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Bowerbirds

She reached for the blue flower. It withered to dust under her touch.

Niko startled, breathed hard. Another nightmare.

She’d dreamt the morning of the accident again: Mary had been holding a pot of blooming native iris, smiling across at her from the passenger seat.

Niko opened her eyes, squinting in the white glare of morning, the unshakable weight of remembering in her limbs. She rubbed her face, bleary. Got up. Inspected every shelf, every wall, every nook in the room that she’d crammed with her daily growing collection. All the one colour.

They’d been on holiday together, their first as a family. Mary had the window down, her wrists adorned in silver-blue bracelets. She’d been wearing a silk cobalt dress. Liam had been asleep in his car seat.

Niko bent at the waist and leaned forward over her knees, trying to breathe through her mouth as the specialist at the hospital had suggested. The panic subsided. She lay back down.

As clouds crossed the sun and the hours rolled by, her surroundings changed in varying shades, but the colour remained the same. When the late shadows of the leafless trees appeared, Niko readied her things to leave.

The tram was tepid on the dark winter afternoon. She rested her forehead against the steamy window and watched the city roll by in a watercolour blur. As the carriage swayed and rocked, Niko hung her head in an effort to avert the motion sickness she had suffered since the accident. She studied her shoelaces and noticed the left bow was bigger than the right; lopsided rabbit ears reminded her of Liam’s shoes. A muscle in her eyelid started to tic. She stood and pressed herself through the fold of passengers around her to get off at the next stop.

Crossing the road, Niko headed for Indigo, the dimly lit bar on the corner. She needed a whiskey. The back of her throat ached for smoky heat and oblivion. She pushed the door open and exhaled as she heard the bell above it ring. With her head down she walked the length of the bar. Only stepped on the blue tiles, never the white.

At the empty table in the back Niko shrugged off her coat and scanned the staff behind the counter. She couldn’t see Josephine. Checked her watch. Josephine usually started at five on weekdays but there was the odd occasion when she was on the closing shift. That being the case, she’d be in for half-six. Another hour.

She sat down and took her notebook and pen from her bag, placing them in front of her. They were both black. They had to be, otherwise they too would become part of the collection; there was only one colour Niko had been able to see the world in since that day by the sea.

Patting her bag, she felt the edges of the Polaroid camera. Waited.

JOSEPHINE CHEWED THROUGH HER FINGERNAILS, feeling the blue varnish on them crack into bitter flakes on her tongue. She spat them out of the side of her mouth and jiggled her leg. Checked her watch. Her shift was due to start in an hour. She had been sitting in the waiting room at the clinic for twenty minutes already but was yet to see the nurse, swallow her pill, and nod away routine questions from her counsellor. Work was another fifteen-minute walk at least. Acid rose in her throat. She leaned her elbows on her knees and rocked forward, pressing her forehead against her clasped hands. It’s okay. You still have time. It’s okay. Rain lashed the window, pre-empting the loud clap of thunder that reverberated through the floor and travelled up her legs to her stomach. As she felt the vibrations go through her body she wondered, fleetingly, if she might shatter. It was her first winter without Dan.

Later, Josephine walked briskly along the footpath in the rain, umbrellaed by her coat. The city was washed in blue. Her memory of their hunger, bruises and veins. The colour of Dan’s skin the day she came home and found him.

She stepped into a gutter puddle and swore. Stopped to catch her breath and, as she did countless times a day, Josephine recited the conditions of her suspended sentence: rehabilitation therapy, full time employment, sustained independence in assisted housing. It was the closest she came to prayer.

In the next break between blurry headlights, Josephine ran to cross the road, cringing when she heard the blare of a car horn. At the end of the block the bar’s lit windows twinkled in the wet afternoon. She checked her watch and exhaled with relief. Scratched one more line onto the tally wall in her mind.

THE HOUR PASSED QUICKLY. Niko wrote, took measured sips of her whiskey-double, and re-read. She ordered another round from one of the other waitresses to whom she paid no mind. She wrote, sipped, re-read. Punctuated a final full stop. Another memory, perfectly preserved. Until a question suddenly presented itself. Niko tensed.

Her pen hovered over the word, satin.

In those seconds that separated before from after, when Liam was still asleep and Mary was gazing out the passenger window, she’d murmured, satin bowerbirds make me feel so hopeful, the way they gather treasure for love, not knowing when it will arrive.

Hadn’t she?

