34. The visitor

Something really cool happened the other night. Mrs 23thorns and I were sitting outside having a glass of wine on the stoep (patio). The stoep has a roof over it, and we had the lights on, but the garden was almost in darkness. All of a sudden, two enormous, tawny wings spread out on either side of her head, framing her like some sort of Celtic nature goddess with glasses on.

Luckily I was able to snap off a quick photo.

Luckily I was able to snap off a quick photo.

It was an owl. A Spotted Eagle Owl. We have a pair of them living in the neighbourhood. We don’t see them too often, but they are always around. You hear them hooting at each other every now and then, and we see them once every couple of months, perched in a tall tree across the road, or on the neighbour’s chimney. But this was different

The neighbour still hasn't found his Chihuahua.

The neighbour still hasn’t found his Chihuahua.


The owl that so dramatically framed Mrs 23thorns was spreading its wings to brake. It swooped up less than three feet behind her and landed on the roof right above us, and sat there calmly as we had a closer look. It was beautiful. It made me think immediately of the Black Plague.

Johannesburg is dotted with squatter camps and townships; vast, sprawling mazes of tin shacks criss-crossed by polluted rivers and dirt roads. They overflow with the millions who make their way to the city from the countryside. These places are poorly serviced. The streets are filled with litter and raw sewage. It is a perfect environment for rats.

Every now and then, stories go around about rats the size of cats, and old people or babies getting killed by them in their beds. I’m never quite sure whether to believe those stories. They’re the kind that tend to get spread by email rather than the news, but one thing is certain. Rats are not good to have around. They make people sick. They soil food and carry fleas. And in Europe, they wiped out tens or even hundreds of millions of people by infecting them with the plague.

It adds a new layer of meaning to the American phrase "Aw, rats!"

It adds a new layer of meaning to the American phrase “Aw, rats!”

So why did our owl make me think of this? Well, there are no owls in the townships. There are no cats, either. And there should be. There should be armies of them, lining the roofs and stalking the alleyways. The streets and the sewers are literally crawling with their favourite food. The rats are so safe from persecution that they are losing their natural colour. They don’t have to hide anymore, so instead of just grey, you now get piebald and even white rats. So where are the owls?

And some of them do get quite big.

And some of them do get quite big.

Owls are creepy creatures. They live in the dark, for a start, and they move through it with an unearthly silence. They have those huge, staring eyes, and they can turn their heads 180 degrees like that girl from The Exorcist. And so, since the beginning of time, they have been treated with superstitious dread. Here in South Africa, they are harbingers of doom. Death omens. See an owl, and someone you love is going to die.

It’s the same with cats. Breeding cats to have flattened noses and breathing disorders, and calling them Mr Bigglesworth while you snuggle them is a pretty new pastime. For most of our history, certainly among the poorer classes, they, too, have been creatures of the night, melting through shadows, eyes gleaming like searchlights in the dark. They too have attracted dark superstitions. Don’t let a black cat cross your path. Cats were witches familiars. No good could come from having them around.

Not quite Garfield.

Not quite Garfield.

Most of us reading this now occupy a world that is clean and organised and controlled. We tend to see superstition as a bit of an eccentricity, throwing spilled salt over our shoulders with a self-conscious grin, and joking about it as we walk around open ladders. It’s all a bit of fun (Unless you have OCD. Then it’s a reason to live).

Here’s the thing though. For some of the people in those townships, there’s nothing funny about this stuff at all. There are places in South Africa where people are still burned by their neighbours for being witches. Lightning strikes on houses are the work of a malevolent force, not nature. And some of these people have moved to the cities. Seeing an owl on your roof is as real a sign of oncoming death as a cancer diagnosis is.

I have no idea why people think these gentle creatures are sinister.

I have no idea why people think these gentle creatures are sinister.

And so any cats or owls in the townships are driven out or killed, and the most effective controllers of the rat population are gone. Their numbers grow unchecked. It’s not healthy.

