The Cry of an Owl
"It's only been here a week," he said.
Alex looked into the dark unblinking eyes and felt a tremendous wave of peace flow over her.
"Come back to the house," Graeme had said.
"I don't think I should."
"Please do. Her parents will be there. They've said they'd like to meet her friends.
So Alex had followed the other cars away from the crematorium, back to the house. But as she pulled up, she felt suddenly reticent.
Chloe's death had been sudden. Too sudden. Alex, reeling from shock, felt that ties had been severed, like a phone slammed down on a conversation. She wasn't an old friend, they'd known each other barely five years, but somehow that hadn't mattered. It might just as well have been longer. Maybe Chloe's parents, however, meant old friends?
Alex had arranged to go to the funeral, when word came through that it had been postponed. There was to be an autopsy.
She heard the news and reached for the coffee pot, noting the slight tremor in her hand. She made a conscious effort to suppress the feelings welling up inside her - horror, suspicion, abuse? Don't be so stupid, she told herself. They obviously need to finalise details, clarify matters. But then again, Chloe - lying there. Autopsy is such a cold word.
She sat in the car across the road from the house. Chloe's house. There were little touches of her everywhere. Rhododendrons she'd planted to bloom one after the other in a glorious swirl of colour. Roses, tiny clumps of white and pink beneath full crimsons. Only the first of the rhododendrons was out now, beside the rustic garden seat she'd propped against the old white gum to stop it "from falling over" she claimed.
Graeme stood in the porch, welcoming relatives and friends, a brilliant lawyer, his future assured. The children were inside, no doubt with their grandparents. Alex opened the car door and walked slowly across the road. She noticed the paintwork picking out the pretty detailing of the house, a statement of sorts. This is, or was, Chloe's house.
They were both thirty when they met. Mutual friends had known her far longer, since student days, but Alex had only moved into town when her husband set up an architect's office.
"Chloe was always eccentric," explained the friends, "a tearaway at school, an extrovert at university."
"An exhibitionist," some felt.
"It's been lovely to see her settle down to marriage and children. Just like the rest of us," they added.
Smugly? she wondered.
"I'm toeing the line," Chloe said, in answer. "I'm totally conventional where houses and gardens are concerned. But God, I don't see why I have to fit their total image.
Alex recognized a defiance she felt in herself. It made up for years they might have known each other.
They met for lunches with the same friends every month. Chloe, the tame rebel, amused them. If the group were in blue, or grey or pastels, she would wear scarlet or black. The group wore pearl earrings, but Chloe preferred exotica like the ceramic spanner she once slung round her neck on a chain, or the piece that looked suspiciously like a tiny shrunken head on a leather thong.
They would smile indulgently and say, "Your garden's absolutely lovely, Chloe," or "I simply love the way you've painted the house."
If the mutual friends accepted marriage and children as total fulfilment, Chloe took them as a part-time satisfaction of a biological need. The kids would become less of a burden and time to herself less of a luxury, eventually. "I keep thinking it's not forever," she said. "Things must get better, then I pick up a cereal packet and think, God, what's happening to me? I used to read Tolstoy, now I'm reading cardboard cartons."
"But you're renovating your house," said one friend, amazed, as if that should be an end in itself.
"That house," said Chloe, "is a derelict I rescued from an uncharitable end. But that I have some feeling for my fellow man, I would tell the workmen where to stick their jackhammers."
A crisis was averted when someone switched the topic to kindergartens. Actually, lunchtime crises were often averted by someone switching the topic to kindergartens.
The old white gum spread its branches over the house and garden in an almost protective gesture. Alex began to feel she had done the right thing in coming back.
"Hi! It's the oddball from the monthly lunch."
"Nonsense. I'd be bored witless if you weren't there," said Alex.
"Thanks. Just thought I'd ring to tell you I'm resigning as overflowing winge-bucket and being positive for once."
"But I understand how you feel. I'd put my head in the oven if it weren't for the kids."
"And the fact that it's electric?" suggested Chloe.
"Damn! I forgot that," said Alex laughing.
"Ah, but hope springs, if not eternal, at least as a stop-gap measure. I've enrolled in a course. A bit of literature, psychology, mysticism and loads of meditation."
"Ha! you should hear about the exercises and the soul-baring. And - there's a smorgasbord of religious thought to choose from."
"What's the prize? A diploma?"
"Well no, I gather you come out with a pair of rose-coloured contact lenses ready to see the world in a new light. Hopefully a new me."
"What's wrong with old one?"
"I just feel I'm in a rut and I need to get out of it. Be myself. This is hardly mind-bending, but sanity saving."
"Won't it be old hat, the psych and stuff?"
"Probably. Well, bits of it are sure to be. But I don't know much about Eastern thought and in any case, I feel I need the challenge. More ideas to bounce off."
"Cereal packets not enough for you?"
She laughed. "I'd just like to feel I could progress to bread wrappers, you fool!"
"Well, promise me one thing - you won't come out a smiling zombie, hugging everything in sight."
"Wouldn't that be a scream at the next lunch! Perhaps I could toss in a shaved head, beads and incense?"
"Chloe, don't you dare! We're running out of kindergartens," Alex protested.
There was a pause. "I know things get me down. Renovating the house was hardly a joy forever, but things are better now and I know they're going to work out."
The chapel was packed. The eulogy referred to student days, her laughter and gaiety. How everyone was the better for having known her. There was no feeling of gloom, just a sense of peace.
Alex came forward and spoke to Graeme. She avoided the monthly lunch friends.
There had been no obvious cause of death. No violence, overdose or poison administered. No massive heart attack. She had just - stopped breathing.
Alex received a note from Chloe, posted on the morning of her death. It was a collection of quotes strung together:
"Siddharta had begun to feel the seeds of discontent. He had one single goal - to become empty, to let the Self die. Seeking means to have a goal, but finding means to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. He sat upright and learned to save his breath, to manage with little breathing, to hold his breath. He learned, while breathing in, to quiet his heartbeat, learned to lessen his heartbeats, until they were few and hardly any more. Vasudeva rose and said, 'I have waited for this hour my friend. Now it has arrived, let me go. I am going into the unity of all things.' Siddharta bowed low before the departing man."
It was signed simply: Please understand - Chloe.
Alex took the note with her to the funeral. She planned to give it to Graeme and was opening her handbag as she walked across the road and he came down the path to meet her. But the feeling of being watched made her look up.
There, on the lowest branch, sat a small grey owl, soft feathers framing its pretty white face, dark eyes wide-open, watching.
Graeme looked up. "Extroadinary, isn't it? It's only been here a week. Never seen it before that. Have you notice its eyes are open? They should be asleep in the daytime. Most odd."
Alex reached out and held the gatepost for support. Chloe, she thought, she's watching to see who's come. O God, if Graeme can't see that, how can I possibly show him the note? She saw the owl's eyes blink as she shut her handbag. Then it occurred to her that maybe she wasn't meant to show Graeme, that the note was meant for her and her alone.
She looked into the dark unblinking eyes and a tremendous wave of peace flowed over her. She smiled and thought, When Siddharta awoke, the pale river shimmered past the door of the hut, and in the forest the cry of an owl rang out, deep and clear.
© Vashti Farrer