Earlier this month I read Sandlands, a new collection of short stories by Rosy Thornton. I really enjoyed this collection (you can read my review here) which was inspired by the wildlife and landscape of Suffolk. I was pleased to get the opportunity to take part in the blog tour for Sandlands and am delighted to share with you The Watcher of Souls, one of my favourite stories from the collection.
The Watcher of Souls
The third cup of tea at breakfast was the mistake. The daily walk was a promise that Rebecca had made herself, along with more fresh fruit and learning to text the grandchildren, following the latest all-clear. Straight after breakfast was a perfect time for walking – unless you’d sat a little longer over the Telegraph crossword and squeezed a third cup out of the teapot.
It was bad enough having to spend a penny in the open, but surely nobody could manage it if they were being watched. Rebecca certainly couldn’t, in any case. She was a good way from the road – ten minutes or so into the woods – and she’d found a quiet spot that was screened from the footpath by a belt of elder and hawthorn. It was too warm for tights, and her old cotton twill skirt was certainly easier than trousers. But she just couldn’t rid herself of the sense of an onlooker. The feeling that someone was watching.
Someone – or, as it turned out, something. She wasn’t sure how she became aware of it because she was certain it hadn’t moved, and in spite of its paleness it blended well enough into the background hatching of twigs and leaves and sunlight. Maybe the same way she knew it was there watching her in the first place: there was something about its stillness that drew the eye, once you were still yourself.
It was a barn owl. Rebecca was no great ornithologist, but everybody could recognise a barn owl. It was so distinctive, with the flat, white plane of its heart-shaped face above shoulders speckled grey and fawn, and those wide, unblinking black eyes. Glistening, mineral eyes, as round and glassy wet as the pebbles they used to find on the beach at Aldeburgh that Janet always hoped were real jet. But if the eyes were hard, the hooked beak nestled protectively inwards amongst the pillowing down and the bird bore an overall countenance of calm – an air if not of benevolence, precisely, then at least of quiet, unthreatening vigilance. What nonsense, though, Rebecca chided herself, to be attributing to the creature these human feelings, these human characteristics. It was only a bird, after all.
But she still couldn’t spend a penny with it watching.
After that, Rebecca found her feet often tending to that particular path on her daily constitutionals. Pretty soon she admitted to herself it was a deliberate choice, in the hope of seeing the owl. On one or two mornings when she got herself up and out early for her walk, while the sun was still struggling to break above the under-canopy of brush and bracken and send its rays to slant in stripes between the trees, she was halted in her tracks by the sight of the owl at its hunt. Its chosen killing ground was a little distance from the tree where they’d had their first encounter, clear of the band of trees in an open area of scrubby gorse bushes interspersed with heather. At this in-between time of year, as March slid towards April, the new green growth fought for light and space in a landscape still dominated by last year’s contours of woody black and brown. It was hard to believe that in three short months this would all be a carpet of brilliant purple, the hard-packed soil of the pathways crumbling back to a scuff of sand. For now, whatever small scamperers and scurriers were the focus of the owl’s attention from its vantage point on a branch of gorse sought out for their protection the resinous clumps of over-wintered heather, springing tough and resilient above the slowly warming earth.
The barn owl hunched motionless: watching, watching. Then it threw out both its wings and flung forwards, not in the smooth dive of the hawk but a clumsy flurry of feather and claw – yet almost eerily noiseless in the still of the morning. And down, its bleached belly a gleam of white against the dark vegetation, its wings two intersecting arcs of gold. It must have struck its target, because it did not rise again but disappeared from sight beneath the mounded heather. Rebecca turned away and hurried on, finding she had no stomach to confront even in imagination the transaction’s natural end.
On days when she rose late and lingered over breakfast, she’d find the owl already roosting, always on the same tree as before, on a stubby oak branch some eight or ten feet above the ground. It jutted horizontally from the tree – the lone oak among a group of rowan, ash and hazel – before ending abruptly in a splintered wound, broken off, presumably, in some long-past storm. The trunk of the tree was fractured too, riven by a deep, angry V-shaped gash, perhaps another ravage of the same storm, though to Rebecca’s mind it looked to have caught a glancing blow from the axe of some woodland giant, splitting kindling. Was the bird’s nest in there, she wondered, inside the hollow? You thought of barn owls as nesting in… well, barns: in roof spaces, and empty farm buildings. She must look it up.
