By: Ashley Hogan
I am writing to you on the advice of my sister, who thinks you may be able to help us. She asked me to contact you because she shares an email account with her husband, and he doesn’t know the whole story yet and will likely be unhappy to hear it. So I am the one writing to you to ask for your help with my mother, Lucy Bond. I’m sure you know her–she’s been at Grace Baptist for at least 25 years–but I don’t think you’ve met me because I haven’t been to church since my father’s funeral, and Mama tells me you haven’t been there for very long. Actually, she talks about you a lot, always telling me how much I would like you and how close to the Spirit you are, which I think is probably true and isn’t just her way of reminding me that I don’t go to church anymore.
Pastor, my mama isn’t well. In fact she is suffering, but I cannot convince her to see the doctor, as she believes her condition comes from something outside of her and does not think any doctor can help. I’ll explain all that, but first I should tell you that she has been forgetting things. I don’t mean leaving eggs off her grocery list or mixing up hair appointment times. She is forgetting real things, permanent things.
Here’s one: I will be 47 years old in December, but recently Mama asked me if I’d turned 40 yet. A few weeks ago she called me in a panic because she had gotten lost on her way to bridge club, which meets every week at Ina King’s, a half-mile from Mama’s house. When I finally found her, she was at a Wal-mart in Little River, 10 miles outside of town. And any time I call over there, she asks me why I haven’t come to see her, even if I have. Even if it was only a day ago.
My sister Jane and I used to think it was all due to Mama’s drinking–and maybe it was, then–but lately it’s clear that her problem is not drinking and forgetting. This is real, bottomless forgetting. It’s true that Mama drinks too much wine at night, especially since Daddy died, and Jane and I have known for a few years now not to call her after 6:00 or else she’ll get sentimental and slur on and on about how much she loves us and how we were the best thing she ever did. I’m sure the wine doesn’t help, but as I said, what’s troubling Mama is something else.
I am wondering, Pastor, has Mama even been to church lately? She tells me she hasn’t, but then she raves about your sermons, and I can’t tell if she’s remembering Sundays from before or if she’s actually been there. In fact, I’m not sure Mama even knows when it’s Sunday.
Has she told you anything about us, about Jane and me? Maybe you already know that I’m a single mother, and that my son, Daniel, is special needs. I spend most afternoons running him to occupational therapy and speech therapy and tutoring and all that. Then there’s my job at the preschool, which most people imagine is just finger painting with little kids. But the job is much harder than you think, Pastor. Harder than anyone thinks. And of course there’s groceries and laundry and keeping the house straight, and driving Daniel to school and picking him up because his school doesn’t have a bus. Still, I try to get over to Mama’s just about every other day, but Daniel and I live 45 minutes away, and there’s so much else to take care of, Pastor. I’ve always hated when people say they have a lot on their plate—it’s an irritating metaphor, since to me a full plate seems like a blessing—but I guess that’s me right now. My plate is full. In fact, my plate is spilling all over the floor. Jane can’t really help because she lives in Virginia now. She teaches music and her husband is a principal who started out teaching social studies. Now he’s her boss and her husband, which seems like a tricky situation to me. They’ve been married for 25 years, no children. Jane won’t admit it, but that’s her husband’s fault. Mama told me he got snipped without even telling her. The two of them live in one of those skinny 3-story townhouses outside of D.C. Probably cost a fortune, though I don’t see anything special about the place. I’d rather live in my own falling-down split-level than one of those straight up and down row houses where the only way you can tell it’s yours is by the decorations you hang on the door. I never got around to buying seasonal decorations, myself, at least not for any holiday other than Christmas. But Jane and her husband have decorations for everything. One holiday ends, and you can’t turn around before they’ve got the next thing up. Skeletons for Halloween. Orange and cranberry-colored berry wreaths for Thanksgiving. Confetti flags for New Year’s. In February it’s wooden hearts, white and red, that bang against the front door every time you open it. I swear, they even have decorations for St. Patrick’s Day. Shamrocks and leprechauns, though I’ve never met two people less likely to believe in leprechauns.
The truth is, Pastor, Mama has always been a little bit scattered. I used to fool her when I was a teenager, pretending like she’d already given me permission to do things. I’d tell her, “Mama! I asked you yesterday, and you said I could!” She’d fall for it most of the time, though now I wonder if she gave in just because I was the youngest and she had Daddy to take care of, and maybe she just didn’t have any energy left over. Even before he got sick, Daddy was never big on parenting, at least not directly, though he did love to tell Mama how to handle us. And then, of course, we lost him when I was in college. So most of it, anything that had to do with Jane or me, was on Mama, and naturally she’d forget things all the time: parent-teacher conferences and field trips and picture day. Carpool. I was always the last one to be picked up from anything. One time she was supposed to bring snacks to our Brownie meeting, and when I walked in with nothing to share, the troop leader asked me if she’d forgotten. I told her no. I said our oven was broken, because I didn’t want her to know that Mama had forgotten. As if you need an oven to send snacks to a Brownie meeting.