For those of us who live in places where poverty means not being able to eat rather than not being able to make rent this month, some aspects of the middle ages would seem remarkably familiar. People had begun to move out of the countryside and into the towns. The poor lived in ramshackle hovels. The streets were filled with sewage and rubbish. And there were rats. Millions of them. And the owls and cats that could have controlled them were viewed with fear and dread. And I’m pretty sure they too were driven out or killed. And the Plague moved in. I hope it doesn’t do so again.

It makes you wish we all took a bit more time to understand our world. It makes you yearn for a time when nature was our goddess, and we understood her patterns and her rhythms, and knew that the green eyed creatures that stalked the dark were as vital as the bright-eyed cuddly ones that frolicked in the daylight.

That time is probably a myth. Life has always been a struggle, and never more so than when you have to tear it from nature. But not for me. For me that time is real. And it is now. I have, you see, a Celtic nature goddess in my garden, with her glasses perched on the end of her nose and a great tawny owl at her back, wings spread like a herald. The rats round here would do well to stay hidden.

I have begged and pleaded, but Mrs 23thorns refuses to cover up when wandering the streets at night. The neighbours are beginning to talk.

I have begged and pleaded, but Mrs 23thorns refuses to cover up when wandering the streets at night. The neighbours are beginning to talk.

39 thoughts on “34. The visitor

  1. Mpho says:

    At this point I don’t know what I hate more, rats or George R. R. Martin. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan you’ll find out soon enough, just watched the Red Wedding episode and I’m inconsolable. I though nothing could be worse than watching Nerd Stark lose his head, I was wrong! I need to stop watching this! It’s too upsetting.

    • 23thorns says:

      NO SPOILERS! Tell me what the Red Wedding episode is about and I’ll have you banned from the internet. My wife read the books the other day, and I made her sign an agreement not to speak to me until the series is done. In 2025.

  2. Marcia says:

    As a person who lives with indoor cats (as many as five or six at any given time), has beautiful, interesting, and treasured barred owls nesting in her oak trees, and enjoys a garden full of industrious, vermin-eating snakes, I can attest that my house and yard are pretty much plague-free. Unless you count the hideous and destructive exotic Cuban tree frogs, of course. Therefore, you have convinced me you guys need more cats over there. I now know what to do with the next (of MANY) litters of feral kittens I find. Instead of putting up little cardboard signs to locate homes for them, I’ll just see what airfare to South Africa would be. But I’m keeping my owls! Their summer-time calls of “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for YOU-all?” are one of my favorite evening sounds. (Perhaps I’m a witch?)

    And Ms. TLH, I do love your frothy, feathery choice of dancing clothes. I think I’ll make myself an outfit just like it–as soon as I find a bird with enough feathers to do the job. You rock!

    • 23thorns says:

      We’ve been pretty much rat free since the owls moved in.
      The problem isn’t getting hold of cats, it’s getting the people who live in these places to let them stay.

      • Marcia says:

        Dang. And here I thought I had a solution to both our problems. Maybe I should trap the mama cats. They have the personalities and blood-letting skills of rabid wolverines. I bet they’d give those cat-fearing folks a pretty good fight. My money’d be on the cats.

  3. Andy says:

    I have a pagan friend who adores owls.
    She also loves Thai food. I need to pay more attention the next time I go around for lunch.

  4. mariekeates says:

    Round here the cities are all infested with rats. There is no sewage in the streets but plenty of discarded take away meals keep them fed.

  5. menomama3 says:

    Are you “Mr. TracyLovesHistory”?

  6. Spy Garden says:

    Fantastic perspective on a complicated social/cultural issue. Public health ought to approach this (and similar) issue(s) which such an insightful perspective. Often the biggest issue public health nurses/healthcare professionals tackle are breaking through cultural barriers in a sensitive and empathetic way. What a huge undertaking to instill a fierce love for native creatures that could ultimately save (and improve) lives when so many barriers exist.

    • 23thorns says:

      There are people working on it, but it’s not easy to change cultural prejudices. Imagine if someone casually mentioned they were going to be releasing a hundred snakes into your neighbourhood. You might be OK, but you know there would be a whole lot of squawking.

