Finding the bird on our shoulder

by Sarah Acton

There is a lane behind the row of houses at the edge of the village. Piggy lane. So called from a time when this was all meadows. The farmer would drive his pigs along the flat track between the two sloping fields. Well, she’d made that part up but it made sense.

The woman in her middle years approached the head of the lane from the steep path between the houses below. She looked over her shoulder and hurried to the holly bush over the fence at the bottom of the garden of a pink chalet-style house called ‘Rosehay’. She emptied bundles of dried holly twigs into the bush, then folded the torn plastic bag into her coat pocket. She winced as she strode on into the lane. New Year’s Eve.Dusk. The trimmings from the house dumped in the garden from where she’d furtively leaned over with her clippers to take them three weeks ago. She walked forwards along the track crunching on the loose chippings scattered here to absorb the mud.

From the narrow track she observed fences heavy with ivy, and gates rusted shut. The row of houses below to the left were empty. These gardens rose up to meet the path. The first overgrown, knotted, forgotten, now overtaken by badgers. The next away for the weekend. The next and next a second home. No cars, no lights. No breeze. The fences and hedges were not high.

The view for thirty miles was clear if she looked up. The sea stretched out ahead. Bruised blue-greys against winter’s last thin peach glow. Clouds, low and dull, rounding down to meet the sea. Visibility ahead only, blurred at the edges. To the right the path opened wider. Houses above with large gardens running down to it. Wire fences. A bee hive. Ornaments. Pristine lawns. Massive windows all facing out over their lawns to the sea. She noted the bin on the path overflowing with laden dog bags. Plastic bottles that had been discarded on the ground. Other dog bags and strewn tissues were hung all around the hedges.

She walked on. Towards the sea that she seemed to be gliding out to meet level with the steady horizon line. ‘What is this life?’ Children played in the road below, laughing. Cold face now. Cold hands. Laughter, their laughter trembling like bells, but what hope is there?

One foot in front of the other. Sometimes it was like this driving on the road at night. Ahead parted to meet her car, and the lights in her peripheral vision rushed backwards, as hurtling onward on autopilot, she gazed on towards her fixed point ahead where headlight beams crossed.

The sea darkened. She heard a small voice in her head that said ‘this village has eyes, they probably saw me when I dumped the twigs, and they see me now. If I am alone is that better or worse? What if no eyes can see me? That would be worse. I am frightened of walking where no living eyes can see me. I shouldn’t be, I will stand tall and not look back. I feel like I’m being watched.’

A wrought-iron gate wedged open by brambles. Fairy lights flashed in the village further down the hill below. She walked forwards on autopilot as the earth turned beneath her feet and gravity pinned her to the path. ‘Song: ‘thank you for the days’, those words I said in anger burning yet, how to move on, possibility, what could I have done? Memory gap, ancestors calling, carried, tarried, hurt, always holding the gravity to my chest. Hold on, there is still time. For service. To become…whole.’

Forwards she walked as the nights and days ahead hurtled in reverse to meet her. She did not notice her hair grew long as she walked. It was flecked with silver-grey, and she walked that lane with no human eyes upon her. The path carried on. And on. More empty houses, the sea always at a distance ahead. Forwards she advanced, the weight of bigger story truth rolling in poetry across her mind from the wide open sea.

She sang without thinking. Humming a melody out loud, ‘praise to you cosmos above, and blessings on your vast stretching mystery, sea, your endless depth and knowledge. Praise to the crow caw circling and screeching into dusk, and to the silent hive of bees. Thanks be for the year that fades in this light, the child-mind inside, this edge of wilderness musk.’

An owl hooted. The sky was feint grey. Venus sparkled above. The woman’s thoughts were indeed blurring as she moved forwards, drifting like a cloud of vapour. ‘This year will pass and this lane is long. I cannot see the end ahead. I am sorry that I did not do more. That I never cried out loud, only alone. How did you know?’

The ground so solid lifted off the lane, up up. She floated upwards gazing at the horizon line ahead, her two eyes fixated on the point where their beams crossed. ‘But I know this: I loved you. I love you. I loved it all.’ A giant tear falls to the dirt path. The path is momentarily flooded by a puddle and she jumps over it.

She has to keep going. She knows that the end must come eventually. Perhaps around the next corner. It has to, this is a path. She must be over half way, there is no point going back, only forwards. At the end of the path she remembers how it opens out to the road down to the beach, the sea directly ahead beyond the cliff. She’d walked this way so many times. Everything familiar and yet time was anchorless. The house had been so quiet. Her fists always clenched so tight. The offer of herself to the path without knowing she had taken this choice. The village with so many eyes that see her in the village. Everyone comes to walk invisible in this lane at the edge of the houses. Why did we all go to this lane to find invisibility and accidentally leave our fallen rubbish, our distractions? It didn’t matter for so long because we all thought: no one can see us here.

Her hair is slinking to the ground in waves down her straight back, silver as gossamer silk, and caught up in its wake are nettles, brambles, seaweed, and fish swimming. She is her own gently advancing ecosystem. A bird sings from his tiny nest on her shoulder with his red chest puffed out, heart quivering so fast. This robin’s song is so beautiful that her skin bristles with joy and pride to be so near. To carry this beauty brings a giant tear rolling down her cheek each day. She walks slowly now, knowing that whilst she must soon return to the main road and the village, she no longer wills this path to end as she carries the robin, listening to his song. Carrying his song on this path are all that matters.

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