Deer

I wrote Deer around this time last year. The very excellent Ash Akhtar read it and decided to do something with it; this short film is the result. The narration is by Chris Fairbank (yes that one) and Ash made the beautiful music under his Suborno moniker. It’s a privilege to have been involved.

You can see more of Ash’s fabulous films and some of our collaborative work over at the Fervent Arts YouTube channel.

Ranging in twilight’s palsied silver, at the summit of autumn’s blaze.
Acorn litter, balled under arches –
Demosthenean props, rolled around the woods’ bronzed gape.
Beyond this, nothing is said.
Instead, we go undeceived, suspended in the updrafts of the old silence.

Rooks roil westward, lint in the eye of the sun’s liquid falling.
We crouch at a field edge, thick with dewy foreshadows;
you gather chestnut husks, the needles lancing your palms.
Then: a studied tilt, a new pressure behind your eyes, and there
not ten feet away, belly-deep, scrape-hidden, a deer. A deer.

Before, I’d carry you out, out to sleep off the afternoon’s bright daydreams,
and the deer would always come. They were your anxious, peering avatars,
come to see this strange two-fronted stalker abroad in their crucible of beech-caught light.
Once, walking through a pixellated summer night, a deer watched us home,
A distant, timid chaperon of dusk’s rough palisades.

Now, as the woods shrink, as time shrinks, acre by sodden acre, they come less frequently.
But I feel them, a soft presence at the edge of things,
a modest, unspoken rapture.
We gather each other, and for the briefest moment I wonder if you’re going to stay.
Not yet, I think; not just yet.

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Solstice

We go out late, drawn on by the promise of light.

A farm’s edge: we stand transfixed by the pale blaze of evening, the rolling land, the caged thunder of pigs; skylarks hang in the middle air, dancing, dancing above the stiffened spires of green wheat. We climb a hill, hands brushing chamomile, brushing the new flush of borage. At crest, we watch the wind press the barley; a bristling song of inconceivable patterns. A hare, massive in its hind quarters, quivers, plays, circling beneath the squat bulk of a grain silo. I catch you in the corner of my eye, rippling in your skin, alive in the growing arc of your consciousness.

We crouch in a lane of wet shadows, tracking the wheezing hum of yellowhammer song. We pull ourselves along, reeling them in. There: crisscrossing, conflagrant in the choirs of an ash crown.

The day closes, the solstice sun at the cease of its long, long falling. Trees gather in half-night. We strain against silence, hoping for owls. As we break for home, a deer coughs breathsmoke at the soaring moon.

Bovine hades

I came upon them in the cavity of dusk –
A mass of huddled damp gravity,
Stertorous in the grip of their great ongoing labour.

The thought came, as it often does in their docile presence:
What goes on in that occluded brain?
What gilds the soft furnishings suspended above the churn of that ruminating mouth?

In my darker hours I have wondered,
Wondered what it would be like to be trapped there.
Pressed up against a great wet eye, unable to attend.

Even on an evening such as this,
Cool and copper, at the cusp of the season’s turning,
It is a hell too fresh to dwell upon too long.

Thrall

Ranging in twilight’s palsied silver, at the summit of autumn’s blaze.
Acorn litter, balled under arches –
Demosthenean props, rolled around the woods’ bronzed gape.
Beyond this, nothing is said.
Instead, we go undeceived, suspended in the updrafts of the old silence.

Rooks roil westward, lint in the eye of the sun’s liquid falling.
We crouch at a field edge, thick with dewy foreshadows;
you gather chestnut husks, the needles lancing your palms.
Then: a studied tilt, a new pressure behind your eyes, and there
not ten feet away, belly-deep, scrape-hidden, a deer. A deer.

Before, I’d carry you out, out to sleep off the afternoon’s bright daydreams,
and the deer would always come. They were your anxious, peering avatars,
come to see this strange two-fronted stalker abroad in their crucible of beech-caught light.
Once, walking through a pixellated summer night, a deer watched us home,
A distant, timid chaperon of dusk’s rough palisades.

Now, as the woods shrink, as time shrinks, acre by sodden acre, they come less frequently.
But I feel them, a soft presence at the edge of things,
a modest, unspoken rapture.
We gather each other, and for the briefest moment I wonder if you’re going to stay.
Not yet, I think; not just yet.

Encounter, two

May climbed cold into June. Grey skies abounded; thin drizzle fell. Then came a period of sun, warm enough to coax us outside. Yet the overarching chill remained, like a vaulted roof high over everything else. In the shade silver birch catkins trembled; people shivered and clutched themselves, looking awkwardly at the skies.

I parked on Peak Lane, abandoning the car on a field margin, hoping nobody would mind. The land rose sharp and wide before me, cresting into a beech wood still dense with anemones and the flattening stalks of late-flowering bluebells. Beyond the wood was a series of interlocking fields, bordered by tall blossoming cherry trees in the canopies of which jackdaws squabbled and bombed. The air hummed.

In one of the fields, hidden from sight, there’s a great hollow in the ground – like an eye socket in the skull of the earth. Its origin is uncertain. This area was quarried extensively for London clay in the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, so perhaps this isolated spot was rich in clay and abandoned once the supply had been exhausted. It does have the feel of an excavation. Or perhaps it’s a naturally occurring phenomena, an arena for unknown forces, unknown geological pressures.

