Winterlandschaft mit Eisläufern und Vogelfalle

Pieter Bruegel der Ältere, „Winterlandschaft mit Eisläufern und Vogelfalle“ (1565)

Learn from this picture how we journey in the world

Slithering as we go, the foolish and the wise


We have to imagine the duties they leave behind

for the thrill of the river,

the kitchens and middens, the sheepfolds and clouded byres,

the old folk in their sick beds

mumbling prayers.


The day is bright

and this is their escape

from hardship,

but each has his private hurt, her secret dread:

the man who starts thirsty and tired, his body soured

with last night’s schnapps,

then skates out to the bridge at breakneck speed,

away from the loveless matron he’s had to endure

for decades;

the woman in blue and grey, keeping pace with her child,

untroubled for now, but never released from the fear

that her husband will catch her wasting his precious time

and beat her as he’s beaten her for years,

the moment he gets her home.


At midstream, the children play

with makeshift hockey sticks and, near the church,

a man finds the thoughtless grace

of the boy he once was

to glide free

in the very eye of heaven;

it could be simple – paradise foreseen –

but up on the rightmost bank, amid thorns and briars,

someone has built a bird trap from a plank

set on a perch, from which a length of rope

snakes to a half‐closed door,

and all around it, birds dip from the air,

starlings and fieldfares, redwings, unaware

of any danger.


It seems a fable and perhaps it is:

we live in peril, die from happenstance,

a casual slip, a fault line in the ice;

but surely it’s the other thought that matters,

the sense that, now and then, there’s still a chance

a man might slide towards an old

belonging, momentarily involved

in nothing but the present, skating out

towards a white

horizon, fair

and gifted with the grace

to skate forever, slithering as he goes,

but hazarding a guess that someone else

is close beside him, other to his other.


John Burnside