It was a time of drought. Ruth longed for the smell of rain, for the build up of clouds on the horizon, the sudden sweep of cold wind blasting in from the south-west, the sound of it on the tin roof of her inner-city Californian bungalow. She remembered the perkiness plants had after a good rain, how when it continued for days, dampness seemed to permeate every corner of the house, its smell as musty as old dishrags. She recalled leaving her umbrella at a restaurant, or in a doctor’s waiting room, remembered struggling while she wrestled with a car door in the rain. And dashing through the wet, hating the way her hair would straighten and die. She thought of all these inconveniences now with nostalgia.
Climbing out of bed, Ruth put on her robe and made her way to the bathroom. The light through the east windows dazzled. Another winter day, sunny and dry. Not a cloud in the sky. She peered into the mirror at the bane of her life. If only her hair had some body, some curl. But there it sat, straight, unflattering and long. Should I cut it? Ruth wondered. But she hated the severe bobs some older women favored. She began to comb her hair slowly, carefully, falling into a daze. Her reflection disappeared in a barely perceptible haze of sparkling light, purple and bright, that formed and re-formed in front of her gaze.
She didn’t notice the sun disappear and a restful dimness settle over the city. As the last leaves from the elms in the park skittered along the gutters, a gentle breeze began to flurry along the streets. Still she combed, unnoticing, like a cat grooming and licking its fur in hypnotic, repetitive strokes.
Startled by a sudden gust of wind rattling a piece of loose tin on the roof next door, Ruth looked up, shocked to see that the sky had darkened. A shaft of lightning preceded a low growl of thunder and rain began to hit her window in slanted streaks. She shook her hair out behind her in delight. A crack of thunder overhead, another flash, and down came the rain in a torrent. The gutters filled with swirling water and debris. The houses across the road disappeared in the sudden fall. Ruth’s hair looked full and flattering and she gathered it loosely in a clip. The rain eased, the houses became visible again and the gutters gradually emptied. The mist of rain gave way to watery sunshine, the clouds became white and melted away.
Standing at the window, Ruth felt strangely disappointed. That was weird, she thought as she dressed and prepared to face the day, gratified that her hair now looked smooth and smart, as if it was well pleased with the combing it had received.
Despite occasional money problems, Ruth was happy where she worked as a psychotherapist in rooms shared with several others in a tall city building. She loved the view, which overlooked the rail yards, the Botanical gardens and Parliament House, the bridge, and more distantly, the sparkling water of the bay with a reach of sky beyond. Today she met colleagues for lunch, a weekly ritual. After she’d eaten, she took leave of her table and her three friends and went to the bathroom.
Washing her hands at the basin, Ruth glanced at her reflection in the mirror. Was she imagining things or did she look particularly attractive today? Her eyes seemed to have developed a deep glow and her hair positively shone. For sheer pleasure, she pulled out the comb. One wash, she thought, and it will become messy again. She began to comb, and once more fell into a kind of daze. Little sparks seemed to flash in front of her eyes, and again purple swirls moved across her vision. She combed and combed, entranced.
Suddenly the bathroom door flew open. It was her friend Emily. ‘You’ve been here for ages. Are you OK? It’s bucketing outside. We’ve moved inside. ' Ruth hurriedly pinned up her hair. By the time she joined the others the rain had eased.
That night, Ruth climbed slowly upstairs, and thoughtfully pulled out her comb and looked at it. It was just an ordinary comb, black plastic, bought at a local chemist. She turned on the bathroom light, pulled up the blinds, and began combing out her hair. Soon the waxing moon disappeared and spots of rain gashed across the windows.
Next day, as Ruth left for work, a thought occurred to her, utterly ridiculous, utterly audacious, but one that would not leave her alone. At lunchtime, she entered the street thronging with lunchtime crowds, crossed the road with the lights by St Paul’s, and made her way to the tram stop. Several stops up St Kilda road, she alighted and made her way past the Shrine to the Botanical Gardens. The lawns were dry and patched with yellowing grass. The fountains were all dry. She could smell the dryness in the soil, hear the snap and fall of a dead branch from one of the overhead trees as it tumbled into the dry-leaf bed beneath. The draught had lasted for years, and had taken its toll.
