The busskie-tailed Fox

 

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I came across the bones of this story last summer whilst visiting Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.  Being a storyteller and collector of old bones I couldn’t resist the call of the museum.  It was there that I chanced upon the story of ‘The Old Woman of Glen Imridh’ and here is my version of that tale.

The busskie-tailed Fox

I’ve never had a mind to write things down until now.  And while an account of yesterday’s story compels me to put pen to paper, it also gives me reason to wonder.  I was named Angus MacDonald after my great great grandfather – a fact that seems to have passed me by, until yesterday that is.

I was out checking the traps on the south west perimeter of the Benmore Estate where I am game keeper.  In spite of sporadic culls foxes flourish in these hills.

The heather lingers in the glen and there was one last trap to check before heading home.   While the late sun was hidden by the hulk of Benmore, I could see clouds of midges hugging the bog below.  My feet were hot and my stomach complaining as I made my way up the slope.

The cage was wedged under an old wall of an ancient broch. I could just make out a bundle of soft reddish fur through the bars with feather whiskers.   Squinting harder as I drew near, I saw a cub asleep at the back of the cage.

Easing the shotgun from its slip I pressed it firmly into my shoulder, flipped the safety and took aim.  I could see the pigeon feathers stuck to it’s muzzle – the cub had clearly enjoyed it’s last meal.  My finger began to squeeze the trigger as I breathed in what I knew would be the cub’s last breath.

Suddenly, a shadow moved across my sightline.  I looked up and standing on the skyline of the drystone, hollow wall was the largest dog fox I have ever seen with a busskie tail.  He was staring right at me.  I say at me, but it felt more like his dark eyes were boring holes into my being.  I can’t explain what happened next.  I found myself in another, and that other was my namesake Angus MacDonald from way, way back …..

Heart pounding and breathing hard, I stopped.  A winter landscape came into view and I scratched my chin, startled to feel prickles and even more to feel unexpected teenage pimples.  It was cold, bitterly cold whilst I felt surprisingly warm.    An expanse of snow stretched out in front of me, not a rock nor a tree could be seen.  I glanced behind.  Two scrawny lads were wading through snow using shovels as walking sticks.

“Angus, can you see anything, anything at all” gasped Fergus.  He had lanky legs, a blaze o’locks and familiar sparkling green eyes.

I stopped, blinking in the dazzling light and scanned the horizon for signs of life.  It was difficult to know where the bothy was in the flat white winter landscape.

After a fierce week of incessant snow, the blizzard had finally stopped.  The people had gathered to see if everyone was safe and it was my mother who had asked about the old woman up the glen.   In solitude since the summer Highland Clearance; the Old One had refused to leave her home.  She was old, very old with no expectation of crossing the Atlantic with the others.  And while thousands of the glen’s evicted had left for the boats, she alone was happy enough to stay and keep the company of one goat and a couple of hens.

“Where is she?” asked Andrew.  His face was flushed from the hours of walking.  He rubbed his ears with mittened-hands, the size of plates and groaned

“I can’t see anything.  How will we see her hollow when all the world is one great white sheet o’ snow?”

I squinted peering across the frozen wasteland to where I imagined her hollow and the hut should be.  And then I saw it.

“I see it!  There!  A whisp o’smoke.  There’s a fire lighted, maybe she’s alive.”

We muscled our way through the thick drifts and down into the brak following the smoke.  Digging an arctic passage to the sound of heavy breathing and shovels of crunchy snow, until at last, peering into a snowy bowl I saw the bothie’s opening in the roof and smoke rising from within.

Panting hard, our clouds of breath spiralled with peat smoke and rose into a clear blue sky where an eagle soared with piercing cry overhead.

The snow was high and there was no sign of walls, let alone a door.

Suddenly, from within the bothie below us there came a deep menacing growl.  A large beast shot up and sprang away across the white glare.  My heart leapt into my strangled throat as I nearly slipped out of my skin.  It was a huge dog fox with a busskie tail.

I looked at Andrew and Fergus and they stared back at me with scared wild eyes.  No-one spoke, we knew what we were thinking.

At last Andrew’s voice broke the silence.  “Is there anybody alive?” he cried.  I shuddered, wondering if the in-living would answer.

“Aye!  A’m in ‘ere” called a woman’s voice.

Waves of relief, warmth and joy swept over us and we began to laugh.  And the next thing I remember, we were inside her wee bothie.

“How are you woman?” I asked “And how is it that you are alive?”

She looked at us and smiled, her face breaking into a thousand lines and wrinkles, “I was fed well” she answered.

Exchanging looks with the others I wondered what she meant and if she had turned mad in her icy solitude.

“We saw a fox jumping out.” I said.

