‘Sky Burial’

This story of wildness and wilderness was first published in the Fiction Desk anthology Long Grey Beard And Glittering Eye in 2015. You can buy the anthology here.

 

They’re magnificent birds, they really are. Before you see one in the flesh you think, well, I’m familiar with buzzards, which are morphologically similar, so how amazing can it be? It’s going to be a buzzard, basically, only bigger. And then you see one – I saw my first on the Isle of Rum, years back now, just when the reintroduction project was getting going – and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. I mean these birds are immense. I saw one being mobbed by a pair of ravens and it was like a couple of starlings trying to take on a dragon or something. Huge. Just – just magnificent.

I can see two of them from here – no, three. Two adults and a juvenile, I think (you can tell the juvenile by its slightly darker tail). Riding the updrafts. Who would ever have thought it, twenty years ago, even ten years ago – White-tailed Eagles, over north London?

They are magnificent. But it’s different, somehow – they somehow seem less magnificent, when you know that, before very long, they’re going to see you, descend from the sky, and eat you.

Fitting, some people would say. If they were really mean-spirited they’d say: hoist by your own petard, Peter. But that would be unkind. Because of course it was a different world, back then.

I met Grace and then the war happened. There wasn’t any connection between the two things; it was just the way it turned out. We had eight months of peace together.

‘An aquatic warbler? – ’

‘No. No, just a sedge warbler.’ I spoke rather abruptly. The thing was, even though I hardly knew her then, I couldn’t bear to see her disappointed. I couldn’t bear to have her think that this bird, wriggling in the mist-net, was a very rare aquatic warbler, when in fact it was a very common sedge warbler. She was such a beautiful girl.

We were ringing songbirds in the Epping Forest. What you do is, you rig up your mist-net, and you wait for birds to fly into them, and then you grab them, stick a ring on their leg, and let them go again. Grace was very new to the work (hence her elementary error regarding the sedge warbler).

At our wedding, I made a joke of it: something about grabbing her, and sticking a ring on her, but in this case having no intention of letting her go again. It got quite a good laugh. But it didn’t mean much, because, when it came down to it, I did let her go.

We were on honeymoon in the Trossachs when the uprisings began: Kent, Essex, the south-east London sprawl up in flames. We listened in disbelief to the reports of the first bombings on the radio.

The eagles haven’t seen me yet. They’re too high. But it’s immaterial now, to be honest, because there’s something gnawing on my foot. I can’t feel my feet but I can feel there’s something gnawing on me. I know what it is, too.

I’m not going to look. I don’t need to look. I don’t want to look. I know what it is.

Even Grace thought we’d gone too far there.

‘Look what we achieved with the eagles. Eagles, in Suffolk! Just amazing. And in the Chilterns, too, soon. And there are beaver doing very well in Dorset, and there’s a very promising breeding programme of Irish elk over in – ’

‘But wolves, Peter. Wolves, in England?’

I can see now that we let our enthusiasm get the better of us. That’s the benefit of hindsight. I can see now.

This was a few years after the first wolf reintroductions in Scotland, which were a huge success, of course. Rewilding: that was the word on everyone’s lips, it was in all the newspapers, people were really excited about it. All the buzzwords: trophic cascades, biodiversity, megafauna. I mean people really wanted it.

Let’s reinforce our bond with nature. Let’s let the wilderness back in. Let’s reconnect with the wildness inside us all.

We had to really battle for it, too. Of course, that’s an inappropriate choice of word, in the present circumstances – but we had to struggle, I mean, to get our way. First the New Forest. They were worried about the ponies. They’re a tourist attraction, they said – we get thirteen million tourists here a year, they said. And we said, thirteen million people come here every year just to see bloody ponies. Imagine how many you’d get if you had wolves.

And besides, we said – with a confidence that was, I can see now, ill-founded – there’ll be fences, wardens, radio collars, real-time tracking.

We had even more of a fight on our hands over the South Downs, with the sheep farmers, they were four-square against the whole idea, but in the end the tourism people took our side, and within a couple of years there it was: wolves, running wild on the Downs. No sheep, of course. But the wolves were magnificent.

I wish I hadn’t fallen out with Chris over it, though. I’ve been thinking a lot about Chris in the last few weeks. Chris was Grace’s brother. A soldier – I mean, a real soldier, a professional, a soldier before all this happened.

‘It ain’t wilderness,’ he said.

I bristled.

‘Beaver on the Exe. Wolf in the New Forest. Elk, now, in the Forest of Bowland. If that isn’t wilderness, Chris, then I don’t know what is.’

‘You’re right.’ He drew on his cigarette and smiled. ‘You don’t know what it is.’

‘I think I – ’

‘Wilderness ain’t something you choose, Pete. If you’ve chose it, it ain’t wilderness. Wilderness is the stuff you don’t want.’

I was never much enamoured of Chris’s tough-guy stylings. I thought him rather a know-it-all.

