The Strange Children

Stories are told about the strange children
captured on the South Downs one hot summer.

They had been shepherds in their former home,
a place set between the dog and the wolf

where all light had departed and darkness
not yet descended. They lived in the lap

of expectant twilight until music
beckoned through a network of caves, swinging

a bell of mystery. They stumbled out,
all work forgotten, a herd of lost beasts

trampling over the dry green of old hills
in August, blinking at a world made new.

Summer assaulted their senses at first – 
they rubbed their eyes, felt the heat prick their skin, 

cowered from the noisiness of nature.
Their ears had been fine-tuned to the warning

held in coming darkness. A symphony
enchanted them; they heard each insect tick,

each ruffled feather. They heard each bee buzz.
The strange children had always been waiting,

their lungs had wheezed shallow breaths until now
and they gulped pollen grains, gathering gold.

Each colour they encountered was haloed,
each animal, plant and bird ringed with light.

The black silhouette of words had no place
in the grey land they came from; they had no

names for anything. The day waned. They rested
in a hollow, faces tipped to the sky.

Here they stayed, trapped by the season, saying
nothing. When gaudy autumn wreaked havoc

they were afraid and searched for their old home.
A chill wind settled like frost beneath them

and they wept, afraid their eyes had eaten
summer. They gathered in a chalk pit, curled

their small bodies into the crevasses
and waited for their white bones to crumble

into the foundations of lost heaven.
They starved, never knowing the coming spring.

About the poem

This poem appeared in anthology Chalk Poets: New Poetry from the South Downs, produced for the Winchester Poetry Festival

This poem was one of three completed as part of a commission from the Winchester Poetry Festival to create work inspired by the South Downs and in particular the chalk landscape. This particular poem was written in response to a section in Edward Thomas' beautiful work, The South Country. Thomas explains it so much better than I could: "Legend has it that long ago strange children were caught upon the earth, and being asked how they had come there, they said that one day as they were herding their sheep in a far country they chanced on a cave; and within they heard music as of heavenly bells, which lured them on and on through the corridors of that cave until they reached our earth; and here their eyes, used only to a twilight between a sun that had set for ever and a night that had never fallen, were dazed by the August glow, and lying bemused they were caught before they could find the earthly entrance to their cave. Small wonder would this adventure be from a region no matter how blessed, when the earth is wearing the best white wild roses or when August is at its height." The off-hand reference to the legend as a means of describing the beauty of the area intrigued me, and in this poem I examine the experience of those strange children, looking at the South Downs through new eyes.