Motorcycles, Mysticism

The language of the birds

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I enjoyed another visitation today. Another close encounter.

This bird, unlike the last (‘An extraordinary gathering of angels’), had something to say —

My persistently vocal visitor reminded me to return here to an unfinished theme: a book that I am reading, Symbols of Sacred Science. A chapter titled ‘The Language of the Birds’. And, most importantly, the subject of rhythm.

This book has inspired me with many thoughts, and understandings. New insights, about this blog. About its titular portmanteau — “Psalmistice”. The symbolisms embedded in its winged logo. And, most profoundly, about my intuitions regarding the (dare I say) spiritual aspect of the silence I hear beneath the beat of a V-twin Harley-Davidson engine.

But not just any H-D engine. Only the old, pre- “noughties” engine.

When I first began searching for a Harley-Davidson, I rode a number of new, and recent models. All, I found to be lacking something. An indefinable something. But within moments of my first experiencing an old, pre-2000, rigid mount, 80 cubic inch Evolution engine, I knew.

This, was it.

The right feeling.

Rhythm.

Character.

Life.

Felt clearly, through each touchpoint with the machine.

Hands.

Feet.

Seat.

Not a vague shaking; that isolated, strangely separated, exaggerated rocking motion, as with a newer rubber mount. Not smooth, bland, sterile, lifeless, as with a newer “counter-balanced” rigid mount.

Pulsing.

Massaging.

Giving.

Living.

And so it came to be, that after a long search abroad, I was blessed to acquire a 1995 model collector’s machine, with just 340 miles (544 kilometers) having caressed the circumference of its tyres.

The 6,500 kilometers travelled since have presented countless hours of opportunity for observation, and contemplation. A recurring theme, I must confess, is that, whatever human product befalls my eye — whether it be motorcycles, motor cars, bicycles, lawnmowers, houses, household appliances, children’s toys, public buildings — the truth of the matter is this.

“They just don’t make them like they used to”.

Look around you. Consider carefully, the things our hands … or perhaps, ever-more commonly, a robot’s hands … have made.

Glitzy.

Shiny.

“Edgy”.

Gadgety.

Plasticky.

Quickly.

Increasingly lacking solidity.

Not to mention … simplicity.

Superficial.

Skin deep.

Insubstantial.

One cracked dab of glue, one failed diode away from redundancy. And relegation to landfill.

But what I have noticed most of all, is the growing absence of character. Real, authentic character.

Soul.

For some time now, it has been my ever-firming belief that mankind’s inner condition is, more often than not, reflected in the work of his hands.

As within, so without.

Just as (to cite the topical example) the Harley-Davidson Motor Company’s products have steadily declined in simplicity, solidity, reliability, longevity, originality, authenticity, and above all, soul, and all this most notably since the turn of the millennium, so too, I perceive the steady degeneration of the West’s moral condition. Indeed, so much so, with the passing of years, that I can hardly … rarely … bring myself to look at a television. At the gym, I keep my motorcycle earplugs in, to block out the music videos’ arrogant, swaggering, tempting, beckoning, shimmying, serpentine, slithering, haughty, angry din.

What is on TV?

Violence. Narcissism. Depravity. Injury. Sophistry. Flattery. Revelry. Superficiality. Irresponsibility. Momentary. Temporary. Greedy.

Loud.

Lifeless.

Soulless.

Charging, raging, with pounding rhythms, competing, but strangely lacking, something.

Depth.

Height.

Substance.

Resonance.

Harmony.

 

Please do not from all this think that my weltanschauung is bleak. Au contraire, I see darts of light reflecting everywhere. Shining all the brighter, by reason of growing darkness.

All this, by way of preamble, may now help you to see why it is that René Guénon’s ‘Language of the Birds’ resonated with me —

Likewise it is said in the Hindu tradition that the Devas [angels], in their fight against the Asuras [demons], protect themselves (achhandayan) by the recitation of the hymns of the Veda, and that it is for this reason that the hymns received the name of chhandas, a word which denotes ‘rhythm‘.  The same idea is contained in the word dhikr which, in Islamic esoterism, is used of rhythmic formulas that correspond exactly to Hindu mantras.  The repetition of these formulas aims at producing a harmonisation of the different elements of the being, and at causing vibrations which, by their repercussions throughout the immense hierarchy of states, are capable of opening up a communication with the higher states, which in a general way is the essential and primordial purpose of all rites.