“That’s right” she told us, “N’a’m waantin na hunter tae put a shot intae that fox.  For he is my good friend.   Ever sin th’ snaw cam, every evening he haes visited me wi’ a hare or some doo or ither whilk ah plucked or skinned ‘n’ boiled ‘n’ ate.  Ah hae ne’er eaten so well.  Even mae hens ur healthy – Ah didn’t need tae murdurr any o’thaim.”

And then with no way to explain, only to wonder, there I was back again in  myself again, standing beneath the dry stone wall of the old broch, staring up into the dark eyes of that big fox with a busskie tail.

Breathing deeply into my very being, I took my finger off the trigger and with trembling hands opened the cage of the trap.

 

For Family, For France

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Sun drops

Tide to time

France rocks in

World’s embrace

Tears shimmer

Seeking grace

Breezes gentle

Stroke thy face

While far below

Land’s Ocean ledge

Ripples flicker

Flames of light

And out of darkness

Path burns bright

Moon rises

Cradles grace

Hurts held

In Love’s embrace.

Magnolia

Inspired by one of the magnolias at Emerson College in Forest Row, I dedicate this poem to all new born babies and to the Earth’s plants and flowers whilst remembering the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson,  “The earth laughs in flowers.”

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Multiple limbs emerge through earth

Magnolia’s arms and legs give birth

From April’s flowers – magnificent crowns

To summer’s dome of leaves surround.

 

You are Queen, a kingdom too

Beckoning breeze and birds from blue

While wrapped within your bark flow streams

Where Beings meet creating dreams

And as you hold your arms out wide

You beckon all to come inside.

 

I am mother, queen and world

My life-force flows in dancing twirls

So come and sway with beauty’s charms

Behold, beheld in loving arms

I do not measure, judge or blame

I live my life in cosmos same.

 

Two kings, a stag and a dream

Stag

Today is 19th May.  Saint Dunstan’s Day, and I’m following his footsteps back in time to discover this legend…. This is an old story, a Somerset story.  It’s about a young boy who had a dream ….

Long ago, over a thousand years to be exact, deep in the Mendips and in the ancient village of Ballsbury there lived a beautiful baby boy whose name was Dunstan.

His father was a nobleman and his mother a woman of sweet affection and gentle ways.  Dunstan grew into a happy, playful child and wherever he went, he spread warmth and delight with his sparkling blue eyes and bouncing golden curls.

From a tender age he knew what he wanted and so with his parent’s consent, Dunstan’s head was partially shaved, and he went to live amidst Glastonbury’s ruins under the guidance of Irish monks.

Soon Dunstan was mastering his studies whilst fostering eager dreams of restoring the abbey.  Most thought his youthful optimism would come to nothing but in the years to follow Dunstan’s devotions blossomed.  Not only did he become a master silversmith, musician and artist but it was there, amongst the abbey’s remains that his heart found a meeting place.

Dunstan’s fame spread throughout the land, and it wasn’t long before the young monk was summoned to the royal court where he quickly became a trusted favourite of Athelstan.  Athelstan was king; the first Anglo Saxon monarch of the whole of England and King Alfred’s grandson.

But there were some whose hearts grew dark and heavy in the shadows.  They hated Dunstan’s popularity and soon their jealous whispers reached the ears of Athelstan where they planted seeds of treachery, wickedness and deception.

And so under the king’s orders, one autumn night as Dunstan returned from his evening walk he was seized and thrown from Court.  Beyond the palace gates, his enemies were waiting.

With an ugly roar the mob set upon Dunstan.  Their angry bellows and clenched fists filled the quiet night as blow by blow they battered Dunstan until he was bleeding and barely conscious.  Then he was picked up, thrown into a cesspool and left to die.

Somehow Dunstan managed to crawl from that stinking hole to the house of a friend.  After a miraculous recovery, that is a tale unto itself, Dunstan journeyed on until he arrived into the service of his uncle, the Bishop of Winchester.

Dunstan never saw King Athelstan again.  It was only after the king’s death that Dunstan was summoned once more to the royal court – this time to Cheddar to be in service to the new king, Edmund.

Once again Dunstan’s increasing popularity inspired hatred and envy.  More plots were hatched and once more Dunstan’s enemies looked to have succeeded.

The next day the king ordered Dunstan’s exile.  Unsettled by the rumours he had heard Edmund was angry and upset.  Feeling like a fool for trusting Dunstan he stormed from the palace and ordered his attendants to join him for a hunt.  And so it was, mounted on his favourite horse, the hot headed king led the chase deep into Mendip’s misty forest.  Edmund did not care what game was flushed from the undergrowth until he saw the recognisable shape of a stag standing out against the soft afternoon light.

Charging after the noble beast Edmund’s attendants were soon left behind as his horse and hounds galloped at full speed towards the cliff edge.  Blinded by his fury, Edmund could not see the danger ahead as he rode hard, driving his quarry before him.  The stag rushed blindly over the vertical cliff followed by the hounds who hurtled headlong after it dropping like heavy stones into the empty darkness of the silent gorge.

