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23 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 1:58pm

As I set free a swallow from my sitting room, I feel a glad sense of the summer to come

I have less confidence in capturing orphaned and injured creatures than when I was a boy – but something had to be done

By John Burnside

Where I live, summer begins with a single shadow flickering across the yard. One shadow, then another; and then, immediately, several presences, weaving through the warm air. Another moment, and I realise that the swallows are back. It’s an ordinary and altogether predictable realisation – and yet, I am always surprised by how much it gladdens me. 

This is a real event, one of several throughout the year: the first, tender green of bud break, say, or that crisp, cold evening when the first real snow begins to fall – pagan events that reconnect me to the place where I and, for the next few months, these swallows belong. 

One swallow, they say, does not make a summer – and it’s mostly true, since the birds are usually plural, flitting back and forth interchangeably, evading focus, always skimming across the surface of our attention. This morning, however, that perpetual motion was interrupted when, coming in from the yard, I felt something flit by me into the dim interior of the house; a flicker of wings darting through the kitchen and vanishing into the sitting room beyond. Immediately alarmed, I hurried after. My son’s cat, this household’s closest approximation to Shere Khan, spends a large part of each day sunning itself on that room’s south-facing window seat. This time, though, I was in luck. There was no cat; but then, to begin with at least, no bird either, and it took me several seconds, during which our Jungle Book wannabe might have appeared at any moment, to locate the lost swallow. Finally, when I came across it, lying by the far wall under the picture window, it looked to be badly hurt, wings splayed, very obviously stunned. 

For a long moment, I hesitated. Disorientated as it was, the bird was still aware of me, and the least move was bound to create more panic. As a boy, I had been quite good at this kind of thing, my quick hands darting out to snare all manner of stricken creatures. I carried them to Jim Black, an elderly neighbour of seemingly infinite patience, who sheltered and healed these casualties and orphans as best he could, before releasing them into the dubious mercy of the wild. Now, however, I had far less confidence in my crabby, arthritic fingers. If I tried to scoop up the swallow and failed, it might injure itself further in a rush of panic. On the other hand, if I opened all the windows and left it to its own devices, my son’s cat might sneak in for the kill.

Something had to be done, and right away. I lunged, my gnarled hand closing – more by luck than skill – around the swallow’s back, gripping it just tightly enough that its wings stayed closed. Amazingly, I had it. It felt warm, animate, a wisp of feathers and bone and pulse that, as I carried it out of the house and back into the sunlight, seemed to have understood that I intended it no harm. Magical thinking on my part, no doubt, but the swallow really did appear to relax as I carried it across the yard and into the next field – and I experienced a momentary sense of fellow-feeling as I came to a halt just beyond the gate, my neighbour’s cows lifting their heads to gaze at me quizzically. 

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I stood looking into the bird’s face for a moment, then I raised my hand and uncurled my fingers. And as soon as it was free, the swallow flew off into the summer air without a moment’s hesitation, leaving me alone, my arm still extended, my hand open, a rather silly object of curiosity to a dozen or so bemused cattle, but with a glad sense of an entire summer to come. 

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This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us