Telling a Grandfather from a Heronshaw.
There is a heaped pile of grey-blue serge on the edge of the road ahead. Like a discarded RAF uniform perhaps. I try and puzzle it out as I walk nearer. Things aren’t often what they seem, and it pays to pay attention. Once, on this very spot, a sable faux-fur hat, dropped unseasonably on the road in July, unfurled itself into three polecat kits.
Nearer, and the pile appears to be a heap of shot, discarded woodpigeons. Not until I am four steps away comes the shock of a dead heron, killed on the road. A thunder-cloud fall of sky. I voice my dismay out loud, though there is no one to hear me.
One great wing is stretched up the bank, the other sweeps the road. The bird’s serpentine neck is folded beneath it and its long, hazel-pole, water bird legs are mid lanky gallop, as if it were trying to take off again. It is an unlikely and unusual road casualty and a terrible shame to see it lying as if someone had cut the strings on the slow, ancient, creaking of this pterodactyl-marionette.
On impulse, I bend down to flex a wing, then lift the long, bent neck to straighten it and get a second shock: it stiffens and vibrates alarmingly in my hand and I jump, assuming it is still alive, until its open bill breathes out a last roaring, rattling gasp of flies; a smoker’s breath of tiny starlings, like words.
I lay its head on the road. The white neck feathers are chevroned with black darts like an ermine stole; but lower down, the breast is marked with red chevrons and I wonder then if the bird had been shot and, after a stricken glide, fell, crashing Icarus-like through branches into this pile of unglued feathers, bamboo legs and stickleback harpoon.
Heron is a talisman bird for me. Spirit of my Grandad, scholar gypsy and Romany Rai, I picture him now, producing his worn copy of The Observer’s Book of Birds from his leather waistcoat pocket for me. Storyteller and something of a poet, artist and unofficial ‘vet’ for those that couldn’t afford one on his pre-fab, post-war council estate, he always told me he’d come back as a heron. It suited him; his hunched wisdom and careful stepping. His windswept, jet mortarboard of hair. I still feel his influence.
The wood creaks as if haunted. A bright, playful wind has blown up and rubbed or strained branches make the sound of a coach or hunting horn; Herne the hunter. Then there is the small mew of a hungry baby: a young buzzard; a hawk to this handsaw at my feet.
It is strangely hard to leave the bird’s body there. What else can I do, but take one of its long grey feather-fingers home; and write with it?