Rachael Smart (words) and David Smith (photos)
Editor’s note from Janice Leagra: This is a very special and exciting feature for me to publish, because it’s the marriage of creativity between two gifted people whose individual talent and work I so enjoy and respect. That Rachael and David are also friends who collaborated on this feature makes it extra special.
I’ve admired Rachael’s work ever since I first read it a few years ago. Her love of language is evident in her skillful, singular wordsmithing, where nouns can function as verbs and the lyricism of her sentences beg to be read over and over to savor their poetic beauty.
I came to know David’s nature photography through Rachael’s retweets. I was taken by the exquisite detail and beauty of his photos and his keen eye for composition. Every one of his shots is a study in color and wonder and it’s evident he loves nature and all of its gifts.
The autumn touch becomes governed you are invaded by birds.
Dusk when the first comes. You are drawing on cherries-in-the-snow lipstick at the mirror and a large one zips in through the open window. It is so unexpected; an agitated, plumed intruder. It flits about above the bath with a speed hard to escape in such a tiny space and when it alters direction blades towards your face, a hard live thing with its pinprick eyes. There is a kaleidoscope of movement in the glass and your hands go up to shield your bright red mouth and when you run from the room, jelly-legs, it takes an age for your heart to stop sprinting. Your dad comes. You tell him you know it is absurd to leg it from a bird but you felt it brought menace. Later, on the bathroom tiles: waxy blue feathers.
More come. A swallow planes into the kitchen window whilst you steep tea, another balances exquisitely on the wires outside your study. It makes you see birds for what they really are: toothless, feathered, ominous things. It is as though you are seeing birds for the first time after living amongst them for all these years. Predatory. Beauteous. Bearing their young into hard shells. Winged where you are armed.
One loses its way and stones down inside the chimney space and you cannot muster up the boldness to release it until its fervent wing tips stop chafing against stone. You get your dad round, tell him something fluttery is trapped. Christ, a beautiful thrush, he says when he gloves the carcass out, and you tell him you are so sorry but you couldn’t release another one indoors. You look away from its fragile legs like fine reeds. Stippled tan chest. It is holy how your dad kisses his first and second fingers; anoints blessings along beak edge.
High up in the forks of the sycamore the chitter of sparrows amplifies until it is scream loud as though nature gains power in the absence of humans.
You meet a twitcher out walking who says he isn’t strictly a twitcher but each time you pass him by you shout ‘Call yourself a twitcher?’ You like how his face lanterns when he laughs. You tell him about Sara Baume’s book. The one where a woman photographs road kill which becomes an aesthetic for therapeutic recovery and he confesses he is not only about capturing primal beauty, but also drawn to photograph the details of life people instinctively turn away from.
He tells you that a bird’s bones are hollow and filled with space for air, an adaptation which assists with oxygen intake during flight. You tell him that on humans you like collar bones, the knife of a jaw, wrists. He says he is all about the legs and looks at yours pointedly. I wonder if our bones were the same as birds, you say, if we could leave all this behind and skit away over field and aqua, would we lose our propensity for routine, our heart-pushing need for attachment? He tells you how humans weren’t designed to fly because they struggle with leaving people behind. He says he will spend an inordinate amount of time thinking how your bones might feel under his fingers.
You follow a bird expert on Twitter, start to recognise the sibilance of deviance within a magpie’s call. The twitcher asks you whether you think you can speak bird yet. You tell him that you find bird a language with no dictionary; untranslatable.
Winter, when it comes, is fleecing and you wear fingerless gloves to allow yourself dexterity with your camera buttons. He always loses the subject in his lens. Or perhaps it is that he doesn’t ever locate it in the first place. He explains that when birds experience torpor their heart rate can slow to 50 – 180 beats per minute. At the lake which is choppy and black you start to rearrange words; tell him you like to say The Book of Face for Facebook. Just for the craic. How you shuffle words around like a play li- and when you get to -st he has got the back of your head and his mouth is wet and on you, and for the rest of the walk your lips smart, legs feel borrowed. Later, he messages to ask if you are home safe. What was all that about, you type. The kiss, he types. Yes, the kiss, you type. To stop you at the mouth, he types. His next message: a photo of the dessert wine he is enjoying with his wife.