The bell over the bar door rang. Josephine dashed inside holding her coat over her head. Her pale cheeks were flushed. She hung her dripping coat up by the door.

Niko glanced down at her notebook. Satin taunted her from the page. She fixed her eyes on Josephine’s hair. It hung half-way down her back, a sheath of brilliant blue.

THE BAR WAS CLOUDY with the noise of after-work drinks. Josephine made her way out the back and locked herself in the bathroom. It was just a dark day, as she’d told her counsellor earlier that morning. The rain hadn’t let up for a week; June’s damp chill had reached her bones. It was just a dark day. Holding her breath, she turned her back to the mirror. Took one of the clean aprons out of the cupboard.Exhaled.

NIKO HAD OVER-HANDLED THE MEMORY in her mind until it was a murky blur. She drained her whiskey glass and unintentionally slammed it on the table. There was too much noise in her head. Squealing rubber. Screeching glass.

She looked across the bar. Josephine was serving a table, wearing a vacant smile. Niko glanced between the memory on her page and the waitress’s hair.

Breathing more evenly, she steadied her hand.

Bowerbird, I wonder who your blue is for.

JOSEPHINE LOOKED UP and caught the woman staring at her while she worked. She gave another order to the kitchen and restocked the menus. The woman was still staring. She always sat there by the window writing obsessively in a black notebook. Her hair hung over her eyes, which always seemed watery, her irises the same deep brown as river stones. She seldom smiled. Wore the same black shirt buttoned to her throat, and long black slacks. Often avoided eye contact and didn’t say more than necessary to order whiskey on the rocks, one after the other until she left. Usually around eleven o’clock just before the last tram. Never in a car, Josephine had never seen the woman arrive or leave in a car, not with a friend, not even in a taxi. And, despite her uniform appearance, there was something crumpled about her gait. Something fragile about the way she carried himself, as though she wasn’t sure whether or not she could trust her spine. The first night the woman had come to Indigodressed head-to-toe in black, one of the other waitresses had called her Missus Cash. Not long afterwards Josephine started humming ‘Ring of Fire’whenever she saw the woman. Goosebumps rushed across the back of her shoulders as walked to her table as she realised that was generally every time she was on shift.

‘Can I get you another?’ Josephine asked the woman. ‘Whiskey would be my choice too on a day like today.’

She didn’t look up. Josephine scratched her arm self-consciously, beginning to wonder if she had in fact spoken.

‘Why is your hair that colour?’ the woman asked.

‘My hair?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why not, I guess?’

The woman began rearranging the bouquet of toothpicks in the small jar on the table. The ice cubes in her glass cracked as they melted. The voice of Josephine’s counsellor rang in her mind. Try making new friends.

‘We call you Missus Cash here,’ Josephine blurted. Her words hung unanswered in the air. She glanced at the emergency exit door to her left, almost tempted.

‘Missus Cash?’ the woman finally responded as she took all of the toothpicks with the blue cellophane tips and lined them up in front of her on the tabletop.

‘“Woman in Black.”’ Josephine gestured up and down at her. Guessed she might have been her age and, by the look of her eyes, in the same need of sleep.

‘Have you ever been to Queensland?’ the woman asked abruptly.

Dan’s plan for their sobriety had been all-consuming, feverish. It had started with a camper van, then a road trip up the east coast to a patch of rainforest by the ocean. They’d plant a veggie garden, get a couple of chooks, read each other poetry, and drink herbal tea over a campfire. They’d cleanse themselves in the Pacific, he promised. They’d dry out in the endless Queensland sun.

‘No.’ Josephine fidgeted. ‘You?’

The woman didn’t answer.

Josephine asked again if she’d like another drink. When she brought the woman her whiskey, she noticed all the blue-tipped toothpicks were gone.

TOWARDS CLOSING TIME NIKO SHUT her notebook; the Polaroid camera knocked against her ribs as she slung her bag over her shoulder. She moved slowly, watching Josephine clear the tables at the front of the bar. Her hands were sweating.

JOSEPHINE RETURNED THE SALT and pepper shakers to their place behind the counter and lined them up in pairs. The bar was almost empty; the chef was out the back. She glanced towards the woman’s table; she was getting ready to go. Josephine sighed as she slid her empty tray under the bar and grabbed a dishcloth and spray to wipe down the tabletops. All that awaited her was a single bed within the cold walls of the halfway house and a bathroom of shared showers. Before she could stop herself, she imagined sinking into a deep bubble bath.

