Bliain: Leap Year
When I awoke on the extra day that this mirrored, mirroring year gave us – it was to the Winter – come back to me again so fiercely; full of ice – and dancing, piercing light.
The week before, following two unbroken months of harrowing storms – I had held my breath, and silently cleared space inside of me – making room for the light of Spring. That aul’ man of darkness, the King of decay, was on the way out, I was so sure of it I nearly wept with relief. The sodden, lonely fields had had enough of his type – we all had; for many a moon to come. There had been sun – full, ancient – for only a finger less than a handful of days, in the run up to the final, spectral day of February; so to find the ground outside my rotting , rattling window white and glistening like a dreamed fairy-tale – shocked me right to my bones.
Winter – ghost-trace, moon-white, silent as the unimaginable moments after every storm – had arrived back to the laneway. I took the jumper back down from the top shelf, hauled out two pairs of socks, and dragged my tired body outside – into the space created by a day that is neither here nor there, neither real nor imagined; a day more hidden inside of, rather than existing outside of, time. My first Leap Year on this isolated laneway, by the central Bog-land, in the quiet, solitary, heart of Ireland. Frost and ice, light and silence; crow-song that echoed all around me like a keen for something not quite lost.
We arrive at the Milking Barn, the dog leaps ahead of me, as always – to find a shadow-show being played on the old tin sheets – blue as the sky now is, and just as exquisite; just as delicate. Grasses touched by diamonds; making silhouettes of their ethereal forms, as wrens flit from the gaps in a grey stone wall, into the thorns and brambles. The light and the ice are in it together; this thin, spare day exists, it feels – only in the space that lies before my shivery, grateful hands, as I try to record it all on my phone, doing no justice whatsoever to a single drop of it, a single drop of it at all.
Normally we stay here, in this space behind the gate, in front of the stream, for only a minute or two. I circle the perimeters as the dog sniffs the shit of whatever creatures have spent the planet and moon-lit hours there; the night before our morning. Today, though, the light that has enveloped the milking barn is such that I can see no possibility of leaving it; its pull on me is like something else that I always thought had no equal or rival. The light refracting off freshly born frost, against a backdrop of broken, abandoned machinery – is calling to me, holding me in place. The light of the 29th of February this year, as if in some surreal and beautiful twist of time and place; is holding me in place like the Atlantic Ocean normally does, even though I am now further away from it that I can ever possibly be on this hinterland rock – at the very edge-land of Europe.
And so I find myself at the close of February 2020, in an utterly middle place, on a day in betwixt – desperately waiting for Spring to take the place of Winter – but rapt by the Winter’s light.
the light the light the light the light; THE LIGHT.
The light that I know I will never quite be able to name, to capture, to hold in my hands; this light whose veins course through this isolated space like a river making its way to the sea. And so, there – on that winter-fabled, frost-guest morning – I start to explore the Milking Barn, and the outhouses all around it; those wee hidden nooks, beneath fallen trees, and roofs caved in over the passing of the years.
I pass the brown and blue tractor, I pass the brown anchor-like, unidentifiable machine opposite the briars, and I duck into the middle outhouse – the midnight blue starting to come to fruit on the ivy – stepping over glass and thickly crusted dirt, caked into wet rubbish – and there is a single vein of that light making its way into the small rectangle. There they sit, in the left hand corner, calling out to me – like the sea does, even in the darkness – like the light does, even in the dead of Winter; like all gifts, they have come from a place unseen, and a time unknown. I do not speak their language; still, though, I look and I listen. Still, though, I bring my grateful hands down – in a prayer that needs no name on which to fall.
There are two of them, one is almost half the size of the other, and each has been as skilfully sculpted as the one beside it. The smaller is nestled safely inside the shadow cast by the larger one. They are not a pair, neither are they twinned with one another – yet their twoness, their togetherness, their unity – feels utterly impossible to deny.
I know that they have been crafted by the repeated movements of the bodies of birds.
Through the continued, measured actions of their wee fine forms – turning and shaping the material that they themselves have meticulously gathered – sculpting a home for themselves; using their own selves to make their own place. In this newly fallen, ice-reflecting, vein of light; I look at the two abandoned nests at my feet, as though I am setting eyes upon a kind of beauty that I have never before known, and that I will never quite be able to forget. I am not quite sure why but all of a sudden I am crying. I have taken my phone out of my work-jacket, and I am typing what I know for certain are the first words of something – something new, and unnamed (untamed?) – into my notes:
‘I will make of this Winter, a feathered nook.’
I step back outside, into the frost that is starting to disappear like a boneless ghost. Into the light that is still falling on the milking barn; like a gossamer dream.
