The Owl Book
Though all she need do to hook his attention is dangle
the feathered lure of an open page, the cover distresses him.
Like a subversive librarian, she keeps re-sticking brown paper
as it begins to peel away. What is hidden is a trick of photoshop.
Six solitary owls forced into a ridiculous parliament. They stand
side by side, their adjustable claws gripping a gleaming branch.
Like Shakespearean Fools, their tufted breeches blowsy on legs
too thin. Old men who, in the tethers of their slippers, might half-shuffle,
half hop. Might wear their belts too high, like tourniquets
to stem the slow leak of their hearts.
If these birds spoke they would babble in archaic English riddles.
The cover is his palimpsest. If she didn’t keep it under wraps, what is
almost, not quite erased, might show through with a careless rub of chalk.
They would both rather remember the owls at the height of their powers.
In the middle of each sulphured pupil, a cigarette lighter, aflame.
Their bodies swinging from high circus-bar to bar through the snug
cirrus of the sky’s abdomen, led by the satellite dishes of their heads
that catch sounds and guide them to one ear or the other,
which rest in different places either side of their skulls.
The Alzheimer’s bird has flown into their house.
And soon, regardless of her brown-paper bandaids, the invisible writing
will show through. Emotion will linger when language is gone.
And that is when she will wish for the mismatched ears of the owls,
one opening high on the right side of her skull, one lower on the left.
She could then absorb every vibration that bounces off
the expressions on his face. And by timing when and where
those messages ricochet in the tunnels of bone,
beneath what feels like open wounds, she could pinpoint
the exact location of his pain.
He’s not old, just middle aged. And from the outside, seemingly
balanced. She will write a book herself one day, the title:
You’ll know who your true friends are in your body,
by which of them abandons you first.
His mind is intent on moving out, daily. Backing up
the noisy reversing beep of the truck. Then, one by one, the careless
removalist takes the boxes, ignoring their labels: fragile, do not bend,
please leave this memory till last.
She draws the curtains on their privacy. Dresses him neatly.
Shirt tucked in with hospital corners. Dark mirrors on his polished shoes.
Strangers who see them here on the park bench
might perceive his perplexed expression as measured pondering.
They’d wonder more at the buttons of her cardigan not matching
their holes. And what, in her haste this morning, she pulled
from the intestinal basket of single socks: one beige, one brown.
The autumn sun is scaled, milk-seeds of light not quite freed
from the caul of their husks. The view: pastry, with variations.
In the foreground, filo trunks of paperbarks, under the worm
calligraphy like piped caramel icing. In the background, down
near the harbour, the wriggling light thrown off the water
from the masts of moored boats, wrapping up a young girl
and a couple wandering the shoreline. Reminding her
of a dish she ate once in a seafood restaurant: prawns shrouded
in a coat of shredded greek pastry, Kataifi, then fried to golden straw.
She reaches for his arm. ‘What colour is the breeze, today?’
He gives her ‘Grass’. This synesthesia, for as long as it lasts,
is a device to keep them talking. At breakfast he insists
on toast-loud kisses. The cold bathroom floor is sharp pine-o-clean.
What is the taste of grief ? she wonders. That deep-tissue masseur
who keeps hand-chopping her chest.
Rocky road, perhaps, but not made of chocolate. A long ride
in a jeep with no suspension, over uneven terrain.
He points to the expanse of lawn that forms the shimmering littoral.
This is where ‘grass’ belongs. The nomenclature
has taken tenacious root under the thing it signifies,
despite the onshore gusts, the dune’s erosions.
Instead he says: ‘Masked owl.’
And though the price of salt is cheap in this seaside town,
as Lot’s wife turned thousand-time offender, she should know better
( it is his brain, not hers, turning to pillars of crystals)
still it comes out as the banter it once was. ‘Don’t you mean “grass”?
You said it yourself just a minute ago.’
‘Grass. Fuck!’ He pulls at clumps of his hair. ‘Round eggs from Africa.’
With clenched fists in air, he caricatures the shape of a bowl.
There is no help in his gaze.
It’s Escher’s ‘Three Worlds’. Below. Between. Above.
A triumvirate. Sky in the water. Leaves floating on it.
Real leaves. And their distorted reflections.
The carp tickling the branching tips of black trees.
But then she remembers enough to see
his words and actions as a pictograph.
The sign on the road indicating, not masked owls up ahead,
but far behind.
They saw the birds in the great sandy desert, thirty years ago.
He drove her there in his rickety ute.
They crept up on the nesting pair, hidden in a round alcove
inside a cave. Two gnomic faces like cut-open
custard apples oxidized to rust. Shiny black seeds for eyes
in the gloom. They fluffed up their feathers in a bluff display,
then made the warning sounds
of a cat’s mewling drawn down the length of a metal grater.
She’s sentimental now. ‘Do you remember we first met
in the Botanical Gardens?’
He draws his collar around his throat. Sits straighter on
the bench. He’s getting ready for the bluff.
And, determined to please him this time,
she turns a blind tongue as he counts the eggs
of his words and, coming up short,
raids the nest of her own, still warm.
