‘I saw my world again through your eyes
As I would see it again through your children’s eyes’
From ‘The Owl’ by Ted Hughes
Ghosts of the Winter Marsh
Part Two: The Lady of the Marsh
Nothing could have prepared me for the Lady. After that first beautiful haunting, I was to experience a series of séances with her, usually at twilight but sometimes during dusk. Over the course of the past fortnight, her visitations have grown earlier still. As I’m writing this, the solstice beckons. Today is the twenty-first day of December. A creature as lunar as she knows this better than all the other spirits of the marsh. Her hunts have intensified and I have seen her more often and for longer. Two days ago, she landed on a well-used kingfisher perch, just yards from where I was fishing, and stared right at me. It’s safe to say I’m enchanted, at the least. At the worst, infatuated. And that’s the worst situation for any chap to get himself into.
Last Thursday afternoon I joined my brother, Jordan, for a few ales in our cliff-top local. We’re obsessed men. Myself with angling and birding, my brother with surfing. As evening drew on, we took our pints outside where we could see the whole of the estuary. The moon hung low at this stage and we started talking about how important it was to our respective sports. My brother is half-crazy. He once surfed his way up the east coast of Australia on his own; he has some terrifying stories of shark encounters and of being held under by the current to just within the limits of his breath. He still surfs now; he’s spent four months of this year making his way down the west coast of France. He lives like a gypsy during these trips; his only master is the moon, telling him when to surf and when to wax his board. Looking beyond the estuary, I pointed out the distant marshes and began to talk about my owl. By now she’d be at large over the darkening levels.
At some point the ale got the better of us. I know this because my brother’s stories became increasingly sharkier. Mine, given the season, were becoming pikier. By the end of the evening, Jordan had promised to teach me to surf and I’d sworn to guide him to his first barn owl. When I woke up on the Friday morning (appallingly late, at about eleven-ish) I was surprised to find several text messages. My brother was due an operation on the Monday which would put him out of action for over a month, so he was really keen to live his next few days to the full. He lives on a yacht but his recuperation requires that he temporarily move back in with our parents in Pegwell. A Romany-spirit, he was getting a little twitchy at thought of leaving his boat for so long. Naturally, I told him I’d forgotten the whole previous night’s conversation and didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. An hour later, we were both in the car and on the way to the marshes.
Being a frequent visitor to the wilds, I dressed appropriately. All apart from my jeans would make me near invisible to rising owls and swooping harriers. Well, perhaps not invisible but the get-up could give me a few more seconds of viewing time. Jordan let the side down a little by donning skinny jeans and a pair of white canvas trainers.
We corrected Jordan’s wardrobe mistake by delving into the Sarlaac Pit that is my car boot. I’ll take a photo of it at some point. I’ve had this car for just less than a year but you wouldn’t believe the detritus that builds up after a couple of seasons’ coarse fishing and bird-watching. Three camouflage nets, tench rakes (two), various pigeon decoys and my second favourite pike float that I’d thought I’d lost. After finding three left-foot wellingtons, we finally found a right boot.
Forewarned about ‘Wurzel’, my nickname for the farmer’s elderly (and quite vicious) father, we trudged out onto the marsh. I had bought my piking gear with me; I intended to try three spots where I’d seen the barn owl. Jordan carried the binoculars and I stalked alongside with the rod. The first creatures we came upon were a pair of stonechats, so called for their remarkable chirping which sounds exactly like two pebbles being snapped together. Sound travels twice as far on the marsh and as always, these birds were heard before seen.
The barn owl doesn’t give itself up like this. It can scream if it wishes; its alternate name is ‘Screech Owl’ on account of its terrifying cry. But usually it lives up to its more common epithet of ‘ghost’. And so it was today. Initially, I saw the Lady at range, silently stalking a distant hedgerow. Jordan missed her and wouldn’t believe that I’d seen her. We bickered for some time before coming to the second of the three marks- a deep hole half a mile south of the Black Dyke. Over the water from us, the drain’s eastern flank was bordered by a bund comprised mainly of long grass- perfect voling ground for a hungry, winter owl.
I flicked the pike bait out and poured a coffee. An argument then ensued over whose coffee it was; we were taking turns and this was definitely mine. In between name-calling, I was becoming increasingly aware of the growing silence shrouding the surrounding landscape. It was just gone three in the afternoon and the marsh was slowing down for dusk. We were the only ones making any noise; across the levels, both predator and prey had good reason to fall silent. I’m quite sure that moments like these rely on more than just hearing. It didn’t stop me arguing but it was distracting me. We needed to be quiet, too. I can remember that my brother relented and conceded the coffee was mine. Finally, we both fell silent and I started to sip at my drink. Then suddenly, from the eastern bund, she rose.
She must have got there just after we finished squawking. Our saving grace was the bankside reeds and rushes that covered our position. But we still needed to duck; I looked over at Jordan, who’d already seen her and was standing open-mouthed. I tapped him on the shoulder and beckoned him to get down out of sight. As we lowered, she rose further. Higher and higher still until she began to hover over the long grass.
We said nothing but looked on, frozen to the marsh. At one point, I was tempted to close Jordan’s mouth for him but I was too bewitched to move. The owl hovered and moved slowly about, occasionally craning her neck this way and that for some poor vole or shrew. At this point, it was imperative that we remained motionless and maintained absolute silence. This wouldn’t be a problem. Our hiding place was pretty sound and our clothing gave us fair cover. It helped that we were both also fairly cowed by this point. The Lady hadn’t quite made mice of us but we weren’t far off. This was her domain and we wouldn’t be popping our heads up until she moved on. Which came as abruptly as she had arrived. After casting the briefest glance back at her hunting grounds, perhaps at an escaping vole, she was gone.
It was some time before we spoke. And later still before we moved. They say that nothing prepares you for seeing a ghost. This was my brother’s first time; mine had come a week or so earlier but just as with me, Jordan later agreed that he saw the marshes in a different light. It’s very hard not to. It’s a wonderful thing to watch a barn owl flying in the dusk sky. But if you are able to watch one hunt, there is no doubt that it sharpens one’s older instincts. To a barn owl, with its radar-shaped face and huge eyes (much of which are hidden underneath their skull) the marshes must look a very strange place. In the silence of their hovering, one can feel a quantum of this strangeness- and is forever affected by it. In this case, the only thing to rouse us was the prospect of witnessing that other great predator of the English countryside- the pike. I’d been keeping half an eye on my float and a few minutes after the owl departed, it began to dip. I struck and battled home a fine looking nine-pounder. Jordan took the photos. This was the first pike he ever saw so lightning struck twice for him this afternoon. He’s fairly reserved by nature- when he’s not arguing over coffee- but this second apparition rendered him even more quiet than usual.
This was a good thing. I was quiet, too. That’s what I’m used to out here. I’m a louder soul than my brother so it could be argued that these places are more precious to me than him.
But there was no more arguing to be done this afternoon. About anything. We packed up quietly and departed. No human should stay on the marsh after dark and I certainly never fish here past dusk. As we neared the hedges where I’d stashed my car, Jordan pointed south. The owl was flying away from us, past the copse where I originally saw her and out into the open country.
The rest, as they say, is silence.