Presented here is a retelling of a folktale called, Why the Owl Flies at Night, from, The Islands of Magic, Legends, Folk and Fairy Tales from the Azores – by Elsie Spicer Eells and illustrated by E. L. Brock.
Why the Owl Flies at Night
In days gone by, on the steep slopes of the volcanic hill of Monte Brasil that overlook the Bay of Angra, stood a little chapel dedicated to St. Anthony. It was built to hold an image of that same saint that had been carried from some unknown place by the strong currents and rough waves of the sea to rest upon the shores of the bay below the hill.
In that time there was a young boy named Pedro who after his mother had died lived with his father nearby. His father had married again but his new wife treated young Pedro cruelly. She made him wear old, worn ragged clothes and all the children in the parish would mock and point at him because of the state of his clothing.
Pedro would often go to the little chapel and pray to St. Anthony for strength and comfort. One day as he was getting up off his knees after a prayer to the saint he noticed a very strange thing had happened. To his surprise he found his old, worn ragged clothes had suddenly become new and unblemished and he was now immaculately dressed in very smart clothing as good – indeed better – than any other child in his village.
When he got home his stepmother stares at him in disbelief, “Where did you get those clothes from?” she demanded, “You must have stolen them! Why, you are nothing but a little thief!”
Pedro truthfully told her what had happened but she refused to believe him.
“Your father can deal with it!” she cried, “In the meantime take the water jars to the spring and bring me back some water. Do it now and understand that I don’t want to be kept waiting for water, now go!”
Picking up the heavy jars he made his way to the top of the hill where the little spring bubbled out. The spring supplied Pedro and his family as well as the neighbors with water most of the year round, but at times it failed and this was one of those times. His stepmother had been told this earlier by neighbors but still out of spite she sent the boy to the top of the hill carrying two heavy stone jars on a task she knew he could not fulfill. On his way up, Pedro met an old man coming down. “There is no water in the spring,” the old man told him, “maybe tomorrow.”
He had almost reached the spring and the jars were making his arms ache. The other spring was much further away and he doubted if he got there he would have the strength to carry two full jars of water all the way home. He decided he would continue on and see for himself.
When he arrived at the spring he was surprised and very pleased to see that there was plenty of good clean water bubbling up, indeed, bubbling up much faster that he could remember. As he stared with amazement he thought about how somehow he had been furnished with the brand new suit of clothes that he was wearing and he began to wonder.
“This must be my lucky day,” he cried happily filling both jars with water, “St. Anthony is smiling upon me. He must have heard my prayers and given me my new clothes and made the waters of the spring run,” and he offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the saint.
With his jars full of water Pedro took them home. His mother was gobsmacked when he came through the door with two jars full of water. “What! Where did you get that water from?” she demanded. Pedro truthfully told her it had come from the spring on the hill.
“You lie! That spring is dry today. Wait until I tell your father, he will give you a sound beating!” she cried. As well as being frightened by the threatened beating Pedro was puzzled why his stepmother had sent him up the hill to the spring when she believed it was dry.
The next thing he knew was she had dumped a large basket in his hands saying, “Go into the garden and pick up all of the wood for the fire. Now hurry I don’t want to be kept waiting. Go!”
Pedro thought this a very strange request as all of the wood in the garden had been used up long ago. The evening was falling and he went into the garden in failing light but there was nothing there but red, white, yellow and pink roses. The night fell quickly but stoically he went and looked anyway but there were no sticks of wood to be found just the roses. The only place he knew where he could get some wood was high on the steep slopes of Monte Brasil. However, it was dark and it was a long hard path climbing the steep slopes of Monte Brasil and he was feeling very tired. As two great tears rolled down his face he felt a presence next to him and turning saw it was St Anthony who stood smiling down kindly upon him.
“Why the tears, young man?” he asked kindly, “I have been watching you for a long time and I know you do not cry easily, even when life is hard. Boys with less courage than you would spend their time weeping.”
“I weep because I have to fill this basket with fire wood from the garden, but there is nothing in the garden but roses. I am very tired and I have been threatened with a beating and it is becoming too dark, much too dark to go up to Monte Brasil and search for firewood.”
“Listen to me,” replied St Anthony, “and have faith in what I say. Go into the garden and fill the basket with roses and when it is full take it to your stepmother and give it to her. You must have faith in what I say and remember I shall be with you.”
Pedro went into the dark garden and filled it with all the different colored roses and then he took it into the house to his stepmother. As he handed the basket to his stepmother he was surprised to see that instead of roses the basket contained firewood.
“What!” cried his stepmother in shock, “Where ever did you get this wood from? There are only roses in the garden and you have not been gone long enough to go up to Monte Brasil in the dark. Where did you get it from?”
Grabbing him roughly by the collar of his smart new shirt she shook him fiercely terrifying him. He looked around hoping to escape but St Anthony was stood behind smiling kindly and then in a voice like thunder said,
St Anthony’s Punishment
“Woman, cease your violence! This boy has done you no harm and obeyed your every request. I have been watching the spiteful and malicious way you have been treating him and you will be punished. As you have sent this young boy out into the dark night you too shall go into the dark.”
With these words spoken the stepmother changed from being a woman into an owl with great circles for eyes, for those eyes gazed upon the wrath of St Anthony. From that moment on she lived in darkness. That is why the owl is a creature of the night.
© 12/06/2019 zteve t evans
References, Attribution and Further Reading
Copyright June 12th, 2019 zteve t evans
- The Islands of Magic, Legends, Folk and Fairy Tales from the Azores – by Elsie Spicer Eells, Illustrator: E. L. Brock