Which gives the stern’st good-night."
A dusty off-white Ford pickup made a slow turn off of Bowie Street onto a long, narrow dirt driveway and rolled with apparent reluctance toward the old house that stood some fifty yards back from the street. The house was made of ruddy reddish and brown stone, and was almost certainly a perfect square, with a flat roof. A curious design, but an old one, and one which the driver of the pickup had seen several times during his travels through this area of central Texas. Undoubtedly the house had been built before commercial electricity and water were available. The battered, ruined remains of an ancient windmill and a dilapidated cistern rising behind the house attested to this. There were still several such houses in this old Texas town of Seguin that had begun as a small Mexican settlement inside the wide curve of the Guadalupe River east of San Antonio. It was not hard to believe this house may have been standing before Texas had become an independent country, even before the Anglo settlers had begun mispronouncing the name "Tejas."
Xavier J. Grimm pulled the pickup to a stop behind another old pickup and a slightly newer car that were already parked in the driveway, shut off the engine, and sighed. It was a deep sigh, a blowing-out-the-cheeks sigh through pursed lips that briefly lifted the light brown hair hanging down on his forehead. He removed his wire-framed bifocals to rub his blue eyes for a few seconds. It had been a long, though leisurely drive from his home town of Crowther up in the hill country to the north. Though most road signs now proclaimed a 70 mile per hour speed limit, he had kept it under 60 the whole trip--he had been in no hurry to get here. Under most circumstances he would have enjoyed such a drive, but not today. He had never investigated a death before. He replaced his glasses and got out of the pickup.
He didn't really expect to discover anything new. Certainly nothing the conventional authorities could use, or anything they would even bother listening to. There were just a few things he wanted to see for himself, a few things to confirm in his own mind, before he let the matter rest. He walked slowly up to the house and knocked at the door.
October 2, 1997
My Dear Mr. Grimm,
It was with great delight that I received your letter and learned that you were moving back to Texas, even if only temporarily. Perhaps if you find the time we may be able to have a cup of coffee (or a few glasses of tea, ha ha) and a pipe, and catch one another up on things we have learned since you were my student those many years ago. You know I have no children or any other family of my own, and I have often thought of my students as being my family. You, who were one of my favorite students, were certainly numbered among them.
Let me know when you've returned to Crowther. I am sure you have tired of those cold Massachusetts winters--we can sit outside on a warm December day sipping iced tea and snubbing our noses at such cold weather.
In the meantime, I am about to make a trip to Seguin. It is a small town south of here, where a family lives who I have heard has preserved a curious folk legend regarding the screech owl. I learned about it from a current student who is from there, and it is something I've not heard of before. Perhaps I can document it more thoroughly and add it to the general body of folkloric knowledge. It could well prove to be a proverbial feather in my cap, so to speak (ha ha).
Again, call me when you have returned.
Respectfully, your old Prof (and now, perhaps, colleague?)
Xavier’s knock was not answered immediately. He looked around, taking in the surrounding grounds. The house sat in a lot that covered perhaps three acres, and around the old house was only an empty field. No, not quite empty. Already in early spring, longs shocks of Bermuda grass were waving and rippling liquidly in the brisk breeze. Here and there blue and pink wildflowers dotted the field and the lawn immediately in front of the house was speckled with dark violet phlox. Leaning protectively over the house were a grove of ancient live oak trees, their curling limbs whiskered with long strands of Spanish moss. He was just about to knock again when the door opened. He found himself looking down at a very attractive, petite young woman with shoulder-length glossy black hair and deep, wide brown eyes. She looked up at him expectantly.
"I'm Xavier Grimm," he said after nervously clearing his throat. "A friend of Professor Moffett...I called earlier?" He voiced the statement as a question.
"Oh...hi, come on in," she answered, and stood aside holding the door open.
The house seemed even smaller inside than out; not cramped, but definitely cozy. The dark greenish wallpaper of an indiscriminate design was faded, but not cracked or peeling. Somehow the family had managed to squeeze two easy chairs and a sofa into the small living room, ranged in a loose semicircle around a television that sat on a small table against the front wall. On the side wall was a fireplace, now empty of flame but still with a scattering of ashes from fires burned the winter before. Above the mantle was a stylized picture of Jesus, looking upward with a strange expression of beatific agony.
