A Belated Halloween Message: Old Earl, Great Balls of Fire, and the Blackbird

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“Hello! Anybody home?” Of course, nobody was home this time in the afternoon. It was my sophomore year in college and I was dropping by my parents’ place hoping to snag the Sunday dinner leftovers before anybody came home. Something, however, felt out of place. The house was stuffy from being closed-up all day, and the light dim through the sheers covering the large living room bay window. Something was out of place all right! There, sitting in the overstuffed chair in front of the window was Ol’ Earl Harris. He used to own the house before my parents bought it. “How the heck did you get here?” I asked aloud. He sat there, mute and ashen gray. Earl never was the talkative type. A WWI and II Marine veteran, for a long time he had preferred the company of a bottle of rye and held regular conversations with his shot glass. I actually grew up next door and had never heard Earl say more than a dozen words. He wasn’t talking now either. He simply lifted himself from the deeply cushioned chair and shuffled past me toward the hallway where he turned left.

I didn’t know what to do. Was he headed toward the bathroom or his old bedroom? “Earl…” I called again, my tone pleading him to stop. In a moment, I followed behind just in time to see that he turned right toward his old room—that is, my sister’s room. I started after him as he turned the corner, but then abruptly stopped. I didn’t want to run into the old guy nose to nose. I wasn’t afraid of bowling him over…I had simply just become…afraid, for Earl had been dead for five years.

That I had seen my old neighbor in his old house five years after his death was shocking, but not surprising. Supernatural phenomenon seemed to have followed my family for generations. Every member has a creepy tale to share. My mother tells of the time when my dad, while in the middle of a dead sleep, bolted upright in bed. He sat there wide-eyed, sweat beading on his brow. He was staring straight at a coffin at their feet—the upper half of the lid wide open. Short white candles dimly illuminated the face of his father who was lying within. My mom gently awoke my father from this somnambulistic terror and persuaded him that it was just a dream. As you might guess, the next morning he received a call from Puerto Rico bearing the news that his father had died that night.

My grandmother had had a similar experience when one night, shortly after going to bed, her room grew black—much darker than the normal night. Small spheres then appeared, each floating about her room, and burning brightly, yet not emitting enough light to see even the outline of her bed. The room was abruptly filled with a smoky, blue light. Through the haze, her mother appeared and spoke in Spanish, “It’s O.K. Provi. It will be O.K.” She then walked out of the room and into the living room where she stood over my grandfather who was still watching television. After a moment, she faded away. My great grandmother would die a few days later.

American folklore is bountiful with tales of mystery terror. There are a great many superstitions of supernatural signs that serve as harbingers of impending death and doom. One bright September morning, for my mother and grandmother, myth strayed from fiction and wandered into the realm of reality. My mother was on the phone to my grandmother when she became excited. My grandmother explained how a cute black bird was tapping at her patio window with its tiny black beak. It then flew to another window, one that was open, and was beating its wings against the screen. My grandmother was a true sucker for small animals that might need her help…she thought she had found a new friend. My mother screamed into the phone, “Mom! Shut all the windows-NOW! Don’t let it in!” As peculiar as that sounded, my grandmother heeded the warning, alarmed by her daughter’s urgency and panic. As she reached for the window closest to her, the blackbird appeared like a bullet, ramming itself into the clear pane. Beginning to sense some sort of obscure danger, she raced around the house closing windows and doors…the black bird appearing at each, growing more agitated and aggressive. After the house had been secured and the blackbird finally flew off, my grandmother returned to the phone for an explanation.

My mother drove over, settled down for a cup of coffee and recounted how our neighbors across the street were full-blooded Sioux, straight from the reservation. She had learned from them that a blackbird flying into your house is an omen of death. In fact, a black bird had flown into their house the very day a close relative died. As it happens, my mother had been having coffee with Alma, our neighbor, when at the very time of this occurrence. My grandmother reassured her that this was only a superstition, and besides, the blackbird had not gotten in. We were awakened that night by a phone call from my grandfather. An ambulance had just taken my grandmother to the hospital. She was hemorrhaging heavily and the drivers didn’t know if they’d get her there on time to save her life. Well, she did survive, and the black bird never got in …but it had tried.

In our practical world, where science serves as a new religion and we fall into easy rationalism, there remains at least one day a year when we allow ourselves to be scared and ponder the same mysteries that kept our ancestors awake at night. It is strange that I share some of these old family stories with all of you when I haven’t even told them to my own kids. Somehow, our ancestral connection with the supernatural and the macabre is not a legacy I wish to pass on. It is, however, the stuff of good Halloweens.


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