Aspen trunks flitted by like white wisps of campfire smoke. Spruce log and pipe tobacco still hung gently on the couple’s flannel jackets. Michael rested his hand on her thigh and slowly took the wide, winding turns of the old mountain highway. Daphne glanced up from the pictures on her phone to smile at him. They were driving downhill in the moonlight now after spending this October afternoon watching the sun lend its brightness to the blazing Rocky Mountain aspen trees. The coin-shaped leaves had rattled and whispered secrets in the cool thin air, changing from emerald green to deep orange and golden yellow on the mountain slope opposite their fire circle.
Daphne explored the mountains with him every chance they had to get away from their jobs and the city, and Michael loved to be her guide. He had an unsurpassed knowledge of the forest which came from growing up within it. His family had owned land here seemingly since the dawn of time. He knew where there were dark caves where bears slumbered, verdant meadows where roaming elk fed, sheer cliffs where eagles made their nests, crystal waters where the rainbow trout spawned. Yet, through all the time they spent trekking through shining scrub oak and over silky streams, Michael always kept his eyes on the sky. Any time she asked him about it, he simply smiled a sad smile and said, “The Curse of the Great Owl.” At this, she would laugh and keep hiking, but always, even as she trekked on ahead of him, his gaze remained upturned.
As darkness had begun to sneak across their campsite earlier that evening, Michael took on the serious demeanour and appearance of his angular-faced tribal ancestors– and Daphne’s smile shone white through the grainy light the fire cast. He began telling stories. It was what he had been doing the first time they met years ago at a party in these very woods, and what had made her fall in love with him. Daphne loved the life he lent the folktales of his people; he wove warm colourful tapestries of emotion and wrapped you in them, you were made to feel as the people in his stories felt. He told thrilling childhood tales of first hunts and tales of long-passed relatives. But everyone’s absolute favourite story was “The Curse of The Great Owl”.
His voice took on a slow, sombre cadence as the firelight reflected in his black eyes — and he told the tale. Immediately Daphne was hypnotized, transported in her mind to the ancient woods when the land was young. The story began long ago, with a mountain shrew who came cold, tired, and hungry to a young tribesman who was hunting deep in the forest. She said if he would share his strength with her, the old woman could give him gifts of knowledge: how to build a fire, how to build a house, how to build a family. He agreed, and she began to teach him the ways.
The young man built a fire with his new knowledge to keep them warm that night. The next day, she educated him further — he built her a house with that knowledge, and cooked her food he had caught as further payment. On the final day, she directed him in the ways of love, and made him promise two things: to return in a week to check on her and bring her some food, and to find her a husband with his new training. If he could not find her a willing man from his tribe when he returned the next week, then she would become his bride as payment for the knowledge she gave him. He agreed quickly and enthusiastically — but when he left the forest and used her knowledge to woo and marry a beautiful woman, he quickly forgot about the old shrew and started his new life.
He returned to that ancient part of the woods with his family one day much later in life, venturing out to hunt and see whatever had happened to the old woman. But when they arrived they found the house was empty and the fire recently put out, coals still warm and smouldering. The man and his family wandered around the clearing, calling out for her, when a shadow blocked out the sun. They all raised their hands to their faces and looked up as a great owl descended from on high into the clearing. This awful beast screeched as it landed and hopped towards the nearest child. The bird was twice as big as the largest warrior, and three times as strong—and had the hungry soul of the vengeful shrew within it. The man dashed to put himself between the monster and his young one, but it battered him aside with a sweep of its mighty wing and gobbled up the child.
The owl sped about the clearing, devouring his children and wife; all but himself and his oldest son. The owl levelled her gaze at the two terrified men backed against the side of her house.
“You broke your word to me. Now you and your descendants will never know love.” The old shrew’s voice seemed to echo deafeningly from deep within their minds, “You will grow a family, but when you have found happiness, I will come and I will take it from you. Always.”
“More time! I just need more time!” The father yelled back.
The owl’s beak snapped shut around his screaming head and his powerful body flopped limply forward onto the pine needles soaked with his family’s blood. The eldest son escaped this grizzly fate by running away through the dense woods while his father was eaten. He hid for three days in a cave before he returned to his village– belly empty, but head full of fear and tales of this great owl. It was to be his household’s curse from that day on: the eldest son should not build a family, should not marry their soulmate; else The Great Owl would come and swallow their love in vengeance for her loneliness. As the curse had been for many generations it will be for many more unless the proud family could either slay the bird or stop falling in love. But the men of this family were just as drawn to love as the bloodthirsty owl was to its revenge.
