By Naomi Riddle
27 November, 2020
‘Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts, crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.’
Max Porter, Grief is the thing with feathers (2015)
In February, I wrote that I didn’t know how to begin—how to begin when we begin in the wake of destruction. Now, I’m writing to you to say I don’t know how to end. We have come full circle, or we have not moved at all. It is still March, it is still January, and it is still November 2016. Yesterday, the air smelt of bushfire. I thought: it is too early to be breathing this smoke again. But time hasn’t stood still, it has spent itself elsewhere. The now I’m writing to you from is the week before summer—the masks are on the bench, my allergies have blocked my ears, the stems of the tomato plants have snapped in the wind, and the prime minister’s approval rating is at sixty-six percent.
Yes, this was a year we published reviews of exhibitions, and yes, this was a year we kept going, and yes, we wrote in spite of and because of our anger. But this was also a year we rotated around and around, just as a cat rotates around and around, and if we talked of revolution, we were talking of this feeling too—of writing next to the spoke of a wheel. If I could summarise this year as anything it would be: stumbling while seated, in front of a screen. If I could summarise this year it would be: hope and care, pinched by their opponents. It would be the jumbled quote in my head that I still, after weeks of searching through books, don’t know who wrote it or where it comes from or how much I am paraphrasing it:
Everyone who has ever lived here has also died here. Where did the weight of these people go?
I was sitting in my car at the traffic lights, idling next to an abandoned shopfront that had a white sheet hanging across its window. A single mottled rabbit appeared at the bottom, squeezed between the sheet and the glass. The vacant shop window made a stage-play out of the rabbit, who seemed to be on the verge of a recitation.
Later, there was a rat or a guinea pig or a mouse, at dusk, a rodent, resting, in the middle of cut green grass. The slender rays of the lowered sun picked up the tips of its fur, illuminating the thin membranes around the ears. The animal sat quiet and still, with its back to me, oblivious to its soft matted halo.
Then, on another day, the crow.
The crow, who stood in the V of the paper-bark tree, watchful, alert, and antagonistic. The crow, who looked at me with a naked levelled gaze—long enough for me to notice the blue ring around its eyes. The crow, who won in the moment I looked down.
I continued along the footpath, about a block away from my front door. But the crow followed, both close and at a distance, swooping in the air behind me, moving from tree to power line to tree. When I got to my front door, the crow moved from the branch to the gutter, finding a perch above the entryway. There was about a metre’s height between us (I thought about skin & talons & scalps). It lowered its beak to stare, watching as I opened the front door and watching as I closed it behind me.
I stood in the hallway, inside, listening to its feet (claws?) scratching on the gutter. The crow was waiting, so I waited too. We shifted from left to right, seeing which one of us would move first. It took about one minute, maybe longer, for the crow to decide to fly away.
Afterwards, I kept asking: what does this mean.
Some answers I have been given: the crow is a bad omen, the crow means death, the crow is a trickster, it is a message from a loved one who has died, the crow means you will come into money, the crow means you will lose your health, or it is trying to tell you something, but it could be a ruse or an accident, and you won’t know what it is trying to tell you until it actually happens, and then you’ll only know what it means in hindsight. A crow is not a raven.
It means this is the year we give up on facts in favour of superstition.
Another answer: it means it is nesting and protecting its young.
I learn that one crow is bad luck, but two crows are good. In general, but not always. I read that crows can remember a human face for five years, and they will also remember the nature of the encounter. I learn crows don’t typically swoop to protect their young and they have copied this behaviour from magpies. I watch a YouTube video of a crow swooping a woman in Ohio, who runs away in fright, leaving her shopping bags strewn across the pavement. The crow sits on the concrete, triumphant, before harvesting the discarded toilet paper. I read that crows have the ability to exploit edge habitats. Warmer winters have disrupted the magpie swooping ‘season’ and now it will stretch out to the end of November. A newspaper article advises that being swooped may look comical to a passer-by, but it can be a terrifying experience for the swoopee. A local cyclist throws his helmet at a bird and shakes his fist. I download the magpie watch app on my phone, but there is no mention of a crow.
It is the end of the year, the last week before summer, and this is what I have for you—days marked by the patterns of a crow. Not one crow, really, but a family of crows, nesting in the trees across the road. Once, I saw all three adolescents lined up in a row, like a Disney film, with Mother Crow doling out food in individual portions.
But as soon as the crows hear me typing on my laptop, they start dancing on my roof, laughing at such graceless attempts to anthropomorphise their behaviour; they start playing call-and-response from the other roofs along the street, or from the tops of the unused chimneys, or from the telephone poles. The crows start dropping hints about the (very) large number of other writers who have written about them before. (Max Porter’s ‘Crow’: I’m a template. I know that, he knows that. A myth to be slipped in.) The crows and I gather around our imaginary and summer-proof end-of-year bonfire to discuss what this means.
A crow turns up at endings, is what we decide. A crow appears at the cusp or the edge of one thing when it is about to twist into another, is the consensus of the flock. The crow says a change is as good as a holiday. Maybe you’re asking the wrong questions, and maybe it’s not about what it means or what you have learnt, but about what you have forgotten. Remember how you said it was tentative and moveable. Remember how you said it was a proposition and not an inevitability, and that you liked how this felt, how this meant it was a bargain that could unravel itself whenever it was required. Remember how you said fragility meant power, which was another way of saying nothing was fixed, which was another way of saying you were always as much about de-creation as you were about creation. Remember when you said you were secure in your insecurity, in the not-knowing as much as the knowing, and rather than making you uneasy, this made you lighter and less willing to read the same words over and over again in different arrangements. Remember how you didn’t realise, when you started, the longer something continues the more it will appear certain to continue.
Remember, says the family of crows. Realise that now might be the time for the conjuring trick. Realise now might be the time when you unzip one kind of animal and reveal another animal inside of it.