38. Songs: Ohia – The Magnolia Electric Company

THE CARVED OWL RITUAL...

  • Songs: Ohia – The Magnolia Electric Co. | 
  • Released: 2003 Secretly Canadian Records | 
  • Produced: Steve Albini | 
  • Genre: A blue collar, blues-country flurry of feathers | 

HOW SECRETS ALWAYS DRESS…  

The caption read "Prepare for the weirdest request ever…"

Three dots appeared below the image, like an echo of the ellipsis that closed the sentence. 

I waited and watched the dots pulse for a little while before realising that the follow-up text was probably going to take a while to compose. Usually, I'd just put my phone down and carry on with whatever I was doing. In fact, usually I would've just ignored the phone entirely. But I'd been hooked in by the promise of a weird request. Pure curiosity had taken hold of me and I had been told to prepare myself.

So I scanned back up to the photograph.

A mundane office backdrop  box files, cold metal drawers, ugly carpet  interrupted by a tall, brown totem. A conical shape emerging from a crudely hewn cube of untreated wood. The pine cone body gave way to the imperfect circle of a head, turned at an Exorcist-esque 180 degrees, with what scant features there were all concentrated tightly in the centre. Dark black eyes peered out of the screen at me, shining with a lustre that seemed somehow unnatural. 

Or even… too natural.

What could make wood shine like that? Had the eyes been painted? Varnished? Surely they couldn't be–

The photo skipped upwards as the new message finally arrived, breaking our eye contact and my train of thought.

"So we had a charity auction at work a few months ago, and this owl was one of the lots. The man who bought it didn't take it home on the day for whatever reason. We were going to have it shipped to him, but because it's so heavy it's way more expensive than we thought. According to his address he lives pretty near you… I was wondering whether, if I give you the owl at the restaurant this weekend, you could drop it off to him?"

It's fair to say that Owl Statue Courier was not have been a role I had ever considered for myself, but it seemed a reasonable enough request. And as we were seeing each other so soon anyway, it wasn't any bother, really. 

"Absolutely, just let me know the address. Looking forward to Saturday!"

"Me too! Nice way to spend the leap day."

Curiosity sated, I returned to my work, putting the whole thing to the back of my mind.

 

The leap day came 48 hours later.

My companion drove us from our home in Hertfordshire to the restaurant, deep in the Surrey Hills. We passed the journey talking about calendars and leap years, discussing the strange traditions that surround these rare, 366th days and sharing a half-remembered anecdote about a great aunt born on the 29th of February, who – due to her infrequent birthdays – always claimed to be only a quarter of her real age.

The M25 was relatively free-flowing, and as we got closer to our destination our talk turned to the places in Surrey we had been together in the past: towns we had lived in, parks we had visited, people we had known. As passenger, my job was to provide the music. While Songs: Ohia's epic Farewell Transmission played, I was staring down at the phone in my lap, lining up the next few tra–

"SHIT"

My companion slammed on the brakes and swerved left. The car in front was suddenly looming large in the windscreen, then the driver's side window. A screech and a bellowing crunch, and we came to a halt on the hard shoulder.

A fractured moment. 

Then…

"Listen: long dark blues"

The dying embers of the song pierced the air suddenly. Those voices were the only noise. All else was still.

I turned to my companion and asked if she was OK. Shaking, she nodded that she was. I squeezed her hand, still clutching the wheel.

Was I OK? I seemed to be. Adrenaline was coursing through me, a juddering, pulsing rhythm somewhere at the base of my skull, where it connected to the spinal column. My pulse raced, skittering to keep up with the thump in my head.

"Listen:"

I stopped the music. 

The car in front – now also tucked into the hard shoulder and perfectly framed in the windscreen – looked relatively intact. Another car stood a little further ahead, just visible over the roof. 

After a moment's pause, we got out to check on the others.

All three cars were almost comically close together, as if parked on the lower deck of a particularly small ferry. The other drivers emerged, all shaken but physically unharmed. Against the deafening roar of the torrent of traffic to our right, the young woman in the lead car explained how the driver in front of her had braked suddenly. Despite having been hit, the mystery driver had immediately sped off. Miraculously, though, all of the cars involved were fine to drive away, and no one had been hurt. 