  7. Well done, you. Beautifully written.

  8. Surely in South Africa there is some other wacky and wierd rat eating animal that would spook the superstitious less than owls or cats? Do you think showing everyone a Harry Potter film and how wonderful and useful owls can be with post delivery would help, or would the confirmation of witches and wizards just freak them out more?

    • 23thorns says:

      Snakes? Not so much. There are projects at schools and such to educate people, and others to release owls into these areas, but it’s an uphill battle. It just takes one person with a stone to undo years of work.

  9. sisteranan says:

    I always thot it was a bit of poetic justice that Europeans got over-run by the Black Death after killing nine million of their medicine women and their perfectly harmless cats. The same would not happen today, i’m sure. Wherever surveyed, polls show a decrease in the death rate whenever doctors are absent on strike.

  10. billgncs says:

    the Mrs looks just right from here…. perhaps a harbinger of something good…

  11. narf77 says:

    I think that Mrs 23Thorns love of history and all things macabre is starting to wear off on you Mr 23Thorns. I have a solution to your rat worries. I have 13 feral cats that call Serendipity Farm their squatting right zone. I will be MORE than pleased to send you half of them to decorate your rooftop and your stoep. They love nothing more than a rat and one their own size would be met with incredulous glee. No more bubules for you and your family and no carrying off of the hobbit child in the night. Problem solved! (Now I just need some more rat infested countries to offload my excess cat population on and I will be home and hosed!). I just read the bit about the black cat…I guess I am pretty stuffed because only 3 of the feral cat population is any colour other than black ;). I think it is time to talk to Mrs 23 Thorns about your idealistic view of the Celts…have you never seen the movie “The Wicker Man?”…They might have had a bit of time for owls, but usually only so that they could skin them and wear their feathery beaky remains on their heads as they merrily slaughtered the towns virgins (makes you wonder what the lesson was in THAT story eh? 😉 ) by the light of the harvest moon…what a romantic time was had by all Mr 23Thorns…except the virgins…but hey, swings and roundabouts…Lastly, Mrs 23Thorns appears to have entangled your own owl in her long and flowing tresses, you might want to get a pair of scissors…

    • 23thorns says:

      I would love to do my bit towards saving the dusky antechinus and the white footed dunnart from your feral friends, but sadly cats are tolerated about as cheerfully as owls in these places.
      As for the owls carrying away our offspring, if it ever happens, I have no doubt they’ll be returned within hours with a letter of apology.

  12. Ann Koplow says:

    Love this post. I’ve been thinking about cats, owls, and superstitions a lot lately.

  13. syrbal says:

    We have a pair of Great Horned Owls that hunt our property, oddly, they almost never catch the rats. And they took all the outdoor cats save the neighbor’s pitch black kitty that they can’t see at night.

    Those rats are bigger than our little wild bunnies!

  14. bobbii says:

    My brother raised an orphan barn owl once. As he grew my brother finally let him go free, he would come back for many visits. Wonderful animals!

    • 23thorns says:

      We’ve got a couple of those in the area too, but I’ve never seen one. We just hear that unearthly screeching in the night. That, too, couldn’t have helped to settle superstitious minds.

  15. James Corner says:

    Many years ago I saw a Snowy Owl in Shetland. The huge white bird was standing on a rock about thirty metres from the road and pointing directly away from me. I must have made a noise because as I watched, it slowly rotated its head 180 degrees and looked directly over its back straight at me. Seriously spooky sight, it sent shivers down my spine. I’m not superstitious at all but I can understand how superstitious people would have a fear of owls.

    • 23thorns says:

      That must have been a once-in-a-lifetime sighting. There is something unsettling about how quickly owls lock in on you. It’s like they already know where you are there’s no searching. They’re probably hearing exactly where you are first.

      • James Corner says:

        It has been quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience so far; never seen one before or since.

  16. Ashana M says:

    Is it time to get a cat?

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