This brings us back directly and very nearly to what was said above about the ‘language of the birds’, which we can also call ‘angelic language’, and of which the image in the human world is rhythmic speech: for the ‘science of rhythm‘, which admits of many applications, is the ultimate basis of all the means that can be brought into action in order to enter into communication with the higher states.  That is why an Islamic tradition says that Adam, in the earthly paradise, spoke in verse, that is, in rhythmic speech; this is related to that ‘Syrian language’ (lughah suryaniyyyah) of which we spoke in our previous study on the ‘science of letters’, and which must be regarded as translating directly the ‘solar and angelic illumination’ as this manifests itself in the centre of the human state.  This is also why the Sacred Books are written in rhythmic language which, clearly, makes them something quite other than mere ‘poems’, in the purely profane sense, which the anti-traditional bias of the modern critics would have them to be.  Moreover, in its origins poetry was by no means the vain ‘literature’ that it has become by a degeneration resulting from the downward march of the human cycle, and it had a truly sacred character.8 Traces of this can be found up to classical antiquity in the West, when poetry was still called the ‘language of the Gods’, an expression equivalent to those we have indicated, in as much as the Gods, that is, the Devas,9 are, like the angels, the representation of the higher states. In Latin, verses were called carmina, a designation relating to their use in the accomplishment of rites; for the word carmen is identical to the Sanskrit karma which must be taken here in its special sense of ‘ritual action’;10 and the poet himself, interpreter of the ‘sacred language’ through which the divine Word appears, was vates, a word which defined him as endowed with an inspiration that was in some way prophetic. Later, by another degeneration, the vates was no longer anything more than a common ‘diviner’,11 and the carmen (whence the English word ‘charm’) no more than a ‘spell’, that is, an operation of low magic. There again is an example of the fact that magic, even sorcery, is what subsists as the last vestige of vanished traditions.

These few indications should be enough to show how inept it is to mock at stories that speak of the ‘language of the birds’. It is all too easy and too simple to disdain as superstitious everything that one does not understand. But the ancients, for their part, knew very well what they meant when they used symbolic language. The real ‘superstition’, in the strictly etymological sense (quod superstat), is that which outlives itself, in short, the ‘dead letter’. But even this very survival, however lacking in interest it may seem, is nevertheless not so contemptible; for the Spirit, which ‘bloweth where it listeth’ and when it listeth, can always come and revivify symbols and rites, and restore to them, along with their lost meaning, the plenitude of their original virtue.

 

8 It can be said, moreover, in a general way, that the arts and sciences have become profane by just this kind of degeneration which deprives them of their traditional nature and, by way of consequence, of any higher significance. We have spoken of this in L’Esoterisme de Dante, ch. 2, and The Crisis of the Modern World, ch. 4 (see also The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, ch. 8)

9 The Sanskrit Deva and the Latin deus are one and the same word.

10 The word poetry also derives from the Latin poiein which has the same signification as the Sanskrit word kri, whence comes karma, which is found again in the Latin creare understood in its primitive acceptation; at the beginning, therefore, it was a question of something altogether different from a mere artistic or literary production in the profane sense that Aristotle seems to have had uniquely in view in speaking of what he called the ‘poetic sciences’.

11 The word ‘diviner’ itself is no less deviant from its meaning; for etymologically it is nothing else than divinus, signifying here ‘interpreter of the Gods’. The ‘auspices’ (from aves spicere, ‘to observe the birds’), omens drawn from the flight and song of birds, are most closely related to the ‘language of birds’, understood in this case in the most literal sense but nevertheless still identified with the ‘language of the Gods’, who were thought to manifest their will by means of these omens. The birds thus played the part of ‘messengers’, analogous — but on a very low plane — to the part that is generally attributed to the angels (whence their name, for this is precisely the meaning of the Greek aggelos).

