My name is Jake Whittaker. I turned ninety-years-old a week ago today. It's funny; you go through life knowing that old age will catch up to you, and you still wonder where the time went once it does.
At least, that's what the other folk around the retirement home say. I know exactly where my time went.
I've seen the world from many perspectives, everything from the rose-tinted glasses of youth to an old man's tired cynicism. I've learned a great deal of things in my day, but even for someone of my years, some things will always remain a mystery.
There are things in life you just get comfortable with, even without an explanation. You just accept them, and you even come to expect them. You stop to think about it every now and then, wondering if there's an answer, but you eventually stop trying. It is what it is, no changing it. No need to. For me, that thing has been around for as long as I can remember. I've walked through life with a very strange companion.
My grandfather died in the fall of 1931. It wasn't anything tragic. It was just his time. He survived until he eventually became senile; his life was already over, as far as I was concerned. Sure, I was sad to see him go, just the same as any other little boy would be. But I watched him fade away, and I knew he wasn't my grandfather anymore. He just wasn't in there. He was gone.
So, I didn't cry at his funeral; I had done plenty of that once I realized that he had forgotten my name. I just said my goodbyes and washed my hands of it. I did a lot of remembering, though. I remembered all of the things about him that mattered to me. I remembered all of the quarters that he pulled from behind my ear, all of the walks in the park, and the short games of catch before he'd start complaining about back pain. You know, the simple things that made him my grandpa.
I especially remembered his stories. He had a million of them, most of them far-fetched and funny, and all punctuated with his own laughter. He liked to think that he was the next Mark Twain, but he wasn't as witty as all that. He was just a silly old codger. Still, we all liked to listen to him ramble on, and that was enough for him. The stories I recall most, though, were not the silly anecdotes. In fact, they weren't even stories. Not really. They were more like obscure references, the kind you might hear about La Llorona, the Tooth Fairy, or the Boogey Man. The ones I grew up with were about...the owl.
There was a difference between the owl and those other creatures, though. All of these other creatures you hear about, they're urban legends because there's always a story behind them. Not the owl. Grandpa never told us what the owl was, where it came from, or what it did. The owl was just...the owl. The references were never consistent, either. We didn't know if we were supposed to fear it or feel safe because of it. One night, he'd tell us not to be afraid of monsters under the bed because the owl would keep them away. Another day, he'd tell us not tell fibs or eat candy before dinner, because the owl was watching.
My older brother, Jeffery (who passed away five years ago, God rest his soul), stopped believing in the owl after grandpa died. He just wrote it off as another of the old man's tall tales. I believed, though. I had always believed, and I knew for sure after the wake. Everyone took turns walking by his open casket to say their final goodbyes, commenting on how peaceful he looked and saying he was in a better place, the usual remarks for the occasion. And then, it was my turn. I was only nine years old, and I still hadn't reached my growth spurt, so I had to stand on my toes a bit to see. The first thing I saw was grandpa's face in profile, expressionless and pale, and it choked me up the way you'd expect. It was also my first experience with death, so I was much too disturbed to look for long.
Then, I saw something that no one else seemed to notice. Or, if they did, they didn't make any mention of it. It was tucked away discreetly between the sleeve of his coat and the casket's white silk lining, protruding no more than an inch between them, just enough to grab my attention. It was a feather. It was long and beautiful, a tuft of snowy white down at the base of the quill, pure silver-white with faint stripes of gray along the vane. It seemed so deliberately placed, but I hadn't seen anyone else put it there, and I had been nervously watching the line of mourners move ahead of me the entire time. I almost reached for it, but I knew it wouldn't be proper. For a moment, I forgot about my grandpa. The feather was all I could see, and I felt numb. Nobody else saw it, and nobody would believe me if I told them, but I knew. I knew where it came from. It belonged to the owl.
