Feature Image: Barred Owl (2022), by Vasilisa Romanenko vasilisaart.com
It is deep autumn in South Central Texas when I encounter the owl. The skies are stony and gray, and the branches of the old pecan trees in our backyard are bare and stretching toward each other like the boniest of witches’ fingers. Wind gusts and stirs the few leaves that are left to flutter.
It is ancestor time, November 1, the first day of Día de los Muertos, and the candles on our main family altar are flickering. Copal smoke scents the air, and I nibble on sweet pan de muerto and sip on coffee sweetened with cajeta while the boys get bundled up and ready for school. They are hyper on the events and the sugar rush that always follow in the wake of Halloween, ready to meet up with friends and share battle stories of the night’s adventures. A bit later I’m sitting at my desk in the nook off the kitchen, talking to a group of students about the practices of honoring ancestors, when I catch sight of it.
Heart-shaped face, gorgeous plumage that moves in shade from Spanish oak brown to creamy white, luminous eyes that are looking, piercingly, right at me. I know we have owls in these parts, especially this kind of owl, a barred owl or, as my grandparents always referred to them, hoot owl. I’ve lost count of how many early mornings I have walked these paths with hot coffee and hard prayers under starlight and heard the great birds with their low, deep calls. But I have never had one show up so boldly, staring at me so frankly.
I know why the owl is here: Because of Samhain and Día de los Muertos, the holy days of the dead when the veils between the worlds are so very thin. It is the season of the witch and ghost bird, ancestor time.
An ancient belief tells that owls are actually angels in disguise—watching, protecting, observing. My grandfather was taught by his mother, though, that owls are actually ghost birds able to move from the land of the living to the land of the dead, able to carry messages back and forth too.
Watching the great bird watch me, I’m convinced. It feels like a messenger here to watch and learn. It feels like the ancestors have decided to take leave of their altars and show up in a more concrete manner. I first see the owl around nine in the morning, but it stays put all day, watching, peering into my window. So when the boys get home from school, I take them outside, one at a time. I’m showing them the owl, but I am also showing them to the owl. As the sugar skulls decorated with bright strips of foil glitter on the ancestor altar, I decide to have a heart-to-heart with this gorgeous creature high in the branches.
tell it that my children are happy, healthy, and good in so many ways. I tell it that my babies are as safe as they can be. I know that this last part is deeply important to my ancestors and in my lineage, because those who came before me often were not safe because of the color of their skin and how they spoke and how they looked. These little things, so easy to take for granted, matter to my beloved dead.
It seems only fair. Later this evening we will have a bonfire. More copal will be offered, along with some chocolate and tequila. Marshmallows will be toasted. And then late into the night I will sit with my cards and ask my questions of the ancestors, for they are the ones who have gone before us, they are the ones who know. At that point they will be the ones to tell me. The owl stays put through the three days of Día de los Muertos. On the fourth day it flies off, and though I hear it, I do not see it frequently. It’s fine, though, appropriate in its way, and much like the ancestors themselves … rarely visible but always watching.
Autumn is often considered the season of the witch. I think if it is, then it’s because autumn is a season full of the wonders and magic found in the natural world at every turn—wonders and magic that require our attention and right response. And that really is what witchery is all about: knowing what is worth your time and attention, knowing how to respond correctly. Knowing that ancestors do not always show up at perfectly constructed altars, and that more often than not you may find them watching through the eyes of an owl.