by Matthew Seaton
Step through the front door. Into the icy silence of late December, the blurry days between two births. Walk through the crisp fields, visible through hedges lost their leaves. Inhale the pungent crush of the plant-slurry driven over on the road and the cold, dry air that snaps against the skin: the biography and the personality are drawn to the surface of the skin to cascade upon the ground. Falling on the door’s threshold, they blow back inside, scattering the entranceway; waiting
Moving off, a familiar car pulls up on the drive. Parents. Older now, stooped. Unsure of their new roles. Their presence moves the sensuality of the open doors into chaste silences; and through the open door, a gust attaches an ‘I’ and a ‘you’. These words stick like dead leaves onto a slickened bough. Where are you going; how long? Obligations fill the mind once again, childhood’s petulance weighing down the body like a corpse. But politely, firmly, then almost bluntly, they are rebutted; the door closes. The sounds of the outside world, if only its gentle murmur, emerge, slowly, tentatively, from their hiding place. There is a zephyr, floating through the lanes blowing the wet leaves to the floor.
Winter. Hoarfrost hanging from the thorn bushes. Lichtenberg figures: oak, horse chestnut, sycamore. Larch, crack-willow, poplar, alder, beech. Hazel, hawthorn, hornbeam, whitebeam, wingnut. Sparse, pared-back, indistinguishable. Late afternoon. The sun is tremulous, a weak orange. It works its colours into the icy greens, the sky’s vacant blues, the muddy browns, into the timber hay shed, across from the field, into the row of elms that run parallel to the road. All is cold and still as death; as the roads are moved through, it is through something as petrified and as pretty as a painting.
The countryside is not comparable to the city parks, where other lone walkers are seen to pass, seeking, too, a sense of solitude. Here, the mind forgets that it is a thing that can be looked at; it realises it cannot be overheard in the depopulation of an empty paddock; and, spreading itself out, light, lucid sentences wind themselves around the landscape, lending the environment, for a number of moments, a quiet voice that dares to emerge and speak to it.
‘What is it there in the browns and the greens blending road into footpath? There, when, drawn through a thick hedge, a field emerges, skirting a farmhouse and striking off into the landscape–what is it there? Each field is coated by it. Perhaps it is a mirage, a playful light of the lights. But no, is there not a thickness to the air? has it not become laden? As apprehensible, yet as translucent, as water. It is there, rising thickly off the lowland reed marshes, with their cool, enlivening, ghostly chill—
‘—But no, it is not just mist. Look there! Look backwards. Find the sun red and unspeakable. It is on the horizon. Look, see how unhurried it is in crossing it; how, in this field, then the next, then the next, the sun is still gripping, still lingering on the boundary. Time has slowed, stopped, started bleeding thickly onto the ground and into the air.’
Along which path was the tulip tree discovered, offering up its flowers in adolescent spring? Was it past the witch hazel field? Is there magnolia in this countryside? There were white leaves hanging from the willow in June; quince and medlar picked at harvest time; sage, bay leaf picked out of the hedgeways. There is no way to tell.
It is a child that looks out and yearns, treading through the underbrush and is moved by the smell of bark, clinging to its earthy musk, and the surrender of the frost, slowly hardening as it is trodden into. And here, where fungus grows in large, luminescent domes up the side of a birch, look with innocent eyes at how every fungal cap is transforming into a congregation of roofs and every vine twisting around that oak into a labyrinth of stairways; conjure forth an Elven city built into the sides and in the rooftops of mighty trees and citizens moving freely between the buildings and looking down from the viewing platforms, high above, at the forest floor, rarely stepped upon, down below. Instead, they hike through the canopy, jumping between branches like the squirrels. They take shelter in the night, when they are away from home, in the borne-out holes of neighbouring trees, sharing their food with the wrens and the warblers and the sparrows which they find already housed there. And, gifting them a campfire for the evening, where each party might sing to the other, they sleep, each next to each, together, bird and man, there in the warmth of the nest–
But where are the cows of the cow field, where the horses of the horse field, where the sheep of the sheep field?
And then, of a sudden, from one stile to the next, all becomes silent again…
Through the muddy lanes, the frost melts by the late day sun, as it is, at the same time, forming hard and crystalline in the long shadows.
