We saw a swallow on the third of April. The dark shape flew from east to west across the horizon, and then it was gone. We always mark the swallow’s arrival as a time of joy, but it was hard to find pleasure in those silent, flickering wings. Others came in following days, but the weather was dull and bitterly cold. I watched a swallow trying to work in the frost, and I pitied the futility of hunting through empty air. Those early birds were quiet and cool; silhouettes against a hollow sky.
I feared for the swallow chicks which hatched in the byre during the harvest. They hung around the yard until October, and it seemed unlikely that they’d ever build the clout to reach Africa. Thousands of late chicks must die on passage, and it seems just as likely that many of the earliest swallows die on their return, battered by ice and a lack of insect food. Humans can live for days on the smallest margins, but swallows are calibrated to balance on a knife-edge. Even the tiniest gap between meals will sink them, and I recall an old Galloway motto; the finest acme of rural conservatism: “never be the first or the last to try something new”. I wonder what became of the birds which came here on the third of April, two full weeks before there was food and warmth to buoy them.
I watched those early outriders flying in the cold and I heaped their impatience beside my own. I’ve been straining for progress over many weeks, and the hard, changeless spread of the land around me became an open wound. There have been times when I’ve hated the dumb granite of this yard. The rocks are stubborn and dull, and they didn’t seem to give a damn that it was April and the sap was rising. I played with the idea of going away; finding somewhere warm and comfortable to lie. But I’m anchored to this spot, and I must wait for spring to come to me.
The weather didn’t break, but it cracked on Monday and there was a cosy drum of rain on the tin roof. The soil reeked beneath it, and the yard was suddenly filled with the smell of wet stone. That crack was enough to move us along, and now the land is warm and sweet. We need more rain, but we’ve had enough to spark insects into motion. Ants battle through the moss, and gnats churn like smoke in the shade of the blackthorn blossom.
And now there are real swallows singing in the granary and the pig pen rails. They’re blue and glossy and filled with spools of chattering song. Forget those early, baffled waifs; these are the birds we’ve waited for during long months of ice and darkness.