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'... there are angels as there are trees (Borges)' won first prize in the adult prose section of the Neil Gunn Writing Competition, 2009. It was written by Jacqueline Liuba, from Applecross, Ross-shire.
To celebrate Homecoming Scotland 2009 the theme was 'Living with one another' part of a longer quote taken from Neil Gunn's novel 'The Serpent'.
Judges for the adult prose section were Ann Yule, Convenor of the Neil Gunn Trust, and James Robertson who writes both poetry and prose.
The Neil Gunn Writing Competition is organised by library staff from The Highland Council Education, Culture & Sport Service with support from the Neil Gunn Trust. It was first established in 1988.
'... there are angels as there are trees (Borges)'
'It seemed that he had come in answer to a prayer - and I was the one who had found him.
Ignoring the warnings about walking on the beach I'd found myself warding off the gulls and calculating whether I'd be able to get back to the promenade without them actually hurting me in some way, when I'd seen a squawking hillock of them amongst the seaweed. Stumbling towards them over the pebbles I'd startled them into the air; startled them briefly into flapping shadows of wings and curved beaks - black, against the sun.
You'll know some of the rest - the mystery, the haunted, speechless man, the drawing of the piano, and his doubtless talent as a musician. He was injured; the gulls, attempting to extract his eyes, had pecked his head and face, and while he healed he earned his keep by playing the piano at the cafe in the square. Not that there were many patrons to listen to him - not anymore.
At first, entranced by their power over the wild creatures, they had thrown them their chips and bits of battered fish. The gulls, detaching themselves from the disgorging fishing boats had gathered instead on the beach and on the street and on the cafe tables and, eventually, on the tourists themselves. Pursued by their peeping young, they had snatched food from unwilling hands to regurgitate into the insatiable waiting mouths. They were entertaining for a while - wheeling round, webbed feet hanging; snatching scraps from the air and fighting loudly and shamelessly, with outstretched wings.
But, soon, we were left with deserted beaches, thinly peopled promenades and empty shops. The gulls had multiplied hungrily. They tipped up our bins; dive-bombed our plastic shopping bags and dropped their foul slime onto us with great accuracy. Somehow, they attracted other scavengers - starlings, soaring in synchronicity against the darkening sky and hooded crows that strutted like fervour filled cardinals along the street. They robbed the nests of other birds and soon we began to long for the sight of a blackbird, her mouth already full of insects, grubbing about in the undergrowth, or a robin pecking around our feet as we turned over the soil. But the woods and gardens were silent.
We tried all the usual ploys to scare them away, even allowing the lads, who gathered in the square, to take pot shots at them with their air rifles - soon they too became a problem presence, wearing feathers in their baseball caps and blooding themselves, like members of the Hunt. And then - he came. The music he played was beautiful, but strange. We noticed, almost immediately, that he was never bothered by the birds - and, that if we sat close enough to him, we too were allowed to eat in peace. The radius of his power extended, night after night, until it seemed that the filthy, carrion-picking creatures had no course left to them but to mount, screaming, into the sky, beating each other with their wings. Wild eyed, blacking out the moon, they fought for precedence, in their intent to leave us.
He stayed here, with me, of course -who else would be willing to take him in, but the one who found him? Who else could be expected to look at his still pocked face over the breakfast table and suffer his silence? They were grateful, of course, but that couldn't go on forever.
On all those special mornings, after the snow, we'd sit here in the porch watching the sea break over the gap-stone, its oily skin speckled by broken weed - swell and fall, swell and swirl- and fall. Sometimes, as the sun breached the top of the hill, the tide would still be rising, the two ducks, always 'standing by', would give us their worried, one-sided looks as the abandoned orange buoy bobbed by to wish us luck. And we'd be here; fascinated, waiting for the moment when the sea and snow would meet, or would they both retreat? The sun, joining in, would throw its reflection onto the water -a spear of light, aimed directly at us, filling the whole house with sunbathed ripples; ceilings, walls and us. We knew that we should move; should go and find the sandbags; take photographs, feel that perfect snow, crisp against our boots, but were stuck there, between the tide clock and the tide -just witnesses.
My sister would come, muttering darkly about 'the gossip', 'the shame' and then, of course, 'the fear'. 'Not speakin' yet, then?' she'd ask me, jerking her head, and Tom, her son, would stand there, scowling, by the door, a collection of spoiled feathers, black and grey, still sprouting from the air holes of his baseball cap.
