Caught by the River

Shadow Birds

13th April 2019

From a Derry council estate in the 1990s to the Brick Lane of today, Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes on the various birds – real and otherwise – which have followed her throughout her life

Roa’s Sacred Crane, courtesy of Spitalfields Life

Last November, as the old year made moves to give up its delicate ghosts, I lay in Leeds and let a stranger draw a wild canary with the finest of needles and the blackest of ink onto my left arm. It was 17 weeks ago today, and from the moment that bird made its way onto my skin, I haven’t drunk a single drop of alcohol.

I have known for quite some years that alcohol was numbing me, keeping dark parts of my insides covered up with a thin film; there was something a bit like a kombucha scoby covering over the bit of my brain that held all my crow-black stuff. I knew all those dark memories were still there, untouched, but they were being held safely under a slimy fermented hipster blanket. Just like the childhood possessions people keep in their parents’ loft years after moving away from the home nest, I didn’t need to worry about the chaotic pile of memories buried deep in that brain-bog-attic. Nor did I need to worry about the Beatrix Potter books, my first diaries, Missy (my Cabbage Patch doll) or the Sylvanian Families I had loved so dearly. They were all left behind in our home one September many moons ago, on a Derry Council Estate, the night that house was petrol-bombed by sectarian youths. Derry-Doire-Londonderry in the 1990’s is a place I have only started to remember in flashes free from black smoke for the first time this year, with its lemonade bottle petrol bombs, its disco with spangle bracelets and troll tee-shirts the night after the president of America talked to us about bridges of peace; with its soldiers at the bus-stop, at school, on the corner, at the border, the beach; at the everywhere. With its helicopters keeping you from sleep, its surnames keeping you from everywhere that you wanted to go, its poverty keeping you from trouble, its barriers keeping you from everywhere; its boundaries keeping its everything away from its everything else.

The new family that got allocated our home that week, in the thick of the Troubles that were ravaging that Housing estate like a wild creature being starved, threw every single thing we’d left into the back garden as soon as they moved in.
When we went to look for our things; our photos and letters, our toys and baby hair in envelopes, our yellow teapot and my Mam’s beauty pageant trophies, our things found on Donegal beach walks across the hard border; we watched the equally hard new family pretend we weren’t there. There were no curtains for them to draw to keep our eyes away from looking into the house we called home. It made no difference anyway, as no person or item could be properly made out through the (already bogging) windows of that still smoke-scorched house. There was movement without definition, forms becoming wraiths; taking off from a sofa we couldn’t see but assumed was our black leather one; ghost vultures.
The following week my Mam’s best friend had to stop her from turning up at the house in the dead of night and digging up the cherry blossom tree from the rectangle of soil in the concrete front garden. We had nowhere to replant it, and no idea when, or if, we ever would.

The childhood belongings were easy, so easy in fact, to forget. The human-size silken crow I met in my smoke-filled, fear-thick bedroom: not so easy to shake out of my insides, unsurprisingly. Odd that. The cheap door in the room had warped in the heat, and try as I might that night to shove it open, the door remained firmly in its place like a rooted oak. The crow laughed and laughed and laughed at me but no sound escaped out of his smooth black beak; a silent and haunting introduction to that wondrous concept of ‘schadenfreude’.

That crow held me tightly in his silent grip for decades. At the beginning he was bigger than life itself, holding the optical illusion of the world in his strong beak. When I first read Ted Hughes’ incredible work on this haunting creature, I wondered if we all share the same crow, in different corners of our inner landscape. The morning I left Ireland in my early twenties, intending never to return again, my crow flew around and around and around of me, and refused to land, as the soft pink hue of morning softened his ebony coat. It made me think of hydrangea as it wilts, and of how hauntingly beautiful decay can be, sometimes.  As time has passed, we’ve learned to dance around each other, he and I. My love for the natural world, particularly for real life birds, creatures of feathers and bones, of sound and of flight, has, oddly, helped a shed load in dealing with that phantom crow. If I’m really honest, I think that his existence has made me see things in a different way, which, weirdly, has had upsides.

He is not a real crow but to deny his existence would be ridiculous. He lives in that realm in between myth and hazy lost-ness. I’ve come to look at him as a 3-D graffiti art piece, a visual reminder of both the thing itself and of the time (and house) he was born in. This has made me see visual representations of things in a very particular way. I’m drawn to images of things I love in a full-on way. I understand that these replicas are not even a fraction of the real things but I still find comfort in effigies, frequently, and I think the crow has played a role in that. I have, for example, an obsession with bird brooches, and wear one most days; a wee piece of armour on the collar of my coat. I look for birds in so many places other than the sky, for obvious reasons.

