This piece kept circling my mind after last weekend’s Uncivilisation festival, stalking me until I stopped and let it tell me its particular, secret story. It must be five years since I wrote it, perhaps more. Enjoy.
This is an excerpt from ‘The Falcon’s Child’, a novel.
We’re about 200 pages in.
Digger Gunn, having moved from the Suffolk countryside of his birth, has come to Edinburgh to find his estranged father. Dazzled by the city, he has all but forgotten his promised mission and his own complex past. He is barely 20 years old and the city is mesmerising him: it has cast its own ‘glam’ over him, but he is drawn again and again to run on the almost-wild hill at the city’s heart, Holyrood Park. On this Spring day, he encounters the memory of a falconer, and a falcon of his own dreaming whose fate is wound tight with his own…
HIS LUNGS ARE BURNING. He feels as if he is carrying two fiery wounds on his chest. Pain is marching through Digger’s body as he leans, hands on his knees, and wonders how, or even if, he will manage the next stage of the run. The chill wind cools the sweat quickly on his skin; he can tell that it stinks of the bodily residue of wine and cigarettes and coffee. For the hundredth time that morning, he remembers how easy this run used to be, and curses. He spits thick phlegm to the side of the path and straightens himself to standing again, feels the ache in his lower back as if he has sat slumped for a month without moving.
Running… He almost wishes that he could give it up, surrender himself to hedonism and sacrifice his body fully on the altar of intoxication, but the hill draws him back again and again like a good habit that he cannot quite kick. He knows that if he leaves it behind, it will be a defeat somewhere in his soul, that something will die that he is not prepared to kill. Knows too that it is not about the running, in the end, but something more important than health — the hill stands for something in the city that is simple and good and untainted with excess; to go to it, even if he has to crawl up its slopes, is a pilgrimage.
He is not even out of hearing of the Holyrood Park road, the city not yet fallen away into the windy slopes of the hill. On Arthur’s Seat, you don’t arrive until you know you are somewhere else, not quite the city and not quite the wilds. Your body begins to take on another vibration — perhaps it is the peculiar geology of the hill itself — and some internal muscle of psyche or soma begins at last to relax. Then you know that you are there, that all that came before was just the journey. It is a beautiful moment. Whether it is in the grassy saddle between the summit of Arthur’s Seat proper and the sheer drops of the Crags, where the wind whips tall grass around Hunter’s Bog, or on the far side of the hill amongst the ruins of long-gone hill forts above Dunsapie Loch, there is the dawning awareness that you have made a transition, that although you are surrounded by it, you are no longer truly part of Edinburgh and, should you never leave, will always dwell in some liminal place, a threshold. Wildness whispering at the cultivated door of your urban heart: Let me in, let me in, let me in…
He almost treads on the two bodies rolling in the grass, has to make an extravagant leap that is one-third caution and twice as much surprise. They are laughing, free, careless with drunkenness, but it is their colours that stop him — one is painted blue from head to foot and only barely clothed; the other is painted in thick white, wears a ragged bridal gown, smirched with stains of red and blue paint. They should be freezing, he thinks, but they seem oblivious.
— happy Beltane, shouts the blue man. Happy summer!
Digger remembers: it is the first of May. Last night he saw the fire on Calton Hill on his way home, exhausted from the restaurant; he would have gone up if he’d had the energy. Made half a step towards it and knew that he didn’t have it in him to pay his respects. Beltane… A colourful slice of Edinburgh subculture celebrating the end of winter with the marriage of a Green Man and a May Queen. Drums, fire, extravagant costumes, drink, psychedelics, ritual: bacchanalia. Edinburgh’s own one-night carnival of excess and liberation. Wild abandon and wantonness abound — the good fathers of Edinburgh don’t seem to know whether to claim Beltane as their own wayward, exuberant child or cast sermons of brimfire on its unrepentant Pagan nature. Thousands flock to it and celebrate until dawn in their own, untamed style.
