Ripeness and Rot
It was that time of year when, as a child, Sarah used to attend Harvest Festival. The altar of the church was piled high with fruit and vegetables: pappy russet apples, sour oranges, and pumpkins which never tasted of anything. Since this was an urban parish, people brought along other goods too: tins of spam and salmon, ham sweating in greaseproof paper, bright yellow cheese, packets of sugar bursting open. The congregation would sing “we plough the fields and scatter/The good seed on the land”. As the paraffin heaters warmed up the space, an aroma of spoiled meat and browning fruit floated on the air. It was the first time she learned to connect ripeness with rot. Indeed, the year was on the turn.
Looking out of the window, Sarah had seen the swallows wheeling and gliding by. Then they perched chattering on the telephone lines, ready to fly south. They were lucky, she thought. What wouldn’t she give to fly with them - to the land where lemons grew, to the houses warming in the sun, to a place where happiness was easy. But as it was, the only birds that seemed to overwinter were large black ones. An unkindness of ravens. A murder of crows.
That was all a long time ago. Now Sarah knew that people ripened too. And rotted, perhaps. She turned to the mirror and recognised that she was past her best. In the corner of the mirror, there was something dark. She turned back to the room, and saw that an enormous black bird - a corvid of some sort - had perched on the back of her sofa. He was almost six feet high, glossy, with a black beak that clacked unnervingly in the fading light. Sarah was afraid, but longed to know if he could talk. He fixed her with his beady eye, sharpened his beak, stuck out his tongue, and began his incantation:
“Listen, sweetheart: hear me well.
Winter’s not our passing bell.
Our bones, our beak, our feathers all
May rot and stink beneath the wall
But something like me stirs and breathes
When faltering sunlight wakes the leaves
And know that, though I may be gone
Pleasures like mine will still live on
And though you fall into the sere
Another Sarah will be here”