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Authors: Neil M. Gunn

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BOOK: The Shadow
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Things are beginning to clean up pretty well, what? (I put the question to you on the spot and laughed—for there was nobody to hear but yourself.)

Let me pass through the Dark Wood. I couldn't clean it up, but I held my own. The policeman was the immediate trouble. Anyway, it's a big job, but I have taken the measure of it. Every house has its corner which you leave to the last. I want to take particular care with the Dark Wood. I have got to clean up all round about it first, so that I shan't be surprised by anything coming in on me. Better to finish with the ceiling before you sweep the floor.

At least you can
over the moor; the burn I love at any time; and the mountains did not overwhelm—these monstrous but serene squatters. I realise that all the time what the dear old unconscious has been concerned about is the gorge where the small birches grow. That's the
place to tackle. (And I wonder just how much of childhood goes into that?) So I decide to tackle it, up and down and across, until its most hidden corners know and accept my feet.

I am just a trifle nervous as I round a last tiny bluff—and then there is a commotion in the air, a dark flash, a strike, a puff of tiny feathers, and the air is empty. I cannot move, and it takes me a little time to realise that a hawk is now standing on his prey between the first of the birches. I am assailed by a feeling of terror. Every instinct urges me to fly. I see the hawk's head. It stoops and plucks. There is something suddenly so terrible and authentic about this that I must get away, sick, my heart in my throat, terrified. But I don't. I watch. There is a surging within. I advance, uttering raucous sounds, like one rescuing her child from a lion. The hawk sees and waits. The curve of his beak, intolerant cold anger, his eye. He is up and off in a low swoop down the gully. He is gone!

Brave now, I approach, but sickened at the thought of what I shall find. A young blackbird; a patch of white skin. I stand staring down. It is lying on its side quite still. I don't want to touch it, but I must. I must see its death, how death took it. I bend, am putting out my hand, when the blackbird, as if awaking out of a dream, in visible astonishment lifts its head, looks at me (I see its eye still), and then, and instantly, simply flies away. It is the most extraordinary thing! It flies away, piebald, black and white. From one big patch every feather is missing. Half-plucked but otherwise clearly all right! It is so ludicrous that in my amazement and relief I am going to laugh—when someone laughs for me. He comes out from behind a clump of birches wearing the same light green tie. The sight of my face amuses him still more. He comes towards me—out of the wood.

He begins talking about the hawk, the laughter pressed back into his eyes. He explains that he has been watching the hawk for a long time. The hawk had been hovering, working up the gully; he had stalked it—and flushed the blackbird. The blackbird had actually done a swerve—too late. The hawk's action had been flawless. Marvellous. Didn't I think so? With a consciousness of complete unreason, I said that I didn't particularly think so; I said that I thought the whole thing was horrible. But, he answered, it happens! His voice, his manner, brought in all creation. I assured him I had seen it happen. He was, he said, aware of that, and glanced about the air as if looking for more hawks. This elaborate effect of giving me time to compose myself, as though I were an overwrought child, was particularly insulting. I am not interested in hawks, I said. He glanced at me—and laughed. I turned away.

One minute, he called, because I think you are entirely wrong; you don't understand what's happened; you are crediting the blackbird with your own emotions, your own admirable and humane reactions.

Really! I answered.

Whereas, he assured me, the blackbird felt nothing at all, or next to nothing.

Now I seemed to know this argument so well, in my bones and blood out of past talk, that I could not let it go, The new realism disposing of the old sentimentality! Not that one would mind that, of course, or something like that, if it was genuine, but it is so obviously an effort at justifying the new realism which produces death that, after world war number two, it is just too sickening, too unforgivably glib. I don't say this to him, or even clearly think it, for it chokes me. I probably say Really! again, or, So long as you know! I should have left him at that, but somehow I couldn't. Perhaps I was deeply angry, perhaps I wanted to clean him up. That he was enjoying the situation, that he wanted to exploit it and me, was positively blatant.

But you saw it yourself, you saw the whole thing happen, he argues. Why are you afraid to discuss it?