And so it is with my personal experience, and more particularly, my deeper intuition, of what it is that truly lies beneath the extraordinary “legend” of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Heard, felt, only by those with “an ear to hear”.

A rhythm, a pulse, a vibration, resonating through the body, calming the spirit, vivifying the soul, opening a door to communication with “higher” states of being; a particular rhythm which can now only be found in the “old-fashioned”, “under-powered” vibrations of a simple engine design rendered “obsolete” by the “sophisticated” glories of modernity.

That is to say, by the simple greed of accountants, lawyers, bureaucrats, executives, and shareholders.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

— Leonardo da Vinci

 

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An extraordinary gathering of angels

In recent weeks, I have experienced two unusual — extra ordinary — close encounters with birds. In recent days, I have discovered that these may signify close encounters with angels.

The first and most profound of these occurred at my favourite place of solitude in the mountains. Borne witness here, with the title ‘Strange days indeed’.

The second occurred a couple of weeks ago. On this occasion, at my favourite lakeside haven. Shortly after my arriving and nestling down on the grass with Kindle and camera, a Butcherbird — they of the glorious mellow carrolling voice — suddenly swooped down and landed right at my still-booted feet. For a moment it looked directly at me, cocking its head quizzically. Then, even more extraordinary — and unprecedented — with a small leap and brief flit of wings, it alighted fearlessly right on top of my knee.

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My left knee. The one ever prone to injury, in more youthful times.

The Butcherbird sat there happily for a few moments, looking at me. Only when I began to turn away, slowly to reach for my camera, did it swiftly fly away. I could not help but feel that this little bird had come to welcome me.

Or perhaps, to offer me a greater reason to stay. Because soon after, two vehicles rolled up the lonely dirt road, pulled over on the grass behind my motorcycle, and spilled their many occupants out. Whereupon these noisily began setting up chairs and tables for a BBQ. Such would usually signal me to politely beat a silent retreat, to some other, less trafficked locale. The hope of a return of the Butcherbird — after their departure — sufficed me to stay. And indeed, it — or rather, another of the same Family — did. Although as the photos here show, this other did not come at all so near, contenting itself to alight on my throttle hand grip instead.

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These visitations of the birds were vividly recalled to my mind two days ago, in a hospital emergency department, by my twin brother’s bedside, on reading a chapter in Symbols of Sacred Science entitled ‘The Language of the Birds’. It also recalled to mind my first poem; the subject of yesterday’s blog ‘Learning to fly’.

The following excerpt from ‘The Language of the Birds’ is worthy of deep contemplation for its own sake. However, I wish to cite it here for an additional reason. It prepares the way for another post to follow — perhaps tomorrow — on a closely related topic that is near to my heart, and to many themes in connection with the Psalmistice blog, including the symbolisms embedded in its “winged” logo, and my intuitions regarding the extraordinary, other-worldly effects induced by the spell of the silence discerned beneath the beat of a single crankpin 45° V-twin Harley-Davidson engine.

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That topic, is rhythm.

But first, on the ‘Language of the Birds’ —

Wa-ṣ-ṣāffāti ṣāffan,
Faz-zājirāti zajran,
Fat-tāliyāti dhikran …

By those ranged in ranks,
And who drive away, repulsing,
And who recite the invocation …

Qurʾān, XXXVII, 1-3

There is often mention, in diverse traditions, of a mysterious language called ‘the language of the birds’ — a designation that is clearly symbolic, for the very importance that is attributed to the knowledge of this language, as the prerogative of a high initiation, does not allow us to take it literally.  We read, for example, in the Qurʾān: ‘And Solomon was David’s heir.  And he said, O mankind!  Lo!  we have been taught the language of the birds (ullimnā manṭiq aṭ-ṭayr) and have been given abundance of all things …’. (XXVII, 16).  Elsewhere we read of heroes who, having vanquished the dragon, like Siegfried in the Nordic legend, instantly understand the language of the birds; and this makes it easy to interpret the symbolism in question.  Victory over the dragon has, as its immediate consequence, the conquest of immortality, which is represented by some object the approach to which is guarded by the dragon; and this conquest essentially implies the reintegration into the centre of the human state, that is, into the point where communication is established with the higher states of being.  It is this communication which is represented by the understanding of the language of the birds; and in fact birds are frequently taken as symbols of the angels, that is, precisely, of the higher states.  We have had occasion elsewhere1 to cite the Gospel parable that refers, in this very sense, to ‘the birds of the heavens’ which come and rest in the branches of the tree, the same tree that represents the axis which passes through the centre of each state of the being, and links all the states with each other.2

