St Bride: Sea-Mail

Don Paterson

Now they have gone
we are sunk, believe me.
Their scentless oil, so volatile
it only took one stray breath on its skin
to set it up – it was our sole
export, our currency
and catholicon.

There was a gland
below each wing, a duct
four inches or so down the throat;
though it was tiresome milking them by hand
given the rumour of their infinite
supply, and the blunt fact
of our demand.

After the cull
we’d save the carcasses,
bind the feet and fan the wings,
sew their lips up, empty their skulls
and carry them away to hang
in one of the drying-houses,
twelve to a pole.

By Michaelmas,
they’d be so light and stiff
you could lift one up by its ankle
or snap the feathers from its back like glass.
Where their eyes had been were inkwells.
We took them to the cliffs
and made our choice.

Launching them,
the trick was to ‘make
a little angel’: ring- and fore-
fingers tucked away, pinkie and thumb
spread wide for balance, your
middle finger hooked
under the sternum.

Our sporting myths:
the windless, perfect day
McNicol threw beyond the stac;
how, ten years on, Macfarlane met his death
to a loopback. Whatever our luck,
by sunset, they’d fill the bay
like burnt moths.

The last morning
we shuffled out for parliament,
their rock was empty, and the sky clear
of every wren and fulmar and whitewing.
The wind has been so weak all year
I post this more in testament
than hope or warning.