Your assumption that I am afraid to discuss it is about as valid as your capacity to identify yourself with a blackbird, I suggest.

Really! he echoes me. Can you suggest any other assumption?

One so obvious that normally one is not forced to produce it, namely, that I do not wish to discuss it with

Well, that's direct enough, he agrees with a solemn effect of restrained laughter. But wait a moment! Don't you think—shouldn't you be relieved that the blackbird is so to speak put to sleep in this happy way while he is being disposed of?

You mean devoured?

Well, all right, devoured. But isn't it, as the country folk say, a mercy?

I will give this credit to the hawk—at least he doesn't babble of mercy.

He laughs and says, You think I confuse my categories?

I assure him that I do not know anything about his categories and that his use of the word, in the circumstances, is more reminiscent of the parrot than any other bird I know.

All this was silly (though words came to me marvellously) and I reproduce it more or less to amuse you. At the moment I was anything but amused. Indeed I was profoundly angry at the something that underlay it all, and after a few more passes, when he suddenly came away with the word
in connection with the blackbird, I could not restrain myself and words came tearing out of me about the ecstasy of the old man when he was being hacked to death by the axe.

That strangely sobered him; his face went so still it seemed to grow smaller. He looked at me in a curious, searching way. Then he looked away. I am sorry, he murmured, if I have unduly intruded.

But he wasn't sorry. That's not what it was at all. Yet in some way his words affected me. I found I was trembling. I went back along the path a short distance and sat down. He came up and began talking again, but in a different way, like a man wanting to be understood. I was now certainly not afraid of him. There was something in him that I mistrusted, but he was in his fashion appealing to me. That's what I felt anyhow. It gave me confidence and I realised I had been behaving a trifle outrageously. Moreover all this time (don't smile, please) I was wanting to clean him up. Deep in me there was the curious notion (obsession, if you like) that I must clean him up, otherwise I could never clear the shadow away, I could never come clear myself.

Presently he was telling me about a stoat and a hare. He was a schoolboy at the time and came on them in a corner of a field by a wood. He was in the wood, moving quietly, searching with his eyes for wild life, when he sees the stoat and the hare going round in a circle, not a very big circle, just a few yards across. They are at opposite points of the circle so that, if you didn't know wild life, you might hardly tell whether the stoat was following the hare or the hare the stoat. This went on for some time, but at last he could see the moment had come when the hare could no more break the circle. It was held by the circle; the hare depended on the stoat. But he never saw the stoat draw the circle into the hare's throat as a needle draws the loop of a thread, because at that moment a shepherd appeared. Whenever the shepherd saw the hare he stopped and, when he realised what was happening, looked warily behind for his dog. The dog now came up over the rise and also saw the hare. Shepherd and dog were not a hundred yards away, yet the hare and stoat continued to circle. The dog was actually within a few yards of the hare before that fantastic beast could come out of its dream and break the circle. It dodged in a sort of stupefied way, then in an instant was into the wood and disappearing at tremendous speed. The stoat did not rush away, on the contrary it went reluctantly, its head moving wickedly. It looked as if it spat primeval oaths. Then it too disappeared.

He told all this very well, very realistically. I perceive that he has the kind of imagination which I secretly understand, and this does anything but endear him to me at the moment. I don't want to glimpse a stoat as a spitting heraldic beast; not, of course, that he drew such a picture; however, I'm not going into that, for when you have a natural pictorial aptitude, have trained it for years, and then become hyper-sensitive—to a turn of a phrase, a gesture—you see more than you want to see.

It is perfectly obvious that he is trying to illustrate what he said about the blackbird, to show how the hare was getting into that hypnotised condition where it would welcome the teeth of the stoat in order to have the whole thing over. But I affect not to see this and coolly let his story fade out, as though presumably it's his peculiar way of making small talk. When he forces my comment, I turn my head and look at him and see the needlepoint gleam in his curious smile. But I do not speak. In this way I compel him to be explicit. Whereupon I say: You
what the blackbird feels. And at once he replies: I do, and you know that I know.

Where do you know? I ask.

