Every Night About This Time

Every Night About This Time

sun mist

Buckenham Marshes

The sun hangs between night and day on the far side of the Yare valley, now glowing rather than blazing, reduced to a blood orange, as if the effort of crossing the sky has drained it of power and the mist begins to rise above the grazing marshes, delicate semi-opaque fingers curling around slight eddies in the ether. The air is slightly fetid and oppressive, like the weight of the entire atmosphere is pressing down on this one small area.

cantley at sunset

Cantley from Buckenham Station

I make haste in the gathering gloom along the darkening lane for the hour is fast approaching. Faraway, over by the unseen river, the calls of Greylags drift eerily in my direction but my ears are tuned in to the hubbub coming from the fields to my left, beyond the railway line. I reach the level crossing by Buckenham Station. As I cross, the distant sugar beet factory at Cantley glows like a dark satanic mill, a lurid painted backdrop to what is beginning. I climb the hill and then the hedgebank.

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The Gathering

The field is punctuated with black shapes, moving continually, and the telephone lines traversing it are heavy with yet more, like notes on a score sheet, a dark fruit. Like an orchestra tuning up, the cacophony begins to grow in volume. This is the gathering of the corvids: Rooks and Jackdaws. The gruff fell voices of the Rooks ring out. Black and shabby, with a slightly ragged outline in the dusk, their grey bills and the pale skin surrounding still visible. They look sinister, like so many black-cloaked 17th century plague doctors. Their smaller compatriots, Jackdaws, are now merely dark blurs but their sharper “Chack” calls are bright and insistent in the diminishing light.

crow roost

Above, more birds vector in from all directions, all the while calling and the numbers and tumult grows. The defeated sun drops down below the horizon and the inky sky merges with a ruby red lipstick smear above the far distant trees. Suddenly, almost as one, the vast mass of birds erupts into the sky, filling the sky with their bodies, like black smuts rising from a bonfire, and a wall of sound. It is like being in the largest cinema in the world with surround sound, so loud that it could be Herne himself riding into the sky with his hell-hounds.

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The birds fly the short distance to their roost in Buckenham Carrs, and after a spell of excited chatter they fall silent. It is if I had awoken from a dream but tomorrow it will happen again, and continue until the urge to procreate begins to stir and the birds disperse to their nesting sites. Come the shorter days of autumn they will return to this special place as the planet reaches this same point in its orbit and triggers the ritual again. It will continue when you and I are but distant memories.

crow roost at sunset

These birds are embedded in the weft and warp of the countryside, the cycle of the seasons and folklore of Britain. Watching this spectacle I realise that I am too.

Standing in the dark, the present and the past become one, as I look into the abyss of time, back to when our lives were much more connected with the seasons and nature; stretching back through the centuries to a time of darker nights, when the stories were whispered around the glow of a fire, perhaps the only source of light save for the full moon.

 

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On Blakeney Point One September Morn

 

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Pre-dawn  at the beach car park, Cley

According to the song, Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon. They are not what you take when walking on Blakeney Point. It is akin to walking through deep new snow. The stones act like some devilish conveyor belt forcing your feet back. Progress is slow. Small steps are what you take.

I began this journey at the car park at the end of Beach Road in Cley. 5 a.m; a stiff breeze was blowing and the air was chill. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom there was the faintest glow on the horizon with an accompaniment of breaking waves on the shingle bank and the lone cry of a Curlew somewhere over the nature reserve, still swathed in darkness.

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Dawn, Blakeney Point

Blakeney Point is a shingle spit, which is oriented east-west. The Point is 9.6 miles long, which is considerably shorter than Suffolk’s mirror image, Orford Ness. The width of the spit varies from place to place. It’s shape has been sculpted and defined by the restless sea and it is 33 feet high at its maximum. Apparently, it holds 82 million cubic feet of shingle.

I set off into the darkness, feeling the usual trepidation that the Point engenders. Perhaps I should point out that this walk should only be undertaken once the memory of the last visit has acquired the rosy glow of nostalgia that comes after the memories of the effort and aches and pains have faded. I invariably go alone on this nine and a half mile walk on sand and shingle to enjoy the introspection that this walk encourages.

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Yellow-Horned Poppy

As I trudged along the shingle the sky lightened and clumps of Yellow-Horned Poppy began to appear, erupting like volcanoes from the shingle. I crunched on through the shingle with the slow, steady progress of one walking through treacle.