"We were just about to eat dinner," said the young woman. "I hope you can join us."
Xavier smiled inwardly. It had been a while since he'd heard someone refer to the midday meal as dinner. He murmured a thankful assent as she ushered him through the living room into a tiny kitchen near the back of the house. Two people were already sitting at the table: one an older version of the young woman, the other an elderly man of regal bearing with eyes that slanted downward slightly in an expression of perpetual sadness.
October 11, 1997
I have made the acquaintance of a very solemn and honorable old gentleman by the name of Salvador Rangel. His grand-daughter Anita is the student I mentioned in my previous missive. His is an old colonial family who moved north from Mexico in the late 1700’s. He has told me much of his family history--he seems genuinely pleased that someone such as myself is interested in such things. Of course, my interest in history is only incidental to my interest in this curious folktale mentioned by Anita, and about which he seems strangely reluctant to speak.
Thus far, I have managed to gather only a little. That the legend is somehow related to the owl is certain. Exactly how it is related, I am still unsure. Since you grew up in this area, I suppose you have picked up a least a smattering of Spanish. My knowledge of this language is very poor, and looking through a dictionary of classical Spanish I found the word for "owl" is "lechuza." However, in this local dialect the word "lechuza" seems to echo of strange and disturbing connotations. It seems that this lechuza is always female, and it may be more correct (and convenient, for me) to capitalize it when referring to the folktale. The word itself is considered the feminine gender in the Spanish tongue, however, if the Lechuza is thought a female because of this, or if the word is of feminine gender because of its roots in the old legend, I do not know.
If I were of a superstitious cast, I might think that old Mr. Rangel believes there is some truth to the legend. His wife, Lupé, says nothing, though in truth I have not attempted to engage her in any conversation. My impression is that her knowledge of English may well be as poor as mine is of Spanish. Salvador himself is quite proficient in both tongues, however, and has taught me a new word or two.
I will spend tonight in a small (and cheap) motel on West Kingsbury St. I'll be returning to Crowther on the morrow--if my car isn't stolen tonight (ha ha).
Conversation during the meal was almost nonexistent. Mr. Rangel said a short prayer of blessing over the meal--in Spanish--of which Xavier was able to recognize only a few words.
"I hope you weren't expecting Mexican food," Mr. Rangel said a few minutes later, with just a touch of humor in his voice. "We all like spaghetti very much."
"The spaghetti is excellent," said Xavier, and asked for another slice of garlic bread. There were a few noncommittal comments about the weather, but little else until the end of the meal.
"My family once owned much of this land," said Mr. Rangel later. He had invited Xavier into his backyard after they finished eating, where they stood in the cool shade of one of the big live oaks. The open field of Bermuda grass extended back to a row of shabby trees that didn't quite succeed in blocking the view of the next street. "Before the city had grown so large," Mr. Rangel was saying, "this was all farmland. Most of it was sold before it was worth enough to make my family rich." He laughed a quiet, sad little laugh. "This place now is large for a city lot, but it helps me still to feel at home."
Xavier squatted and picked up an acorn, toying with it and tossing it from hand to hand. Naturally not a very talkative person, he was unsure of how to bring the conversation around to Professor Moffett. "Mr. Rangel," he began, then hesitated.
"Yes, of course," answered the old man. "You are here to learn the truth of what happened to your friend Robert. He was your friend?"
"Yes." Xavier stood. "I was his student in college, and we kept in touch after I had transferred to another school up north."
Mr. Rangel plucked a leaf from a low-hanging branch and pretended to examine it closely. "This land has many old stories," he said. "My ancestors lived here many centuries before even the Spanish explorers came, and there are stories that were already old during their time. I have seen many people like you laugh at the old legends, saying they are only silly superstitions."
"I'm not laughing," said Xavier, as he looked the old gentleman directly in the eye. "And you may be surprised at what I may believe."
Mr. Rangel regarded him thoughtfully for several longs seconds before he spoke again. "This place here," he gestured around them with a wave of his hand, "belonged to my brother Domingo, before he died. Before I moved here, I lived on my own small farm at the end of what is now Bear Creek Road, in the country east of town."
