Undertow by Leonard Cohen

//Undertow by Leonard Cohen

Undertow by Leonard Cohen

Rijn Collins
Melbourne, 2016

The first bird is the colour of snow.

You ask yourself upstairs on our second date. A glass of water, you say, but we both know better. I watch you walk around my flat, studying the bell jars of snake skins, the bird skulls, antlers and bones. I point to my tiny taxidermy quail and tell you I did that one myself, you know. You don’t even flinch. We both stand under the snow goose suspended above my writing desk, its wings outstretched, feet splayed wide for landing. I wonder if you find it as beautiful as I do. You pick up my fountain pen as we compare the novels we’re writing. Yours in set in Sweden; mine Iceland. We both smile as we talk of the lure of snow, of the solitude and silence up there. The goose turns slowly in the breeze from the open window, its wings just above our heads.

The second bird watches me sleep.

Every time I wake, she’s there. Those heavy blinds, shutting out the sun in Sunshine as we slumber. I’ve never been that far west of Melbourne but am gingerly trying out new areas, and new skins. I wake, turn to you beside me, and nestle my face into your chest. Sometimes you wake too, sometimes you don’t. But Brown Sugar always knows when I swim upwards through sleep, and is waiting through the bedroom window. She catches my gaze, scratches the muddy grass, and clucks to welcome the sweet summer morning, her beak clacking against the glass in greeting. You nestle me in the crook of your arm and tell me of clipping her wings so she can’t fly over the fence. It doesn’t hurt chickens, you tell me. You speak of the sound the scissors make through feathers and I almost hear it, a whirr above the sheets as you reach for my hand.

The third bird is held in a cupped palm.

We drive towards the full moon, hanging low over the road. We pass a yard of dormant freight trains next to the docks. You used to have a studio nearby, and you speak of loving the mournful blast from passing ships as you wrote. You slide a CD into the car stereo. This is Cohen, you say. I know little about Cohen, but I’m learning about you. You tell me a story as we drive, and I turn towards you, my hands out to catch the falling words.

You tell me about a man courting Cohen’s daughter, who turned up early to meet her and found Cohen in pyjamas instead, nursing a tiny bird. It had flown into a window and injured itself. Cohen chewed pieces of sausage, then gently placed them into its open beak like a loving mother bird. I smile as gantries flash by our windows, the fat little moon still in the centre of the windscreen. Cohen left the room and when he returned, it was in full Armani suit, the Cohen of lore, and intimidated the suitor so much he couldn’t speak. The nurse retired, the suave singer back. We both laugh as you tug at the wheel, and the song keeps playing.

I set out one night
When the tide was low
There were signs in the sky
But I did not know
I’d be caught in the grip
Of the undertow
The fourth bird bites you.

We arrive at your friends’ flat for dinner as squawks rain like hail against the door. A face appears, a red shawl around her shoulders. Do you mind birds? she asks, and we shake our heads, taken by surprise. We eat a vegan feast as two birds swoop around the room, bright green and blue jewels with beaks that snap cheese from fingers, and dip into glasses of soda water. We talk of Chinese knives and Flemish painters, of Romanian glass snakes whose tails shatter in self defence when you drop them, and salt mines deep in the Carpathian mountains. I’m put out when the green bird refuses my shoulder to land on yours, then watch him take a savage bite from your outstretched finger. Cohen is still playing when you start the car to drive home, your finger between my lips for solace.

Ditched on a beach
Where the sea hates to go
With a child in my arms
And a chill in my soul
And my heart the shape
Of a begging bowl

 

Your last name is Hawkes. I see it flutter across my computer screen as we trade stories late into the night. In a winter trip to St Petersburg, ice cracking on the Neva River, you bought a bootleg copy of a Cohen CD on the Nevsky Prospect. Fifteen years later I walked the same streets, drinking vodka in a basement bar next to the apartment where Dostoyevsky wrote ‘Crime and Punishment’ as I listened to a cheesy Russian version of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ crackle through the speakers.

My favourite nights are when we talk with my feet in your lap, our songs on the stereo and our stories painting the air between us.

And I realise, hawk that you are, that the fifth bird is you.

© Rijn Collins

 

Rijn is an Australian writer whose work has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals, presented at festivals, and adapted for performance on Australian and American radio. In April 2016 she won the inaugural Sara Award For Audio Fiction. Rijn is part of Stereo Stories In Concert.

By |2017-01-11T09:11:19+00:00November 2nd, 2016|Singer-songwriters|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Veronica September 22, 2016 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    This is just exquisite.

  2. Smokie October 5, 2016 at 10:30 pm - Reply

    Wonderfully evocative, Rijn.
    And I love the ending.

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