I seem to have spent most of the past few weeks either stuck in front of my computer, working, or taking the dog out for a trudge in the mud, wind and rain. I’ve taken my imagination for a walk too (although in nicer weather). Here is a short story, a flight from February:
It’s difficult to know when it began. Perhaps with the dreams that came in the heart of winter, when it was hard to rise in the morning and the water in the pigs’ troughs was frozen solid. Or with the sense of knowing, the unease that would wake me in the middle of the night; I’d put it down to the change or the usual worries. Had I shut away the hens? And, if the snow returned, would I manage to find all my sheep if they huddled under the walls and got covered by drifts? There is always something doing on a farm, anyone can tell you.
By the time the sky cracks red, I’ve usually been up for hours. The lighter mornings come as a blessing with the thaw. Even so, days are no easier. Over the years, I’ve got used to shouldering most of the work alone. When the lambing starts in earnest, I hire Graham, a lad from the village, to come help. But he wasn’t due to start for some time yet. So when I saw his Land Rover on the track leading up here, I was surprised.
The vehicle rattled over the cattle grid then stopped. When it drove on, it pulled away to reveal four slight figures picking their way. Three of them were wearing what looked like long orange and red dresses under anoraks, while the fourth was dressed head to toe in black.
Graham parked in his usual spot in the yard. When I opened the door, he was shaking his head.
‘You’ll never believe this,’ he said.
‘Bunch of weirdos to see you.’
‘Well then send them away.’
‘No doing.’ He pulled a face. ‘Said you wouldn’t want it, but they won’t listen. Come a long way – that’s what they say.’
‘Where’s a long way?’
‘Somewhere foreign. Only one of them as speaks any English. And then you can’t tell half of what he’s saying.’
‘Look at them, what are they doing?’
The three foreigners in robes formed a little procession. The one at the front was swinging a round, glinting object, while the one at the rear banged on a flat drum. The three of them walked slowly, despite the wind tugging at their skirts. The figure in black lingered a little ways behind, as if embarrassed. Weirdly, though, the sight of them stirred something deep in my belly.
‘Better get a brew on,’ I said.
Graham gave a snort. ‘A woman’s answer to everything.’
I gave him one of my looks and he grinned. Cheeky so-and-so.
The water was squeaking up to a boil when there was a knock at the door. I got Graham to fill the mugs while I answered it.
The man dressed in black stood in the doorway and gave a stiff little bow. He looked at me nervously, almost expectantly, then glanced over my shoulder as if hoping to find somebody else. His skin was the colour of polished wood and his features were Eastern. Unlike his fellow travellers, whose heads were shaven, he had a crown of thick black hair and seemed much younger than them. The other men reminded me of monks, the sort you see on postcards and calendars, though what they would be doing turning up at a hill farm was anybody’s guess. The younger man cleared his throat.
‘We are here for the baby,’ he said.
I laughed. ‘There’s no baby here. Not even if it’s a lamb or piglet you’re after. Not this time of year.’
He turned and spoke quickly to the others, huddled behind him. They shared some words, sounds like singing, but it seemed like they were disagreeing with him; the man in black shrugged and turned to me.
‘The child. It is important.’
‘Look, you’d better come on in. You’ll catch your death out there.’ I gestured and they filed past me, into the kitchen where they stood around looking confused. ‘Take a seat, go on.’
Once they were all sat down around the table, Graham handed out mugs of tea and a plate of biscuits, which the foreigners fell upon like birds at the grain. ‘I’ve seen it all now,’ he muttered.
I have to say they looked a bit better for having a hot drink inside them and something to eat. I folded my arms and glanced round. ‘So now, what’s this here business you’ve come about?’
The translator gave a little nod. ‘My companions have been searching for long time. They come many thousands of miles. Following signs.’
‘What’re they in search of? What signs?’ Graham wanted to know. I frowned at him so he huffed and leant back against the dresser.
‘It is difficult to explain. We are looking for a child. My brothers believe the child is born in this place.’ At this, one of the other men leant across the table, said a few words and tapped the translator’s forearm.
The translator continued, ‘Has a child been born here?’
‘Yes,’ I said, and all the men turned to me, expressions bright as if somebody had lit a candle. ‘Yes, the last child to be born here was me. Fifty-odd year ago.’