As she finished wiping down her last table, Josephine’s skin bristled. Someone was behind her. She stood, rigid, unwilling to move. Waiting for what, she didn’t know.

There were sounds: a click, a whirring, and a sigh. Goosebumps rushed over Josephine’s scalp. She spun around. The woman hurried away.

‘Hey!’ Josephine’s voice echoed through the bar.

‘Yeah?’ The cook called back.

Josephine ran to the door as the eleven o’clock tram arrived. Tried to catch sight of the woman in the group gathered for last service. The crowded tram slid away. Confusion whistled through her. The street was empty.


NIKO KEPT HER HANDS IN HER POCKETS as she walked, giddy from whiskey and adrenaline. She tripped on the front step and jammed her key in the lock. Stumbled inside.

At the end of the hall she paused at the closed door. Bowed her head for a moment before opening it.

It had started with an abandoned blue pen lid. She’d spotted it on a tram in her first few days back in the city after she’d returned from Queensland alone with the luggage of three. Niko had placed the pen lid on the windowsill, feeling the burden of its colour.

Acquired synaesthesia, the doctor said when Niko had gone for a neural check-up and confessed, she was remembering her memories in one colour. Common in brain injury patients, the doctor explained, as is memory loss. Not harmful, nothing to worry about.

Standing in the centre of the room, Niko patted down her pockets, taking out the blue-tipped toothpicks to wedge them beside the pen lid on the cluttered sill. She made herself wait until anticipation pounded in her temples. When she could stand it no longer, Niko opened her bag and, with great care, lifted the Polaroid photograph from within.

It had developed during her journey home. Captured within the square was the shimmering curtain of Josephine’s hair.

HER BUS ARRIVED while Josephine was still locking up. In her rush she entered the wrong alarm code three times before she got it right. She ran down the alley behind the bar and across the road, waving her arms uselessly as the bus pulled away from the curb. Josephine slumped against the lamppost, lacing her hands together on top of her head. Checked her watch. The next bus was forty minutes away. She could almost smell the nearby bars and their ivy of lures.

Glancing back at the bar, Josephine’s eyes followed the light falling from the streetlamp down the sidewall and through the window where it pooled on the back table. At first, she thought she was imagining things in shadows but as she walked closer, she realised what she saw.

Fumbling through her bag for her keys, Josephine broke into a run for the back door.

A NAGGING IN NIKO’S MIND WOKE HER. She glanced around the room from her crooked slumber on the couch. Everything was still. Her heart beat fast, sounding in her ears like an alarm. She looked over the menagerie to where the photograph of Josephine’s hair sat propped, resplendent. Nothing was out of place, yet something was missing. Niko sat up and rubbed her eyes, thoughts gathering.

She leapt suddenly to her feet, slipping as she ran out of the room and down the hall to the coat rack by the front door. Grabbed her bag and searched through its pockets. Niko breathed hard. Her notebook was gone.

JOSEPHINE RAN HER FINGERS ALONG THE SPINES of abandoned books on the bookshelf in the common room. She’d vaguely noticed it there before, a large, thick hardcover that she couldn’t imagine any of the other girls in the house wanting. Clucking with satisfaction when she eventually spotted it on the bottom shelf, Josephine hoisted The Encyclopedia of Australian Birds under her arm and scurried upstairs to her bedsit.

She put the kettle on and opened the musty book on the kitchenette counter. After checking the index, she flicked through until she found the page she wanted.

Satin bowerbirds are most known for their unique and complex courtship behaviour where males build a structure and decorate it with objects of a singular colour, mainly blue, in an attempt to win the affection of their chosen mate.

Josephine ran her fingers over the glossy images. The birds themselves were striking yet plain, black feathers with dark eyes. But the bowers they created were ornate. Intricate constructions of twigs, bark and sticks stood vertically to create walls, in and around which they arranged a variety of objects, all in different shades of blue. She leaned forward, taking in a full-page photograph of feathers, berries, stones, leaves, flowers and shells adorning a bower. Snorted in amusement when she noticed pen lids, condom wrappers, sunglasses arms, and a bracelet amongst the loot.

Leaving the book open, Josephine made herself a cup of chamomile flower tea. She stirred the tea leaves, considering her own bower.

After his funeral she’d stood in the hair dye aisle at the chemist, wringing her hands as she searched for a box of dye the same colour as his eyes. Stayed until closing time when she picked a tint called Lagoon.

Josephine sipped her tea. She tried to remember the shade of her natural hair. Tugged a strand loose from her ponytail and wrapped it around her index finger, a blue coil.

