THE OWL
Part One
by Rennie Sparks

A few months ago Brett and I spotted an owl in our back yard. It actually took me awhile to see it even though night time in downtown Albuquerque never darkens past a dull orange gloom.
Brett kept pointing and hissing, “There, right there.”

I was actually staring directly at the owl for at least a minute before I saw it. The bird was far closer and far smaller than my mind had been prepared to see.

The owl was only about ten feet above me, perched motionless on one of the many odd wires that span our yard. It was absurdly tiny, this bird, maybe 5” tall, and yet the sight of its wide, bright face triggered an instant shiver of recognition in me—OWL— even though I’ve never seen a real live owl before or since.
My phone later confirmed that there are tiny owls. Elf Owls live in the crevices of ancient saguaro cactuses far to our south, but it was summer in the midst of a pandemic. Nothing was where it was supposed to be, even the owls.
It was a stifling July night. The air was thrumming with the pulse of cicadas and the growl of drag-racers skidding round our empty streets.

“Owl, I whispered, staring up at the motionless bird as it stared out past me with gleaming eyes, “Why are you here?”

 As if in answer, the owl silently spread its extraordinary wings and flew away.

We remained in a strange state of excitement far into the next day— both of us half-convinced that some occult veil was lifting at the summons of our little messenger.

I found a penny in a shoe I hadn’t worn in awhile and I lost a set of car keys for a few hours, but the occult shiver of the owl sighting ultimately led nowhere except around to itself: we both want to see another one.


 I’ve hung a rope swing from a tall branch at the dark end of the yard. I sit in the gloom and search the trees around me on quiet nights. The owl is here, I’m oddly certain, but somehow I have lost the ability to see.


Owls, of course are not mere birds. They are consorts of underworld spirits, inter-dimensional shapeshifters, harbingers of doom, and wise professors. They’re wizard familiars and the inspiration for much macrame and candle-making in my 1970’s childhood. They are innately creatures of awe and mystery regardless of how many scientists proclaim them mere ‘bird brains’.


I know one thing: whatever an owl truly is, we will never know. All we can ever understand is what owls mean to our own minds. The idea of an owl’s existence distinct from human imagination is almost unimaginable. 


Owls, we are all convinced, are seeing things, important things. Perhaps this is why owls have been linked to UFO abductions. People report seeing an enormous owl diving across the road or a snow white owl flying apace with their car or a black owl staring in at them through a tenth-floor window.


Suddenly it’s three hours later, there’s a new triangle tattoo on the back of your neck and you’ve developed an inexplicable fear of nocturnal birds.


Years go by. You tell your strange owl story again and again— and then one morning it unravels. A glimpse of a cartoon owl on TV or the silhouette of a plastic owl swinging under an overpass— suddenly you remember that your owl was never an owl. It was something far more alien and far more terrifying— so much so that you have hidden the very thought of its reality behind an owl-shaped mask.


This is dangerous territory. There is no limit to what you can ‘remember’ once the mask is pulled away:  fairy mounds are as likely as silver saucers, skin walkers and shape shifters, big foots and gremlins. Our demons take infinite shapes.


Only one thing is sure now. You will never again be able to feel a solid sense of what is real and what is not real. There is an owl-shaped hole torn in your world and strange winds are blowing through.


It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself in such a precarious state— your psychic windows flung open to the unknown.
When we moved house a few years back after twenty years in the same place, the sense of unreality that plagued our new house was unexpected and exhausting. I kept forgetting where things were and kept moving where things were kept. I spent hours labeling and re-labelling drawers, re-organizing closets— nothing made a dent in the disorientation. Everything felt like it was always in the wrong place— even me.

To be fair, this was no turn-key Mc-mansion. Our ‘new’ house was a 1904 late-victorian that had been split into six apartments and had been empty so long there was ivy growing up the inside walls.


And yet, somehow, this house had captivated us. Literally. I felt strangely possessed standing there in the junk pile of the back yard with the realtor and hearing myself pronounce,”We can make this work.”


Brett nodded agreement, but he looked as faint as I felt. We’d been house-hunting for years and neither of us could quite believe that we were finally agreeing here, now. There was a dream-like overlay to every room and across the abandon grounds. I saw clearly how I would make this property into the house of my dreams.


Houses, of course, are not rational places. I’ve seen enough of them in the last few years to know. It’s not a rational moment when you pick a house to buy and it definitely isn’t rational when you find yourselves at last in your new place with all your stuff piled inside.


Weeks into our move, we had mostly pulled down the vines in the dining room and painted the dingy walls with bright colors. We’d also spent thousands of dollars on plumbing and electrical repairs, made two trips to the ER and had fallen into countless screaming matches over whose insane idea it had been to buy this lopsided, haunted house full of other people’s junk.