I stopped again to study the dawn that was unfolding behind me. The sun was rising through a veil of thin cloud, a red disk.

sunrise

After a while I veered left to visit a marooned fishing vessel on the edge of the salt marsh. A cobalt blue hull with the identification mark of WH272 and a superstructure which is mottled white and red with rust, it has sat here for many a year; I named it barca innominata on my first visit. The sheer ferocity of some distant storm must have sat it here, a few hundred metres from the sea

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The first reference point on this walk is the Watch House and I could gauge my progress in this relatively featureless landscape as it loomed larger. Shortly before reaching that small oasis of vegetated land and a respite from the harsh lunar stonescape I came upon the dessicated body of a Common Seal with its bleach boned skull picked clean, lying like a Phocidean George Mallory, whose bleached and frozen remains have been resting on Everest since his death in 1924, like an alabaster effigy in some country church.

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“Mallory”

I continued the short distance to the Watch House, resembling a Marie Celeste; it felt as if somebody had left in a hurry. The land around the house was strewn with old fish boxes, a barbecue and the skeleton of a fish with spines along its long but curled up tail; a Skate.

watch house

The Watch House

I continued my trudge westwards, savouring the occasional patches of vegetation underfoot and passing yet more Yellow-Horned Poppies, their petals resembling Nepalese prayer flags in the strengthening breeze. The high point of the spit grew larger before me.

old lifeboat house from Yankee Hills, Blakeney Point

Yankee Hills

Yankee Hills is a legendary spot for birders. The autumn and spring migration always throwing up some poor bewildered vagrant for a voracious audience to ogle through their spotting scopes and binoculars. I soon reached the marram covered dunes and climbed to their high point. Its soft ridge looked like a Striding Edge covered in velour. I continued the short distance along a compact, sandy track to the Old Lifeboathouse, now a National Trust café, surrounded by timber huts and bungalows, putting up a Sparrowhawk as I did. I watched as it disappeared in the direction of Blakeney Harbour, its passage scattering flocks of small waders.

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The Lifeboat House

I continued my direction in an arc, with the open water of the harbour to my left and hundreds of waders flying to and fro. I soon emerged onto the shingle again, but this time it quickly gave way to a sandy strip between sea and low marram covered dunes. There was a long hank of debris that made up the high tide mark and I followed it, the lines of beached seaweeds punctuated with the occasional corpse of a seal or Guillemot, in varying degrees of decomposition. A Tern lay on a pillow of weed, fresh. Eyes open and head outstretched it, looked nothing less than built for speed, a feathered dart. I was accompanied by foraging Turnstones and the occasional Ringed Plover.

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Ringed Plovers

Quite unexpectedly, I came upon a National Trust sign, asking visitors not to proceed further to avoid disturbance to wildlife. On the first ascent of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, Joe Brown and George Band, stopped short of the summit because it is considered a sacred place by the Sikkimese. I sat down on the soft sand and listened to the only sound, the gentle waves running onto the merest band of shingle. All sounds of civilization were left far behind me and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at having this wonderful place all to myself.

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The end of Blakeney Point

As I gazed distractedly out over the sea to the distant shore of Wells Beach and the conifer belts that form its western border I had a feeling that I was being watched. Gradually, one by one, the heads of eleven Common Seals appeared out of the water, less than a hundred yards off shore. As I attempted to take photos of them, they slipped beneath the waves, only to re-appear as I concentrated on the next one. Who was watching whom?

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Common Seals

They watched me with the baleful stares of East German border guards from some Cold War film. I thought of Ricki Tarr’s famous line from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “Who spies on the spies, Mr Smiley?” I half expected them to produce cameras and start photographing me. The technology is there: waterproof cameras but I guess it is kind of tricky to press the shutter release when you have flippers instead of fingers. Perhaps this little problem will be sorted out by evolution over the next tens of thousand years. I rose and began my long journey back, resolved to leave the seals to their solitude and in peace. I was touched that for the first few hundred yards, I was escorted by a solitary seal, surfacing periodically and then slipping beneath the surface to surge forward like a living torpedo.

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Debris, Blakeney Point

Finally, I was alone again and trudged the high tide line of debris, revisiting the corpses of marine life and the detritus of modern sailors, casually turfed over the side to litter this pristine landscape. I walked on, now faster, as the return leg had little new to catch my attention. There was a shimmering ahead of me, where sky meets land and the shelter on the Cley beach car park began to appear; at first, a small blob hanging in space just above the land, a mirage. Then I was back at my starting point and my final memory of the day was the sight of a Hobby hunting dragonflies high above the car park, unseen by everyone else.

 

Fifty shades of green, brown and yellow

Ranworth is a village of contrasts. In summer it is bustling with people on boating holidays with the staithe and The Maltsters public house being the main focuses of activity, along with St Helens church, known as the cathedral of the Broads, and Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s floating visitor’s centre. When the summer season ends and autumn begins the numbers of visitors falls away considerably and an air of peace begins to return.