That night was a restless one for me, the first of many. It was a long time before I could sleep comfortably again, because that was the night when it first paid me a visit. In the moonlight, I could just make it out. It was perched on a tree branch just outside my bedroom window. A large and striking great horned owl, entirely silver in appearance; even its beak and talons were a sort of dull gray. I couldn't see its eyes, as they were sunken in dark hollows. Its crown feathers hung at a lazy slant, and it didn't make the fidgety gestures you would expect from a bird. Its only movement came from an occasional, slight twitch, or a light rustling of its feathers in the breeze. It never moved an inch, never made a sound, and it never looked away. It stared though my window, directly at me, the entire night.
I've seen it outside my window every night since. Sometimes it's on my windowsill where I can see its every feather, sometimes across the street in a neighboring tree, but always near enough where I can see it. It was there when I lost my virginity, and I lay awake staring at it as my partner for the night slept soundly in my embrace. It was there during the first night I spent in my first apartment, an apartment in downtown Los Angeles, far from where anyone would expect to see such a bird.
It was there on my wedding night, watching me from the window of our new home while I held my bride close. It was there on the night my wife gave birth to our first son, and I caught a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye, staring at me from the waiting room's small window. Once, I was hospitalized overnight with a terrible flu. The room had no windows, but I knew the owl was watching. I could feel it. It was perched outside in some nearby tree as always, peering at me through the walls.
It has always been there, whether or not I think to look for it, always waiting patiently. Waiting for what, I didn't know. Truth be told, I still don't know. Never a hoot, nor a screech. It never moves, and it never looks away. In the later years of my life, I think I began to understand my grandfather a little better. I understood why he told us those stories, why he tried to make us believe in the owl. I found myself doing the same for my grandchildren. He must have believed, just as I had, that he wouldn't have to feel so alone if someone else knew. It was a quiet call for help.
I can't tell you how much sleep I've lost to the dreadful sight of the owl over the years, but I eventually learned to cope. The thing about being haunted is that you adjust to it, but you never really get used to it. Does that make sense? Things wouldn't seem quite right if it wasn't there as usual, but it's always nagging you in the back of your mind. You can never ignore it, even if you want to. So, instead, you try to live with it. You try to make peace with it, and it becomes a routine. For a while, I even tried to interact with the owl, though I don't know what compelled me. Perhaps I wanted to understand the thing, or just to see it do something, anything, other than sit there in silence and stare at me. Maybe I'd teach it some tricks, to fetch my slippers or deliver letters. The thought made me laugh.
I would often approach the window to open it, thinking maybe I could pet the bird, but it always fluttered away into the shadows before I got too close. Not for long, though; it would always return once I gave it an acceptable amount of space. Sometimes I would place a chair across from the window, at the distance the owl allowed, of course. I would sit in that chair and talk to the bird, telling it about my day, my troubles, and my dreams. Sometimes I'd tell it jokes, though I knew it would never laugh. I had hoped the owl was listening, or maybe that it would respond somehow. It never did. It just sat perfectly still as always, watching me patiently.
The owl has been my strange companion, even during these final days of my life. It has never left me, no matter how much I wished that it would. I've been sick lately, and I know I don't have much time left. The nurses know it. The other residents know it, and I think the owl knows it, too.
Since I became ill, around the time of my birthday last week, its behavior has changed. It has begun to move, an anxious little shuffle, and it tilts its head from time to time in that impossible way unique to an owl. I can see its eyes now, dull amber beads and pupils wide with anticipation. I think I've even seen it smiling, if you can imagine an owl's lipless version of the expression. I dare not imagine what it means, though I think I can guess.
I can see it outside my window even as I write this story. I sat down at this table to tie up any loose ends, to go over my last will and testament one more time, and maybe write a few letters to loved ones before I lose the chance. Instead, I chose to write about the owl. I just want someone, even if only one person, to know the truth. In the end, I only have one question on my mind. Will someone find the feather in my casket, too? I hope it isn't my grandson. I hope he didn't believe the stories, or he may be the owl's next obsession.
-- Aaron Shotwell