A Revelation of Cormorants
First published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press.
*Cormorant, from the Latin for “sea-raven”. The Tudors saw the bird as a symbol for gluttony: Shakespeare refers to “hungry Time” as a cormorant. It may have gained this reputation because of its proficiency at catching fish. Milton, however, invested the bird with a dark glamour: he likened Lucifer sitting in the Tree of Life to a cormorant, no doubt because of the bird’s habit of standing with its black wings spread out to dry. The satanic image stuck. The occultist and poet Ludovic Horne wrote of his “Cormorant days/dark and sleek” Atheist essayist Llewelyn Powys refers to the birds as “satanic saints” in Parian niches on the chalk cliffs of Dorset, but he celebrated them too as manifesting the ecstasy of the moment, as they plunge into the sea after the silver-scaled fish of their dreams. Conan Doyle alludes to an untold Sherlock Holmes case of “The Lighthouse Keeper and the Trained Cormorant”. Isherwood cites them in a nonsense poem. Folklore about them is much barer than the literary record.
Crow. A 15th century Northern ballad tells of a Crow King who rules by magic. The title may involve a punning reference to the “croaking” of the birds. Scott records a Northumberland superstition which counted crows’ caws for purposes of divination. As carrion birds they were associated with gallows and gibbets. (Ted Hughes)
William Utter put down his pen upon his labours at A Flock of Myths: the Legends, Lore and Literature of the Birds of Britain, and rubbed his eyes, transferring some of the black ink from his fingers to his eyelids and giving them a bruised, shadowed look. This had the effect of accentuating the length and angularity of his face, which a disobliging acquaintance had once compared to a coffin-lid, with a brass-plaque brow. Utter was in fact quite proud of his brow, which he felt was of the sort once described as “lofty”. His hair had shrunk from it some years ago, leaving certainly a bare plate upon which Utter would sometimes write with frowns.
He had taken white-walled Watchman’s Cottage, on the sea at a little haven in Galloway, for a quarter of the year, to write, or rather (he supposed he should say) compile this book, a commissioned work, which was really a gathering of greater men’s titbits, as if he were a tame bird being fed by hand. Contented: perhaps; replete, but unfree. He had been asked to do it, he knew, only because he was a competent cataloguer of facts who could be relied upon to deliver to deadlines. He longed for the time when he would have reached whatever bird it was that began with “Z”. Zanzibar finch? But that was a long way off, as he worked now through the “Cs”.
He sighed heavily and the exhalation blew the white slips of paper containing his carefully garnered quotations into the air, where they fluttered for a moment before returning to the surface, in disarray. He muttered to himself and got up impatiently. They could stay like that. Even after just the few days of his stay, settling in, putting everything in proper order, getting in provisions, he felt the need already for some time away from the study lamp.
The only person he had seen to talk to since his arrival was Mr Stair, the caretaker of the cottage, who had let him in and explained its (fairly basic) facilities. Utter had at first wondered if he might undertake a little original research with his new acquaintance. Having established, via a series of cautious pleasantries, that Mr Stair was a local man and had lived in the little fishing harbour most of his life, Utter had mentioned in passing the book he was intending to work on. Then he asked, as he hoped conversationally, if Mr Stair knew of any local sayings about birds. This attempted foray into folklore fieldwork had not proved a marked success.
Mr Stair had lived up to the sound of his name, giving Utter a sombre glare. Then he had run his long fingers through his jackdaw hair – black streaked with silver – and slowly found his way to what proved to be quite a long speech, for him, in that it contained more than one sentence.
“There would be some, I suppose,” he had conceded. “But myself I give them no heed. You would be better, I’d suggest, just watching what they do. That’s the way, I find, to learn about their habits.”
He said this as if he imagined that the visitor really wanted to find out about the local bird-life rather than learning what it was people said about birds, but Utter decided not to pursue the distinction. Politely he had let the conversation run in the direction the caretaker had taken it. He had asked where on the shore might be best for watching the widest range of birds. Mr Stair had regarded him as if this was not a question he was minded to answer. But at length he had said: “If it’s the seabirds you are after, I would go over by the White Strand. But watch for the tides, mind. They come in fast there.”
Now Utter turned over this piece of advice in his mind, like a gull examining a piece of litter for its edibility. As he gazed out of the window to the long grey skies and the hissing ripple of the murky waves, he admitted to himself that, he already felt jaded: and now his quotations were all upset. A walk among the rocks on the shore would do him good. He might, indeed, observe some of the birds, as Mr Stair had suggested, though what quite he would be looking for he was not so sure. He supposed there would be crows, and cormorants, and there might be some glimmer of a point of interest about them that he could work into the entries he was writing. He looked at the illustrations of these two birds, and a few others, in a pocket guide he had bought, and got their shapes roughly fixed in his mind.
