'Merleen's being a bit promiscuous these days', we agree, my neighbour and I, gossiping tongue-in-cheek across the garden fence. We have noticed the two glossy black male birds who are visiting Merleen, 'our' female blackbird, and frankly, Merleen really doesn't seem to mind which is which. Maybe all will be revealed when the offspring begin to take after their parents, but for now she's having a wild time. Sex anywhere, wherever the mood takes them. If you're easily offended, at least it's over very quickly, but it is going on rather frequently in the gardens these days.
Life is short for blackbirds, so they must have quite an imperative to just get on with it, and there may not be much in the way of moralising scruple between a blackbird's eyes to get in the way. Of course it could be a good deal more complicated than that for all I know, but we look at things with our human eyes, Jean and I, as we gossip, and give our human verdict, rightly or wrongly:
'Merleen's being a bit promiscuous these days'.
And there's another fluttering liaison on the roof of the greenhouse. The male flies off to an apple tree with that unmistakeable cocksure pride in his posture, while Merleen seems to enjoy a brief moment of post-coital reverie, then tidies herself up before flying off briskly in the opposite direction.
I turn to Jean, to say something justifying our earlier remark, but she's gone, and from two gardens up comes her giggle as she fends off Eddy's advances again. Unlike Merleen, she won't let Eddy have his way in the garden, but the whole row knows that behind closed doors it's a different matter.
And why not? Just because they're both in their eighties doesn't mean they shouldn't relive a little youthful exuberance at times. Stan at number four does have firm opinions on the matter, however. The truth of this is that Eddy can flirt, and Stan can't, but Stan doesn't see it like that. And why would Jean want to flirt with Stan anyway? He comes out with such trenchant views on 'excessive' behaviour, while she prefers the more happy go lucky type, someone she can have a laugh with, and if it gets a bit naughty, well, it's only a bit of harmless fun, isn't it?
The teenagers also have firm but refreshingly mixed ideas on the subject, ranging from 'ugh, GROSS', to 'ah, bless, you go for it girl'. Unlike Merleen, Jean won't have a clutch of gaping ravenous mouths to feed as a consequence. Nor will she be dashing around the gardens in a few weeks with the all-encompassing single-mindedness of a mother hunting to feed five children. Even the males get ignored while this different imperative takes over.
However, Jean does get some sideways looks and 'attitude' to cope with. This is her consequence, and frankly, she can take it or leave it. She's come too far to be at all concerned by that.
'Sticks and stones ..........' she says, in the tone of one dismissing a cold-caller. She's survived two world wars, three husbands and the 60's, so put in that context a little neighbourhood tittle-tattle is just water off a duck's back.
Merleen suddenly returns with a swift precision-landing and a busy, obsessive look in her eye, this time carrying a small beakful of nesting material. She perches on a damson twig now beginning to unfurl its new leaves like the hands of an Indian temple dancer. She looks me in the eye for a few seconds from only a few feet away, flicking her tail in annoyance, before plunging into the thickest part of the honeysuckle. The creeper shakes and trembles as she rummages around inside, then she reappears, her beak now empty, and immediately flies off.
Merle, one of the chosen males, flies after her. As homebuilding goes, there is thankfully none of our human preamble, no solicitors or rental agreements, no mortgages or planning applications, no building site or meshing of trades and scaffolding. Nonetheless, this honeysuckle will be the intense focus of their world, in a much more covert way, till the gawky fledglings tumble out like little feathered trolls a few weeks down the line. In the meantime, Jean and I will watch, and comment.
An air of uncertainty and a nameless doubt hung over everything Dee tried that week. Nothing could be finalised, nothing satisfactorily completed, and by the end of the week there was an even longer jobs list than there had been at the beginning. Courses of action which started by looking positive, ended up down blind alleys. Situations refused to be resolved. Decisions could not be made. The contributory decisions of others were equally elusive. Difficulties remained difficult, and didn't even transform into useful learning. By wednesday Dee suspected that it was one of those weeks, and by friday she was convinced there was little point in struggling on. So that afternoon she exchanged the whole business for the stimulation of books, by closing up early and visiting the university library.
From the clearer, more reflective vantagepoint of a quiet desk in the mythology section she became aware that something deeper and more intangible might be amiss, not in the microcosm of her office, but in the greater scheme of things, the interconnected web of more subtle influences which she now understood as real life. This was strangely reassuring, and what was left of the week's frustration changed instead into a desire to explore this pattern that was proving so stubbornly intransigent. Back at home, late friday evening, she lit her room with candles, unwrapped the cards from their swaddling of red silk, opened a notebook, and began.
