There was once a girl who loved ravens.
It seemed nobody but ravens really understood. Many ravens lived in her town.
Some days there were so many, it seemed they owned it. Dark shapes circling the sky or sitting sentinel on lamp posts. Caws and arghhs heard above suburban traffic. Strong beaks and clever minds investigated rubbish bins, opened remnants of fast-food meals scattered along the streets. Big glossy purple-blue-black birds with watchful, white eyes and ruffled necks. Many people feared the ravens as underworld messengers, tricksters or harbingers of death. The girl knew them as her friend.
Some heard the spirits and the ancestors in the raven’s call. Their caws that seemed to draw wisdom from the past and neck-stretched arghhs that reached forward into the future soothed the girl. She loved their ruffled necks, their strong beaks and their enquiring bright, white eyes. Many did not understand raven, but the girl did. She sought out their wisdom.
The girl saw where they built nests, high up in the eucalypts. She delighted in their twig-gathering antics and sat for hours as they collected material for their sticky homes. Negotiating long pieces through narrow passages between the branches and leaves. Pulling finer strings from human detritus for the softer, inner lining of their solid nests. Later, she enjoyed the parents teaching young ones. How the comical, dark-eyed ravens played and learned to fly in the old died-back tree behind her house.
An old man lived in the town, strange to the world in his manner; he loved the earth and the ways of birds. His wild garden called them. The ravens built a nest in the tall trees. The old man knew lots about birds, about many things. He had books and a mind full of ideas and facts. He noticed the girl watching the ravens in his trees. He talked with her and, over time, they became friends.
The old man taught her what he knew about ravens and let her look in his books. He explained how ravens would dunk food in water before eating, that humans considered them among the most intelligent of birds. He talked of science and studies and research.
She taught him how to move his body with the ancient science if Qi Gong. It eased some of the pain of his old age and he was grateful. Aged bones and muscles restricted his freedom to explore the streets. The girl’s reports of birds and trees were welcome to his ears. When she told him how ravens talked to her, the old man dismissed such fanciful ideas. However, he appreciated her visits and developed a fondness for her; after all, they both had a deep love and understanding of nature.
Despite the old man’s dismissal, the ravens knew the girl. They cawed gently to each other and to her as she walked the streets; they visited her home and seemed to wait for her at the crossroads.
The girl didn’t always understand people. They had not always been kind and she felt sometimes deeply sad and troubled. Betrayed by some she trusted, she sought solace and comfort in the natural world’s abundance. With her faithful dog, she wandered the banks of the great river that wrapped one side of her town. It was easy to escape suburbia and people.
Here she connected with the earth she loved, trees and breezes, storms and clouds, the moon and stars. To feel the seasons on her skin and twirl with the wind and rain and fire. Delight in the reflection of the sun in the water as it moved between the rocks of the great kymea. Her favourite thing was to walk to that great river and listen, far away from the human world.
Some said the girl lived between the worlds, that she was not of this world. In some ways that was true and in other ways not.
On days when she was particularly troubled and sat alone in the park, picking at the green grass and wishing she could sink into the earth, the ravens came and sat at a respectful distance, cocking their heads as if to say: “Are you okay?” She welcomed their comfort and love – felt safe.
When the tree-eating madness moved through the streets, making way for new houses, she cried. When old trees, seeded pre-colinisation, were munched in the great metal jaws, she rolled in pain, clutching her belly. When creatures died by car she winced, and tears rolled. She spoke words of sorry. Her pain and distress could not be consoled. Not even the whispering of the breeze in the trees brought comfort. She was so afraid.
The old man shook his head, saddened too by what he saw.
A deep, dark, seductive veil of sadness descended around her– so deep it seemed even the birds died in her wake. She found dead birds everywhere: magpies, peewees, small birds, white cockatoos, even ravens. They were dropping from the sky. She felt she should bury the dead but, afraid to touch their still bodies, left them to the ants and maggots. Unable to help, the disquiet became a restless sadness, rumbling deep in her stomach.
