The Open Mike night for my writer’s group was postponed until this coming Tuesday. So I’ve had two extra weeks to decide what to read, and I’m still waffling. I have five minutes in which to read one piece. I can read an excerpt from my novel, Empire’s Daughter, or, an excerpt from my non-fiction book-in-progress, Reverse Migration: A Discourse on the Spirit of Place. The two excerpts are below. Please let me know what you think by using the comment section!
Excerpt from Empire’s Daughter:
At our mid-day break, Turlo offered to teach Garth to use the hunting bow. The day had turned glorious, the sky a clear blue with a light breeze. Garth accepted with alacrity.
“I’ll come to watch,” Bren said, standing. Garth nodded a welcome. He clearly liked Bren. After my talk with Casyn, I could see Bren’s distant manner in a new light. I no longer felt rejected by him, but I remained ambivalent.
“And you, Lena?” Turlo offered. I shook my head. My monthly bleeding had begun, and a general lassitude had settled over me. I stretched out in the warmth and drowsed as the hunters went off over a ridge. After a while, I stirred to see Casyn sitting on a nearby rock, a mug of tea in his hands. I rolled over and sat up.
“I thought you had gone hunting,” I said.
“Four is too many.”
“May I ask something? About Turlo?”
“Bren this morning, Turlo now?” he teased.
“It seems to me that Turlo is much like Garth. He is happier hunting, or wandering the wilds, than anything else, yet he holds a commission and serves the Empire.” I stopped, not sure how to continue.
“You are wondering why Turlo became an officer while Garth chose to desert,” he said gently. “There is no easy answer to that. Turlo, for all his love of the wild, came willingly. His father was on Wall duty, a scout, and his tales of that life probably had the boy enthralled. Also, the Wall is a place where Turlo’s skills and interests are needed and encouraged. By the time he came to the cadet camps, he was already a talented borders scout. But Turlo is also a born leader. He understands men much as he understands animals, instinctively, and we fostered that in him. Garth is a different man, and his opportunities were different. If (his father) had been in a borders regiment, then, yes, perhaps he would have reconciled to the army, but perhaps not. I doubt that Garth will ever be truly happy leading men, but I think he will teach boys with care and discipline and with a greater sensitivity than he received.” He sighed. “I am not sure I have answered your question, Lena, but it is difficult to talk about what might have been when we are speaking of men. I prefer analyzing strategy.”
“I’ve noticed,” I said dryly. “Although you’re not quite as bad as Bren.” He laughed. “I still wish things had been different for Garth.”
“And for yourself, and for Maya,” he said gently. “As I do. But we cannot shape the circumstances to fit our lives, only our lives to fit the circumstances. What defines us, as men and women, is how we respond to those circumstances. Courage comes in many forms, Lena, and I think perhaps Garth, in trying to reconcile his nature to the expectations of the Empire—and ultimately his own expectations of himself—is more courageous than Turlo.”
A gentle breeze rattled the dry leaves, and I could hear the horses cropping grass. Casyn sipped his tea. I lay back again in the sun. “When do our roads part?” I asked.
“Two days from now. About mid-morning on the second day, we’ll come to a track that runs south-easterly, while this road swings to the west. We’ll say our farewells there. The easterly track will bring us to the winter camp more quickly than the southern. Your errand takes you south, and neither should be delayed.”xxx
I nodded. I would miss him, but part of me wanted to be alone with Garth again, to talk to him of Maya and the future, and to camp under the trees and moon. I heard voices and looked up to see the men climbing over the ridge, rabbits swinging from their hands. Garth was grinning. A light breeze blew, his hair back across his forehead as he held up his brace. “Dinner tonight,” he said. He looked relaxed, his eyes lit up with pride in this new skill.
“If we can buy some root vegetables, pot herbs, and perhaps a loaf of bread at the next inn,” I said, “I’ll stew those rabbits tonight, as a change from roasting them.” This brought appreciative noises from Turlo, but then, anything to do with food usually did. We doused and scattered the fire, re-bridled the horses and tightened the girths, and mounted, turning south again into the red-gold afternoon.
Excerpt from Reverse Migration
Beyond the village, west towards the Wash, flat fields of barley and wheat, latticed with ditches, lie on either side of the paved right-of-way out to the water. Once this was marsh, and from the satellite images on Google Earth, the patterns of waterflow can still be seen, like a ghost, or a memory, held in the soil.
Around the village, around its bungalows and houses, shops and pubs, church and hall, people going about their lives shopping, walking dogs, gardening, working, I see other ghosts, memories not my own underlying the quotidian. My father’s memories, and his parents, and beyond that for unknown years. Memories now at their newest eighty-seven years past, and going back for generations.
I would like to know this place intimately, to understand its ecology and geology, its weather, its landscape, its history. I want to watch the seasons here, the ebb and flow of waders on the Wash, feel the wind off the North Sea in the winter, bringing hard frost and snow; hear the nightjars churring on the Fen at a summer’s dusk; see the hordes of geese returning, and leaving, autumn and spring. I would like, as much as can be in a changed world, to know this place as my forebearers did, the knowledge of foot and sight and smell and feel. I have been making small beginnings, over the last thirty years, coming closer together over these last ten. What can I learn, this time, in a month in spring?
A century ago my great-grandfather built a tiny wooden bungalow, a beach cottage, on the shingle beyond the marshes. I do not know exactly where. Between Dersingham and the Wash were the marshes, and, the first part of the lane which is now the bridleway from Station Road, which is recorded on Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk. There was (and is) also the Drift, a droveway to move sheep on and off the marshes.
What lay between the edge of the village and the Wash I imagine to have been a mix of rush and sedge and ling, cut with hundreds of channels and small ponds, rich with wildfowl, water vole and waders. Perhaps not, though; perhaps it was grazing marsh, diked and drained, wet meadow. And perhaps it was a mix of the two; I suspect this is the most likely. At some point in the 1920’s, my grandfather, Percy, and one of his brothers-in-law, Sid or Eph, walked out from the Drift to the bungalow, across the wet land and the unbridged waterways. Because this story was still being told eighty years later, I think they arrived very wet, very muddy, and to a good telling off from the women.
The land now is arable, planted to cereals for the most part, but also managed for wildlife, or at least for shooting. Weedy headlands, broad buffer strips on either side of the waterways and around each field, some fields left to grass fallow, strips and clumps of trees: all give shelter not only to the pheasant and red-legged grouse, but to other wildlife. The first morning we walked out there were hares everywhere. Marsh harriers hunted over the fields and the marshes; whitethroat, dunnock, robins, blackcaps, and reed and sedge warblers sang, along with finches, green and gold, and linnets. Songs I do not know, songs to learn, to become part of the tapestry.
A few greylag geese are raising goslings in the fields near the Wash, along with several Egyptian geese. Oystercatchers and ringed plover nest on the beach. Goldfinches twitter from the tops of the blackthorn. Cuckoos call from the woodlands. A whitethroat sings from every bush or tall reed along the ditches, it seems; some will be raising cuckoo chicks, unwittingly.
The land has changed since my father’s childhood, but two things have not: the sky and the sea. The vast Norfolk skies, the ebb and flow of the tide over Ferrier and Peter Black Sands, and the birds that belong to both: in May, oystercatchers, dunlin, knot and grey plover, feeding at the edge of the sands, moving with the tide, or taking to the skies in huge wheeling flocks, sometimes put up by a peregrine, sometimes by seemingly nothing.
So, which one? Let me know what you think!