Not so simple. With the uncertainty being so nameless and so hard to pin down, it was difficult to clearly formulate the question. Knowing nothing would return a confusing answer more readily than a confused enquiry, she laid down the cards and, at last, just relaxed, enjoying the quiet and stillness of the old cottage.
Some time later, with a new and clearer question, she was edging into a second attempt when her seeking was interrupted for a second time by a phone call. Not answering at all crossed her mind, as she was half expecting her dad to call gathering support for his side of an issue for which she felt little sympathy. Though not her mum, fifth wife and Dee had become quite close and it seemed to both women that the real issue behind the divorce was just the man's messy midlife crisis.
It was over an hour later when she extracted herself at last from his pointless wingeing. She had managed to smooth some forward path through the devastation left by his unthinking impulses but her ear felt hot, her spirit sagged and she was left wishing there were someone, somewhere, she could share her true self with . Turning wearily back to the cards on the red silk square, she felt such weighty tiredness that she just folded the pack gently back into the silk. For a while she held them against her forehead as if in prayer, purging herself of negativity with each quiet breath . Then she sat blankly holding them in her lap, staring into a candle flame, aware of falling asleep over the unanswered question. From there, the thought of duvet and hot water bottle dragged her to her feet and she slowly climbed the stairs after a brief and chilly look out at the stars.
It had been a long held opinion of Dee's that if a frustrated tangle of thoughts is moved across the land, a strange alchemy happens. She described it, to the few friends she entrusted with these insights, as being like the unravelling of a knot. The more a problem is worried at in one place, the more entangled it can become, she would explain, whereas walking with it seems to cause the knot to shake out naturally, or maybe the walking envigorates the mind, or the wider landscape gives a truer perspective. Whichever way it was looked at, it gave her a good incentive to ignore saturday's shopping and clearing up the week's debris. She laced on her boots, grabbed a handful of nuts and dried fruit and walked from the house out into the early sunshine.
There had been frosty patterns on her windows as she left, but as she walked, and the sun rose higher, the opal sheen across the fields gradually melted, revealing the new green underneath. She took the old valley track, signed Mallins Lane, and was soon deep in the hills, warm with exertion, refreshed by sunlight, exulting in her youth and health. Some distance away, she saw a couple of hikers, stick figures striding away with walking poles, and a boy with three dogs, he and they tumbling over themselves to throw and chase sticks, all out of earshot. Apart from these few souls, there seemed to be no-one else out on the waking land at all and Dee breathed all the deeper for that, letting herself both expand into the open space and nestle into the beloved folds of the countryside. Already the knot was undoing.
So she was taken aback to turn a bend in the lane and see the dark back of a stranger making his way along the track. She assumed he must have joined the lane from one of the many paths descending from the hillsides. He strode ahead without looking to left or right, trailing a faint but delicious smell of aromatic smoke. Dee considered turning off Mallins Lane, as he had turned on, but then chose not to, there was a powerful sense of intent in the figure that was actually quite fascinating. He wore the kind of long coat worn by riders, black in colour, that swirled occasionally around his steady strides and he was moving as if with a distinct purpose, maybe to retrieve a horse from one of the fields ahead. Whatever his reasons, his speed was taking him further ahead, so Dee settled back into her usual pace, mulling over the further strands to be unravelled for her to be at peace firstly with this intangible uncertainty in the world and secondly with fifth wife's exit. Helped by the clear light and vigour of morning, things began to fall into place and soon, like a bird freed from a cage, she left the remaining tangles for other thoughts altogether. Between this and that, distractions and observations, her mind, lighter now, went lazily exploring one thing after another, eventually settling once again on a recent and very curious discovery.
She had been sitting on the back step with books, an apple and a cup of tea, enjoying the first warmth since winter. The garden blackbird, who had befriended Dee the previous autumn as she revealed worms by turning the vegetable beds, was sitting in the heart of a small crabapple tree a few yards away. A bird was singing somewhere and at first she thought it came from the neighbour's garden, if not the garden after that, it sounded so far away. The song was full of expert thrush-like tricks and warbles, melodious and inventive, as if also celebrating the returning sun. But before it had got very far there was a soft scrabbling noise, and the neighbour's cat sneaked through the hedge bottom. The singing carried on for a second or two, then stopped.
Dee listened at full stretch for the delightful singing to restart, while the blackbird kept an eye on the cat, which, not noticing either of them, began to scrape itself a latrine in the lawn. Dee threw her apple core fiercely in warning, to which the cat responded by staring at her insolently then slinking off, squirming back under the hedge until the last tabby tail-tuft was gone. After a few quiet seconds, the singing restarted, the blackbird again to all intents and purposes motionless on his perch. But as Dee watched more closely, wondering with slight concern why he appeared so lethargic, she was amazed to discover that though his beak remained closed, it was no other throat but his that was rising and falling with this quiet secret singing which she had assumed to come from so much further away.