Laethanta na Riabhaiche : The Borrowed, Skinning Days
I sat on the green, paint-chipped trailer by the red and cream milking barn beside my new home, for four hours on that extra day of February last month. I wrote by hand, until all the pale green ink in my pen had bled itself out onto the white page:
nesting, extra day, lost months, stolen time, flock, flight, storms, flooding, childhood, watching the crows gathering sticks on Bute until I missed my ferry, flatness, curves, hollow, frost, ghosts, roots, lightlightlightlightlightlight, solitude, LIGHT
I wrote for that extra day and for the three days that followed it – the first three of March – words that have taken on so much more depth in the weeks that made up the third month this year. On the 4th I went back to other words – review work that had deadlines – words that had a concrete shape, and that followed a clear line; unlike those new words. Those other words that arrived – unbidden –not quite fully formed, in the frosty light of a milking barn, a space that is not even nearly mine; an abandoned, borrowed place. On the 7th I sent off a review for an exquisite gift of a book – Sara Baume’s handiwork – the last thing that I would ever write before the whole world as we know it changed shape and colour. My journal for the 8th of March would show a dark, fog-grey line if I allowed myself to reread it, something about there being a gap between the known and the unknown, and no light with which to navigate. The days from the 8th of March until this one, for us in this northerly, island dotted part of the world, have been steeped in the full, unimaginable debris – of a storm that showed no sign of arriving; that shows no indication of letting up. At the exact point of the year, in many parts of the UK and Ireland, when the actual, measureable, recordable, nameable storms looked as though they were on their way out, a pandemic – unlike almost everything we have ever known before – arrived.
Spring came, and found us in behind closed doors – isolated and alone; those of us that can, and choose to, follow the advice we have been given. As if we have begun a second Winter.
Every single year, when the ending of Winter comes, I forget how fully I can be tricked by the light. Spring always seems to be just there, right before my eyes, and then the wind and the rain – the sleet and the snow – the light that I remember can only be the light of Winter. The uncertain, tumultuous weather that marks the passage from Winter to Spring on these islands often alights with us at the ending of March, and can stay right into April. We often witness a winter relapse, the embers of the darkest season not quite gone out; tended to – brought back to life – plunging us right back into the depths of the cold.
When the Spring Equinox came this year, it felt almost surreal how bright, how warm – how Spring Spring Spring – it was. Then, two days later – on the 22nd, we found ourselves at the start of ‘The Borrowed Days’ – where I am from, at least. In the North of Ireland we seem to do extremes in ways that other parts of the world never quite try to rival. In Scotland, and in the South of Ireland, the borrowed days mostly refers to the last two days or March and the first two of April, but in the North of this island, we have a tale of nine days; borrowed from April – to kill and skin an old brindled cow.
‘Borrow’: ‘To take or receive something with the implied intention of returning it to its owner or the place where it belongs.. One can be ‘Living on borrowed time’.’
‘To introduce words or ideas from another person or language into your own.’
In handiwork, Sara Baume writes of migration in a way that I have never thought of it before, and I cannot shake it from out of my insides: ‘There has to be one who rises first’ – talking of the individual bird, amongst an entire flock; the one that makes that first move. ‘There has to be one who rises first.’ I hope, and I trust, that she will not mind if I borrow these dancing, beautiful words – only for a wee while.
When a friend sends me help to identify the moth in my lockdown kitchen, and attaches ‘photos of other moths she has taken – what she is really doing is sharing her hope. She is reminding me, in the third week of isolation, of the night she took my picture in the bustling backstreets of Bristol, with my jacket completely covered in moths; in a December that feels three years ago – instead of the months it really is. She is saying: there are so many miles between us right now but I still see your moth, you still see mine. There are still moths, my friend is saying: there are still moths, and we still love them. She is saying: remember the resilience of small things. No matter how delicate you feel today, you have the wings to span vast oceans. What my beautiful friend is doing, is she is letting me borrow her deep wisdom – her gorgeous resilience; just when I need it the most.
‘There has to be one who rises first.’
When another friend sends me money, knowing that I am struggling and have no-one that I feel close enough to ask, what she is saying is this: I am with you. I am miles across the sea but I am there with you, as your shoulders finally loosen themselves from their hold around your neck; for the first time in days. When my friend asks later for me to send her images of my home, what she is saying is: I will come to you. I will come across the sea to you, and you will come to me, and we will make space inside our homes for each other; as we have done inside our hearts. My friend is really telling me that I am safe. She is telling me that my cupboards will never be empty, like the abandoned nest I have packaged up to send her; she is loaning me that simple, unbreakable knowledge: that promises that everything is going to be OK.
‘There has to be one who rises first.’
Sometimes, moments come in our lives when it is very difficult – almost impossible – to return things to the people and the places in which they are deemed as ‘belonging’, as per the definition of ‘borrowing’.
In this wee stone cottage, I have seven library books that I have no idea when I will be able to return. I have words that belong to friends that I should be carrying with me on my person next week, across the sea, to Devon – for a project two years in the making; rescheduled by the artist for next year, in the hope that this will all pass soon. I have a friend who is held in Italy with her new partner, with no clue when she will return to Spain. Maybe when she eventually does, it will be to collect the rest of her belongings, and take them to the new place she may have already begun to belong to. She is planting seeds there, in the place she found herself when this storm hit – on every surface she can find, and I know when I see her hands working in this way; she, herself is putting down roots.