We swapped details, as is the custom when things like this happen.

Returning to the car, my companion pointed out that the glass in the wing mirrors had shattered. While it wouldn't stop us getting off the hard shoulder and along the remaining 3 miles of country road to the restaurant, it would need fixing before our journey home. Her quick reactions and instinctive swerve meant that the wing mirrors had taken the brunt of the impact, yet we both seemed a little puzzled that the damage turned out to be so minimal, considering the thunderous sound we had heard. But neither of us had ever been in a crash before, and it was a small car, after all. 

We counted ourselves lucky.

When we arrived at the restaurant, everyone wanted to hear about our crash. 

Still feeling the effects of the adrenaline, I excused myself to the bathroom. At the basin, I splashed some water in my face, enjoying the cold sting of it against my skin in the radiator-warmth of the room. I steadied myself over the sink, grasping it with both hands, and inhaled deeply, head angled down into my chest. Calming my mind. After a moment, I felt my pulse began to slow, the frantic throb gently receding. 

Relieved, I looked up at the mirror and saw only a whirling collage of abstract colours and shapes. I flinched away almost instantly, darting to one side to avoid my reflection.

What was that?

It had be some kind of optical effect due to the swirling cocktail of hormones in my system. Had to be. Some trick of the light and frayed nerve receptors, maybe. Yes, that was it.

Before I could look again, I heard the heavy swing door push open, the noise of a crowded bar seeping in behind the shuffle of feet. 

I hurried back to the party, trying my best to look composed.

We made our excuses shortly afterwards. The plan had been to go for a long walk, but we really needed to get the wing mirrors looked at before our journey home. Besides, there were intermittent showers that made the walk much less appealing. We stepped out into the downpour and ran back to the car, then made a beeline for the closest garage.

The reassuring smell of vulcanised rubber and engine oil filled the air from the moment we stepped through the door. A disinterested teenager wordlessly directed us to a far corner of the room where we found an aisle of replacement mirrors in different shapes and sizes. 

After rooting through them for a while, it became clear that an exact fit was not going to be possible. We settled on a smaller pane of mirrored glass, confident that it would fit with some room to spare. Our request to have them fitted was met with a shrug, so we walked back out into the rain to affix the mirrors ourselves. It's just sticky-back plastic. How hard could it be?

As it turns out, pretty hard. Through some combination of defective product and the rain-wet surface, the replacement mirror just wouldn't stick. Every time it appeared to be in place, the adhesive sticker simply gave way. 

"Probably been left on the shelf for too long."

"Yeah."

As we made for the garage again to pick up a replacement, my phone rang.

It was my friend.

We had forgotten the owl.

 

Replacement mirrors affixed at the second time of asking, we dropped by my friend's house to collect the carving.

"Thanks so much again for doing this, I know it's really… odd."

"No worries, I'm sorry we forgot about it. Head was still on the crash, I think."

We both stared at the owl in silence for a moment.

"I won't be sorry to see it go. I've kept it here at home for the last couple of days – people at my office started complaining."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Said it creeped them out. One morning I came in and they had covered its face with a tea towel."

"There is something a little… uncanny about it…"

"mmhm."

"Well, hopefully it's headed to a good home. We'll drop it round on the way back."

"Great, he said you can just leave it in the porch if there's no one in."

The sun had set by the time we reached Hertfordshire.

"What a weird day, huh?"

I nodded.

We drove on a little further.

"I, uh…"

"What?"

"I'm a little worried," I conceded.

"About what?"

"I'm… I'm worried that we've suffered some kind of critical reality bypass."

My companion nodded almost imperceptibly, her brow furrowed.

"I've noticed it too," she said, after a while. "Just a strange feeling I can't shake."

"Have you noticed the mirrors? The reflection thing, I mean. Not the wing mirrors."

She frowned.

"We can discuss it later, let's just find this place and get home."

