Just after dark I heard the first scream. It was distant, barely there, drifting in through the cottage window, mingling with the sound of wind and ocean.
“It’s just the wind.” I said the words out loud to the large, empty room. In another couple hours I would hear it again, and hear the knocking. But not yet. For now, I could still calm myself, still romanticize the sounds and sights around this lonesome cottage, this old building far from lights, and people, and emergency services.After all, this is why I chose to stay here: to write in solitude, and sort out the final edits for my book. These things I could happily do by the light of a fire, eating a simple cheese sandwich for dinner.
As I stacked wood around my firelighters, I forgot about the scream. The wind whooshed quietly, steadily in the chimney above, and I smiled at the thought of a cozy fire and cup of hot cocoa. I didn’t have enough wood to heat the vast main room of Abrahamskraal Cottage, but I had pulled the small loveseat over from the wall, and figured after dinner I could snuggle under a blanket with my journal, and enjoy the ambiance.
Earlier in the day I picked up my rental car at the airport, and plotted my GPS route to include a stop at a grocery store in Parklands. I picked up firewood, matches, firelighter, bread, cheese, some snacks and bottled water. This was only a single night’s stay, and my plan for dinner was to eat at the restaurant inside the park, but I’ve lived long enough in South Africa to “expect the unexpected.”
Sure enough, the restaurant in West Coast National Park had closed an hour before the time indicated on the roadside sign, so when I arrived back at 5:00 from the Postberg section of the park, I pulled up to the restaurant only to find that a different sign, placed next to the restaurant itself, had 6pm crossed out and replaced with 5.
I was frustrated, but grateful I had the bread and cheese. As I returned to the cottage, I startled a steenbok (a tiny antelope around two feet high) and sent it running quickly out of sight. Ostriches were running across the field ahead of me, from the nearby bird hide. The steady roar of the ocean was reassuring. I watched the wind push through the tall grasses and budding plants. The back stoop, under a tree of busy Cape weavers—chattering and wiggling tail feathers at potential mates as they worked on their hanging nests—seemed the perfect place to sit and watch the sunset.
Abrahamskraal Cottage is peaceful. It is hard to imagine that when the light disappears and the daytime birds stop their chatter, screams will pierce the night, and something will come knocking at the door. In the daylight, all things scary stay tucked in the shadows. Nothing seemed even remotely alarming in the dwindling evening.
The clouds were a little too thick for one of the spectacular sunsets I’ve come to expect in South Africa, but the tall grass around me was alive with activity and put on its own show. A shy, southern black korhann carefully picked its way through the shrubs, while cheeky spurfowl pecked the ground near my feet, presumably fed by previous occupants of the cottage. Apparently disappointed, they eventually disappeared into the grass, occasionally letting out an alarm call that reminds me of a rusty swingset. A black-headed heron came into view, starting its nightly feeding round, lifting one lanky leg high, and then the other, neck swaying forward and back.
Springtime in West Coast National Park is brimming with birds. I saw my first rock kestrel, surveying its territory from high in a tree, and my first malachite sunbirds, nesting in a tree near the restaurant. In the Postberg section of the park, a beautiful region open for only two months of the year during flower season, I saw my first Cape Eagle Owl, enjoying the overcast weather. He might have been the only one happy with the lack of sunshine.
Clouds don’t make for ideal flower viewing. Their colors are most vivid on cloudless days, between 11 and 3, when they lift their heads to follow the high sun. But not having seen South Africa’s flower season before, I was perfectly content with the blankets of yellow, purple and orange, rolling softly over the hills to the ocean, despite the grey skies. And maybe that Cape Eagle Owl and I weren’t the only ones content without a sunny day. The floral carpets of Postberg were littered with eland, ostrich, spurfowl, bustards, wildebeest, blesbok, and springbok.
I hoped I might get a glimpse of the elusive bat-eared fox, or a caracal, but was more than happy to come across a herd of Cape Mountain Zebra, mingled with eland and springbok. It was my first time to see these unique animals. Unlike the common Burchell’s zebra, which occurs throughout most countries on the continent, the Cape Mountain Zebra is a sub-species found in limited numbers in a few places in southern Africa. It has ears more like a donkey than a horse, and stripes that end low on its sides, leaving it a white underbelly.
Back at the cottage, having enjoyed the sunset and eaten my sandwich in front of the now-dwindling fire, I decided it was time for bed. The lights run on solar power, so I gave myself a treat by lighting the variety of candles for visitor use. Loving the look of flickering candle light, I decided to leave one burning on the nightstand, safely encased in a glass box candle holder.
I had forgotten the eerie sound carried on the wind an hour or so before.
I secured the doors and windows and tucked myself in. Though the fireplace hadn’t warmed much of the room, I found the cottage surprisingly warm as I got into bed. Cozy, in fact. I was also exhausted from the driving and excitement that comes with seeing places and wildlife for the first time, and it didn’t take me long to fall asleep.
The scream shot through my spine and I was sitting bolt upright in bed, trying to register what I heard, my heart thumping furiously in my chest. I shivered. It was freezing. I had been asleep less than an hour, and there was suddenly a deep chill in the room. The candle that seemed warm and happy when I fell asleep now seemed devilish in its flitting shadows on the wall.
