The frost lay heavily over the salt-marshes: a plain expanse of dead or dormant vegetation, colourless with sparse sea-lavender and samphire, and everywhere marram grass. Each blade was held motionless in a hoary sheath, in military disarray, battalions split by crawling cold grey creeks of stiffened mud. The chill air hung lifeless, moving nothing. In the distance the numbed sea stirred, its protest drowned in the icing silence.
Beyond the frozen marsh rose the backcloth of the dunes, their low humps bearded with the ageing stubble of rimy bushes: sea-buckthorn, still with scattered stains of dull orange berries, clucked over by a few fieldfares. Among the bushes, colour moved: a fox, clad in October chestnut, warm against the winter pallor, but concealing a bitter-cold hunger. He picked his way delicately between the spiked twigs, a thin mist frothing around his muzzle as he checked the air.
Suddenly he was alert and still. Fear gripped warmth into his shivering. A muffled figure stood against the sky on the dune-ridge, watching him. A numbed foot, carelessly moved, crunched a frosty clump of grass. The fox faded into the bushes like an autumnal afterglow.
The figure lowered his binoculars, stamped the foot back into life, and sighed a genie into the air. The genie curled gently and died. The man turned away and gazed across the mudflats, dull and shadowless under the sun that showed vaguely through the white sky. He loved this place. He knew its emptiness, its monotony, its openness. It absorbed the taint of humankind from him, drew him out and expanded him through the sky and the earth and the sea. The frantic claustrophobia of clamorous city streets oppressed him; out here he understood, here he was released.
He turned again and walked softly south along the dune-ridge. The path followed the line of dunes a short way, then bore right in a convoluted course between the black coralline bushes down into a boat-shaped hollow. Near the middle of the hollow were two mist-nets, almost end to end in narrow rides cut across the dip. Each net was hung between two bamboo poles twelve feet tall and guyed erect by taut lengths of string to convenient bushes. Five shelf-strings stretched between the poles, thin threads of shining black terylene looped about the poles at each end. The net itself, of even finer strands in centimetre mesh, hung limply in the frost-starched air from the tightly threading shelf-strings to leave pockets of slack. Against the background of charcoal thorn, in the winter pallor, the camouflage was effective indeed.
The sudden stuttering call of a blackbird drew the birdwatcher’s attention. It was bulleting down the hollow, wings closing and then flicking out to steady and balance the careering flight. He passed quite close: a mature male, his plumage deep with rich matt black. The primaries, like striated dendrites of soot glittering with tears of melted hoar, were trapped in still photographs on the memory with each flash of wings. Plundering the timid air, he rifled over the feebly reaching scrub towards the first net.
He hit it at full speed, heeling it over. A blackbird going so fast might well bounce straight back out again, startled but unharmed and uncaught. But this time, he rolled round the billow of his impact down into the top pocket of the net and lay confused, held in a bundle but not tangled. The watching man was making his way unhurriedly down the path before the net had swayed back upright. He moved quietly to the net with a calmness that eased the shock of fear of the trapped bird. It would be free again in five minutes, have forgotten it was caught in ten; but a grey anklet of aluminium alloy, a numbered ring, would perhaps trace its movements.
The man stopped at the net and paused, and the blackbird stopped struggling. A bottomless black eye set in a lemon-rind ring of skin gazed anxiously but steadily into the man’s even brown stare. It seemed to him that some communion was shared.
He ringed the blackbird and measured and released it. Then, despite the cold, he sat on the dune-side near the net for a while, withdrawn deep within himself, thought of the blackbird, and wondered.