She lessened her breath like a hunter to listen better and little by little, as he sang, it felt like they began to enter an altered state together, he intent on spinning his phrases like mantras, she carried away further and further into a trance-like daydream. Faces and sounds swam through her mind's eye. For the first time since his death, she heard her late grandad again insisting on her private 'singing-in' before she brought out a new song. Memories of her travels flooded in, Tibetans quietly chanting their devotions and the rustling of exotic leaves in a tropical night. She found herself spinning back through generation upon generation of singers like Biblical genealogies, who begat who begat who begat who back through times and songs otherwise forgotten. There were trills and whistles that she couldn't understand, echoing other birds' voices, perhaps telling stories of other birds' lives. Deeper and deeper she went, to the point of sensing her own roots down among the deepest sounds of the earth. And the wonderful yarn-spinning blackbird sang on as if inexhaustible, as if that point in time contained no other possibility, singer and listener welded together beyond time, beyond cause and effect, both royally bathed in the riches of just being there in that moment.
Gradually, who knows how long afterwards, the spell softened as the song's phrases became fewer and further between. The tides of here and now washed back through the empty silences, carrying Dee out of her dreamtime. Wonderingly, recognising how deeply the song had moved her, she began to return to a now heightened sense of her surroundings. Why should a bird hide itself away in the heart of a tree to sing so beautifully, yet so quietly to itself that it could only be heard from a few feet away?
Her return from the dream state was far from complete, when the strangeness of the morning was suddenly intensified by the arrival of a merlin, the tiny rare falcon from the moors. It flashed to a perch on a post, holding in one foot something limp and feathered, glaring to left and right. A split second later, the blackbird burst into action, leapt shrieking from the crabapple and drove it from the garden away over the fields, leaving Dee speechless and concerned for his welfare. However, a short while later he returned seemingly unharmed and bathed in a dish of rain water. Then he preened at length and finally flew off on some blackbird business.
The whole incident might have rested at that, an intriguing morning of unexpected arrivals and inner journeys, had it not been for the books Dee had with her on the step that morning. As she returned to them, she was struck by a haphazard coincidence of open pages: an illumination depicting, of all things, a blackbird, as an ally of the goddess Rhiannon, singing Bran the Blessed and his followers into a seventy two year sleep; and a french dictionary, where the word for blackbird, 'Merle', caught her eye. As if to press a point, the dictionary had also caught a previous page of the mythology, revealing at the end of a line the name 'Merlin' .
What if .........Dee suddenly thought, Merlin the Enchanter, renowned wizard of Arthurian legend, was more blackbird than falcon........... ? All that wisdom and magic, the weight of nationhood and destiny ............. in a killer of small songbirds? Surely not .................. but an enchanting singer? ....... Perhaps.
On a playful hunch she immediately delved into the origins of the name Merlin. Beguilingly, an original Arthurian Celtic seer surfaced, in Welsh named Myrddin, who, hundreds of years after Camelot, had been renamed Merlinus. But, she read on, only by the somewhat untrustworthy medieval scribe Giraldus Cambrensis. Misnomer from a hasty latinisation, question mark, she pencilled in the margin.
Dictionaries of French and Spanish showed blackbird and magician names to be close, whereas falcon and magician names were clearly not. Internet translation sites revealed the same trend in five other languages. At that point she indulged herself in the delicious fancy of having gone deeper than play, into having uncovered a real old mystery.
Back in her garden, where it had all started, as if to prove the point beyond question, was the enchanting blackbird himself, chasing off a flesh and blood merlin. The more she thought about it, the enigmatic, secret-singing blackbird fitted the myth of Merlin much better than did the merlin itself. Speaking later that day to an Irish friend, she was excited to hear about Gobha Dubh, the blackbird and blacksmith. She learnt how legend painted the smiths with a magical light as they performed the alchemical transformation of dull rock into beautiful, valuable possessions in black iron and bright gold. Another folk name, the black druid, was triple underlined on her note pad by the end of the conversation. Back in her book of Celtic myths Dee read about Culhwch seeking counsel of the Blackbird of Cilgwri, because he was the oldest animal in the world. Source after source suggested that the humble blackbird was indeed a figure of high renown, eminently worthy of inspired speculation.
Such was the enticing mix of folklore, linguistics, secret singing and trance replaying through her mind as she walked along Mallin's Lane when, like an arrow's thud into a tree, a voice cut through her musing.
'Good morning', it said, as if from the air above. She looked up into the nearby ash tree. Seated on a branch but camouflaged against a dark streak of bark, was the stranger who had been walking ahead.
