It was 4:00 am when I woke from heartburn, or maybe it was back pain. There are so many things that wake a man of my age in the middle of the night. I shifted my position and then got up to relieve myself. While I was in the bathroom, I heard something odd, something I didn’t recognize—not at first, but then it came to me. Wh-h-h-who. An owl.
It called, and it was close, close enough that I heard it clearly in the bathroom. I walked back into the bedroom.
“You okay?” my wife asked sleepily.
“Yeah. Had to pee,” I said. “Did you hear that?”
“I did. I’ve been listening to it for a few minutes.”
“It’s an owl.”
“Uh huh,” she said.
I walked to the window and peered through the slats in the closed blinds. In the January darkness, I could make out the trees, void of leaves against the sky, but I saw no bird.
Was that another one? Wh-h-who-who. A third? Three distinct pitches and if I wasn’t mistaken, coming from three different directions.
“There’s more than one,” I said and turned to see my wife.
She was backed up, sitting against the headboard and holding her knees to her chest. Even in the dark room, I could see her eyes were round and full of fear.
“Honey? What is it?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Nothing.”
“Really? You don’t look like it’s nothing.”
“It’s silly, really…something my grandmother used to tell us when we were little. A poem, or a song. I don’t remember all of it.”
I peeked back out the window. A dark shape perched on one of the branches in the largest maple tree that stood between the sidewalk and the road. A car drove by. Who is out at 4:00 am?
“Well?” I said.
I heard her sigh and turned to her again.
“Something…something like this:
When the witching hour draws near its end,
hide, if you’re awake my friend.
Before the dead wake up to roam,
the owls will come to take them home.”
I waited a moment to see if she had any more to add and when she was silent, I said, “Wow.”
“What does that mean exactly?”
She hugged her knees again and I sat down on the bed.
“Like I said, I don’t remember the rest, but I do recall her telling us a story about the owls. She told us they came when someone was about to die and sought that person out. The hooting brings the reaper.”
“Your grandmother told you that? That’s a little intense isn’t it?”
Wh-h-h-who one owl called. The other two answered. Each from a different direction and in their slightly different pitch. It occurred to me then that they were triangulating a position. A silly idea.
“It is intense. She wasn’t joking either. I can still see her face grow pale whenever we heard one of those birds hooting in the night at that old farmhouse. I thought we were far enough out of the country to avoid them.”
“You mean you believe that old tale? It’s just a poem.”
I peeked out the window again, looking for the dark spot in the tree, but it was gone. When the birds hooted again, it was further away, but still close.
“Don’t,” she said.
I stared at her and it was as if we were children and she was trying to scare me…she was believing in a nightmare and I was a few years older telling her how silly she was.
“Honey, come on.”
I waved her off and looked back out the window. Something fluttered and I heard the beat of large wings. A shadow covered our window for just a moment, then it was gone to my right. Then the hooting again.
“Please?” she said, clearly upset, but I ignored her.
I ignored her because there was something out there in the glow of the street lamp across the way. It shimmered and warped like a mirage. I heard the owls again. My wife protested behind me, “You aren’t supposed to look.”
I heard her, but it didn’t sink in. I was watching, engrossed in the thing that moved along the sidewalk across the street. Engrossed by the talking birds, calling and responding to each other.
A shimmer slid along the sidewalk, forming a familiar shape, then becoming abstract, then forming again. It looked like a man, thin to the point of worry, and nude. His skin was pale and just barely stretched across his bones. Behind him he dragged something. I would swear it was a scythe. Too cliché, I thought. Too much beer the night before, or too little sleep. Still it was unsettling. I opened the window without knowing why, call it a compulsion. I wanted this stalker, this skeletal being to know that I knew he was there. Perhaps I thought I might prevent him from committing some terrible act. The owls voices were much heavier, much louder through the screen. The icy air surrounded me.
“Hey!” I shouted. It was the only word that I could manage.
My wife screamed behind me and at that moment, the thing dragging its weapon along the sidewalk—the metal blade sparking on the concrete as it went—turned and looked at me. Not toward me, but at me. Its burning yellow eyes dug into my brain for just a split second. The creature’s visage was all I could see and the rest of the world was black. I could hear my wife weeping, calling to me, but I couldn’t answer her and I couldn’t move. Not dead, but paralyzed and blind having seen death before my time.
It was the next day at the hospital when we got the call that one of our elderly neighbors had passed away in the night; the owls were for her, not me. I should’ve let that personal moment alone, not interrupted. It was none of my business and now I pay for my rudeness. I will pay until the owls come back.
~ Dan Dillard
© Copyright 2014 Dan Dillard. All Rights Reserved.