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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.