When I was a child I was lowered by rope from the cliff tops of my island to gather the eggs of puffin, gannet and fulmar. The birds were angry about this thieving, but I flapped as much as they did so as to drive them off. Sometimes the eggs would tumble from my basket. The rocks far below would be smeared then with the vivid yellow of my guilt and I would be beaten by my father, afterwards, for my carelessness. I knew no other life, at that time. We none of us do, as children. I would run and hide in small secret places, and retreat into the cave-safety of my mind.
It became too difficult for us to find enough food to survive on the island, and when I was still not fully grown I was evacuated to the mainland, along with all the others. I have been told I was one of the last 36 residents, but the number means nothing to me. I did not know anyone on the island outside my immediate family and afterwards I found that I could not be with more than three or four people at a time; it proved impossible for me to breathe where more were gathered together. Finding I needed unfettered space around me I decided to remain alone.
My chosen companion in this life was a cat. He asked for no more than regular food and rewarded me with sweet purrs and by twining his body, once, twice, thrice between my legs, in a kind of dance. We had between us an understanding that the birds were entitled to their lives as much as he and I. They lived in the gardens around our house fearing nothing from either me or my cat.
I planned that after my death I would return to my childhood home on the island and make my way as the wild creatures do. Without the burden of the human body it would, I knew, be easy to do that. I had already started practicing. Sometimes in the crepuscular morning hours, before other people were awake, I would leave my own body and enter that of a bird, where I sang his song, quite softly, before he himself was ready for the new day. I thought of it as an exchange, a dance between us equivalent to the one in which I engaged with my cat. I learned to do this first with robin, thrush and blackbird, birds whose songs I studied meticulously, listening, singing and listening again, over and over. I was able to sing these songs as well as any. But these are birds of garden and field. They do not fly far from home and, most particularly, they do not fly over the seas.
I learned much as well from swallow, swift and house martin, not least the way to swoop fast and low. But these birds travel south in winter, to climes unfamiliar to me. The hot sands would not have been a suitable place for me. I knew that my home would always be in the north lands. My next and final lessons were with the owl family, the ghostlike creatures of night and the half light. I sallied forth in the twilight hours, learning their ways. Then came the final transformation. How it took place I cannot say, for no human knows the moment of his death.
Should you go to my island – there are boats now that take people on circular trips, though you cannot land – you will see that the cliffs are once more covered with puffin, gannet and fulmar nests, their eggs safe from human predation. The noise will be prodigious, as they guard their chicks from skua and snowy owl. Watch out for the approach of one of those majestic birds. They are there, I can assure you. You might, if your eyes are sharp, even see me.
CATH BARTON is an English writer who lives in Wales. Her novella The Plankton Collector will be published in September 2018 by New Welsh Review. Cath is on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring programme, working on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch. https://cathbarton.com @CathBarton1
Image: jo vanel via Pixabay