Bouncing along in Grandfather’s old Ferguson with his body belt drawn tight and his hair growing greyer, and later he’ll come home smelling of earth—because he has no choice. Because this spot is ours, this plot of soil, these acres of farmland. The lake, drained and turned into fields and banks. The marsh, Raven Fen, smoking like ashes and tinder as soon as the dry season sets in, the peat bog that can suddenly catch fire, smouldering and gasping in its depths, burning without a flame, glowing unseen, consuming everything from below until you dig trenches to cut it off.
This is our patch. We have no other.
This soil, observed by the sun and the ravens.
This plot beneath a sky criss-crossed by jet planes.
The tractor was scarcely visible, all you could see was the cloud of dust rising as he chugged past with the roller attached at the back. I got out the telescope and kept him in my sights for a good ten minutes, reluctant to let him out of view. Wondered what he was thinking about down there, what was going on inside his heavy head, why he kept licking his lips. Up and down with that infernal, peaty cloud all round him—length after length of the newly sown fields, back and forth between one ditch and the other, from east to west and back again.
The dust thickened into a dense, ash-brown mist as the telescope brought it closer. You could only make him out as a vague shadow inside the tractor’s roll cage: the peak of his cap, the pipe in his beard, the hands on the steering wheel, the hunched back.
There he is, you think. Sitting in that cloud, breathing all that pulverised organic material into his lungs, coming home and coughing and looking like a Soviet miner—those subterranean half-humans they showed on TV, just restored to the light of day with helmeted heads and fluorescing whites to the eyes in their coal-black faces. Because he’s got to. Has no choice. He’ll never get away from here. He can’t do anything else.
I panned slowly across the thousands of acres of reclaimed bog, from the football pitch to the south, past the clump of alders and the hay barns weathered to greyness on the other side of the Canal and over to the white arrow of the church spire where the sun always set at midsummer – – –
No, there was nobody else out there. Everyone had finished what they had to do. It was only Father left, in his cloud.
The fields, lying there waiting.
* * *
Sit on the stone wall and see how many different bird calls I can make out, waiting for the green woodpecker to show herself in her black hole, poke out her bayonet beak and at least say hello.
No sign of life. Dead as May Day in church. My greeny-yellow friend must have hacked out a home elsewhere, moved away and laid her gleaming white eggs in a dead pine tree instead. I had been sitting there for two hours, caught between hope and despair, swinging from one to the other, at my wit’s end, and now it must be dinner time at home, too.
What shall I do, I thought uselessly. Show that I’m me or swallow my pride and lay down my weapon. I nipped a leaf off the Lightning Aspen and sat there holding it in my pathetic girl’s hand. Compared the two sides of the leaf, studied the long, flattened stalk, the super-fine tracery of its veins, the irregular divisions of its blade, like aerial photos of paddy fields in faraway lands. The fresh leaf with its luminous green nerve fibers, as thin and fragile as the capillaries of an eyelid. The distorted yellow patch by the stalk, the rounded points and shallow serrations running along the edge.
I leant forward and sniffed it, put it on my tongue and took it into my mouth like a communion wafer.
The aspen and me, I thought. The least thing makes us shake.
Homo tremula. That’s me.
I gave a start.
The tractor heading this way, and no roller! So it’s dinner time, the hour has struck. Soon they’ll assemble in silence round the table and say a short grace.
Those heavy eyes on you.
Like something pulling at you.
You stay here, the voice ordered. You’re not to be owned by anyone, not even the person who begot you. Today is today. You can do as you will.
Walk, see, feel, listen –
It’s what you exist for.
I held the aspen leaf up to the sun, brought it gradually closer to my eye, little by little, and the veins turned into rivers spreading across a foreign land, waterways with natives paddling along in hollowed-out tree trunks among lethal caimans, rivers winding through steaming jungles where harpy eagles rose from the treetops with baby monkeys and sloths in their claws, sweeping off like their primeval counterparts on vast spreads of wing—
Again I was jolted back to reality. Father was sounding his horn—a long, insistent signal, as if he knew where I was and wanted to show me who was who.
Today’s not just any old day. You are you and I am me and I’ll come when it suits me. To the place you lot call home.
* * *
From a tree stump with a hundred rings:
If he drives the tractor into the Canal it’s your fault. You’ll have to live with it for the rest of your life.