When I was little, I would convince Mama that I hadn’t already heard all of her favorite stories. She’d ask, “Have I told you about the rabid squirrel my daddy shot?” or “You know about my little dog Misty, right?” And I’d say no, I didn’t, just so she’d tell me. If I got her going, she’d stay stretched out across the foot of my bed for an hour or longer, talking. She liked to talk about herself. She liked that I liked to listen.
My favorite story was the one about Owl Man. Have heard about Point Pleasant, West Virginia, Pastor? About those Mothman sightings in the 60s? Something like a dozen people reported seeing a black creature, the size of a man, with terrible red eyes and enormous wings. Then the Silver Bridge collapsed and all those people died, and everyone said that the Mothman had been some kind of omen. Maybe you’ve heard the story. Well, that has always reminded me of the Owl Man, only Mama didn’t grow up in West Virginia. She lived a ways away from there, in North Carolina, a town called Kingsborough. When I first heard about the Mothman story, I asked Mama if she knew about it, but she didn’t. She was amazed to hear it, to find out that others had seen him. Only she didn’t call him Mothman, she called him the Owl Man, because when she saw him on her neighbor’s roof, the very second she spotted him—this is what she says, anyway—he turned his head all the way around, 180 degrees, like an owl, and stared right at her with wide, red eyes. Mama said that when he swiveled his head to look at her, it was like the devil had seen straight into all four chambers of her heart. (She once told me that the four chambers of the heart were love, fear, faith, and hate, and I believed her up until I took Anatomy in high school.)
It’s hard to believe, Pastor, I know. But the way she tells it, Mama first saw the Owl Man in 1965, when she was 17 years old. On that night, she snapped awake without knowing what had woken her. She was just suddenly wide awake and her ears were ringing. You know that feeling. The sound kind of echoes in your ears, and you can almost remember hearing it, but you’re not sure if it was a dream. She sat up and looked at her watch, which she always kept on her bedside, and it was 3:03 in the morning. Then she realized that her bedroom was flooded with light. But it was a new moon that night, late October. She always made sure to tell that part: a new moon. And she lived in the country, so no street lights. But when she checked the time, she could see the watch face, almost clear as day. So she popped out of bed and went to the window, but almost as soon as she had the window open, the light disappeared. She said it wasn’t like it faded away or like someone switched it off. All of a sudden there was no light and there never had been light, just like the sound she heard, as if she might have dreamed it in the first place.
She was curious, so she heaved the window open and stuck her head out to look around. And what she saw was the Owl Man, perched on her neighbor’s roof. She always used that word, “perched,” because he was perched, just like a bird, kind of squatting down but perfectly balanced, as if he had talons to grip the roofline. That’s when he turned to look at her. She spotted him, and then, bam, he flipped his head around and stared at her with those burning red eyes. Then, she said, he stood to his full height, and he was taller than any man she’d ever seen. Mama has always been bad at guessing height and distance, Pastor, but she swore he was at least seven feet tall. So he stood, still perfectly balanced on the ridge of that roof, and then he unfurled his wings. She told me she’d never seen anything so perfectly beautiful and horrible all at the same time. He spread his wings like a peacock spreads his tail, gracefully and easily, and then he gave a little hop and shot straight up into the night. She almost fell out the window trying to watch him, but it was the new moon, so it was too dark to see, and he was gone so fast she wasn’t sure it had really happened.
The strangest part, she said, was that after she saw him, she just turned from the window, walked calmly back to bed, and fell asleep, as if she’d just seen something as normal as a barn cat leaping down from a woodpile. When she woke up and remembered, she thought it had been a dream, but then she realized that the window was wide open, and it was chilly in the foothills of North Carolina in almost November. She knew that window had been closed when she’d gone to bed.
And the funny thing is, Pastor, though Mama has forgotten how old I am and isn’t sure what day of the week it is or even what season of the year, though she gets lost driving to Ida’s and forgets all the time that Jane lives in Virginia now, and even though she can’t figure out how to work the TV remote anymore and can’t get to church, she has told me that story every time I’ve been over there for the past few weeks, almost word for word the way she used to tell it when I was little. But she lately she tells it like it just happened, her cheeks flushed and her pupils round as a watchface. Last week, when she’d finished telling it, she looked me right in the eyes and whispered, “His eyes are red coals.”
“They were, Mama,” I said. “When you were 17.”
She didn’t answer me. She just turned toward the kitchen window and studied the backyard for a while, then she looked back at me, her eyes wild with a fear I’ve never seen in her before.