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On a mid September afternoon I walked along Staithe Lane, metalled for a few hundred metres before giving way to an unpaved bridleway, quintessentially English, like so many similar unspoilt jewels in the countryside. The vibrant greens of spring and early summer had given way to the duller and varied greens of autumn, as well as a veritable palette of browns and yellows.

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A smallish bird dropped over the hedge and into the road, its tail flicking coquettishly. Experience of bird behavior indicated a Wagtail. I was surprised to see a female Grey Wagtail rather than the expected Pied Wagtail through my binoculars. The sun was shining on it and the lovely dove grey back and lemon underparts were revealed to perfection. I have often seen this species around the millrace of Earsham Mill in Suffolk where it nests, its fast flowing water its preferred habitat, but no such water here. They are mostly winter visitors to this part of the world, to be found around farmyards and streams.

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Over to my left were the grazing marshes of Ranworth marshes, with a carr woodland backdrop and at its end the expanse of reedbed with the cone of St Benet’s Abbey just visible above. St Benet’s was a survivor of the Dissolution but when ownership passed to the Bishop of Norwich he closed it and demolished all but the gatehouse. In the 18th century a farmer built a windmill into the fabric of the gatehouse, which explains the curious profile. I paused to watch a female Marsh Harrier in the middle distance, floating over the reedbeds on the hunt for a takeaway. Nationally rare but quite common in these parts, it is not unusual to see several in the air at the same time.

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The sunlight continued to play along the lane but all around towering clouds, grey and glowering, threatened rain. The fruits of autumn were everywhere; blackberries and rose hips cheek by jowl with flowering Ivy.

ivy flower.jpgThis evergreen, with its unpleasant smell, vaguely reminiscent of bleach, provided a late bonanza of nectar for a myriad of insects. Bees, wasps and their mimics, hover flies, jostled for space along with butterflies.

brimstone.jpgLike a flying slice of lemon, a second brood Brimstone flickered along the hedgerow, landing momentarily on a flower while two Commas gorged themselves, stockpiling energy, prior to climbing into a bed of dead leaves and falling into the big sleep of winter, where their underwings match their surroundings giving some protection for foraging predators.

comma.jpgDragonflies, with their huge compound eyes and darting four-winged flight, hunted using skills perfected over their three hundred or so million years tenure on the planet. They have the ability to change direction, including sideways and backwards, in an instant as well as hover like a miniature helicopter. Their eyesight, razor sharp jaws and speed make them as lethal as any stealth fighter.

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There is predominantly Hawthorn hedgerow along the lane, with its branches hung heavy with waxy red berries. The berries wait patiently for the pillagers from the East. Soon, as the temperature tumbles further, the winter thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwing, will cross the North Sea in vast numbers in search of the food that this tree provides in great quantity to sustain them throughout that harshest of seasons.

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The Hawthorn was punctuated by the occasional Oak, Field Maple and an Ash sapling, defiant in its rude health, yet a species now threatened nationally by a fungus, a silent, efficient assassin. Its shiny silver bark bore a crop of lichens, like tattoos. The Ash is one of the most important habitats for lichens, with their powdery and sometimes crusty circular forms. White, grey, green and yellow, these organisms look inanimate but nothing could be further than the truth. They are a triumph of co-operation between fungi, which need carbon to survive, and algae, which produce food for the fungi through photosynthesis. They grow slowly and whilst they appear comatose can live for vast periods of time. Tests on these small islands of civilisation in the Arctic, the map lichens, have shown them to be 8,600 years old.

The rain, which had threatened for the entire walk, finally arrived and concealed the sun. The gloom became claustrophobic, washing the gleaming berries but desaturating their colours. The leaves of the hedgerow twitched under the impact of the drops and each drop exploded noisily, as if they were communicating with one another in a Morse code of their own design. The rain now became heavy, falling in rods, and the wildlife retreated to cover. I followed their example and hurried back to find shelter.

 

Overtures and Beginners

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The temperature was cooler than of late and the sky was black velvet studded with celestial gemstones. Some of them fell into the familiar patterns, learned in childhood – Ursa Major lumbering on across the sky and opposite, on the other side of the sky, Orion stretched to his full height, his nebulous sword clearly visible. The vista was transient. After but a few miles came the change. I cycled past a drain cover from whence came a puff of mist; Pennywise the clown’s sinister breath perhaps. The mist soon gave way to a fog which suffocated all lights. Only the Klieg light of the nearly full moon managed to penetrate the grey pall hanging between earth and sky. A rehearsal for the month of the drowned dog.

