Addie had never put much stock in silly superstitions. They existed all around her, from her mother’s belief that you should enter and leave by the same door, to her father’s insistence that you must always leave one apple in the orchard at the end of a harvest. Even the local preacher, who steadfastly believed that hearing an unattended church bell meant a parishioner would die. He’d had the bells taken down last year. Don’t do this, always do that. Lest you invite bad luck, lest you tempt the devil, lest this and that and the other thing that never, ever happened.
“Stupidity and fantasy,” Addie told her mother, as they swept the front porch one cool day in the early spring. “Y’all will worry yourselves sick over nothing and then celebrate when nothing happens.”
“I taught you better than that, Addie May,” her mother said.
“You taught me to gather acorns in a thunderstorm. What kind of nonsense is that?”
“The smart kind,” her mother answered. “Now be careful where you sweep. Watch your sister’s feet.”
Addie’s older sister, Emmy, seventeen and pretty as a peach, sat in an old rocking chair near the door, humming and stringing green beans for dinner.
“Or what, Ma?” Addie said. She stopped what she was doing, held the broom upright and put her other hand on her hip. “What’ll happen if I sweep under Emmy’s feet?”
“She’ll never get married,” her mother said. “That’s what.”
“That is absolutely ridiculous,” Addie said, and with a grand gesture, she swept the broom right under the rocking chair, brushing the bottoms of Emmy’s shoes.
That was both her mother and Emmy, in a tone she knew all too well. The tone meant trouble. As in, she was in it.
“Oh fine,” she said. “I’ll go inside and peel potatoes.”
“Yes you will, Addie May,” said her mother. “And you will apologize to your sister, too.”
“What for?” Addie whined.
“Right now, Miss Priss.”
“She’s not even engaged!”
Her mother answered by way of a stern look and a raised eyebrow.
Addie sighed and turned to Emmy. She said, “I am sorry for sweeping under your feet, lest you never get married and end up a lonely old crone.”
She dropped the broom and ran inside before either Emmy or her mother could reply. She went to bed that night with a fresh scolding from both her parents, and without supper.
In the morning, Addie stayed in her bed for a little longer than usual. She listened to the breeze and the birdsong, and watched the world wake up from her window. When the sun hung high enough to cast shadows on the fields, she snuck outside – easy, since her family had already started their daily chores – and climbed the old oak tree in their back yard. She sat on a thick branch, twirling a leaf in through her fingers.
“Who cooks for you…”
That came from somewhere above her, she thought, and looked up, scanning the branches and searching the leaves.
“Who cooks for you…”
And she spotted it, perched about ten feet above her head, a Barred Owl, looking out ahead with its wide, dark eyes.
“What are you doing out here?” Addie asked.
The owl did not reply.
The second Addie moved to climb higher, the owl flew away.
“Well, that’s disappointing,” she said to herself. “Guess he didn’t want to talk.”
Addie sighed, something her mother said she was unnaturally good at, and climbed down. Sooner or later, she’d have to get this day started, and now was as good a time as any. As she made her way back to the house, she fell in step with her mother, coming back from the barn.
“Hi, Ma,” she said. “I’ll go get the eggs here in a minute.”
“We’re going into town for groceries around lunch, so don’t take too long,” her mother told her. “Where’ve you been this morning?”
“I didn’t feel good,” Addie lied. “I slept in, and then when I felt a little better, I climbed the oak tree to get some fresh air.”
“My little monkey,” her mother said. “You feel all right now?”
“Yes ma’am,” Addie said. “And I saw an owl when I was in the tree.”
Her mother said nothing, but her eyes grew wide.
“It was real pretty, Ma. It almost talked to me.”
Her mother grabbed her arm and pulled her through the kitchen door. Addie stumbled behind her.
“What is it, Ma? What’d I do?”
“Are you absolutely certain, Addie May Bailey, that you saw an owl in that tree?”
“Yes, Ma,” Addie answered.
“Not some other bird?”
“No, ma’am. It was definitely an owl.”
“God protect us,” her mother said. And then, “You stay here. I’m going to get your sister and Pa.”
“Ma! What’d I do? Am I in trouble?”
Her mother hurried out the door without answering, and all Addie could do was wait. She sat down at the table, and wrung her hands together. She didn’t think she’d done anything wrong. She was a little late getting started on her chores, but she had time to get them done, and she hadn’t stained her dress or hurt herself climbing the tree.
About fifteen minutes later, her mother returned, this time with her father and sister in toe, and said, “Now Addie, you tell your Pa what you saw in the tree.”
“An owl,” Addie answered.
“Are you sure?” her father asked.
“Yes, sir. It hooted at me. It had big eyes.”
Her mother and father shared a look, and her sister sat down beside her at the table.
“Why do you always make trouble?” Emmy rolled her eyes and rested her chin in her hands. “Had to go and climb that tree, didn’t you?”