The house, to be fair, encouraged screaming. There were so many doors and odd passageways and rooms with high ceilings that we kept losing each other in the echoey labyrinth of our new world.

Each morning when I awoke in our lovely new bedroom (the wood floor refinished, the walls painted a soft blue) I panicked on opening my eyes to even this serene strangeness.


It only made things more difficult to see all my familiar stuff strewn about the strange room—  as if some trickster god had shuffled the details of my life while I slept leaving some particulars intact while changing others completely.


I took a weird solace in memories of our old house. All the reasons that had motivated us to sell were now meaningless. It was as if another woman were to blame entirely for dumping me here with all my stuff and I half-believed that if I drove back over to the old place I’d find her there still living my old life. I had a strange urge to drive over and confront her, to throttle her, to demand my old life back.


One morning I did drive to the old neighborhood. It looked far dingier then I remembered. The houses were small and the yards nothing but dirt and dust. My house, I saw, had been savaged. Someone had bulldozed away my prickly pears and a strange truck was parked carelessly across the front yard where once had stood a graceful willow.


There was no solace here (and, in fact, strangers peeking out their ugly curtains at me). I remembered then the lack of privacy in that little shack and the sad view out at the dying neighborhood.


I remembered my new house then and was at least happy to turn around and drive home.

And, things did did get easier. Slowly the new place took shape and the long, terrible tasks of our first days began to dwindle.
I felt like we were home at last. It was then, of course, that the water leak began.

It kept happening every few days— we’d be abruptly awakened at dawn to the dance of a waterfall cascading over the roof eaves (an exceedingly rare sound in our desert town).


Our rooftop swamp cooler worked fine all day, but some nights, inexplicably it began to drip and dribble and then burst open in a dozen places at once.


For those in more humid climes I’ll explain— a swamp cooler is a machine that is basically a fan over a pan of water. It can cool an entire house in places with little natural humidity. Still, a swamp cooler is not supposed to leak nor is the plastic tube that runs water up to the machine made to burst open every few days. Something was very wrong up on our roof.


We replaced one heavy duty plastic line and then another and then a third. The water lines were all burst open in several places within just a few days. The lines actually looked more than just burst— they looked mangled.


I had a strange thought and then I pushed it away and then had it again and again: what if the sharp cuts riddling the water lines were not the acts of invisible enemies, but were, in actuality, the marks of tiny sharp teeth?


We have a trouble-free copper water line running up to the swamp cooler now and, as it turns out, A LOT of raccoons.


The amazing thing is that once we accepted the reality of raccoons we began to see them everywhere. I’d been living in Albuquerque at this point for over twenty years and had never seen a single raccoon. We’d been in the new house at least six months at this point, spending night after night on the porch searching the trees and yet we’d spotted nothing in the deep orange gloom except our cats prowling for bugs.


Now we have nights in which I watch ten or twelve raccoons variously rolling through dirt, digging through planters, racing up and down trees, pulling on electrical wires, and even peering over the roof eaves at me while slowly coaxing a bird feeder off its hook with a black finger— all of it in almost complete silence broken only by the occasional chitter of raccoon dispute.


The shock goes both ways, though. Our raccoons are amazed to discover that they are now visible to the shadow creatures that inhabit the edges of their world. They feel our eyes on them and pause in the midst of digging through the dirt to stare back at us in disbelief. They are shocked to discover that there is something else alive at the edges of their yard.


Limpy is one such raccoon visitor. He has an injured paw kept curled up against his thigh and moves with an awkward hop-step gait that makes him easy to spot in the dark (although he is mostly as silent as the rest)

Limpy loves planters full of dead leaves and rain water. He loves stale bread that was thrown in the yard last year and is now a hard green brick. 

One night I discovered him up to his head in a huge tub of birdseed we’d foolishly left on the back porch thinking that no animal could undo its latch.


Limpy heard me come outside but instead of fleeing from the tub to the safety of the trees, he, instead slipped down deeper into the bin.


I stood motionless in the doorway and watched a little black hand reach up, grab the hinged plastic lid and then silently pull it back down into place.


Only a crack remained then between the lid and tub and through that crack I could see the glint of an animal eye reflected in the porch light.


We stood there staring at each other for a good long while. Neither of us sure of our next move.


Finally I took a step forward and, to my utter shock, Limpy emitted a low growl that reverberated up from the depths of the bin.


This is about as intimate an encounter as I can recall having with a wild creature. I stared in at those fierce little eyes staring out at me and finally I just turned around and went back inside.


It had dawned on me that this raccoon was terrified. It was trapped and had no idea what to do except try and stand its ground.


Poor Limpy. He has unmasked his owl. He has glimpsed the true face of the unimaginable creature that haunts the edges of his world. He has seen my terrifying face and nothing in his world will ever be the same.