It isn’t that you don’t like birds. You do. You like the aeronautics of wings, the way migration brailles blackly against the bruise of a sky but you don’t believe in birds being indoors and you tell the twitcher he won’t ever catch you writing about birds. Your fingers are blue. Put them in my pocket. Not on your life, you say, we will follow the government rules rigorously and there will be no give on this.
His pocket is very small and branded. You tell him you do not approve of labelling. Inside, his hand: a live octopus. Anyway, you say, ignoring that your hand is subterranean with him thumbing circles on your wrist: you won’t ever find me reciting poems about swifts and their pale throats or their wings brass pins that glint against the brunettes of the heath.
Bird blood is similar to yours in that it contains both red and white blood cells. When you start losing blood you tell nobody but him. For weeks the contents of your knickers are plasmatic, sticky, the constant fallout a threat that is darkening. He texts, tells you to book a scan weeks before you feel sufficient strength to wait through all the numbered options, the persistent cough rhetoric. The day of the scan you stand before the doctor in calf-length culottes. Take off your skirt, he says and even though it’s unnecessary you tell him they are trousers and open up your legs wide enough to show the groin stitched up.
The twitcher gifts you a pinch of driftwood on return from a weekend away with his wife. You get the impression she does not value debris as you do. It feels liquid in your hands from decades of the water’s thrashing, glows: dark and dawn. Aniseed stripes are shot through it and you think of seaside rock and sticky cola, of peaching afternoons in pubs with your parents squiffy and you stretching out your coltish, sun-snogged legs to charm the boys. You thank him with an illegal hug, the pair of you all elbows and groin avoidant.
When you are scanned a second time to determine the cause of the bleeding, you take the wood as a talisman and thumb it in your left hand. On the polar screen the sonographer cannot locate your right ovary, it is obscured by a growth. The wood burns your fingers.
It rains. It rains a softness and bluely and the tarmac steams heat back up at both of your bare legs and the water is an undressing. No clouds overhead, but it waters down your faces and heavies your clothes until they feel iron. You don’t tell him about the scan.
The room is a womb and the two of you not used to walls. Dulux the colour of the seat of your pants. It is amniotic, nurturing. The air feels static with a steam to it and outside the glass goes the clean static hum of trains, the street drinkers wheezing up their woes like fractured pavements. You angel on the bed, limbs close enough to repel. Yours are bodies printed with other mouths. You cannot breathe with the possibility and tell him how his eyes shift with his moods: pond to weir to puddle. A déjà vu gets hold of you so intense that you lose articulation. You can only look at the open Velux window, your two pairs of trainers on the rug sighing side by side. When touch comes it is vixen. Leg pinioned against throat. Throat squeezing until the walls move and tomorrow reddens.
There is no holding afterwards and he says I’m sorry that wasn’t very affectionate of me and you say, don’t: I’m not after that. You tell him you are going to shower – get tampons – and you to and fro over where to meet, a decent pub, and you are stunned that he doesn’t rise with aggravation to your navigational difficulties. The twitcher laughs, he pins you maps. On your walk back through the blue-lit city a street busker shouts why the long face and you kiss him a tenner. In the shower you bleed fast in to the water’s vortex. You think of abnormal cells multiplying, the labial butterfly-wing print left on his bed, all those illegal meets where you stipulated: absolutely, no touching.
Rachael Smart is a short story writer, poet and literary reviewer. Recent work has been published at The Letters Page and Prole.
David Smith is a nature and wildlife photographer, based in Nottingham, England. David specialises in bird photography but also some other wildlife and landscapes captured around the UK. His photography is featured on the birding.nature Instagram account.