Rebecca had always been a library person, but the nearest one was Leiston, and you could hardly expect the mobile library van that stopped in the village once a week to have a reference book on owls. However, Janet had recently persuaded her mother online. She’d set her up with a computer – it was just an old one she’d finished with but it was a decent size, with a proper screen and keyboard, not like those fiddly things Josh and Ellie had that they called their ‘notebooks’, was it? – and showed her how to look things up. Silver surfing was the current phrase for it, apparently. ‘Sounds a bit energetic for me, Jan,’ she’d told her, ‘and I’m more of a mousy grey.’ But once you got started it was rather addictive – a terrible swallower of time. People thought you had a lot of time when you were older but in fact it was quite the opposite, Rebecca found. It raced away from her in a way she found ever harder to keep pace with, even without the lurking stopwatch of cancer. But if it devoured the hours at a disorientating rate, the web was a goldmine of information. There were pages and pages about the barn owl.
Tyto alba was its Latin name – the white owl, confusingly, in spite of its largely golden-brown plumage, and in spite of the existence, too, of the snowy owl, or bubo scandiacus. In flight at dawn or dusk, though, she supposed her owl was so pallid as almost to appear white. ‘Ethereal’ was the word that came to Rebecca’s mind. In some Inuit dialects, she discovered, the word for barn owl was the same as the word for ghost.
The hollow oak could certainly be its nesting place. They seemed to adopt not only manmade sites but holes and crevices in rocks and trees – anywhere with a flattish ledge, concealed from view, on which to raise their young. But wasn’t the websites outlining the habitat and breeding patterns of the owl which drew Rebecca to read on, but those which told of its mythology. The Lenape peoples of the Delaware and Hudson rivers believed that if they dreamed of a barn owl it would become their guardian and protector of their soul, while to the southwestern Pima Indians the pale bird in flight at dusk was the newly-released spirit of the departed. Death was known as ‘crossing the owl river’; the feather of a barn owl would help the soul of the dying to pass across. Its crepuscular hunting habits and reputedly keen night vision imbued the owl for many with the power of intuition, the power of inner sight. It became the totem of prophets and clairvoyants, a messenger between the hidden world of death and shadow and the world of light. The one who hears what is not spoken and sees what is unseen. The keeper of secrets, the watcher of souls.
Rebecca stared into the owl’s unreadable black eyes and the owl stared back. Softly, she moved closer, keeping hold of the bird’s gaze, careful not to put it to fright but at the same time visited by a strange sense of seeking permission. Another step and she was near enough to look into the hollow bolus of the tree, and there it was, the nest site: a protruding ledge above the level of her eyeline, its rim encrusted with droppings and snowflaked with down. Lower down, in the base of the V where it narrowed to a point some two or three feet above the forest floor, she was surprised to see that grass and ground elder had taken root and were growing there in the partial sunlight, taking their sustenance from the accumulation of debris, of dead leaves and earth and every state between. And no doubt, too, from the fabric of the oak itself, as it rotted from within, the outside returning to fresh spring leaf while the inside sickened and fell to dust. Like cancer, like cancer, like cancer. Except that it wasn’t the same at all; the tree’s putrefaction was fecund, a source of new life. A part of the natural cycle of things.
Still mindful of the silent watcher above, she edged closer once again, until she could stretch out her hands and feel the cool moisture of the vegetation in the base of the hollow. She ran her fingers in amongst it, parting the grass, disturbing more down and droppings as well as here and there a larger feather. Peering down between the separated stems, she felt a sudden chill to catch a gleam of white more bleached than the feathers, and colder and sharper, too: the brittle white of tiny bones. They lay scattered in a deep layer among the roots of the grass, the remnants of a hundred owl suppers, picked clean or undigested – the mass grave of a hundred small animals and birds.
Rebecca shuddered but did not step back. Some macabre fascination made her want to sink her hands in the tumble of broken skeletons, as if measuring the tally of lost lives. And then her fingertips struck something smoother, flatter, larger: an unyielding something that was neither rock nor bone. Its glint, where she swept aside the bones and leaf-mould, was unmistakably metallic.
Working with firmer purpose now – almost hurrying – she dug and scraped and brushed until a clear surface began to emerge. It was darkened by its years of entombment in the damp soil, but as she rubbed it took on colour, a geometric pattern of red and black with, in its centre, two intersecting limbs of rusty cream which formed the letter X. X marks the spot, she thought, with the childish thrill of unearthing buried treasure. On either side of the X were soon revealed two matching letter Os. It was an Oxo tin. Oxo cubes dissolve at once announced the legend below the name, and above it the instruction, so palpably unheeded: Store in a cool dry place.
Her mother had had one not unlike it only smaller, which she used to keep her buttons in. Mum’s would have been from the 1930s but the design, she supposed, had remained the same for decades. How long had the tin lain here? Seventy, eighty, ninety years? Since before the war, she’d guess, at very least.
