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Harbinger

by Xan Indigo 11 months ago in fact or fiction

A new friend? Or a bad omen?

A terrible shriek sliced into the silence of Nuha’s apartment like a rusted hacksaw blade into splintering hardwood. She turned sharply to find the source of the noise, as her heart almost leapt out of her chest at the sudden interruption. Standing on a metal railing just outside her window was an owl. Seeing it, Nuha breathed a sigh, and let out a quiet laugh of relief. The owl looked at her, shuffled its feet and bobbed its head once from side to side. Its white face and chest, framed by brown feathers on its back and wings, put her in mind of a monk from medieval Europe.

“Hello?” she offered. She’d never seen an owl so close before. No one was going to believe this. Slowly, she reached for her pocket, and her phone.

The owl regarded her with large, shiny black eyes, before letting out another piercing screech. Nuha winced at the abrasive sound. Weren't owls supposed to hoot?

“I don’t know what you want,” she said, shaking her head.

Nuha held up her phone with slow, measured movements, so as not to scare away her visitor. She took a few photographs, before tentatively taking a couple of steps towards the window. That was too much. Seeing her approach, the owl leapt and spread its wings. It beat them once, and flew away on brilliant white feathers.

What a strange encounter. Nuha looked out of the window. With the coronavirus lockdown in full effect, the street below was totally empty. Almost totally. An ambulance was parked nearby. A pang of jumbled emotions tugged at the back of her mind. Abruptly, she turned away.

Sitting on the sofa, she looked at the photos. Not bad. With a few taps and swipes, she posted one on social media with the words ‘Surprise visitor this morning!’ A reply arrived quickly, informing her that this was a barn owl. A quick web search gave her more information. Barn owls were known for their striking white feathers, and their hissing, screeching calls. Some European farmers treated them like flying cats for their skill at catching rodents. Nuha was very fond of cats. She’d made friends with strays before. Perhaps she could try to make friends with the owl too? Being stuck indoors, she'd appreciate a new friend, no matter what species they might be.

That afternoon, Nuha found herself stepping outside, armed with a canvas grocery bag. The ambulance from before was gone, leaving the street deserted. The warm Springtime sunlight and singing birds only made the lack of people more conspicuous. Nuha’s skin prickled with the feeling that she was being watched. She glanced up at dark, hollow windows in the buildings surrounding her, nervously adjusting the mask she was wearing. It felt oddly comforting. Like something to hide behind.

A sharp shriek pierced the calm of the street. The owl was still nearby. Rounding a corner, Nuha's breath caught in her throat. She froze. Another ambulance, hastily parked in the road. Two medics, wearing full protective gear, glanced up at her. A flurry of emotions surged through her stomach. Fear. Worry. A hint of panic. Bottling them up, she briskly crossed the road. There was nothing she could do. It wouldn’t help to worry. Better to just hurry to the supermarket.

The supermarket doors slid silently open. Nuha stepped inside, cleaning her hands with alcohol gel and picking up a shopping basket. A few people drifted like wraiths among the half empty shelves. She felt a cold ripple of worry in her chest. Best to pick up what she needed quickly, so she didn't need to spend too long in here.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Another reply to her post. ‘The owl is a carrier of Lakshmi,’ it read. ‘Good luck here in India!’

Nuha could use some good luck. Maybe she could befriend the owl if she fed it? That usually worked with stray cats. Nuha never normally bought meat but, looking at the meat counter, she could tell that it was poorly stocked. What would an owl eat? Maybe she could give it a meatball? No. Too fatty. Something nearby caught her eye. A small package with three plucked quails, lined up like tiny chickens for roasting. She'd read earlier that owls eat small animals. Maybe these could be owl food? She grabbed the quails and headed to the checkout.

After getting home, she carefully unpacked her groceries, swabbing them down with antiseptic wipes. She took out her phone and snapped a picture of the packet of quails amongst her groceries, posting it to social media with the words, 'Maybe I can make a new friend? 😃'

Excitedly, she walked over to the window. There was quite a lot of space on the window ledge. The early evening air was cool enough that she didn’t have to worry about the food going bad before it was found. She ended up leaving an old wooden chopping board out on the ledge, with a quail on it. Checking it wouldn't easily be knocked off, she closed the window and left it.

Sitting down, she tried to relax with social media, but everything she saw seemed to pile more onto her mind. News stories about rising infection numbers and long term virus symptoms. People talking about sick loved ones and pleading for help paying bills. Arguments about wearing masks. The entire world was overwhelming. Eventually she sighed frustratedly, locking her phone and throwing it down on the sofa cushion.

Looking up, she realised the quail was now gone from where she'd left it. The owl must have taken it without her even noticing.

A piercing screech somewhere outside made Nuha sit up sharply. Her senses buzzed as she walked to the window and looked outside. An ambulance! Right outside her apartment building! Adrenaline fizzed through her as she wrung her hands. Somewhere inside the building, she heard the sound of doors opening and closing. Each sound felt like an anvil strike in her ears. Her breathing quickened. Wrestling with the irrational urge to put a mask on, she looked back outside. There, perched on top of the ambulance, talons gripping its roof lights, was the barn owl!