‘Botanical Gardens. You and me.’
Then, less sure of himself. ‘Don’t you remember?’
She wants to say:
Grass fuck. Masked owl. Round eggs from Africa.
She wants to make the shape of a bowl with her hands
to hold him safe inside.
‘Thanks for reminding me.’ She reaches for his fingers.
‘Good girl.’ Her renunciation has made them sweethearts again.
He brings his other hand to rest on top of their two
joined ones. She puts the last piece of the puzzle of them
in place on the summit, to finish the game.
Between them they have made a hundred-year-old
book of palms, the spine of knuckles
topsy turvy but holding.
‘Good girl,’ he says again. His eyes are soft water.
He’s fallen asleep in the chair, with an aniseed ball
still nestled in his cheek. She imagines the soft pink flesh
turning black. Wonders if it’s a choking hazard.
Those two thrown-out-of-orbit, odd-shaped moons of his lungs
orchestrate their indecisive tides.
Push out his breath, think better of it, pull it back through
the damp cave between his lips, now lined with spittle.
The book is open on his lap at that saddest-looking bird of all.
The barn owl, that roosts in the breathless, dust-mote attics
of children’s story books. With a face like an abandoned
craft project. One heart-shaped piece
of dirty-white felt, stitched around the outline in
burnt-orange thread. Then the whole pocket
turned inside out. Reversed dark buttons
for eyes. And for a beak, the curved tip
of an upholstery needle, still poking through the material.
His fingertips tap at the armrests as though pushing
the rubber buttons that flip the paddles, that send the balls
to the flash-clang targets. At eighteen, his mates called him
Tommy, though he never wore the platform shoes.
Their dates were always at the pinball parlour. He’d ignore
her for hours while he, tit-for-tat, shook his favourite
Earthshaker machine side to side, panning for a golden score.
She always had a headache at the end of the night.
The transfixing lights that wouldn’t stop flashing. The aluminium
carnival music, like a cheap import of hell. And could never sleep
afterwards. In her ears, the Sturm und Drang stretched melodies
of youth. Behind her eyes, a carousel with brittle painted horses
impaled on poles, their Münch-mouths shrieking.
Earlier, she’d brought out the daily shoe-box of photographs.
Once, in peace-time, they’d hung undisturbed in frames
on the wall. But now, rectangles of paler paint line up
straight as the ghosts of soldiers, the memories themselves
taken down and drafted into this complicated war.
The holiday snaps don’t interest him. The two of them propping up
the Eiffel tower. And years earlier, standing apart, their damp backs
to the railing at Victoria Falls. In the photograph, they look like
coloured bobby pins fastened either side of a tremendous gush of hair.
She knows he loves her still. When she brings out the pictures
of their wedding day, the bells clang, the scores rack up.
He relaxes, as though flying over a curve in a muddy bend of
stirred-up river, to come upon, suddenly, a pool of clear, where
for a few bright moments, he can see all the way to the bottom.
Tomorrow they’ll visit the doctor who has no desk calendar
so those with appointments can’t cheat when asked
the day of the week. Unsure, he will turn to her. Constantly.
And constantly she’ll smile. She’s become so good
at reassurance, he won’t peer anxiously for the messy threads
on the underside of her eyes. Her seamstress work so fine
the two internal stitches either side, hitching up the corners of her lips
will be almost invisible.
He’s gone to bed now. But not to rest. Sundowning
they call it: agitation, unease. Paranoia in the dark.
He’ll dream of graveyards and flying, while the owl goes
about its bloody business in his head.
The strangeness of the sky will fold in to accommodate
the accordion of his wings. Then his striped pyjamas
will sprout feathers. He’ll lose the shame of a bladder
he cannot always control and piss, triumphant,
marking his territory. The adjustable claws of the devil
unpicking his brain, will be tucked up and hidden.
It won’t be long before he swoops to take her, unerringly
into his mouth. She is made of the stuff of prey, eaten alive.
She is small parcels of their mutual past,
kept warm for the raptor.
When a mouse is taken by an owl, before that last swallow,
its tiny, liquorice tail, still alive and dangling from the beak
will try to turn, as though to crank-start the motor
of that bone-crunching jalopy of death.
As though impatient for what is now
an inevitable journey, to be over.
She’s thinking of Charlie Chaplin. The ill-fitting suit,
his mute waddling. How his tricks were a plasticine face
and the vaudeville stick of happiness, sadness,
swinging to the tempo of all that he needed to say.
Grass fuck. Masked owl. Round eggs from Africa.
In this quiet, in the eye of the storm, before the call
of the screech owl comes curdling from the bedroom,
she knows that the time is coming
when words will fail to keep them safe.
And what then will be the vessel to hold them?
Outside the kitchen window, thick fingers
of night mist are rising from the cooling ground.
She imagines the big hands of silence
in Marcel Marceau gloves
trying to make the shape of a bowl.
Here is a wonderful poem by that wonderful poet Judy Johnson that was
short-listed for the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2013.