'Oh, hello,' Dee replied, non-commitally.
He was looking at her with amusement, and now that she could see more than just his back, she noticed a pleasant face, neither old nor young, a bit worn, a bit weathered, clean shaven but grizzled at the edges. He had very dark eyes, which smiled from behind gold rimmed glasses. The coat was not quite ragged but old enough to have a sheen and the reason for the aroma was obvious now. He was smoking a pipe, a beauty made of some golden wood.
Dee considered her options. They seemed few: the banks were high, he was overhead in the tree, and she had clearly been heading up the track. So short of turning back, there was little to do but pass underneath him and carry on. From the corner of her eye she thought he gestured, as if to someone else. There was a noise in the trees, and she felt a twist of panic. But then as if despatched on an errand, a woodpigeon clattered out of the tree and sailed off across the fields.
'I hope I didn't startle you?' asked the stranger.
'Well, yes, you did, often there's no-one along here at all.' Dee answered. 'Specially not up in the trees, anyway.' The stranger nodded.
'Shall I come down then?' he asked. Here we go, thought Dee, this is where he starts coming close and making weird suggestions.
'Look,' she began, 'do you have any particular point to .... '
'Of course,' he hastened to reassure her. Then he leapt nimbly down from the ash, the black coat fluttering around him, and landed beside her on the track.
'The first point,' he said,' is that despite your fears, I have no interest in harming you, or anyone else'.
He looked at her openly, his head slightly to one side.
'And this point is really very important,' he continued, ' because unless you understand that, I might as well save my breath'.
Dee returned his gaze with equal openness.
'So you want to say something to me?' she began. ' Well, I'm not sure about that. Given the location, you could be just talking me into something'. The stranger pursed his lips, nodded and knocked his pipe against the tree. The pursed mouth seemed to show frustration, yet the eyes were still smiling and Dee couldn't be sure, but it was almost as if he were strangely proud of her.
' I AM talking you into something, and you're wise to be cautious,' he confirmed, 'I could be the one your mother always warned you about.' Again the sideways look, slightly smiling, now gently teasing.
Despite herself, Dee felt herself relaxing with this easy banter that had almost become a flirtation. Deep down, she didn't really feel that he was the one her mother had always warned her about. He didn't have that jagged edge, and no oily superficiality either. Despite the isolation of the spot, she was becoming oddly at ease with this situation. He was just a little unusual, charismatic even. After a few moments' silent consideration, she took the bull by the horns.
'So what is this you're trying to talk me into then?' she asked, 'because I could just turn round and walk away.'
'You could', he confirmed again,' but yet you're still here, which is good, because the second point is that it must be you who wants to hear, rather than it being me who wants you to.'
She was questioning this internally, when he helped her to decide by saying 'shall we walk?', indicating the path ahead with a sweep of his arm. After the briefest hesitation, she fell in step alongside him with an almost pleasant feeling of butterflies in the stomach, like pulling out of harbour on a voyage with no fixed destination. A squirrel bounded off up the path in front them, its tail rippling behind, then disappeared round a bend. Dee expected them to catch it up, but when they too turned the corner, it was nowhere to be seen.
'Where did that squirrel go?' Dee wondered out loud. Her companion's eyes darted about in mock terror as if it might jump out and surprise them. Then he shrugged, smiling.
'Gone', he said, with the innocent finality of a child, but with also a hint of the conjuror. Dee couldn't help returning his smile, and he gave a quick chuckle and walked on. He was clearly in no great hurry to make any further points immediately and they walked a good half hour up the valley, following the course of the stream, enjoying the signs of spring. The land had never seemed so peopled with busy fauna. Everywhere, it seemed, there were creatures great and small, furred and feathered, flighted and footless, living life to the full in all its interconnected complexity, in varying intensities of excitement and animation. Leaves were emerging miraculously from bare twigs and a sheen of new green refreshed the wintry valley. Dee felt herself rejuvenated and envigorated by the exercise, the breeze and this wonderful, euphoric onset of spring. Her companion too seemed to be basking in the joy of new life. Sometimes they spoke, mostly they walked quietly, at times he whistled, or hummed under his breath. Dee didn't recognise his songs, or she might have dared to join in, but she was inspired once to sing a line of her own in time to their footsteps and he smiled at her.
Her curiosity to know what he wanted to say was rising with each stile they climbed and every tributary they crossed, until finally she stopped, blocking his path and burst out:
'Come on, I think I've earned an explanation.'
