A Jackdaw Calls
It’s an Autumn forest, all browns and oranges, the ground heavy and black with water sodden leaves; a mulch underfoot.
This was once cultivated land, part of the grounds of a country seat. The taller trees still stand in rows with shorter newcomers happily filling the open paths between them, embracing the easier passage to the light. Here and there a stone pillar bears an ivy-covered bust; white, green and yellow mould grows over half naked statues; and in a clearing there is a monument, the stone work softened with the years, its timeless message faded.
We are walking the dog, Patch. He bounds ahead of us, his claws scratching over the few dry leaves that skate on the slippery surface of the forest floor. There is little chance of seeing wildlife with all his energy.
We are carrying a flask of tea. We’ve come, taken over an hour in the car to get here, because this is our place. We used to make love here, back when we’d only just met and there was nowhere else to go. I think I still believe we can be anything here.
Apart from Patch, we are making very little noise. Though our wellies stick and suck with every step, our breathing is light, exertion hidden by lips grown taut with the practice. We talk less and less often these days.
It is a dull morning, the sky overcast, and in the forest, despite the few leaves that still cleave to their branches, it is even darker, as if we were walking into the dusk. Even the wind is quiet. There is a sense of expectation; the whole forest waits to embrace or cast us off. We have been lost before, the forest seeming to shift around us, space and place unnavigable to the city eye. It is this possibility we have come in search of. We are bored of our measured daily life, of each other.
We made plans here, all those years ago. Plans to live together into our dotage, to have a family together, to help each other fulfil our dreams, to become nothing like our parents. Somewhere there is a tree with our names etched into it. Here it was impossible to imagine being bored. That one day might blur into another.
You whistle for Patch. I realise you are right to call him. He’s been gone from our sight and hearing too long.
We wait for him and as we wait I see some empty beer cans crushed into the hollow of a tree. I do not tell you. I do not want to hear your lecture. There is a condom there too, half hidden beneath the leaves. We were no different and I know you know this though your mouth would run on its course, your tongue twisting around the same old words. You don’t need to tell me to respect nature. Nature needs sex. I think of those pictures of Bacchus and his followers dancing in the woods, drunk on the possibility of metamorphosis. Someone or something needs to change.
Patch rounds a bend, his tongue lolling happily from his mouth. He races up to us. You pat him with one hand and search your pockets for a dog biscuit with the other. ‘Good dog, good Patch.’ He cracks the biscuit with his molars, swallows and rushes off ahead of us once more, back towards the bend. We follow at our slower pace.
We never used to be slow, not within these trees. We were always urgent, sometimes angry. I couldn’t imagine not sharing my thoughts with you, even if we would disagree, even if we would argue. I could not think of learning to keep my counsel, of deciding that some things are better unsaid, some arguments better never started, that I would think long and hard about which arguments might lead to change and were therefore worth my energy. Silence was only good if our bodies were speaking. How could I know that the years would make some conversation unnecessary? You have often wondered what there is left to say between us. I have seen it in the tilt of your head, in the upturned edges of your eyebrows.
When we reach the bend, Patch is long gone, and it’s probably for the best because there, standing still and staring right at us, is an enormous stag. Only metres ahead on the path, the stag’s antlers are broad, his eyes wide but defiant, his hooves planted firmly in the rotting leaves, warning us not to come any closer.
We do not move. We hold back all our breath, not daring to break the moment with sound, our lungs tight against the strain of time’s momentum. The stag seems so close I can feel the torsion of his tendons, the waiting spring in the ribbons of his muscles. I wonder what he sees. I wonder if you are thinking the same thing. I try to find us, flipped on our heads in the mirror of his pupils.
Then Patch appears, clumsily snapping a newly fallen branch with his paw, and the stag snorts, nostrils flared. He swishes his tail, lifts his front legs, his head bent back up to the sky just visible beneath the thinning canopy, his antlers twisting into the growing reach of branches, and leaps away into the maze of trees. Even the sound of him disappears.
We breathe out.
As Patch runs towards us, we turn to each other and smile, our cheeks pulled tight, our eyes shining. I feel your cold hand fold into mine. This is what we came here for, to feel alive; everything and nothing has changed.
Patch nuzzles at our hands and turns our gaze downwards.
‘Good boy, Patch, good boy.’ It doesn’t matter that we are no longer holding hands. That moment was enough.
I can see the old stone monument ahead. ’Tea?’ I ask and you nod, Patch walking at our heels, our weariness forgotten. Overhead a jackdaw calls and is answered.
Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone’s first novel, Home, was published by Red Button Publishing and is now available direct from amazon. A chapbook of her short stories, Glitches, is published by Acorn Books. She teaches creative writing for the City University of London, working as a visiting lecturer for the MA and the wonderful Novel Studio course, as well as running the alumni showcase event, City Writes. She also works for the publishing community Byte the Book and is currently redrafting her second novel.
Image: Flickr / Kentish Plumber