Song For Sarah
Every year, in the late Spring or early Summer, I take my class of children out of school so they can spend a day climbing and exploring the rocky hill which hangs over our little Cornish town.
The hill is the last stony vertebra in the long chain of tors and summits which form the West Country's granite backbone.
As the children trudge red-faced and complaining up its slopes, I stop from time to time allowing the stragglers to catch up, and point out some feature of topography or natural history: the distant call of a cuckoo, a stand of cowslips, a badger set or one of the wind-sculpted boulders which litter the hill's flanks.
spring dusk –
a dog fox
However much the children moan about the climb they are always amazed by the views which the summit affords, and after collapsing into the ferns, they gaze out wide-eyed over their town, now made fresh and unfamiliar by this elevated perspective, past farms and woodlands to the restless sea beyond.
ripening corn –
a kestrel scythes
the morning air
We while away the morning sketching the remains of bronze-age round houses, visiting an ancient well and marveling at the unworldly rock formations.
One particular feature that always proves entertaining is the so-called 'judgement rock'. This consists of a pile of massive flattened boulders canted over at an improbable angle, the capstone of which is hollowed out into a series of interconnected bowl-like structures each large enough for a person to sit in. I tell the children that this was once thought to be the site of ritual human sacrifice - the blood of the chosen-one cascading down through the hollows in the stone.
the fresh corpse
of a rabbit
It's amusing to see the relief in their faces when I eventually explain that this was mere Victorian supposition and that in reality the rocks are just naturally weathered granite.
The tension thus broken, it's usually a good time for lunch, so we settle down on the close-cropped grass and take out our sandwiches and flasks, remembering to respect this history-steeped environment.
where our forebears trod -
shards of broken glass
In any class there are always one or two children who are difficult to get to know; they don't assert themselves or volunteer to answer questions; their work isn't poor but it doesn't distinguish itself in any particular way, and, whether by dint of character or willful design,such children become pedagogically invisible.
the teacher racks
Sarah was one such child, and I must confess I hardly noticed her board the coach on the morning of the trip. She was one of the surprisingly large number of children who had never visited the hill before.
When lunch was finished, a quick head-count told me that one child was missing. I struggled for a while to think of who it could be and then, sickened by my own negligence, I realized it was Sarah.
The hill is covered with small quarries, excavations and shafts, each easily big enough to swallow a person whole. The mouths of these apertures are covered by dense swathes of heather and fern, and thus are hidden from unwary and incautious footfall. For this very reason, I expressly told the children not to wander off the path. Surely, Sarah was too sensible to have ignored this? The truth was I really didn't know . . .
We shouted her name, waited for a few seconds for her reply and then called again. We did this five or six times, straining and desperate to hear her voice - but nothing answered us; nothing bar the faint whisper of the wind through the bracken.
I was pushing down a tide of panic, trying to remain calm and rational for the sake of the other children when, thank God, one of the older girls pointed up to the sky and said, "She's there sir!"
I followed her gaze; there at the crown, at the very peak of the judgement rock, blissfully contented and completely unaware of the commotion that she had caused, was Sarah.
I scrambled up the rock after her calling her name but still she never looked around. As I reached the capstone just a foot or two behind her I saw that she was staring out over the steep flanks of the hill to the blue Atlantic beyond. Her hair was streaming out behind her in the soft spring breeze and her arms, like a bird about to take wing, were outstretched.
An ethereal, otherworldly look suffused her face and she was oblivious of my approach until I gave her an irate tap on the shoulder.
She turned slowly towards me, as if waking from a dream.
"It's beautiful," she said softly. "It's like I'm flying!"
parting clouds –
a fledgling lark's