It begins with feathers. I see more and more discarded on the roads, in the fields. Mostly pigeon and corvid ones, but a few treasures too. I’ve kept one that seems to be from a tawny owl. It makes no sound when I whip it through the air, and the brownest parts are so soft, my skin barely registers the touch.
All the small birds are hiding away, waiting for their moults to end.
The mud out in the tidal inlet is still billiard-green with seaweeds grown over summer. They’ve become the bane of my swims whenever I go out at a lower tide. Wrapping themselves around my limbs, my throat, before I can reach deeper water.
Tides. I never learned them, till this year. In spring, lockdown, the tide shifted by half an hour or so each day. As summer reached its peak, the shift elongated to nearly an hour. Now it’s shrinking back, while the water pretends not to know it should still be holding the last of August’s heat — already I fear the cold again.
While the birds sit stoic upon it. Scatters of black-headed gulls, tight families of coots, fishing fleets of cormorants diving and resurfacing like mirrors to porpoises. The curlew, still making its home here despite its national retreat, a bird made more of sound than flesh — a flute spiralling across the water.
In the last days of October, the brent geese arrive from Siberia. Another tick of the year’s clock. I watch them from the window, bobbing on the grey waves, and I cannot comprehend where they’ve come from. How far they’ve flown to be here. Snow, wind, ice.
The air is so much more, in the autumn. The wind can’t hide — fallen leaves betray every eddy, all its secret thoughts scribbling and skittering before my feet. Above the poplars to the east, jackdaws bounce up and down on trampolines of sky. At dawn and dusk they mingle with the sore-throated rooks and their huge flocks are my compass points. South for waking, north for night.
On one of the final dark mornings before the clocks go back, I hear a tawny owl for the first time here. A cold and beautiful cry.
Then they add an hour on. My day inverts — walking into night, instead of out. I’ve started bringing a headtorch, turning it on reluctantly when the going gets muddy. I revel in being here, where I can walk as a woman through the dark.
On those walks, wind blusters over the silent fields. On clear nights, puddles shine in the dark. Is there a word, I wonder, for the luminous blue glow of moon on distant clouds?
Lockdown taught me there’s no such thing as weather too bad to go out in. Hood up. Into the rain, night or day. Soaked jeans, sometimes the reward of a clear sky before I’m back home. And here is the autumn’s peace offering, its second gift, after the feathers: the rainbows. I’ve never seen so many, in so short a space of time. Over the water, over the trees, over the boats docked in the marina. Double rainbows. Once, a repeating rainbow, as if it was the start of an endless rainbow tunnel. I keep meaning to bring my camera out, but cameras never capture them in their glory anyway. They are made for eyes. For rooks to swoop black across their impossible colours.
One of October’s last mornings. A drippy start. I’m on a path that presses into a fragment of woodland. Something on the ground, distinct from the mud, too curvy to be a stick — a slow worm. Its body is an indefinable colour, made to make eyes slide off it.
It’s still. Dead? My forehead wrinkles in sadness. I prod gently with my boot.
I chivvy it off the path, before a runner can come by and accidentally step on it. It moves dreadfully slowly. No surprise. Respectable reptiles are settling down to brumation, their version of hibernation.
The slow worm pauses, as if to rest. A little forked black tongue slips out of its mouth. Tastes the air.
Into the rusting bracken, the lizard finally goes.
See you on the other side of the cold, I think to it.
The sun will come again.