Heimwhe

John Burnside

Remembering the story of a man
who left the village one bright afternoon,
wandering out in his shirt-sleeves and never returning,
I walk in this blur of heat to the harbour wall,
and sit with my hands in my pockets, gazing back
at painted houses, shopfronts, narrow roofs,
people about their business, neighbours, tourists,
the gaunt men loading boats with lobster creels,
women in hats and coats, despite the sun,
walking to church and gossip.
It seems too small, too thoroughly contained,
the quiet affliction of home and its small adjustments,
dogs in the back streets, barking at every noise,
tidy gardens, crammed with bedding plants.
I turn to the grey of the sea and the further shore:
the thought of distance, endless navigation,
and wonder where he went, that quiet husband,
leaving his keys, his money,
his snow-blind life. It’s strange how the ones who vanish
seem weightless and clean, as if they have stepped away
to the near-angelic.
The clock strikes four. On the sea-wall, the boys from the village
are stripped to the waist and plunging in random pairs
to the glass-smooth water;
they drop feet first, or curl their small, hard bodies to a ball
and disappear for minutes in the blue.
It’s hard not to think this moment is all they desire,
the best ones stay down longest, till their friends
grow anxious, then they re-emerge
like cormorants, some yards from where they dived,
renewing their pact with the air, then swimming back
to start again. It’s endlessly repeatable
and soon forgotten
decaying as most things do
in the sweep of time.
I watch them for a while, then turn for home,
still unconvinced, half-waiting for the day
I lock my door for good, and leave behind
the smell of fish and grain, your silent fear,
our difficult and unrelenting love.