Some said it meant there would be a change in her life, that the birds symbolised old parts of her dropping away, that she was transforming. She considered more sinister explanations: they were an omen spelling the destruction of not just her life, but all life.
She pleaded with the skies: “Why are the birds dying?”
The old man said maybe it was the drought, the fires, pesticides or maybe they were just old like him – we all go eventually.
At times, she felt she was looking into a void, the great expanse of emptiness.
At other times, falling in and through it, or just floating in its peaceful nothingness. How could she come back? But the ravens were there. They said she must grow strong, wide, raven wings to traverse the void.
The old man became frail and unwell. She knew he would soon die. She was afraid to see him. Afraid to look death in the eye. She stayed away too long. Then, when she heard that he lay dying, she gathered her courage. She sat by his bed and held his hand. He died peacefully.
After that she was less afraid of death, for she knew the void. The ravens had lent her their wings.
Dead birds stopped following her.
She began to change – grow in strength and confidence. Find more profound ways to honour the earth. With her voice she spoke of the harm humans had done to her and to the land. She wrote letters to the papers about the destruction of trees in the neighbourhood. She asked her friend to join her in cleaning up the waterways, the bottles, papers and other things left in the bush. She began to roar. She stood with her friends in protest at the felling of the forests and the rising seas. The ravens cawed and arghhed and clicked – they were her friends. She sang to the earth and honoured the ancestors. With drum in hand and dog behind, she cawed and arghhed to the earth and it called back. The ravens were there. They followed her. She sang of them.
The earth knew her and nurtured her. Caves along the river wrapped their folded layers of sandstone around her, held her, to whisper secrets of transformation and survival.
But still, she didn’t quite trust the world.
A woman in the town was kind and helpful. She tried to help the girl negotiate the ways of the world. The woman understood her pain and struggle to be in the world but did not know the raven’s song.
One afternoon, the girl saw a dead bird in the woman’s garden – the body of the hugest raven she had ever seen. The still bird’s neck ruffles stirred in the breeze, the legs clawed shut, the recognizance ants trailed darkly towards it. Its white eye dulled in death.
The girl stood frozen in disbelief, fearing the underworld would open up to consume her. She asked the ravens for support.
She told the woman about the dead raven in the garden, but she didn’t seem concerned. She fussed about making tea, rustling biscuit packages, chatting about human world things like rent, employment and food. They drank their tea and talked.
The sound started slowly. The familiar cawing and arghhing … but somehow different. The girl noticed it first. As the intensity grew, she remembered the old man had told her about this. Now she couldn’t believe it was happening. The woman put down her tea and moved to the window.
“What’s that noise?” she asked, pulling back the curtain.
“It’s the ravens,” the girl said gently, knowingly.
Outside, the ravens were gathering, ten, twenty, thirty on the fence and roof. More settled on the telegraph poles, their long throat feathers stirred by the wind.
“We have to bury the bird,” the girl said.
“They have come for a funeral. They want to bury their friend.”
Cautiously, the woman moved through the door. The sky was thick with big black wings and the noise was unbelievable.
“It’s like a scene from Hitchcock’s Birds,” the woman said in awe.
Now there were fifty ravens and more coming. The girl stood in the garden amazed. She looked up to the sky, arms outstretched, twirling this way and that, the cawing and arghhing filling her ears.
Spade in hand, the woman began to make a hole in her garden bed. It was an enormous bird as large as a cat. The girl wished the old man was here. The birds cawed and arghhed, latecomers circling in the street.
Together the woman and the girl lifted the still bird into the hole. The girl spoke words of farewell. They carefully piled soil over the body and when the last feather was hidden – SILENCE. As one, the birds were quiet. What had been a full-throated chorus of raven voices opened into the great silence of late afternoon suburbia.
The woman and the girl looked at each other.
“I dont understand!” the woman said. There was fear in her eyes. “what had just happened?”
Slowly, the birds began to leave, cawing gently, big wings flapping deliberately against the fading light. The girl imagined the old man and the giant raven waving goodbye as they flew away.
“It’s okay,” the girl said, putting her hand on the woman’s arm. “It’s ravens – I love ravens.”