The translator relayed this fact and there was more conversation, some of it heated, and they batted away Graham’s offer of biscuits from the packet. After a few moments, they settled back down. One of the monks folded his arms, while another heaved a large bag onto the table. It was colourfully embroidered and decorated with little yellow and pink pompoms and tassels.
He carefully retrieved a number of items, reached across the table and placed them in front of me, very deliberately, as though he was performing a ceremony. The bracelet on his wrist winked in the light, and without thinking I went to touch it. His arm turned still as rock and he looked hard at me, dark eyes narrowing under beetle brows. I pulled back my hand slowly.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Don’t know what I was thinking.’
He sat back and nodded. Then, without saying a word, he removed the bracelet and placed it alongside the other objects. There was a loop of brown beads, the flat drum I had seen earlier, a little pair of patterned bronze cymbals, a flute that looked like it was made of bone, an incense burner on a long chain, a scroll of some sort, a large golden amulet and a simple wooden bowl. Those are the things I remember, there might have been more. The monk with the beetle brows spread his palms, as if inviting me to consider the display.
‘What does he want me to do?’ I asked the translator.
‘All right!’ exclaimed Graham. ‘Go on, I know what I’d pick–’ One of the monks jumped up and turned to face him, surprisingly agile for an older man. Graham puffed his cheeks. ‘Just saying.’
The monk with the beetle brows spoke. ‘Choose.’ All four of the visitors were watching me, and it felt as though I was being invited to play a game where I only half remembered the rules. Only the game was as serious as anything I had ever done.
I took a breath and found myself picking up the bracelet, then the drum and finally the bowl. I placed them close to me. There was a sense of release among the monks, as if I had passed a test. But I wasn’t finished.
‘This belongs to you.’ I gave the scroll to one of the monks, who bowed his head and accepted it. ‘This is yours.’ I handed the cymbals to the second monk. ‘And, little brother, this belongs to you.’ I reached over to the monk with the beetle brows, and poured the rosary beads into his cupped hands. His eyes were brimming with tears. He nodded.
‘These were mine,’ I gestured to the objects I had chosen, ‘and this is a trick.’ I pushed the amulet across the table. ‘The other things don’t matter. None of it truly matters.’ I realised with surprise that my own face was wet, that I was crying even though I didn’t feel sad. Not at all. I caught a glimpse my reflection in the window and laughed. It was ridiculous: a middle-aged woman with greying hair and a kitchen crammed with exotic visitors, like a pigeon perched among goldfinches. When I laughed, the men started laughing too, thumping laughter, as though we had all finally understood the punchline of a joke at the same time.
Of course I went with them when they asked. I was away for seven years in all, and now I am back on the farm, I find I miss how the mountains create stepping stones above the valley mist; the fierce blue skies and glare of sun on snow; the echo of the tonqin horns among the peaks. But these things will always stay with me. They are part of me and all that I take with me and give.
Graham has made up a bed for me in the box room. He and his partner have my old room and their two children have the others. He offered to move out but I told him no, there is no need for any of that. This farm is his now, in good hands. And I won’t be here long.
My time in the monastery has helped me remember all I need to know, and I am ready. I have changed out of my old farm clothes into my robes and I have a torch to help me pick my way through the lower pastures, up the rocky slopes, over the stone walls (in good repair, I’m pleased to see). Sheep scatter, taking one or two paces, eyes red in the torch light, before they realise that I pose no threat and stand to watch me pass. Higher up I go, up to where the wind whips and boulders balance precariously, visited only by ravens.
Behind a mound of stones, I find the pit. It has taken me three days to dig, hard labour and cracked hands, and I ease myself down carefully, sliding over the lip and in, then turn and settle, flat against the bumpy soil. The earth holds me tight, squeezing my shoulders, and the stars overhead blink white against black, constellations slowly turning through space and time.
It begins first with my fingertips and toes, the sensation that the skin is opening, that my capillaries are sprouting red to white, seeds unfurling. I am on my way, spreading into filaments, fine and hairlike, pushing into the soil, past stones and roots and waterways, along the slopes in all directions, under the farm, down roads, into villages, towns and cities; a network of knowledge, all that my lives and the lives of my others have gleaned, returning hope and wisdom and belief to this precious Earth, to nourish and nurture, to resurrect her with our love.
(c) Sue Belfrage, 2020