Peter Mitchell – Crows in His Eyes

Mitchell LE P&W March 2024

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing March 2024.

Crows in His Eyes, short story by Peter Mitchell.


There are crows in his eyes.

Crows – the colour of luminous charcoal with beaks of steel and eyes like white, blazing orbs.

At night, they honeycomb his sleep. Massing in great numbers, they fly through the vault of dream, their beaks like arrow tips, aiming for his eyes. During the day, their long, drawn-out call sounds like a distressed child lost in the unknown distance.

Bill stands on the back verandah of ‘Carinya’. He leans against a wooden post, his scuffed workboots hanging over the jagged edges of the bare, grey boards. The sun hangs high in the midday sky scorching the air and stilling the moment as if suspending time. His eyes are glazed, a far-off expression in them. He pictures shoots of young wheat, verdant and ever-green, swaying in a gentle breeze.

A peripheral movement disturbs his reflection. The direction of his gaze changes, his eyes staring at a crow gliding through the air. It lands on a dead tree branch and settles its wings. The composed head turns, one white eye studying him. Tension rhizomes his neck, pin-pricks his muscles. He looks at the paddock adjacent to the tractor shed, his eyes darkening at the brown tussocks islanding the cracked soil like shattered, black glass.

Jane walks onto the side verandah, stands still and watches the line of earth and sky. For several minutes, the sky fuses hot and blue as if melting into nothingness. A vision emerges. She sits in their ute, her hands on the steering wheel as she waits for Bill to open the gate. Changing into first gear, she waves good-bye and drives to her new job in Moree. Her imaginative projections always make her feel weightless as if levitating in a room.

Bill turns around, opens the backdoor and walks into the kitchen. As the screen door bangs behind him, a fly comes through a gap in the wire. He sits down at the table, his shoulders rounded from tension. For a second time, he looks out at the horizon, gazing absently, the dying wheat leaning the still air.

Ping, ping! He hears the rat-a-tat as the fly’s body tings a wooden frame of a window. Thirty seconds later, he looks right and sees it in a spider’s web, its frantic movements enmeshing it with the traitorous strands at the top of the window. For several minutes, he observes this life-or-death struggle. The spider’s red-stripe slowly moves towards the fly, each leg a tensile protuberance testing the strength of its death loom. As the spider lunges its legs around the fly, his gaze shifts to the letter on the table.

Jane stands at the kitchen doorway. I read the letter from the bank, she says, stepping into the room.

Bill sinks into wordlessness.

-What are we going to do? asks Jane. She steps closer, stopping a metre from him and pauses. Twenty seconds later, she says, I have a few ideas. For a second time, she pauses, unsure of whether to continue. She decides to and says, please Bill, let’s talk about them.

The sound of her words glance off Bill’s shoulders like gravel thrown at a closed window.

Jane collapses into helplessness. Again. Her shoulders droop as she thinks, his silence, his ever-present silence. She sighs heavily, turns around and walks further into the house.

Bill folds the letter into quarters and pushes it into his backpocket. He walks to the second window. The fly is embalmed by the sticky thread, the spider a threatening monument in the opposite corner of the web. For several minutes, he gazes at the distant grey-slate hills, his mind empty of reflection. He sits down at the table again, his palms enveloping his head, his eyes boring into the wood’s grain.

The words, ‘a marriage made in heaven’, cross his mind. They were the words his mates had said as they bought him round after round of celebratory beers in the front bar at the Royal Hotel.

Spokes of afternoon sun, pale gold in colour, penetrated the light of the bar and skittered across the tiled floor. At the time, he remembers, he felt light and airy as he sat on a barstool opposite the large, rectangular window.

Jane sits on the lounge and flicks through a House and Garden she had borrowed from the shire library. She rests the magazine on her lap and thinks about the letter. She wonders what Bill will decide this time.

The thought fades as she admires a photograph of a house. Her fancy absorbs her as she steps back from a rubber plant, the luxuriant green a striking contrast to the apricot-coloured pot.  She imagines herself standing in a house of light and air, her gaze regarding the clear, pine furniture and thick, plush carpet. It reminds her of her former life in Sydney and her harbourside apartment in Neutral Bay. She remembers with satisfaction working at Mitchell Library and sitting at Lady Macquarie’s Chair, eating her lunch as she watched the yachts zipping across the harbour.

Her reverie ends as questions about their future return. They remain unanswered, open-ended. Her future? This question has a partial answer.  For the last four years, she’d volunteered at Moree Plains Municipal Library, shelving books and cataloguing the audio-visual items.

Earlier in the day, she had decided that a refresher course for library technicians was a possible option. More questions cross her mind. Why hadn’t she thought about this earlier? Why had it taken so long? She sighs heavily, shaking her head at her own indecision.

Bill stands, pushes the chair back, walks to the back verandah and sits down, his back against a wooden post. He brushes several flies away from his face. The crow still sits silently in the tree, its beak open to cool its body. It turns its head, its eye assessing him again. A recurring dream tracks through his mind. A crow, tiny like a distant pinhead, moves closer, then flies through his projections, growing larger. He feels the whip of its flapping wings and sees the talons aiming for his skin-soft throat. He shivers slightly and shakes himself out of the recollection.

He changes position, making himself more comfortable. He hears the rustle of the bank letter, reminding them about their lack of available credit. Resentment roils his stomach. The black print, benign and without judgement, suggested selling farm machinery as a way to pay debts.

His gaze roves over the dusty paddocks as a childhood recollection passes his eyes. His mother towered over him, her strong arms pushing him into the kitchen pantry, the key locking the door. Her words lashed him for being lost for hours and for the trouble he caused by worrying his parents.

