This post is not just about a place. It is about an event. The event and where it took place are inseparable so to that extent this event can be located on a map although, if you went there today, there’d be no evidence that what I’m going to describe ever took place. Everything about this is spectral, moonlit and hauntingly beautiful. It is also true.
But first, some introductions, in the form of a dramatis personae:
- A nightjar
- Willoughby, our long-departed Maine Coon cat
Some words also about the ‘stage’ must first set the scene:
‘The clock face’
‘The clock face’ is the name we gave to the centre of the courtyard that belonged to the house where we lived in the Gers in south-west France. It was a circle of grass in the midst of which stood a chestnut tree. To separate the grass circle from the courtyard and to keep vehicles away, we set out a rough line of small rocks that encircled the tree. Between the rocks we planted lavenders. We’d refer to this as ‘the clock face’. More sundial than clock, the tree caste its shadow clock-wise round the courtyard in step with the rhythm of each day. In the middle of a summer’s day, its shadow barely spread further than the grass, leaving the gravel beyond it too hot for bare feet.
This clock face was variously driven round by cars and vans, ridden round by the occasional cyclist, walked round by us, our families, friends and neighbours, scampered round by visiting children and hastened across by anyone in the midday sun of August. It was scraped by chickens looking for grubs and paddled over by ducks. It was even flowed round by storm waters washing off the hill above the house after a downpour at any time of the year. Chestnuts dropped onto it in late summer and then autumn leaves settled on it. Windows opened onto it. Shutters were closed around it against hailstones, wind and the cold of the night or the heat of the day. Much as curtains serve to keep out the sleep-disturbing dazzle of streetlights in English towns, shutters serve to do the same against moonlight in the French countryside.
At some point we spread gravel around the circular lawn, transforming the containing farmyard into a courtyard. But the event I’m about to describe pre-dates that and the surface of the courtyard would have been a patchwork of bare rock and earth beaten over the years into compacted submission by the tread of cattle. Though much more rustic than with crunchy-sounding gravel, at that stage it was almost silent to walk on.
The house was in a corner of the Gers that was not heavily populated, a gently-undulating landscape of small farms and villages interspersed with forests and a sort of scrubby heathland composed of junipers, oaks, gorse and broom. This is the ideal habitat for nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) and we heard them every year.
The annual arrival of nightjars was a big day. You’d be extraordinarily lucky to see a nightjar, but around the end of May their distinctive thrumming sound could be heard at dusk. Their call was once described to us as sounding ‘not unlike a distant two-stroke engine’, and that’s about perfect. It was a sound you had to listen out for and sometimes you’d realise that you’d been hearing it for two or three minutes, way off in the distance, before the penny dropped.
Nightjars are not that different in size to a European cuckoo (a bird you will also be hard-pressed to catch a glimpse of). They are quite angular birds with long pointed wings. They have a distinctive flitting, swooping, rolling flight, no doubt as a result of their habit of chasing moths. But the truth of the matter is that you are more likely to see a nightjar on the ground than in the air. We have driven past them in the Zambian bush, pausing to photograph them in the beam from headlights, just discernible against the ground in their dappled camouflage colours. We have nearly stepped on one nesting in bracken (no more than a kilometre from ‘the clock face’) before it bolted for safety, leaving us all surprised. I once saw one swoop down and settle on our washing line just after dusk, silent in flight, totally silent with not a murmur even of displaced air or flapped wing feather.
Once attuned to their presence, we often found ourselves moving about as quietly as we could on the off-chance of hearing one nearby. Our neighbour, Michel, sometimes ran a small pump down by his lower pond and, with the breeze in a particular direction, we imagined that we had heard a nightjar. This worked the other way round too, to our pleasant surprise, when we realised that the pump was silent. By mid to late August the nightjars had moved on, so every sighting, every call heard away in the distance was extra special.
Willoughby, our long-departed Maine Coon cat
Willoughby, alas, is no longer with us. At the time, he was our finest cat, a medium-sized and extremely gentle Maine Coon. Alas, too, he hunted, taking rodents of all sizes in preference to birds. We loathed it, but it is what happens. Keeping rodents out of the house and warning us when snakes were nearby were two useful functions he performed. That he was hard-wired to do this, as are all cats, meant that much of his time was spent outdoors. Although he roamed into the surrounding fields, the courtyard was a safe and interesting place - and potential larder - in which he could hang out. With dense black fur between the pads of his paws, characteristic of his breed, he was not far from being a silent hunter.
The dance in moonlight
In calm weather in mid-summer, evenings in the Gers can be paradise. The extreme heat of the day has passed and the air possesses a certain clarity. As dusk passes into night, and the sun’s flame light is exchanged for the moon’s mirror light, the multitude of day-time greens is exchanged for greys and blacks in a dimmed and different domain. The transformation is familiar, of course, but never less than fresh, never unnoticed, always then, there, close and intimate.
So it was that one May night when the moon was up and the air was still, I opened the bedroom window to reach out into the courtyard to close the shutters, expecting nothing of special note other than a few moments of quietly thrilling magic, the sort that one sees often enough when the spirit is tuned to seeing it. But that night the spell of the moment held something wholly unexpected of which I was to be the sole witness.
Willoughby’s outline was just discernible and, as vision adjusted itself to the moonlight, so too was the outline of something else, ahead of him by two metres or so on the clock face. He was frozen in what I knew to be his characteristic hunting pose, but what the object of his attention was remained a puzzle - until he jumped. A cat’s hunting jump plays out with an arched back and a concave loping lunge that lifts off with a spring and lands with front legs outstretched. At the height of his feline jump, the thing in front of him also took to the air, but with a corresponding convex take-off aided by a silent flap of wings which revealed it to be a nightjar advancing under the descending flight of our determined cat. At take-off, they had been at a quarter-to-one and five-to-one on the clock face respectively. Their leaps moved them each forward clock-wise, ten minutes or so, with Willoughby landing where the bird had been and the bird landing a further ten minutes ahead of him on the clock face. Both manoeuvres were conducted silently with the night’s stillness unbroken by voice, or by wing flap or by the scrabble of paws either going forward or coming down.
That single twinned leap would have been enough for any human spectator, but not so for the two participants. Engaged in syncro, they thus made what must have been two full tours of the clock face, with leaps and lunges, never touching, never racing. With each take-off and landing the pair retained their distance from each other. They had merely moved along the clock face’s perimeter, appearing mid-jump to be perilously close to each other, but cat landing without quarry and bird landing unscathed. It was a steady, unhurried process in which one could be forgiven for thinking that the cat’s determination was somehow mutating into frustration-less entertainment in the face of a bird that knew its nimbleness would safely be the better of the cat. And when at some point the bird perhaps sensed that the balanced match threatened to turn to its disadvantage, it gave just enough wing flaps to lift into full flight and peel off silently into the night. I had been watching for an eternity that could not have lasted more than two full minutes.
That night I slept as if I had imagined the whole thing, waking at some point to find a grey cat asleep beside me. The remainder of the season’s evenings continued to be punctuated by the distantly fleeting drumming song of nightjars, but the creatures themselves remained elusively out of sight.
A few years later, when age and infirmity overtook Willoughby, we dug a hole in the clock face and buried him there. It would be a fine thing if each summer onward into the future a descendant nightjar of his dancing partner of that night might from time to time settle on that same moonlit patch of land whilst hunting for moths.