* * *
I clambered down from the wall and shoved the aspen leaf in my back pocket. I went into the woods after all—to what’s mine. To see if the songthrush babies have hatched, track down the wood pigeon with her incessant cooing, find out where the wood ants are swarming on a day like today.
That’s how easy it is. Over the ditch and away.
I crept cautiously towards the young spruce where the thrushes lived, hid in a clump of thorn bushes a little way off and got out my field glasses. The male was babbling in the whitest birch and interspersed his fluting drills with oystercatcher and woodcock impersonations, whistled like a football ref and then did a retake, going for it all over again. And the female flew off! That means the eggs have hatched. A minute or two later she came back with a collection of worms in her beak, landed on the edge of the nest, distributed them among her brood and was off again.
I climbed onto a tree stump at about knee height and gently parted the branches. There were the babies in their smoothly plastered bowl of a nest, and all four had made it. Lying in a helpless, reptilian heap, their salmon pink throats gaping wide like fleshy collecting bags as if they thought I was going to feed them. The male had noticed me and didn’t think I belonged there.
Tix-itix-itix! came his alarm call. Tix-itix-itix!
He advanced on me branch by branch, his call so shrill that it hurt my ears. He looked about him frantically as if hoping for reinforcements or planning his attack.
‘Easy now, easy now,’ I said. ‘It’s only me.’
‘Can’t you see it’s me?’
‘Calm down a minute and I’ll go.’
I went back to my thicket, broke off some spruce branches to act as a roof and made myself invisible. Instantly, peace was restored. The male carried on fluting and singing as before and the female came up to the nest to check all was in order, which it was. So she darted off for her next batch of worms and the male began talking to himself as usual.
In a fortnight’s time, the baby birds will have flown the nest and be coping on their own. Fully qualified worm hunters and berry pickers with their sights set on France or Spain for the autumn.
And what about me?
I carried on towards the cooing wood pigeon, past Drowned Man’s Pond where a teal with Indian warpaint on his face was wondering what kind of animal I was. Took a detour round the badger sett and was soon in the oldest part of the forest, in among the ancient spruces, keeping their thousand needle eyes peeled as I padded past, waiting for every step I took. The tall, rough trunks of spruce, like pillars in a great hall with a murmuring ceiling. The faint wind filtering through the treetops, the goldcrests whispering somewhere up there.
Only a roe deer breaking a twig and bolting into the darkness, its white rump bouncing between the treetrunks.
The roe deer and the birds. Imagine living here. Turning into a spruce and growing bark.
I could hear the brook ahead of me now. The brook that rippled and flowed, however dry the woods and fields around – that tugged at you because it was without end. I looked down into the flowing water coiling round the rocks and stones in ever-changing patterns, impossible to keep up with. It’s forever running here, I thought, every second and no doubt even in the middle of the night. Running and flowing, eddying on the bends as if it was nothing, frothing white as soon as anything gets in the way. The least little protruding root-end turns into a frothy tuft, like candyfloss tossed by the wind.
Entranced, I looked down into the stream as it ran and ran and ran, never seeming to rest. New water kept coming, yet still it stayed the same.
The brook here in the forest—where did it begin? – – –
Don’t think like that!
Not about beginnings and endings, but just about what is.
Throw in a stone and make time stop.
I grabbed hold of a spindly alder that was growing right by the water but seemed to be dying anyway. I bent it over to use as a handrail and picked my way out to a rock in the middle of the stream. Like the Water Sprite, only without the fiddle and the dancing fairies.
Someone in the forest, not going home—
I put my hand down into the icy water and let it filter between my fingers, felt it sucking, tugging, numbing.
The aspen leaf, I thought.
I scratched a K with my little fingernail, put the leaf in the water and let it be carried away—out to the ditch that Grandfather and Father had dug, down to the Canal and off towards Marsh Pool through the narrow channel in the reeds, cutting straight across the long, thin bird lake, under the hundred-year-old echo of the humpback bridge, past the swidden land and the forest grazing, the water meadows and reclaimed farmland, through dark forest, outlying fields and boggy pools and all the way down to the coast, out into the mighty sea that you knew nothing about. Tens of miles over gliding black currents on the great waterway that never ends—
I can’t see it any more.
