Ellie's always had a gift. Now she's about to learn its purpose.
They say an owl is to the night what an eagle is to the day; that birds are messengers from the spirit world to communicate with us. Cardinals are thought to be loved ones visiting us from the hereafter. Blue Jays are a sign of our need to communicate and remain resilient. Crows and Ravens are thought to be angels giving us a glimpse into our future… the list goes on and on. Every bird on this planet has a spiritual symbolism attached to it.
For no reason in particular, I have been drawn to birds from my earliest memory. It’s a strange spiritual pull that is hard to articulate to anyone outside of my own mind. It’s not a pull that makes me want to surround myself with birds or keep them as pets, but more of an attraction of understanding. While no language has ever passed between and a bird, a feeling of accepting the communication has.
It started with a cardinal in my boring middle American neighborhood when I was a little girl. It would sit on the fence in my backyard and study me intently. I, in turn, would study him intently. By our second spring of knowing one another, I had the ability to discern him from any other cardinal in the area. His red was more brilliant, his eyes like two shiny onyx beads, a dark splotch of color ran across his beak that looked like perhaps his creator wanted to also be able to tell him apart from the rest. I also noticed he was missing a talon on his left foot. I always wondered how that happened. A fight? Escaping a predator? Did he get ensnared in garden wire?
The cardinal never made a sound in front of me, but when I would wake up in the morning, I could hear his call as if he were in the room with me. As the years went on, he was my rooster of sorts. From nursery school all the way through high school, the one constant in my life was that call every morning.
“You know they’re the spirits of people who’ve died, right?” My friend Sandra said to me matter-of-factly when we were about six years old, “My mama says it’s my great-grandma whenever I see one.”
This was very important information I just had to ask my parents about that night at the dinner table. I expected to hear the same thing from my parents; that my cardinal friend was a dearly departed great-grandparent or something. Instead, there was a very uncomfortable silence while my parents stared at each other over our dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
“She’s six,” my father finally said, “I don’t want to overwhelm her.”
“I don’t think it will,” my mother said quietly, raising her eyebrow at my father in another form of communication, “We named her after her. Her art is all over the house. We can tell her in a way that she understands.”
My father let out a ragged sigh, “Ok, but you should probably be the one to do it.”
“Ellie,” my mother began, “When you were born, your father and I decided to name you after his sister. She was an artist who died very young, and it’s possible she’s your guardian angel. Like Sandra’s great-grandmother, she might be visiting you every now and then when you see your cardinal friend.”
I raised my eyebrows at this news, “How did she die?” I asked.
My father stood from the table with a ragged sigh, grabbing his plate, and went to the kitchen. “I told you, Sydney, she’s too young!”
My mother sat back in her chair and looked at me in silence for a few moments while I went back to pushing peas around my plate feeling bad for upsetting my father.
“Ellie, you know the painting over the mantle, right?” My mother asked, pointing to the large canvas that was displayed over the fireplace in the living room. It was an abstract piece that had a lot of reds, violets, and golds interwoven with one another. It had been there my whole life, so it was never anything of note to me. However, looking at it this time, I noticed the red was the identical red of the cardinal. Not just red, but a vibrant oversaturated red that looked like it could become magenta at any moment.
There was a black brushstroke that cut across the canvas, slicing the gold and red much like the line on the bird’s beak. I continued to look at it in awe as my mother returned to her explanation.
“Your aunt painted that right before she died. She was an artist.”
“Ooooooh,” I exhaled, “How old was she when she died?”
“She was only twenty three,” my mom answered, “It was very sad for your dad’s family when it happened. It still is. Come on, let’s go look at some pictures.”
I followed my mother into the living room. She opened the piano bench, and pulled out a small photo album. She sat down next to me on the sofa, and opened the book to a page where a young woman with bright auburn hair and cerulean eyes stared back at us.
“She went by the name Eres when she grew up. It means, ‘you are’ in Spanish. She was Daddy’s little sister, two years younger than him. They were very close.”
“Did you know her?” I asked.
This caused a distant look on my mother’s face, as if, like my understanding of the cardinal, she couldn’t articulate what she knew with words. She blinked away the tears that began to well in her eyes, and shut the album.
“How did she die?” I asked again.
My mother bit her lip, then answered, “A bad man hurt her. But they caught him and he’s gone now.”
“Oh,” I said, still confused, but understanding that I shouldn’t ask anymore questions right now.
“So maybe when you see your cardinal friend next time, you can say hello to your aunt Eres and thank her for watching over you.”
I liked that idea, and from then on, not only did I call my friend by my aunt’s name, I started spending a lot of time looking at the painting in our living room. It also communicated with me like the cardinal, but I didn’t have language for it yet. It was that same sense of vibration and understanding I felt around birds.
I also sneaked her picture out of the photo album and hid it in my bedroom. Sometimes I would feel the same thing when I looked at it that I felt with the bird and the painting. At times, it would frighten me because it felt like a ghost was around. I was afraid of looking at the painting in the dark for the same reason. There was this intense energy all around me I didn’t understand.
