Sally Hinchcliffe

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Out of a Clear Sky – opening pages

RAVENS

Corvus corax, Family ‘Corvidae’

A pair of them. They pair for life, ravens, like swans. They are generally identified by their size – much bigger than the other British corvids – but size can be tricky. Held in the circle of the binoculars, a bird’s size is difficult to judge accurately except by reference to something else: a tree, another bird, a human figure.

These two were displaying their huge wingspan – well over a metre – as they spread and hopped awkwardly around the prone body on the ledge. Easily bigger than a rook or crow. I couldn’t see from my vantage point at the top of the corrie whether they had taken out the eyes yet with their heavy beaks. Probably. Those, and the soft belly, are where the carrion eaters attack first, if they are left a find like this by the predators. Fleece and Gore-Tex had protected the belly in this case but the eyes – the eyes are another matter. Fleece and Gore-Tex would probably long outlast the rest of the body, but what else would eat it there, caught on the ledge, if the ravens didn’t?

Another pair came in and circled uncertainly as the first two flew up to challenge them with loud hoarse croaking calls. I watched the display fascinated and repelled, unable to tear myself away until several more birds flew in to join them and they finally settled together around the body to share the feast.That was when I withdrew behind the bothy and threw up, heaving yellow bile from an empty stomach, the convulsions continuing until even that was gone and I was retching only air.

I leaned my head against the cool stones of the wall, thinking hard. This was one bird sighting I wouldn’t be writing down. I knew now that I must erase all traces of my presence here. I kicked dirt over the spot where I’d thrown up, smoothing the loose earth over and over until no sign remained. I went back into the bothy and surveyed his scattered belongings. It looked as though he had stayed a couple of nights before my arrival, making himself at home. I had a sudden vision of policemen crawling over the hut and his belongings, picking them clean of evidence. I took the sleeping bag out of the hut and held it open into the whipping highland wind and hoped it would scour all signs of me from it. Feeling slightly foolish, I put on my gloves to examine the contents of his backpack. A few oddments of anonymous clothing – white T-shirts and shorts, thick walking socks, a shirt worn and faded with washing. It seemed very little, spread out on the sleeping bag, a sorry assemblage of things to leave behind you. A few empty food cans – a couple of days’ worth – had been rinsed and stacked neatly in a corner but there was no more food in the bag apart from a couple of snack bars and a water canteen. I was surprised to find no binoculars or scope, no tripod, no camera. I looked around for another pack but found nothing. He must have been wearing the bins when he fell, I thought. I tried to remember but I could form no clear mental picture and I didn’t feel like peering down to have another look at his body. After some thought I took his bar of Kendal mint cake but left his canteen, map and, more reluctantly, his compass. Useful as it would be, it would be the sort of thing that was expected. He had to have died a lonely death. Anything else would just be complicated.

I was about to leave when a familiar shape caught my eye. Tucked into a gap in the stones beside the door was a little field notebook, its black cover held shut by an elastic band. Curiosity made me pick it up and flip it open, unsure of what to expect. The first page I opened was headed ‘Manda’ in the fine-nibbed map-making pen a lot of birders seemed to use, double underlined. My name. Just the sight of it lifted the hairs of my scalp in a primitive ripple of horror, animal in its intensity. There was a photograph of me too, taken some time ago, a fragment, creased and faded, torn from something bigger. I was smiling uneasily, at some occasion I didn’t recall. A group shot from which the rest of the group had been excised, leaving me smiling on, alone.

As I went reluctantly through its pages I saw just how little I had managed to evade him, how futile had been my attempts at escape. Almost every step of my journey up to these mountains had been observed and meticulously noted down, page by page, day after day, well before I’d even guessed I was being followed. There were sketch maps and map references, dates, times, almost a parody of a real field notebook, except that the quarry was different. The quarry was me.

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