November 1, 1997
As you can see from the postmark I am again in Seguin. Since I last wrote you I have spoken at some length with both Salvador Rangel and his grand-daughter Anita. It is now clear to me that the old fellow does truly believe his stories are real. He owns a small farm on the eastern outskirts of Seguin. The house there is now deserted, and he only keeps a few cattle on the place. He moved out of it many years ago, just after the death of his son. It appears that he blames this Lechuza creature for his death--or rather, he partially blames himself though he believes that this creature (whatever it is) actually killed his son. It was at his old farm that his son’s death occurred.
Of course I am treating his claims with all seriousness. I imagine the death of one’s own son must be a terrible loss, but I find myself wondering if the old man’s grief didn't at least partially unhinge him. Anita was too young to remember it at the time, and they told me her mother died from complications resulting from her birth. I told you already of Lupé’s reticence, so, I have only old Salvador’s words on the matter. Perhaps I should later attempt to investigate old newspaper records to see if there was any report on the death of Salvador’s son other than the usual obituary.
In any case, according to what I have been told, the curse of the Lechuza seems to afflict certain families. Though most people have been reluctant to speak with an outsider such as myself, I have still spoken with a few who seemingly believe in the old legend but do not claim to have had any firsthand experience with it. One thing seems clear: they do not like to talk about the Lechuza, as if they are afraid of attracting her attention.
Mr. Rangel has given me permission to stay in his old farmhouse for a few days. He has kept electrical service to this property but no telephone, so at least I won't be left in the dark. I have taken a short leave of absence from C.C.C. in order to make these investigations. I will look over the old place and put my notes in order. When you arrive I should have at least a preliminary report written for you to look over, but alas, I fear that there will not be much for you to read. Specific information seems to be woefully lacking.
Xavier hadn't learned anything from old Mr. Rangel that he didn't already know from reading the Professor’s notes. "My family has carried this curse for many years," he told Xavier. "I think that may be why my ancestors left Mexico in the first place, to try and escape it." They had returned to the Rangel’s living room, where they talked over the low murmur of a Spanish-language soap opera that his wife was watching on the television.
"When it began, I don't know," continued Mr. Rangel. "But I heard the Lechuza’s cry many times on my old farm."
"You heard its cry?"
"Yes, it makes the sound of a crying baby, to lure you outside. It is often heard during thunderstorms." He paused. "My son Julio was living with us after Anita was born. The death of his wife, Marisela, had been a terrible shock to him, we were all trying to help him through his grief. He had lived with us for six or seven months when one night during a bad storm we heard the cry of the Lechuza." The old man paused again but Xavier said nothing.
"It upset Julio badly," he continued. "He was determined to go outside, it sounded so much like someone had abandoned a baby on our doorstep. I stopped him. We were up most of the night, even after the storm had stopped the crying continued, and all around us we heard the sounds of owls. Screech owls, calling each other all night until it was almost daybreak. Then suddenly the crying stopped and the owls stopped, and it was quiet. We managed to sleep for a few hours, then finally went outside later in the morning. There were scratches on some of the window ledges, like something with huge claws had been there. We found one of the dogs, he had been torn apart, as if by a wild animal."
Xavier remained silent. A dog, torn apart--that was not too extraordinary. This incident would have happened about twenty years before. He knew that there was still the odd cougar wandering around in these parts back then. He shrugged mentally. It could even have been another dog, he thought. He had seen dogs driven nearly to madness by loud noises before, an intense thunderstorm could easily have been the cause.
"I'm sorry," he said suddenly. "But how do owls fit into this?"
"It is said that when the Lechuza does not want you know she is there, she disguises herself as an owl--a screech owl. In her other form she is a terrible combination of owl and human."
"It was the next night that Julio died," Mr. Rangel took up the story again. "Many people do not think it’s wise to talk too much about the Lechuza, but that day when we found the dog, Julio was very angry. He shouted curses at her and swore to kill her if she ever came again, and that night, she did."
The old gentleman took out a handkerchief and wiped his face. Surprised, Xavier realized he had been silently weeping. Mr. Rangel blew his nose and continued his story.