The address we had been given included only a house name, with no street address: The Roost. With the owl lying in the boot, we rolled slowly up and down the road, peering out into the darkness of the unlit street for any sort of sign. The twee names that people tend to give their homes in these small villages, like Rose Cottage, were all here. But no sign for The Roost. Frustrated, we called in at a care home with the same post code, who directed us to a dark driveway directly adjacent.

Still no house sign. But as we pulled up, I was confident we had finally found the place. An imposing Georgian townhouse, lit from below by floodlights embedded in the flower beds to reveal the pastel pink walls. Dim lights shone through the curtained windows.

"This is the place, right?"

"I'm not sure."

"It has to be."

"Yeah but 'leave it in the porch'… do you see a porch?"

Suddenly exhausted, I gazed at the front door in exasperation.

"I mean… it's a little set back from the wall, no? Not a porch exactly, but…"

"We're going to have to knock."

Reluctantly, I climbed out of the car and walked up to the door. As I got closer, I was able to pick out the details of the knocker: an ornate brass shape, the thick metal ring suspended in the mouth of an owl.

This had to be it.

Filled with a new confidence, I grabbed the ring and rapped out two knocks on the front door.

Silence.

After a moment, my companion got out of the car to join me. Just as she did so, a figure shuffled out from the shadows at the side of the house.

"Hello?" it said. A man's voice. But faint.

"Is this The Roost?"

"Yes." 

As he drew nearer, I was able to make out a short man in his seventies, dressed in a tweed blazer and red corduroy trousers.

"We have an owl statue for you!" my companion exclaimed, delightedly.

I shared her relief. We had finally found the place: the weird day was almost over. No more scouring unfamiliar village streets. Just a short drive until the familiar comforts of home. The sense of unease and tension drifted away from my chest, replaced by the gentle warmth that accompanies the solving of a puzzle.  I turned and began to head to the boot of the car.

"What?"

I stopped.

"An owl statue?" offered my companion.

"I'm sorry, I'm afraid I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about"

Looking back at him, I could see he had now stepped into the light. No taller than 5'2, he stood, hands on hips, a look of utter bemusement across his face. One of the uplighters in the beds sent a beam of light glancing off the top of his bald head. I had to squint in the glare, but I was sure I could make out some slight indentations.

I hurried to the boot and retrieved the owl. It stared up at me with a glint in its otherwise dead eyes as I lifted it and carried it over to the front door. I held it out so he could take a look at it.

"This was won at a charity auction in Surrey late last year. We were told you were expecting it?"

"No, not me."

We looked at each other, locked in a bizarre stand-off.

"You'd better come in, so we can sort this out."

I glanced at my companion, knowing instinctively that the absurdity of it all was about to push her into a fit of laughter. She caught my eye, and we composed ourselves before heading into The Roost.

"Just through here," he muttered, ushering us in through the door and into the dark hallway. "I'll get the light."

With a flicker, the room lit up.

Owls.

On every wall, owl memorabilia – porcelain figures, fluffy toys, paintings – covering every surface. Their eyes stared out at us, as if sizing up the new arrival. Taxidermy pieces hung over the lintel of each door, posed in mid-swoop. 

"Just set that down wherever you find a space," he smiled.

I looked around for a surface big enough for the imposing wooden base, finally settling for the side table of an antique telephone seat.

"As you can probably see, I have an interest in owls," he continued, still smiling. "But I'm afraid I really don't know anything about this one."

He squatted slightly to get a better look at the carving. As he did so, I glanced again at his head: a row of three spherical indentations along the upper ridge of his brow, and a single, deeper indentation further back, towards the centre of his head. In the artificial light I also noticed his right ear, which was curiously shaped. Skewed off to one side with a triangular incision. It looked like something had taken a chunk out of it.

I followed his gaze and saw him staring intently at a mark on the wooden base: a sharp 'S' shape – or perhaps a lightning bolt? – with a vertical line through one side. I had assumed it was some sort of maker's mark, having been more concerned with those unnervingly black eyes. Yet our host was frowning at the symbol now, ignoring the rest of the woodwork entirely.

