By Rachel Canwell -
“Why don’t you all just sod off?” he says.
He hasn’t got his teeth in but we can understand him just fine.
“Dad!” Mum pulls the curtain a bit tighter, mouths an apology to the man in the next bed.
She looks at me and my brother, trying to smile.
“He doesn’t mean it. He’s not himself.”
“I bloody do mean it. And I’ve never been more myself.”
Granda tries and fails to haul himself upright.
“I’m not bloody dead yet.”
He looks it though. Or at least how I imagine people who are nearly dead would look.
My brother and I glance at each other and then look away. We both know. Know that it won‘t be long, that this time we haven’t been called here on a fool’s errand.
That this time Granda really is dying.
I am not sure how long we spend on the ward, but when we step outside the day is over and night is racing across the fen. I watch it rolling towards me, marvelling at the way I can define its progress. Drained of energy and emotion I stand and stare.
Daniel throws his arm around my shoulders, drawing me close and then pushing me just slightly away. A brotherly half hug, but more than I would usually get.
“What you thinking, sis?”
“The usual, how bloody flat it is. And how much I like it.”
Mum brings the car around and we climb in. Daniel in the front, me in the back, settling into childhood, childish patterns. Mum smiles sadly, looks back at me, reaching out and touching my cheek.
“Ready for home?”
I shake my head.
“I want to stay at Granda’s remember.”
She scowls, hoping I’d given that up. Hoping the hospital and what we’d found there would send me safely home.
“Abby…I wish you wouldn’t. It’s not fit to spend a night in.”
“Granda’s been living there.”
Tears fill her eyes now and her voice takes on an edge of steel. She always hides her pain in anger.
“Yes, and look where he is now.”
“Mum. It’s one night, and there are such things as phones.”
She shrugs, defeated, and we set off.
We drive through the darkening flat country, along the ditches and dykes that mark the landscape, guided by the mothy shadows of church steeples that stand like masts, visible for miles around.
I open the window, just a crack and wait for the air to change, for the dry dust of agriculture to give way to the salty wetness that marks the tang of the marsh.
As we approach the crossroads, I sense Mum’s hesitation, see her eyes flicker up to meet mine in the rearview mirror. I know she is thinking about driving straight on, pretending she has forgotten.
I raise one eyebrow and set my mouth, she mirrors my expression, but flicks the indicator and we turn, right, into the road that soon becomes a track, setting a course towards the cottage and the marsh.
The yard in front of the cottage is all shapeless shadows and forgotten things, the evening throwing a sheet over what in reality is a holy mess. Granda’s never thrown much away but even I can see that things are really out of control now.
Mum stops the car, but keeps the engine running. I climb out, dragging my overnight bag with me; a bag that is filled with food, snacks I bought on impulse on the train, when Daniel rang to say how bad things were. When I realised what I would need to do.
I kiss Mum through the window, feel her cheek soften slightly beneath my lips.
“Pick you up tomorrow about 10. Visiting is at 11.” She clears her throat and looks away. “Any news, anything changes, I will give you a ring.”
I nod, feel in my pocket for the key, the one I’ve always had, and then turn up the path, using the torch on my phone to pick my way through old tyres, pop bottles and a hundred other things.
As I reach the door I hear it, one low long call. Something is welcoming me home.
I make my way around the cottage, feeling the walls as I go, gently because too much pressure and the brick will crumble; the render is patchy and most of it long gone.
The goose is out the back, in the pen furthest from the cottage. All the other pens are empty, abandoned. She, with her enquiring eye and long arching neck, is the very last one.
Making my way towards her I am suddenly nervous. The old familiar awe I feel in the presence of these birds returns and threatens to overwhelm.
Using my phone to shine a light around I see that someone’s been. One of Granda’s ever shrinking bunch of cronies has given her corn, topped up the fresh water. I silently acknowledge the fact that any one of them could do what I have come here to do. That I could wimp out and call them. But I won’t.
Granda asked me to do it. I have to see it through.