He had been looking for his dog, a rust-coloured Kelpie. She had chased a rabbit into the near distance. He had wandered into one of the paddocks, calling Rusty, Rusty. His initial pursuit turned into an afternoon-long search, his awareness of time blurring as the sameness of the country skewed his sense of direction. Hours later, the local policeman found him in the shade of a river-red gum.

The pervasive tick of the clock interrupts Jane’s ruminations. She glances up at it, a frown lining her forehead. A moment later, she looks out the lounge-room window, recalling the first twelve months of their marriage.

She remembers the languid feeling of long, hot baths, Bill cupping her breasts, round and heavy as he held her. And relaxing at the end of the day on the front verandah, the rose-pink sunsets streaking the horizon as shadows lengthened over the surrounding hectares of wheat.

Crossing her ankles, the toe of her sandal bumps the vacuum cleaner on the floor. Its presence reminds her of the dust. At first, it disturbed her as it kissed her underwear in a fine embrace. She resented the thin black layer coating every piece of furniture in its ever-present moth-touch. And still after ten years, she washed black footprints off the kitchen floor time and time again and dusted the house once a week.

Bill stands, walks to the gate and leans on the rusting rail. His mind flits over other possibilities: a vague idea about sowing soy beans and remembered conversations with neighbours about forming a cooperative to sell grains. And there was a furtive thirty seconds when growing marihuana crossed his imagination too.

Walking through the gate, he bends down and picks up some dead tussocks. He rubs them between his fingers, the stalks papery to touch, the particles falling to the ground. Again his shoulders droop, depletion overwhelming him.

He remembers his father and grand-father with their stoic facial expressions, how words of complaint were considered a betrayal, how you bent into the wind and just kept going. It was the only way his family controlled their world, the only way his family loved. He also remembers Jane’s eternal optimism, the steel in her eyes, his words of complaint a sword between them.

Jane continues recalling their marriage. Bill was a very different man at first. After three years of drought, his silence and moods lengthened. After several more years of variable rain and haphazard harvests, she became familiar with his facial canvas of black anger, his back a silent wall.

She turns another page and reads an article featuring a house at Byron Bay. She looks up and remembers the countless times she encouraged him to talk to her. She closes the magazine, places it on the small coffee table and stands. This is the only life I know, she thinks. This is all that I want.  Returning to Sydney? Her body tires at the thought. Anyway, she concludes, it’s become too big, too impersonal, too busy.

She walks into the kitchen and switches the kettle on for a cup of tea. She decides it’s time for action. An appointment with their bank manager will be a start. She walks to the side window and wonders where Bill is. Looking at the horizon, her legs are straight, her feet placed firmly on the floor, her only thoughts about repossessing their property from the drought and bank.

Bill looks slowly around him and feels the weight of an unchanging world. Looking up, he sees the crow watching him again. It flies from the tree, its aacchh aacchh, calling him to the black void. He watches it as it becomes smaller in the flame-blue distance.

He walks to the garage on the other side of the house and opens the door, the bottom scraping the dirt in the depression of the driveway. To his left, a square of light illuminates the gloom of the interior, showing silhouettes of tools and small pieces of machinery.

For a minute, he stands at the entrance, his eyes seeing the house and the farm buildings melting into the black dust. He walks to the car and unlocks the boot. In his hands, the metal is solid and dependable. It is not changeable, he thinks, like the weather or the price of wheat. He turns it around and regards the two black moons.

For a second time, he looks up and out at the house and surrounding paddocks. He hears Jane calling, ‘Bill, Bill’. He smiles to himself as a projection crosses his imagination: Jane standing on the front verandah, fortitude colouring her eyes. He feels a shift in his body, his family’s history, Jane, the future transforming his heart. He places the hardware back in the boot.

As he closed it, a plastic shine in the dimness of the right-hand corner catches his attention.  He opens the resealable bag and sees seeds: some slate-grey, some black, some with tiger spots on them. Ah yes, he remembers. That furtive thirty-second conversation. He shoves it into his backpocket and walks towards the house.

-Ah, there you are, says Jane.

He remains silent, smiles and opens the plastic bag.

For ten seconds, a frown knits her forehead as she gazes at the seeds. Ah, she says for a second time. Such variety! The muscles around her eyes relax as she looks at him again. They remind me of my miss-spent youth.

Bill smiles and closes the plastic bag. Indeed! he says. He pushes it into his backpocket.

Jane loops her arm through Bill’s as they walk to the front gate, both of them looking into the future. The crow flies from the branch, its wings slowly beating the still air as it moves away from the farm, becoming a pin-drop in the horizon.

© Peter Mitchell

Winner of the Kyogle Readers and Writers 2023 Poetry Prize, Longlisted in the 2023 Liquid Amber Poetry Prize & the 2022 Flying Islands Poetry Prize, Peter Mitchell (he/him/his) lives in Lismore on Widjabul/Wia-bal Country, Bundjalung Nation, writing across all narrative forms. His short fiction has appeared in Baby Teeth Journal, Bent Street, Powders Press (UK), The Newsletter of the Canberra Science Fiction Society & the international anthology, Signs of Life (Moshpit Publishing, 2021). All his other writing: poetry, memoir, essays & refereed journals papers have appeared in international & national print & online journals, magazines & anthologies. He’s published two poetry chapbooks, The Scarlet Moment (Picaro Press, 2009) & Conspiracy of Skin (Ginninderra Press, 2018) which was Highly Commended in the 2019 Wesley Michel Wright Prize for Poetry., on Insta @petermitchell546 & on FB Author Page at Peter Mitchell Wordsmith.

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