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  2. Creative Writing NZ Short Story Prize 2024 Runner-Up


C.H. Edward


  A week has passed since we burned your body, serenaded by the aching chords of a Spanish guitar. A discoloured imprint lives in the memory foam where you lay in your final weeks. Echoes of you stand in doorways and in the fabric of the house. Your gaze looks back from the brush strokes of the paintings and the dusty spines of carefully chosen second hand books. The dark humour you brought in the awful hours of your consciousness loiters in the air. Those agonising final moments repeat on a loop as your emaciated body and grey pallor become my loudest vision of you. 

   Mourning is in its infancy, an untethered, unpredictable beast. A gaping chasm of no man’s land has opened up in your wake, a cosmic shifting of people and space that don’t yet know how to re-order themselves. We are like jigsaw pieces thrown high into the air, at the mercy of wind and rain, grappling with the image yet to re-form. No direction. Blindly searching for handrails in the dark. We turn towards each other as though we are life rafts in a wild ocean, fearful of where the unanchored current might sweep us, whilst splintering our hands in the grip of each other’s brokenness.

   Inside the storm, there is a calmness in the wake of death: an anticlimactic exhale that fills the shape of absence. It is both serene and turbulent, raging and still, the silence of emptiness peppered with inner screams. I make toast as tears fall gently in the butter, cradle a hopeless abyss in my gut as the sun shines, and find myself standing in the chiller aisle of the supermarket, staring at the milk as my heart bleeds all over the floor. I feel it keenly – the daily violence of grief splashing in my face. But it’s not alone,  alongside it runs a deep soothing river of surrender to the awful. 

   Leaning into acceptance is the one thing I can do. Nature shows me how, with its ever changing growth, change and death. Sometimes I immerse myself in the coastal air and the vastness of the ocean where the magnitude of my grief meets it match. But often I sit in the garden surrounded by  the comfort of small and essential life ploughing on, with the ever reliable presence of the sun tracking across the consistent sky, giving me something to lean on. I bathe in green tones, birdsong and the flurry of activity from hedgerow sparrows, tiny ladybirds exploring new growth, and the broad-day-light brutality of a snail shell being smashed by a song thrush. All of it onwards. Sometimes I hate the insignificance of the ants or the repetitive and unoriginal call of the wood pigeon, their predictable monotony infuriatingly simple and untouched by the agony of human experience. Of course I am casting my pain onto them like paint on a canvas, who am I to say to they don’t feel the same depth? But in my moment of pain I imagine they are immune and it amplifies my distress when I feel most alone and undone. 

   On a mid-week afternoon, I take my cup of tea into the warm July air and tread the familiar path towards the pond. The morning has been a struggle of post-death paperwork and empty conversations, it is a relief to be outside in the space of the garden. Suddenly I stop walking, time pauses as my heart thumps in my chest like an angry swan beating its wings, reverberating through my whole body. I hold my breath. Standing deathly still. Less than ten feet away, in the crook of the apple tree is an enormous, magnificent, slightly terrifying owl. This is not a normal owl, it’s an oversized, monstrous creature that does not belong in this country, let alone in this garden in broad daylight. Am I hallucinating? I glance around for another witness, wondering if I’ve dozed off or finally cracked, but there is nobody else around. I check back in with my breath and force myself to swallow, confirming I am indeed awake, and register once again, there is a mythically proportioned owl in the tree, watching me unblinking. A cold realisation dawns that it’s probably been watching me since I came outside. My mind skates back through recent days – weeping in the greenhouse, reading under the willow, mowing the grass – has it been watching me the whole time? 

   ‘Hello’ I whisper under my breath, dumbstruck in awe. ‘Don’t be scared’ I say to us both as I try to steady my breathing. My face moves in a way that feels unfamiliar – it’s a smile. I study the form in front of me, statuesque and silent, shining brown feathers, prehistoric talons that could slice an artery with ease, curled around the gnarly Russet branch. With as little movement as possible I back away, keeping my eyes slightly lowered from its gaze, fearful at any moment it may react to my presence, fly at me with those claws or disappear into the sky. I take my cooling tea and sit by the pond at a respectable distance. It continues to sit in the tree, nonplussed, bordering on unimpressed. We inhabit our own little spaces without disturbing the other, and when I look back, its eyes are closed and resting peacefully.  I bask in the strangeness and privilege of the moment. The next morning I hold the surreal memory of the previous day with a giddy excitement, looking out of the window with expectant hope but there is nothing but empty branches and a light drizzle. Disappointment draws back across my world like curtains closing and the days plod on in a grief-filled treadmill of routine: food, walk, sit, stand, wash, sleep. I relish the mild distraction of thinking about my visitor, was it even real? Every time I step into the garden or steal a look out of the bedroom window I wonder if it might be there but I start to believe I have imagined the whole thing. 

