28 February 2023

‘We all waited to find out who would move first’: an extract from Daisy Hildyard’s ‘Emergency’

Posted by Daisy Hildyard

In Daisy Hildyard’s Emergency, shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, a woman, stuck at home during lockdown, reflects on her rural Yorkshire childhood. Dissolving the boundaries of human and animal, local and global, Emergency is a pastoral novel for the age of climate catastrophe. The Rathbones Folio Prize judges called it ‘a profoundly conceived novel that breaches our own myopia’.

One spring evening, when I was old enough to be outside and alone, I was sitting above the quarry on the edge of the village when I saw a panel of clay drop away from the facing vertical side and fall into a pool of water. Behind it the interior of an animal’s burrow was revealed in relief, like a bombed house with one wall removed. Inside, instead of wallpaper or dangling wires, there was one globe-shaped hollow lined with fluff and leaf mould, and passages leading from it which all ran through the roots of the turf, with one exception: the long tunnel which dropped down into the earth, then turned at an angle, in a stretched V-shape, and began to rise again. Within the passage, heading upwards, there was a small animal – brown and furry, whether it was mouse, a shrew, or a vole, I couldn’t see.

Parallel to this creature, high above the pool of water on the quarry bed, there was a female kestrel, floating. The two creatures were at eye level with one another. The kestrel tilted and allowed herself to rise, just a little faster than the animal. Then the animal disappeared from my view, coming up through the ground; meanwhile the kestrel continued to ascend towards the clouds until, abruptly, she stopped. She stopped absolutely – as though somebody had pressed pause. Only the way her position varied very slightly, tilting one way and then another, showed that she was holding herself against a current.

Holding my gaze on her I rose slowly and as smoothly as I could, and skirted along the track that ran around the quarry at the top, taking care to make no sudden movement and to give the bird a wide berth so that she didn’t flit. She must have been able to see me. She didn’t move.

From the track I could see the animal again – a large vole, male, hiding under a clump of dead turf that overhung the track. He wasn’t in the kestrel’s eyeline. We all waited to find out who would move first. There was a clear bronze early evening light and a cold breeze. The grasses flickered. Then the vole made a sudden break, dashing into the open and stopping in the middle of the wheel-rut, right where he was most exposed. There was an island of grass in the middle of the track, and taller grasses across the field all around – this was the only area that was bald and open, and the only place the vole could look so dark and substantial against the beige dust. I stood at the edge of the track like a tree. He was almost at my feet.

The kestrel allowed her equilibrium to be disturbed. She tipped her body, carved a line in the air, and came to hover directly above the vole. Low sunlight projected her shadow away from her so that it fell beyond his horizon. Still the vole remained in the same place. I could see him intimately now – his features were precise and miniature: acorn-cup ears, thread-fine whiskers radiating in all directions, and tiny hand-shaped feet. His whole body was vibrating violently. He seemed unable to move. The kestrel had paused again and my gaze moved up and down, drawing a direct line between them, like a lift between two floors of a building. I felt a sense of love arise inside me, as huge and widespread as the vole was small and specific, and it occurred to me that I could rescue him.

I knew what this would mean because I’d done it before. When the huge black rabbit who lived in a run in our garden had a nest full of babies, my parents had told me not to touch them. I sat outside the hutch and waited for them to be revealed when their mother rolled aside – tiny pink squirming things which were in the process of becoming, from day to day, delicate versions of their parents. When they were a week or so old, skin still visible through a sheen of black fur, my mother explained why I wasn’t to touch them: the rabbit would eat her babies if they had a strange smell on them. I held my hands in front of my face but they didn’t smell like anything except, faintly, soap. My mother left and I stayed watching the rabbits for a while. Then I put one in my pocket, closed the lid of the hutch at the end of the run, and ran down the drive, along the street, and into Clare’s garden. Clare wasn’t there, but Nic was sitting on the back step with a mug of tea and a biscuit, one cigarette waiting beside her on the warm brick. She was always there, waiting like that when Clare came home from school. I closed the gate and approached, warily, up the path, until I was in front of her, waiting for a sign that she had recognized me, but she wasn’t much interested in my presence – she was still looking over my shoulder. I glanced behind me but there was nothing there, only the sun setting over the fields and the quarry. There was a small yellowish scar below the outer edge of one of her eyes which very slightly affected its shape, so there was always something unusual about her face, but in that moment she was looking towards the sun and her brown iris seemed to have been set on fire, melting diamonds of golds and oranges wheeling around the rim, which gave her a blind, illuminated fierceness, and I felt afraid of her. Then it passed and I said ‘Hi is Clare playing.’

Emergency by Daisy Hildyard (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is shortlisted for the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize. The winner is announced on Monday 27 March at the British Library.

Join Daisy Hildyard, alongside the Rathbones Folio Prize judges Ali Smith, Jackie Kay and Guy Gunaratne and a stellar line-up of other shortlistees, at an event at the British Library on Sunday 26 March. Find out more and book tickets here.

Books mentioned in this blog post