Haven’t done a Magpie for a while but I couldn’t resist this picture. For more Magpie Tales click on the link.
It was the last time Hank touched her. They were standing at the intersection of Smith and Taylor streets, the one where the arrows to the city and away again were stencilled on the side of the bank. Someone had stolen the street signs. Steel poles and all. Nona couldn’t believe it. It seemed so pointless. What the hell could you do with a ten foot high street sign? It’s not as if you could get it in your car or if you were a teenage prankster put it in your bedroom. All the houses around here were built in the 1970s. Their ceilings petered out at just over 6 feet. Whoever had stolen the sign couldn’t have been a local. The Smith Street sign wouldn’t even fit through the front door.
Hank had been agitated all morning. Nona watched him drinking his coffee in his singlet. He kept pulling at the neck of it where there was that thin line of grey that Nona couldn’t get out no matter how much she soaked it. She hoped he hadn’t seen it because it was the type of thing that sent Hank off on a rant and this morning Nona just couldn’t cope with that. It wasn’t her fault that he sweated so much around the neckline. She sweated in strange places. Her right eyebrow was always wet like she’d just washed her face. Hank’s neckline was like that. Even in cold weather. It was odd.
When they got to the intersection Nona couldn’t remember which one was Smith and which one was Taylor Street. It annoyed her that she was always the one who had to be aware of such things. Why couldn’t Hank figure out which one was which?
He had on his overcoat but he kept on picking at his neckline as if he could feel the grey line on the singlet right through it. It was cold on the corner and there was that deceptive kind of wind that settles around your feet so silently you can’t really be sure if there is a wind or not. But the chill, the chill is there.
How can you not know where Smith Street is? For the first time Nona noticed the rasp in Hank’s voice. As if he was shredding every word he said. As if he was forcing something out. Like ire. Or despair.
She felt the wind that might not be wind gather in her boots. The zippers had come loose where they met the ankles and when she walked little gusts of air rushed in. Sometimes she almost achieved a kind of buoyancy, like she was walking on air, but today her feet just felt shrivelled and cold.
She tried to remember. I think it’s the one on the right, she said. The one to the city. Yeah, that’s right. Turn right to the city.
You stupid bitch. Frank was shouting at her. A wheedling kind of shouting like someone does who is trying to hold themselves back because they know if they actually shout full pelt they might never stop. It’s Taylor Street that goes to the city. Tay-lor Street. We want to go the left. To the left.
Nona didn’t remember her head hitting the wall of the bank. Full brick. But she remembered the crunch as if her bones had splintered. And she remembered the close up view she obtained of the right hand arrow pointing to the city.
Six weeks later the arrow was still in her line of sight.
It’s a floater, the doctor said. Quite common in a head trauma. It’ll disappear soon enough.
Nona had read that floaters were spots or flashes. She had never heard of anyone seeing arrows, especially ones that always pointed right. But then most people with floaters hadn’t almost been blinded by a brick wall. Most people with floaters hadn’t thought the last thing they might ever see was an arrow pointing to the city.
Nona wasn’t supposed to drive but her sister, her old friend, told her of the winter birds gathering in the woodland that surrounded her house. Of their colours like the warmest of winter coats. Of their songs. Of their sheer, unshifting good natures amidst the cold and the ice.
You need to see them, her sister said. You need to get out of the city. You need to cross to the woodland and stand and feel them all around. You need to feel their joy in living in your heart.
Winter in the city was harsh. The trees were bare, stark as the initial markings in a sketchbook. It was easy to feel like an exile among all the white and grey. It was easy to feel pitiful. The snow slid down the sides of buildings, piling up at the edges, glossy and inert.
The arrow was as emphatic as hurt, directing her to nameless places. Turning right, ever right, so that all she did was walk in circles. She was a bird with one useless wing, lurching forward at obtuse angles.
The road to her sister’s house was smooth as fondant on wedding cake. The trees stood back from it, reverent, formal. The arrow loomed, an irritant, like a piece of tape stuck to the windscreen.
She drove straight all the way, along the fluid white road, the snow bunching, the trees everywhere, overlooking it all like the sadness in the world.
She saw the birds. Fluttering. Even in the bitter cold they fluttered. Creatures of the air had a certain kind of defiance that couldn’t be diminished.
Reds and blues.
Blacks and greys and splotches of yellow.
So unexpected in the subdued landscape.
The road took her all the way through, straight and true to her sister’s house.
They sat for hours after she arrived, wrapped in blankets smelling of primroses, drinking hot chocolate and watching the birds. They put on a show, there was no doubt in Nona’s mind, the little winged ones put on a show. As the snowflakes coated their feathers with sugar and the evening light turned the woods magic – they put on a show.
Nona knew that in days that had yet to come, when she spoke of the past, sections would be missing, but not this part. Love, money, fame, they didn’t matter when you could have moments of comfort like a woodland show. More comforting than the sight of moss on trees, or soft lamps in night windows. Or the winter twilight, blue and mauve.
The birds assembled, a cluster of headlights and coloured glass. Their gladness was greater than sadness, greater than anything that grew from the dark. They were poets, making sense of disorder, pulling malaise back into the light.
Nona didn’t know it until night fell and she got up to go into her sister’s house but the arrow she thought would stay etched in her line of vision forever had grown perceptibly smaller.
Like a mark on a negative being rubbed out.