Later, we'd spend whole mornings wading wetly over shell sand, the brightness of the sun's reflection on the sand diffused by the invasion of water. Dissolving lugworm casts, spaghetti like, lay beneath gently waving weed, which, as it moved, exposed the barnacled mussels anchored in the crevices of the rocks. We made shoulder high plunges into the cold water, confused by refraction and clouding sand, a twisting pull revealing the crusty, bearded shells, some dragging with them tiny progeny. Bands of light followed the ripples across the seabed, recoiling in amazement from our legs and floating sand cast lacy shadows at the edge. Sand eels shoaled around us, turning sharply, like the starlings, to flee - some into sand but most out into the limpid sea; sandy backed flounders tickled themselves from under our feet and sped away like tiny hovercraft. Often we would lay amongst the beach boulders, close and warm, watching the otters tumble in the whale-tailed weed - until we heard the scuffles; the muffled orders of the 'gang' as they stalked us, trampling our barefoot prints with studded boots; the youths, still armed and feathered and looking for some 'prey'.In spring he fixed the porch. Ragged splinters of white painted timber stood against the rowan tree, leaving the rusty nails that had held it together, against all the tugging and up-thrusting winds, exposed now -sad, little teeth with nothing to bite. Windows too, leaned against the cottage, tired of being soaked by the rain that had spluttered and overflowed the string- tied gutters, blaming me for their cracked putty and peeling paint, for their rotting corners and sills, where the woodlice had been making their homes, their excavations coating my corners and filling my Hoover bags.
The wrinkled, blue door, coated, for lack of something better, with a gritty, non-slip yacht paint, had only been intended for internal use. It had withstood the January gale, which had brought the waves to beat upon it, but had lately developed an ominous creak and bump on opening, which warned us of its possible demise. Chiselled and planed, filled and repainted, its roof replaced with re-claimed slates an hour before a week of rain, it calmed the once uncertain man, who'd stood so many times with head protruding through the beams, to doubt his work. Inside, the walls are as he left them, rough plastered, scarred by screw and nail and stained by leaking lead. Behind a board we'd found a lurid, yellow patch, which had escaped, for years, the ignominy of brilliant white. I'll keep it that way, now.
A new season started in the square, our return made easier by the tourists, who kept the villagers busy and the cafe owner happy enough to part with a few pounds for the attraction of the music. But still, in the evening shadows, the youths roamed about simmering resentment.
Birds of all kinds were beginning to return: wrens, soft as moths, whirred about the tumbling sea wall; wagtails, caught up by the breeze, were gaily blown off course and robins, pretending to be tame and 'cute', attacked each other fiercely over territorial rights. Even seagulls returned, meek now and keeping to the boats - dissolving into the sea once they had cleaned up the fishermen's waste. Thrushes and chaffinches would sit upon the shawl we'd used to hide the obscene graffiti, which had appeared on the piano. Some of them would sing.
The arrow that killed the thrush was made of a green, garden cane, its end sharpened and weighted with a twist of wire. I lifted the soft creature, as it opened up its beak, a spasm forcing back its head into its wings and pulling its feet into tightly tangled knots. Blood dripped between my fingers onto the piano keys. I looked at him then and saw hatred in his eyes.
He began to pound the blooded keys -hard notes that hammered the strings, repetitive, beating rhythms that split the crowds apart and drew the others in - the youths. Reluctant now, unable to resist, they came towards us, twitching with desire to stay away, to melt into the crowd and at the front -my sister's boy, holding the bow, trying to shake it from his hand without success. And now the music changed - a trembling of high notes like birds suspended in a canopy of trees, with low notes rumbling underneath. And, as he played, I saw them start to change. Their heads began to shrink, their shoulders grow, downy feathers sprouted from their ears, they fell about, repulsive as barely feathered fledglings fallen from the nest. Their palely lidded eyes were yellow-circled stares. I looked for him, for Tom, amongst that flailing flock, he caught my eye, opened his mouth, beneath the beaked nose and as he tried to scream, I saw -the black, grub-like tongue; a parrot's tongue - my sister's child!
I tried to make him stop -pulled his face towards me as he played and saw his eyes were yellow too, and cruel. I smelled his sweat. He wouldn't stop but played staccato notes now, that had them pecking at each other with their beak hard noses and clawing with their fingers, newly scaled. Blood began to show, feathers drifted all around and great pools of stinking excrement splashed around their feet.
Then, cold as ice, I stopped him. I dropped the lid and pressed. I heard a cry, a sort of buzzard's mew. I saw the fresh blood on his hands, but couldn't look into those eyes again. He stood, then turned and walked away.
I let him go.
She calls sometimes, her face a mix of gratitude and guilt. She'll look around and shudder at the mess. The 'teenage yob', her 'child', his nose still rather large, will stay outside and kick a ball against the wall, until I want to scream. She never seems to see the birds, soaring round the cottage walls, across the doors and up the stairs, the best work that I've ever done. She'll see the paint tubes, squirming round the floor; the bottles by the sink, my dirty clothes -but not the photo of him on the beach, his face all healed his eyes still blue. She sees the lonely bleakness of my life. She knows I won't, but still she has to ask, 'Not speakin' yet, then?' before she goes away.
I often watch the sea. The waves invade the crevices of rock, meeting their resistance with a splashing slap of water that rises, separates into a glittering crown and then falls back upon itself as spume. There's hollow booming, down below, the constant 'mithering' of sea on stone, persisting as it forms a cave. Small swells of water on the rocks retreat then come again, to meet the streaming torrents that they'd left behind, while, on the point, dark cormorants stand, vase-like, as they dry their wings.
Sometimes, upon a still sea, there comes a sudden puckering; confined at first within the bay, it spreads, leaving strange smooth channels that look like trails of vessels, where none have been.
Find out more about the Neil Gunn Trust
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