“CHATCK CHATCK CHATCK”, his mother’s urgent warnings were too late. Little Jack was already dangerously low over the road. He banked, frantically flapping to regain height, but he was inexperienced. An older bird would have quickly landed and weaved between the vehicles. They weren’t moving fast, departing traffic casting final glances at my shadows. So he could have made it. But instead he struggled to stay airborne and flew into the path of a dirt-streaked van. It swerved belatedly – clipping the young daw and sending him down in a spiral. Fresh black feathers hung in the air.
It was a miracle Little Jack survived at all. Bloodied, confused, he made it to the grass verge he’d been trying to land on in the first place. He had been exploring for food: spiders, discarded sandwiches, roadkill… Little Jack kept going for now. With his right wing painfully extended out from his body, he hopped up to the wire fence and tried to pull a hole large enough to get through.
Of course the fence was too strong. Humans spent a lot of energy putting it up and fixing it whenever somebody broke through. It had been especially reinforced in time for the midwinter sunset. A selection of invited, ID badged and approved humans had been allowed near me tonight. Normally it’s just archaeologists and slow walkers with headphones, and they don’t touch me.
Only jackdaws touch me. They sit on my trilithons and talk about the weather, other daws, rooks, good feeding places – the usual. But sometimes they talk to me, quietly, under their breaths. What do they say? That’s the great question. I know exactly what they say to each other, but when they speak to me it’s not in words, no transcribable phonetics. It can’t be written down.
“CHAA-CHAA-CHAA,” Little Jack was crying for his mother. She flew over and started foraging. There are few insects around here in the winter but soon enough she caught a gnat and presented it to him. It was a tiny thing, no cure for hunger, but he took it anyway and threw his head back to swallow it down. His mother’s presence comforted him. And she herself grew calm, carrying out the duties of a mother rather than a helpless watcher. It was almost a contented domestic scene.
But it was dark, the dim midwinter dusk gone completely, and frost was hardening on the ground. Even the other daws had moved down from the trilithons to find more sheltered perches on the sarsens.
There was little traffic on the road by this time. Every now and again Little Jack would shrink himself down, half-raise his broken wing to hide his eyes from strafing headlights. His mother carried on regardless. She knew that up on the verge they were safe from human machines.
Not safe from a fox though. She approached silently, along the other side of the road, one careful step in front of another – a slinking, precise stalk to a point across from the two daws. Then she sprang.
The fox leapt and grabbed for the mother’s legs as she took off. Missed. Had she seen that Little Jack couldn’t fly? His mother didn’t wait to find out. She counter-attacked. Aiming for the back of the fox’s head she swung down, bill first, furiously biting at fur, ears, anything. But the fox was resourceful too, twisting and leaping, coiling and uncoiling her sinuous body – nearly catching the mother again. Little Jack called for help, “AARRCK! AARRCK!”
The resting daws rose from the sarsen stones as one, not a word between them, and flew to the rescue. One dived, then another, then another and another; until the fox could taste only defeat. She hurried away across the road and scrambled down the steep bank to the uninhabited human dwellings. Stealing a look back over her shoulder, the band of jackdaws was returning to their roost so she slowed to an assured walk away.
Little Jack’s mother, unhurt but nervous, straightened her flight feathers. It was an unfamiliar situation for her – a danger zone at night, her son to protect but her own life in jeopardy. Shapes, which by day she could reliably identify and assess as either harmless or harmful, were not recognisable in the dark, not until they came too close. Figures dashed across the empty road. They were some way along the verge but the pressure on the daw’s already racing heart was unbearable. She took off. Little Jack was left on his own.
The figures were humans, archaeologists – one female, one male, both young and intense. The male took a pair of pliers from his pocket and from waist height started cutting a vertical slit down the fence. The female, flicking back long red hairs from her eyes, used a trowel to tunnel away at the ground beneath the fence. Soon they forced a flap back far enough to let them squeeze through on their hands and knees. They ran, still bent over as if being chased along a tunnel, to my bluestones and there they crouched, eyes expectantly fixed on the south eastern horizon.
The fence was open and Little Jack, tired and cold though he was, followed the humans. It had taken them seconds to reach me. For the young injured daw it was an epic journey – leaping with determined wings, in spite of the broken bone, and pushing his way through the fence, walking stiffly with legs nearly frozen around the edge of the ditch and, through the processional entrance, across it. He kept going painfully, unceasingly, every step like the tick of a slowing clock. Little Jack’s will to get home was too strong, too strong by far, to be denied by mere physical obstacles.
The sun rose cold that morning – a chilling fire, like so many before, searing into my heart. It was what the humans were here for. They clasped each other’s hands tightly. The male slowly slid his free arm around the female’s waist and pulled her round, face to face, to him. She responded to his kisses by stroking his shoulder and nudging him back, bracing him against a bluestone then pushing her whole body against his. His inexperienced fingers fumbled with her jacket, her thick woollen jumper.
The deathly sun penetrated her heart too. She pushed herself out of her colleague’s grasps, leaving him slumped against the stone, and strode decisively away: away from the cold light in my inner-circle. At the foot of a trilithon she saw Little Jack. The frost on his still wings sparkled in the dawn. The female archaeologist stopped and unhooked her trowel.
She dug. The male recovered his breath and without a word joined her. He took Little Jack in his arms, gently straightening his young black feathers as if ready for flight and tucking his head beneath his undamaged wing. Together they laid him in the hollow earth and backfilled his grave with handfuls of soil and a covering of grass – a perfect little barrow for me to protect.
written in 2011 and originally posted in July 2016 as ‘the great question’