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Soot Stains

Retold by Joyce Jacobo

[Author’s Note: Throughout high school, I volunteered at the local museum that opened its doors during my freshman year. Its curator, a wonderful older woman by the name of Margaret, turned what was essentially her childhood home into a spot where any visitors could learn about the history of our area. She has been on my mind lately, since I learned she passed away two years ago. I can still remember some of the fond memories we shared, including a story she told to me about mysterious dark stains I once asked her about on the ceiling of the museum. The tale that follows is a retelling (with the names changed) of that fateful event. Hope you enjoy it.]

Martha jerked awake in bed. The first thing she glimpsed was the crescent moon, high over the red barn and silo, through the open bedroom window. A cool, pleasant breeze tousled the strands of ginger hair that had escaped from her nightcap.

                For a moment, the young woman simply sat there amid the darkness and sudden stillness, wondering if the odd scuffling noises that had awoken her must have been a part of some already forgotten dream.

                She had just laid her head back down when the scuffling began again, louder this time.

                It was coming from down the hallway.

                “George, get up.” Martha shook her husband’s shoulder. Her voice was low but urgent. “I think someone’s broken in, a thief.” Then she corrected herself, “No, it sounds like a whole group of thieves is in here,” as the commotion increased. Now they could hear frantic scratching, as if nails were getting raked across the living room walls.

                The couple heard the soft thuds of things falling as if swept from the shelves and onto the carpeted floor. However, soon there came the sharp crash of porcelain, recognized as a flower vase sent tumbling from a particularly high shelf. George sprang from bed and grabbed the rifle he always kept propped up against the wall. Martha followed close behind him, clutching an iron pan she kept under the bed.

                If a whole gang of thieves was indeed on a rampage through their home, they were in for a fierce fight.

                The couple would later comment that by the time they crept down the hallway, it sounded like a full-scale hurricane was in process. Shrill screeches punctuated the sounds of thrashing and objects falling. Screeches that sounded eerily familiar.

                Reaching the end of the hallway, they froze on the threshold into the room beyond—mouths opened in surprise.

                There, swooping around the room in a whirlwind of terror, was a barn owl. In fact, they would also later agree that a “soot” owl better suited the poor ash-covered creature who clawed at the walls with sharp talons and struck at the ceiling—inadvertently smacking any items encountered along the way—with large, powerful wings.

                Ashes splashed across the floor from the open hearth told the whole story: this owl had somehow either fallen or gotten down the chimney. Now the poor creature was desperate to get back outside.

                Thinking fast, George ran and opened the front door. Cool air spilled in, better than an alluring fragrance, and the owl escaped to freedom right away. Martha followed her husband onto the front porch, where they watched their unexpected visitor disappear into the night. Fear had filled them to such a high degree during the whole experience that utter relief made them burst out laughing.

                The following morning, Martha and George cleaned up their living room, and managed to put almost everything back in its normal place. Anything cracked or damaged during the event underwent repairs, and the couple cleaned the soot from the floor and the walls; the exception were the stains on the ceiling near the hearth, which refused to come out regardless of how much they scrubbed the spot.

                Eventually, they chose to leave the soot stains left behind by the barn owl.

                It was a decision the couple came to appreciate more and more as the years passed, since they could point out the spot to friends and neighbors as a memento from that fateful night. And even to this day, long after their home became a museum used to chronicle the history of the local area, those soot stains remain in place for anyone observant enough to ask about them—as a secret exhibit.


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