Mama never told her own parents about the Owl Man. They died years ago, within a few months of each other, and at the time, I went with her Kingsborough (this was when Daniel was just a toddler), and I helped Mama clean out their house. I got to hear so many of her stories that week. It seemed like no matter how hard we worked from day to day, no matter how much stuff we packed up or threw away, we kept finding more. Boxes on boxes of cards and letters. Stacks and stacks of recipes and photos and church bulletins. A drawer full of twist ties—just twist ties!—but a thousand of them, all wound around each other and tangled, in all the colors of the rainbow. We found 20 years worth of old calendars that my grandfather had written little notes on every day. Just a little something like “cold today” or “Robbie came to visit,” but the things we discovered were so fascinating to both of us that we couldn’t help but get carried away looking through everything, and by the end of the week, we’d given up and hired an estate service. Not before I’d loaded some of those boxes into my car though. I couldn’t stand to think of all those years of notes, all of my grandfather’s memories, being tossed in the landfill. Why did he keep them if not for us, Pastor? Why did he do that?
I told Mama that taking notes like Pawpaw’s might help her keep track of things. I’ve tried a few times to help her set up a system with sticky notes and a dry erase board. I tell her, “When I tell you I’m coming over on Tuesday, you just write ‘Mandy on Tuesday’ on the board, and then you’ll remember.” But the board is as blank as a clean sheet of paper every time I go over there. Sometimes I find the sticky notes around the house, but they never make sense. I’ll find a note that says “dog food” stuck to the bathroom sink, even though Mama’s beagle, Sticks, has been dead for 5 years. Or I’ll find a note that says “computer password” stuck to a box of crackers and no password written on it. This week, I found a little doodle, though I’ve never known Mama to draw much. She’d sketched an owl with enormous eyes and sharp talons curled around a branch. Beneath it she’d written, “Tell Mandy.”
The other day, she was having a good afternoon, the kind of afternoon that makes me doubt for a little while that it’s really so bad, so I asked her again if she would go to the doctor. She snapped her head around and glared at me in a way I’ve almost never seen her do. “I’m not sick,” she said. “I’m cursed.” And my heart came apart, all four chambers.
Then Mama told me she’d been seeing him, the Owl Man. She pointed to a tree outside her bedroom window and said, “He sits right there. And there’s no doctor that can take care of that.”
Then, yesterday, Mama told me a story she’s never told before. She said that after my Daddy died, about a year after, he visited her one night. It started as a dream, but then she woke up and he was still there, standing beside her bed. She said he had a half-full highball glass in his hand and was swirling the ice, the way he always did. To this day, when I hear the sound of ice tinkling in a glass, I remember Daddy sitting in his easy chair with those giant earmuff headphones on, listening to his symphonies. Anyway, I’ve heard people talk about dream visitations from loved ones, Pastor, and usually when the loved one comes to visit, they look young and happy, as if in heaven they’ve become the happiest version of themselves, and they usually say something comforting like “I’m alright” or “I forgive you” or something the alive person can wake up and feel peaceful about. But Mama told me that when Daddy visited her, he just stood beside her bed, looking like he did right before he died, with deep circles under his eyes and a yellow-sheen to his skin. And skinny, like he didn’t weigh more than 120 pounds. He just stood there looking down at her, and then, she told me, he slid under the bed, like a shadow being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. He just slid away and then he was gone, and Mama was alone in the bedroom, which suddenly felt unfamiliar and cold. This was when Sticks was alive, and Mama told me he jumped up on the bed next to her, which he wasn’t allowed to do, and snuggled up under her arm, and she let him sleep there that night and every night after.
I told Jane all of this during our Monday night call, and she got so quiet I thought she’d hung up on me. “Two things,” she finally said. “One, we should talk to Mama’s pastor. And two, don’t tell Peter.” I knew why she didn’t want her husband to know. It’s because Peter’s solution is to take Mama, against her will, to a home, and that, Pastor, is my mother’s worst fear. She used to tell me, “Mandy, I’d rather die in my own house than live in a Home.” But Peter says that Mama is in a stage of life where she’s like a child who doesn’t know what’s good for her, and it’s up to us to administer what he calls “tough love.” Easy to say when it’s not your mama. Peter’s mama is 85 and still drives and volunteers as a docent in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
I’m not sure, but I think Jane imagines that you may have some advice for us about what to do, or she thinks that–and this is kind of embarrassing–you might agree to come to Mama’s house and do a blessing or say some kind of prayer that helps her get rid of the Owl Man. If the Owl Man goes away, if Mama’s “curse” is broken, then maybe she’ll see sense and understand that what’s happening to her has not been visited upon her like a spell. Maybe she’ll understand that the dark force that’s plaguing her is a brain that has betrayed her, taking her stories and churning them up, mixing them with now, so time doesn’t make sense anymore and everything seems to happen at once.
Or maybe, if the Owl Man is real, you can scare him off, convince him to rise up from the branch outside Mama’s window, unfurl those terrible wings, and soar up and up and up until he’s high above our house, and Mama is just a tiny pale face in the window, watching him disappear in the darkness of a night without a moon.
Ashley Hogan teaches creative writing at Meredith College (Raleigh. N.C.), where she serves as director of the creative writing minor and of summer writing programs, including workshops for women, high school students, and young writers. She has published short fiction and poetry in Brightleaf Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Imperfect Parent, and The Colton Review. She is currently working on a novel for children.