Then, picking up a raincoat, the notebook containing his work so far from “Albatross” to “Crow”, and a black umbrella, he left the cottage. As he pulled the door to, his strips of other men’s sayings rose up once again for a brief flight above the desk.
Often in Galloway the land only dwindles down to the shore, slowly descending in peterings-out of rocks and last gasps of grassy tussocks. But, following the caretaker’s directions, the pensive editor found that the path to White Strand rose from the cove where he was staying to higher ground, and he was walking among heather and dying bracken upon a sheep track above the sea. There was a keenness in the air, the way was lonely, and the calling of the seabirds (which ones he did not exactly know) was sharp and plaintive. The great grey clouds all at once struck him as like closed eyelids, and he frowned at the thought that he was now inventing his own quotations, which would not do at all. But perhaps, he reassured himself, he had merely remembered the image from some more notable source.
After a half an hour’s quiet walking upon this ridge, Utter judged that he must have reached the region Mr Stair had described. And indeed down below the sands did seem to have a finer, creamier look to them than their tawnier counterparts of earlier in his wandering. Not white exactly, despite their name: more a wan yellow, they stretched, it seemed to him, like a palimpsest, a piece of wrinkled, blurred papyrus. And those grey rocks: they were surely the residue of ancient writings, all but unreadable now, the characters of some lost language. If one gazed long enough, Utter thought to himself, perhaps the script might be deciphered and the pale pages of the sands would yield up their secrets. And then the sturdier part of himself intruded and made his fingers clutch his raincoat more closely about him so that its flaps did not rise in the wind like fawn wings and carry him soaring off the cliff-top. Puckered up inside his mackintosh, and perched carefully upon a mossy rock, he let the fresh wind buffet him about a bit while he looked to see what birds there might be.
He could only just see over the green lip of the cliff but it was enough for him to descry after a while the flights of birds busy about the shore. Gulls, jackdaws, curlews, he thought he could make out and distinguish. And then – yes, surely: that serrated dark shape, that long neck and the angular form of the wings: they must be the cormorants whose quotability he had just this morning been exploring. They would emerge from the shadow of the sheer tower of rock that he was sitting upon, soar down to the shore, and then launch themselves into the sea to graze for fish. These glides upon the unseen currents of the bright air, followed by a gentle descent, soon had a fascination for him, as if he were watching an elaborate ritual or piece of theatre, and he found (despite himself) that he was drawn into an eager absorption in the birds’ activities.
After a while he began to feel the chill of his exposed perch upon the cold rock and also the pull of seeing the birds at closer quarters. He saw that there was a worn, winding path from the headland to the beach, a narrow channel between the heather and the tall grasses. Carefully, stolidly, he began to follow this down. The wind died about him as he did so, and a greater silence fell for a while, cut only by the cawing and croaking of the birds. The way was not easy: he had to place his boots firmly and sometimes cling on to whatever lay to hand in the undergrowth. Once or twice this proved to be a crop of spiny gorse and his fingers received a sharp tingle followed by a seeping of blood. He cursed and sucked at his maimed hand, but he was not dissuaded and continued to lumber down.
He reached the shoreline at last and from the final ledge of the path gave a little ungainly leap upon the sand, leaving a scuffed imprint. It came to him then as he made his way across the little inlet that, seen from above, if there had been another Utter watching this one, he would look as if he was writing upon the parchment of the shore. There was a quotation, he knew, one of those sonorous Victorian ones no doubt, perpetrated by men with a level stare, yes, and a lofty brow, and a preponderance of whiskers, about footprints in the sands of time. He knew it because it had always seemed to him an absurdly mixed metaphor. The sands of time, surely, are those that run through an hourglass, showing our moments as they run away. But you can’t put footprints in those sands: they are forever running on and, moreover, are generally encased in a glass funnel. But perhaps he was being too literal: as well as too literary. The thought was pursued by another, about the moving finger that writ and having writ moved on; and from the high vantage he had just quitted, he supposed he must seem like just such a scribbling digit.
He took a deep breath of the quickening salt breezes and looked all about him. The birds, disturbed by his presence, set up a more clamorous calling, which echoed away at last as he stood still, clutching his umbrella, and they became more used to his presence. He craned back his neck and looked up to the defile he had just negotiated. The cliffs rose as a great looming shadow, but they were cut by vertical gashes into nearly separated columns, so that the effect was like looking at the spines of a vast case of dark basalt books. There was even gilt tooling upon these volumes, made by clusterings of ochreous moss, and perhaps their titles might be read by discerning the imprints and indentations left by the narrow hollows and niches in the rock. And then Utter saw how right the Powys fellow had been: for in many of these hollows he could make out the forms of cormorants, with their black loop of neck and long beak and their upright, inquisitive stance. Even as he observed them in delight, one dropped from its niche and landed on the rocks, looking inquisitively about, before suddenly, with a supple twist, taking to the shadowy sea.
