Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Migrating geese

The end of our overwintering

It was Easter week.
We took my father-in-law’s ashes hundreds of miles north
to the country in which he had not lived for fifty years.

In the kirkyard where his parents and their parents are buried,
my wife and her brother lowered his casket into one of their graves.
I spoke the set confident words
and fingered the first bits of sandy top soil back in.
Some of the respectful semi-circle murmured consent.
A Council workman armed with a risk assessment
slid in to cover the hole and eliminate a trip hazard.
The bright sun picked up green tips of spring speckling every shrub and hedge.

He had traced his great great grandparents
and knew all sixteen had been born and died within ten miles,
each within sight of Bennachie.
So, late that afternoon, we were in another isolated kirkyard
with his family history paperwork in hand.
We found four of them within a few feet of each other.
One stone had fallen, the other was encoded by lichen,
but we resurrected and deciphered what he had once transcribed:
Diack and Souter, the strong Aberdeenshire names
which he and his father carried as the middle parts of theirs.
The low sun slanted across the fields to the hill marked by streaks of late snow

At first we did not note or recognise the call of the geese.
It was simply part of the background noise of the day:
the reproof of the landlady as she turned the breakfast television back on;
the jostling of his children (‘we came over the old pass despite the clouds’,
‘we came along the coast because we’d found out where the cheapest petrol was’);
the beeps and ringtones of his grandchildren’s phones;
the condolences of his friends (‘a good man’, ‘this sad occasion’,
‘it was what he would have wanted’).

But then the noise broke through, and at the gate we stood and heard and watched.
Somewhere to our east skeins of them rose and twisted and formed.
Thousands of them called and swirled and massed.
Distant drifting smoke hardened into squadrons passing overhead.
Their single purpose and instinct and longing was so palpable
that the sky strained and buckled and split open
revealing winged creatures with their necks stretched out like trumpets before them
and all the din of their calls their tuning up.

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