A long way away… over the hills and far away… It’s an almost inconceivable distance, yet the birds have been there, and they bring back stories of how the world could be different. Each winter they take from us a tale of woe, and return six months later singing of joy and hope.
I last saw them wheeling in the sky, preparing for their migration. They spun and soared high up above the gallows tree. They won’t sit in that tree, not any more. Beneath them old Shadow Joe swung gently in a counter-clockwise spin, drizzling a bloody figure of eight in the sparse grass below him. I don’t watch the hangings. Father says it’s not a thing anyone should watch, even though they do. But you should bear witness too, says mother. So I come afterwards. After they’re quiet, and still. All the breath squeezed out at the throat, and all the blood from a slash through the inner thigh, watering the earth. The ground doesn’t want it though – it stays glumly brown and the grass only ever grows there reluctantly. Doesn’t want to get too close to death. I’ll stay and watch Shadow Joe twist for a while. It’s sort of peaceful, once you forget that it used to be a person instead of this leaking bone sack. Of course, that’s all we ever really are – just some fat and skin wrapped around old white sticks. It’s amazing that we can be something more when we’re all put together properly. Makes you wonder where we go afterwards. I like to think that the birds will take Shadow Joe’s story and let him live again wherever they fly to. They’ll perch in some lovely trees, all blue-green leaves swaying in a warm breeze and twitter out about all the seasons Shadow Joe lived. How he was good to his wife, mostly. How his children got the best of him, how everything he did, he did for them. They’ll have to tell about the thefts though – even the worst things we do are a part of our lives, part of our story – and how Shadow Joe finally murdered Old Samuel when he was found out. It’s sad that people will remember the end of the story, not all the good parts in the beginning and the middle, just the end. Most people will forget about the snowmen he built, or that he’s why we have the big snowman competition in the coldest of midwinter, when there’s nothing else to do but stay warm and pray away the winter. Maybe we won’t even do that any more at all – no more going out once the sun’s properly up, wrapped in as many clothes as you can squeeze into, hardly able to walk because you’ve got three pairs of trousers on and four jumpers, with your dad’s coat the only thing big enough to encompass your new girth. Gloves only work for a bit against the cold of snow, before you warm too much of it with friction and before you know it, your hands are wet and freezing cold too. It means you’ve got to build a snowman even quicker, before you lose a finger. And then back into the glowing heat of home, wet gloves hanging against the hearth, while you’re wrapped in a blanket shivering back to warmth too. The next day everyone would go out and they’d be judged. I never won, but I came close, and it was fun. If we don’t do that this year, now that Shadow Joe’s hanging, well. I think that’ll be sad. Maybe we miss the things people do, or that they did, more than the people themselves. Maybe remembering someone is just remembering something they did that we liked, and thinking of them when you start to roll up a head out of snow. It’s sort of the same with my grandparents. I remember them doing, not just being. Even if that doing was a quiet, peaceful thing – like grandad sitting in that chair near the fire. Even when it’s empty I always think of it being filled with him, gently rocking, probably asleep, maybe reading. It’s not his voice, or anything he told me that I remember, just him taking up space, filling up a bit of the world with some life. That’s what we’ll all be missing from Shadow Joe. Big, boisterous space-filling. I hope others remember that about him too. Not that it isn’t bad what he did… No one should steal, even if they’re desperate, that’s what father says. But I do wonder if it shouldn’t be more like you shouldn’t steal unless you’re desperate, unless you’ve run out of choices and chances. If you steal before that, then you’re just a thief, but if you had no other option, no other way to feed your children, well, that doesn’t feel the same. Not like it’s good then, or anything, but surely it’s worse to steal when you don’t need something, just taking for the sake of taking. Stealing because you have to, maybe that’s not really stealing. Maybe everyone else stole from Shadow Joe when they wouldn’t share more when his wife fell ill, when his children caught it too. Maybe it wasn’t Shadow Joe who let everyone down, but that everyone else let him down. You shouldn’t kill either. Of course you shouldn’t! But things die all the time, and it’s all right if we do it to animals. But again, only if you need them. No one hunts for sport here, though some people talk about it like that might be a thing they do in other places. Just go out and murder for the fun of it. We kill animals so that we might live – because we need to. Not because we want to, I don’t think anyway. If we didn’t have to, I’m sure father wouldn’t mind not having to go out into the dark woods with the other hunters for days at a time. And it’s dangerous too – if you try to kill something, it’s a got a right to fight back. Unless you trick it with a trap, and maybe that is cheating, if you take a life without giving it a chance to run, or to attack. Maybe that’s what happened with Shadow Joe and Old Samuel. He didn’t mean to kill Old Samuel, or maybe he did mean to, but he never wanted to have to. His choices ran out again, and when Old Samuel found him in the store because that was all Shadow Joe had left, he was just defending himself, having that chance to fight back. Funny how it’s not all right to successfully fight back – we say they should fight back because that’s what makes it fair, but if they win, and kill rather than be killed, that’s not really fair again. It doesn’t seem like something you can win at.
The birds are getting all set to travel off again. Looks like they’re all up there now, in their thousands. No idea where they hide out most of the time, but they’re all gathered up, making strange shapes in the sky. I hope they remember the good parts of Shadow Joe and tell people all about him, wherever they go, and maybe tell them a little less about how he came to be hanging from the gallows tree. See you next year, birds, I look forward to your stories.