'Nearly there,' he immediately replied, sidestepping, ' lets have a drink first.' Then he beckoned her on up the bank of the stream. Fully intrigued now, she caught him up, and they entered the ancient hanging oak woods. Here the water tumbled from the mouth of a cave in cascades of bright flashing drops and dark clear power, between boulders vibrantly green with new moss. On a level place set back from the water, where sunlight shone down through a gap in the trees, was a small fire, with smoke dancing lazily up to the sky. From a black tripod hung an equally black kettle, and short fat logs stood upended as seats. A Romany, Dee suddenly thought, that explains the riding coat, the weathered face, the charisma.
'Who are you?' she asked curiously, letting the smoke play around her. He turned from tending the embers, and looked at her appraisingly, as if wondering where to start.
'Well, that is the point,' he eventually said, 'have a seat.' Instead, Dee prowled around the camping place, taking in signs of occupation, which were few, checking for anything untoward, which there wasn't. The stranger turned back to the fire and began to prepare hospitality. This involved two wooden cups, hot water from the kettle, and unexpectedly, ordinary-looking teabags from an ordinary teabag box.
'I like black tea with honey', he said, 'do you?'
'Never tried it', Dee replied, 'if you have milk I'd rather have it white.'
'Gone,' he said again, making a sad face this time, but when she tried the tea she was pleasantly surprised, chose a log, and sat down. They sipped in silence for a while, then he suddenly said:
'You know, you have achieved what no-one else has done for a very long time.' They looked at each other, he looking proud and amused, she feeling bemused, but slightly pleased without knowing why.
'You have made connections that have remained dormant for centuries,' he went on,' you have worked your way in to the centre of a mystery, and as a result your life will become richer ............... but to be fair, probably more complicated as well.'
'I'm not at all sure what you mean by all that,' Dee managed to admit, from the depths of her surprise. He gave her the appraising look again.
'Maybe that's true on the everyday level,' he said, 'but on other levels, you do know, you have a very firm grasp of what I'm talking about.'
'You do!' And he gazed intently at her. When she could hold his eyes no longer, and feeling none the wiser, she had to ask:
'Well, on this level, here and now, would you mind reminding me what I know?' He laughed playfully.
'It may help you more if I tell you what I know instead', he replied. Dee sat in silence, waiting, looking into the fire. He was quiet for so long she thought he had forgotten her, but then he said:
'Every time you use the cards to guide you, it opens a window . A new star appears in the sky, then it grows bigger and in the end it opens and through that window I see you. I hear your questions. I hear your thoughts. I feel your pain, your anxieties, your troubles. I know that you never use the cards lightly. Instead you ask about things which will change the course of people's lives, about things which will change your world to a better place, about things which will change you as a person, help you grow, encourage your spirit to shine. You know that to get a clear answer you have to ask a clear question. I know that the last five days for you were full of uncertainty and doubt, because you are sensitive to the world's currents, where there is increasing doubt and uncertainty at present . I know that you are in conflict with your father, and you are in the right to be so, not because he is wrong, but because by doing so you are trusting your own judgement, trusting your own spirit, you know where you stand and you are not afraid to say so.'
He stopped and took another sip, leaving Dee open-mouthed in astonishment. She might have worried had he chosen to reveal other thoughts but he was exactly right on these aspects of her inner world, and that felt surprisingly exhilirating, notwithstanding the perplexing thing that he had got into her head at all. People just didn't do that. Although .........maybe ...... Romany crystal-gazers, some gifted tarot readers, a handful of palmists and astrologers. Yet he seemed to be saying she had invited this channel, this bridge of thought, every time she used her cards, that she had summoned him by doing so.
'Is there no privacy?' she eventually replied. He laughed again.
'As much or as little as you want,' he affirmed, 'though if you want my help to continue, you might have to forego a little privacy just to keep the window open nice and wide. With the freedom of wisdom comes the responsibility to use it, as I'm sure you're aware.'
'So what are you saying?' Dee asked,' what are you really saying, why are you telling me this? I can accept what you've said so far, because it does make sense to me, in a strange sort of way, even though most people would just say you're weird. But there's another reason we haven't got onto yet, isn't there?'
'Well done. Remember I'm telling you what I know, to help remind you of what you know. But you knowing there's more, saying what you just said by asking 'what are you really saying?', is you instinctively trusting your knowing. And THAT is the point. So now we can continue.'
The stranger changed position on his log and poked the fire with a stick.
'You are right that there is more,' he began, 'there really is such a great deal more. Because you see, you really are at a very important point in human evolution.'
Carefully, strand by strand, he began to weave a picture of the world that left her at once dismayed, fascinated and inspired: dismayed as he showed her the earth's imbalance and conflicts; fascinated as he revealed the agents of healing and rebirth at work; inspired as he extolled the work of others, leaving her fired up to give support, to speak out, to take the strain, for healing to occur.
