Childish fear

Returning from an evening visit to Musgrove Park Hospital, the landscape along the road from Othery to Aller was no more than dark shadow. Suddenly a flash of whiteness crossed the way ahead, an owl gliding over the Sedgemoor lowland in search of prey. “The call of the dead,” I would have been told when I was a child.

Such childhood memories can be frightening.  Growing up amid tales of superstitions is disturbing when those tales seem literally true and where there was neither discussion that might rationalize, nor faith that might expel, such fears.

Stories like that of white owls being the call of the dead induced a terror of something as ordinary as catching sight of a barn owl on autumn evenings.

Claims that there were ghosts, even in our council house built in 1926, prompted me to sleep with the blanket pulled up over my head, lest a ghost come into the room and find me.

Worst of all, wild rumours of UFOs prompted an avoidance of looking up into the night sky.

Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” captures in a paragraph the intensity of childhood feeling:

“He came to me that night out of the woods, my mythic ancestor, huge, mountainous, dressed in his dark caftan and fur-trimmed cap, pounding his way through the trees on his Russian master’s estate, the earth shaking, the mountains quiver­ing, thunder in his voice. I could not hear what he said. I woke in dread and lay very still, listening to the darkness. I needed to go to the bathroom but I was afraid to leave the bed. I moved down beneath the blanket and slept and then, as if my moment awake had been an intermission between acts of an authored. play, saw him again plowing toward me through giant cedars. I woke and went to the bathroom. I stood in the bathroom, shiver­ing. I did not want to go back to my bed. I stood listening to the night, then went through the hallway to the living room. It was dark and hushed and I could hear the sounds of night traffic through the window. I opened the slats of the Venetian blind and peered between them at the street below. It was a clear night. I could not see the moon, but a clear cold blue-white light lay like a ghostly sheen over the parkway and cast the shadows of buildings and trees across the sidewalks. I saw a man walking beneath the trees. He was a man of medium height with a dark beard, a dark coat, and an ordinary dark hat. I saw him walking in the shadows of the trees. Then I did not see him. Then I saw him again, walking slowly beneath the trees. Then he was gone again and I did not know if I was seeing him or not, if I had been asleep before and was awake now, or if I had been awake before and was dreaming now.   Then I saw him again, walking slowly, alone; then he entered, a shadow and was gone. I do not remember going back to bed. I only remember waking in the morning and staring up at the white ceiling of my room and feeling light and disembodied, as if I were floating on the shadows cast by dark trees beneath a moon.”

Asher Lev and the flight of an owl would be enough to send a boy into hiding under the bedclothes.

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