Smoke and mirrors

Joe Crow never imagined he would live to see a day like today. The love of his life turned into an echo. The emptiness in his future overwhelming.

Shan gave away her capacities to endure. He started back-tracking in time. Complexities of events. How did it come to this? She’d left a bodily imprint on her side of the bed and Joe spent hours surveying the pressure outlines of her small form. An indent in the pillow where her head had lain. The impression of an elbow. He observed where Shan’s petite chest and abdomen pushed against part of the quilt. Twists in covers from her legs. Joe decided to never fix the bed again.

Joe Crow was ageing in the melancholy. Once or twice he looked up into the mirror across the musty room. Regularly he shaved but the grey and silver hairs in his receding scalp and beard said much about the hard existence of a 66-year-old Aboriginal man. Nothing came easy. Shan was proof of that. Joe had thought the bad years were behind him.

He became a shadow of himself.

The cottage he shared with her sat in the backyard of a small ramshackle block of flats on Vulture Street. The other tenants let him be and Joe kept to himself. He took the bins out every Wednesday and tried to maintain minor tinkering of taps and curtain rods. The landlord kept his rent down in exchange for having an on-site handyman like Joe. He’d always been good with his hands.

The dirty curtains were drawn but Joe could tell the time of day by the drop of light changing shade. The room evolved into dim shapes. A midnight-bronze fully glazed the mirror; that mirror Shan used to dress in front of. Joe would sit on the bed and talk to her, gentle, idle talk. The pair had coupled after meeting at a local church. The pair had quit drinking and smoking together. They were loners relishing each other’s shyness. Kin of their younger years had variably departed. And like the light in the room, and like Shan, Joe knew his time would come too with plates of darkness.

He decided to rise. His legs bowed. A knee cracked. Damn ya! cursed Joe.

A bird gargled out in the early dusk. Traffic noise building up. Joe had finished contemplating for the time being – a whole day spent. Shan wasn’t coming back. He didn’t have words for what any of it was worth. His thoughts mixed like a rattled jig-saw puzzle. Nothing to put together.

He stamped across the room, one foot slowly after the other and felt the crinkling of pamphlets stuck to his soiled pants: PLANNING A FUNERAL.

Grey light from beyond the curtain threw his shadow against the bureau. Glint from a cheap tin of coffee. He cast the stance of a broken cowboy. Next to the coffee tin sat a bottle of port wine. The label peeling at the edges. As rainy days came it was saved for today and hours no more dismal.

Joe Crow reached for the neck and it came to him with trailings of a spiderweb. He leaned against the bureau with his head lowered and slowly pulled the lid. A perfume of fortified fruitiness came to his nose, the rich liquid stirring in the bottle. Joe took a swig and let the warm fluid fill his mouth. The first drink he’d taken in maybe a decade. He straightened his back and tipped another mouthful and another.

If the alcohol did anything it momentarily helped his composure. Joe moved back to the bed. A car pulled into the courtyard and the headlights crept through the room. The beam roved over the bedding and Joe imagined a body rolling on Shan’s side of the mattress as she’d done so many times past.

He exhaled and felt the ghost of the drink in his nostrils, I’m sorry, Bub

Something and nothing happened for the interim of the night. He tried not to mourn so hard, to save an ounce of mourning for later. Joe consumed the bottle. Daybreak brought crows bantering in the big gum tree outside. Shan’s scent was still strong in the bedding. He thought that he’d gather some old gum leaves and burn them in the room, a gesture of exorcism. Shan was of a Wiradjuri clan and had been raised in Wagga Wagga. Place of the Crow. The number of times he wanted to chase those birds away but Shan wouldn’t have it. Joe’s own surname was inconsequential to the feathered beasts or the lores she’d kept. And that was the only thing he never understood about her. A ‘Church’ assisted in destroying his family. Brothers and sisters taken away. Dispersal and unchecked violence. A deep profanity reared inside his heart. Shan respected tribal ways and all things secular, beliefs so alien. The contradictions were choking. It was the continuing audacity of the games and parlour tricks that institutions used to demean his people that disgusted Joe.

He slightly turned in bed, trying not to disturb her side. The day was still early. He heard people moving beyond his door. With one eye open he scanned the room. A fog. Joe smudged his lips together, the foul aftertaste of port. He thought of cigarettes, a smoke. He could see partly into the full-length mirror void of his reflection. Drip…drip…drip. A leaking tap in the ensuite. Tenants walking around in the driveway. He decided to shut his eye and go back to sleep.

Portraits of Shan swirled in layers of slumber. Falling into a cavern of memories, and his weightless form floating among the moments, postcards in a dimension that the cruelty of his mind projected. Stop doing this to yourself! Several times he came to a point where he was seated at a desk labouring over a sheet of paper, listing things to do, the pen in his hand almost scraping the surface like a chisel. He attended the church where they had met and faceless entities urged him to stay away. Joe’s mind somersaulted.

The flavour of a cigarette played at him, fresh however caustic. The door opened and the mid-morning streamed in. A suited man carefully walked into the room shaded by the stirring silt of the din. Voices followed the man and a woman gently bobbed her head inside. Joe could barely make sense of the intrusion, only that the holds of sleep were still cradling him. He had always been a heavy sleeper traversing states so surreal that he often crossed dreamscapes already visited. Another man was with them. Joe heard him speak from a closing distance, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’

‘No…you’re OK…We gave them up…Lotta good that did…,’ she said.

Joe Crow recognised that voice and he peeled away a heavy skin of sleep. He seemed to have burst a bubble of his own consciousness. He lifted effortlessly from the bed. The ceiling was only inches from the sudden elevation. Joe turned to the mirror but didn’t see himself. The fog again – and panic.

The three people were in the room and they talked in quiet tones. Shan was between the men, nodding as she gazed at the surroundings.



He slowly lowered but his feet couldn’t touch the floor. He hadn’t been noticed. Violently he thrashed his arms, making a running motion but his body didn’t comply. The party spoke among themselves. No acknowledgement of his presence. When he faced the mirror, he saw a transfiguration of himself he didn’t comprehend. The smoke from the cigarette was drawn to him like some kind of aquatic creature, swimming circles around him. It twirled in ethereal resolution. He watched Shan pick up the empty bottle from the floor by the bed. She seemed embarrassed.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.

The men didn’t answer. They both looked at the ceiling and then at one another.

The man in the suit began counselling Shan about odd things. ‘Of course, it will take a few days to organise…The Church can assist you with anything you need.’

Shan put the bottle back on the bureau shelf. She was so close that he could touch her but wisps of static charge acted as some kind of buffer, as though a magnet pulled him away. The men walked outside. Shan followed them.

Joe was powerless to counteract their exit. Shan hauled the door closed. In the glare of the morning he barely saw the last of her. His feet ground the carpet and he walked back to bed. Something prohibited him from leaving and the mirror faced him blankly.

Geez I could use a smoke… Joe Crow grimaced, sinking his face into his hands.


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Samuel Wagan Watson

Samuel Wagan Watson is a Brisbane-based writer of Germanic and Wunjaburra ancestry. In 2018 his body of work was granted the Patrick White Literary Award.

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