* * *
The pigeon cooed and called to me—a hundred metres away or a thousand, it was impossible to tell.
Hoo hrooo hoo hu hu – – –
I left the brook and went in amongst the hairiest old spruces, where the Tengmalm’s owl lived: the one with the eerie, dogbark hoot that frightened the wits out of people at nights. Through undergrowth and thickets and over broken barbed wire fences, down into a brushwood hollow and up again, round a big mound of stones and in the end I scarcely knew where I was. Nothing but the cooing to steer by. Lots of scrub, and twiggy branches to scratch you in the face—but suddenly a ray of light cut through the forest darkness.
A narrow, unassuming roadway, forgotten after some bit of felling perhaps, but there was no trace of wheel tracks. If the sun had not been in exactly the right position I would undoubtedly have missed it. A moss-covered roadway where overgrown rocks and tree stumps made soft little hillocks. Small branches left lying under the thick carpet made bumps that stood out like the veins on the backs of Father’s hands.
I took the roadway deeper into the forest with the sun on my back and my own shadow straight in front of me, as if showing me the way. The forest was as solid as a wall and the lighter roadway went on and on, jinked round an untidy bunch of boulders before emerging into a clearing I had never seen before.
An open space, almost like a circus ring, surrounded by huge spruces that seemed to be leaning in towards the hole at the top, watching over me and everything down below: the flat rock with the oak sapling beside it, the tree stump with springy haircap moss to sit on, the knot of birches on the other side, the little blueberry bushes now in leaf, the anemones with their flowers still white.
Stay here, something told me.
There is nothing here to be afraid of. No eyes boring at you, trying to get in. Just you and what is here, the forest murmuring its murmur, as it always has.
Now and forever.
Filled with a strange sense of peace, I sat down by the flat rock and brushed it clear, picked off some old spruce needles and partly rotted leaves and saw there was something written on it. Three letters that looked as if they had been cut using some kind of template or carved with a hammer and chisel, so clear and sharp were they, so perfect somehow.
I could make out a T and an A and a G.
No, there were dots in between: T.A.G.
Did he come here? Did he sit here, carving, when he was like me? Sometime during the war maybe, when Grandfather was in the asylum? Did he come here and chisel away? I ran my fingers over the letters, thought how old they looked, as if they had become one with the eternity of the rocks.
Something whispered: They are never going to disappear. In a thousand years from now, they will be the same. The oak sapling may become a tree and rot away, the stream may meander round more bends with every century that passes but the rocks will always be here, will never crumble away.
I felt suddenly light-headed.
I touched the letters again cautiously, as if they might burn me. I got out my bedroom door key and scraped away what I could of the ingrained lichens, and with a generous amount of spit and my sleeve I polished up his letters as best I could, trying to make them look good again.
T.A.G. down in the bottom corner, like the signature on a painting.
Father’s rock in the clearing that belongs to me—
You must never say anything about this to anybody. Not mum, nor anybody else, not a living soul. This is for only you to know.
I took off my shoes and climbed onto the rock. Took a few deep breaths and composed myself, as if to pray, squinted cautiously up at the heavens through the hole between the treetops. A few clouds paraded past. The wood pigeon cooed at a distance, the chaffinch and willow warbler trilled and sang, the robin made its urgent ‘tic tic’ and its high ‘tsweee’. And the spruces! Now I could see they were blooming as if we were in Paradise. Every treetop boasted an array of reddish-pink female flowers like gorgeous tropical fruits—the nearer the sun the plumper and deeper in colour, as if flushing with excitement, extending their damp carpels towards the heat of the sun’s rays.
Then there was a gust of wind, the spruces curtseyed and everything went silent and still as if at the snap of someone’s fingers. I filled my lungs with air and turned my face up the bright hole.
‘Yoo-hoo!’ I shouted. ‘Yoo-hoo!’
‘Yoo-hooo! – – –’
I cupped my hands into a funnel and shouted at the top of my voice, straight into the trees instead.
Into the dense forest and everything that lurked in there – and an answer came.
And it was no ordinary echo, rolling off and dying away, it was the forest saying it wanted something of me—as if in a dream that had yet to be dreamed.
[– – –]
This piece has been excerpted from The Ravens, which was originally published in Swedish as Korparna by Svante Weyler bokförlag (2011). First published in Great Britain by The Clerkenwell Press (2014).