Animal Encounter–Bronze Winner: The Night of the Owl

By Jennifer Wells

N’anga – a traditional healer and herbalist who, as necessary, may practice witchcraft

Muti – traditional herbal remedy, in some instances used to cast or reverse a spell

We’ve been cursed. An owl flew into our house two nights ago. No other explanation is offered. As witches in disguise, owls are not popular here. On the other hand they can be messengers of death; it depends on who you ask.

I knew all this before the incident; even so I wasn’t too fussed the night before last, when I returned home after dinner with a friend to find Paul, panic-stricken …

“We have a problem” he whispered, “There’s an owl in the house.”

Munya had told me time and again: “Witchcraft doesn’t work on white people.”

I reminded him later when he too expressed alarm.

“You said this sort of thing couldn’t be used against whites!”

“That was before an owl actually flew into your house. That almost never happens. Eeesh! My friend, this is bad. Very bad.”

It had flown through the open upper-half of the front stable-door, circled the large thatched family room-cum-kitchen a couple of times, and finally headed in the opposite direction, through two doors, and into our bedroom. Paul was spooked. He grew up in Zimbabwe where stories of owls and witches start to make sense after a while, even amongst Whites. I crept in to see the owl, perched on a high beam in our bedroom.

About a foot tall, it looked beautiful and extremely unhappy. I opened all the windows; unfortunately all with burglar bars. It would be difficult but not physically impossible for the owl to get out. It was just slim enough to fit through the gap between the bars if it cleverly approached on foot, wings tucked by its sides, slow and cautious on the narrow window sill. I closed the door, hoping it would find its own way out.

The next indication of something-to-panic-about came from our night-time security guard, Alfred. Alfred works from 8pm to dawn; he comes in each evening to prepare his tea and bread. He never neglects to come in for tea, much less forgets; it’s free and simply not to be passed up. On The Night of the Owl, he didn’t come in. I knew he was around, so I called to him before we went to bed.

“Alfred, we’re going to sleep. You should come in and make your tea.”

“Oh, no thank you, I am not hungry tonight.”

This was not possible; when you’re a security guard, eating doesn’t depend on degree of hunger.

“Alfred, what’s going on?”

“Wilmore said there’s an owl in your house.”

“Yes, it flew in a couple of hours ago.”

“Did you invite it in?”

“No Alfred, I didn’t. I don’t actually know how to communicate with owls.”

He looked skeptical, like he didn’t believe me.

“Alfred, it flew in by mistake.”

“Ah, there are no mistakes when it comes to owls.”

“I know that Zimbabweans don’t like owls, but some owls are just owls.”

“An owl is never just an owl.”

Alfred did not come in for tea.

The owl was still in the room at 11pm, so Paul and I slept in the spare bedroom. It was gone when we woke the next morning.

Jessica comes into the house every morning at 8am to clean. The morning after The Night of the Owl, she didn’t come. She sent her small son with a message; she was sick. He looked big-eyed and terrified, standing a good 5 feet back from the door.

“Is she truly sick, Tawanda?”

Silence

“Is this because of the owl?”

At this, he turned and bolted.

Jessica, humorless as ever, arrived 10 minutes later, and explained dryly that she would not venture into the house until a n’anga had dealt with the owl business. Since someone had sent the owl into our home, we were cursed. I tried to reason with her, but her glazed eyes looked into the distance. Now I began to panic. Alfred not coming in for tea was one thing; cleaning the whole house myself was something else entirely.

I did what I do in a crisis, I called Munya. He agreed to meet me immediately, given the gravity of the situation. As I left the house, I noticed an unusual congregation on the street. Our neighbors flagged me down. Were they actually gloating?

“I hear you had an owl. Ah shame, these people with their witchcraft. I know a good n’anga.” This was my dubious neighbor; I was not about to have him recommend anybody. He might tell his brother to dress up n’anga-like so they could split the cash. “No thanks”.

“Jessica said it spoke to you. What did it say?”

“It said it was going to visit every house on this street until it found what it was looking for.”

That shut everyone up.

After retracting his “Whites are immune to witchcraft” statement, Munya tried to figure out who sent the owl. Someone was evidently very angry at either Paul or myself, or both of us. I reminded Munya that his wife didn’t like me much, but he didn’t think she was capable of this sort of thing. We came up blank on the enemy front, so he suggested calling a n’anga.