There are seeds in this house that should already be in the soil outside – soil that should already have had all the roots and broken glass removed by a loaned digger that is in a yard, patiently waiting; until who knows when. I don’t really know where those waiting seeds belong right now. They are on top of a bench my partner made for sitting on in the garden; a patch of land he hoped would already be clear by now. The bench is made from parts of salvaged decking, built by the previous owner, that rotted almost right through in the decade that the house lay empty. I fell through that decking, on the Autumn Solstice, and took it as the house’s way of asking me if I was really meant to be there; in the house my partner inherited, in a place to which I have absolutely no ties.
This year, on the Spring Solstice – after I’d had two full days of anxious, fearful howling, hours given over to weeping like a baby – my partner took the rest of that decking, and built a bird-table. The day before, as we’d made our way as quickly through the Supermarket as we could – all of us showing fear on our faces, even through masks and scarves – he’d bought fat-balls and nuts; seeds of various colours and sizes. He didn’t say anything, he just put them in the trolley, on the conveyor, in the bag, in the van, into the feeders, onto the table he had built them.
When the birds came, I cried. I cried and cried and cried because of grief. Because of grief that is neither black nor white. Because of grief that is iridescent. I cried when the birds came because of grief that is all of the colours we already know, and all of the colours we do not yet know. I cried because of the loss, the fear, the worry; I cried for people and places – things and realities – that I both know and do not know. I cried because there is loss, sorrow and grief but there is still so much hope left, somehow.
I cried when the birds came because I finally felt safe, somehow. There were so many of them, of so many different varieties. There were so many of them, and they squabbled and fought, bullied and dilly-dallied; they ate and they left. There were so many of them, and they came to our wee house, to where the rotted deck used to be, and they ate the food we gave them. They were golden and black with red heads, they were brown, they were burnt orange, they were green and yellow, green and green, blue and green, black and grey, pink and pewter, black and iridescent; they were gifts.
When my partner built that table and bought food for those birds, what he was saying was: yes the world as we know it has changed beyond all words but there are things that need no words, there are still things that we can do; look at all those birds we never knew that there could be. He is saying that sometimes things break and smash and rot, and then the parts left over can be hammered into something new. What my partner was saying was that it takes so little, so very little indeed, to call the winged, coloured things down from out of the sky. There is very little that we need to give that could change our days so fully, so completely – one day at a time; in such a way that might eventually change the world, and the passing of its time, as we know it. He is saying that there is much that we cannot control – much suffering that we would all give our all to stop, to ease, to undo – but that we our trying our best, these days. We are learning a little bit more every one of these borrowed days, what it means to be in community, what it means to look after one another; what it means to keep each other safe.
‘There has to be one who rises first.’
The thing is, that there can be no borrowing – no lending – in these days, held so closely in place; buried so deeply inside of time. A single room can feel like our entire world for the weeks that we must spend there, weeks might go by in the blink of an eye – or the fog-yellow hour before dawn might feel like a long-drawn out Winter. What is given now is given freely and without expectation. What is given now asks for nothing back in return. What is given now is offered with open hands, a prayer sent out to every single one of us; I hope you are safe.
What we give in these days will be the things we have been storing up since we were wee. What we give in these days will be the things that we have been gathering up for many years, the things that we have been learning how to do since time began; what we give in these days will be the gift of ourselves. When the time to act, to support, to be brave and be hopeful comes; it calls us from out of nests, and skies, and trees. It calls us up from mudflats and dirt, from desert and cliffs, from outhouses and from bodies of water. It calls us up from days full of wreck and ruin – fear and loss – worry and despair; it simply calls us. We are being asked to rise, to be brave enough to trust nothing other than the body we are in; our only safe home.
‘There has to be one who rises first.’
When the bird builds her nest in the tree, in the shed, in the eaves, in the dovecote, in the car engine, in the wellington, in the outhouse: she is not placing her trust in the space onto which she builds. When the bird builds her nest – her safe, feathered nook – she places trust – all of her trust; in the fine, repeated movements of her own body. In that feathered body that holds the knowledge of how to build a safe space, deep, deep down – in beside her bones.
We know how to do this; we know how to begin to build, again.
We know it will be hard, we know it will be harrowing, we know there are some things that we will be broken by – but we know that we can do this. We know we may need to start again – twig by twig, our warm bodies turning over and over, as if in borrowed time – but we know how to build a nest. We know how to sculpt a future that is safe for us all.
We give, and we give, and we give.
We build, and we build, and we build.
We make small moves, repeated gestures – so small as to be almost invisible .
We turn, we turn, we turn – through however many seasons it takes – until the light shines down; on the thing that we have built from broken things.
Until the light shines down on the future that we have built, as the bird builds her nest; through the act of gentle, mindful, caring giving.
We rise, and we rise, and we rise.
‘There has to be one who rises first.’
Kerri ní Dochartaigh is from the North West of Ireland but now lives in the middle, in an old stone railway cottage; on a ghost line that once connected the South of the island with the North. She writes about Nature, Literature and Place for The Irish Times, The Dublin Review Of Books, Caught By The River and others. Her first book – Thin Places – will be published by Canongate in January 2021. Follow her on twitter and on instagram.
Photographs by the author.