I stare up at the circling birds, black against clouds, gray with winter rain.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
The lines pop into my head, Yeats' Second Coming . Why am I thinking of them now? I know the answer before the question is fully formed. I smile sourly. My mundane existence bears no relationship to the poem's profound theme, except in my own tiny mind.
'A lesson should begin at the beginning,' it says.
‘And end at the end,' I reply tartly.
The crow's demeanor doesn't change; it remains staring at me with its yellow eye, head cocked, feathers ruffling in the wind. The wind! It's biting my bones in the way only a city wind can, at five o'clock on a winter's day. Add to this the joyless sight of a deserted carpark with the light fading fast, and the end of a less than inspiring day in a job I have long ceased to believe in. The only thing moving, apart from the ruffled crow and my shivering self, is the lid of an empty McDonald's box, giving a passable imitation of a giant clam.
‘I'm sorry crow,' I say as politely as I can, ‘but I haven't got time to talk to you. I've got to pick up the kids and get home and cook the dinner and do this correction, so I can get to bed early and get up in the morning and start this all over again.'
‘You haven't got time not to talk to me,' the crow says sternly. ‘And I'm not a crow, I'm a raven. There are no crows in Australia .'
I half know the crow is right, for I've read this somewhere, but I am in a less than generous mood.
‘Well, crow, raven, whatever you are, I haven't got time to chat.'
I push past it, noticing how sharp its beak is and how meaty its body. I don't get the chance to see crows up close very often; they're not among the usual collection of roadkill decorating my drive to work each morning. But I know they're smart. They hop away to the road verges at the very last minute, timing their escape to perfection, not wasting their strength on a wing-flap when a single hop will do. No wonder they star in myths where magic is as common as sunlight, and where people still remember the tongue-speak of animals.
‘Have you noticed anything strange lately?' it asks.
The crow's voice pursues me to my car, not fading with the distance. I slide the key into the lock and wriggle it slightly. The barrel is loose, a victim of the last break in.
‘Have you noticed The Walker?'
I throw my bag and books onto the passenger seat and shut the door. The Walker . I hadn't named him as such, but I know exactly who the crow means. I turn back. The crow is now settled on the front of my car. Its scaled feet are long and sinewy; its claws sharper than a new moon. Will it add to the scratches on the duco?
The Walker . I had been sitting fuming in my car in the usual queue at the railway crossing, when he emerged from the station car park and crossed the road in front of me. He could have been a student: tall and lank, long red hair, pale skin and dressed in an army greatcoat. Or he could have been a wizard. He walked with a strange lope, he wore a soft broad-brimmed hat, and his face carried a curious half-smile. A wizard, I thought, sitting in my car with the radio blaring very unmagical music; a wizard who is young in his knowing. He is not a Gandalf-type wizard, not yet. Not one who has explored the full darkness of himself and emerged from the Balrog's fire, transcendent as Gandalf the White. He seemed more of an adolescent-type wizard, full of good intentions but not yet totally reliable.
‘A Walker and a wizard are often the same thing,' the crow says. ‘They both travel the land on foot; have time to see the new grass uncurl; have time to feel the earth breathe.'
The crow smiles, if such a thing is possible with a rigid beak. ‘When did you last have time?' it queries. I ignore the question and the smile vanishes in a blinking. ‘What else?' it pursues.
‘The Madonna and Child,' I admit, enjoying this conversation less and less. It isn't as if I fear seeing such things, I am after all a writer of fantasy in my nonexistent spare time, but the thought of what they might portend is making me uneasy.
‘The Madonna and Child,' the crow prompts.
I'd been driving home then too. Trapped in the middle lane, the car behind me right up my exhaust pipe, the cars beside me door handle to door handle. The lights had flashed from orange to red with uncanny speed and I'd hit the brakes, half expecting to be smashed up the back. She'd stepped off the kerb, child in hand. I couldn't see her face. She kept it turned away from the row of drivers framed by their dirty windscreens, ensconced in their metal boxes of unfeelingness.
She was poor. Poor in the way she dressed, poor in the way she moved. Both she and the child wore jackets of the type that you can't buy new in shops any more. Jackets worn and discarded by others. She was thin, the cotton dress flapping against her legs. The child walked on tiptoes, bridging the gap to her mother's hand. They passed and the lights flashed to green, releasing the surge of traffic and sweeping me away. I looked in my mirror but they were lost.
‘The Walker and the Madonna and Child,' the crow murmurs. ‘The one who sees and feels and the one who connects old life to new.' The crow eyes me speculatively. ‘Almost like a teacher,' it adds.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats had it down pat, damn him. But perhaps what the crow says is right--for the old days. Then knowledge was gifted freely from one generation to the next. Now it's all about clients and delivery, measurable outcomes and funding. Always funding.
‘True teaching remains a gift,' the crow says. There is a pause, and it's the crow which breaks it. ‘Have you noticed anything else?'
‘Nothing else,' I snap, suddenly sick of the crow's ability to pick at my thoughts like a tasty pile of entrails. Isn't seeing three archetypal characters wandering the suburbs enough?