"The owls began calling and hooting soon after sundown," he said. "Later that night we heard the crying again. Julio was so angry that I didn't try to stop him. He took a shotgun, and I took my old deer rifle, and we went outside with flashlights. We shone them into the trees around the house, and everywhere there were owls. Normally, any animal will turn and flee when such a bright light hits them. They may be paralyzed for a few moments in a bright light, but when the light is gone they will run, or fly. As we swept the trees with our lights the owls never moved, but only sat there staring at us with their large, round eyes. I was very frightened. Suddenly Julio shouted something and ran into the trees, there was a terrible noise. I heard my son..." He stopped and cleared his throat, then continued. "I heard my son screaming, and the crying sound. I was too frightened. I ran back into the house and didn't come back out until it was daylight."
"I'm very sorry," said Xavier. "But you mean you never saw the Lechuza yourself?"
"No," he answered. "And I still pray that I never will. We couldn't live there anymore after that. We all--my wife, my grand-daughter--lived here in this house with my brother until he passed away three years ago."
November 3, 1997
I haven't much to say in this letter, only that I have had a rough time of it the last couple of nights. It seems there is an unusual profusion of screech owls living on this old farm, and they spend much of the night keeping me awake with their infernal cackling. I have made a cursory investigation of the grounds here, and of course found nothing unusual, except (as I mentioned) the owls. I have made the rounds of all the neighbors hereabouts, explaining that I was a researcher of folklore and a professor at Crowther Community College. Most of them either say that they have never heard of such a legend, or, like Mr. Rangel, are very reluctant to speak about it. One old fellow actually closed the door in face my when I uttered the word "Lechuza."
It is most peculiar that on several occasions I have noticed an owl, sitting in a tree nearby wherever I might be, simply sitting there staring at me. I must admit that it has begun to be somewhat disconcerting.
I expect to be back in Crowther by the end of the week. Look me up when you arrive in December.
Xavier kept thinking back to that last letter he had received from the Professor in early November of the previous year. It was the last he had heard from Robert Moffett until the Seguin police had delivered that last letter that was found on the Professor’s body and never mailed, along with the hastily scrawled note found lying on the table inside the old farmhouse. Xavier had persuaded Mr. Rangel to allow him to visit the old farm, on one condition.
"I hope you don't take it the wrong way," the old man had told him. "But I will be coming out later to put some hay out for the cattle. If you are not gone by dark, I will call the police and have you removed." Xavier had looked at him sharply in surprise, and Mr. Rangel put a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Only for your safety, young man. Your Professor friend was the first to stay the night in that house since my son’s death, and if I have my way, he will also be the last." Xavier had acquiesced; he hadn't planned on staying very long anyway. He was about to back out of the Rangel’s driveway when he heard a door slam and saw Anita on the front porch waving at him. He stopped as she trotted out to his pickup.
"Mind if I come along?"
They didn't say much to each other on the way out to the farm. Xavier had the feeling she meant to tell him something, but she only gave him a few directions on where to turn, even though her grandfather had already told him how to get there. The farm was at the end of a roughly graveled county road that ran due east out of town between some watermelon and peanut fields. Xavier rolled to a slow stop at the front gate.
Now they stood in an open area between the house and the barn. A few feet away a white-faced Hereford cow grazed lazily. He looked into the distance where a grove of tall, straight elms clustered darkly along the banks of Bear Creek at the back end of the property. Around the house the woods were less dense; a scattering of post oak, hickory and stunted prickly ash were the only things to be seen. Somewhere down in that dark thicket of elms was where Julio Rangel had met his death, and somewhere between the house and the front gate, not far from where Xavier stood, was where the Professor had met his. Like Julio, Robert Moffett’s death had gone in the records simply as an animal attack. Nothing more specific than that--case closed. Anita stood nearby, her arms crossed as if she were trying to protect herself from the cold, though the weather was mild and the sun was shining brightly from a clear sky.
Xavier had seen the gouges in the window ledges too. Old ones, weathered and indistinct, and newer ones around the door frame, that he supposed could have happened a few months before, about the time the Professor was here. The authorities had an answer for that too--vandals, with hatchets. He smiled a small, sardonic half-smile. Vandals with hatchets, scratching narrow segments out of the wooden window and door frames.
"There’s one thing I don't understand," he said finally. "Accepting that this thing actually exists, and it followed your ancestors all the way up here from Mexico, then why has it stayed out here instead of following your family to their house in town?"
"It hasn't," replied Anita. "I've heard it."
Xavier’s only reply was a lifted eyebrow that betrayed his curiosity.