She sat on her bed and set her teacup on the nightstand beside her one plant, a potted violet. Reached into the back pocket of her jeans and took out Niko’s notebook. Flipped through again. Re-read Niko’s memories of her wife who sang to the sea, and their son, building kingdoms in the sand. Ran her fingertips over the only different handwriting in the notebook, a verse from a Judith Wright poem.

Then I remember

how ritually they worship that one colour.

Blue chips of glass, blue rag, blue paper,

the heads of my grape-hyacinths,

I found in their secret bower; and there are dances

done in the proper season,

for birth, initiation, marriage and perhaps death.

Lying on her back, Josephine stared up at the water-stained ceiling. Thought about the satin bowerbird painstakingly gathering blue, in dances, in seasons, in ritual for love.

She rested Niko’s words on her chest.

Bowerbird, I wonder who you gather your blue for. Do you know, you can begin again?

The next morning, Josephine called Indigo and swapped her shift that night to one later in the week. She showered, put on her favourite black dress and took herself for breakfast at the Polish bakery on the corner. Ordered a slice of the hundred-year-old-recipe blueberry cheesecake, and a pot of fresh coffee. When she got back, she unplugged the old boombox in the common room and took it with her to her bedsit. Tuned it to the first blues station she found and opened the window for the southerly breeze; she’d noticed there was the slightest hint of the sea on the city air. Laid out her towel, set up her mirror, gathered the tools she needed.

Afterwards, she spent the rest of the day floating on the voices of Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta, wandering back and forth past the mirror, marvelling at her reflection.

An hour before her shift would have started that night, Josephine took a seat at the window in the take-away shop across the street from Indigo. She lifted Niko’s notebook from her handbag and flipped through it again. Sipped from a bowl of sweet and sour soup. Waited.

Niko looked haggard when she arrived at the bar. Josephine watched her hurry to the back table, searching frantically beneath and behind the seat before she turned and half-ran to the counter. When the staff shook their heads apologetically, Niko’s face crumpled in anguish. She strode to the door. Josephine scrambled her belongings together and rushed outside, following Niko’s black coat.

The street was crowded, and Josephine had to push through the hordes to keep up with her. She trailed behind when Niko reached the tram stop, citybound. Hiding behind a cluster of teenagers, Josephine boarded and sat four rows behind her.

The city glittered to life in the winter twilight. She hadn’t been back without Dan. Josephine jiggled her right knee and bit the skin around her fingernails.

From the north side stop she followed Niko, hanging back until she was a block ahead. When Niko turned off the footpath into the overgrown garden of what might once have been a beautiful terrace house, Josephine ducked behind a hedgerow across the street. Watched her unlock the front door and go inside.

Josephine slipped across the street and into Niko’s garden, her eyes fixed on the dim light she could see falling somewhere at the rear. She crept down the side of the house, being mindful of the overgrown hyacinths underfoot, using her arms to protect her face from un-pruned wisteria.

The curtains in the room were not drawn.

Josephine’s skin prickled as inched towards the open window. Standing in the shadows she pressed a hand to her chest as she recognised the arrangement of the collection inside.

She stayed in the darkness, bewitched by the sight before her.

THE NEXT MORNING NIKO WATCHED THE SUNRISE illuminate the varying shades of blue in the room around her. The colour of the sea. Something she should surrender to and drown in.

The night before, the staff at Indigohad hung up on her after her sixth call. She’d listened for Josephine’s voice every time someone picked up, but she hadn’t answered. Niko’s notebook, her memories, Liam’s kingdoms, Mary’s handwritten copy of her favourite poem: all gone.

Niko stood under the shower until the water ran cold. Dressed, raked her fingers through her hair, and shuffled unsteadily into the kitchen. Made herself a cup of stale, instant coffee and stood at the sink to drink it.

Through the window, outside, almost out of view on the doorstep, something caught her eye.

Niko dropped her cup into the sink, coffee splashing onto the counter. Ran down the hall. Flung open the front door.

Staring down at the neatly arranged bundle, Niko struggled to breathe through the flood of joy in her chest.

Josephine’s hair shimmered in the morning light, tied with a bird-egg blue ribbon. Next to it was Niko’s notebook. When she lifted it, the notebook fell open to the place marked with a pressed violet.

Niko sat on her front step. Stayed for a long time in the muted sun, reading and re-reading the last page. The watery ink of Josephine’s handwriting.

Bowerbird, do you know, so too can you.