Written By: Kelsey Syble
For as long as I knew her, Mama seemed to have two sides to her: light and dark. The light version of Mama was happy, carefree, and affectionate. She helped me with my homework and we danced together in the kitchen to ABBA while baking lemon bread. She smelled like cinnamon and her eyes actually lit up when she smiled.
But I only saw this version of her through rare glimpses, like slivers of light peeking around venetian blinds at sunset. It was the dark version of Mama who really raised me. She was somber, nervous, and cold. She repeatedly forgot to pick me up from school and was always locking herself in the master bedroom with strange men. She smelled unclean and her eyes were joyless and empty whenever they met mine.
I was fourteen when my high school principal interrupted Algebra class and asked me to gather my things and meet him in the hallway. He led me in silence for ten minutes through the building before I asked where we were going. Just as we reached the exit doors, he turned back to look at me and it was then that I realized he was crying.
On a Tuesday morning in early September, shortly after I left for school, Mama was found dead on the floor of our living room by her boyfriend. He'd reported the death anonymously from a burner cell phone, probably to protect himself since he'd provided the drugs that killed her.
Later that evening, Aunt Suzette arrived at the police station. I hadn't seen her since I was seven. We hugged wordlessly and briefly, and then she ushered me towards the parking lot with her hand on the small of my back. I'd forgotten how stiff and businesslike she could be. She was nothing like either of Mama's personalities.
"I need to get my things from home," I told her once we were in her shiny, expensive SUV.
Suzette could barely meet my eyes. She swallowed, took a breath, and then said, "We aren't going to the apartment, Nora. It's all taken care of. Your things are in the back."
My eyes widened as I turned in my seat to check. "Everything? My clothes, my laptop, Mama's pictures, my -"
"Yes," she said firmly as she backed out of the lot.
As I pressed my cheek to the window, the landscape outside began to blend together while the SUV picked up speed. The unsightly apartment complexes, rundown motels, and abandoned storefronts were slowly replaced by endless forests of green and a highway that stretched on for what seemed like forever. Eventually, the highway led us to a sleepy town, and the forests morphed into new neighborhood developments, tall brick mansions, and a pristine community of carefully planned businesses.
I couldn't remember the last time I'd been to Uncle Drew and Aunt Suzette's house in the country. Most of my memories there weren't even real, but rather fabricated in my mind from the photographs in Mama's old scrapbooks. When Mama was her best self, she enjoyed taking photos. She'd hum unfamiliar tunes as she examined her work on the digital screen of the DSLR camera Suzette had gifted her before I was born. But when one of Mama's ex-boyfriends broke it in a fit of rage after an argument, she became dark for two months. And even afterwards, when she emerged and shifted back into the light, she never took a single photograph again.
Now the sun was setting into a watercolor portrait of golds and pinks as Suzette rounded the final corner. She pulled onto a narrow, cobblestone road lined with tall pine trees on either side. Eventually the trees gave way to a large clearing of endless grass, and in the very back of the field sat the house I only remembered from Mama's scrapbooks: a blue vinyl two-story with a wraparound porch, basketball hoop in the driveway, and small red barn to its left.
Uncle Drew and my three cousins - Robby, Warner, and Todd - waited on the porch for us. Drew had his hands in his pockets, watching us with a grim expression. Warner and Todd, the twins who I remembered were a few years younger than me, playfully shoved each other back and forth, oblivious to the headlights of Suzette's SUV. Then there was the oldest of the cousins, Robby, who sat on the porch swing while holding a cell phone mere inches from his eyes.
Drew and Suzette gave me Robby's bed, placing him in the twins' room temporarily as the attic renovations were still underway for his own private space.
That night, I lay in an unfamiliar twin bed staring at an unfamiliar popcorn ceiling, a full moon illuminating my face from the skylight above. Never had I yearned so badly to hear blasting car horns, police sirens, and arguments from the sidewalks below like I had from my old apartment.
After a couple of restless hours, I got out of bed, determined to clear my mind. I slid on my sneakers, pulled on my hoodie, and crept down the stairs of the quiet house. I was careful not to wake anyone as I slowly opened the screen door and escaped into the night, making my way across a damp field of chirping crickets and flickering fireflies. The closer I got to the red barn, the faster I walked.
The inside of the red barn was already lit up, and just as I'd remembered it from Mama's scrapbooks. She once told me that my cousins and I used to play hide and seek on the estate, and the seeker always started in the red barn. She had photographs of each of us standing in a corner of the barn when it was our turn to play seeker, our hands placed over our eyes and our mouths open as we counted to ten.
I jumped at the sound of my name and let out a shriek, turning towards the source and gazing up to see Robby. He sat on the loft with his feet hanging over the edge, holding a smoky joint in his left hand. He blinked at me with a flat expression.