“Emmy hush,” her mother said. “What do you think we should do, Giles?”
Addie stared at her father. He looked calm, but she could see the little vein in his forehead that always popped out when something worried him.
“We’ll just be careful,” her father said. “Nothing else we can do.”
Addie couldn’t take it anymore. She stood up, and the chair she’d been sitting in fell behind her.
“Pa, what’s wrong with me seeing an owl? I don’t understand.”
Her mother answered, wrapping her arms around herself. “They say,” she said, “that if you see an owl in daylight, that means a death is coming.”
Her father and sister were silent, but they looked between Addie and her mother. Emmy picked up the chair.
“Are you serious?” Addie asked.
“As a heart attack,” her mother answered.
“Oh, good grief!”
“Addie,” Emmy screeched.
“More silly superstitions and stupid made-up stories!” Addie fumed. She turned on her family and pointed a straight, stiff finger at all of them. “You’re all crazy!”
She stamped out of the room to the chicken coop, and by the evening, with her chores done and her family still walking on eggshells, she felt exhausted.
“You just watch,” she said. “Nothing will happen. Nothing ever happens, and y’all just sit there and worry your lives away. Not me!”
She went to bed without supper again.
The next day, from down in the town, a bell rang. It rang every few minutes, all day.
“I thought Pastor Cory took the bells down,” Emmy said.
“He did,” her mother answered, and shuddered.
“Must be from somewhere else,” Addie said.
The day after that, Mrs. Williams, an old widow from their church, hobbled up to their house and knocked on the door. Addie saw her coming from her window, and walked downstairs just in time to hear her say that it was terrible, what had happened. Addie stayed hidden, just around the corner.
“What happened, Mrs. Williams?”
That was Emmy.
“That poor boy, Jonah Evans,” Mrs. Williams said. “Fell in the silo.”
Her mother, Addie thought.
“Nothing the doctor could do,” Mrs. Williams said.
“So he’s dead?”
Emmy again, her voice shaking.
“Poor boy,” Mrs. Williams said.
Addie walked into the room and said, “That’s terrible.”
Emmy turned on her. Addie had never seen Emmy in such a state. Red eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. Addie moved to comfort her, to put her arms around her, but Emmy flinched away.
“This is all your fault,” she screamed, and she ran out of the room and up the stairs.
Addie just stood there, dumbfounded, waiting for someone to explain.
“How…” she started, and then stopped.
Her mother looked over in the direction of the stairs. “Addie,” she said, “go to your room.”
And so Addie did.
That night, she crept down the hall and padded into Emmy’s room.
“Emmy,” she whispered.
Emmy lay in her bed, tucked tight beneath the covers and facing the wall.
Addie crawled in beside her, and pulled her into a hug.
“I’m sorry,” Addie said. “I’m sorry about what happened to Jonah.”
Emmy sniffled and said, “We were going to get married one day.”
“I didn’t know he liked you that way,” Addie replied.
“He didn’t,” Emmy said, and Addie could tell she was crying. Her shoulders shook, and her voice sounded thick and tight. “Not yet, but he would have.”
Addie didn’t respond. She just held Emmy as she cried. She fell asleep with her sister in her arms, and when she woke in the morning, Emmy was gone.
Weeks went by, and then months. The weather turned warm, and though the world around them felt alive and in motion, Addie and Emmy barely spoke. In April, Addie left a four-leaf clover on Emmy’s pillow. In May, Addie saw the owl again as she spent a morning lounging, or perhaps hiding, in the oak tree. She told no one, and as far as she knew, no one died and nothing bad happened. And then, in June, Emmy pulled Addie aside one day as she kneaded dough for their dinner.
“I have something to tell you,” Emmy said.
“I’d be happy to hear it,” Addie answered, and smiled.
“I met a boy,” Emmy said. “His name is Robert, and I think I want to marry him.”
Addie thought for a moment, and remembered something her mother had told her a very long time ago. Another silly superstition, yes, but perhaps, in this particular case, the right one. A dream that meant good fortune, and a sign of good things to come. Something happy.
She smiled, and took Emmy’s hand in hers, covering both in fine, white flour.
“Emmy, that’s wonderful,” she said. “And I have to tell you, because I think it’s a sign.”
Emmy looked at her with all the hope she thought she’d ever see.
Addie said, “Last night, I dreamed of bees.”
Emmy squeezed Addie’s hand and said, “You know what Ma says about dreaming of bees!”
Addie had never put much stock in silly superstitions, it was true. But right now, in this moment, she wanted to believe in this one.
“Yes,” Addie said. “I know exactly.”
Thank you for reading! This is the third of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore
Here are the first two, if you’d like to read them:
The Winter Woman
The Lady in the Stars
I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.
The next story will be posted at the end of April.