He presented what he called the account books of human progress, century by century, and the expenses incurred in extinctions and devastation. He summed up the debt owing to nature for the cost of returning the earth to balance, and pointed out how long overdue was the repayment of this debt.
He spoke of the responsibility of the world's religions, to allow from within the hearts of their own creeds the universal morality capable of rebuilding the very same future so jeopardised by factional squabbles. He tallied up their energy and vision waiting to be used so much more positively. He described shining opportunities lying dormant within vast repositories of wisdom until sectarian bickering could be put aside. He spoke of the poisons of revenge, hate, self-interest and jealousy, of the helplessness of fear, of the barren grounds of lethargy and intolerance. But always he revealed chinks of redemption, pointed out transformative potential and enumerated opportunities for progress. Time without number he mentioned awareness, clarity and communication, finally leaving her in no doubt that this choice, this trusting the knowing of potential or poison, was the pivotal crux in the life of every single human being.
The fire dwindled and was rebuilt a number of times as his world view slowly unfolded. From speaking to her in riddles, he was now clearly trusting her to absorb his knowledge, and to trust her own. Dee did little but listen and think and sometimes ask for clarification. As the firewood fell at last to the white dust beyond embers, the afternoon chill reminded her that winter had in fact only relaxed for the day, and was slowly returning. There came a few minute's pause, as if the stranger had finally had his say, then he got down on his knees and started a new fire. After listening to so much deep philosophy, Dee's logical mind felt tired, though other parts of it felt enriched and somehow justified and encouraged. Listening to him had been like recognising things she already knew, without feeling harangued or pursuaded, so she was now enjoying the new flames not as a student of a heady lecturer, but in the company of a new soulmate.
After a few minutes' more silence, a bird began to sing quietly and they both looked towards the melodious sound floating down from the oaks above.
'Tell me,' she asked eventually, haltingly, 'when we arrived here you said that I had achieved something no-one else had ever done. Everything you have said .......... it's given me a real understanding of a way forward in life .......... trusting my knowing, the bigger picture, balance, following things through with love and respect........ But what is it that I had achieved, before that? I don't understand, what is this thing that I've done?'
He looked at her, head on one side, with the smile back on his face, and said:
'You've worked out who I really am.'
'You have,' he said very definitely.
'More tea?' he continued, mischievously changing the subject, and quickly brewed up the kettle again. She pondered this new answer, and wondered how he could possibly know what she knew, when she didn't even know herself. She ran through the gist of the afternoon's conversation, applying the trust in herself he had clearly wanted to reinforce. So was he really a Romany? She was still unsure. A horseman without a horse? A very knowledgable man, for sure, someone who could enter the minds of others. But a name? An identity?.
She sipped her drink as she mused and the bird in the tree sang on with its sweet song, playful melodies bubbling and whistling freely. The tumbling of the stream down from the cave mouth provided a constant soft sound-blanket and the birdsong glinted like bright threads of colour in its peaty tweed. She closed her eyes and gave up trying to recognise what she didn't know she knew, and the harmonious play of sounds washed over her, mixing with the warmth of tea and fire, fueling daydreams of horses cantering down to the village. The honey-flavoured tea was comforting and the silence shared with this most unusual man a joy in itself.
The sound of hooves on the rocks woke her from her reverie, though at first glance she thought she must still be day-dreaming. The horse approaching was identical to the one she had just dreamt of riding. She turned excitedly to tell her companion, and felt a sudden anguish so surprising and so cold that it brought tears to her eyes. Any trace of fire was gone. The tripod, the black kettle, the other cup, all signs of occupation had completely vanished. Far worse than that, so had her new found soulmate.
'Gone,' she heard him say, as if from the cave mouth, but then it echoed inside her head. She was no longer sure whether it was his voice or hers. The only sign that any of it might have really happened, was the wooden cup in her hand and, in a roundabout sort of way, the horse. Even her warm wooden seat was now just a cold rock. She felt indescribably sad and very lonely, then suddenly ravenously hungry. A cold breeze blew through the clearing, carrying the damp of the stream and the cold of approaching evening. Everything had gone, and maybe, even, had never existed at all. Maybe she had just dropped off after the walk, and dreamt it all. But the horse came up gently and blew warm breath across her face, then waited, watching her patiently, standing alongside a boulder. Dee felt a small thrill of gratitude that the experience might not be quite over, clutched the wooden cup and, trusting her knowing, mounted.