"Hi, Robby," I said as casually as I could, hoping to redeem myself.
Robby stared at me wordlessly. After a moment, I shrugged and walked to the ladder, then climbed up onto the loft. I crawled across the floor and sat a few feet away from him, dangling my legs to mirror his.
"Do you want a hit?" he asked, holding the joint out towards me.
I shook my head quickly. "I don't do drugs...not even pot."
Robby's eyes widened in guilt, and then he lowered his gaze to the floor. "Right. Sorry."
I breathed in shakily and forced a smile. "I'm sorry I took over your room."
He shrugged, and let out a chuckle. "It's cool."
We sat in silence for several minutes. He took drags from the joint while I focused on my breathing as I tried not to think about Mama.
"Aunt Stella was the best," Robby said suddenly. He cleared his throat and added, "She always took me seriously, like I wasn't just some stupid kid. I loved her lemon bread and chocolate chip brownies. And she had the best taste in music."
I looked away from him to hide the tears now present on my face. "Thanks," I choked out.
"Oh man, look at that," Robby said now, his voice filled with urgency. "There's an owl in here."
I turned back towards him and followed his gaze. Across the barn, a brown and white speckled owl sat on a low-hanging beam, staring up at us through glowing yellow eyes.
"Bizarre...I haven't seen a barn owl since I was a kid, and I've been coming to chill up here for years."
Suddenly the owl began to hum from deep within its chest. It continued to stare at us, not even blinking, as it filled the barn with its song.
Like a bolt of lightning, a memory popped into my mind out of thin air. I could see Mama's smiling face as clear as day as she stood in our old kitchen, instructing me to stir the brownie batter while she hunted for chocolate chips in the cabinets.
"I don't believe in one god," she was telling me in this memory, and it was then that I realized I had asked her if God was real. "I do believe in reincarnation, though. I believe that when we pass on, we are reborn into someone or something else, whether it's another human or an animal. And we are given a chance to fix something from the previous life, like our mistakes and choices."
"What if, when we die, we don't have any mistakes or choices to fix?" I asked her.
She laughed and gave me a look. "Everyone makes mistakes and bad choices in life. It's inevitable."
Now in present day, my heart began to race. I scrambled to the ladder and rushed down, almost missing the last step entirely.
"Nora, be careful!" Robby cried out. "What are you doing?"
"That's not just a barn owl," I told him excitedly. I slowly crept across the barn floor, closer and closer to the humming owl. It fixed its gaze on me.
"Oh, yeah? What is it then?" Robby asked.
I paused before replying, "It's my mother."
Robby said nothing. I moved closer to the owl, now only a few feet away. Carefully I raised my right hand, which was shaking, and reached out to touch the owl.
"Don't." Robby was suddenly right beside me. At 6'5", he was taller than anyone I'd ever known. He lifted my body like I was a baby, and carried me away from the owl. I began thrashing against him, kicking and crying out, "Let me go! Stop it! Stop it!"
A moment later, the owl flapped its wings and flew out of an open window at the top of the loft.
Robby finally let me go, and because I was still moving erratically, I fell to the dirt floor when I was no longer in his grasp. I glared up at him, my face soaked in tears.
"Look what you DID!" I screamed at him. "Mama's GONE because of you!"
Robby said nothing. He just stared at me, his lips turned downwards in sadness and his eyes heavy with despair. He lowered himself to my level and reached out a hand. "Are you okay-"
"I'm fine!" I sobbed. I crawled away from him and put my face in my hands.
"If that's really Aunt Stella," Robby said in a low, steady voice, "she'll come back to see you. You know she will."
And he was right.
The owl visited Robby and I every night, always settling in its favorite spot on the low-hanging beam. It hummed for us and sometimes cocked its head to the side, as if to give us attitude for sneaking into the barn past curfew.
For months, while Mama watched us from her new reincarnated state, Robby helped me fill in the gaps of my missing memories from our shared childhood. I'd bring a different scrapbook of Mama's almost every night - there were four boxes full - and Robby and I would flip through the pages together. Sometimes he'd point out pictures and share stories. Sometimes on rare occasions, he couldn't remember what was happening in the images either. During those instances, we'd play a guessing game.
"I bet Aunt Suzette and Uncle Drew just had an argument here," I told him once, pointing to an image of them standing several feet apart in my old apartment, each looking tense. "I bet Aunt Suzette was mad at my mom, and Uncle Drew was defending her for whatever reason."
Robby pursed his lips and nodded. "Sounds about right, actually. You know, I think my dad dated your mom in high school."
