The rain rattles against the window like gunshot; the wind, whipped into a frenzy across the Atlantic, howls like the wolf. Welcome to Caledonia in June. “It’s nice in Scotland,” says G—, the son of my host. “You don’t have to put your jumpers away in the summer.” Yesterday evening a young couple, here to observe beavers in the wild, had their tent collapse on them, and they were invited in to share our bread and salt, and to stay under an actual roof.
This place is very much about bringing succour to waifs and strays. Last week’s, and indeed this week’s too, is a fledgling jackdaw found lying by the side of a path nearby, looking very much the worse for wear. Under the care of G—, he has flourished, but we are very worried about his left leg, which dangles uselessly as he hops along his perch, to take food (a nourishing mixture of beaten raw egg and specially prepared dried insects, supplied very kindly by Esther Woolfson, author of Corvus: a Life with Birds, from our fingertips).
He has been named Kutkh, pronounced “kut-ka”, the U with the same sound as the U in “put”, after the raven god of the Itelmen of Kamchatka.
From the Wikipedia entry for Kutkh: “The early Russian explorer and ethnographer of Kamchatka Stepan Krasheninnikov (1711–1755) summarises the Itelmen’s relationship to Kutkh as follows:
They pay no homage to him and never ask any favour of him; they speak of him only in derision. They tell such indecent stories about him that I would be embarrassed to repeat them. They upbraid him for having made too many mountains, precipices, reefs, sand banks and swift rivers, for causing rainstorms and tempests which frequently inconvenience them. In winter when they climb up or down the mountains, they heap abuses on him and curse him with imprecations.”
G— imprecates Krasheninnikov for his racist attitude to the tribes of Kamchatka. I can see his point, but I like the sound of their attitude to Kutkh. It is, I think, how a god should be treated.
We treat our own Kutkh with considerably more respect. He (or she; corvid-sexing is hard even for experts, and is usually only settled when the bird lays an egg) consents to be held in G—’s hands, although I am hoping that one day he will perch on my shoulder. The dilemma is whether to release him into the wild and risk him being predated upon.
I know the feeling. I have now been set up in a ground-floor apartment, bare of all furniture at first save a narrow single bed and a paint-spattered rough wooden table, a couple of chairs,and two battered armchairs. The challenge is to turn it into the Hovel within a month. I raise the subject of rent with L—, my hostess.
“Pay what you can afford,” she says. “I hope to pay a bit more than that,” I say.
The similarities between my situation and Kutkh’s are almost too obvious to belabour. Kutkh has been installed in an airy cage (actually a Larsen trap) and supplied with branches and a water bowl; a simulacrum of home, not the real thing itself. The difference is that there will come a time when I will have to flee this nest, and although my leg may not be broken, the heart, as usual, is. And, as it happens, one of my shoes has split up the back, making walking with confidence an impossibility. Jackdaws, and corvids in general, L— informs us from a relevant website, can function with only one leg, but are at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to mating, as apparently they need both in order to perform the dances necessary to get laid.
“Why don’t you perfect your mating dance?” she asks me. I have to reply that, following a stern injunction from the then yet-to-be Mrs Lezard, at a rave in a club underneath the Westway in about 1990, when a combination of powerful music and MDMA convinced me that I was dancing very well, I have been forbidden from dancing ever again. In fact, the second time I visited this place was as a wedding guest, and the morning of the ceremony was spent trying to teach me how to do Scottish reels. I had to give up, and told my instructors, much to their relief, that the only thing for it would be for me to feign an ankle injury and sit the dances out.
Outside, the wind has died down and the rain has stopped. Kutkh stretches his wings, squawks, and makes a tentative flight from one of his branches to the other. He has a flock to rejoin, and when they congregate in the evening he calls out to them. I, in my turn, pace my cage. No homage is paid to me, no favour asked, and I am spoken of only in derision. They tell such indecent stories about me that I would be embarrassed to repeat them.
This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone