It started, this time around, with a drawing. Claire O’Connell spent a lot of time in her room, by herself. She always wanted to get away from things. When she was in school, she wanted to be as far away from there as you could possibly get: another country, or another planet. They were always whispering things, and pointing, and laughing. Then when she finally got home, it was exactly the same. Everything was wrong somehow. She didn’t want to there either. So she went to her room, put on headphones, went on the internet, and tried to get as far away from things as she could. And she drew. When her moods got particularly bad, she liked to draw. There was no plan to most of her drawings. She just started with a line, or a shape of some kind, and the pictures seemed to draw themselves. She drew without thinking, and it was a way of forgetting things.
In school they said she was a witch. But if she had been a witch, a real one, she would just fly away, into the deep blue sky. She would have her revenge on them, and then fly off, never to be seen again. Where would she go? Wherever witches went. There must be a place where witches went: a great secret campsite deep in the countryside, where only witches lived.
The picture she was working on now was different from the others. Most of the others were just abstract designs, but this one was actually of something. It was of a place: the Blackcross stone circle. Last summer, she had concocted a plan to sneak out of her window late at night, and go to the stones. And she almost did it too. She stayed awake until four o’clock to make sure everybody was asleep. Then she dressed herself, and set about taking the window off its hinges. She did this very slowly and carefully, pausing every time the iron creaked. Finally, the window was free in her hands, and she eased it quietly against the wall outside. It felt like an adventure, even though it wasn’t. She replaced the window, and set off down the road. The world was a different place late at night. There were no human sounds – no cars, no footsteps, no speech. Instead of those familiar, tiresome things, Claire became acutely aware of the different sounds the air made as it moved in fits and starts through grass and rushes, through bushes and trees. Off in the distance, she could hear the shrill, deep sound of sheep crying in their pasture. It was a piercing, weird sound – almost like a human voice, but somehow wilder, more of the earth.
Another way Claire had of getting away from things was thinking about Simon. She concentrated very intently, and in her mind’s eye she could see his face, his tousled brown hair, and his lean body. She could hear the sound of his voice. Thinking about Simon was a keen, exquisite pain – it was the summary of all her deepest fears and longings. Most of the time, thinking about him exacerbated her personal sense of inadequacy. But then, when she’d been through all that, over and over in her mind, she thought that maybe one thing might come right in the world – the one thing that she really wanted.
Claire walked along the road that skirted the edge of the estuary. The sound of water now filled the air – a soft, calm sound like a great beast lolling indolently against the rocks and silt beds on the shore. Through the trees lining the road, she could see moonlight shimmering in the water, and the shadows of boats rocking in the shallows. She thought that maybe she mightn’t go to the stones after all. She could just climb the Viaduct, and look out at the bay. But that was just cowardice – she had to go. She had to go because nobody ever went there. It was the most forbidden thing you could do in Blackcross, and nobody knew why. Nobody ever even talked about it. She had to break their rules, because she hated them and knew they were wrong about everything. She hastened her stride, entering the village proper now. It was a strange sensation, wandering about like a ghost or a criminal, while everybody slept. She looked at the post-office, and remembered the picture of it that hung in the Heritage Centre. In the moonlight, it looked almost identical to the faded old photograph; nothing had changed. The post-office was like a time machine, ready to shimmer like a mirage, and vanish into the past. Everything was like that in Blackcross: nothing changed, and everything was ready to vanish into an old photograph of itself. It would happen to her, too, if she wasn’t careful.
Claire drew pictures of people only very rarely, and yet she was always thinking about appearances and looks. She was almost morbidly preoccupied by physical beauty, by that which she felt was most lacking in herself. People could be funny, or very intelligent, but in the end, it didn’t matter what they said, or who they were. Beauty was the only thing that inspired any real passion in people – and everything else was secondary to that, was a kind of pretence that people carried on with, like small talk. Beauty was a world unto itself, to which only the beautiful belonged. She drew pictures sometimes of herself, sometimes of Simon, and sometimes of her friend Catherine. They were Manga-style cartoon drawings. Actually, most of them were of Catherine. Catherine was her best friend, but she was also extraordinarily jealous of her. Or at least that must have been what it was. Most people that she knew who were beautiful were complete bitches – so it wasn’t so hard to dislike them. But Catherine was her best friend – she loved her, and envied her, and in a strange way wanted to be her. She had that feeling about Simon too, which was even stranger. Simon and Catherine – they had a kind of innate gracefulness to them. That’s why most people in school hated them – they were jealous of their gracefulness, and their freedom.
She began to climb the wooded incline that straddled the Viaduct. Stepping out of the trees onto the walkway, she froze, and her heart jumped out of her skin. There was somebody standing on the bridge, gazing out at the bay. The shock was short-lived, however, as she quickly realized that it was her friend Mark, incongruously dressed in his navy school uniform. She tip-toed stealthily over to him, thrusting her hands on both his shoulders when she got behind. He jumped and swung around, eyes and mouth gaping.