A short list of birds that have delivered solace straight into my grateful hands during hard times recently, from places other than the sky are – a pigeon in the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, kingfishers on wooden chairs, a hummingbird on an oven, magpies on feminist manifestos, a wagtail on the air conditioning in Sainsbury’s, a robin and a chicken in a tent, a peacock on a lady’s torso in a bathroom in Penryn, a blue macaw on the wall outside the old Births, Deaths and Marriages Offices, a jay at a friary, swallows on a wrist, penguins in windows on a first visit to a different border town/on sleep suits/on many cards, a budgie on a golden string on an evergreen and a firecrest in too many dreams to count. My all time favourite, a bird I make pilgrimage to encounter every single chance I get, is Roa’s massive feathered crane just off Brick Lane. I love it so much, a love that is almost surreal it is so real. That painted bird feeds and nourishes my soul, and I don’t understand why, but I have given up on caring about the why. The world is odd, we are odd. A terrifying, lying reality TV star is in charge of America. We haven’t had a Government sit for years now in the North of Ireland, and the Government sitting at Westminster seem to learn new ways daily to ignore the voices of those they are there to represent. Seeking comfort in a bird painted above a car park on a wall in East London is maybe not as weird as it once seemed. We are being told in the North of Ireland that, despite the much fought for Good Friday Agreement, we are, suddenly, no longer Irish. Brexit, borders, barriers, identity; real and imagined. Place, the concept of home and representation of it, always massive things, now seem so much more important; critical even.
In Ireland the Heron and Crane are both known as ‘Corr reisc’ which translates as ‘Crying moon Crane’. This bird was revered by my early ancestors because it was seen to be equally at home in flight, on land, and in water, which made it a magical creature; so comfortable in all the worlds as to be otherworldly, somehow. Above, below, under and through; undefined and yet so defined by place.

I’m back in Bristol to get my flight home to Ireland. It’s the last day of a really special week away. I walk to Tesco and buy cashews, and yoghurt. I’m given a spork and the word makes me almost laugh out loud. Words are ace, and their mind-mapping is pure genius. I pay for my final breakfast of this deeply moving trip, and carry it out into the Bristol blue sky morning, with plastic cutlery that I nestle away in the kitchen drawer of my brain, hidden snuggly inside the vast bill of a stork.

I reach Rough Trade six minutes before they open. Facebook informed when I woke that Scott Walker has just died, and I’m keen to see if he’ll be the first record they play. I decide to make tracks, though, feeling drawn towards the harbour, but almost immediately I find myself down a narrow walkway where a new Marketing Suite is being built. There is a blue car parked beside a wall, and the blue of the car’s roof is blending perfectly into the feathers of a huge, bewitching spray-painted kingfisher on the wall above it, like a river flowing into the sea. The two blues are so well matched, completely coincidentally, and I don’t know why but these type of things fill me with a giddy, child-like joy. In the sky (a paler blue than the car and the kingfisher), gulls holler and moan. One single crow lands on the green recycling skip and starts to watch me try to eat my cashews from a small, fiddly plastic container. He is, of course, a creature I know well; our first encounter is now 24 years in the distant past, but it feels, as always, like that smoke-filled meeting took place this very morning. Even now, on days like this, so full of gorgeous light, the promise of spring in the air, on my way to talk about curlews with a lovely new friend – still he finds me. I drop my cashews all over the place. Some of them get stuck in the silver rungs of the futuristic bench I’m sitting on. Others, though, make it safely through the rungs, going right through without any difficulty, landing on the footpath of their underworld with ease. As I look down through the gaps, the sun catches the bronze of a no-longer-shiny penny. I see the penny, I pick it up but no friend is ‘near’ to pass it on to so I examine it instead, turning it over in my hand, looking for a date. 1994, the year my childhood home was petrol bombed. I take it both as a sign, and as having no meaning whatsoever. Turning points do not always come when we think they will. The things that feel like they will break us often don’t. The moments after midnight on birthdays, in the liminal gaps between an old and new year, just after the ghosts of the past have settled back into the woodwork, are often not the moments that will burrow down deep inside us. The big moments seem to come knocking at the warped door when we least expect them; in places on the map we never dreamed could held the potential for such deeply rooted change. Sometimes, the map shop itself turns out to be a more important point on the journey than the places on the map you are slowly, bravely, making your way back to.

A few days earlier, at the café in the William Morris Gallery, I’d met an extraordinary human for the first time in the flesh after lots of to-ing and fro-ing on various social media spaces. The first time we started a thread in real life, she turned up wearing a swift on her coat. I had a crane on mine. It was the first thing I spoke to her of, an opener that defined the direction our conversation and connection would go. I am grateful, so grateful, to the RSPB for making those pins.

Who would have thought that a busy café in Walthamstow would be the space in which I spoke, for the very first time, to a stranger now a friend, about things that happened on a laneway in Derry three decades before hand? We are odd creatures. Life is odd, so odd these days, but both are so beautiful too. In the map shop, there are gorgeous letterpress cards of birds, and I lift one to send to the new friend. It is exquisite – so many shades of orange and red. We’d had a conversation about the colour red, and there are swifts in the card’s sky, and so I queue to pay. As I wait the artist’s name and the title of the piece reveal themselves from the back. The card’s hues are to show the scene as being the opposite season we are in right now: autumn. The piece is called ‘Heading Home’. The blue sky outside, the real one, full of birdsong, paints us all very much into spring but I don’t care, I buy it anyway. Who knows where we’ll be this autumn? What we will and won’t be allowed to call ourselves? Where we will be kept away from or allowed to make for? But I know one thing for sure: every human we talk to, every space we inhabit or leave, every piece of solace and comfort we give or are given, is an act of bravery, a flight into the unknown, a real and beautiful journey. We are all, every day, no matter where we find ourselves, on our own journey, but we are all in this together; we are all ‘heading home’.

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Kerri ní Dochartaigh lives in northwest Ireland. She writes about nature, literature and place for publications which include Oh Comely magazine, New Welsh Review and The London Magazine. 

You can follow her on Instagram here, Twitter here, and she publishes new writing on her blog here.