I am working alone in a scrap of winter woodland. Not a forest by any stretch. Edges are everywhere. The alignment of gaps between the trees comes and goes, letting through fragments of distant mountains. The river hums quietly to herself and the trees snore back to her. A breeze runs its fingers affectionately through the wood’s thinning hair and makes him turn over in his sleep. He opens a misty eye to see if it is time to get up. It is not. He contemplates the luxury of returning to his dreams. That is when it happens.
Everyone bristles. We all know it at the same instant. A sort of fuzzy, extended instant that is cobbled together from bits and pieces; a fragment of sound, a glimpse far out in the peripheral field, perhaps a certain roughness on my fingertips as the piece of wood I have been holding condenses suddenly into an object which I recognise. Are all these senses supposed to fit neatly into one moment, each of them with their own pathways and customs? With their many echoes? But as they combine they do not coalesce into a point on a timeline at all. There is only a smudge and a jumbled dispute about what was just before and what came after. The exact order of events is a forgotten dream.
The wood, for his part, feels the flutter in his belly as if he ate something spicy. The river hears a chill in the water and quickly gathers her dipper into the pocket of her apron. I see nothing but a movement across a patch of light through trees. What can I truly tell you that I saw? It had a certain speed. It was neither a flash of light nor was it as slow as the work-a-day passage from place to place. It had a size, roughly. It was bigger than a leaf and smaller than a cloud. Then the biting scolds of the song-birds. The spitting venom of enraged Blue Tits and Dunnocks, Coal Tits and Chaffinches, collectively appalled.
No, that must have come first. The song-birds bashing the hell out of their pots and pans must have been what wakened us all.
I wink to myself, clever fool that I am, up on two legs. I know the answer to the question, you see. I can put up my hand and beam ‘me, me, miss’. I think I understand what I have seen. I think I know my sparrowhawks. I think that this glimpse is the story I will tell.
But I know nothing. That was just a drum-roll. A chord in a brooding minor key. A formal introduction. The next act was close to me, very close. Do you remember when you were taught to count the gap between the lightning flash and the thunder clap? Those long, drawn out seconds – one … two … three … four … before the richness of the rumbling spread over your whole skin. And do you remember the first time that the storm was right overhead and there was no gap? When the light was so bright that it did not need to come in through your eyes because it was everywhere and everything. When the sound lifted you off the floor.
The sparrowhawk passed so close that I felt it in on the back of my neck. Had I taken a step back the grey wing would have decapitated me. Cleanly and without slowing in its pursuit. The sparrowhawk would not have noticed the easy parting of vertebrae. Maybe a little of my blood on its feathers, unexplained, as it rested and preened later that morning.
At about the time of this near caress I heard the lost call of the little bird, the prey, the focus. I guess that the sound took some time to tramp its clumsy way past the eardrum and along the twisting nerves and was then held up at the front desk of consciousness while its credentials were scrutinised. The procedure, you know. Despite the pitiful urgency. And even then, who could tell what species the little bird belonged to? This was not an identifiable contact call. The fugitive was long past calling to its flock for reinforcements. It was not even a warning. No time left for the song-birds’ morse code; two dashes for ground threat, single for aerial. This was exclamation stripped back to a last gasp of resistance, of refusal, of outrage that it should have come to this. There was barely a breath between that hollow-sound and the hard implacable silence of stone.
A reply comes out of my throat. I hear it plainly. I make two sounds at the same time and they arise like a mythical creature with a man’s head on an animal’s body. The front end of the sound is ‘Oh!’ meaning simply, ‘Oh! I see, I understand. That was a bird of prey in close pursuit.’ But the back end of the sound is a frightful, mutilated thing. It is the ‘o’ in a groan. The groan that spreads like blood in water, backwards and forwards across centuries, millennia. The groan that undermines cities and great houses and vanity when civilisations fall and innocents, if any are to be found, are thrown into the pit.
I stumble backward into the steep slope and half fall, half sit. There is clumsiness in me now with my heavy boots and my thick jacket. But my eyes take control and push all that aside with the snap-trap of peripheral vision. Because beneath all the words and the cleverness the old apparatus is miraculously intact. This is vision acting not as a trawler, scooping all the world into its belly, but as a hand-thrown fishing net, flung in the direction of a receding shadow, a suspicion, a guess. When I haul it back in I expect it to be empty. It almost is. I have caught just two small fragments of a bird. There is a grey left wing barred somehow with black and then, seconds later, just as the sparrowhawk disappears behind a hedge, a head and eyes.
The glimpse of a wing is an object of great beauty and I put it carefully to one side. The head is more complex and I turn it over and around in recollection like a fetish pebble in the palm of my hand. The beak is closed and the eyes are cold. There is no anger here nor greed nor reverence. There is only the arrow of the universe pointing inexorably forwards. I find it comforting to know that it will tear right through us if we persist in our stupidity.