A Short Life

Some smart-ass has been fooling around with this photo and if I knew how to I would erase the witless text from between the windows but anyhow this is the house, the house  where I was born and where I was destined to spend the first dozen years of my  sadly short life.  We were poor and often went without but I can’t  recall ever being unhappy. Hungry, yes, but unhappy, no.

This is one of the luggs we built to mark the solstice and the figure in the distance is one of the ingangers from the mainland we had to put up with. “Up with whom we had to put”?
Anyway even the gathering of the stones was good fun in its way –  hard work, yes,  but after we  had finished and  had  all linked arms round the cairn  to sing what we remembered of the old ingaitherin song, we would troop off to the Hall  for  games and music-making and the big meal.  It was always  a memorable day. And night.

But it was hard hard work the rest of the time, my father diligently farming the harsh land between the house and the sea,  in whatever weather,  giving up more and more of his time to the ungrateful fields,  less and less to his impoverished family.
Unlike his Ayrshire  counterpart however, one day the coulter of his plough threw up something a bit more valuable than a wee moosie’s nest – a larchwood chest containing a dozen Celtic brooches,  five rings, a couple of bracelets and the jaw bone of a porpoise. We all stood looking down at the opened box, our mouths as open as the box then  mother began to cry but not unhappy tears and father just looked at the shiny gold ornaments and shook his head then looked at us all and grinned his big grin and shook his head a bit more.

With the money he eventually got for that miraculous find, we all left Gartwick, a move about which I had mixed feelings –  leaving my best friend Callum and the hens and the pony and the fishing was only partly made up for by ( can I use 3 prepositions together like that? Anyway I have!) the excitement of  the moving to someplace new,  someplace I’d just read about.  New York.
Only I never got there. Just before we left I went down to the sea to, I suppose, bid some sort of farewell to all the good times I’d had, and





Daedalus stood at the window,
stared down on  the wine-dark sea,
at the white-sailed ships with somewhere to go,
at the sea birds flying free.

Icarus looked up at his father,
watched him sawing wood
then helped to sweep up the white sawdust
like a good son should.

What’s in that pot on the burner?
What do you have in these sacks?
Why are you carefully sticking those feathers
one by one into that wax

Father, what toy are you making
with wood and feathers and glue?
And why do you work here all the day long
and half  the night too?

Why do we work for these people?
Why have  they locked our door?
Why can I never go out to play
with the children on the shore?

Daedalus stood at the window,
stared out at the clear blue sky
and the birds that passed all flew in from the left.
He felt his mouth go dry.

Icarus looked up at his father.
His eyes were full of fun
but his father’s eyes went cold as the stars
when he looked up at the sun.

Tighten those straps on your shoulders.
Tighten those straps on your arm
and listen to every word that I say
and you cannot come to harm.

Fit your fingers into the canvas.
Spread your fingers out wide.
Now lift your arms up to your shoulders.
Now sweep them down to your side.

He led Icarus up to the turret
that towered over the town.
Watch what I do then you do the same.
My wings won’t let you down.

These wings are the best I’ve ever made
but my skill can be undone.
We must fly low.  We dare not go
too close to that blazing sun.

Daedalus stood poised like a diver.
Like a diver he fell through the air
and the air let him fall through its fingers
as if it didn’t care

till his wings stirred and some  invisible force
carried him over the town –
the slightest movement of his arms
sent him up, or sideways, or down

and Icarus flew right behind him,
laughing his joy out loud
for the air felt safe as houses
and his body light as a cloud.

The gods were alerted by  Minos shouting,
cursing, tearing his hair
while the boy and his father,  too clever by half,
trespassed through his air.

It only takes a second;
it catches you unprepared –
first the impulse of joy and then the act,
the deed  that can’t be repaired.

The careful work of a lifetime
in a moment is undone.
Wisdom ignored,  Icarus soared
up to the golden sun.

He did not hear his father’s cries
nor see the red wax run;
he did not see the fragile feathers
drop off one by one.

Where was the dolphin, the sailor’s friend?
Where  the ship? the look-out’s  cry?
Why did everything turn away
from the boy falling out of the sky?

O father what is happening?
O father what have I done?
Why are they tumbling round my head
the sky and the sea and the sun?

A splash of white starred  the wine-dark sea
and Icarus was gone.
The gods had other things to do.
His father flew hopelessly on.

Why was no rescuing eagle  
summoned by  a simple nod? 
Which of us would not have saved him
if we had been a god?