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I felt the bite in the region of Staple Oak Fell. Searing pain flooded the muscle of my left calf. Looking down, I could see the black-and-silver tail of the snake emerging from the bottom of the trouser leg, draped over the laces of my walking boot.
I’d been hiking through Gisburn Forest, from where I’d trekked up the riverside out onto the Bowland Fells. It was two hours after sunrise and I hadn’t expected to disturb the sunning adder.
Fearing for my balls, I grabbed the snake by its exposed tail and whipped it out from under my clothes in a single swift movement. It streaked through the air and landed without dignity in a dewy clump of flowering heather.
My bitten ankle was already ballooning. I hobbled to the nearest gritstone rock and mounted it to get my bearings. I knew I’d need to return to my car as soon as possible—as much as I knew about British wildlife, I realised I wasn’t certain whether adder bites could be fatal. Based on the way the stinging had already turned to burning, I wasn’t hopeful.
No-one around. The visible farms and towns seemed laughably distant as my swelling foot pressed against the inside of my trousers and leather boot.
I’d begun to panic by the time you appeared out of nowhere. Engulfed by your weatherworn clothes and wax hunting jacket. Matted hair concealing your dirt-speckled cheeks.
We wandered together for nearly a year, through the woods and watercourses of England. In my stiffening grief I didn’t tell you much about the life before, and you didn’t ask. Out of gratitude I returned the favour, even when you wouldn’t tell me your name. When I asked, you’d just turn to whatever thing in your barge that you were fixing or breaking, whatever morsel of food you were making for us from what we foraged. I learned your name eventually, but it didn’t seem to matter. When there’s only two of you for so long, names needn’t be used. Once we were in sync in the wilds, we thought in the same wordless language. We spoke in footfall, we thought in day-cycles and seasons.
Doodlebug, you said, fingering its leafy antennae. You’d always seemed to cast a spell on the wihts of the wild; they were sleepy around your gentleness. Our first spring together was probably my favourite time.
We’d just watched the beetles emerge from the soft earth by the roots of a youngish oak. They seemed sleepy after years underground; they’d probably only just pupated from their larval form. It was like watching something be born again.
It’ll be dead in five to seven weeks, I said.
A minute ago you were snickering because I’d called it a cockchafer, but now I’d angered you. I stood up, dusting both hands on my jeans.
Don’t be mad at me. You can’t count on anything to live long. It’s not my fault.
At school we don’t call them creepy crawlies.
We call them mini-beasts.
You’re MY mini-beast! I’m going to put you in a jam jar!
No, don’t! Ha ha ha ha
You need to suck out the venom, you said.
I sat on the lichen-spattered boulder, nursing the fleshy orb of my snakebit ankle. Embarrassed, I admitted I wasn’t that flexible.
You shrugged. Die then. I’m not doing it for you.
Who was this ghoul, this woman with a tangled mane of muddy hair and homeless person’s disguise? You were toeing the heather and, offended, I realised why: you wanted to check I hadn’t hurt the adder.
Balancing on my aged glutes, I tried to twist my ankle to the proximity of my puckered lips, and failed. You watched me for a full minute. Then you laughed. Come on, that’s not really what you need to do. It’ll hurt and then you’ll be fine.
I was trembling. Sweat sprang from the pores under my hair. Abruptly, I vomited between my shaking legs—honeyed flapjack and trail mix.
Oh. You’d better come with me.
You told me your barge was moored near Barrowford Locks. You’d planned to scout the east side of the Fells before sailing south, then up the Lancaster arm.
The European viper’s venom works by breaking down the flesh of its prey before it begins to eat, you explained during our slow, hobbling progress to the nearest farm. Hence your pain.
I thought you might have left me at the farm to await an ambulance, but you were curious. I wonder if you’ll lose the leg? You won’t die. It’s usually more dangerous to give you antivenom than it is to just wait it out. Do you have money? Let’s get a taxi.
It was clear, on arrival, that you lived full-time on the barge. Cluttered, lived-in; there was an overflowing drawer of dirty laundry under the narrow bunk. A tiny tin sink with one plate, one plastic cup, and honest-to-goodness spork. Crowded shelves with rails to stop the nature books from tipping off.
Rest and don’t move too much. Elevate the foot. If it’s not feeling better by tonight, sleep here. I’ll take the roof.
That evening we watched bats dart out from under an arched stone bridge, using their tails to scoop bugs off the surface of the chuckling river.
ELEPHANT HAWK MOTH
During spring we scoured marshland for edible mini-beasts. We hiked abandoned railway lines, where overgrown hedgerows pushed through the diamonds of chain-link fences.
Just off the Shropshire Union Canal, vividly pink moths hovered over sheltered patches of willowherb, which you called fireweed.
Beautiful, I said.
