Jenny thought of her grandmother’s pain and how she’d seemed resigned earlier when they first heard the call. No! She wasn’t ready to lose her.
“Ten years! Give us ten more years and she’ll go with you then.”
“You don’t have the power to make that bargain.”
“I could have left you there, under the car wheels. You’d carry your own death away!”
“I’ve told you. I’ll not leave here with nothing.”
“Then take your death from me. Ten years from my life for ten years for my grandmother.”
The stranger studied her for a moment, then nodded his head. “Done,” he said.
Jenny stayed at her post before her grandmother’s door, not trusting the owl-boy until he’d slipped from their house. She rushed to the door and bolted it.
Odela Rose recovered from her cancer. A miracle, her doctors said. Jenny celebrated with them, but she confessed her bargain to Mama Rose.
“Oh child! What have you done?” Her grandmother gathered her oldest books—the ones she kept locked away. “You must prepare.” she told Jenny. “I won’t be here when he returns.”
The first year passed, and then the second. By the third year Jenny had moved on from thinking of spells and owls, and to considering which college she’d attend. The fifth December passed without the owl’s call, and Jenny stopped counting. She didn’t forget the night of her bargain, but the memory faded like a photograph left in the sun. Until the tenth year, the winter of her grandmother’s death.
They buried Mama Rose on a blustery, gray Saturday. Mourners in black lined the gravesite, while ravens pecked at the grass behind them. After, Jenny accepted hugs from silver-haired matrons she hadn’t seen in years, since she left her hometown for college.
As Jenny escorted her mother to their car, a solemn cry drew her gaze to the great oak at the edge of the cemetery. An owl perched among the highest branches, with his round white face turned toward her.
Jenny paused, one hand on the car door.
“What is it?” her mother asked.
“Nothing.” She shook her head and wrapped her coat across her chest.
Later that evening, after the last of the mourners left her grandmother’s house, Jenny helped her mother clean the kitchen. They stowed casserole dishes covered in foil in the refrigerator, with Alice shaking her head over all the food. “You’ll take some of this back with you when you leave.”
“We’ll sort it in the morning. You must be tired. Go to bed and I’ll finish here.”
With her mother safely upstairs, Jenny gathered what she’d need. She’d discovered the first thing that morning—an owl feather resting on the hood of her car. No ordinary feather, this one was the length of her arm. A tuft of down the size of Jenny’s palm dotted the base of the finger-thick quill. A calling card, she reckoned. She’d hidden it before her mother came down for breakfast.
The second thing she’d found in a metal bucket on her grandmother’s back porch. Half-filled with rainwater, the bucket had trapped a field mouse who’d fallen in, drawn by the bits of seed left from her grandmother’s gardening. The little creature had paddled and scraped at the slick sides of the pail, unable to gain purchase with his claws. Jenny had tipped the bucket and drained the water. The mouse collapsed on the bottom, tiny chest heaving, his chestnut brown fur dark with water.
“I’m sorry, small friend.” Jenny had clapped a heavy plate across the top of the pail, trapping the mouse inside.
Now, Jenny climbed the stairs in the silent house. In her old bedroom she stood on tiptoe to reach the shelf in the closet and drag down the box she’d stashed there so long ago. The contents shifted inside as she lifted it, making a sound like the shuffle of tiny feet.
The last item, a keen-honed knife, she picked up from the kitchen. She tested the edge against the tender flesh of her arm, stopping before the sharpness could draw blood. She brought it all to the front porch—mouse pail, box, feather, and knife. She sat down to wait.
The first time she’d met the owl, Jenny had a teenager’s sense of immortality. Ten years had taught her not all things last, and now she shivered at each rustle of leaves. A full moon hung over the trees, casting long shadows that capered in the wind.
At ten minutes past midnight, a mournful cry heralded the bird’s arrival. He fluttered down to land in the gravel at the edge of the drive. Jenny stood. In one hand she held the feather, in the other, the knife. The box and the pail sat at her feet.
From owl to boy, the creature transformed. He spread arms tipped in feathers, stiff and sharp as daggers.
“You can’t stop death with a blade, girl.”
Jenny clenched her teeth to stop their chattering and hissed in a breath. “You’ve had my grandmother’s death. What right do you have to take mine tonight?”
“You gave me ten years, any ten. I’ll take them now. A death for a death, remember?”
“I remember helping you that night. Does your own life mean so little?”
The boy cupped a hand under his elbow and caressed his arm. “I remember, but I don’t measure life in years like mortal folk’s.”
“What if I give you a different death? Will you leave mine to me, for whenever it comes?”
The owl creature rose even taller. He loomed over Jenny. His voice ground out like gravel. “If I accept this death, you can have yours.”
Jenny tossed the feather at his feet. “I hear death in the rustle of your wings.”
She picked up the box and dumped the contents. Tiny dry bones and skulls like white pebbles spilled across the walkway. “I smell death in the corruption of their flesh, see it in the ivory of their bones.”
The owl laughed. “Such old, dry deaths mean nothing to me.” He shrank, becoming the small boy in brown leather clothes. “Come with me, Jenny.”
“No.” Jenny raised the knife. As she sliced across her palm, she knocked over the bucket. Crimson drops, like red flowers, fell across the metal pail. “I taste death in the iron of my blood.”
The mouse darted from the pail, straight for the boy. With a cry, the boy transformed into an owl. The hunter’s instinct took over, and he snatched the mouse, sharp talons piercing the little creature. The mouse gave a high-pitched squeal with his last breath. The owl tore at his prey, gulping down bone and blood, flesh and fur.
Jenny watched until the end, fearful the creature would transform back to the boy, back to demanding she give up her life. Instead, he kept the bird’s form, blinking at her with his large yellow eyes. At last, he gave a half-nod to her, then lifted into the night sky, a dark shape against the bright, full moon.
About the Creator
Terrye writes stories set in Texas and other strange places. She enjoys exploring antique, junk, and thrift stores for inspiration and bargains. Find her books on Amazon: Terrye Turpin
Follow her at https://terryeturpin.com/
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