SHADOW MAKERS, An excerpt from a novel

by Jo Langdon

A text by the 2018 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Jo Langdon

When she looks up, Finn sees that Murphy is on his porch, feeding the magpie family again. Finn frowns. She hadn't heard the birds make a sound. She wonders if Murphy has been watching her, and feels embarrassed, now, about the things she's done in chalk. But when Murphy sees her watching he smiles as if seeing her for the first time today. He beckons her over, and Finn leaves her chalk pieces and walks across slowly, side-on to the porch so as not to frighten away the magpies he's feeding.

On the porch Murphy is wiping his hands, damp from the meat, down the sides of his trousers. If I show you something, he says once she's standing in front of him, you have to promise not to be scared.

Finn shrugs and then nods her head. She doesn't know if Murphy is a first name or a surname, and she doesn't know, if it is a surname, whether there is a Mrs Murphy, dead or just gone, living somewhere else. Or perhaps inside the flat, Finn considers now, although she doesn't think so. She is sure Murphy lives alone.

If his name is a surname, Finn thinks, then Martin's name is Martin Murphy. There's a word for how funny that sounds, Finn thinks, but she can't remember it. Sometimes, when she's feeling mean, Finn thinks of Martin as Martian, but mostly he's okay, and he's kind of their friend, like Murphy is—or might be, now.

Murphy's flat is the same inside as Mrs Schroder's, and as Amy and Finn's, except for the furniture. Murphy has just one long couch with sunk-in pillows, the fabric brown and ribbed like very thick, old corduroy. There is a picture calendar on the wall above the television, with all the months on a single page. The poster is decorated with images of birds and fruits in branches intertwining in between the months. 1978 is in big numbers on the top left. Next to the calendar is a wall clock framed in a black circle, like the one at school that hangs above the blackboard (which is actually a very dark green rather than black, Finn is sure).

Otherwise there's not very much in Murphy's house, although he does have a table with chairs, where the kitchen opens to the living room. The table is thin, formica-covered wood, cut round and on metal legs, the metal gritty and rusted into flaky bumps. The chairs have padded vinyl seats, but they are uncomfortable when Finn sits on one of them.

Murphy's house is draughty, like being outside in the evenings. The air is cold and blowing through – though not shifting exactly, but a cold that's still.

Cuppa? Murphy says to Finn, and she shrugs her shoulders but then remembers her manners and says, No, thank you.

Murphy nods and walks away up the passageway, leaving Finn alone in his living room. When he returns he is carrying something in his arms, a thing wrapped in calico, a fabric that reminds Finn of the library book bag that she takes to school.

Murphy sits in one of the chairs by the kitchen table, the bundle cradled on his lap, against his stomach, and beckons Finn nearer. Then he opens the gathered fabric.

The owl is dead, not sleeping, Finn sees, although at first she hopes. Its body is white, pure and soft looking, like it might be powder-like to touch. The feathers look miniature and there are so many, one on top of another, that they resemble snowy fur.

Murphy turns the owl over a little, and one yellow eye falls away from its socket, still attached by a thread of something coming from inside its skull.

Ah, Murphy says, making a little tut-tutting sound. He tucks the eye back in with a corner of calico over his thumb.

Hit by a car, I'd reckon. Found him on my walk, he says to Finn. And not even squashed! Hardly know he'd been hurt at all except for his eye's a bit gammy.

Go on, he tells her, don't be scared; give him a little touch, a pat. He feels lovely.

Or maybe give her a pat, Murphy says when Finn doesn't respond. Maybe a lady owl, what d'you say?

Finn holds her breath even though there isn't a smell. There is only the kitchen's cold tiles with the grey water smell of mopping. She listens to the quiet ticking of Murphy's wall clock in the living room.

There is nothing else to do. Her hand reaches out very slowly, and she sinks her fingers into the down. She feels the airy space between the feathers; how the feathers are stronger, thicker and longer at the wings. Beneath there are brittle, straw-like shafts to hold the shape of them together. Not quite bones, but almost.

Finn studies the bird's face: the flat hook of its beak. Its black feet are drooping beneath its body, hanging above Murphy's lap, each talon about as thick as one of her fingers and studded with a glossy, coal-dark toenail.

When she is finished, Murphy props the owl up like a doll. He lifts one wing to imitate flapping, flying, and Finn feels the cold room's air pushed towards her, beaten gently back and forth by the wing. Then Murphy lowers the bird gently onto its back, resting it in its calico bag, the wings tucked in again.

Poor owl, poor owl, Murphy murmurs, picking up the owl and cradling it close against his belly.

Let's put him away now then, eh?

Murphy rewraps the body, slowly and carefully, covering its feathered shape up in the calico, and wanders off down the passageway again, to put it back wherever it is kept, now that the owl is dead and belongs to Murphy and not to the wild, the world.

Promise not to be scared about this, not later, Murphy says when he comes back out, and Finn nods her head. She concentrates on his middle, which looks round and solid beneath the chequered flannel.

Promise, she says.

And promise not to tell Amy, either, eh? Murphy adds, tousling her hair.

Finn nods. It's okay, she says, I won't.

Murphy opens the front door to let her out again. Out on the porch, the meat and the magpies are gone.


JO LANGDON is the author of the poetry collections Snowline (2012) – co-winner of the 2011 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize – and Glass Life (Five Islands Press, 2018). She was the inaugural winner of the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction in 2013, and her short stories, essays and poetry are published in a range of journals and anthologies in Australia and internationally. She is currently an editor for the literary journal Mascara Literary Review, and working as an early career researcher and teacher in writing and literature.


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