He walked further into the bay and settled himself once more upon a rock, this one grey and salt-crusted and festooned at its base with black bladder-wrack. White Strand was certainly a favourite habitation of seabirds, and their calling, and the crash of the waves upon the shore, set up a constant background noise like a wireless broadcast from some great station in the clouds. The cormorants were here in great assembly too: not only sheltering in the hollows of the steep cliff-side, but strutting on the shore and standing thoughtfully upon rocks further from him. They were roosting, perhaps, or resting, pausing before one of their fish-seeking dives; or holding out their wings to dry in that Luciferian posture old Milton had evoked; or pecking at their undersides; or simply regarding with their keen dark eyes the world as they found it; a world, he supposed, consisting chiefly of winds, waves, sea-currents, enemies and prey. A world simplified, but also stark and dangerous: where, as Powys had supposed, the bird might take an instinctive pleasure in its own being, in the craft of its fish-catching rituals, in the thrust of the air upon its pinions and the burst of the sea upon its sleek face.
Utter felt a sea fret waft about him, drew his raincoat more closely over his torso, and clung to the bamboo handle of his umbrella. But he did not abandon his study of the cormorants. He felt he could watch for hours their descents, their sea-dippings and their wing-dryings, their apparent glinting-eyed meditations upon what to do next. There always seemed something new to notice. You might think, if put to describing them, that their plumage was black, and there was nothing more to be said. But he soon found this was not wholly true. Beneath the sheen of their scaly cloak of black, there was another hue, a subtle tint of malachite when the light was full on them, a hard green mineral gleam only seen at certain angles.
Then what of their wings? We speak, he thought, of birds’ wings as if they were all alike, but he could now see that those of the cormorant had indeed something archangelic, and heraldic, about them. The way they were raised by the bird made them seem like shields of silver held in readiness by a knight’s squire for a great tournament.
All the time he watched them he stayed still upon his rock regardless of the lappings of saltwater that found their way around him in little thrusting rivulets. And after a while it was as if the birds became almost used to him, and came to regard him as just an odd outcrop of rock. They began to land and to rest quite close by him and he was able to see their fine malachite-black cloaks, and their mythic wings at the closest possible quarters. He became entranced too by their gaze. One great old cormorant stood on the next rock to him, in its tilt-headed attitude, with its long hook of neck, and glared at him from its black eye with its rim of silver. He could not free himself from regarding the dark grace and the saturnine stare of the bird: he saw now exactly why those writers wanted to make it a myth or a metaphor, for it seemed to belong to some other, plutonic dimension, some strange black gulf of a different time. He looked long upon the preening, prying bird while a wild roar grew around him, as if indeed he were on the brink of entering some other plane of existence.
And when he stirred at last from this reverie, he found that the little foaming streams around his rock had been fortified by a greater advance of the waves, and, gazing more widely, that in fact the sea had burst in upon the shore in great grey drives. He had better get back. He saw that he would have to hop from rock to rock if he were not to get his feet wet. Balancing himself with his umbrella like some seashore Blondin, he began to wobble from one rock to another; and then found that there were no more left, and he was not yet on what could be called the shore; indeed, that there was not very much at all that might now be called shore, for the sea was upon it all. He looked for where his cliff path was: but he could not make it out; and he realised that even if he did, he could not get to it, because the sea between where he was, and where it might be, was now surging in strong currents. Annoyed with himself, he teetered back to where he had been and began to wade through the still traversable tide, feeling its cold claws clutch at his feet, tugging at him. He pushed on as hard as he could toward the base of the rock face but found that the pull of the tide became greater almost at each heavy tread. At last, thoroughly wet and worn out, he made ground on a flat rim of rocks immediately in the lee of the cliff.
He turned and saw the waves pound towards him. He looked down and saw the salt encrustations and the marine weeds even upon the rocks where he stood. These, too, then would be engulfed, and he did not know with what force: he must go further up. Perhaps there might be another path, a way across the face of the rock: it was steep, certainly, but he could make out hand-holds and boot-hollows. Possibly people had been up that way before. He took hold firmly of a chunk of rock and hoisted himself up, then looked about for another and made a diagonal line across the bleak surface. The sea crashed below him and made a greedy sucking noise at the base of the cliff. He scraped his hands and knees as he scrambled further up.
And then his burst of resolution gave way. No obvious places to grip presented themselves to his view. It still seemed a very long way up the cliff and the dim track he had hoped for was no longer apparent. Yet the sea was still roaring against the rocks and thrusting its pale tentacles of spray up towards him: it might only take one really big wave to dash him away. He inched very gingerly onwards until he felt he could go no further. He thrust himself in a sudden imploring hug against the cliff, as if its very nearness made him more secure. And then he tried to think.
