Grandma always said that barn owls were a portent of death.
As I lie here in the dark, in the silence, listening for his footsteps, I hope I don’t see one tonight.
The first time Grandma said it, I was terrified for months afterwards.
I must have been about five or six, I think. She was babysitting me. Mum and Dad had gone out; I can’t remember where.
I loved staying at Grandma’s house. She let me stay up late watching movies I wasn’t normally allowed to watch. She always had chocolate in her fridge and cookies in her pantry. Sometimes we had ice cream for dinner, pizza for dessert, and sandwiches for breakfast.
“There are no rules for Grandmas,” she’d say, winking at me when Dad frowned at her.
It was summer and the windows were all open to let in the cool night breeze, even though it barely ruffled the curtains. We heard a screeching sound like a girl calling for help and I ran to the window to see what it was. In the pale light of the fingernail moon, I saw a ghostly shape swoop low over the field, then it disappeared behind the barn.
“Hmm,” said Grandma, now standing next to me. “Someone’s going to die.”
I looked at her with eyes the size of saucepan lids. “What?”
“Barn owls,” she said. “If you see and hear one, it means someone’s going to die.”
“Who?” I asked, petrified that the owl was here for me. “Who’s going to die? Is it me?”
“Just someone,” murmured Grandma, squeezing my shoulder. “The barn owl takes the person’s soul to the next life. Heaven or Hell, depending on what their life balance is at the end.”
She sat back down in her chunky dark-blue armchair with its colourful crocheted cover. I climbed into her lap and put my arms around her neck, clinging on tightly, while she rubbed my back with her strong fingers.
Dad got mad at her when I told him later what she said.
“Take no notice,” he told me. “It’s a silly superstition. It’s not true.”
I nodded at him, trying to be brave, but Grandma wouldn’t lie to me. Would she?
I’m lying on my front in a field, a long way from anywhere. I don’t even know where I am.
It’s one of those dark, dark nights; the ones where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. There’s no moon. I’m glad for the dark.
Dew from the long grass is soaking uncomfortably into my white t-shirt and black jeans as I hide. I’m glad for the long grass.
I hold my breath, sure he’s going to hear me, but I can’t hold it for long enough.
I move my right arm around as quietly as I can, trying to find a rock or something. Anything I can use to defend myself. I know he’s going to find me.
But all I can feel is grass.
After Grandma told me about the owls, I had nightmares for months about owls coming to take me.
I’d lie every night in my little pink bed, scrunching my eyes so I wouldn’t see them. Pulling the blankets up over my head and pushing my hands into my ears so I wouldn’t hear them. I tried desperately not to fall asleep. I was sure that’s when they’d come for me.
But I always fell asleep.
The owls haunted my dreams with their ghostly presence. Flocks of them would screech and swoop outside my window. I’d cower in my bed until eventually, one would fly into my bedroom, reaching out with its long talons. Reaching for me. It would dig them into my shoulders and lift me up. It would fly once more around my room, giving me one last glance at all the things I’d never see again, then we’d go out the window and into the sky. That’s when I’d wake up sobbing and sweating, twisted in the sheets, sure the owl was taking me to Hell for some imagined wrong.
When Dad finally had enough of me waking up the whole house in such a distressed state, he took me to Grandma’s barn and showed me the owls.
Dad pushed open the huge wooden doors and we stepped from the heat of the day into the cool inside. Sunlight pushed through the gaps in the boards and dust motes danced like fairies around us. I thought we’d stepped into a magical kingdom. I expected bunnies to hop out and play around our feet and bluebirds to come and sit on my shoulder, like in the movies. But they didn’t.
Dad lifted me onto his shoulders and walked us into the middle of the barn. He stopped and pointed up at the rafters.
“See,” he said. “Just birds.”
I looked at where he was pointing and didn’t see anything for a minute. My eyes finally adjusted to the dim light and I saw them.
Two heart-shaped white satellite-dish faces looked back at me. Large black eyes blinked at us as the birds crowded closer together, unsure about this sudden intrusion into their domain. Their pinched faces and the way they held their wings, close and tense, made them look very prim and proper. A bit like my teacher at the time, Mrs Maddison.
I didn’t see death when I looked at them, like Grandma did. I saw a loving couple, like Mum and Dad.
“When she has babies, he’ll hunt for her and bring food back for them all,” said Dad.
“Just like you did when I was born?” I asked.
‘Well, I didn’t exactly hunt,” said Dad, smiling. “Unless you call the supermarket a hunting ground. But, yes, you could say that.”
The owls shifted uncomfortably again and a speckled white feather drifted slowly down in a shaft of sparkling light. The feather hovered and twirled in the light breeze, spinning, spinning, until it landed a few feet away from us. Dad put me down and I picked up the feather. I whirled around Dad’s feet, dancing like the feather had done on its way down.
I kept that feather on my bedside table as a reminder of the owls. They were just birds. I looked at it every night while I lay waiting for sleep and the nightmares stopped. Eventually, the feather disappeared but those nightmares never came back. I assume Mum or Dad threw it out one day but by then, my life was full of school and friends and other bright things.
I forgot about the owls.
Why am I thinking of barn owls now? Because I’m scared. I’m scared I’m going to die, that’s why.
Fear causes your primitive brain to stomp all over your civilised brain. Right now, my primitive brain has stepped up and is firmly in control.
I hold onto one thought: If I don’t see or hear a barn owl, then I’ll get through this. If the owls don’t come for me, I’ll still be alive in the morning.