As the ground opened up before him and believing death was imminent, Edmund suddenly remembered his dear friend and trusted advisor Dunstan.  Pulling hard on the reins to stop, the king closed his eyes, “I promise to make amends if I am saved.”

Edmund kept his promise.  After a shaky ride back to the palace, Dunstan was summoned and the two friends were reunited.

The following day they rode to Glastonbury. The king led Dunstan to the abbot’s throne, knelt before him and kissed his hand.

Now, Abbot of Glastonbury, Dunstan set to work on the abbey’s ruins.  At last his youthful dreams would begin to come true.

Beauty in the Beast

DSC08621For the sharp eyed amongst you, yes the photograph above is of the notorious Sparrowhawk.  I’d been watching her for some time from the kitchen window, camera at the ready when I saw the yellow-eyed fiend lean forwards.  Anticipating take off, I took the picture only to discover that she was in fact bending over to go to the loo.  Not quite what I was expecting!

It’s April and since Spring’s welcome arrival, the air has been alive with trills, tweets and warbles of birdsong.   I didn’t see her fly in.  

Pausing at the kitchen window I breathed in the view.  Beyond the birdfeeders grow daffodils and primroses.  Pockets full of sunshine, they are scattered lovingly between the papal purple of crocuses and sweet heady hyacinth. I love this garden.

It was then that I noticed the unusual shape at the same time as the outburst of alarm calls before … silence.   I focus on the top of the arbour, something’s different.  Peering closer, the upright shape comes into view and I realise what I’m looking at is the creamy soft barred underside of quite a large bird.   

Everything’s gone quiet.  Smaller feathered friends have scarpered.  I look closer.  Her upperside feathers are a subtle brown, the colour of woodland undergrowth.  She’s quite a bird – not one of our usual bright eyed, chirpy visitors, this one is a killer. 

It’s the yellow that catches my attention.  Not the soft pale yellow of Easter primroses, no these are the scaly yellow of long spindly legs shaped at the end with hooked sharp talons.  I looked up – over the lethal looking curved beak and into her eyes.  Wide yellow eyes with dark piercing pupils, they stare unmoving over the medieval stone wall and up the Avill Valley.

I back away from the window slowly before dashing into the study to collect my camera.  Breathing heavily, my heart pounding she was still there when I got back.  Steady and unblinking.  She’s got a mean look in those eyes.

A bird of prey, the sparrowhawk masters the sky with speed, surprise and agility.  Combined with the attitude of a stealth killer, I often see her waiting patiently watching the smaller birds on the feeders until the time is right.   Occasionally the last thing I may see is her long, square-ended tail and broad wings, tearing through the air like a low flying fighter jet. 

At other times it’s all over in seconds, a few downy feathers are left floating in the air, or intermittent piles of fluff, a deadly reminder of this beautiful hawk’s power and precision. 

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Sunshine-in, Sunshine-out

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Sun shines … Flowers bloom … Hedgehog stirs … Clouds gather … Darkness looms … Lambs shiver … Rain pours … Water flows … Earth softens … Clouds clear … Sun shines … Clouds gather … Wind bites … Darkness looms … Rain pours … Children run … Water flows …                                                                                               Clouds clear … and the bees are waking up.

The Meeting Place

 DSC01110The following words were inspired by my experience on the ‘Healing Words’ course, at the International School of Storytelling last summer.  It was one of those life experiences that can be challenging to articulate – and I share it now because this poem goes some way to express something meaningful to me.

 

Where lives the Meeting Place between All Things?

The quiet space, it holds the key

Where all that was and is to be,

The stillness and the pause between

The black of night and dawn is seen,

Or is it where the land meets sea –

A breathing edge of mystery?

Where lives the Meeting Place between All Things?

Amongst the pages and the words

Of writer’s prose and poet’s verse,

Upon the breath of songster’s voice

And in the artist’s palette choice –

It springs to life upon the verge

Where colour, form and beauty merge.

Where lives the Meeting Place between All Things?

There, heart meets mind in sweet embrace

And eyes light up a darkened face.

Round-raindrops fall from clouds of dreams

As thoughts increase and swell to streams –

With smiles we play as magic springs

And feelings soar on Eagle’s wings.

Where lives the Meeting Place between All Things?

There life expands to something new

There was one once, and now there’s two.

Each moment morphs to our desire

A passion burns, re-lights a fire

And there upon a path to tread

A journey springs to life instead.

Where lives the Meeting Place between All Things?

Rumi’s field is where we’ll meet

Beyond Life’s rights or wrongs to greet

Each other, and then side by side

We’ll hear Life’s rhythm on the tide

And where a stillness bridges space –

Between us grows, the Meeting Place.