Skerries we called them back on Scotland’s black and jagged coastline, these far-ranging rows of age-old rock stretching parallel to the shore and descending, sharp and menacing, to the water’s edge, and then beyond, emerging now and then from the green and ever mobile to and fro with a seething flash of white and an exploring colony of gulls, brown ducks, or a motley clutch of gossiping eiders. Far to the left, where stone is overcome by sand, Higgins Beach begins and a bobbing batch of black-clad surfers paddle off still searching for their perfect wave. Out there, farther than eye can scan, lies Europe. “On a clear day,” Mhairi and I will claim, “you can see Portugal.” And there are conditions when a bank of cloud on the horizon, or some faint mirage shaped on the distant gleam can seem the cliffs and headlands of Iberia. Time was when, sitting here, I might conjure up John Keats, seeing myself as bold, intrepid Cortez, silent, wondering on his peak in Darien. These latter days it’s old Ulysses comes to mind, as Tennyson has him, scanning beneath, beyond the arch of rich experience, yearning to launch one final expedition, to claim whatever still remains, set sail for distant Portugal.
This northern life must be two, no three, of those black-headed, gray-bodied birds. They look like crows, they stalk the forests stubborn as partisans who know they will die for a lost cause, who list the code names of their fallen comrades, who sit in miserable bunkers and write What if nobody wanted to sacrifice? and Spring is coming but not to Lithuania. So wrote Lionginas Baliukevičius, aka Dzūkas, in 1949. I sit and think, he wrote, but my thoughts don’t materialize into anything. The birds are crows, hooded crows, similar to the carrion crow but elevated to full species status in 2002. The partisan Dzūkas died in 1949, his country not free, his last hideout collapsed. I skipped to the end of his brave, sad journal, a few sentences in praise of Tolstoy, who went pacifist and ate no meat in his last years, who wrote All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love and The two most powerful warriors are patience and time. The crows live in the forest, walk its enigmatic floor, test everything they find. Love nothing. Stay away from the bunkers.
It was the holy part of the day, my loved ones asleep in other countries, me with no duties and rooms full of quiet. I ate my dark bread with brie and jam, pressed out two cups of dark coffee. And that must be the sun, skulking like a grown-up boy who knows it’s been too long since he visited his mother. He has no excuse but all is forgiven, she will open the curtains, haul up the shades, crack the windows though it’s far too cold for that. We will ring all the bells in the quiet church across the street, unscrew the doors from the jambs, dismantle all the borders, forgive the Russians whether they like it or not. And mercy will pour down like sunshine in the grand photographs in the vast inscrutable book I bought for ten euros at the bookstore downtown, a store full of books translated out of the language I know so that I could read only the authors’ names. Truth must be personal, said Kierkegaard, home from another of his long, brooding walks. And yet not merely private. You shall love the neighbor, he insisted. Outside my window the church is solid and pale, three stories and a squat round tower, in the tower three narrow windows that reveal nothing. Winter sun warms the green roof, but the entrance is still in shadow.
Some call us yesterday’s bees, working old honeycomb. Are we only circling, a phrizz of amber, un-hived? The call to be golden crescendos within, clothed in stone, a kind of falling, over and over. “Sink deeper,” is one whisper, all winter, earth like bronze and scores of husks—the exiled, shattered. Workers know this: honey splits the great hum, come spring. What is a life without lavender, rag-tag monarda, or the silky cosmos?— myriad shivers of wing, months of rehearsing hunger, bowing down in the warm dark, the pregnant dust, with its little sails.