In the Qurʾānic text given above, the term aṣ-ṣāffāt is taken as meaning literally the birds, but as denoting symbolically the angels (al-malā’ikah); and thus the first verse signifies the constitution of the celestial or spiritual hierarchies.3  The second verse expresses the fight of the angels against the demons, the celestial powers against the infernal powers, that is, the opposition between higher and lower states.4  In the Hindu tradition this is the struggle of the Devas against the Asuras and also, according to a symbolism which comes very close to the symbolism of our theme, the combat of Garuda against the Nāga which is, moreover, none other than the above mentioned serpent or dragon.  The Garuda is the eagle, and elsewhere it is replaced by other birds such as the ibis, the stork, the heron, all enemies and destroyers of reptiles.5

Finally, in the third verse, the angels are said to be reciting the dhikr which is generally interpreted as meaning here the Qur’ān; not the Qur’ān that is expressed in human language, needless to say, but its eternal prototype inscribed on the ‘Guarded Tablet’ (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ), which like Jacob’s ladder extends from the heavens to the earth, and therefore throughout all the degrees of universal existence.

 

1 Man and His Becoming according to the Vedānta, ch. 3.

2 In the Medieval symbol of the Peridexion (a corruption of the word Paradision), one sees the birds on the branches of the tree and the dragon at its foot (cf., The Symbolism of the Cross, ch. 9). In a study on the symbolism of the ‘bird of Paradise’ (Le Rayonnement intellectuel, May-June 1930)  Charbonneau-Lassay has reproduced a sculpture in which this bird is represented by only a head and wings, a form frequently used to depict the angels (cf., Le Bestiaire du Christ, ch. 46, p. 425)

3 The word ṣaff or ‘rank’, is one of those many words which have been suggested as the origin of the word ṣūfī and taṣawwuf; and although this derivation does not seem acceptable from a purely linguistic point of view, it is none the less true, as with many other derivations of the same kind, that it represents one of those ideas really contained in these terms; for the ‘spiritual hierarchies’ are essentially identical with the degrees of initiation.

4 This opposition is expressed in each being by the two tendencies, ascending and descending, called respectively sattwa and tamas by the Hindu doctrine. It is also that which Mazdeism symbolises by the antagonism between light and darkness, personified respectively by Ormuzd and Ahriman.

5 See on this subject the remarkable works of Louis Charbonneau-Lassay on the animal symbols of Christ (cf., Le Bestiaire du Christ). It is important to note that the symbolic opposition of bird and serpent does not apply except when the serpent is considered under its malefic aspect; on the contrary, under its benefic aspect it sometimes is united with the bird as in the case of Quetzalcohuatl of the ancient Meso-American traditions. Moreover, one also finds in Mexico the combat of the eagle with the serpent. As regards the association of bird and serpent, we can recall the Gospel text: ‘Be ye wise as serpents and guileless as doves’ (Mt. 10:16).

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Strange days indeed

Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — most peculiar, mama

Was I reading, meditating, or praying at that moment? I can not say. I can not recall. At the time, it did not seem especially significant.

I heard it first before, and below me. A few hundred metres distant. The clear, sharp sound of a horse’s hooves. A horse well shod — the distinct sound, one can tell. First cantering, then trotting, cantering, then trotting again, on the road’s hard-packed stony clay.

The sound came loudly on the still mountain air. I could not help but have my awareness drawn to it, for a short while. The road below, invisible from my rocky perch, screened from view by the forest of trees.

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Yet my eyes turned down — and more, I shifted to the edge precarious of my rock — to track the sound. From the south east, moving westwards, on the dead end mountain road directly below the ridge line on which I sat.