A heavy knot forming in her stomach, she dragged her attention away from the outside and reached for her phone, looking for a distraction. She didn't want to be watching when anyone returned to the ambulance. She didn’t want to see. Nuha closed her eyes for several seconds and took a couple of deep, slow breaths. There were replies to her social media posts from earlier, but the first one only weighed more heavily on her. ‘Tzeltal people here in Mexico say these birds bring ill health 😱’ it read. The skin on her face started to feel numb.

No, don't be silly. That was just superstition. She perched on the edge of the sofa, wiping her trembling palms against her jeans. With cold fingers, she scrolled through the thread of replies, each as bad as the last.

‘They’re symbols of death for Ojibwe people too,’ said one. ‘Bad omens.’

‘Same here in Ireland,’ said another. ‘The owls' screams are where stories of banshees came from. When the screams are heard, they say death follows.’

‘My Chinese father said they’re messengers from the afterlife.’

‘Weren’t they witches familiars in Europe?’

A sudden screech at the window sent a jolt through her. She looked up. The owl was staring in at her again with its jet black eyes. Its feet grasped the railing below it with wicked-looking talons. It was several seconds before Nuha realised she'd been holding her breath. She exhaled very slowly, her eyes locked to the owl's gaze.

No. Quickly, she stood. The owl stayed, watching her as she hurriedly closed the curtain. Her knees turned to jelly. Shakily, she sat down on the floor, her breathing just ragged gasps. These were just myths. Superstitions. It was just a bird. A wild animal!

The owl let out another shriek, higher pitched than before. The sound raised the hairs on the back of Nuha’s neck.

A wave of nausea ran through her. What if it wasn't really an owl? What if it really was some kind of spirit? A phantom she'd invited in? Foolish! How could she be so foolish!

Shriek!

She swallowed hard, trying to steady her breathing. No, that's not what they'd said. She glanced at her phone. Messengers. Omens. Fortelling illness didn't mean they caused illness. Right? Nothing was her fault.

Screech!

Nothing was her fault. Nuha hugged her knees against her chest. A heavy feeling of calm settled over her limbs. A sluggish, leaden feeling. She didn’t need an omen or a harbinger to predict what was going on outside. There was a deadly disease sweeping across the entire world. Nothing had changed. There would still be ambulances. And chaos on the internet. Nothing she did would change that.

Screeeeeech!!

Nuha shook her head. No, she couldn't make any difference. And that was ok. She looked up from her place on the floor. It was already twilight, and blue light was filtering in from behind the curtain. Trembling slightly, she stood on wobbly legs. She started to feel silly at having such an overreaction. Touching her face, she realised she'd been crying. Everything right now was just so much to cope with. That feeling of powerlessness. Helplessness. She’d been holding it in for weeks and had barely even realised. But a wave had broken over her, and washed it all out, replacing it with a strange feeling of tranquility. Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she pulled back the curtain.

The owl was still standing on the railing. This was no spirit or demon. It was just an animal.

Nuha breathed deeply. “I’m very sorry about that,” she said to the owl. “It wasn’t really you I was upset with. It was,” she paused to consider her words, “well, everything, really.”

The owl shifted its weight and twitched its head.

She continued, “but I feel better now. And that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been here. Thank you.”

The owl bobbed its head downwards briefly. Almost like it was taking a bow. Then it gave a little screech. That sound still felt like sandpaper in her ears. But perhaps she could get used to it.

“What do you say?” Nuha asked. “Can we be friends?” Her lips curved into a smile. The first genuine one which had crossed her face in weeks.

The owl gave a long screech. Then it turned away to look out over the empty street.

Nuha took that to mean yes.

The barn owl visited Nuha often after that. It would always stand in the exact same spot outside her window. It became so comfortable in her presence, that even as the weather grew warmer and Nuha started to leave the window open, the owl was still perfectly happy to sit nearby.

She fed it occasionally. Not too often, of course. Experts on the internet had advised her not to make it too dependent on humans for its diet. But sometimes, just sometimes, she would pick up some quails with her groceries, to give it a treat.

Sometimes, the owl would screech to get her attention. Sometimes it would sit quietly while she read books on her sofa. Sometimes, when the world was too overwhelming, Nuha would sit and talk to the owl, telling it her worries and fears. All the while, the owl would just stand there listening. Occasionally bobbing its head, shifting its feet, or letting out a screech.

The bird was an excellent companion really, even if it couldn't understand a word she was saying. That didn't matter. It was just nice to have company. Sometimes, Nuha wondered, if maybe this owl really was a messenger from the afterlife. But that didn't worry her. Surely, even a harbinger of doom would take good care of its friend.

fact or fiction

Xan Indigo

science fiction • fantasy • horror • botany • astronomy • tea

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