The telling finished as the last yellow flame flickered and fell into glowing orange coals. The twilight dwindled, mirroring the level of wine left in the bottle they had shared. They clicked on flashlights and shook off the weight of the story and the alcohol as they threw their tent, chairs, and camping supplies into the back of the car. The hatch slammed shut and the engine started, signalling the end of their autumnal vacation.
Now on the wide forest road, Daphne craned her head towards the sunroof to see the bright moon glimmering down on them through the treetops and silver clouds. They were still deep in the mountains but would emerge on the eastern slope and be home in just a few short hours. Michael stole a glance at her slender neck and let the Subaru’s wheels take him around the next corner. Rounding the bend he went rigid and gasped, slamming on his brakes and putting the car into park. Daphne braced herself with both hands against the heavy dashboard, shaken, staring ahead to see what had stopped their romantic descent.
In front of them, an enormous figure crouched over the still carcass of an antlered buck in the centre of the highway. A vast and monstrous head snapped around; round eyes the size of dinner plates glinted in the headlights. It was a great owl: taller than a man and twice as wide. A cold and unnatural intelligence examined them through eyes that focused and refocused, the metallic silver-white feathers about its face expanding instinctually outwards in a gesture of intimidation.
Eyes narrowing, it released a long blood-chilling screech into the forest night; bits of deer intestine and cords of spittle sprayed from its beak and long, wavering, snake-like tongue. The couple in the car gaped in disbelief, eyes wide, Daphne unwittingly and violently shaking. The long black tongue slithered back into the beak which it clacked once, then the bird bent low to the asphalt. Brake smoke and warm exhaust swirled across the black pavement as the huge wings opened, the wingspan dwarfing the highway. With a single beat, the muscled breast propelled the bird the distance between the carrion and the station wagon. It landed with a bone-jarring thump on the hood, the tips of its claws puncturing the metal of the side panels where it clung.
Hot reality came rushing back to both of them as Michael yelled, “Back! Get in back!” and quickly helped her between the driver and passenger seats.
The tip of the huge beak smashed three, four, five times through different places on the windshield, sending small slivers of tempered glass flying about the front seats. Once Daphne’s tangled legs were clear of the centre console, Michael leaned across the car, opened the glovebox, and pulled out an antler-handled hunting knife. There was a loud, popping scrunch as one of the metre-wide feet of the creature plunged its claws into the windshield. With a gust of cold air, it tore the sheet of protective glass away from the car’s frame and sent it whirling into the darkness. The wild-eyed bird bobbed its head down, looked into the car, and let loose another ear-splitting shriek; moldy, coppery, breath filled the space.
Daphne was terrified to look away from the horror unfolding in front of her, but her racing mind remembered the shotgun Michael kept in the long bag in the back. She crawled halfway over the seat, throwing clothing and gear to the side, scrabbling to reach it.
“You’re not supposed to be here! Not yet! More time! I just need more time!” he yelled, echoing his own father’s words, and his grandfather’s words before him– when they were said aloud there was the dread feeling of insuppressible fate coalescing as the vicious cycle neared completion. The bird’s foot reached in repeatedly to pull him out of the car seat, and each time it was withdrawn with a fresh wound. Compared to the great bird’s slick black talons the hunting knife he held seemed hopelessly small, but he shouted and slashed at each attempt of the gargantuan bird’s scaled feet to take him away. With every lunge, there was the sound of shirt fabric and flesh tearing, and big drops of both Michael and the owl’s blood spattered each time the claws came away.
Daphne knelt in the back seat and unzipped the gun bag as fast as her shaking fingers would allow. She turned for a moment to watch Michael lunge forward and sink his blade deep into one of the forward-facing toes that rested on the dashboard– the giant owl hopped backward with the knife stuck in its foot. Earsplitting screeches rent the night air, and turbulent flapping rocked the car.