Ruth chose to sit alone at a table by the lake, well away from the diners in the garden restaurant. Her table had a large umbrella above it, and she moved as close as she could under its shelter. The sun glinted off the water, and three black swans and some ducks loitered around the muddy edge of the lake, drying through lack of rain. She gazed out across the lake to the island, where more ducks were standing around or sitting quietly, heads under wings in the shade.
A man was watching her. She angled herself so she wasn’t in his line of sight. But he wouldn’t be put off, and came over to her. Damn she thought, watching him approach. ‘May I join you? I know this is forward of me, but I've flown in from the States on business, and I know no one here. It would be nice to at least talk to someone in this lovely city of yours before I leave this evening.’ Ruth was uncomfortable. She didn’t welcome this intrusion. ‘I am waiting for someone’ she said.
‘Well, that’s all right isn’t it? Maybe I could join you for a few moments, and then make myself scarce when your other friend arrives’ He smiled. His teeth were very white, and his eyes were empty and blue.
‘I’d rather you didn’t’ Ruth said. She frowned, annoyed. But he had already begun drawing up a metal chair.
‘I’m sure you can’t mean that. You look far too kind.’
At this point, Ruth decided to carry out her plan anyway. She smiled slightly and said nothing. He looked uncertain as she undid her hair clasp, and let her hair fall about her shoulders. She removed her comb from her bag, and began to comb her hair.
At the first stroke, the ducks and swans began crying and honking and flapping their wings. Her eyes lost focus, but she was aware of fluffy clouds suddenly forming like cauliflowers over the trees on the other side of the lake. She combed some more, and the clouds built, and a little wind came up and ruffled the still waters. The undersides of the clouds darkened, and they drifted overhead, and there was a splash of rain. Ruth was aware of the sparks and melting purple snow in her vision, but also conscious of the first splashes of rain. She continued to comb, and the man looked at her, dazed.
Then it was pouring rain. The man seemed to come to his senses, cursed, pushed over the chair as he got up and ran for cover in the restaurant. Ruth, safe under the generous shelter of the large sun umbrella, laughed, and shook her hair. A crack of thunder followed a jagged gash of lightning. She moved closer to the table. The cacophony of bird voices rose from the lake. The surface of the water was pocked as falling rain began to sheet down. Ruth could no longer see the far side of the lake. The man was nowhere to be seen.
She ceased combing. Her hair, now lustrous, and full of sheen, was like a living entity, pleased with the outcome it had created. It lay sleek and sly and she caught the naughty stuff up in her clip. A film of rain was still falling, the sun began to shine, and a large rainbow stretched across the sky. The breeze settled and the sky was again clear and blue. It was now innocent of the dark clouds that had hosted the downpour and washed through the gardens minutes before. But the grass gleamed with wetness, and steam began to rise from the paths. The ducks and swans resumed their drifting, diving and fossicking for food in the deeper water, turning heads backwards to rustle and preen their feathers.
Ruth looked behind her. The man had gone. She picked up her shoulder bag. Slowly, she walked to the tram stop, her hair gathered in her clip, neat, wicked, and gleaming silver in the sun.
Moriac the Crow
A crow flew into the prison yard. Gleaming black and lusciously fat, it landed on the dry grass, a little away from the high cyclone fence. Men were playing cards at a table in the sun. Ivan stood on his own, morose and sulky. The others had learnt to leave him alone. He was in for murder. Innocent of this, though not of other crimes, he was bitterly satisfied with the verdict, his belief in an unjust world confirmed.
The bird hopped closer. ‘Moriac,’ it squawked. Head on one side, it regarded him with a blue eye, steady, unblinking. Ivan turned away. ‘Moriac,’ said the bird again.
He glanced back. ’What?’
’Name’s Moriac, dummy. What’s the matter? You dumb or something?’
‘Cat got yer tongue?’
Ivan looked around to see if anyone was watching.
’Garn! Ged outta here,’ he shouted, making a run at the bird.
A couple of men looked up from their card game. The bird skipped out of Ivan’s way, and stood looking at him, sleek and shiny, king of the crows.
‘Have it your own way,’ it said hoarsely.
’Garn, fuggorf,’ growled Ivan, aware of the men now watching curiously.
‘Sure, dummy. See ya tomorra, but.’
The crow flew to the top of the high turreted wall. Evening sun gleamed on its blue-black feathers. It skipped along the wall and was gone. Must be cracking, thought Ivan as the siren screamed across the yard.
Muster time. The men entered the compound and stood by their cell doors for the count. Ivan thought about what had happened. It just didn’t compute. Stupid bird talking.