He straightened his back and looked at me.

"What charity did you say you were from?"

"Well, we're not actually from the charity. We–"

"What?!" he blurted.

"No, no, don't worry. We're friends of someone who works at the charity. We just happen to live nearby so were just dropping it off on our way home."

"So," he stated with incredulity. "Someone has just given you this… item, and instructed you to bring it to my house at night, without telling me anything about it?"

I stood, nonplussed. Since he spotted the mark, his tone had gone from confusion and faint amusement to something sharper, colder.

"That's… well. Yes. We were told you were expecting it this evening, though."

"I'm afraid not."

"Ah." I looked around at the owl-bedecked room again.

"And you're sure they said 'The Roost'?"

"I'm pretty sure we're in the right place, yes."

"Still, I don't know anything about this charity, this auction or this… piece. Perhaps you had better take it away for now and contact your associate to make certain."

He rummaged through his jacket pocket and pulled out a card.

"If this does turn out to be for me, then you can contact me on this number."

I stared down at the card and blinked.

This couldn't be real.

His name…

His name was Howell.

Howell the owl collector was denying ownership of this carved owl.

 

As we drove home, we traded theories.

Had he simply bought it and forgotten? Two strangers showing up in the night probably put him on edge. A man of his age… it's not impossible. Or perhaps someone bought it for him, and didn't tell him? Maybe it was supposed to be a surprise?

But the way he stated the facts of what was happening… I sensed there was more to it. The piece had cost a lot of money (at least as far as we were concerned.) Are these just the games rich people play? Do they send people out on farcical errands simply because they can? Spending huge sums on bizarre auction pieces as some kind of practical joke?

Maybe that was it. Maybe we'd been made to look a bit daft by running around on a fool's errand.

And yet the way he looked at the mark. What was that?

Had we unwittingly been made a part of some clandestine communication? Did we deliver some sort of… message? My mind went straight to organised crime, something out of a mafia movie. Or something more occult? What if he's not an owl enthusiast at all? He certainly seemed to have been attacked by one in the past, if his injuries were what I thought they were. 

Perhaps the owl was a threat?

We didn't have the answer.

We still don't.

So now the owl is in our house.

It's sitting on my desk as I type this.

I no longer find its eyes unnerving. In fact, when I look into them now I feel a profound sense of calm. Elsewhere, the critical reality bypass we're experiencing seems to be worsening. I can no longer stand the sight of my own reflection, cowering away from mirrors whenever I'm confronted with one. Things around the house move, the cats chatter at birds in the garden that I cannot see. A slight mark on my arm grows clearer with each passing day, tracing a faint outline of an angular 'S'.

Yet when I look into the owl's eyes, I feel at peace.

We never heard from Howell again.

Perhaps we'll keep it.

Perhaps it will keep me.

LIST-ENING

All hoots and howls.

  1. Alone with the Owl – Jason Molina
  2. Owls – The Handsome Family
  3. Angel Owl – Little Green Cars
  4. Night Owl Blues – The Lovin' Spoonful
  5. Nightjar and Tawny Owls – The Sound Approach
  6. Mother Owl, Father Ocean – Wolves In the Throne Room
  7. Night Owl – Gerry Rafferty
  8. Merry Go Round (From Howl's Moving Castle) – Joe Hisaishi
  9. Parliament of Owls – Agnes Obel
  10. Lonely Owl – Gold Panda
  11. Think Twice – The Four Owls ft. DJ Premier
  12. Method Man – Wu-Tang Clan
  13. Night Owl – Bobby Paris
  14. I Am the Owl – Dead Kennedys
  15. Stuart – The Dead Milkmen
  16. The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  17. Snow Owl – The Mountain Goats
  18. The Owl and the Tanager – Sufjan Stevems
  19. Fireflies – Vitamin String Quartet
  20. Howl – Allen Ginsberg

This has been a (relatively) true story, inspired by events on 29 February 2020 and William Schaff's artwork for Songs: Ohia's record The Magnolia Electric Co.

 

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