I hear his boots swishing through the grass. He swings his flashlight left and right, looking for me. He’s whistling again; this is all a game to him.
I press myself closer to the earth and close my eyes, trying to will myself to sink down into it like people in old movies falling into quicksand. The quicksand engulfed them whole, in the same way that the barn owls eat whole mice in one gulp.
But the ground doesn’t eat me or absorb me.
I miss Grandma.
I miss her laugh and her soft lap. I miss how she made me feel safe and loved. I miss her quirks and her superstitions. She was full of them.
If she saw me scratching my right palm, she’d say, “Money coming in.”
If I scratched my left, she’d say, “Money going out.”
She was always knocking on wood. If she spilled some salt, she’d throw a bit more over her shoulder. She had horseshoes over her front and back doors, the right way up of course. Didn’t want the luck to leak out.
Some of her superstitions rubbed off on me. I still won’t walk under a ladder and I step over cracks in the pavement. I still say the money out, money in thing when my palms itch, and I cross my fingers when I want something good to happen.
I feel guilty that I didn’t see her more after I moved out of home. But, life gets in the way, you know? I tried to get home every Christmas, but sometimes I just couldn’t. I didn’t even know she was ill. It never occurred to me that one day she’d be gone.
I thought she’d be here forever. That the owl would never come for her.
But he did.
A small grey mouse skitters past my nose, rustling the grass and making me jerk slightly.
The whistling stops for a second and the flashlight swings around and points in my direction. Oh god, he’s seen me.
I push myself up and I’m away like an Olympic sprinter. I run, keeping my head low, zigging and zagging. I think I can see trees ahead, but it’s still so dark, I’m not sure. I hope it’s a forest. A forest will have more hiding places.
I run headlong into a wire fence and bounce backwards. I scrabble to my feet and climb through the fence. My ponytail catches but I keep moving, ripping out some of my hair on the way through.
It’s not a forest. It’s a building. An old building, like a barn or a storage shed, not a house. There are no lights anywhere, except for the flashlight moseying along in the field behind me, as if it has all the time in the world.
I press my back against the wall and edge around it. Splinters spike into my fingers from the rough wooden planks and my right knee hurts. When I put my hand on it, I feel a feathery rip in my jeans and something sticky.
I get around to the front of the building. Even though it’s so dark, this close I can see one door hanging off and the other leaning precariously towards the inside. I step quietly inside, remembering another time, long ago, when a barn seemed so magical. Now it feels as if the dark is pressing down on me, rejecting me. I’m trying to walk through treacle, but I push in any way.
I risk a look at my Fitbit. The glow of the time blinds me momentarily before it blinks off again. Has it really only been a couple of hours?
It gave me enough light for a second to see an old horse stall on my left. I stumble over to it, go inside, and crouch down on the damp, mouldy straw.
I cross my fingers while I wait.
Torch light bleeds in through the warped planks of the walls and boots crunch on gravel. He’s whistling again, still not in a hurry.
“I know you’re in here,” he says in a sing-song voice as he saunters through the broken entranceway.
I shrink further back into the darkness, trying to cover my white t-shirt with my arms so it won’t stand out. I’m trying not to breathe again, but I can still smell and taste the musty dust that lingers in the air.
A loud hiss, then another, comes from high up in the rafters. The hiss turns to an aggressive clicking sound and he turns the flashlight to point up at the roof.
A large brown barn owl unfurls her wings, holding them out to make herself look bigger. She puffs out her reddish, spotted chest and clacks her beak again. Blinking her eyes in the bright light, she repeatedly ducks her head down, then lifts it up again, shuffling left, then right.
He stands there for a few minutes watching her display, then points the flashlight down again and sweeps the light around the inside of the barn.
A sound like a child’s scream pierces the air from just outside, then a ghost flies into the barn. The large male owl claps his wings once, twice.
The man ducks and drops the flashlight, swearing as it clicks off when it hits the ground. He holds his arms up to protect his head as the pale male owl flies around the enclosed space, swooping and diving, screeching and clacking, clapping his wings, telling the man to get out.
The man leans down and grabs the flashlight. He shakes it and it comes back on. He tries to use it to defend himself, but the owl is relentless. Sharp talons tear at the man’s hair and shoulders, tearing out clumps of hair and ripping his light-blue flannel shirt.
The man stumbles backwards, trying to get to the door, but the owl keeps up its attack. There’s a clang and a grunt, and time seems to stop.
The flashlight rolls across the floor towards me as the male owl joins his mate in the rafters.
Everything goes quiet.
I hardly dare breathe. I sit where I am in the dirty straw, arms clutched tightly around my knees, for…well, I don’t know how long. The first rays of the dawn light are just starting to twinkle through the gaps in the walls and roof when I dare to move.
I creep out of the horse stall as quietly as I can.
I look up but the owls are gone.
I inch out of the barn and see him. He’s lying on his back, draped over a pile of wood. His blue eyes stare at the rapidly lightening sky, but see nothing. A red stain spreads around the upturned thick metal picket sticking out of his chest.
The male owl is sitting on an old wooden fencepost a short distance away, watching me. He blinks seriously at me like an old school librarian disappointed because I’m late returning my books. Then he turns. He spreads his magnificent wings and takes off.
“You were right, Grandma,” I say quietly. I watch him glide effortlessly over the field, then soar higher and higher into the morning sky.
“I always was, darling,” I hear her whisper on the breeze that tickles my neck. “I always was.”