She cleared away the dirt from around the edges of the tin, exposing the catch on one side and the hinges at the other, all of them browned and scaled with rust. It would no doubt be easier to open if she lifted it free of its resting place, but she found she was loth to do so; she felt the unswerving scrutiny of the barn owl from above her and was deterred. Instead, with the box in situ, she leaned forward and felt for the catch, working her fingernails underneath, prising and tugging until with a snap the corroded metal released its grip. She lifted the lid.
Inside was a small, flat, oblong bundle some four inches by three, wrapped in a kind of thinnish, greying cotton cloth and tied crossways with string like a brown paper parcel. The knot was not tight but it was old, and took some time to loosen and undo, so that she was able to pull back the folded material – which appeared to be an old-fashioned gentleman’s handkerchief – and see, inside, a sheet of paper, closely folded. Buried treasure, indeed – she felt like Howard Carter. Or perhaps this was the treasure map. Take ten paces west and five paces north. Three hundred silver pieces; dead men tell no tales. But light as she might try to make of it, Rebecca found her hand was shaking as she reached for the folded paper.
It was a letter. There was no salutation, but a letter was clearly what it was, penned in fading blue-black ink and the looped copperplate handwriting that the older mistresses still hoped to instil when Rebecca was at school, a rounded hand, too, painstaking and uneven, suggesting youth and hesitancy. A girl, she thought, or if a young woman then of only scant education. The paper was cheap and flimsy, worn tissue-thin along the folds so that she feared it might fall to pieces in her hands.
Oh but Tuesday seems a thousand years away, the letter began, so that Rebecca half wondered if this was not the start, and there was a missing sheet. A thousand years – how ever I shall I bear it? Of course you must go to Ipswich to see about the stock like you said, and tomorrow’s being washday I’ll be at the tubs, and Mrs Jillings chivvying from dawn till night, no chance to slip away. But two whole days and not to see your face – I swear I’ll die! Yesterday in the woods was perfect heaven. There’s some might think it wickedness to say so, but ’tis simple truth, and the Reverend says it be no sin if we speak the truth. For heaven it surely was, with your sweet kisses and the way you pulled my arm through yours as we walked along the path, and the posy you picked and set in my corsage so bright and brave, like as I were some fine young lady in her carriage. My love, I live for Tuesday when you’ll come again – at the time that we said, and at our own special place, and I’ll wear the blue ribbon again that you kissed when you pulled it from my hair, and you said was like to cornflowers in the barley. Golden brown as the ripe barley, that’s what you said to me as you looped a lock about your finger, like in a poem – like words from a proper book of poetry. No one’s ever likened my hair to anything before, saving for the belly of a weasel, which the butcher’s boy used to say to bait me. But oh, two days, two whole days apart! I think of you all night and day. Your own loving Annie xxx
Under the first letter was another folded sheet and beneath that another and another, a bundle of maybe ten or twelve in all. She could take them home and read them – could take the tin – but it would have felt wrong, somehow, like theft, or sacrilege. He had chosen to hide them here, the unnamed man or boy. Was this, in fact, their ‘own special place’? And he’d put them here for another reason, an irrational conviction told her; he’d placed them under the patient surveillance of the owl.
Not this owl, her own owl, obviously, but a perhaps long-dead forebear. How long did barn owls live? An oak, of course, might live for a thousand years – but how long could it survive once split to the core? Life expectancies, however, as she well knew, were fragile and contingent things.
She laid the letter back with the others and refolded it in the handkerchief, closed the lid of the Oxo tin, then raked back the leaves and bones and soil. It could stay there for tomorrow, beneath the careful eye of the watcher of souls.
