By Leonie Weaver
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 by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash)