Chapter Fifteen: Nightingales, and a Short Journey Through the Darkness
I’d been witness to the death of a four-hundred-pound boar in a snowy field, but not every encounter I had with the Sussex fauna was violent. On a startlingly warm day in early December, Joan and I were digging the last carrots from the kitchen garden, which really was—well, step outside the kitchen door and there you were—when I spotted a sparrow-sized grey bird with a red breast, shaded toward orange.
As I watched the tiny bird, it struck me as an odd little flyer, energetically fluffing its feathers, hopping from one foot to the other along the branch of an ancient and nearly barren pear tree as if it had some important message it couldn’t wait to deliver.
“What is that little bird?” I asked Joan.
“Ah,” she said. “You don’t know? That’s Robin Redbreast.”
“That’s a robin?”
Joan was puzzled. “That is what it is,” she said. “Shouldn’t it be?”
I explained to her that the robins I was familiar with were much larger birds, the size of—I pointed to a starling perched further along the fence—“that bird.”
I’d never seen a starling before, either. The millions of offspring of the sixty breeding pairs released in New York City’s Central Park in 1890 hadn’t yet reached Northern British Columbia (I would find one at the Arctic Divide in 1992). In 1962 I didn’t know that they had recently arrived in Vancouver, where they would breed so quickly and in such numbers that within a quarter century there would hundreds of thousands of them nesting under every major bridge. I didn’t know, either, that the population of robins on the West Coast would decline precipitously as the continental starling population reached 200 million.
For all that, it was one of those rare instances in which my ignorance wasn’t significantly greater than Joan’s. She didn’t know that North America’s robins were different from English robins.
It happens that both robins are thrushes, and their adult plumage is similar in colour. But that’s where the similarities end. The English robin is an aggressive little bird, running out not just other robins from its mating territory, but most other birds as well, many of them significantly larger.
The larger, more docile North American robin has been migratory in the colder North, but localized in milder environments. Like its cousin the bluebird, it has been a victim of the European starling’s steady invasion, although in some areas, often with the help of human intervention to control starling populations, it has learned to cope with the intrusion and its local populations have returned to near pre-invasion levels. The non-migratory English robin, tiny and robust, has no true competitors, and has a range that stretches from North Africa to western Siberia.
As we worked to clear the carrots, Joan told me a little about the Robin Redbreast nattering away at us. He—it was a male—seemed unmoved by our proximity, alighting near us in the garden to harvest the insects our digging was exposing. “If I had a worm to feed it, it would cheerfully sit on my finger,” she said. “That one has been around the garden all summer, and is quite tame.”
The “redbreast” part of his name, she went on, precedes the “robin”, and both came from the ancient English habit of anthropomorphizing everything. As she talked, I remembered the frightening story from my childhood about the babes in the woods and began to make adjustments to it. As the children wandered deeper into the woods, it was not now the rough coniferous bush that surrounded my hometown, but the lush deciduous forests of the Sussex Weald. And the robins that covered the children with leaves when they died were now from the family of the bright little bird a few feet from me.
“What,” I asked suddenly, “does a nightingale look like?”
I explained as best I could that my experience with nightingales was strictly limited to the poetry of Shelley and Keats, which she’d recently discovered I’d read less of than I’d let on. I confessed that I had not yet heard the nightingale’s song, and that I imagined them as large birds, the size of owls but more delicate, with iridescent black plumage that made them seem as though they were wearing shimmering evening gowns on the way to a fairy ball.
Joan laughed softly. “They’re not much bigger than Robin Redbreast here, nowhere near as pretty, and very timid. It’s why they sing at night, I think. It’s the males who sing then, and they’re looking for mates. During the day they’re afraid to attract the attention of other birds.”
“What about skylarks?” I asked, as we carried the unwashed carrots into the kitchen.
She suppressed a giggle. This was only a few days after Ronald’s destruction of Shelley, during which she’d been carefully neutral, although she did remind me later that I didn’t always have to take him seriously, and that what he’d said about Shelley was one of those times. Now she pulled a little book filled with elegant line drawings of Britain’s birds from a kitchen shelf and handed it to me. “Look for yourself,” she said. “But I haven’t seen a skylark here in years. I think the sows’ foraging habits disturb the nesting sites they prefer, and they’re very particular.”
I read the birding book carefully and kept it nearby as spring advanced in the Sussex landscape. But I didn’t catch sight of a skylark or of a nightingale or set eyes upon one. It wasn’t until 2007, while I was wandering through the World War I battlefields in northern France that I heard and saw a skylark. When I did, I didn’t quite get what all the fuss has been about: tweet, tweet. Give me a North American robin at twilight. And anyway, Jack Kerouac and Shelley notwithstanding, isn’t unpremeditated art an oxymoron?
Maybe my poor attitude about this sort of thing is part and parcel of me not being the sort of writer who spends time sitting “in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds”, which is what Shelley thought poets were supposed to do. Or maybe it’s because of the special way I experienced the darkness Shelley spoke of.
One afternoon not long before I left Sussex for the second time, this time not just to travel on the continent but to return to North America, Ronald sent me out to clear the sows from the north shelter so that several of them that were close to farrow could be brought in to the supervised sheds. I was, by that time, an experienced swineherd, at least in my own mind. The reality was that I’d gained just enough expertise to become overconfident and careless, a character weakness that has dogged me most of my life. Either way, I strode confidently across the muddy north field and charged into the north entrance of the shelter without a thought in my head, banging my stick against the corrugated metal of the roof as I advanced into its darkness. There was the predictable grunting and squealing of the sows as they complained about this disturbance to their leisure, and ahead of me I could hear them starting to move even though I could see nothing except a sliver of light from the distant opening at the other end of the shelter. A split-second later, my head clanged off the slope of the shelter roof as one of the sows, late in getting to her feet, sideswiped me.
I landed face down in a pile of heavily perfumed straw, not quite dazed, and scrambled to get myself upright in case I’d bypassed another lazy sow ready to treat me as roughly as the first had. Stumbling ahead, I ran into the hind end of a sow, and put my broomstick to her backside. Then, remembering that she hadn’t deliberately knocked me down, if she was in fact the culprit, I rattled the broomstick along the roof corrugations several times instead.
There was an odd explosion of grunts and squeals in front of me, and among them was one that sounded ominously different from the others. It was a sound slightly lower in pitch, without panic in it, and somehow, filled with a menacing irritation. Uh-oh.
I repositioned my stick to use it as a prod, poking it hard at whatever body obstructed me. As I did this, it came to me that I had no idea where the Landrace boar was. I’d assumed that he was in the south field because Ronald hadn’t specifically told me that he was in the north shelter. But maybe Ronald himself had forgotten where the Landrace was, or assumed that I was aware of where he was, which I was beginning to think might be right in front of me, no more than a metre or so away. I tried to recall when the boar had last had his tusks clipped, and I was wondering how quickly the tusks grew and realizing I didn’t have the answers to these suddenly crucial questions, and while I was thinking that I was shouting louder and louder at the sows in front of me, alternately prodding at them and banging at the roof and hoping to hell that doing this would be enough to keep the Landrace boar from turning and charging, which I wouldn’t see coming until he hit me, all four hundred pounds of him, and then I would be under his sharp trotters and within the range of his tusks, whatever length they were, which possible event was compounded in its direness by the fact that I was still a long way from the exit and the boar would have me at its mercy for a long time before Ronald realized what the commotion was about—if he realized what it was about at all, by which time I might be a very messy bag of blood and broken bones and lengths of intestines slithering around in the stinking straw of the shelter.
There was nothing I could do but keep yelling and prodding at the bodies obstructing me, and ratcheting my stick along the roof corrugations. If I turned and made for the entrance I’d entered by, the boar would sense my retreat and charge, in which case he’d hit me from behind well before I reached the exit, and a hit from behind would render me more helpless than if he hit me (again) from the front or side where I would at least have my hands to defend myself if he hit me head on and knocked me down, and yes, I was aware that these were not good alternatives, and so I would have to try to stay on my feet whatever direction he hit me from, which would, wait a minute, put the boar’s head and his tusks at roughly the same height as my testicles, and that thought brought on an adrenalin bellow that might or might not have betrayed my terror, and at exactly that moment my hand touched something warm and bony and covered with drool, and on instinct I brought my knee up as hard as I could, made a direct hit on something very solid, and there was a deafening squeal of distress and a rumble of movement I could feel but still couldn’t see, now crouched over slightly and prodding the darkness in front of me as viciously as I could, thankfully hitting nothing, but no, there was another obstruction, this time softer and so it must be one of the sows broadside to me, but no, maybe the boar was readying for another run at me and I stepped forward and with a baseball swing brought the broomstick down on an angle against what I hoped was the boar’s skull, heard the deep roar that told me I’d guessed right, and I was nearing the entrance or was this the exit, and yes indeed, I could see that it was the Landrace boar I’d been tangling with, and he was close enough again that I could touch him, still broadside, trying to position himself for another charge, but now I could see him well enough to prod the shoulder he was trying to turn toward me, and the prod made him turn in the other direction, toward the exit, the mouth of the inverted culvert that was the closest my little life had come to the Underworld, and I realized that I was going to make it back to the upper world because the four hundred pound Landrace boar was now turning away from me, and in a few steps more we’d both be out of the shelter and he was making one last attempt to turn on me and I kept at him, wham, wham across his shoulder, the one he was trying to turn.
And then we were in the open, in the world. I’d escaped from this underworld and from the Landrace boar, now able to veer off from the shelter’s entrance and run toward the relative safety of the open field, away from the threat and noise and stink, but as I sucked in the clean air I stopped where I was. Instead of fleeing, I listened to a roar of my own, not of triumph but of relief and terror and joy utterly fused, and I wondered—because I had been taught to walk and chew gum at the same time—what went on in the mind of the Landrace boar when he heard it. With his opportunity to disembowel me squandered, did he think I’d outsmarted him, if “smart” can describe having survived being stupid enough to enter a pitch dark half-buried culvert with an unusually aggressive boar inside it. Or was the boar’s mind wandering beyond the toxic myopia of his testosterone: Might it rain? Does the field run all the way to the horizon? Which way will my feet take me if I just move one after another, in no particular hurry?
— 30 —
(Ed. note: Chapter 15 is the concluding chapter of Brian Fawcett’s The Sussex Variations, or Two Boars. The entire manuscript remains available on the website. Dooney’s will next begin posting the companion manuscript (to the Variations), The Martian Invasion: A Love Story, edited by Karl Siegler.)
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.