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Near midnight, sleepless, I walk outside into this ghostly world of winter. Above me is the lilac, which has endured more than half a century of winters. Thousands of black branches lie like shadows on the seemingly even plane of the sky. This winter night near midnight the old lilac, bare of leaves, is blooming. The brilliant blossoms shine like stars.
Who is the artist with courage to paint this night? Vincent Van Gogh, who killed himself, would have tried: “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day…” But this winter night is brushed only with strong yet simple starwhite and gray and black.
Watching the stars filter through branches, eerily, I sense that my stare is being met by another pair of eyes. All the while I have looked at the lilac, eyes have watched me. The moonlight colors them an unfamiliar gold. Or does night betray my sight?
The owl flies.
I have read that some cultures believe the owl to be an evil omen. I'm not convinced, but I am uneasy.
I walk on the road toward the colder north. The wind against my face is like the breath of someone dead. Before I reach the narrow bridge, an odd-shaped head on a bony neck appears. I do not recognize the ashen face. I cannot see what expression it wears. I hesitate. Will it greet me "Good night" with a sunken, toothless and lunatic grin? Or with anger at my intrusion?
The apparition is my neighbor's mailbox.
My footsteps disturb a woman who sings under the bridge. Ghastly and lovely is her song. I try to convince myself that the music is water. I know it is not; the stream is frozen. Why is she, too, outside on this winter night? I recall the owl, the omen of evil.
Her song explodes. Her dress unfurls, rises white-gray-dark above ground, and whirs away on pigeon wings.
By taking this midnight walk, I did not intend to test my heart for strength. On my right a snow-packed trail leads up a hill, seeming to beckon me. I resist following that line of snow on the leeward side of the fence. I turn toward home.
I look again at the tree. I almost wish Van Gogh could visit my home and paint the winter lilac, a shadow of branches blossoming with stars. But, I do not wish aloud. On a night like this, he might come knock-knocking on my door.
Whether to linger outside or go inside — I am like the moon that has never made up its mind how dim or bright to shine. The cold decides.
In another season the quiet lilac will explode with heart-shaped leaves and purple fragrance. But for now, no color is warmer than the light, golden, behind the window of my home.
Editor's Note: This tale by Dianne Gloe, a Hartford, South Dakota native, originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 1988 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 1-800-456-5117.