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I paused, pleasantly distracted, only long enough to absorb it. To appreciate, to embrace the experience of it. Such a distinct sound, rhythmic, and melodic, on a breathless day. So near, and so clear. That is, in contrast to the faint hum of traffic on the freeway, some five kilometres distant as the crow flies. Or the soft crunch of rubber on gravel, travelling over from the northeast, as and when a rare vehicle descended the main forest road. This horse and its rider — for a rider such a well shod, and deliberately paced horse must have — the nearest human contact I had sensed for some hours.

Human? I had no cause, and gave no pause, to entertain this question. Not at the first.

Very shortly after, I heard it again. Above, and behind me. Even closer this time. For now, the horse’s hooves beat out their rhythm on the same dead end road I had travelled, to reach my present place of rest. Cantering, then trotting, cantering, then trotting again. Drawing ever nearer, now from the north east westward.

I paused once more, to welcome the sound. To let it flow through me — how pleasantly — as I embraced it.

For a moment, I wondered if the horse and rider might come all the way to the very end of the road, and spy the narrow single track behind the public lookout’s safety rail, leading the hundred or so metres down along the ridge line to my hidden position.

But then, having again accepted the appearance of the horse and its rider, my attention returned again, to my former activity. Only some time later did it occur that these twin appearances were not so easily explicable.

This was not the only welcomed, and yet, in hindsight, strange, happening of the afternoon. There was also, shortly after, a gathering. A drawing extraordinarily near to me, of the birds.

It is, of course, not unusual for tiny birds to appear nearby, flitting, peeping, and chirping, chasing insects through the trees surrounding my favouritely frequented rock of seclusion. As I sit or lie reading, meditating, contemplating, or (sometimes) dozing, my stillness draws little notice, gives no cause for alarm. Birds will often alight in trees close by, to be startled sometimes by my movement in turning towards their sound; at other times, confident to return my gaze briefly, before moving on.

But never before have so many, come so near.

A mere handful of feet from where I rested, indeed, just above my head, almost within arms reach, a branch overhangs.

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Presently, after the sound of hoof beats behind me again disappeared, just as suddenly as they had appeared — how, and where, questions not yet occurring — a tiny bird drew my eye, darting in for landing, in a tree just in front and to my left. No more than three or four metres away. A Scarlet Robin, I believe. Black, with white, and a bold red breast. Not unlike the colours of Psalmistice.

Shortly it departed, only to be replaced by others, of different kinds. Variously, they perched briefly to observe me, before merrily flittering from branch to branch. Perhaps, or so it seemed, sporting with each other, while occasionally performing remarkable aerobatic feats in pursuit of near-invisible black dots of flying food. And all this immediately before me; not beside, or behind. In the stillness of this day, with rarely a hint of softly disturbed air, and my senses acutely tuned, every movement I could hear.

After some time enjoying this surge of feathered activity, I felt a certain compulsion. To lay down, rest, and look up. I reclined on the rock, the back of my head nestled on the thick protective sleeve of my motorcycle jacket.

Almost immediately, a little nondescript bird alighted in the leaves just above my head.

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For some time it moved about in the leaves above, looking at me, and the world around. And once again, when it moved on, others immediately came to take its place. Most spectacularly, a pair of colourful Eastern Spinebills, who darted and hovered about the foliage, so nearly within touching distance that I felt it almost possible to reach up, and gather them in hand.

Shortly after their departing, the keenness of my interest in bird appreciation beginning to wane, I turned to reading the book I had brought along. A book loaned to me, with enthusiastic endorsement, the previous day. A book about angels.

In time, I came upon a discussion of the biblical tale of Elisha’s servant. When the king of Syria sent “a great host” to capture the prophet Elisha, his servant, on seeing the army surrounding the city, was stricken with panic (2 Kings 6:8-17):

And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?

And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.

And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.

And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man and he saw: and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

Earlier in his life, Elisha had experienced something very similar, when his own master, the prophet Elijah, had been taken up into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-12):

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.

