My mother is fading, long silences
and I give her a tree.
To be exact it is a giant sequoia,
and its height
is like a Bach chorale.
She wants to know how old it is
and I tell her:
over three thousand years.
We watch as forest birds take shelter;
catch the falling beads of rain.
I draw the life cycle of the longhorn beetle,
She likes to be informed.
And fire? She seeks confirmation,
has heard wildfires
give new breath to saplings.
At the end I show her all the family
balanced in pairs
along the highest branches.
She swings her way up, smart and agile
as a chamois,
calling out Wait for me!
Dodging thorns, I harvest sloes, dark booty
piled up slowly in a plastic bag. I am startled
by gaudy berries decorating a spindle tree,
pink lobes as plump as lips, opening to orange
innards like the silk lining of a slashed doublet.
Its exuberance is a far cry from the grey jacket
and veined wrists of Stanley, veteran woodcarver,
who shaped spinning wheels at country fairs
in front of spectators in tweeds and hats. He told me
how the wood of spindle trees demanded tools
sharper than a trickster’s word, how children
could sicken if they took the fruits for sweets.
I picked six twigs, stood them on the kitchen shelf
until the colours faded like fires obscured in fog.
I explain icicles are the tears of griffins who perch on roof tops
searching for a lost direction in freezing winds.
They ask if that’s true.
I let them smooth wrinkles in my stag-skin cloak,
and undo toggles to gawp at the scar where a goshawk
plucked out a corner of my heart.
In recompense, I say, it sometimes lends me its wings
but when I fly the hollow place inside
weighs me down.
Their young ears are better tuned than mine so I ask them
to listen out for sounds of stirring
deep in the Knucker Hole
lest the serpent slithers up to fling curses on all who invade
his solitude. They insist knuckers aren’t real
but I know better.
I say how do you think Southdown ewes get off to sleep?
By counting blackbirds tumbling from crimped-edge pies
as wide as a lambing shed.
And I ask why the oak so bravely alone in the field
is fenced round with planks high and thick
Isn’t it to prevent cattle rubbing against the bark? No,
it’s to stop the tree pulling up its roots and lumbering off
to learn the time for leaf-drop.
I have seen it happen, but only twice in my lifetime.
The land ends where he waits,
a cliff top on the Costa da Morte,
the bare moor behind him
scarred with fallen capstones
and cromlechs of the dead.
Straining to see over the push
and heave of incoming tide
towards the dim horizon,
he tries to make out darker shapes,
the Isles of the Blessed.
He remembers the dogs wailing
in the alleys, and the priests’ chant:
they sang to hasten the passage
of assembled souls gliding along
the milky star-path towards paradise.
After the dousing of saints-day fires
the dogs slept, noses tucked under tails.
Can he believe, as he did then,
that the starry field – the compo-stellae –
will open like a breathing scallop shell
and let loose soul-showers,
handfuls of grainy pearls, to fall
into valleys of betula and oak,
onto shores where crested birds feed,
among them his own flickering soul?