Daphne turned to focus, pulling out the long gun and fumbling around inside the case, spilling shotgun shells that clustered around her knees on the car seat. She focused on feeding two shells into the gun and then pumping once with a solid “CHIK-CHOK” before adding the third to the underbarrel chamber, just like Michael had taught her months before.
Michael reached past the steering wheel to try and retrieve the blade where it protruded from the bleeding digit. But the predator’s wide skull angled down when it sensed the movement, eyes wild with fury, and in an instant, the razor-sharp beak of the raptor was upon him.
“SNOCK!” the hellish mouth closed, and the stump of where Michael’s right hand used to be fountained blood onto the hood of the car. The pain was immense, and his vision blurred as the huge, yellow, feral orbs of the owl’s eyes lowered to look at him through the wide front opening of the car.
“Please, I need more time!” yelled Michael again, unconsciously fulfilling the prophecy. He howled in pain and rage as the mouth opened and the slithering black tongue reached for him, but the noise was drowned out by an ear-ringing roar as a warm, wet sensation washed over him. He saw one of the owl’s great eyes explode into the night air with an iridescent splash.
Ears ringing, a piece of hot paper wadding skimmed the side of his face as the shotgun belched flame and buckshot past his head a second time. Another puff of disintegrated feathers and hot blood misted over the hood and onto his face and body. Daphne crouched in the back seat chambering the third round when the great bird launched off into the night, flapping unsteadily, whirl-winding yellow leaves, and trumpeting its screeching pain across the Rocky Mountains. Daphne clambered out of the car and aimed wildly after the fading grey shape in the black sky. The final shell kicked her shoulder backwards as she fired it and shrieked after the huge bird, adrenaline making her voice break.
Breathing heavily, Daphne tossed the shotgun into the back seat where it bounced on top of unspent shells. She pulled open the driver’s side door and helped lower Michael gently onto the ground, leaning him against the front tire. He leaned his moaning head back against the car and she could see long ugly gashes across his entire chest. A puncture in the side panel from one of the great talons mixed its steam into the cloud of his warm breath that floated upwards. Daphne wound her flannel tightly around the stump of his hand, a dark crimson slowly spreading over the fabric.
“It’s my fault,” Michael croaked.
“How! What– What was that thing?! Michael, what the hell!” Daphne stared at him through her tears as the shaking returned to her hands and body.
“The story of The Great Owl… It’s true. It’s all true. It is the curse of my family.” He reached with his good hand into his front jeans pocket, where he pulled out a black satin box. “I love you, Daphne. I didn’t want to, because I knew… I knew she’d come. But I couldn’t fight it. I wanted you too badly.”
He grimaced as they both strained to help him stand.
“It doesn’t make sense…” Michael coughed, and a small stream of blood bubbled down his chin as he put his arm around her. “I don’t… I don’t even have an eldest son.”
Michael saw Daphne’s hand drift unconsciously to her stomach, and a sob escaped him. “Oh, no…” He hung his head. “No, no, no, no…”
“Michael!” Daphne interrupted as she wiped her tears and opened the door. “We’re going to get you down this mountain. That’s what we have to do now. That’s all.”
Once he lay, pale and breathing shallowly, in the back seat, a gust of wind blew through the trees. She spun and looked into the air, picking up and loading the shotgun a second time. She kept her eyes upturned, the way Michael always had when they had explored the mountains together. Their crushed car coughed and sputtered but continued to run, so she tossed the gun into the passenger seat, climbed behind the wheel, and put the car in drive. She squinted through the icy mountain air that whipped against her face through the missing windshield and sped down the mountain.
There was a cough, and his warm familiar voice cut into her anxiety and focus. “Daphne… It’s my fault.” He coughed again. “I loved you. I just wish… I wish I had more time.”
“Stop saying that! Please, just hang on, Michael!” She didn’t take her eyes off the road as she accelerated faster. “We’re going to get down this mountain! Together!”
She glanced up for a moment to see his pale face smiling weakly at her in the rear-view mirror– when the interior of the car suddenly darkened. The shadow of enormous wings high above was blocking out the light of the moon, keeping pace steadily over the quickly moving station wagon.
H.T. Grossen lives in Pueblo Colorado beneath the long evening shadow of the Rocky Mountains with his magical wife, his beautiful children, and several animals of varying levels of intelligence. His work has been previously published in Red Planet Magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and other places.