Dinner was served early, as always. Cheese lasagne, a trifle for dessert, and a cup of tea with milk and sugar. Ivan took his plate and sat by himself as always. His ribs hurt. Yesterday, Maxi, a kid newcomer, tried himself against Ivan, the most feared man in the unit. Taken by surprise in the dinner queue, Ivan had been stabbed hard with a toothbrush handle sawn to a point. The point penetrated between his ribs. The thought that Maxi was now in the sickbay with a messed up face, broken arm, dislocated fingers and jaw made Ivan smile.
He fingered the bandage wrapped around his chest. Must get it looked at tomorrow, he thought.
The overhead telly was showing the Channel Seven news, and several men watched intently. Others began a game of pool. The poker game continued in one of the side rooms where the men had their plates beside them, unwilling to leave the action. In the officers’ station, two screws were talking, another one was doing a crossword, and one was playing a computer game. Tonight there was a gentle hum of activity in the place, a kind of peace.
When the men were shut down for the night, Ivan entered his cell and turned on his own tellie. He was fastidious, as were many of the men, airing his doona daily, keeping his few possessions, magazines and books, in precise order. His one pleasure was reading, a pleasure that allowed him total escape from prison life. But tonight he didn’t read. Letting the telly play mindlessly, he lay on his bunk, and tried to ignore the dull throb in his ribs. He began thinking instead about the crow. Moriac? What the hell was that?
Finally, he fell asleep. He dreamed he was in a forest of spreading Moreton Bay Figs. Sunlight slanted through high branches, and huge roots reached over the forest floor like twisted fingers. Ivan felt an unfamiliar happiness in the dark forest. He looked into the twisted branches, then started. Half hidden amongst the dark leathery leaves were fat black crows with huge blue eyes, all looking silently at him.
Ivan woke, cursing. Lights were out, but his tellie was still on. Stumbling out of bed, he turned off the switch. Outside there was no moon, but the sky was luminous. Stars, cold and lovely, studded the heavens. He’d never noticed them before, never looked into the night. High on the wall, he could see the shape of a crow. A feeling—something like peace—moved through him.
Next morning when Ivan woke, he noticed motes of dust drifting in a stream of sunlight that slanted through the cell window. He lay still, relaxed, feeling as if he was floating, all the pain gone. Answering the call to muster, he rose reluctantly from his bunk and took his place outside his cell door for the count.
As he gazed over the balcony rails, Ivan noticed a golden glow over the scene below, like the beginning of a summer’s day. He looked at the other prisoners standing outside their cell doors. A feeling of benevolence welled up in his heart. Faces he had scarcely noticed before filled him with wonder. How could he not have noticed the compassion of Bernie, the intelligence of Dane, the humour, the kindness, a light in the eye of Big Dave, the innocence of young Marcus. His gaze roamed around the building with a kind of awe.
On the floor below, he heard a ripple of disruption and saw two guards leaping up the stairs at the far end of the balcony. He stood to one side as they entered his cell, ignoring him. Ivan followed. The men leaned over his bunk and he saw one of the officers holding the wrist of someone on his bed. Ivan felt giddy. He turned once more to the outside of his cell. The flurry downstairs continued. An officer was speaking on the phone. Another was on the loudspeaker, ordering all prisoners back into their cells for an instant lockdown.
Ivan stepped closer. ‘He’s gone,’ said one of the officers. ‘Nothing more to do. Poor bastard. Someone’s head’s gonna roll for this’
As the men left his cell, Ivan looked at his bunk. Suddenly, shocked, he saw himself lying there, eyes closed, face smooth and still. Blood soaked the bedding, and was still dripping onto the floor in a sodden dark pool Once more he felt overcome with giddiness.
And then he became aware of a flapping commotion close to his ear.
‘Told ya I’d see ya in the morning’ said Moriac, settling on Ivan’s shoulder with a ruffle and rattle of stiff black pinions.
Ivan smiled. ‘Bastard crow,’ he said.
With Moriac riding on his shoulder, he walked down the stairs and across the building, past the officers’ station, the frenzy of activity, to the doors at the end of the unit. He passed through the closed doors to the golden sunshine outside. The warmth and light felt like the beginning of a new day. He didn’t look back.
Image of carrion crow courtesy Ian Kirk, Broadstone, Dorset UK and Wikipedia