What do you mean

I smile. He becomes perceptibly excited, and this suits me very well for it makes me cool. He has the sort of subtle mind that flatters itself it always knows what is going on beneath the surface or behind appearances. You know the type? Like Freddie, only Freddie has become the psychic expert, gets his thrill from revealing motive, particularly when it's discreditable, while this man (I don't know his name) has the wild in him, a wild-animal freshness, and is hanging on to it for his own mental needs. There is now something a little hungry about him, as he repeats challengingly his question; hungry and prepared to pierce me. He has been cruel to more than one woman in his time, I can see.

What do I mean
I repeat; and ask blandly: Where
you know but in your head?

Not in my bones? not in my blood?——

And not in the blackbird, I complete his sentence for him. He laughs, and becomes more excited—and more personal. He is now concentrating on me. He is, when he uses his smile, unusually attractive. But I have made my point and get up. You're not going? he asks. But I am. Annoyance invades his dismay; an inner force comes out of him; this is nonsense and he is going to stop me. But I look at him. He pauses. His brows gather and the brown eyes shoot their fires. The silent primeval oath is heard. He hesitates, then his right hand, palm up, draws inward to his breast and he bows. Calmly I walk away.

Very silly, you'll admit; but helpful in some way, immensely helpful. For I might have been caught, bogged—I mean in that blackbird. I know there is something in what he says about the way the blackbird—or the hare—behaved, what they felt. The hypnotism, blood and myth. And when I said that he knew
in the head,
I was tricking him. His is the other aspect, the curiosity that is infernal. But the result—cruelty—is the same. Destruction, the death-throe. The shepherd robbed him (even as a boy) of the final enthralling spectacle.

I must sound incoherent. I am pushing to extremes, you will think. But I
it all, Ranald. With a vividness there can be no words for, I see and understand.

But this time I am not overwhelmed. I have a positive feeling of having overcome something, almost of triumph. It's that shadow, Ranald. Do you know, I almost feel at the moment that I may sweep it up. And then—Ran! Ran! what a housewife I'll be, tidying up the world for you! Heaven bless you, this night and every night. Amen.


It's been an extraordinary day. The Christian name of the man with the green tie is Adam. That at least is what a woman called him in a story which he told me to-day. It doesn't quite suit him, he hasn't enough weight for it, yet there is a sense in which it could hardly be more apt. I never quite realised before how descriptive names may be. Farquhar is startlingly right. Gordon MacMaster was wrong—until you learn that the folk called him Gordie. Aunt Phemie is perfect. James Critchley for the policeman is neutral. The postie is Donald Munro, but they call him Jump-the-dyke. Had he been a slow personable man they would have called him Donald. They would never have called me anything but Nan; it's like a cry. Though I don't feel like crying to anyone to-night, not even to you, utterly comprehensive as Ranald may be, with its Highland ancestry holding you in its reins.

I am merely reluctant to start writing. I look at these written words on the white page, I turn back again to the words with which I finished last night—
tidying up the world for you
—and am again quietened more than ever. It's absurd to suggest that in using these words I could have had any premonition of Adam's story. It's a haunting story, so delicate and yet so profound that it affects, in a way I cannot quite grasp, my previous conception of him. But let me tell you what happened.

After my hour in bed (I slept), I came downstairs and we had our cup of afternoon tea. We always have it early, about three o'clock. In the forenoon I had been working on one of Aunt Phemie's frocks and altogether we were in good form. Last night I told her I had met again the man with the green tie (our name for him) and we had wondered if Jump-the-dyke might know of him, but felt it would be unwise to ask lest we start a rumour, for the hunt for Gordie is still hot. Some of the rumours have a really fantastic—I can't think of a word—verisimilitude. They are as like the thing, as real, as a legend. I am aware of a new insight into the creation of legend and the extraordinary power of a story. I wish I could write about this. Anyway, it has given us—Aunt Phemie and myself—a light on the
which Freud experienced for the old Greek legend of King Oedipus, who slew his father and married his mother. Was that legend the sudden revelation upon which the psychoanalyst built his astonishing structure?

BOOK: The Shadow
13.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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