You set off wordlessly up the rewilded track. We’d been following it the whole day and had collected a full basket of wild fruit: red cherries, blackberries, and a peculiar species of pear called Tettenhall Dicks. Hard as bricks, you sang as we plucked them. We’ll slow-bake them with sugar.
Don’t you like the moths? How often do you see bugs this cheerful?
Disgusting, you said. The basket rattled drily when you shuddered.
You’re being silly. You’ll eat raw wood ear mushrooms but you won’t admire these gorgeous things?
If I’m so silly then you can just leave. Don’t you have a job to go back to?
You knew I was on indefinite leave from the University, where I was a lecturer in Biological Sciences. But you liked to ask me that anyway, because I hadn’t told you more even though we’d been living rough on the barge together for almost two months.
It was your reaction to those cheerful moths that was the first chink in the armour, my first inroad into you. Another reason I stayed.
We saw it whilst moored in Kensington. It trotted past us as we sat on the roof of the barge, wrapped up against the winter’s night. We were nursing tin cups of mulled wine, a blanket over our shoulders, as we watched a fireworks display over the Gardens. I think we were in love by then.
It trotted confidently along the canal, its brush stiff, one torn-up ear flicking. A plump rat dangled from its jaws. It placed the carcass on the paving stone while it scratched behind one ear with its hind foot, like a dog. As it satisfied the itch, its narrow glinting eyes seemed to observe us nonchalantly. Then it gutted the rat and wetted its muzzle on the steaming viscera.
You reached out to touch the chapped knuckles of my hand, your palm still glowing from the hot tin cup.
Rain fell in sheets over the calcareous grasslands near Morecambe Bay. You’d retreated in horror from the sight of larval beetles eating snails right out of their shells.
We’d argued on the way back, because I’d wanted to watch the fireflies. By then it had begun to rain anyway. You’d shoved past me in your stinking clothes, stale odours lifting off you in the storm like dust off a struck drum. Stay out here then, I’d shouted, you need a wash you fucking loon.
In the stern I made us nettle tea with lemon, both scavenged from Mother Earth. In the bow you looked through the dirt-streaked window into blackness, at the thrumming non-surface of the water. The downpour drummed the canal, blurring the boundary between water and air.
You felt safe near water. That’s why, after whatever happened to you, you’d stolen the barge.
When we found the hive, you announced that you wanted us to harvest its honey.
No fucking way, I laughed.
Come on, they’re just bees.
I wasn’t going to admit this to you but I had a mortal terror of bees. I’d had actual nightmares of being stung to death by a swarm. An insect you can swat, but a swarm can’t be knocked away, can’t be fought. Like a cloud of emotion that is too overwhelming to ignore.
You said, We can use smoke to make them drowsy.
You should seize the day, you said.
I’ve been told that before, I said.
I was determined to make the most of the inkcap fungus we discovered. I referred to one of your 70s textbooks to produce the ink, and stole a fountain pen from your drawer of odds and ends. I couldn’t risk cooking the mushrooms because they are poisonous when consumed with alcohol. (During storms, the barge rumbled with empty bottles that rolled port to starboard and back.)
What are you writing?
I was journaling our time together. At first it was just an alphabetised list of words. But maybe I’ll turn it into a sort of story, I said, I don’t know.
You chuckled throatily, not taking your eyes off the brown trout you were gutting for dinner. Good luck with ex-why-zed. What are you going to use for zed?
Isn’t it obvious? I replied. When I scratched the smile under my beard, I could smell the oregano oil I used when straining the mushrooms.
You gave me one of your earthy brown-eyed glare, glaring at me from under your tufty brows, mud and ink speckling your cheeks. Does he know? you were wondering. How?
I dipped into the ink again, scraped the stainless steel nib against the glass of the dish, tink tink tink.
By winter we had seen the worst and best of each other. You must have told me to leave a hundred times, and I would, but on returning to the barge you would allow me to board and we’d say no more about it. Sometimes I’d scream at you for the way you were.
We didn’t have a still to make our own gin, but I would use my dwindling savings to buy cheap stuff and we’d infuse it on the barge with whatever there was to hand. The day we found juniper trees laden with fruit in the snow was a good one; they crowded the edge of a pinewood by a lowland ridge. We embraced in our own breath-clouds, trading warmth in mutual exchange as snow melted into our clothes and knotted hair.
Later, rinsing the soft blue berries for the infusion, I felt a trembling unease.
Something happened to you, I said. I’d like to know what it was.
I understand, you replied.
But you didn’t go any further. You understood that I wanted to know, but you didn’t intend to tell me.
I felt a jolt in my chest. Less like a door being closed in my face, and more like pushing a light switch with an exposed wire.
On a great barren escarpment, I took shelter by a boulder so that I wouldn’t feel untethered. The vast craggy space, which seemed at once both nascent and postapocalyptic, gave me the sensation of being weightless, meaningless; the right kind of wind tearing across the massif might lift me off the ground, cast me away. I felt tissue-thin out there, and cold, but you had demanded to see the green waters of a certain tarn and I had been feeling too brittle to be alone. A few weeks earlier you’d caught me weeping for the first time, sobbing over photographs on my phone.
Above us, almost motionless in the gale that ripped over the exposed landscape, a raptor waited for something vulnerable to pass beneath it.
I asked, Do you like it?
You said, I like all things that fly and all things that swim.
What about things that crawl?
You always had a knack for knowing when I was getting at something, when I was feeling my lowest and needed something from you. You weren’t having any of it.
You announced quite abruptly, whilst teasing a cluster of orange ladybirds off the side of the barge:
One day I’ll die, or maybe not die, but as far as anyone else is concerned I will be dead. And I’ll have left this life to go into another one, and whatever’s left can be burned to ash for all I care.
I thought you needed comforting, but you shrugged me away. I saw that the white sheet of paper you were using to gently dislodge the bugs was smeared with ichor and tiny black legs.
One of the books on your shelf was an illustrated guide to Britain’s butterflies and moths, published in 1968. It had several pages torn out and I suspected you were the one who’d committed this profanity. A year later, I recalled this and sought out the same edition at the university’s library. The pages all featured photographs of specimens that had been spread and pinned down. Wings teased open and useless. A needle through the thorax.
We travelled more than once along the Grand Union, stopping to explore the Chiltern Hills on the protected estate.
We saw great fields of bluebells, making their quiet toll under glowing green canopies that you said were home to fairies. Never fall asleep in a bluebell patch, you warned. The bad ones will spirit you away.
Gentle streams yielded chanterelle mushrooms that we pocketed, wrapped in folded kitchen paper. We ate wild plums and gooseberries. The tiniest deer I’d ever seen gobbled rusk from my hand without leaving it wet. I thought my life had achieved an unexpected version of perfection, and we returned to the barge feeling utterly peaceful. You would blow tunelessly into a clarinet you’d found at a campsite. I’d think about cataloguing all that we’d seen, using the last of my mushroom ink.
This dictionary was mostly thoughts at that point. I hardly wrote anything down. I was afraid of where it was going, which would be an ending. I knew it would end and I’d had enough of endings.
NATTERJACKS AND NEWTS
Of course you loved water creatures the most, even the ugly ones.
If ever we bickered, afterwards I’d try to make it up to you by telling you what I knew. I’d talk and talk as you fumed in silence, arms tightly crossed.
Alders are stronger around water, like you. Alder buckthorn was used to make gunpowder—Imagine that! Alder wood from coppices is still harvested to make clogs.
Ignoring me, or maybe listening, you’d drape your skinny body over the wet gunwale, nose to the earthen bank, so that you could talk to a toad. Around us, the music of amphibians finding their chorus. Catkins hanging over their own dappled reflections.
The forest was dying down, drying up. Fern all crunchy under bare silver birch. Horse chestnuts dropping their waxy toys into the undergrowth, making even the browning time before winter sound alive. We saw fiery pink spindle flowers opening to reveal gorgeous orange fruit, slick and wrinkled like exotic newborn reptiles.
I said that we should find some sycamores. I’d always loved watching their spinning seed pods helicopter through the air. I’d leap and try to catch them. We’d been living together for over six months and we’d grown used to each other’s rhythms, but I was still getting used to my new body odour, itching beard, washing our clothes in clear, fast-moving brooks. At times I felt nostalgic for real life, for the old life, for normality.
We found no sycamores but were drawn, almost magnetically, to an oak, a lonely growth in the centre of the meadow. It was as solitary as a tree could be, stronger than any person. The first winds of the season had shaken loose some of its cupped seeds.
Look! you said, delighted. Oakcorns!
We first gave in during a sudden downpour, foraging up a Wiltshire hillside. I slipped hard on the wet sward and you came down with me. Your drowning kisses were of blackberries, lips stained. We slithered just enough out of our drenched clothing to make it work. Our heads full of that scent of the grass’s broken vanes, the grit of the earth pressed into shining-wet skin, not yet mud on us, not dirt. Keep you said just there. I came first and knew I would from the feel of you. I hid it except for, maybe, a break in the rhythm, and I kept just there long enough for you to join me. We had both arrived. We had taken different routes to the same destination and now we were together. That’s what I thought, half-blinded by the goldfoil sky.
You said you knew your time was coming after we found the giant yew. I never believed your mad premonitions and I knew from the pillboxes in your drawer that you’d seen a doctor in the recent past. They had your name all over them. That’s how I learned it, your name: if you’d pilfered the drugs, like half the other crap on your barge, then they probably would have various names on the labels. But there you were, in Times New Roman, black and white, clear as day.