‘Two archetypal characters,' the crow corrects. ‘The Madonna and Child only count as one.'
I stare at the crow irritably. No wonder crows have got such bad press through the ages. Their notoriety started with Noah. The crow he'd sent off to investigate the ending of the Flood simply went AWOL. It'd been a dove that had done the job in the end. And crows have hardly added to their reputation since, following foot soldiers into battle in anticipation of a good feed off the corpses and more lately, feasting on road-kill.
The crow flaps its wings and gives a little hop, obviously annoyed. I peer at the bonnet closely. Are those scratches new?
‘You know the importance of threes,' it insists.
I drag my thoughts away from the resale value of my car. ‘God as the father, son and the holy ghost,' I intone contritely. ‘Creation, redemption and resurrection; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva,' I add, to show that I am well educated.
‘That one is of particular relevance to your present situation,' the crow says.
‘What, the Hindu one?'
‘Creation, redemption and resurrection,' the crow corrects in a suddenly very uncrow-like voice. It is almost as if a cathedral has sprung up among the empty parking bays and a team of bell-pullers are well into rehearsal for something serious.
The last resonances die away, and I grope for something meaningful to say. I am no clearer as to what the third archetypal sign is, but I am beginning to realize that this could be very serious indeed. The thought of resurrection reminds me of Yeats' once more.
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun
‘Resurrection,' the crow says, confirming my worst fears.
‘A second coming,' I croak, sounding more crow-like than the crow. The crow flaps mightily and I avert my eyes from my car. What does it matter? If some monster is about to be loosed upon the world, my economic future is of little consequence.
‘It is a trifle late for a second coming,' the crow retorts.
I gasp and slump against the door. ‘You mean the second coming has already come?'
The crow shrugs airily. ‘And the third and fourth, and probably a thousand since. I really can't keep count. I'm only a raven, after all.'
‘But who?' I gasp. ‘When? I didn't hear about it ...'
‘What, not on the news? Not in the magazines? Not even on the Internet?' The crow gives a truncated squawk which could be the crow equivalent of cynical laughter. ‘Not every vessel of resurrection is crucified you know, or at least not literally,' it adds, as an after thought. Its beady eye becomes business-like once more. ‘Think carefully. Have you noticed nothing which could mean resurrection, renewal, rebirth ...?'
‘Well, there is that new hardware store ...'
The crow lets out a blood-curdling screech and I shut my eyes, but nothing flaps or scratches my face, and after a moment I look up. It is perched on a light pole, hopping and re-arranging its wings at a furious pace.
‘For an intelligent animal, you're incredibly stupid,' the crow calls rudely.
‘And you eat dead meat,' I yell back, not being able to think of a more creative insult off the top of my head. I've had enough of the crow and the biting wind and I am now seriously late. I stomp around to the driver's side and get in. Inexplicably, my watch still says five o'clock . The railway crossing is ten cars deep. There is no wizard this evening, but my mobile phone rings. My husband has collected the kids, I can go straight home.
I turn into the main road. Peak hour traffic, half with headlights on, half with headlights off. It's that peculiar time between lightness and darkness, a point when things are neither one thing nor the other. A time ripe with potentialities, much beloved of fantasy writers. But there is no Madonna and Child. The cars roar on and I go with them. I pass the new hardware store and the untidy sprawl of half-built housing estates. Could these be renewal? No, I can almost hear the crow's contemptuous cawing.
The wind strengthens, throwing my car from side to side, and the heavens open. I think of Noah and wonder if the crow is trying to redeem itself by bringing me some sort of message. Abruptly, my fuel gauge swings from a quarter full to empty. Great; maybe the message is that I'm going to run out of petrol. The rain pounds against my windscreen and on-coming headlights fragment into a million points, blinding me. My knuckles whiten on the wheel. Perhaps the message is death.
Finally I exit the bitumen and escape the murderous glare of the traffic. Our pot-holed dirt road, is now a mud-slicked, puddle-filled dirt road. We live at the end, overlooking a creek. I clear our neighbor's place and my car shudders, jerks like an animal in its death-throes, and splutters to a stop. I sit staring into the darkness. The wind dies away and the rain eases to a soft patter. The night is thick with the melodies of frogs. Yeats' words echo in my head.
Surely some revelation is at hand
On the opposite bank, something stirs. A knife-edge of brightness appears. The moon pushes up like a mushroom breaking new ground: round and white and glorious. My heart swells with it, enlarged by its beauty, sweeping aside all the small concerns of work and life. I feel like weeping and laughing with joy.
Maybe I'm not so stupid after all,' I whisper at last, knowing that the crow will hear me and understand my thanks.
BIO: Karen Nikakis lives on 30 acres on the western edge of Melbourne, Australia, where she is fortunate enough to have a creek at the bottom of her garden and an uninterrupted view of the glorious full moon rising over the bank beyond. The creek, wet-night frog-song, and waxing-waning moon provide her with endless inspiration. She is also fortunate to have a great husband, two great teenage kids, two affectionate dogs, and job where she gets to go to China to teach.