“It’s probably nothing, Jen, but this way at least you’ll be safe. Plus, Jessica won’t return to work unless the n’anga comes to your house, and who will clean your house?” No argument there.

The n’anga would be able to figure out who had sent the owl and why and use his powers and muti to counteract the spell and keep us safe. Munya didn’t know any n’angas at that time but, as always, he had friends and so organized everything through them.

The next morning Munya went to see the n’anga to explain the situation. He phoned me on the way home.

“He’s coming tomorrow morning at 10am. Just so you know, um, he’s a bit odd.”

How could a n’anga not be odd?

“Did you tell him we’re white?”

“Yes. He looked a bit surprised, but still agreed to come.”

The n’anga showed up at 2pm. We were getting restless. Munya and Paul at least worked for themselves and didn’t have to make excuses to a boss. I would have to report to mine and I suspected that Stanford University didn’t allow time off for purging evil spirits from your home. I found myself wishing I still worked for Berkeley.

His clothes were torn, he seemed dirty. He was thin; tall for a Shona man, maybe 6 feet. I expected dreadlocks, but he was nearly bald. He entered the house, walked into every room, and back outside. He opened his satchel and took out something like chopped herbs, and shoved them up his nostrils. Munya explained as we spied through the window that it was snuff combined with traditional muti that would allow him to become possessed. Having seen The Exorcist as a child, I felt somewhat knowledgeable in matters of possession and the like, and honestly didn’t think it was the best way forward. I guess the look on my face gave me away, so Munya explained.

“He’s going to be possessed by his ancestors, not by the devil. His ancestors will tell him who sent the owl and why.” This wasn’t what I would call a huge relief, but I did relax a little.

The n’anga removed a small wooden bowl from his satchel, and whispered. Munya, with apparent super-human hearing, immediately jumped up, went outside and filled the bowl with water. The n’anga dumped the remainder of his snuff/muti combination into the bowl, and came back inside the house. There was a small spoon inside the bowl, and I prayed that he wouldn’t make us sample his concoction. He didn’t. He threw it on the wall. Using the small spoon, and chanting all the while, he walked from room to room, tossing a small amount of watery muti on every wall in the house. Munya later said that the n’anga was possessed while this was happening, but it wasn’t obvious; his voice didn’t change, his eyes didn’t roll back, his head didn’t twist around. There was no projectile vomiting. He ended up in our bedroom, where the owl had spent much of its visit. After sprinkling the final wall, he spat 2, maybe 3 times. Spitting, aside from being socially unacceptable, is a good way of spreading tuberculosis, so I was not pleased. However, being respectful of tradition and terrified, I kept my thoughts to myself. He stopped chanting, and we all stood in silence for two or three minutes. He went and sat outside, and we followed.

Again, we sat in silence for several minutes. The n’anga spoke dramatically; if he wasn’t authentic, he certainly put on a fine show.

“The owl was sent to Jennifer.”

Fuck! Shit! Fuck! I looked at Paul. He looked really relieved and could barely conceal a satisfied grin, the bastard. I had been certain the n’anga would conclude that there was no witchcraft involved, that it was just a lost and confused owl.

“Someone you work with is jealous that you intend to move to the UK, and sent the owl to prevent you from finding work.”

This was getting creepy. I had in fact resigned my job, and had told colleagues that we intended to move to London. I had agreed to work for another couple of months while my replacement was identified. But there was no way the n’anga could have known that! I glanced suspiciously at Munya; maybe he had told him during their introductory visit. But he just shook his head. He often gets the giggles in scary situations, and I could see he was about to bust up. Luckily, the n’anga continued talking.

“I have cleared the evil spirits from this house. You will have no trouble finding a job.”

Munya paid the n’anga and offered respectful thanks and farewell. We grabbed some beers from the fridge and tried to figure out what just happened. Munya was certain the n’anga hadn’t known about our plans to relocate, but thought there was the slightest chance he was cleverly bluffing. With the local economy in the toilet and crime on the rise, many people who could afford to were thinking of getting out; and this being an ex-British colony, many people who left went to the UK. Perhaps the n’anga took his chances rather than admit there was no witchcraft involved. Hell, that’s what I’m choosing to believe. It’s just, you know, I do sometimes wonder how the owl walked out through those burglar bars. One clever bird.


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