When you realised I’d been snooping all those months, you didn’t talk to me for a week.
We picnicked beneath her branches, her roots looping up like sea serpents to either side. I blurted the fact that it was also my wife’s name.
My ex-wife, I clarified.
Rowan is also the witchbane, a protective plant easily made into charms. The rowan once saved the life of Thor. The Devil hanged his mother from a rowan tree. The rowan denotes a threshold to another world.
I listened, silently fuming, as you explained all this to me. Nothing I said to you mattered, nothing made an imprint. I realised I’d spoken to get a reaction and I was childishly frustrated that it hadn’t worked.
You went on and on about witches and spells. You knew seventeen different defensive charms. Once you’d made a man bleed merely by force of will. He deserved it, you snapped pre-emptively. Some grown-ups are meant to protect you.
STOAT (OR WEASEL)
You can tell from the tail. Look at the way it runs.
I don’t care what you say, I know the difference.
Expert, are you? It’s too big, look at the size of it!
I’ve seen one this big and much bigger besides. Shut up.
You shut up.
It was hard to admit how afraid I was to set the barge alight. Emptying the petrol can over your belongings, stepping backwards through the clutter as I soused everything, I was filled with fear even though you’d told me that this was what you wanted.
I told myself that the stuff wasn’t really yours, that you had just borrowed each of these items without permission, including the barge itself, and now I was just tidying up after you, giving those things back in this pyric way.
Striking the first match from the safety of the bank, I was deadly cold inside. I expected a whoomph but the match just fizzed out on the gleaming wet wood. As per your instructions, I hadn’t tethered the barge and it was floating further away. Frantically, I struck and threw two more matches. The fourth was the one that set the fuel burning, at first a steady crackle, then a roar.
Moored in the region of Bugbrooke, we trudged along the River Nene until it got marshy.
It was a dogwood winter: a cold snap had interrupted the spring almost a year after we met. The local climate had been changing around us. A bitterly cold month was giving way, and ice crystals were washed down the river in shrinking, glittering clumps.
We’d passed the stiff brushes of actual dogwood at the edge of town.
There’s a legend, I said as I gasped for breath, tramping after you. You strode five metres ahead of me, hands in the pockets of your patchwork coat. Strong despite all your weight loss.
They said Christ was crucified on dogwood. After he returned to life, he cursed the sturdy dogwood trees to grow only as spindly shrubs thereafter. In more recent times people have used it to make arrows. That’s all it’s been good for since, really.
You’d stopped by the water’s edge where muddied snow flumped off ladened grass into the stream. In the bare patches of earth there were trickling veins of meltwater.
The Gaelic word for that is afèith, I said.
I found out later I’d gotten that wrong, but it didn’t matter. You weren’t listening and wouldn’t have remembered.
I’d picked early summer flowers for you, and was busy in the barge’s kitchen stripping and cutting them, hoping to finish the bouquet before you got back. You’d walked ahead to the next lock to see what a holdup was.
I was trying not to think about the address book I’d found, the list of men’s names, dates, the docks where they frequently berthed.
There’s a small bird commonly mistaken for a sparrow called a dunnock. A female breeds with more than one male to improve her odds; nests often have a mixed brood hidden within their thin shells. Impossible to tell who the father is. Cuckoos like to push dunnock eggs out of the nest and replace them with their own.
WEASEL (OR STOAT)
Well, we’ve lost it now. I didn’t get my phone out in time.
I know what I saw, and I know what it is. Why can’t you drop it?
I’ll look it up.
You do that, Professor.
A tree—any tree—draws water up into itself.
Cedar, elm, maple. All the same, all drinking their strength.
As a young woman you clawed your way out of something and found solace in being a thing that floats. A desperate front crawl through life, through one life and into another.
The thirsty grandmothers of the ground: aspen, birch, sweet maple.
You drew the canals into yourself rather than sink in them. London-born, I knew that much. Good trees are flexible, to weather harsh winds. Others like oak are resilient in their rootedness. You were like them, those beings that live half submerged in loam, half reaching up to the heavens—Hawthorn and hemlock and ash.
We’d slogged through the fog and dew-stained bracken for hours, harvesting mushrooms. I’d been telling you of how le Guin said the word for world is forest and how true that seemed, when you stopped dead. You froze before the great dripping yew, its pale trunk and twisted boughs leaning, that morbid oracle of the woods, the doom-monger. Surrounded by bluebells, vivid in the shivelight.
Of course, this dictionary had to end with you. The estuary of my waterlife, the pouring out of what I had and what I had lost.
This would be a longer story if you’d shared more of yourself with me. But what had I to give you in return?
I was in and out of your life like a mayfly.