I’ve got a secret. Well, it’s a secret again now, anyway. I learned the hard way about that. I tried to share, but it turns out that there really are some things that are better kept to yourself. They didn’t believe me, of course, and I still can’t work out if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Why would they think I’d make something like that up? Over-active imagination, apparently. That’s all it is. There was never any question that I might just be telling the truth. Oh no. Far easier to assume instead that I was just plain, flat-out lying. Not lying in a bad way, you understand, but as a sign of an over-active imagination. That’s not quite the same thing at all, you see. He imagined it all of course! Ha ha! Now let’s all have a good laugh, ruffle his hair and settle back into our normal, comfortable routines, safe in our own certainty. Not one person was prepared to conceive of the idea that I might be telling the truth. Not one.
Perhaps it was for the best. I’m a bit insulted that no one thought to actually listen to me and to take me seriously, but when I think now about what might have happened if anyone had actually believed me…well, it makes me shudder. As it is, this is mine. It’s all mine. It’s only mine. That’s the way it is and that’s the way I want it to stay. Except for you. Now. I’m going to tell you.
No one else knows. It’s been years now, and I’m pretty sure that nobody else knows. How could they know? Since that first time, I haven’t told another soul. But I’m going to trust you. I like you, but you’ve got to promise me that whatever I say, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, you’ll hear me out and you won’t laugh at me. Please don’t laugh in my face. I’m not sure that I could stand that. Not again. Anything but laughter.
It’s like this. I can talk to animals. Birds too. Well, not talk, not exactly, but I can listen to them and I can understand what they say. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s really true. Some are harder to understand than others – they’re like people that way – but once you get your ear in, then it’s easier than you might think. Well, it is for me, anyway.
I can even tell you the exact moment that it started: it was a Wednesday afternoon, years ago, about six, and it was just starting to get dark. I was on my way home, taking the back route on the edge of town, near to the woods. I was running along, messing about with a stick, as you do when you’re young and have nothing better to do. I tripped. Not head-over-heels or anything dramatic like that, just a little stumble. I gathered myself, and then had a nervous little look around to make sure that no one saw. Not that I expected anyone to be there, but because it’s a reflex when you’re worried about making a fool of yourself and someone seeing. There was no one there to see me, of course, but someone was laughing at me. It was unmistakeable. I looked around, trying to work out where this awful mocking laughter was coming from. Then I saw them: magpies, sitting in a tree just over the way; standing all in a line, looking at me and having a good cackle at my expense.
Magpies have laughed at everyone at some time or another, haven’t they? Still, this time they really got to me. I hate being mocked, and in my embarrassment and my anger, I threw my stick at them. I missed, but sent them fluttering slowly away and off towards the nearby wood. As they disappeared, amidst their fading laughter, I could have sworn that I heard them retelling the joke and laughing at me all the more. Curse them! I’ve never liked those damn birds.
After that, things were different. I don’t know how or why this could be, but somehow I was changed; my ears were suddenly open and silence would never sound quite the same again. The rest of my walk was a cacophony of foxes arguing, owls waking up, blinking in the twilight and a chattering chorus of small creatures in the hedgerow. I couldn’t understand it all, not at first, and I’d heard noises like this before, but suddenly I was hearing it for what it was: language.
One thing I learned very quickly is that not every animal has something interesting to say. Well, not to my ears, anyway. I suppose that it may be fascinating to them, but I find some creatures to be somewhat dull. What do you imagine a baby blackbird in the nest is saying when he sticks his head out and pew-pews at his parents as they approach with a worm? What do you think a dog is saying when he stands by his bowl at teatime and barks at you hopefully? You don’t need to understand them to know exactly what they’re saying. To be honest, most animals are strictly stream-of-consciousness, saying whatever is on their mind at any particular moment. Food, food, food. Water, water, water. Cold. Hot. Hungry. Tired…. I suppose you could say that they’re not exactly deep-thinkers (although I do have a soft spot for horses. They don’t have a whole lot to say for themselves, but they’re noble looking creatures with soft noses and, compared to sheep - and to some people -, they’re riveting conversationalists.)
Inevitably, my views on some animals have changed sharply: I used to love cats, and they can be predictably charming, but you really don’t want to know what’s going through that mouse’s mind as he’s being cruelly taunted by a playful, vicious cat. Goats are banal and dogs are inane. On the other hand, you find beauty in the strangest of places: the love song of a swan to her cygnets is heart-breakingly tender and ducks are surprisingly funny. I like most waterfowl, actually, and will quite happily wile away the hours listening to their chatter down by the river.
I think people think I’m mad. I spend most of my time alone, away from the distracting chatter of mankind to better listening to the comfortable burbling of Mother Nature. Can you imagine how mad they would think I was if I told them what I’m telling you? But you don’t think I’m mad, do you?
I often wish I could talk back to them, but where do you start?
How do you start?
But you understand me, don’t you?
I knew you’d understand.
sixteen and time to pay off
22 hours ago