Slender droplets of fog streamed through my headlamp beams, wet neutrinos, leaving no trace on my bicycle, microscopic, mimicking horizontally wind driven rain. The beam was diffused and picked out the ghostlike rabbits scuttling to safety on my approach. On one lane I came upon several rats, of various sizes, but all moving in one direction into the hedge. It was as if they were being drawn by the inaudible (to me) notes of a Pied Piper’s magic pipe.

I took a Red-Legged Partridge completely by surprise. It appeared out of the gloom and instead of sprinting ahead like a demented Roadrunner as they usually do, it merely sat at the side of the road and watched me pass. These beautiful little game birds, native in France, Spain and Portugal, were introduced into the UK in the 18th century and are always a joy to see, but it always causes me to lament the catastrophic decline of our native Grey Partridge, once a common sight when I was young. Intensive agriculture practices leading to loss of habitat for breeding and food sources have seen its numbers decline by 85% in the last 25 years.

As September moves into its teens the sun is more and more reluctant to raise its head above the morning horizon. Maybe a coincidence but I have seen fewer hares in the last week too. It is as if they have been consumed by the stubble fields and lie waiting for the sunrise to reanimate them.

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The gloom became less and as I headed for home a Buzzard swooped down from its perch in a tree and across my path with a piercing, life-affirming cry. I was reminded of Ted Hughes’s poem  “Hawk Roosting”, a poem written in the first person, which aims to show the world as the hawk perceives it. The brutality of the hawk’s view of the world is evident but of course, the hawk does not possess what are considered human attributes such as morality and conscience. The hawk simply is. As was I as I rode the last mile home through a desaturated world.

© John Kerrison 2017

 

The Boys Of Summer

 

4.30 am on the last day of Summer and I slipped along country lanes dark with the shadows of yesterday’s rain. A baleful Venus still dominates the eastern sky, still black but fast turning to a dark grey. Above a black pelmet of cloud on the horizon the Hunter is back in the northern hemisphere, biding his time, ready to claim his place of dominance in the winter sky. Betelgeuse, the ruby, Rigel, Saiph and Bellatrix,the diamonds: Balanchine’s Jewels in the heavens.

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I pass by Woodforde’s Brewery and am overwhelmed by the heady smell of the fermenting process. No doubt a winter brew of a specific gravity to warm the spirits in the bleakest season. The end of the season is cloaked in mist, as thin as a chiffon scarf, its wraiths waft past me like my breath on a winter’s day. The trees and hedges will soon be moribund, the fresh green of their spring foliage now jaded, their glistening fruit grows dull but still provides a bounty for man and wildlife alike. The world is in perpetual motion at the macro and micro level and nothing marks this subtle movement from season to season more than change in the wildlife species populating it. There are the constants, our native species, and then there are the boys of summer. They are the migrants who grace our summer months with their presence and then slip away as the evenings grow darker and food becomes scarce.

Some are barely noticeable while they are here. The Cuckoo, the Turtle Dove and Grasshopper Warbler are often heard but rarely seen but there are others, more showy, who are iconic symbols of the British summer. They share similarities in that their shapes create a common silhouette but they are from separate lines of the avian family. They are, of course, the Swift and the Hirundines: the Swallow, the House Martin and the Sand Martin. They travel through the vastness and danger of continents to spend a woefully short time among us.

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Swifts arrive in early May and they rush through the skies, hawking insects and screaming in exhilaration and ecstasy. I still remember the time I cycled along a summer lane and a Swift strafed me. It happened so quickly that my view of the scythe-winged bird was merely the persistence of vision that was left on my retina. These mercurial birds literally spend their lives on the wing; feeding, sleeping and mating in the air, pausing only to incubate their eggs. As soon as the young have left the nest the adults melt away in early August on their long journey to Southern Africa. Two weeks ago I saw my last two Swifts of this summer, juveniles, flying low and fast over Upton marshes, heading south

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Yesterday the young Swallows of Ranworth were jostling for space on telephone wires, trying to comprehend the impulses coursing through their bodies, an electromagnetic puberty that compels them to leave our shores. Their inherited DNA carries the genetic GPS that will guide them on their long and hazardous journey to the wetlands of South Africa. It’s the same ritual for the House Martin and the Sand Martin, although they are frequently later leaving. I remember walking along the cliffs at Hopton on the Norfolk/Suffolk coast on my birthday in December, several years ago, and being stunned to see a Sand Martin fly past heading south and looking for all the world like a commuter running for the train.

