Marsh Fugitives

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Barney Water, Glenkens – 18/05/20

A greening came to the loch-side. New grass sprang from the shores where water claps and paddles in the wind, then it rose and sought up the inflows like a rising tide, following the burn-banks back uphill; steady green and growing like a stain or an inkblot. A month ago, this land was white and badly worn; now it’s shot through with new veins like the creepers of blood which run around an egg’s yolk.

Smelling this change on every turn of the wind, the cattle complained. It’s hard to hold them on a dry hilltop when sap is rising in the bottoms, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they should’ve found their own way down to meet the spring.

They seemed not to give a damn that I had placed a fence across their path. They nudged and drove at the wires, shouldering them testily. I would later find tufts of black and white hair all balled and snagged along the barbs, but at last they slipped across my barricade, finding space where a watergate lay in the shallow burn bottom. Having passed beyond my bounds, they found the downhill ground lay greener and more lush with every descending step until they came at last to a marsh. Here was grass to feed a grand herd of cattle, with buds and sludge and the buttery squash of rising sap.

In creeping down to recover the fugitives, I found myself walking in their wake. Cattle tracks led me far into a risky mesh of ditches and dark water. I pushed through man-high reeds and the wreckage of old bulrushes like broken scaffolding; the kind of mess where bitterns boom. It was no wonder that the cows had been drawn to this salad bar of cinquefoil and valerian; compared to the hill, it was paradise. A snipe began to drum in the darkening sky, and in looking up to find him I stared instead at the face of an osprey passing low above me, trailing some branch or nest-decking in his claws. We could not believe one another; me owl-faced and pale in my boots, him dull as willow-bark in the twilight.

I drove deeper still, and the marsh began to boil with frog-mess and the swirl of tiger-striped pike in the fringes. I found signs of otters on every peg and turl of grass; spraintings, and screeds of grey, membranous fish-coat left curling in the breeze like paper. The cows must’ve followed an otter-track as if it were a pilot hole, because while they had enlarged it in their passing, there was still something small-minded and tumbly in the way they’d worked along the waterbanks.

At times it was a pleasure to walk in that marsh with the afterglow of a warm day and the grass rising like elvers around me. But there were just as many moments where the land lay dank and odourless; the pools wet enough to hold a fish but fishless all the same. I shrank and stood apart, fretful that I was being summoned into something wholly unwholesome; that the tall reeds would part upon something I was never meant to see, and me three miles from the nearest help.

I found them in the last huff before darkness. They lay and tossed their tails in the green lee of a willow tree, and it was a relief to find them. They stood when they saw me, and it was no work to lead them home again with Venus rising above the dark hills to the west above Loch Skerrow. I looked over my shoulder once or twice to watch them following-on; a queue of black and white bodies all warm and busty in the half light. I felt less timid for some company, and feeling braver with five tons of beef at my back, I laughed aloud and sang something old.

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