With each step, with every turning, ignored or taken, along the way, a hidden, arcane, interior map is studied, that sketches the roads and the footpaths and every linkage and interway discovered, over a boyhood of walks. Scouring it only for the blank spots–the untouched, unsmelled, untrodden parts–the shimmering copses of trees, unreachable, glimpsed off in the distance from the road, and the half-paths sighted through the undergrowth and all the un-housed pasture, sprawling out of view, whose medieval promises lie behind metal fences ringed with barbed wire. It is a map that sketches out the untouched countryside and prolongs the mystery and the newness of wandering and which, walk by walk, as its blank spots are carefully shaded in, is writing itself into obsolescence.
The walk will be semi-circular, walking a footpath that edges its way into a curve, like walking the half-perimeter of a clock. Leaving the house at the centre of the dial, striking out in a straight line toward three o’clock; turn off the clock hand and follow the footpaths through the fields, stepping aside the muddy path leading through this field onto the next field and into another, and the reed marshes and across the footbridge over the two-foot irrigation canal that siphons water from the barge canal to the fast flow of an unseen, unheard, unknown river; follow the arrows and signs, nailed onto wooden posts, slowly curving around anti-clockwise through the horse fields and past the shit silos and the new allotments, over the style and onto a lane, and, having taken the prefigured path, often trodden, where the big hand of the clock is at three, semi-circumvoluted the house, emerging at nine o’clock and walking the straight road along the short hand of the clock home.
This walk has already been written, so it need not be walked. Why not cut off from the signposts? Here at the little bridge, follow the little pathless canal as it bisects its way through private fields and then follow the ghostly trail of half-flattened undergrowth when the canal disappears through a metal girder and edge toward the wooden fences glimpsed between the trees through the underbrush, toward the mist that is settling, there, above and between the [moor-grass]; now, emerging out of the sedge and the sodden rush, follow it until it is finally caught and lost in the cushioned moss below the feet. Follow the sense of yearning felt when even the whisper of the path has expired and from hedge to hedge the smell of the leaves and the soft browns of the moor-grass and the cord-grass and the deer-grass are brooding in the dusk; follow, until the little canal, but two feet wide, thought lost, reappears, and it is followed across ‘private access’ fences into the grounds of stately, red-brick houses, that signal a road, but whose lights, illuminating the prim gardens of upper lawns and the distant barks of dogs, are a warning to stay away. (Perhaps a dark, crepuscular figure is taking form, from the vantage of the second-floor windows of those houses; a skulking, lascivious shade upon which they will set the hounds and tear the thing, flesh or shadow, apart until every trace of it has disappeared into the night.) And so skirt the grounds, avoiding the lighted lawns, following the inevitable road, indicated and made unreachable by the houses. Wait until it can be met.
Follow the canal as it skirts the border between field and garden and, here, where it meets the river which is crashing with white water and hurtling off, in an unmapped direction, away into the darkness, skip over it on the six garden stones that cut across the froth…
The light has lessened. The dusk is a great equalizer, bringing the browns and the greens of the wintry fields into grainy darkness. Slowly, slowly, it lessens more. The light sky above the trail of the departed sun can still be seen, but there is a sense of danger now. Fear of the pitch black. A fear that the fear of the darkness will suddenly awaken itself: that the sudden movement of a shadow could cause the body and the mind to sprint away, then away again, and again, into the inescapable fields, leaving a terrified, stiffened, maddened body to be discovered in a week’s time by a search party.
Step, now, with the vigour and the importance of a soldier; stride through the half-night, letting the body’s intensity still the mind; stride until, here, the fence and the copse of trees, leading away from the houses, provokes a shudder of recognition and the possibility that this exists in close proximity to something on the map. Snap the rotten supports of a wooden fence, surrounded five feet either side by thorns, as they cut, nastily, into legs and they catch onto the delicate, city clothes dressed in for the walk; unlatch the coattail from the barbed wire and, leaving the markings and the signs behind, leap over into familiarity. The nature reserve behind the house, wandered in for years, that, with each footstep taken through the boggy ground, allows the heart’s beating to slow and the darkness to become more apprehensible and for the last mile of the walk, as familiar as a lover, to unfold itself in soundless gestures. And stopping in the shadows formed, by the electric lights, only metres from the front door, speaking aloud, the words begin to compose themselves into a city of words, housed, each building, within the trunks of trees and in single droplets hanging from bulrush; and architecture as intricate as the hoarfrost that carves its decorations into the underside of leaves, comes briefly into view; it melts away just as quickly as a spring bloom as you step into the warmth.
About the author:
Matthew W. J. Seaton is an English-Singaporean writer from outside Birmingham. He is a student of creative writing at the University of Glasgow and editor of a Zine called Chewgulpspit.