This restlessly beating heart
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Yesterday I went out walking to find mushrooms, and found something else instead.
At first I thought it might be a mushroom - a large, dark brown mass sprouting in the middle of the path. But no. I called the dog to heel, and clipped on her lead. We approached it gingerly. A young blackbird, sitting on the ground with its wings spread. She didn’t move when I got close. Instead, she cocked her head to one side and gazed at me with curious black eyes.
What do you do when you find a bird on the path? You certainly do not pick it up - I knew that from every RSPCA leaflet I’d ever read. I tied the dog to a tree and tried to usher the bird into the undergrowth, but she stayed just as she was. I could hear another dog running along the path towards us, a highland terrier, yapping as she approached. Perhaps it already had the scent of us. I looked at the dog, and back at the immobile bird. I scooped her up in my hands.
She was warm and soft, and so very light. Her little heart fluttered against my palm. I stroked the top of her head with a finger, and her eyes narrowed peacefully. She already had her adult tail, long and black, but the feathers on her body were new and insubstantial, the colour of a horse chestnut. She didn’t struggle. In fact, she nested down, tucked in her wings and started to doze. I turned her this way and that in my hands, looking for signs of injury. There were none.
The trees around me were strangely quiet. I’ve come across fledged blackbirds before, and there’s usually a parent nearby, crying out a distress signal. There was no such bird here, and neither was there a visible nest where I could put her safely back. The birches in this part of the wood were tall and straight. I held the bird close to my chest. I couldn’t just put her down and walk away.
Lately, I’ve been dreaming of babies. In sleep, my arms remember the sensation of a drowsing infant, heavy and fluid, of the way that peace seems to rise from their soft heads. In one dream, the child I was holding grew before my eyes, rising from newborn to toddler in a matter of minutes, becoming strong and wilful and uncontainable. Eventually I had to set him on the ground to go about his own business. Another night, I was down by the shore, and found all the cast of Thomas the Tank Engine there, being washed by their strangely robotic train conductors. They were dishevelled, visibly neglected. Some of them wept a little as the seawater cleaned them.
My son is growing up. He is walking himself to school, and taking care of the dog without my assistance, and sometimes he even retreats to his bedroom to undertake quiet projects of his own devising, which require neither my supervision nor assistance. It doesn’t take a master analyst to discern that my whole body is mourning the passing of those times when he could fit into the crook of my elbow, and it would feel like a merging. That merging feels less and less possible. His boundaries - physical and emotional - are hardening. He is his own person now, not the same as me. We are becoming two separate, competent people who love each other.
But the bird is still porous enough to sink into my hands so that we feel like one, intertwined organism, bird and human, human and bird. I decide that I will hold her until she wants me to let go, and after an hour I realise that this is only going one way. I am entertaining fantasies of being one of the people who take in a fledgling and raise it as a companion. I have always wanted to be one of those people. If I found an injured bird as a child, I would pick it up and take it straight to my Grandma, and she would bed them in an ice cream tub, and feed them drips of water from her fingertips, and bread soaked in milk. They were never there the next time I visited. She always explained them away lightly, as if they had floated off like feathers. Except for one, a mistle thrush who came back and sat on the arm of her chair every afternoon while she fed him sultanas. I’ve always hoped to have a thrush of my own one day, or at least the patience to sit still until a bird will eat from my hand.
This bird is sick, though. She can barely lift her head at all. Bert asks why I don’t take her to the vet, and I tell him that it’s just not the way of the world. Vets cannot save every dying songbird. There are just too many. I clutch the blackbird in one hand while I look up animal rescue sites on my phone, but they all say the same thing. Put the bird somewhere safe, and leave it alone. Let nature take its course.
That is not something I have the capacity to do today. The bird is dying - there’s no doubt about it - but it does not have to die alone. If it likes to be held, then I will hold it. I have often wondered if I will be able to do this for a human, when the time inevitably comes. Will I manage to find the same patience and gentleness that I can find so easily for a bird?
I realise that I am rocking her as I would a baby. I am conscious that I have felt so little about the death of the Queen in the preceding week, but here I am, pouring all my thoughts on birth, life and death onto this handful of feathers and honeycomb bone, this restlessly beating heart. All week, my father has been fluttering against my window, trying to work out his conflicted feelings on the passing of a monarch who has stood for so much - good and bad - across his whole lifetime, and I have quietly admired the way that he can unpack so much from something so distant, so abstract. Here I am today, holding the same unsteady mix of sentiments, most of them unvoiceable. That’s how it always runs with me: I crave direct contact. I have to touch something to understand it.
Eventually, I take the bird home. I know that she will not live, and that I will not get the chance to tame her, and I know, too, that I will probably provoke the naturalists who would urge me to leave her be. But my grandmother would have taken her home, and so I do, too. Because what do we try to pass on if not acts of goodness, however misguided, however futile? Perhaps, one day, someone will see me as a magical person who can heal restless, wild things that don’t belong in our hands.
You learn something when you step into someone else’s shoes like that. You learn that sick birds do not just disappear into the air. You learn that when you brought ailing creatures to your grandmother’s doorstep, you forced her to witness their passing, and that maybe it made her feel unsettled, and merged, and strangely certain that this was the way that things ought to be done, too.
But above all else, you learn that the connections that flow between us are complex, and ineffable, and confounding, and luminous, all at once.
This week’s Wintering Session is our final re-up of the summer - an interview with Raynor Winn with a new introduction, recorded with Raynor in her native Cornwall over the summer. Her latest book, Landlines, was published last week.
I seem to be mainly working on things that I can’t share with you yet - a reimagined new series of The Wintering Sessions, a truly excellent new Patreon offering, some online workshops - but that does mean that there will be exciting things coming soon. Promise.
Meanwhile, I’ve been introducing Enchantment to the publishing industry, making videos to send to America and Asia, and attending the annual Faber & Faber sales conference. This week, I got to meet Gary Younge, Katherine Rundell and Tania Branigan at a lovely dinner with journalists and book buyers, and I was… awed. All of their new books sound incredible.
Finally, I was most honoured to find that chanteuse Lissie chose to talk about Wintering in her episode of Spark Parade - a wonderful podcast that invites creative folk to talk about their cultural spark of inspiration.
Live dates & workshops
Literary Festival: Liverpool, UK, 30th September, 7pm - 8pm. I’ll be appearing via Zoom at the Gravity Festival, in conversation with Prof. Philip Davis and Melissa Chapple. Tickets here.
Look after the birds this week. Take care,