Oxgodby Fen

by Robert Selby

    Your ruby nails in this creosote-smelling gloom are as incongruous as a swallow in December. With one hand you hold my grandfather’s old Royal Navy binoculars to your eyes, with the other you feed yourself farm shop flapjack. Crumbs fall down the sleeve of your Oxfam Barbour. Crumbs fall onto your battered Selected O’Donoghue: you didn’t set much store by the gazetteer’s promises.

    But the barred wing feathers of the Barnacle geese are like Hokusai's cobalt blue waves tipped by white foam. The water mirrors a pink dawn, from which they have dropped hesitantly, as though reluctant to wet their feet. On landing they are instantly at home, folding themselves up and finding their partner, renewing their bond with yapped vows.

    They have escaped Friday tables to winter here. They fledged in the summer from barnacles growing on the branches of pendulous white-leaved trees overhanging forgotten inlets of Irish loughs. No one has seen such trees, they sprout in hearsay. As did the merman in the mere, the centaur in the copse, the sprites in the orchard wearing fruit for skirts, until the casualty lists of the Somme’s first day were printed, when they disappeared. But we still like to believe fresh air can be a restorative, and the air here is as smoke in front of us, as beads hanging from webs in the hide’s corners.

    Your throat-clearing is a swollen gate, opening across cobbles. ‘There’s something of the geisha in their faces’. They were once the white-faced barnacle. And the bernicle goose. And the common bernicle goose. The Norway barnacle. The bar goose. The rood goose. The tree goose. The clakis. The claik. The routhecock. The reuthecok cometh / with the leaf-drop, / from the shep-medwe steleth / al that can growe / and, fat as the day, / is gone ere Mai.

    I feel that if I reach out and let the reed-heads tickle my palms, the old language will speak. That, taking a wrong fork in the larch wood decking, we’d be among reed-thatched bothies venting peat smoke, and coif-capped fensmen preparing their punts.

        What are we going to do? I know, I know: we’ll shut the windows, brush away the crumbs, and rehang the laminated field guide on its hook, then step out into the crisp silence but for the reeds speaking. I mean, us. Will it be as if you’ve been drinking not tea but the new strong wine of love, and the year’s first sunlight will break from your lip, answering everything?