My love, began the second letter, I was in heaven again today at seeing you, though it be for only one short hour. I took a scolding from Mrs Jillings for being so late returned with the duck eggs from Bradcock’s, but I showed her the tear in the bicycle tyre just as you told me, and she said no more, only pressed her mouth together all tight and sour, and I dare say she’ll have it from my eleven and six come Friday. Oh but an hour was far too short, just sixty little minutes, so few you could near as count them going by! And then I had to go, and you as well, and we won’t be together again till Tuesday, but I’ll see the back of your head in church on Sunday, your dear head with your clean collar and your own soft, sweet hair that smells like a kitten’s fur. I blush to write these words but I wish we could be together – be truly together, I mean to say, like a man is with his wife. Her ladyship has sixteen for dinner on Saturday and Mrs Jillings has had me polish the silver till my fingers ache and I’ve a blister on my thumb the size of a ha’penny. You’ll think it foolishness I dare say, but it wasn’t my own face that looked back at me from the spoons and candlesticks but yours, your sweet own face. I kiss all ten of your fingertips, my love, and wish the minutes gone till Tuesday comes. Your ever-loving girl Annie xx
There was nobody at home in any case to show the tin to now even if she had a will to take it – not for five years, since Bob died. That was what she missed the most, still missed at times with an unexpected, almost visceral intensity which was just as sharp as the very first day: she missed having someone to tell the little things, to share the small excitements, the small frustrations. Yes, she could tell Janet about the letters, could even take one and read it to her when she rang on Sunday – she was a good girl and never missed – but it wasn’t the same thing. Jan visited, too, whenever she could but London was a long way and she was very busy with her job, and Ellie and Josh had their friends and their exams. Besides, she shouldn’t grumble because it wasn’t just her and it wasn’t just Janet. Everyone’s families moved away. There wasn’t a lot for them here in the village – and certainly nothing for a corporate credit analyst. Rebecca slid the second letter back in the pile and shut the tin. Then she stepped back and looked up to where the barn owl squatted, its round eyes fixed upon her, unmoving and unmoved.
In some cultures, Rebecca learned, the barn owl is an ill-starred omen. Creature of the night, it is a malevolent force, a feared spectre, the harbinger of doom. For the superstitious minds of ancient Rome, to dream of an owl meant shipwreck; the cry of an owl foretold an imminent death. Yesterday, the bird of night did sit even at noonday, upon the market place, hooting and shrieking. Witches, it was said, could take the shape of an owl and suck the blood of the newborn. In Arabia the stories told how owls were evil spirits and would carry off children during the night. To the Japanese, the barn owl is demonic, an unclean soul, believed to bring disease and pestilence, causing children to sicken and crops to fail, while in old Russian folklore the owl’s twilight call speaks out the names of the soon-to-die.
Why did you not come today? I waited and waited in our special place, at eight just as you said, and watched and watched but you never came. I know it was eight – I’m sure I heard the church clock chime – or if it was after it was not long past, as fast as I could get away without Mrs Jillings thinking aught amiss. She’s such a body for her snooping and prying, I swear she’s like a prison turnkey, even in the evening when my time’s my own, and I’ve cleared the grates in the morning room and back parlour and banked up her ladyship’s bedroom fire, and she had no business to be minding where I went, the mean old shrew. And I ran all the way once I came to the woods and there was nobody to see, and I wouldn’t for the world have kept you waiting, and when you weren’t there I swear I felt quite cold all over, quite desolate like you said to me you feel when we’re apart. But oh, my love, it was torture to wait and wait and you not come, and at last to have to go back home not seeing you. At first I thought of dreadful things, how you might have met some accident upon the road or on the farm, some bull run wild or the crush of a cart’s wheels. But then I thought a thing more dreadful still, that you are turned cold and did not wish to come – that you love me no longer. And I could bear anything but that – could bear death or influenza or the scarlet fever, or fifty of Mrs Jillings’ scoldings, or even to be apart from you, for ten or twelve or a hundred days, if only I can be sure that you still care for me. Your constant loving Annie xxx
Rebecca thoughts were adrift as she picked up the phone, and it took her several seconds to register her daughter’s voice.
‘Mum. Are you OK?
‘Oh, hello, Janet.’
‘Only you didn’t answer when I called on Sunday. Where were you? Were you out? I was worried about you.’
‘I was here. Maybe I didn’t hear it ring.’
There was a pause on the line. The cottage was two-up, two-down; the telephone stood on the kitchen windowsill, two feet from the sitting room door.
‘Are you sure you’re OK?’
‘I’ve just been busy. A bit distracted, that’s all. Thinking, you know.’
Another pause. ‘It’s not… Mum, you haven’t got symptoms back again? Have you been to the doctor? Had a check?’
‘No, no – nothing like that. Honestly, Jan, don’t worry. It’s really nothing. I’m fine.’