‘What we’re seeing now,’ I said, determinedly keeping my temper under control, ‘is England as it was millennia ago. We’ve rolled back the centuries. All the damage, the exploitation. We’ve reversed the spread of – ’ I stopped there, flushing a little, because to my embarrassment the word that had risen to my lips was ‘civilisation’, and I couldn’t think of a better one. 

‘You’re slumming it,’ Chris said. He was still smiling. ‘You’re like when a journalist sleeps rough on the Strand for one night and then says it ain’t so bad after all. Because no, it ain’t, when you know you’ve got a warm bed to go back to the next night, a pay-day coming at the end of the month, family to turn to. Fact is,’ he said, ‘if it ain’t so bad, you ain’t doing it properly.’

Chris had spent some time sleeping rough, at one time, before he joined the Army. I suppose he knew whereof he spoke. I see that now. I wish I had seen it then.

The eagles are lower now. They’ve probably seen me. Or rather, they’ve seen – well, they’ve seen the wolves.

Thank god I can’t feel anything. Oh thank god.

I don’t want to look. Does that make me a coward? I’m not a coward. I came back, I came back to London, I didn’t have to, but I did. I came back, and signed up. I love my country. I’m not embarrassed by that.

Grace didn’t like it.

‘Your country?’ We were still in Scotland – still on our honeymoon. I was packing my case. ‘Your country?’ she shouted. ‘What the hell, Peter – I mean what the hell does that even mean?’

I thought of eagles and elk and wolves. I thought of the forests and the downs, the rivers and the mountains. I lost my rag a bit, and yelled at her, what do you think this has all been about, Grace, what on earth do you think I’ve been working for, all these years?

She pursed her lips and didn’t answer. And, when I came back, she came back with me. She was my wife, after all.

I am being dragged across the car-park, slowly, doggedly, by my left foot. There’s no pain. I close my eyes.

The first time they bombed Archway Grace was upstairs and I was downstairs. A big hit, a direct hit.

I suppose you want me to explain it. The revolution, the war. The reason why this was happening: English killing English, here in England, English bullets, English blood. And of course, I would explain it, if I could. But you know already why I can’t. It came from somewhere else – or rather, it came from here, right here, but somehow, in some way I can’t explain, it wasn’t mine. Or perhaps it was but I didn’t feel as though it was.

‘England, your England,’ she’d said, somewhat spitefully, when we’d crossed the border on our way home from our honeymoon. I don’t know what she meant by that because she was as English as I was. I asked her, what, as I drove, tense myself from the news and the blinding rain and the military checkpoints along the A74, what, what do you mean? – but she wouldn’t say, just sat there thin-lipped in the passenger seat with her arms folded, watching the wipers.                          

‘It’s not mine,’ I said. ‘It’s ours. Not just yours and mine, although it’s that too, but all of ours. Everyone’s. England, our England,’ I said.   

She was upstairs when the bomb hit.

It was a physical sensation, a terrible deep riptide through the air and through my body, before it was anything else. Then it was a noise like the world’s ending.   

When I came to I found that there was no upstairs left. No Grace either. I stood at the top of our stairs beneath the blue sky and wished that I had been upstairs and she had been downstairs. I watched red kites circle in the smoke rising over the shopping centre. It was the day before I was due to start basic training.

We didn’t see it coming. That’s all there is to it. I can admit that now. For all our impact assessments, all our site inspections, all our contingency plans – we didn’t see it coming. I don’t mean the bombing, I don’t even mean the civil war – I mean the wilderness, the real wilderness, the wilderness Chris knew about.

My head’s knocking on pitted asphalt. I open my eyes. I still won’t look – I don’t want to meet its gaze (have you ever had that nightmare?) – but I want to see the sky.

The carpark is vast, grey, long deserted, the white lines faded, purple cones of buddleia nodding in clumps, dandelions sprouting through the asphalt.

This is the wilderness. It always was. Wilderness is what you don’t see, what you don’t want to see – it’s what you can’t do a damn thing about. These acres of dereliction, given over to the buddleia, the starlings, the lichen, the London drizzle. Carparks, empty factories, abandoned rail-yards, grey scrapes of earth where buildings have been demolished and not rebuilt, sallow sidings of rubble and weed, broken floors of concrete fenced with barbed wire and straggly elder. And it gets bigger and bigger and worse and worse, it crowds in on us, all of us, and we simply can’t stop it.

I thought I was fighting for England when I led the raid on the bunker they’d dug in on the Holloway Road. And when the shrapnel took me in the back I thought it was England I was dying for.

Grace was right. I didn’t know what England even meant.                                          

I’ve stopped. I mean, we’ve stopped. It’s stopped, in the shade of a forest of musty-smelling rosebay willowherb. I can still see the sky. I can see the eagles. They’re so close now I can see each feather. They’re still magnificent. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, I can see that now, but they’re still magnificent.

I lift my head. It’s an effort. I lift my head and I look at the wolf. The wolf looks back at me.

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