I gasped and put a hand to my open mouth, grinning. "What! That's hilarious."
Robby laughed. "Yep. My parents never talk about it, but I found an old yearbook from their high school in the attic once. It was my dad's yearbook, and your mom wrote him a love letter in the front."
"I have to see this yearbook," I told him.
Robby nodded. "I'll bring it next time."
Months tumbled into one another until two years had passed. On our last night together in the barn before Robby went away to college, we invited the twins to the loft and shared our favorite stories from childhood with them, both the real ones Robby remembered and the fake ones we'd made up together. The next morning, Robby was going to move out of the house for a university several hours away.
"Did you guys notice that there's a barn owl staring at us?" Warner asked at one point that night.
Robby and I glanced at each other knowingly.
"Oh yeah," I said nonchalantly. "It's cool, don't worry."
The next day, Warner, Todd, and I stood on the front porch as Uncle Drew and Aunt Suzette helped Robby pack his car for college. When he was finished, he shook hands with Drew, gave Suzette a long hug, and then came to say goodbye to us.
"Hey, can I have your room?" Todd asked.
Robby ruffled Todd's hair teasingly. "Dude, what? No way. That's always gonna be my room."
Todd grimaced, pulling away to smooth his hair out with his hands.
"We're keeping your room the way it is... for when you visit," I declared.
Robby grinned and pulled me in for a hug. "Did I ever tell you that you're my favorite cousin?"
"She's our only cousin, so it doesn't even count," Todd said with a roll of his eyes.
Robby reached out to fist-bump Warner, who smiled shyly and opened his arms for a hug instead.
"I'll see you guys soon," Robby said into his little brother's hair. When they pulled apart, Warner's cheeks were red and he gazed up at me through shiny eyes. I immediately put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him close.
"You're such a baby," Todd snickered.
I reached out and pulled Todd into my other side, and surprisingly, he didn't argue or move away.
"Bye guys," Robby said to us all as he stood by his open car door on the cobblestone driveway.
Aunt Suzette pressed a hand to her face and began to sob.
Uncle Drew pulled her into his side the same way I had with the twins, and waved at Robby. "Goodbye, son. We love you."
"Bye, Robby," the rest of us echoed.
I bit my quivering lip, struggling to keep my own composure. Robby's eyes met mine, and he briefly glanced beyond to the red barn, then back at me. He gave a tiny nod, and I nodded back with a smile. Then he climbed into his car, and drove off.
Afterwards, the twins joined me in the loft for story-time like their older brother used to, but not nearly as often. On the few nights they appeared, they preferred talking over card games instead of the scrapbooks.
Most nights, however, it was just me and Mama up there. I talked to her about my life, filling her in on all the memories and life events she was missing out on. The next year, she even got to see me in my prom dress, as I'd insisted Aunt Suzette take photos of me and my friends in the barn at sunset. Mama perched on her usual beam, watching us while quietly humming.
"Do ya'll see that barn owl?" Uncle Drew said with a bemused smile.
"Yeah, it's cool, don't worry about it," I told him.
A year later, when I received my acceptance letter to the college where I planned to study Visual Anthropology, I spent that night telling her about it and making plans aloud for my future. Her owl form was silent this time, not humming for once but rather just gazing at me as I spoke animatedly about my dreams.
The next night, the twins joined me for a game of War. As we played and chatted, I kept glancing towards the low beam where Mama usually sat, but had not yet appeared. I tried to ignore the panic in my chest and tell myself she would be there soon. But by the time the twins left for bed, she had still not shown up. I sat facing the empty beam alone, with my legs crossed and eyelids fluttering, until the sun rose.
The next day, I held my phone under my desk during English class and sent Robby a text: "Mama is gone. I'm really worried."
Hours passed. I checked my phone every ten minutes, but by the end of the school day, Robby had still not replied.
As soon as I got back to the house, I scarfed down the lasagna Aunt Suzette made. After Aunt Suzette had gone to bed and Uncle Drew had fallen asleep on his chair in front of the TV, I grabbed a pillow and blanket and carried my backpack to the barn. I sat on the loft and opened my math book, forcing myself to focus on the equations when all I really wanted to do was search for Mama.
After a few hours, I pulled my knees to my chest, wrapped the blanket around me, plopped the pillow down, and laid on my side facing the empty beam where Mama usually sat. My eyelids grew heavy and without meaning to, I passed out within thirty minutes.
Hours later, the buzzing of my phone woke me. I hurriedly checked the screen and found a reply from Robby that said, "Did she come back tonight?"
I numbly typed out the word "No" and hit send.
The phone began to ring, and Robby's name appeared on the screen. I answered it and blurted out frantically, "Can you come home this weekend and help me find her? Please?"
