We are seated at a long table, neat as children in a ghost story, quiet as pawned musical instruments, silverware winking in candlelight. This isn’t the world any of us were born to, but with each tock of a clock that sounds like it’s beneath the floorboards, it’s harder to remember a time before. At the head of the table sits a raven. In spite of appearances, it’s no Edgar Allan Poe harbinger of the Freudian unheimlich, but is no less strange for that; four imperial pounds of black eyes and feathers, cocked to music no one else can hear. I’ve
read that ravens can imitate human speech, but it’s still a shock when my own voice cracks from that shellacked beak to remind me to
wash my hands, keep my distance, and wear a
face covering at all times. A straight-backed waiter with lavender palms circles the table, placing empty mismatched plates in front of each of us, and I use the distraction to scan my fellow diners across yards of polished wood. Each face is covered – some by masks and some by feathers – and when I open my mouth to speak, all I can say is kraa and caw.
When the ghosts won’t leave, I phone the
Crisis number I carry for such emergencies.
When they ask how many, I explain that
windows and mirrors are one and the same,
and that all my reflections are just a little out
of sync. There are ears pressed to the other
sides of all surfaces. When they ask how long
this has been going on for, I tell them about
the drawer full of stopped watches and the
sundial in the cellar that keeps perfect time.
The fingers drumming on the chair arm are not mine. When they ask me to rate intensity on a scale of 1 to 10, I describe the first time I saw
limbs and faces in trees, and how even silence chants its own confessions. The head in my lap could be a dog or a devil, but I’m afraid to
open my eyes. When they ask me to call a cab
and check myself in as a matter of urgency, I
tell them I can’t find my birth certificate, I
can’t find my phone, and the only map I own shows bomb damage to my hometown after
the last war. A large black bird spars with its shadow on the scuffed wooden floor. When
they ask why I am speaking to an empty room,
I can’t answer.
Oz Hardwick is a UK-based poet, photographer, occasional musician, and accidental academic, whose work has been widely published in international journals and anthologies. He has published nine full collections and chapbooks, including Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI, 2018) which won the 2019 Rubery International Book Award for poetry, and his most recent publication, the prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet (Clevedon: Hedgehog, 2020). He has also edited or co-edited several anthologies, including The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry (Scarborough: Valley Press, 2019) with Anne Caldwell. Oz has held residencies in the UK, Europe, the US and Australia, and has performed internationally at major festivals and intimate soirees. Oz is Professor of English at Leeds Trinity University, where he leads the postgraduate Creative Writing programmes.