But absurdly, all he called to mind was a questionnaire he had been sent the year before, in preparation for giving a radio interview about one of his books. Amongst the many trivial and vulgar questions was one which had asked when he had come nearest to death. He had been tempted to answer on the form: “While doing this: by boredom”, but supposed that the answer would not be original. In fact, the question might be better than it seemed; for it had perplexed him. In his forty-four years he did not know that he had ever been close to that highest risk of all. Well, perhaps now he was: now, if he survived, he could certainly quote this experience. He even began, to distract himself and delay taking any decision about inching further up the severe rock face, to compose how he would now word his answer: “Questing for cormorants, I…”
But that supposed, of course, that he would live to tell the tale. A sudden fevered surge of fear leapt up in him and his whitened fingers clung even more tenaciously to the little rims of the rock face. A cloud cleared the sun and he saw outlined in a film of light every crevice, every crack, each striation and scratch upon the adamantine surface. It was like looking at a strange map. But the effect, so far from giving him a sure route, was that of casting him into despondency. There simply were not sufficient wide enough and secure enough hand-holds for him to claw at, still less sockets or ledges where he might rest his feet. And even if he did succeed in negotiating the hazardous way, he could not deny that at the very top of the climb there appeared to be a great overhang, thrusting out from the vertical column he was on, so that he would have to work his way at an acute angle over and around it. A very seasoned climber, with all the right impedimenta, might manage it; he knew that he could not.
Very, very slowly he manoeuvred his feet upon the bare outcrop and cautiously turned his body around, keeping his gaze at first straight ahead. Don’t look down, he told himself, don’t look now. He pushed his palms against the merest hint of pillars on either side of him, and his raincoat unfurled its fawn wings. There was nothing further he could do. There was no question of descending again, for he could not trust himself to do it: and there was no hope of ascending all that terrible way he had seen illumined around him. He would have to wait until somebody came. Perhaps the caretaker might at length wonder that he had not seen him all day, and, remembering their conversation, set out to search for him. He clung to that dim hope as to the rock, with a forlorn desperation.
At intervals he gave a hoarse cry in case there should be anyone passing above: and he was answered by calls quite like his own, coarse and shrill, from the seabirds he had disturbed.
The day darkened: he could see he would soon be benighted here; in the gloom it would be harder to keep his balance; harder to stay awake. It already seemed many hours he had been here and he was very tired. Inevitably after a while he started to imagine, though he knew he must not, what it would be like when – if – he could hold on no longer and he dropped into the churning waters. Could he even then contrive a graceful dive, or would he simply flop? Would he strike his head on a rock, and end things insensible? Or struggle and gasp against the force of the waters until his breath gave out?
In the last of the light he thought he saw a dark flicker of movement come to rest in the next niche of rock to his. There was a sense as of a supple sliver of shape: and a rank, fishy stench. A single bead of black light seemed to stare at him. He remained perfectly still. They were all wrong, really, he reflected, those great men. The cormorant was not after all an embodied vice, not a devil, a dandy or a pagan saint: it was, like his days, like all our days, a living dark question mark, a plunge from the edge of existence into the silvery glinting silence of the future. Yes, that was it. Furtively, with extreme care, he removed his palms from their place of steadying, and then righted himself, reached into the pocket of his raincoat, and took out his notebook and pen. After the entry on the cormorant, he wrote, slowly, gently, “Myself, I have come to the conclusion …”
*Note: SW wonders whether Valentine is familiar with the novel, The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory, published in the 1980s, and recently republished by Valancourt Books, 20th-Century Literature Classics…we wonder whether Gregory’s critically lauded work was an inspiration for Valentine’s “A Revelation of Cormorants”. Gregory’s use of the “sea-crow”, “sea-raven” reverence, which was prior to Valentine’s notations, also suggests a possible link between the two works.
You can read Stephen Gregory’s novel The Cormorant, in parts, here: https://thesanguinewoods.wordpress.com/2018/06/03/the-cormorant-a-novel-of-horror-by-stephen-gregory-part-1/
About the Author & Cool Links
Mark Valentine lives in North Yorkshire with his wife, Jo, and their cat, Percy. He is the author of biographies of Arthur Machen and fantasist writer “Sarban”. Valentine’s series of tales about an occult detective, written with John Howard, were assembled as The Collected Connoisseur (Tartarus Press) and his short stories have been collected recently in The Nightfarers, The Mascarons of the Late Empire, and The Peacock Escritoire. He edited the Wordsworth anthology, The Werewolf Pack; and he edits Wormwood, a journal of the fantastic and supernatural literature. “A Revelation of Cormorants” first appeared in a series of chapbooks published by Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press; explains Valentine: “I first encountered the dark grace of the cormorant while visiting Galloway with Jo.”
Articles about Valentine at Weird Fiction Review:
Bibliographies on Valentine’s Work: