Our poor, bedraggled, summer-long companion flumps down on the shed roof, as if in surrender. His beak gapes wide, but makes no sound, his wings and tail droop, feathers fanned like hands of poker cards. A hot flush. Sunning, it’s called, and this is his personal deckchair.
Europe has baked its blackbirds on a pie this year, the earth a hard, dry crust with no filling. As far back as showerless April, when the worms went low, we acted by administering fruit aid to the stricken birds. A pear a day saw our garden pair through three nests, but only a single baby fledged, and we never saw it once it left the nest.
These days, the exhausted female is mostly absent from our browned garden savannah, but her partner returns every few hours, head up in expectation.
This male – instantly recognisable by his smattering of flour-white feathers – is long overdue a moult, raggedy tufts from his throat and chest rendering him more Blackbeard than blackbird. Down to the lawn he drops, to pick, pick at the soft flesh. He takes his fill of pear, then skitters alongside me, while I am recumbent and coughing Covid on a sun lounger.
His beak has half-shut on his gobbet of pear, the size of an olive. For an instant he pauses as if in thought, then he rises with it into a pyracantha and ivy thicket overhead. And there, within his thorny crown, he begins the clearest, softest, quietest song that only he and I are blessed to hear.
He sings himself back to a time in spring when day took from night and the yearning in his voice mourned a little death at dusk. He pitches, under his breath, into the bright certainty of a May dawn chorus, with heart-stirring leaps up and down the scale. He finds space in his throat to reimagine nervousness, inserting “tuk-tuk” calls of alarm, then produces a fearful outburst at the ghost of a cat, a sparrowhawk or the miasma of anxiety that bedevils him around nightfall.
But how his retelling ends I cannot say, for I find myself waking to silence after dozing off in Covid-fugged sleep.
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