It is always sad to see them go because another summer has gone, like sand running through an egg timer, but the now that they inhabited has become then and the future, with the approaching season, will bring the boys of winter, those Norsemen from the cold bleak lands in the North, with their harsh, guttural voices relating sagas to those of us who take the trouble to listen, about their voyages across barren lands and wild seas.

Ying and Yang: one population leaves and another arrives. Avian net migration.

© John Kerrison 2017

 

Night Moves

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There is a great satisfaction to be had in having the world to oneself, even if it is illusory. Cycling towards the dawn, in that hour or so between total darkness and daylight allows me to experience a silent world, at least in terms of sounds having human origin.

This morning the sky was a soft velvety black and Venus was prominent in the east. It wasn’t the Stygian blackness of winter, with its skies studded with the ice-cold gems of stars but the season moves that way. Cycling in the dark allows the rider to experience nature through the full spectrum of senses. Smell and sound are as relevant as sight in relation to flora and fauna. My visual world was defined by the pool of light from my headlamp yet outside its periphery I was bombarded by a seamless pageant of scents; scents that would almost pass unnoticed in daylight. The overpowering smells generated by Honeysuckle and Rose, the sudden and brief aroma of roadside Mint and an unknown aniseed scent from an adjacent field. I have noticed this year that many farmers are growing low crops that I don’t recognise. All of this was overpainted  on the smell of decay, the smell of the fast approaching change of season. Just occasionally from somewhere in the verge came the cloying scent of putrefaction – roadkill of some kind or other.

Bleached out by the powerful beam of my headlamp, moths drifted by like errant snowflakes, and one moth seemed much larger than the others until I realised it was a tiny mouse, maybe a Wood Mouse although the romantic part of me hoped it was a Harvest Mouse, which had jumped into the road from the verge. It moved quickly and randomly rather like a clockwork toy affected by Brownian motion then abruptly disappeared from the periphery of the beam. I reflected on the large numbers of small rodents and insectivores I see lying in the road when I am cycling in that time between night and day. Perhaps like clockwork toys their hearts unwind and stop. Once daylight arrives they are soon removed by the carrion eating roadsweepers among our fauna.

In this time of half-light Brown Hares are conspicuous, often sitting in the road. Once I came upon a group of five juveniles spread across a quiet lane and I was almost among them before they loped of into the adjacent field, with no great sense of urgency. My machine is silent and the headwind blew my scent away from them so there was nothing to frighten them. Today I saw one hare sitting in the harvested field, its ears like antennae just visible as silhouettes. As I passed by its ears and its body sank low in the stubble looking for all the world like a submarine diving.

Those other members of the Leporidae, the Rabbit, were ubiquitous. The grass meadows beside the lanes were full of their shadows as they scampered to safety. Those on the verge showing their white scuts lit in my passing light as they disappeared. Others, judging themselves to be at a safe distance from me, sat and watched with a look of disdain. They are the most common mammals I see on my rides and yet they are no less fascinating for that. The pregnant females can reabsorb their foetuses if the conditions are not right for giving birth and they eat their faeces in order to glean as much nutrition as possible from the grasses that they eat.

Sounds reached my ears from across the fields. In a small copse, hunched in the corner of a stubble field, the eerie cries of a Tawny Owl, heralding the onset of longer and colder nights and further along to my right the piercing call of a Sparrowhawk, which was returned from a copse on my right rather like  a sonar echo. The sky was growing light and a dark red band filled the horizons, showing the round bales I passed in silhouette. I noticed a Buzzard sitting on one of them. I descended a hill with a copse on either side. The overhanging trees lit by my headlight resembled the beams of a church roof. As I reached the bottom and began climbing, a corvid choir struck up: the bass tones of Rooks and the tenor of Jackdaws, so often roost companions. As I moved further away they settled down to slumber again.

A Stoat sprinted across the road ahead of me, its tail streaming behind in its slipstream. Shortly after, a juvenile Brown Rat slipped past me, hugging the channel where the road meets the verge. By now the darkness had dissipated considerably and as I reached the familiar lanes which would lead me back home I saw a young Hedgehog walking at the side of the road. Their rolling gait always reminds me of someone who has had a bit too much to drink. As I passed it raised its skirts and its suddenly long legs carried it quickly into the verge.

 

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The sun, which was peeping over a bank of mist on the valley floor of the River Bure, quickly turned from a dull orange orb to a blinding yellow flare and daylight had returned.

As I rode along the lane leading into my village I was sharing the carriageway with motor vehicles and my wild companions drifted away into the hedgerows and woodlands to wait for the sun to sink back down and surrender another day to the realm of the night.

© John Kerrison 2017