You came! My love, you came, and I was so happy I could have danced, or laughed out loud or cried, or all those things together. But the time for our meeting is always so short, so dreadfully short, that for all I try not to think of it, I am watching and fearing for its ending even as soon as it’s begun. It was sweet heaven when you held me in your arms tonight, and pressed me against you, and under you, on the grass beneath the trees. If I close my eyes I can still feel the weight of your body and smell the smell of you and taste your skin, the warm salty taste of it like sweet gammon ham, and remember the touch of your lips at my throat. Does it shock you when I write these things, that I’d never be so bold to speak aloud? I swear I even shock myself, and tremble to think of the Reverend’s Sunday sermons, though it felt no sin to be lying there with you, it felt only sweet and right and true. It is meant to be, my love, with all my heart I’m sure. And I can bear with comfort now the full five days and five long nights till we can be together again, though it draggle and straggle like half a lifetime – I can bear it with good cheer because I know you care for me. Your own, for always, Annie xxxx
Many legends portrayed the barn owl as entirely benign, in spite of its nocturnal aspect. Endowed in popular belief with the gifts of foresight and sagacity, the owl was the favourite and familiar of Athene, Greek goddess of wisdom. The bird’s reputed magical inner light, which enabled it to hunt by night, gave it great vision and prescience, the power to ward off evil. The owl protector accompanied Greek armies to their wars; the sight of an owl on the eve of battle presaged victory. Dakota Hidatsa Indians, too, saw the owl as a protective spirit for their warriors. For the Hopis Indians barn owls were the guardians of all hidden and underground things, the tenders of seed germination. More domestically and closer to home, in Yorkshire the barn owl is still a friend to shepherds and farmers, warning them of coming storms. Zuni women in New Mexico place an owl feather in their baby’s cradle to help it sleep; the watcher in darkness will keep the infant safe while the mother takes her rest.
My sweet love… It was the last letter; when Rebecca lifted it out, there was the nothing beneath but the lower layer of cotton handkerchief. She was moved by a soft pang, like the sorrow of distant loss. The final page, where the book must close. The end of the story. …there was a light under Mrs Jillings’ door tonight when I stole up the attic stair. I swear she must have heard me but, Devil take the old tattletale, in truth I no longer care. My only care is to be with you as we were together tonight in the wood, to feel your arms around me and press you to my heart. My only sadness is that we must part and kiss goodnight and not come home together, to one hearth and bed and be as man and wife.
Ah, but now, my love, now I have such hope, such darling hope–
There the letter ended, or rather it was interrupted where the paper had been torn jaggedly across from side to side, so that a half-inch or so was missing from the end of the page. Frustrated, Rebecca turned it over, but the other side was blank.
Had Annie’s darling hope been met, her dream of being with the unnamed lover been at last fulfilled? Did that explain the end of the letters? She need no longer write to him if he was by her side. But Rebecca would never know.
Now the tale was done; it was time to tie the letters back inside their handkerchief, re-knot the string and consign them again to their resting place and the care of the watchful owl. But when she lifted out the bundle of letters and fabric she saw that there was one more paper underneath. It was of heavier weight and better quality than rest, and watermarked, a single sheet folded precisely into four. The writing was unfamiliar: a different hand, bigger and bolder, with a negligent forward slant. And the message was short, just a very few brief lines.
My dear Anna… A liquid chill began to percolate through Rebecca’s stomach. ‘My dear’ was good – but ‘Anna’, not ‘Annie?’
My dear Anna, I am returning herewith your letters. I think it best that you do not write to me again. I trust I may rely upon your discretion to make no trouble with my wife or daughters. If we meet henceforth, it must be in public and as befits a limited acquaintance; I think it unlikely that our paths should cross with any degree of frequency. I pray that God may save and keep you.
So cold, so imperiously cold – at least until that closing benediction. And still not even the avowal of a signature, a name. She’d had the wrong idea, too, all this time, she realised. It was not his tin, but Annie’s: not he but Annie herself who had hidden the letters in the barn owl’s tree.
Slowly, almost mechanically, she laid his letter back in the tin, and on top of it the cotton-shrouded archive of Annie’s outpoured love. Sitting back on her heels she raised her chin, looking up through the branches to the broken bough where the owl kept guard. She wanted to stand, to jump and shout and flap her arms. Stupid, shiftless, impotent bird! What purpose was there in seeing more than men could see – or more, at any rate, than blind, deluded women – if it did not lead to action? What good was all the watching and waiting, after all – as Annie had watched and waited, and for nothing?
But she didn’t stand up. Instead, she tipped forward into a squatting position, and laced her hands across her stomach. There was an ache there, a dull clutch in her lower abdomen. Not the returning pain of cancer – not that, thank God, at least – but something like remembered menstrual cramps. And yet it was different: a rhythmic clenching, like something else remembered, a pain experienced just once, over forty years ago.
Reaching once more into the hollow of the oak, Rebecca lifted out the box of letters and, as she did so, saw what lay there buried underneath. Clean, white and fragile, these were not the remains of some dead bird or mammal, an owl’s discarded prey. These were no bones tossed down at random, but placed with reverence, laid down to sleep with a mother’s loving care. And beside the tiny skull – so small, so very small – against its cheek, was the single feather of a barn owl.
Thank you to Rosy Thornton and Sandstone Press for allowing me to share this story with you as part of the blog tour. You can check out the other dates on the tour here!