one for sorrow

I keep seeing solitary magpies: on new year’s day, on the big oak tree which towers over the rooftops opposite, a single magpie hopping around the branches, fluffing its feathers; yesterday, over the hill out the back of the house, a smart flutter like a fan opening on its long straight handle; and today, a sharp-suited fellow strutting across the car park at Monmouth Services. Is it a reminder, as I drive north towards home, or a refrain: one for sorrow, one for sorrow, one for sorrow?

Surely not, I think, to the magpie now flitting between the tops of the young ash trees which separate the car park from the green field beyond. We’re in a sorry enough state already. But then I don’t find the sight of a single magpie sorrowful. I find it reassuring: a solitaire, the solo path, at least for a while.

I glance at it once more and it swoops down swiftly from the upper branch of the ash tree to the grass beneath. Like Annie Dillard’s mockingbird as it steps off a tree, it descends intently in a movement so sure it’s not like a movement at all but rather a revealing, an illustrating, for a moment, the shape of space itself; as if it’s slid down the invisible thread connecting the branch and the grass, joining the dots of their shared reality. Or maybe not joining or connecting which again imply travel, but simply demonstrating, like particles in a quantum physics experiment, the seamless contact of all things. The magpie slips down from the tree the way the earth rides its trajectory around the sun, the way I cruise up the dual carriageway in my van, as if it’s not about extension at all but the continuity of the blades of grass and the branch of the ash tree and the cloud-occluded sun and my van’s course up the A449, determined yet liberated, effortless, sorrow-free.

(Mockingbird from Annie Dillard’s stunning book,’Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’)

Monmouth Services, Sir Fynwy/Monmouth, Wales
3rd January 2022