As I grew older, my communications with the cardinal, painting, and picture evolved. I could sense more of a language developing between us that I emotionally understood, but still couldn’t articulate. The emotions I felt were always extreme. Naturally, my parents just thought I was a moody teenager and never pressed for any explanations from me.
A heavy and ominous feeling crept into my chest one night as I was doing my homework. Even though it had been over ten years since I found out about my aunt, I was still scared of looking at the painting in the dark. However, despite my fears, this feeling compelled me to go to the living room and look at my aunt’s final piece of art.
When I reached the living room, the room was pitch dark, as my parents had retired for the evening, and only a slight beam from the streetlight peeked through the drapes. As I turned the corner to look at the painting, the gold brushstrokes immediately caught my eye in the relative darkness of the room.
The gold brush strokes were glowing with an incandescence that felt other worldly. Almost like an illuminated heartbeat. I walked closer to it, and as I did, the once ominous feeling in my chest was now a heavy boulder squeezing the breath from me. Gasping for air, I fell onto the couch.
Was the painting stealing the life from me?
No. It said, and for the first time I heard a word I understood. Immediately the grip on my chest lessened and the glowing dimmed.
Go to the woods. I heard it whisper. I couldn’t tell if it was a male or female voice, much less human.
The woods? Why do I need to go to the woods? I asked back, inside my thoughts. My fear returned with my heart beginning to race. The gold strokes of the painting started glowing brightly again.
Behind the house at the end of the street. Go into the woods. There you will see an owl. She will tell you everything you need to know. But you must hurry.
Scared to death, I ran back to my bedroom and closed the door. I wedged my desk chair under the knob and collapsed onto my bed gasping for air as tears ran down my cheeks. What was happening? Was I losing my mind? Is our house haunted? Why would my dead aunt want to scare me?
Nobody is trying to frighten you, Ellie. The whisper returned. You must go to the owl. Tonight. It is time.
My breathing returned to normal as I stared at my bedroom ceiling. This had passed the point of hallucination or bad dream. I rose from my bed, put some clothes on with my running shoes, and grabbed a flashlight from the kitchen on my way outside.
The night was cool with a foggy mist enveloping the trees. I could see the quarter moon between breaks in the clouds as I made my way to the woods at the edge of my neighborhood. I had gone back here at all hours my entire life, so there was no reason for me to be nervous, but I still had to remember to breathe as my heart raced in my chest.
It was silent when I reached my destination. My shoes crunched against the leaves and dirt of the small trail, but other than that, total silence.
Look up, Ellie, the familiar whisper commanded. I looked up into the trees with the flashlight beam lighting the way. There was a large barn owl peering down on me, my light reflecting in its large eyes.
“I’m here,” I said to the owl, “What do I need to know?”
Suddenly, the owl vanished, and I felt something walk up behind me. I let out a yelp when a hand grabbed my shoulder. I turned around, and before me stood the image of the person I saw in the photographs. My aunt Eres. She stood before me in a flowing gown of white silk. Her long red hair fell in loose waves past her shoulders. My flashlight illuminated her alabaster skin, and I could see she was holding a fox in her arms. She affectionately kissed it on the forehead, and set it down to run off into the woods.
”Are-are-are you the owl?” I stammered.
“Sometimes,” she smiled, “I prefer being a cardinal, though. I’ll travel here as anything but a seagull.”
“Travel?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered, “I am what is known as a Messenger. I am an angel that travels between the earthly and celestial planes. I was a Guide when I met your mother, but I meddled too much, so I was banished from my hereafter and became a messenger to pay that debt.”
“When you met my mother?” I asked.
Eres nodded, “I’m sure you’ve heard about your mother’s horrible car accident before your parents were married. I was with her in the hereafter while she decided whether to live or cross over. She decided to live, and here you are.”
“Because you meddled?”
“Sort-of. It’s complicated, but I can explain everything to you later. I have been sent here to deliver a message and set you on your journey. One thing about the earthly and celestial planes is that everything must always be in balance. A life given must have one taken, and so on.”
“Equilibrium,” I said.
“Correct,” my aunt answered, “When a soul is created, it is created for a purpose on the earthly planes as well as the celestial planes. My purpose in life was art, my purpose here is to deliver news from one plane to another. All angels have this ability, and some humans do as well, to various degrees. When your soul was created, you were given a purpose as well as a gift.”
‘What’s that?” I asked.
“You can find lost souls and bring them home,” she replied, “You have the gift to travel between the earthly planes. Most think there is only one, but there are several. It’s how you are able to be here with me now. Sometimes, when the balance is shaken unexpectedly, souls cannot find their way back to where they belong. You have the ability to find them and do just that.”
“How? I’m in high school.”
“Yes, I know. That’s where you will begin. One thread will connect to another as we are all connected in one way or another. I was your mother’s Guide for a reason. You will be the Shepherd for those you are connected to. First, you must travel with me to meet Ig. He will explain everything.”
I followed Eres into the dark forest to begin what was to be my new life’s purpose as the Shepherd.