The bird continues looking intently at me, standing in the centre of her pen. Trapped in the spotlight of my phone she looks like a dancer. Regal and poised. As if on cue she stretches her neck, spreads her wings and lets out one long primeval shriek. The sound ricochets out of the pen, off the cottage walls and echoes across the marsh beyond. Other birds pick up the cry. As one they call back in answer and for what seems like hours I am surrounded by a choir of insistence. Each call, each cry reiterating the promise I have made.
Then sudden, deafening silence. And for the first time today I am near to tears. For the first time all this seems real. Seems final.
I lean forward, pressing my face to the wire, getting as close as I dare.
“I hear you.” I whisper. “Tomorrow ok?”
The goose turns and begins pecking at the corn. I tell myself she understood and head inside to rest.
The chaos of Granda’s cottage has to be seen to be believed. I could try and get a fire going, try and chase away the marsh dampness that is everywhere. But I see no point. Instead I let it envelop me, let it become a living, seeping, breathing reminder of the promise I have made. Of the reason I am here.
I don’t even bother climbing the stairs. The only bed is Granda’s and know I couldn’t bear to even look at it tonight. Instead I clear a space, move newspaper, string, oil skins off the armchair and angle it towards the window. The moon is full and the marsh beyond shimmers like molten lead. Sleep comes and then retreats, and every time I open my eyes the world is bathed in a ghostly silver light.
I watch the dawn, the colours of fire that paint the sky from the water up, rising slowly, burnishing the reeds and dancing on grimy windows, staking their golden claim to this one final day.
Heading to the kitchen, coaxing the spluttering tap into life and l drink, long and deep from Granda’s least chipped mug. I am wearing his oilskin, and my old welly boots.
I stop to text Mum, reassure her I survived the night, and then stuffing my phone in one of the jacket’s deep pockets, I head out.
The release box is by the door. I’ve carried one like this a thousand times, but never on my own. I’ve always had Granda by my side. And there have always been others waiting for us. More rescued birds in the pens needing our help.
I head out to her. The very last one. She is awake. Waiting.
Summoning my strength, biting down on my fear, I step into her pen and with a confidence I don’t feel I lifted her quickly into the box. Under my arm I feel her tense but she doesn’t fight.
She has been ready to leave for weeks now. Her wing is long healed and when I peep at her eye through the wire of the box, it is full of fast returning wildness.
I lift the release box, starting slightly at the weight, suddenly doubting whether I can carry it as far as I need. Instantly the goose seems to settle, to redistribute her bulk, and the box becomes suddenly, magically manageable.
So we set off.
Out the back gate, through the rough grass and out on to unbroken marsh flats beyond. I walk with care, following the familiar paths, skirting clumps of reeds, not letting my feet be pulled into the deep grey mud. Granda’s warning are ringing in my ears as my eyes constantly flicker up to the horizon and then beyond.
Long before I am ready I find myself surrounded by the call of birds, the rattle of the reeds in the gentle morning breeze; the music of the marsh that stops me in my tracks. The sounds that tell me in their own unique way that this is the place.
This is the time.
I kneel down, and with fingers trembling I release the catch on the box. The bird eyes me wearily, huddled in one corner. Both horror and hope spring up in my chest, as for just one fleeting second I convince myself she doesn’t want to go.
I wrap my hands around her, pinning her wings like Granda taught me, like I’ve seen him do a hundred times. Pushing my fingers in between her feathers, I feel their softness, feel their strength. Feel the urgency of life at my fingertips.
I lift her out, and just for a fleeting second, cradle her close. She is waking up now, stirring as the marsh air starts to push at her edges, overwhelming, invigorating. I can feel her wings start to pushing against my palms, sense returning panic.
I force myself to do it.
To hold her out in front of me and at arm’s length lift her up to the freshly painted sun.
And she is gone.
Neck out, flying forward like a glinting dart, she takes off. The last of her kind, the last of his care, right there; swooping over the marsh, into the golden sky.
I watch her until she disappears, until she dissolves, as if she were never there. As if this had never been.
And as I stand there, face awash with salty, marsh tasting tears, my phone begins to ring.
Rachel Canwell is a teacher, blogger, reader and writer but not always in that order. She is currently working on her first novel which was shortlisted for the Retreat West Pitch to Win Competition 2021. She is also falling in love with flash fiction a little bit more everyday. You can find her on Twitter @bookbound2019.