They descended the valley at the gentle pace of familiar lovers. The horse picked its way carefully down the bank of the stream and Dee was very glad of its company and the warmth of its flanks against the falling dusk. They rejoined the track and later as they came to the spot where she had met the stranger, they stopped. Clearly she was being taken no further. Dee slipped off the horse's back, and unwilling to lose the warmth and contact, put her arms around its neck and stroked its flanks. Finally, for a second or two they stood together, nose-to-nose, then as Dee watched wistfully, the horse swung gently away and cantered back up the track. As the comforting smell of warm horse faded away, it seemed to be mixed at last with the faintest trace of that same smoke.
With a sigh she turned and walked down to the village. As the stars began to appear she wondered if he was noticing them too, and hoped that they would communicate again through the cards. As for who he really was, she wondered if her desire to know was obstructing her trust in her knowing. When she arrived at the village, the sign for Mallin's Lane shone pale in the roadside, and she saw with a smile that children had changed it to Merlin's Lane. In her garden the blackbird was sitting in the crabapple tree, singing secretly to himself again. He looked at her with one of his black, gold-spectacled eyes, his head on one side, still singing, till she could hold his gaze no longer. Indoors the answering machine showed three messages. Ignoring them all, she made herself some black tea and honey in the wooden cup and sat on the step to listen to the birdsong and drink in the peace of the evening. Again, the slightest smell of smoke drifted across the gardens, and with the dawning of realisation, the loneliness lifted and, at last, vanished altogether.
He is the epitome of spick and span, black and gold. She is elegance in a feather cloak of soft brown. The warm winter has been pregnant with spring for a number of weeks, and the court is preparing. The old and shabby is being disposed of. New lawns appear, it seems, as if the ones we saw in december's freezing fog, damp and flattened, had been lifted, shaken up, aired, fluffed up and brought back to life. As for colour, it's hard to say where exactly colour has been used, but a haze of blended tints hangs in the tips of all growth, like a suspicion of blood in water.
He is Sir Knight, chivalrous and cultured; she is his Lady Gay, beloved heroine of countless tales. Through their courtship, the world has been enriched with high ideals and romance. Their motives are the purest of human potential, their quest is the grail of divine union. They have opened the eyes of mortal people to the greater immortalities of human relationship, to the sacrifice of immediate gratification on the altar of a more selfless love. Their archetypal legend warms the hearts of everyone, child and crone, anyone with a heart to see.
She is the young woman sharing her elder sister's family life with a new wistfulness. He is her young dude in black leather. Something has magnetised their boy-girl connection from the pulsating mass of dancefloor humanity. Some mystery made them look at each other with the eyes not only of here and now, what you see is what you get, but with the inner eyes of what could be. It is a wave which she feels and begins to understand, she knows the beach it will leave her on. It is a wave they are both happy to ride, though he's not as yet ready for land. Surf's up and while she surfs too, he's happy. He will probably join her later if she quits the sea.
They are the kernel of most songs, most movies, most novels, most dramas. They are the ones we're allowed to fall in love with, so that we can enter into their 'will they, won't they?' world. They are both our surrogate lovers and our surrogate selves, living out our best and worst moments, from the despair of the 'course of true love never running smooth,' to the speechless rapture of the 'yes, at last, they will' first kiss.
They have arrived, they are poised, at the moment when hide and seek becomes infinitely more personal: when a routine, regular, daily child's game suddenly outgrows its skin and explodes into a bewildering tangle of unmanageable emotions; the moment when chase becomes kiss-chase; the moment when the touch of an innocent hand becomes charged with something as strange as a new sun being suddenly switched on.
There is a deep wanting to know in them, a wanting to know that is also a wanting to feel, a wanting to experience, a wanting to be who they are going to become. Sometimes the story varies. This knowing, feeling, experiencing, being, this departure from the state of unknowing, is at times an untimely forced march. In other situations there ensues a more leisurely trip altogether. At times the bridge back burns too quickly, too hot and dangerously to return to the safety of innocence, and moving on to repair and adjustment is the only option. At other times, the heart is already many miles ahead when the first step is taken, the imagination having crossed the line many a time already, and the fire on the bridge becomes a glorious sanctification of new experience.
However, far beyond conscious knowing, feeling, experiencing and being, a much deeper imperative is at work, one that would only desist if all life itself came to an end. And even then, give it a million years or so, and some stray amino acids would find a way of setting it all off again. Over the millenia, new life would untangle itself from the chemical soup to evolve and develop a new equivalent of what we have now: the gloriously complex and mind-bogglingly interconnected matrix we call nature. And if this imperative can do that from such a miniscule spark, isn't it a wonder we survive its eruption every spring? But we do. Because we are nature too, after all. We may think we control life more than any other species, but compared to the forces of nature we're just chaff in the wind.
