Sunday, February 14, 2010

37 Listening out for blackbirds


Sunday January 31, 2010:

Late in the evening, I stand in the garden shivering, despite the thick duffle coat. I picture Uncle Derek, lying thin and frail in his hospital bed, his skin as white as the sheets and as white as his shock of snowy hair.

From beyond the hills, I hear the barking of dogs. A pounding of paws, heralds their appearance. Two Labradors burst onto the scene, tongues a-lolling and tails furiously wagging, their paws clatter on the vinyl hospital floor. They skid under Derek’s bed and, with much tail thumping and general turning around and around, settle down to wait.

“Not long now,” I say to Derek and turn to go indoors again.

Monday February 1, 2010:

The telephone peels insistently. Sleepily, I reach out and pick it up. My mother’s voice chirrups from the receiver earpiece. I put on my “I’ve been a wake for hours” voice and answer.

She tells me that Derek died in the night. We exchange brief condolences and ring off.

I climb from my bed and stump out into the garden. I call him into my circle. The dogs are under his bed. On a chair beside it, a figure sits quietly. My cousin (his daughter) watches. A dog emerges from the bed and leans up to rest his head on her knee. It is such a sweet simple gesture of silent comfort.


It’s Imbolc eve. I’m feeling frazzled. My mind reels with all the things I have to do. I’m jittery because I’ve not really had a weekend and I had to miss the two Imbolc rituals I had been intending to go to.

My family is a fractured one. The newly dead Uncle, husband of my father’s sister, is not well known to me. Way back in the mists of time, soon after my cousin was born, there was a great bust up. Brother and sister never spoke to each other again until her death.

I think about that generation, the war generation, living through terrible privations. This is the generation that built the welfare state, public sector pensions and a society that tried to be fairer to all. I’m grateful for what they built. I appreciate now how I am able to live my life in comparative comfort because of them.

I remember the two old men standing by my father’s grave; their broken-voiced grizzling somehow heartrending, yet embarrassing. Another one is gone. Death makes so lonely the ones left behind.

So on this Imbolc eve, I must do something. I’ve some time now. So I make a Bridie Bed.

I fetch the oval cotton lined basket and lay fake fur in the bottom. I construct a little bed from silk and fur, turn back the covers to invite someone or something to climb into it and set it down beside the merrily burning gas fire. Next to it, on a small furry rug, I place a toy woolly lamb and a round toy dove complete with soft silky feather tail. On a little stool beside this, I make an alter. I set down offerings of water, seeds and oatcakes. Around them, I place beautiful metal objects, like the feather paper knife and the silver goddess chalice. They sit beside a small iron cauldron filled to overflowing with semi-precious moonstones. I light a candle and kneel down just to be still for a while.

Nothing happens, but I am glad of the peace. I find something else to put the candle in, a pot within a pot, the outer one filled with water. When I am sure it will be safe, I turn off the gas fire and retire to bed.

Tuesday February 2, 2010:

“Silently, softly, a feather drifts down
And lies fluttering in the morning breeze.”

Everything feels like it is conspiring to prevent me from spending time marking Imbolc. Before dawn therefore, I creep out into the cold frosty garden to make my morning prayers.

My breath makes the circle. I am enclosed by its warmth touching the ice cold air to make a mist of opacity unseen, yet felt by me. Birds scir, feathers fluttering in the pre dawn chill, their “thwo-thwo-thwo-thwo-thwo-thwo” caresses the silence between the songs of their morning joy as they criss-cross the garden.

I turn and turn, acknowledging the elements, arranging my loved ones in a circle around me as each are called in. I turn to the south and know the dogs are still sitting under Derek’s bed; still reaching out velvety muzzles to rest against his daughter’s knee.

The birds are singing. I listen to their song and pick them out one by one. Surely amongst the robins, I hear a wren? High in the sky, a crow caws, another answers. Two gardens along, a magpie grumpily rattles a warning. I listen to the thrice repeated piping of a song thrush.

I listen and wait. Close by, cutting through the cheerful arpeggios of the garden birds I hear the soulful hoot of an owl. Amazed, I tune my ears to pick it out from the frothy chorus. It’s mournful solemnity cool, serious and detached. It hoots its farewell to the night once more and disappears into the cheerful cacophony.

I smile to myself, marveling at the tapestry of song, the robins, the crows, the magpies and now the owl. I stand still, my hand on my rowan tree and listen to the sound of the city carefully and slowly getting up.

Suddenly, like a golden light cutting through mist, I hear the distinct call of a blackbird. I turn my head to the east, listen harder, holding my breath. There it is again, joyful, ebullient, and purposeful.

I silently beg it to come closer, be louder, and come near to me. Tantalizingly, the song weaves amongst the chattering quarrelling robins and is lost. And then I hear it again; loud and effortless, cutting smoothly through the fizzing dawn chorus, arching through the air, clean and precise. I imagine him, sitting high up in the ash tree; his head raised, golden orange beak wide open, singing fit to burst. I stand, mesmorised, despite the cold, wrapped in the joy of the song’s magic.

“Ping”, goes the clock in the kitchen. It is seven O’clock and I have to get going. I bow to the singing birds and leave the garden.

I kneel by the unlit gas fire and touch the silky softness of the Bridie bed. My fingers carefully examine every fold. I’m sure something has been moved, there’s a little dent where the silk was smoothly spread before. The candle is still alight, warmly burning. I reach down and cup the flame in my hands, dance it with my fingers, feel it grow then subside.

“Thank you for bringing me the blackbird” I say, cupping the flame as I lean and blow it out. I breathe deeply that bitter snuffed scent rising to fill the room and think of a winter fire outside with smoke rising through the frosty air.
It is blackbird time. The last bird in my avian calendar and perhaps the easiest one to spend time with, so ubiquitous is it in the London garden. I must guard against the ubiquity making me lazy though and remember to give him time.

In my shower, I begin to sing, getting the tune wrong and tangling the words for it’s a bugger of a song to sing. It doesn’t matter, I’m sure Paul McCartney won’t mind, I sing on, marveling at the oddly appropriate words.

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

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