Robby was quiet for a moment before he said, "Nora, I can't. I'm supposed to meet Danielle's parents this weekend, remember?"
"I know, but this is really important!" I sobbed.
"Nora, it's an owl..." Robby said.
I gasped. "I know you don't believe in reincarnation, but you could at least respect my belief! You know it's too coincidental that the owl just happened to appear the same night I moved here, the same night Mama died! And it's been coming back for years, Robby, years."
Robby was always the calm one. I used to imagine myself as a stormy, quivering sea with lightning and thunder in the background, and Robby as a perfectly still ocean with sunshine and clear blue skies.
He didn't speak for a few minutes as I whimpered in his ear. Eventually he spoke up in a slow, careful voice, "Is it possible that Aunt Stella realized you don't need her anymore?"
"What does that even mean?" I snapped angrily.
Robby said, "You told me Aunt Stella believed that she would come back in another form to fix the mistakes of her previous life, right? Well, what if she's done fixing her mistakes? And now she's moving on?"
"What mistakes do you think she was here to fix, Robby?" I cried.
"I don't know. Maybe she felt bad for never coming back to visit after the fight our moms had. Maybe she wanted you to be close to your cousins again. Maybe she just wanted to make sure you were okay, and her mistake was leaving you too soon, and now she sees that you're going to college and you're happy. You have a great life, Nora. She sees that."
I hung my head and said nothing.
"She loves you, Nora. Whether she's really reincarnated as that owl or not. She loves you, and that has always been true. But you can't spend your entire life in that barn with her, and she knows that."
I glanced back over at the beam. It was still empty.
"You know I'm right," Robby told me sadly.
It occurred to me in that moment how easily I could sink into a dark version of myself, the same way Mama always had. I could already feel the depression taking hold of me. In just two days since Mama's disappearance, self-destructive thoughts had been swirling in my mind. That night, as I sat waiting for her, I'd considered putting college on hold for a semester. How could I even go if Mama wouldn't be there with me? And how could I leave the twins behind? I couldn't, right?
"You're going to be okay," Robby told me now, as if he could read my mind.
When Mama was alive, she'd constantly lived in the shadows between light and dark, struggling to maintain her happiness and let go of her demons.
When she came back as the owl, she always appeared to me at nighttime, in the dark. I just couldn't ignore the connection.
"I don't want to end up like her," I whispered on the phone in a broken voice. "I don't want to live in the dark."
"Then you have to let her go," Robby told me.
A few months later, Robby came home to send me off to college with the rest of the family.
"Do you have all your clothes? And your laptop? What about your mother's pictures?" Aunt Suzette asked me worriedly as she stood beside my car.
"Yes, I have everything, Aunt Suzette." I gave her a warm smile.
She smiled back and opened her arms to hug me. "We're going to miss you, honey."
"Thank you for everything," I whispered in her ear.
Uncle Drew was next. He hugged me and then pulled back to say, "Don't forget to text us. Todd showed me how to start a group chat, so I'll do that as soon as I find my phone."
"We're gonna call it, 'The Hooters,'" Todd cackled.
Suzette turned sharply to glare at him. "Excuse me?!"
"Oh, it's a joke because Nora is obsessed with barn owls," Warner rushed to explain.
Robby and I made eye contact as he said, "Nah, not anymore."
"I love you guys," I told everyone as I walked down the steps toward my car.
"We love you," Suzette said through tears.
"Oh wait, Nora, we have a going away gift for you," Robby said. "It's from all of us. I almost forgot. Just hold on one second, okay?"
I watched as he ran back into the house, and a moment later returned with a pink box wrapped in white ribbon.
I looked from Uncle Drew's soft smile, to Aunt Suzette's weepy grin, to Warner's bashful expression, to Todd's bored gaze, and finally to Robby, who was the calmest of all, as always.
I accepted the box from him, and peeled back the pink wrapping paper to reveal a Canon EOS Rebel T7. It was a DSLR camera, just like my mom's.
"This is so you can make your own scrapbooks," he told me with a smile.
"Thank you so much," I told him. I looked at the rest of my family. "Thank you guys, I love it."
Then I turned, and got into my car to leave. As I slowly drove down the cobblestone road, I searched for them in my rearview mirror. Uncle Drew and Aunt Suzette had their arms around each other's shoulders, waving goodbye from the porch. Todd and Warner had now joined Robby on the grass, and just as I had done on Robby's last day before college, he stood in between his brothers with his arms around their shoulders.
Then there was a flicker of motion so abrupt, I almost could have missed it had I not been looking in the mirror at that exact moment. In the distance, high above the house, a brown and white speckled barn owl flapped its wings, flying in the opposite direction of my car.