"I don't know if my grandfather knows, but I've heard it."
"Have you seen it?"
"No...partly because it’s always dark when it comes, and partly because I bury my head under the pillows when I hear it."
Xavier smiled briefly at the attempted joke. "So does it sound like a baby crying to you, too?"
She looked up at him, her eyes wide and dark. "No, it isn't crying," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "It’s laughing."
Xavier thought about that in silence for a few long seconds. "Well," he said after a pause, "can you show me where the Professor is buried?"
"Sure, it’s not far."
They walked slowly back to his pickup in silence. He pretended not to notice the owl sitting in one of the nearby trees, an owl sitting in the open in bright daylight, staring at him with large, round, unblinking eyes.
November 3, 11:30 PM
You must forgive me if I begin to sound somewhat unstrung--the hideous and unceasing shrieking of the owls has become intolerable--and there has been something else. I attempted to leave earlier tonight, but only made it a few steps out the door before I was assailed by several owls. It was more of an annoyance than anything else, though it frightened me terribly at the time. I was able to struggle my way back into the house only after receiving several painful, though not serious, wounds from their beaks and claws. I searched through the house until I found an old quilt with which I thought I could shield myself and make another run for the car, and was just about to do so when I heard what seems to be an infant crying.
Xavier, I am sure during your studies at M.U. that you have on occasion seen at least some parts of the old Necronomicon. I have read a great deal of it, in fact it was doing so that led to my partial breakdown, and which is why I was able to find work only at a small junior college such as C.C.C. instead of gaining employment at my old alma mater of M.U. as I had always hoped. I fear greatly that this old folktale may hold within it the substance of some truth. You remember how we used to wonder if there were some things that Alhazred may have left out, or if there were things that had simply been lost in the many translations from the original Al Azif? I fear that the Lechuza may be one of those things. Perhaps it is something peculiar only to this part of the world, of which the Arab was completely unaware, some eldritch demon of the wild such as the Wendigo of the north.
Enclosed you will find my collection of notes and what brief interviews I have managed to gather regarding the legend. I will throw this heavy quilt over my head and make a quick run for my car. I'll spend the night in the motel I mentioned before, dropping this letter off at the Post Office on my way across town. See you in December--
A few minutes later Xavier’s pickup rattled across the one-lane wooden suspension bridge that spanned Bear Creek and rolled to a stop on the side of the road across from a small Catholic cemetery. He followed Anita through the gate as they walked the path that led to a back corner of the old graveyard.
"My grandfather felt so bad about what happened to Professor Moffett," said Anita, "that when he found out the Professor had made no arrangements for his own funeral and such, he granted permission for him to be buried here."
His grave was easy to find, the mound of earth over it still mostly bare of any growth after only a few months. There was only a tiny marker on the ground, with barely enough room to show the Professor’s name, and birth and death dates. Anita plucked a bluebonnet and played with it between her fingers. Xavier only stood quietly smoking a battered, leather-covered pipe for several minutes until there was nothing left in the bowl but a fine, white ash. Then it was time to go.
He glanced into his rearview mirror once just after crossing back over the narrow bridge, but the cemetery had already disappeared around a bend in the road. All he saw was the bridge and a spray of bluebonnets that grew along the roadside, nodding softly in the wind. In spite of the complete tranquillity of the scene, he couldn't stop his mind from going back over that last note--the note that had been left lying on the kitchen table of the old farmhouse, and which the authorities had dismissed as being wholly lacking in credulity.
In the Necronomicon there is a certain passage which now continually echoes through my mind. "...of their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those they have begotten on mankind; and of those there are many sorts..." The owls...their calling and hooting has become a hideous shrieking laughter, and I have seen it. It was waiting for me just outside the door...with great curved claws and terrible rending beak, and those horrible huge round eyes in a disgusting owlish parody of a human face. Those great round unblinking eyes like windows into the blackest depths of the cosmos...now I know what Poe meant--"his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming..." Even now I hear it clawing relentlessly at the door...
I can see them beating at the windows with their beaks and claws and wings, and their laughter...THAT FACE...Their merciless shrieking laughter...it now drowns out all other sounds--except for that other laughter--my own ludicrous and maniacal laughter that trembles my hand as I pen these words, and spatters teardrops of obscene hilarity across the page...
© 1998 Alan Peschke