Now, shortly after the event where Elisha’s panic-stricken servant was enabled to see the “horses and chariots of fire round about”, who were there waiting to protect them, these strange horses make yet another appearance.  The Syrian army had moved on to lay siege to the city of Samaria. Eventually, four lepers decided it would be better to go to the Syrians and hope for mercy, than to remain in the city and surely die of hunger (2 Kings 7:3-7):

And they rose up in the twilight, to go unto the camp of the Syrians: and when they were come to the uttermost part of the camp of Syria, behold, there was no man there.

For the Lord had made the host of the Syrians to hear a noise of chariots, and a noise of horses, even the noise of a great host: and they said one to another, Lo, the king of Israel hath hired against us the kings of the Hittites, and the kings of the Egyptians, to come upon us.

Wherefore they arose and fled in the twilight, and left their tents, and their horses, and their asses, even the camp as it was, and fled for their life.

These accounts call to mind another, from the visions of St. John (Revelation 19:14):

And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.

Later in the afternoon, while meditating peacefully, all of a sudden, a number of questions began to dawn on me, concerning the hoof beats heard previously. Not only questions, but also, observations.

I know every road in this neck of the woods.

When I first heard the horse, it was moving towards the dead end of the road below the ridge line. But I never heard it returning again. Rather, the sound had stopped somewhere immediately in front, perhaps slightly to the right of and below my position. At the time, I did not really think anything of it, perhaps assuming it had simply stopped somewhere to rest.

Did the horse remain somewhere down there all afternoon? If it moved on, how could I not have heard it?

I could clearly, though faintly hear the hum of freeway traffic some five kilometres away.

And yet, the sound of those hoof beats had appeared quite suddenly to my awareness, ringing out loud and clear, only when it was, to my best estimate, no more than 500 metres distant, at about the near 180* turn in the lower road, where it rounds the end of the ridge line. If it had come along that road, then how could I not have heard it to my left as well, as it travelled along the other side of the same ridge line, no further distant than when I heard it so clearly?

Then too, what of the horse behind me? Its sound had also appeared very suddenly to my awareness; loud and clear, and very near. At other times, I could hear the sound of tyres crunching on gravel on the main forest road, perhaps a full kilometre away, from which both the lower ridge line road and the upper road both diverge. So, how could I not hear the horse approaching from behind, on the upper road, until it was, again, within no more than 500 metres of where I sat?

Moreover, I did not hear the horse below departing. And the time interval between hearing both sounds, was, I am sure, much too short for even a galloping horse to traverse all the way back along the lower road, ascend the main forest road, and then traverse in along the upper road behind me. Much less, do so silently.

Was there a second horse, then?

I have visited this place countless times, and never seen nor heard a horse there before. It was a Wednesday, not a weekend. What odds an equestrian, much less two, separately, choosing to ride way out here in the middle of the week?

And if, by some chance, there were two horses, then why did each of them — or their riders — just happen to alternate between a near identically-sequenced canter, then trot, canter, then trot, and this only upon reaching a position that, again, just happened to be so nearly equidistant from my position, and nearing the dead end of each road?

I know this place, this area, much too well to be easily self-deceived.

Indeed, so intrigued was I, as to just how these events might be rationally explained, on the way home that evening I used my motorcycle’s trip meter to go out of my way, and confirm the distance between where I had been sitting, and the approximate position on the low road where I first heard the sound of hoof beats approaching. Some four point five kilometres.

No lone horse that I know of could have travelled that distance, in that time interval. Much less in silence, for most of its journey.

There are no alternate roads, or trails. Certainly, none that a horse could travel over — and up — more quickly, and silently.

And if two horses, then why did I not hear either of them depart? Indeed, when these thoughts began to dawn on me, I left my rock for a time, to walk back up the ridge line to the upper road, just to see if a horse was there. Later, on departing, I spent some time riding around looking for any horses or equestrians who may have been about.

I was alone.

There is no doubt that I was fully awake, at all times, throughout the afternoon.

I did not begin to read about angels and “horses of fire” until after hearing these sounds, and in the moment, thinking nothing of them.

What did I hear?

And what of all those birds, gathering so near?

I cannot say.

Strange days indeed.

 

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