Aiden the crow landed on the balcony railings, his beautiful, miraculous claws tiptapping as he sidled along, eyes bright.
Claire knew that look. It was the look of a young man evening-eager for a night out or a quiet night in, anything she liked as long as they were together. She remembered that look so well, the look that had captured her heart forever.
The crow’s feathers were mostly glossy black, tropical night black, reflecting back the setting sun like polished coal, the colour of a young man’s hair when they had first met, a fringe for a while and then a mohawk. Later of course grey appeared, in patches at first, and it seemed the crow was on the same path. The look and the colours. Claire was sure.
Aiden the crow tapped again and cocked his head, asking for something – probably not the beer she had poured into the aluminium ashtray, still marked with too many late-night cigarettes, although historically it would have been. She sat on the balcony on the hard kitchen chair, face wet, hands gripping the railings. The crow tiptapped impatiently, expectantly.
Aiden flexed his wings and took off, soared and tilted, wingtip pointing almost straight down at the concrete five storeys below, and fixed her with his mirror-black eye. She understood and smiled and stepped onto the chair and held out her arms then for a moment, for the longest of moments, for the rest of eternity, she flew.
When Clara opened the door five years ago and let me in, a man was singing opera in another room. It’s the painter, she said, and said no more.
We sipped coffee from delicate white cups and I wondered what sort of artist would sing as he created. Clara flushed and called me bourgeois, incapable of understanding that even workers could appreciate fine things. He was painting the walls.
My cup tipped in its saucer as I lowered it towards the fine lace mat. I righted it and Clara flushed again. Her grandmother had had the sight and saw the future in the grounds.
You should leave, she said.
I did not see her again until a moment ago outside the pavement café. She was pushing a pram and I raised my cup to salute her. She did not respond. Perhaps she did not see me. I did not stand.
He sat in the sun on a bench in the park, his jacket too heavy. ‘May I?’ said the woman who appeared out of nowhere, pointing at the other end of the bench. ‘Aye, of course,’ he almost said but instead grunted and nodded and looked away. It’s not much of a story to tell, the woman may have thought, unless I invent that he is famous or an actor or identical to that man who had done that terrible thing when she was only a child. Her parents had turned the newspaper over but she had found and read the article, following the words with her finger. The memory had stayed with her like a fishhook through the lip. She sat and did not look at the man, who did not look at her.
He did not answer when she first spoke to him, nor later when she stood up and left. All he could think of was his daughter.
Someone I did not like very much died this morning. I was taught not to speak bad of the dead – or the ill, just in case they passed while my dark thoughts wrapped round them. I hold scissors open near the bonsai and consider. Lop a branch and tell what I believed they had done to me? Leave it to grow and stay silent until my story bursts out as a bud, as a leaf? I close the scissors and put them down on the wooden floor. I look at them and half-open them again. That is more pleasing to the eye, though not to the heart.
Pros and cons. Benefits and not. I think of the family. Perhaps I would not have liked them too. I did not have the chance and would not have wanted it. I turn the scissors through ninety degrees. An improvement. I close them to a finger’s width and smile without meaning to.
I am not going to tell my story, I have decided, because if the truth once known can corrode. It would not be fair as the dead are not here to answer. Though they were never fair themselves.
One leaf, just one leaf and perfection. I pick up the cold scissors, close them, open them again to the sharpest V and finish shaping the tree. The dead remain dead for a very long time but trees can last forever.
Nobody knew what was at the falls. They just knew there were bad things there and they must never go there and their parents would literally kill them if they went there. Or they would not, or could not, because nobody had ever returned from the falls alive.
So of course she and I decided to go there together, hand in hand,and we saw what was at the falls and we felt what was at the falls and we fell together and we will never be back but we tell each other this story over and over. Now you.
Ji pulled the ladder up behind him and dropped the hatch. The only light came from the clouded sky beyond the clouded skylight. It was here somewhere, it had to be. He opened one box then another. In the last box he found it and held it tight, tears streaming. It was all he had ever wanted.
I saw you had written my name in the back of your book and fell to thinking stories about it. Was this the tale of how, after days and nights and months and years, you found your way to your only true love? Was it a permanent reminder of how the universe had fore-written our lives, how the or the way had found you?Was it just one of many examples of how you left my name everywhere, signing your path through the world?
With a needle and a pen I scratched your name beneath my skin and wore long sleeves to catch the blood.
Yesterday I saw your book left open at my name page but my name had been written in pencil and now only its shadow remained.
My arm itched and my eyes prickled. The afternoon and evening and long night passed somehow and now I write new stories.
The peacock landed heavily on the chess board, an overused, overweight symbol. Alexei, who said he had a photographic memory, half picked it up, half pushed it off the concrete table. People in the park shouted and pointed, but not in an aggressive way. Now they were laughing, but at the situation, not the victims.
Can you eat peacock, wondered Alexei, as the bird strutted away.
Oh yes, of course, roared one of the spectators, if you have good teeth and are not afraid of the soldiers.
Ah, I must have said that out loud, thought Alexei, making sure to keep his lips tight shut and his eyes from blinking. The bystander said nothing.
Alexei set up the pieces again, almost exactly as they had been when the peacock had arrived. The game continued until its inevitable outcome became clear.
The funeral was over. She was gone. Col stood apart.
We are here for you, the strangers said, taking his hands. He blinked away more tears. Everyone was saying the same. We mourn for you. We feel for you. We are here for you.
The bright Halloween sun gave no warmth. The graveyard was shades of green, each darker than the other. Nearby, mourners. In the distance, crows.
Thank you, he said, and tried subtly to let go of their hands.
No Col, one said, their firm cool grip gently tightening. We are here for you.
His heart slowed. Together they walked away.
The flight was already an hour late when the queue at the gate finally began to shuffle forward. I eyed the man in the heavy overcoat who, bishop-like, was trying to cut softly in front of me. As I shifted my weight onto my left foot the teenager on my right barged forward, eyes fixed on their phone. It was blatant obstruction, any referee would have called a foul. I stood up straighter and used my additional weight to block them. There. I inched forward, not lifting my feet from the floor. At the gate I had my passport and my boarding card ready and beamed triumphantly.
‘Your carry-on, sir? Where is your carry-on?’
A chill ran through me and I turned round in the crowd. The dog was sitting , eyes fixed on the suitcase. The man in the stab vest was looking our way.
‘I don’t have any’, I said. ‘I don’t have any.’