He has been aware of Winter ending. In Edinburgh it comes like a miracle; the drop in the wind and the lifting of the constant lid of cloud, the way shoulders soften, bodies lifting towards the temporary joy of sunlight and the incredible greening of the trees. Only some deep death of the spirit could deny a body the power to smile at Edinburgh Spring, but it has come sneaking in with only a nod of recognition from Digger. Now, to see them marking it, praising the change that rescues the soul from the seemingly unending darknesses of Winter, he feels negligent. It is the only word for it. As if he has fallen asleep on some watch to which he was entrusted, he wants to say: yes, I am part of this. I was not oblivious. I know the clock of the seasons, too… But, regarding them through vision that shimmers with the rush of blood from his running, it is obvious — they are the ones celebrating, not he.
— happy Summer, he says, testing a smile. Happy Beltane!
They raise their bottles again, gone off again into a world beyond words; the ragged, colour-smeared bride pulls the blue man back down into the grass and Digger turns and runs onwards, forcing his body back into motion.
He cannot make the top of the Hill. Though his legs might have strength enough and his lungs — just — capacity for breathing, he no longer has the will for it. Runs instead on the gorse-flanked dirt path that skirts along one flank of it. The morning is becoming glorious and the cool wind dropping; for a while he runs on the flat path without thought, though the picture of the two of them in the grass flashes in his eyes, an unusual enough scene to stay with him, turned and turned again in his mind, a recurring image with every step.
He watches until the movements take his gaze into the branches of the scrubby tree next to him. A hawthorn, he sees, having to squint at the stubby leaves to confirm it. As ever, the words come to him: ne’er cast a cloot ‘til May is oot. Never cast off your clothes until May is out. Unless you’re covered in bodypaint, perhaps. He had always thought the words meant to wait until the month of May had passed, but remembers now — the hawthorn blossom is called the May. Don’t take off your winter clothes ‘til the May blossom is on the branch. The trees a surer guide to weather than the human calendar, so arbitrary as it is, peppered with the misleading vanities of Roman emperors whose interferences always meant little here in the far North of the world, beyond the extent of the Empire.He wonders then, what the calendar might have been before, aware suddenly in the company of this hawthorn how… unfitting… this other calendar is here.
— the season’s changed, Digger, says the old man. Can you smell it?
The young boy sniffs the air, cautiously, as if it might bite or turn on him. The man laughs. It is such a soft laughter, like wood-smoke in twilight, like the softness of beeswax in the heat of a summer’s day. Digger is not sure that he can smell anything at all, though he wants to, wants to show the falconer that he can.
— it’s in there, the falconer says. All the sprouting leaves and the flowers coming now, or getting ready to display themselves to the bees. That smell of cold earth has passed. All that wind of last week must have blown it clear away, I’d say, Digger. It smells like summer’s all getting ready to come prancing in.
Digger breathes it in again and feels it or imagines he feels it. Like the scent of the air is not felt in his nostrils, but in his chest. A lightness, almost more of an emotion than a fragrance.
— that’s it, Digger. So subtle. You have to stay so still to taste it properly, eh?
— it’s got a colour, too, says Digger, then flushes, thinking: how can a smell have colour?
— you’re right lad. Funny, isn’t it? What do you make of it?
Digger closes his eyes and breathes deeper, holds onto the bravery that the falconer has given him by not disproving his senses. He feels the softness of the air against his face and the freshness of it in his nose, in his lungs, full of life and possibility, both restless and still.
— it’s yellow, he says. Not bright like a dandelion or a buttercup. More like a cowslip or a primrose… Or blue, but light blue. It’s light, but it’s not… thin. Soft. Trying not to worry about the sense of his words. It’s like blossom, but it’s not so sweet.
He opens his eyes and looks up into the grey eyes of the falconer, deep as a sea he has never looked upon in life. They are shining.