Yet as well as force, there's a shifting balance here too, as the dance ravels and unravels, as the strength of attraction and desire flows one way and then the other. A balance of power, we might call it, though it's also an ebb and flow of appetite, a waxing and waning of wit and guile, a rise and fall in the imperative. A magical tapestry unfurls, with a constantly changing pattern and new colours to the fore from one moment to the next. The masculine and feminine, irrespective of male or female physicality, play out their roles in this drama as the story unfolds, and inevitably the wounded fall, the dominant expand, and from this carnage comes the knowledge of suffering, compassion, jealousy and exaltation.
He is the lord of spick and span, black and gold. She is queen of elegance, in a feather cloak of soft brown, and I'm caught as if hypnotised by their dance. I watch as the two blackbirds play this game around and around a small bush in the garden. She hops round in one direction, he hops round to meet her.She goes round the other way, so he does likewise, till she spies him coming round to meet her. Then she stops and retraces her steps. He does likewise, as if to go round and meet her again. Again she sees him and turns, but this time he follows her and they both dance round a complete circle. Then, for a change, she stops, turns and hops round towards him, and he turns and hops off ahead of her. Then they go back to the hide and seek routine. At any time, either one of them could fly out from the circle round the bush and leave the other on its own, but they seem to be enjoying this circling. They even seem to be approaching it with a sense of humour and creative invention in their constant changing of the rules. It is as if the interaction is just as enjoyable and important to them as the physical meeting.
Passersby, if they see anything at all, just see two birds hopping round a bush. But there's a bright connection arcing away here between birds and archetypes, nature and humanity, lighting up an emerging certainty that I am just as much a part of this deep cosmic dance as they are. We all are. We may like to think we're not, but that doesn't change the fact that we're all dancing in our own way, and as with any dance, even those without a communal movement, the greater the awareness between the dancers, the greater chance there is for more harmony all round.
This day begins to end.
A belly full of food means it was a good day. The day was warm, with sun on the feathers, warm air beneath the wings. Merleen is deep in the honeysuckle, brooding eggs. A day to sing about, from a good perch in the pear tree.
The gardener looks up at me and he whistles too. Then me, then him, then me, then him. He watches me and whistles. I sing, and he's a part of the warm garden I sing. He moves gently, and I have no fear of him.
He stops his whistling and walks away. He picks things up in his hands as he leaves the garden. He has gone and I am still singing. When I stop I listen to other songs coming from other gardens. It sounds like a good evening. Others sing their good evenings, I sing mine.
The daylight is changing now, the sun has slipped behind the hill, and I see shadows, patches of black. In the day those patches were cool and damp, good for hunting and hiding. Now they are changed. The dark patches bring fear, there are too many of them. They grow. There are more and more. I am the blackbird of this garden, but now I feel fear at the challenge of another blackness. My song changes. It becomes a warning. Others take up the warning. It sounds like they have the same fear, the same shadows. They are calling the same warnings.
The alarm rises. Others are flying now, checking their boundaries, trying to get a better view of the danger without getting caught. I must do the same. My tail starts to flick as I call. The shadows grow bigger. It looks like my garden is filling with intruding blackbirds, and I am afraid of their size. I call my challenge to them but they don't reply. In other gardens also challenges are being called. My tail is flicking with each call and now my wings are flicking too.
Each perch I fly to, there are more black shadows. In every corner, they are growing bigger and bigger. In some places two shadows are growing together to make even bigger ones, big bird shapes, big black bird shapes, big threat shapes, big danger shapes. The gardens are full of clamour, the black shadow birds are taking over, and we shout our worry and challenge at them. As the daylight gets thinner and thinner, we lose ground, they spread their wings from bush to bush through all the territories.
All this alarm, all this challenge, this outrage and noise, and yet, when we listen, still there is no reply. They just get bigger, softly. They don't fly around and challenge boundaries, they don't raise their wings, they don't flick their tails. They are still and quiet, just growing slowly. Their very darkness is spread so thin from place to place I can see through them now. The challenges have not been answered. There has been no scuffle, no wings have been beaten together. Their softness just brings an end-of-day stillness that begins to quieten the alarm.
I watch the darkness carefully for any sudden treachery. It becomes a long watch, and the sky's blue gets deeper and deeper and stars begin to appear. After some final calls of warning, the other gardens also go quiet, and different sounds begin. Hedgehog rustles from the stick pile and jackdaws talk among themselves as they fly high overhead in pairs to roost.
There is a perch deep in the beech hedge, and as if the big black bird shadows weren't there, I swoop right through one of them and find it. The darkness in here is surrounded and peaceful, almost something to sing about. I have roosted here before, it is familiar in its twisting twigs and grey bark. Just as I have also seen the black shadows before.
They don't worry me so much at other times. Something changes. Then I forget I will see through them and it all happens again and again, through every garden.