Magpie (For Anxious Objects)
There were only a few minutes remaining until daylight’s time was up. If one ran quickly along the pathway between the gate from the back garden and the row of half-dead apple trees that drew a straight and sad line out of it, the cluster of oaks circling the brown pond could be reached easily before sunset. It was a long journey best made quickly.
Dirty orange and purple shards of light cut through foliage before darkness. It wasn’t particularly beautiful, but some sense of urgency caused the child to look at it for those brief few minutes before it dimmed away to a dulling blur behind the treeline opposite.
The pond was roughly circular. On the left-hand side the dishevelled planks of a wooden diving board remained from a time when the water was clean and used regularly. To the right stood a patch of mud that used to be sand, and therefore served as a place for the children to sit when there was sunshine all day long. That was no longer the case.
'Fuck it!' she said out to herself. She would often appropriate the voice of her father when alone. An attempt, she later realised, to embody a member of the opposite sex in volume and tone of voice, while also sort of puking him out – a whole person captured in two hawkish words.
The brown pond had at least four memories linking it to her childhood:
— The sense of splodging around in grey mud near the frayed and distorted edge of it;
— The shaping of things using this clay-like material. Malleable or gloopy and pliant;
— A coin superglued to a nearby tree which provided a sense of fixity where there was otherwise none;
— That former bird’s nest that never seemed to have much inside it.
There were two distinct clearings within the circle of trees surrounding the water. One acted as a welcome, momentary rest break between two gatherings of brambles that she would run through; knees high in an attempt to avoid injury. The other, the patch of sand turned to mud, was where most of the time visiting was spent. The smallest trees grew there, heliotropically reaching up to available light provided by gaps between taller oaks. Their trunks twisted dramatically, but not without pain, as this was a desperate attempt by a young tree to find sustenance, sapling-like, and use it a means to grow in a place of declining light.
One could kneel on the mud and sink in a little. It was generally firm apart from at the water’s edge, where it moistened and also changed colour from elephant skin grey to a less handsome charcoal tone. Its smell was petrichor, the blank yet distinct scent of nature. Its feel was cold and that is all. The expanse of it felt huge to the young girl. Some four and a half metres long it stretched, from her kneecaps to the berm of the pond.
Blood specked the child’s knees and upper legs. Little scratches accumulated from bramble hopping, red or pink, against white legs and pallid ground. Her eyes led out and she followed with the full stretch of her arms. It was comforting for her to rest her stomach, chest and cheek on the mud, breathing it in and slowly exhaling outwards again. She once bet herself she could make a whole city on that ground, using glue and matchsticks. Imagine that there is no flatter a place, and nowhere more precious and fertile too. It was four times the size of her body.
On that occasion she snuck several boxes of matches out of the house and carried them to the brown pond. She lined up ten of them in a row and lit another so that strange cleansing smell of sulphur cleared the air. As she lit matches every few seconds, they could be laid out to mark a boundary for her city. They formed a wall of sorts. She figured if someone tried to burn her ramparts down he or she’d have trouble. Burnt matches aren’t easy to light, unless you turn them into coal and who’s got time to do that when ransacking.
Grasping at a handful of ground, a fist-sized portion filled her hand. Now in a crouching position, using both hands together, she could grab at it as hard as the twist of a tourniquet. A few drops of water slipped out from between her fingers, further drying out the mud and composing it into a malformed cast of her hands: a wad, a clump, a sort of agglomeration. They were shapes made by her body; precise figures cleaved from the ground.
What seems vague and ephemeral – this gesture, her handgrip, a pull at the mired earth – creates a map of the body. Something outside is temporarily brought in. A piece of mud is covered and squeezed through a hand. Its shape forms a sort of sack or stomach, perhaps a womb. This is a mould of something that speaks volumes about life experience, not in profundity, but in the most prosaic and unapologetic of materials - wet dirt, like shit, something soiled.
The girl positioned these wrung-out objects around the place. Some of them lay on patches of taupe clay, others on the bleached-out dryer stuff. These were people’s houses; spaces in her city that contained life and cared for experience. Even if no one came to live there they had potential. Her own anxiety was in them, like a sapling reaching for light or a memory best forgotten.
The bet was lost that day as the city remained incomplete. A space of about two metres was not enough. A city should have a cathedral and there was none.
As her eyes scanned the remaining space in between filled plots, she was distracted by a gust of wind. That familiar smell from the ground filled the air again. The harder you sniff, the brighter the smell. Smell is a thing that can be turned up. Breathing in slightly increases one’s body weight too. A little further into the mud she sunk.
The girl looked around for something fixed she could hold onto for fear of completely sinking. There was no real danger, but when you’re safe, it’s sometimes more entertaining to convince yourself you’re in trouble. Life gets that boring and you have to fill in the gaps. Boredom has a threshold too easily crossed. Someone once said patience cannot be depicted, but boredom can. We see it on the faces of people working through tedium; it’s in the posture and body language of those trapped in the banality of a working routine. A picture of boredom is a view into something familiar from the outside.
Across the way towards the bigger trees was a stump. This thing was an old, old oak that had been cut down to about three feet high. She remembered a time, like the sand, when it could be comfortably sat on. Now it was covered in moss, a couple of yellow mushrooms and some bird droppings. In the middle, slightly pressed into umber bark, she had superglued a coin to the tree. This was her fixed thing. It was cold and no longer shiny. Like the dead tree, it didn’t receive much sunlight.
Put there originally for a magpie, the girl had hoped the bird would take it to its nest as a gift. Like the bet to herself the plan hadn’t come off. This was her way of paying her debts to nature. She left something of monetary value as a prize for a thing that didn’t understand it. Nature doesn’t get money because it’s inapposite. The coin was stuck fast while the world around it moved more slowly. What was wild there consumed this object as if it was anything else. This round and solid thing had no efficacy to the tree. Nature, something we have almost forgotten we are part of, has its own currency.
The bird’s nest sat on a combination of intertwined and protruding branches above the stump. This tree swung out at a right angle with branches from its middle. It was yellowing and diseased. Dieback of pendunculate oak was its ailment. The disease had infected large parts of Hampshire in the 1920s and then spread in the following decades. It signalled the end of the life of the girl’s place of play, including the pond, the pathway and most other things surrounding it. Only a few of the trees had died but the rest were damaged hopelessly.
The magpie hadn’t returned for months. The nest had remained, full of animal hair and the miniature skeleton of a field mouse. The only thing manmade in that nest was one of the girl’s mud objects, but she didn’t know that and couldn’t see that high up anyway. It lay there anxious and dried out. Wrapped around it was some horsehair and a few specks of dust, like something pulled out from behind a sofa. It was anxious because it didn’t belong in that place. It was supposed to complete a city on the ground. It could have been a house, a stomach or a body, something with a different meaning.
Anxiety is different from boredom. Anxiety moves like the quick flicks of a magpie’s neck as it searches around for things to steal. It isn’t always guilty though. Boredom is the guilty expression of life as a thing lived in stasis or lack of intrigue. Anxiety comes inevitably to those who acknowledge the existence of other people. We should try to articulate the predilections of its form. This is what the girl would come to know from the brown pond. She made things her anxiousness preferred, dried out things that held the shape of her own experience.
This short story was written for the exhibition Anxious Objects by Kate McMillan, presented at Moana Project Space, Perth, Australia in 2015.