— that’s just what it’s like, I’d say, Digger. I reckon I couldn’t have put it as right as that. You’re a wordsmith, Digger, so you are. It’s soft as a woman’s thigh, though don’t tell anyone I told you so! He laughs again and though Digger doesn’t understand, he laughs too, happy to be included in the falconer’s secrets. See Digger, the old man says after a while in which they stand in silent appreciation of the Spring. That’s the real calendar. There’s this modern thing of January, February, March and all the rest, and that’s handy enough, though it makes little enough sense to me. Good for knowing when you have to see the doctor or the magistrate, but not much else. Then there’s the sun and what he’s up to — I’ve more time for that. Whether he’s full in the top of the sky like some hero or skulking down on the horizon like he’s embarrassed by how weak his rays are. The solstices, the equinoxes, remember them? Have you noticed how the wind likes to blow really hard around the equinoxes and how the solstices never seem so hot or cold as they should? They’re about light, Digger, not heat, you see. And there’s the moon, too. Ah, the fickle moon and her ever-changing face. She’s one to watch — her calendar, Digger, always keep an eye on that one, because she’ll trip you up when you’re not looking if it’s a new moon and she’s wearing her dark veil, or make you crazy as a spring hare if she’s coming on full. Remember how you kept losing the spokeshave last time she was dark? And the time before that? It’s not bad, just a different kind of story. Oh, the moon, Digger — set your clock to her rhythms and you’ll understand why poets are like werewolves, why the best parties are on full moons. Well, perhaps not the best, but the wildest anyhow.
Digger letting the words wash over him, thinking: I’ll never remember all this. He wants to, wants to be wise in the ways of the Sun and the Moon like the falconer, but he is too young, too small a container to hold all but one word in a dozen at most. The falconer is silent and Digger thinks he will say no more, but just when the boy is about to ask him about werewolves, he speaks again.
— and there are the planets and the stars, too, Digger. All moving and turning — if you watch them enough, you start to feel like you’re living in the insides of a great pocket watch. Turning and turning and turning… He shakes his head. It’s an art, for sure, Digger, reading that calendar without going mad. He leans down, almost surprising the boy, lulled as he is by the words. But, see this, Digger, hear this now and you’ll remember enough to keep you straight. It’s all different, wherever you are. You’d have to carry an almanac the size of a whale to be ready for it all. So — and this is it — Nature, she does all the work for you, see? The birds and the flowers, the blossoms and the insects, the snow and the wind — they’ve all looked at all the calendars, you could say, and many I’ve never seen and they know when it’s the right time to blossom and sprout and fall and die, so all you’ve got to do is look at them and listen to the sounds and smell the air and it’s all there, around you. And whether it’s June or July, new moon, old moon, equinox or quarter day, you take the air in and that’s what time it is. It’s as easy as that, Digger, easy as just stopping and looking around at what’s really going on. That’s it, Digger. That’s the real calendar. He raises his eyebrows. What do you say to that?
Lying in the grass of Edinburgh May, the words come to his mouth clear as if he were still looking into the eyes of the falconer, the old man’s words like a spell kept safe from time, wrapped against memory until they come back to him there in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat.
The boy, mesmerised, can only say:
— is an almanac like an albatross?
And the falconer looks lost for a moment, then laughs. Laughs so easily, so hastelessly, that before he knows it, tears are running down Digger’s cheeks as he lies in the Beltane grass, tears that are both joyful in remembering and sour with the lost place of apple trees and the grey, grey eyes of the old man, laughing.
He does not want to come back.
He lets himself drift back to the grove, that holy, protected space, breathes in again the early Summer scent. The falconer rising to his feet and Digger following his eyes to search for Charys in the blue sky. The man crying out, hoya! Hoya! That breathless pause in which to witness the magic of words passing across the kingdom boundaries of man and bird, a time so weightless it barely exists; the pause between breaths or the moment before falling or flying. Then a streak of dark colour in the air becoming suddenly larger, taking form as Charys returns; the falconer lifting his arm in an easy movement just in time for Charys to grasp it heavily and utter her harsh croak of contentment. A flash of light across his eye as he regards Digger for a moment with the eyes of the wild, gathering his form into knowing whether he is food or foe or that other class of things that are better called ‘allies’ than ‘friends.’ The flash of his eye like a knife, so sharp it makes Digger sit up in the grass between the hawthorn tree, shiver, pierced in his heart by it.
High above, the crows are still making their crooked circles, the mackerel sky in its constant imperceptible metamorphosis. The day is warming up. Even a peacock butterfly is braving the world and Digger watches it drift in the air, caught himself in the currents of the past, a wind as invisible and unpredictable as any of the world.
When he closes his eyes, still there is the bright eye of Charys regarding him. As devoid of kindness or cruelty as a stone or a cliff-edge — the light in it more made of geography than mind, without hope or doubt, a feature of the landscape.