   The house feels a step beyond empty, like there is a hidden layer of something missing that should fill the space. I circle back to my good friend Acceptance and remind myself that grief is meant to feel this way. This seismic emptiness is the mirror to the depth of what I have lost. Don’t try and fill it, just swim through the lonely and the desolate and feel it on your skin I tell myself. The callers have stopped, the sympathy has dried to a dripping tap, the postman only brings brown envelopes, the last petals of the lilies and chrysanthemums have fallen, their stagnant water unclean and spent. The rest of the world turns as it should while mine drifts in a sea of vague functioning.

  I wander across the grass barefoot on a hazy Saturday, breathing in the heady scent of roses and honeysuckle, the sun is beginning to make its descent in the sky. A dark shape catches my eye in the weeping willow by the lawn, I am immediately buoyed.

‘I knew you’d come back.’ I smile at my visitor. It looks directly at me, ochre eyes filled with magic and fire, burning into my soul. But an unease washes over me causing joy to fade, I am left with a feeling of judgement and disdain, I stay locked its in gaze, those eyes looking, unrelenting, boring a hole through me,

‘Why do you look at me like that?’ I am surprised by my anger and tone, ‘What is it you see? Do the depths of your eyes know my pain? How can you possibly know how I feel?’ A fury is bubbling up inside me, towards its majesty, its untouched stoicism, its ability to fly away whenever the impulse takes hold. How dare it watch in judgement, unaffected by the pain I carry. I turn my back as tears fall effortlessly across my cheeks, I hear a flurry of leaves and the creak of a branch, looking back in time to see its gigantic silhouette sail across the garden, it cuts through the air in graceful silence towards the Leylandii in the distance. It no longer wants to be near me, I have caused offence. The leaving is personal and I am bereft, hollow in my stomach. Come back, I silently plead. Don’t leave me. 

   I wake in the night panicked for its safety and guilt ridden, I fear I have sent it away in a cloud of bad feeling. It reminds me of the sleeplessness of unresolved conflict, fractured connection, rejection. I wait for its return, needing to find a place for my love and obsession to rest, trying desperately to fit this creature back into the space it left behind. I splash cold water on my face and look at myself in the bathroom mirror, the light of dawn streaming through the window. Stop this, I tell myself, and I sink once more into the familiar puddle of depression and acceptance that I am alone. Several nights follow in disjointed unrest, I feel the bird’s absence like punishment. I shouldn’t have been so needy, so unhinged, so rageful. 

   I sort through your clothes as the drizzle of summer rain snakes across the window panes. They still smell like you. I wonder how long your shirt will hold onto your scent and fear grips my throat at the idea I may be without it one day. I keep two shirts and a hat. Is it enough? A rising panic makes me want to keep everything, even the clothes you hated, clinging to whatever is left of you. But a calmer voice, the voice of that deep river inside me says it’s ok, I am reminded I have enough. Love is brutal in these early days, searching like a manic child for a place to land its feelings, for something to put its claws into and hang on for dear life. It’s like a beast needing to be tamed. I hold its hand until my breathing steadies, and then I weep without the suffocating fear of losing something that’s already gone.

   I take myself into the sunshine of late summer, the balmy air and blooming flowers are misaligned with the low level flatness I carry into each day. I have been alone in the garden for several days but on this day, to my surprise, I see my visitor back in the apple tree. I look upon its mottled brown feathers and calm restful body, it looks back and blinks slowly. 

‘Why do you look at me with such sorrow?’ I ask. 

It blinks again and closes its eyes to sleep. I am filled with mixed emotion, the pleasant comfort of its return alongside a dejected sadness. Not even this magnificent creature wants to look at me or be around my mood. I fear I am repulsive, exhausting to bear witness to, leaving a contaminating fog of depression and loathsome energy in this beautiful garden. As it sleeps in the afternoon warmth I gaze upon its presence and think deeply of you, I feel your presence all around and it fills me up like a calm glassy lake. I don’t know how long I have been standing there when it’s eyes open, immediately locking onto mine with complete stillness and patience, as though it knew exactly where I was standing, and how long I needed for my thoughts. 

It visits often over the next few weeks, then the sightings get more spaced out. I begin to trust its absence, filled with a love and appreciation that of all the places to land, it chose my ancient Russet. I no longer search in the sky or mistake shadows in tree tops, I have loosened my grip on desperation, understanding its need to fly away is nothing to do with me but life just continuing as it should. I take more of your belongings to the charity shop. The size of grief is no less but its edges feel a little less sharp. I walk around the garden carrying a knowing that if my visitor intends to come then it will, and if not, then so be it. My job is only to let go and trust that I’ll be ok.