I tried to remember the scream that woke me. I listened closely, trying to hear anything over the pounding under my nightshirt. The wind howled. Had it intensified so much since I went to bed, or had I not noticed how fierce it was earlier?
Followed by another, then a series of rapid knocks. Was it the front door, or the back? I shivered again, stone cold afraid to move. Clack. Clack clack clack. Not a knock. The wind. Yes? It must be. Is it? It could simply be the wind pushing the wooden door, held closed by bolt and key, with gaps at the edges, must be smacking against the frame. It must be.
Suddenly, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I remembered there was a window behind me. The window faced the front porch. I couldn’t make myself turn around and look out the window, even as I heard the wooden floorboards creak on the porch.
Screeeeeeeeee! Screeeeeeeeee! Screeeeeeeeee!
The screaming sounded above me, behind me. I tried to talk to myself. I wanted to say: This is an owl. You know that this is an owl.
Just then the creaking behind me turned to quick steps. Footsteps? No. It can’t be. Soft and many. It must be a night creature, like a jackal, or a honey badger.
Turn around and look! Turn around! The hairs were practically jumping off my neck as I finally made myself turn.
The figure moved as quickly as I turned. I could see it in the glass by the flicker of candlelight, and I jumped and stifled a scream, even as I realized it was my own reflection. I was putting myself into a state of stone cold paranoia. I quickly moved to the door and switched on the light, then switched it off again, imaging something out there, looking in.
I shivered again. The room felt like winter in Pennsylvania. I grabbed the spare blanket from my closet, but knew it wouldn’t be enough. I remembered seeing two extra blankets in the closet of the second bedroom.
I opened the door to the second bedroom. I fumbled for the wall switch and confronted a large, black spider in the middle of the floor, stopped suddenly by the light. I am not a spider killer. I generally live and let live when I stay in the country, because creepy crawlies are part and parcel of rural life. And spiders in particular keep down the population of other bugs. But this spider was there to get me. In my ghost-reflecting, barn-owl screeching, icy cold, hair-raising moment, that spider had to die.
I didn’t have the nerve to get close to it. As the door clack-clacked, and the wind howled, and the unknown thing outside Screeeeeeeeee! Screeeeeeeeee’d! I began throwing things at the very still, very large spider in the middle of the bedroom floor. Whump! One of my sneakers missed and went thudding against the far wall. Thud! My journal landed no more than a foot in front of me, most likely because I couldn’t bring myself to line it with spider guts. Whump! The second sneaker seemed to hit, and the poor creature’s body went into the air, landing across the room. I quickly picked up my shoes and journal, keeping an eye on the body, motionless but not curled. I grabbed both blankets from the cupboard and scurried back to my bedroom.
I locked the door to the second bedroom. I was shivering, and I kept telling myself it was only from the cold, because I don’t believe in ghosts, and everything in the dark is there in the day. The wind is knocking, the owl is screeching, and the candle is playing tricks on my reflection in the window.
To make myself feel a little more at ease, I opened my Leatherman to its knife mode and laid it on the table next to the candle. I pushed a chair, heavy with my bookbag and suitcase, against the opposite door, and buried myself deep under the high pile of blankets. I slept fitfully, waking every hour or two, sometimes certain I heard another scream, other times hearing footsteps on the porch, or knocking at the door.
I woke as the sky was turning grey in the pre-dawn. I was roasting. Sometime during the last hour or two of sleep I had kicked off most of the covers. I was exhausted and red-eyed, but ready to be up. I checked the second bedroom, but did not see the spider I thought I killed in the night. I was relieved to consider maybe I had only stunned it.
I pushed the chair away from the door to the main room, and carefully peered into the large, empty room. The embers of the fire were done. I put water on for morning tea, and berated myself for letting my nighttime imagination get the better of me.
I took out my flashlight to spot the surrounding fields for any jackals or caracals. As I stepped onto the stoop, where I had enjoyed such a peaceful sunset, a movement caught my eye. I shined the light upward, onto the roof of the cottage, and there I found my ghost. I took the opportunity to return the favor of a good scare. The light landed on a very contented-looking barn owl, who seemed startled by the sudden attention. “Aha! I see you!” I yelled at him. He quickly flew off, but not before I could follow with, “Good! Now we’re even!”
The wind whooshed through the tall grass, and tapped softly at the cottage doors. The weavers chattered excitedly in the ever-lightening sky. Ocean roared from beyond the rise of the hill, and the rusty swingset call of spurfowl broke the morning. I went back inside, made my tea, and unbolted the front door. The porch was empty. I half expected to find a jackal peering in my window, but there wasn’t even a trace of one, at least not that I could see.
I sat on the bench facing the bird hide, watching the grey turn to day. Ostriches wandered in and out of view, searching for breakfast. A pair of pelicans landed and began grooming their feathers. I wondered if today would have more sunshine for flower viewing, and thought about how much I love the peace and quiet of this little cottage, and wondered when I might be able to come back and stay again.
Happy Halloween, readers! Go for the flowers. Stay for the ghost…stories!
An American Expat in South Africa, Marla is a freelance writer and global explorer. She creates travel adventures for herself following in the footsteps of her favorite authors. An American expat, she currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where she blogs her adventures on travelingmarla.com and is revising her first manuscript.