During the colder months, when the surrounding meadows are balding and brittle, the cavity puffs cold air, drawing warm bodies to it. You stand in the updraught at the southern brow, the hole yawning beneath you; to the west it falls further away, ending in a great beech and hazel clothed bank, choked with flint; to the east there is a gradual incline upwards, the earth rising to meet the level of the fields around it. It’s probably no more than a 100 metres long but has the impact, due to its incongruity, of something much larger. I keep coming back.

Ramsons

Ramsons

Now, on the first warm day of the young summer, I had to wade to the site, through meadows that were thigh high with grasses and dandelions. The southern lip was dense with spring growth, barring entry. I found a gap at the eastern end, and entered into an impassably dense nettle den, amongst which flashed small stands of yellow archangel. To the north of me, through the low forest of nettles, were great washes of flattened ramsons stalks, as if they’d been trodden down by some lumbering mylodon; but here and there patches remained in flower giving the sense of a hovering blanket of mist. And then there was the smell – over everything, contained and intense, hung a pall of garlic, the air raw with it. I backed out of the tangle and headed along the eastern lacrimal wall of the socket, spying a desire path cutting through the grasses in front of me. The path led into the cool interior again, but now I was beyond the forest of nettles and into a clearer space, dominated by a rising bank out of which rose an oak and two massive ash trees. Around the base of these lay strewn the remains of the ramsons carpet. The stench was, if anything, even more over-powering here, scouring the back of my nasal cavity and reaching into the pit of my stomach. The silence was total, punctuated by the what seemed incredibly loud drumming of a woodpecker and the soft flutey trills of a greenfinch, high in the branches of one of the ashes. I sat in a cradle of exposed roots and waited. And waited.

What draws us back to certain places? I’d found myself thinking about this curious hollow at various times, feeling its pull, its promise. Even now as I sat, plagued by dancing columns of gall midges, there was the sense that something was going to happen. Time passed. Nothing came – nothing beyond the midges, the woodpecker and the distant bubbling conversation of a tawny owl. I decided to leave, but instead of following the desire path I went the other way, and clawed my way up the steep bank and along the northern ridge using exposed roots as handholds. As I approached the western end, the hole now opening deeply beneath me, I heard the muted chaos of what I assumed was a blackbird, rootling in the underbrush for grubs and worms. It was darker now, and as I squinted into the cool gloom I saw there, no more than 20 feet away, a young badger, snuffling in the flattened stems of the ramsons carpet. I can only assume that due to garlic scent blindness, and my position high above him, that he simply didn’t know I was there as he paid me no attention whatsoever. I sat for 15 glorious minutes, watching his progress through the green garlic shagpile. Occasionally he’d stop, either to wolf down a bulb or a grub, or stop for air, sneezing softly, dog-like – but not once did he look up, or give the slightest inkling that he knew I was there. It was like a short period of unexistence, something akin to JA Baker’s wish to blend into the natural world and ‘to let the human taints wash away in emptiness and silence.’ Eventually, obeying some unknowable Delphic patterning of pheromones, he changed his direction and hoovered off in the direction of the eastern shore. I had a vague notion to follow, but preferred the idea of simply sitting for a time and slowly creeping back into existence. The sun had set, and in the shadows it was like sitting inside a cool silvered chamber. The hollow had given up a smattering of its secrets. I’d be back.

Encounter, one

Whiteley Pastures, a Wednesday, mid-afternoon in May. Another week of closed-in skies and chilly easterly winds, like a breath-remnant of what gripped us in March. The woodland rides are slow in their coming-to-life. Sprigs of as yet unopened cow parsley sway above the last of the celandines and anemones; beneath these rises a tentative new carpet of dog violets, herb robert and the emerging purple fingers of bugle. Most of the trees are now in leaf, but it’s still possible to come across near-naked oaks and sweet chestnuts. We have nothing to gauge the lateness, no almanacs to refer to, but there is talk – things feel late, in abeyance. Alongside the long straight logging path there are deep runnels; these have been full with rust-coloured water for over a year since the coming of the rains last spring. They are starting to empty and reveal their depths. The earth beneath is stained, heavy like wine-dark clay.

I stop for a time at a thigh-high pile of birch logs, left over from last year’s felling. The bark is stripped in places, the wood soft and stained; the rest is thinly silver, pocked with black eyelets or furry with lichen. The logs are damp to the touch, but as a whole they form a kind of welcoming rough tabletop. I edge backwards onto it and lie down, listening to the echoing madman-in-his-cell call of a song thrush. I drift off.

I wake befuddled and slowly raise up, noticing a dark smudge out of the corner of my left eye. In one of those odd moments when a second becomes something architectural and we’re able to roam about inside it, leisurely gathering sense impressions, I marshal enough data to realise it’s a snake, a black snake at that, coiled in on itself, its head resting on a the thickest part of its trunk. At the walled end of that second I guess that it must be a grass snake, recently out of hibernation, bloodwarming in what passes as the final days of spring. I notice the lack of neck collar and the near-absence of the repeating diamond scales. Melanistic. It’s a melanistic grass snake. Around this welter of observance is a chamber of something else, something from further back in my brain, something shrieking ‘snake!’ I jerk my leg away, and the snake, reacting to my lumbering frame, hisses (or do I imagine a hiss?) and is gone, gone into the depths of the woodpile.

Needless to say, I’ve been back several times for another sighting. The log pile is crowded in now, beset on all sides by encroaching brambles and sedge grass. It looks oddly dwarfed. If the snake is there, it’s keeping quiet, and I daren’t lay down again. Just in case.