Eliza Brightwen Waits for Dawn

Illustration of an owl from 'Inmates of my house and garden' by Mrs. Brightwen; illustrated by Theo. Carreras.

Eliza Brightwen Waits for Dawn
by Caroline Greene

When I walk out here in the night I hear all the sounds of my wakefulness: the clumsy rustle of the hedgehog, the ghoulish bark of the fox, the lonely shriek of a tawny owl. The sounds go unanswered, much in the way of my thoughts that strive and search for meaning, then stall and freeze, unresolved, incomplete, like the creatures in my little museum room. There, glass encases the work of old Enrico, the dockside taxidermist. The fox is paused, mid-step, a pheasant in its rigid jaws. The owl stares out from still, dark eyes. The poor hedgehog is not deemed worthy of immortality, though the travellers on the common have honoured me with specimens of prickle-backs, left over from the cooking pot.

What is it troubles me so about this precious collection? All my creatures have given me such joy in my researches. The crow that follows me around the house, the squirrel that comes to my window, the starlings and robins and each of the little flocks that flit about my lawn – all have brought me out from my convalescences into the light of my garden. I am better for it. And I have such pleasure in passing the knowledge on to my ladies, my visitors from the city, the children from the parish who have so little opportunity for learning.

What is it that keeps me from sleeping, from feeling the satisfaction of work well done? Did the Reverend White of Selbourne sense such failure? Is Mr Darwin so little satisfied? I have annotated, painted, drawn, labelled and classified every one of the moths and butterflies that frequent this patch of Hertfordshire. Even as a child in the fields of Stoke Newington, I hunted out every beetle that crawled among the grasses, and catalogued every flower that balanced, at its centre, a bee.

But, as I sit, my shawl pulled close about me, and watch the first light lift over the woods of Stanmore, I know that I have discovered nothing new under this rising sun. I have merely recorded. I have not nudged forward any knowledge that others have not already given to the world. Perhaps there are children who can name, now, the trees that shelter their homes, but can that be enough? What will it matter if my name is lost, and this house crumbles away for hedgehogs to clamber over and foxes to mark as their own?

I dare to hold out hope for the owl. Perhaps only this bird carries a soul amongst its feathers. It would be enough to find passage on such wings and be welcomed as a visitor to future worlds, where each of us may tread lightly through the realms of Nature.

Caroline Greene @cgreene100 is an English teacher and occasional features writer whose short fiction has appeared in Flash Magazine, Splonk, FlashBack Fiction and in anthologies published by Fish, Bath Flash Fiction, National Flash Fiction Day, Flash Fiction Festival, and as the title story in How to Hold an Umbrella, from Retreat West Books.  She has written about Eliza Brightwen for the April issue of BBC Countryfile Magazine.

Illustration by Theo. Carreras from ‘Inmates of my house and garden’ by Eliza Brightwen (London: T. F. Unwin,1895), courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (10.5962/bhl.title.18159).