A poetic sympathy with nature weaves itself through Kenneth Steven’s collection of short stories, Winter Tales. Just as his protagonist in ‘The Listener’ immerses himself in the Russian wilderness on a quest to ‘hear…exactness’, so too the author invites us to listen for the lyricism in landscape. These are not loud stories but are almost startling in their melodic clarity. As 2018 hurtles onward, tales like ‘The Listener’ can remind us to take time to reflect on the quiet beauty of our surroundings.
One night he lay watching the stars. Nothing had moved all day; the trees sculpted from silence. The lake a single piece of black glass, untouched and unbroken. By the side of the path a fur of insects danced in stillness, a pillar of things in their own intricate tangling. For a moment he’d wanted to bring his bare hand into them, to know if they would brush against him or change their dance. But he didn’t.
He lay and watched the stars. He could have walked through the night; it never went more than grey. The edges of the trees were there; the rims of the hills. But he didn’t. He wanted to lie and listen to the stars. They flickered and fired on the grey cloth of the sky, and he thought how the dead ones drew him most – the ghosts of stars that were no more. They were the memories of stars and he was watching how once they were, and it made him wonder – as many times before – if it might be possible to travel until you could look back and see the earth as once it was.
He watched the crackling remnants of the stars until he thought they were like bonfires; like lonely bonfires in the sky, untended and desperately far from one another. He was pulled down into sleep and he walked that landscape, the vast distance between bonfires.
But he woke when he heard the wind – long, slow casts about the cabin. The wind was unhurried; a great, slow searching. He heard too the dried and empty fragments of heather, the tiny pieces of dwarf birch, gathered and carried in the wind’s hands. He got up, naked, in the early morning nothingness of the day, and watched and listened.
Kenneth Steven is a popular poet, speaker and author. With Marylebone House, he has published a novel, The Well of the North Wind, and a book of short stories, Winter Tales, from which 'The Listener' is drawn.