“Wa –what are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Never you mind. You first.”
“I felt like a walk – “
“You felt like a walk at half four in the morning? In your school uniform?”
“Well, I didn’t feel particularly like getting dressed up for four in the morning…”
“Seriously, what are you doing here?”
“I was gonna take a walk to have a look at the stones.”
“Yeah, me too…”
“A weird coincidence….”
“You wanna go there now?”
“No, not now. Maybe later. In a bit.”
“No. It’s just…in a bit.”
They never went to the stones that summer, even though they met at the Viaduct three Thursdays in a row. Each time, one of them would want to go, and the other would be too frightened. But they liked being at the Viaduct – they liked the strange sensation of being right in the middle of the village, and yet invisible because everybody else was sleeping. The place that they both hated so passionately acquired an odd kind of serenity in the twilight, with the only sound coming from the river flowing beneath them, and the ocean off dimly in the distance. Once or twice a car passed along the main-road, and they ducked beneath the barrier, listening to the sound of the engine as it faded off in the direction of the mainland, or gradually dissipated into the low murmur of the ocean. Once they saw Simon’s brothers driving in their father’s van, probably drunk, or off their faces. The only person they ever saw on foot was Mae Walsh, but they didn’t bother hiding from her, because she was as crazy as a bag of cats, and nobody listened to her anyway. It was still an unnerving experience, though. She seemed to appear out of nowhere – all of a sudden she was there, standing by the benches across from the post-office. She was looking right at them, very intently. This lasted about a minute, like a staring contest. Then her face began to twitch spasmodically, and she looked frantically around Claire and Mark, as though somebody had appeared suddenly behind them. The expression of shock on her face was so vehement that Claire and Mark turned around to look. There was nothing there. When they looked back, Mae was already tottering briskly away along the shore road.
Then, abruptly, Claire stopped sneaking out at night. Another disappointing, anti-climactic summer ended; school resumed, and things seemed both to stay the same and get worse with steady incremental force. Now, however, as the summer holidays drew around again, her thoughts were returning to the stones. She began to have a recurring dream about them. The dream was always the same. It began without context or preamble, with her clambering over a rusted gate and entering a large meadow. In her recollection of the dream, it felt more like watching a stranger than experiencing things as she normally did. She seemed to have no sense of where she was, or what she was doing; no volition, no will-power of her own. It was like being drunk, like those curious half-recollections you have of things you did while you were drunk, and not quite yourself. It was late at night or early in the morning; the sky was cloudless, and a crescent moon, haloed in a ring of white luminescence, hung like a lamp over the horizon. The stars were extraordinary bright and clear, like fires burning and casting reflections across a body of water. The effect of the stars was so vivid that Claire almost felt as though she could hear them lick and crackle, like nearby campfires. There was, however, one other sound that she was aware of – a very low, very deep sound somewhere off in the distance. It was this sound that she was following.
Claire walked through the meadow until she reached its outer boundary, and the sound became closer and more distinct with each step. The meadow culminated in a shallow drain, over which a ridge of earth allowed access to the next field. The ridge was lined with bushes that grew out of the damp, muddy lees of the drain; their gnarled branches intertwined with one-another, forming a dense wall of foliage over the ridge. Claire walked along the bank of the drain for a time, wondering how she might get through into the next field. Finally, she found a gap between two of the bushes, where an almost perfectly circular opening appeared in the foliage. Claire leaned over the drain, and clasped the branches at either side in her hands; clinging to the branches she began to climb up the ridge. Her heart beat briskly, and the sound grew clearer and more distinct in her ears. She pushed herself through the opening, and sat on the narrow ridge, her feet dangling a little over the ground of the next field. It was a long, expansive plain that stretched about a mile off in each direction. The land was untended, and the grass, weeds, and rushes grew thick and tall. Off in the distance, she saw the stone circle for the first time. The stones stood on a small, raised mound. They were tall and roughly hewn, but had a peculiar sense of regularity and proportion about them. The stone seemed to gleam in the moonlight. Watching them in the distance, Claire had an odd feeling that the design and alignment of the stones nullified time somehow. She felt as though she understood their purpose, although it was impossible to articulate in words. The sound, too, she realized, was coming from the stones. It was like a kind of repetitive singing or chanting, but impossibly deep and guttural, almost inhuman. The sound scared her when she thought about it after, but in the dream she was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. It grew louder and deeper as she clambered over the tall grasses, and hastened into the circle.
Inside the circle, there was a large central stone with spirals etched into it. Simon sat crossed-legged atop the stone. He looked relaxed, and beamed happily when he saw her approach. The dream always ended at this point. After she had had the dream a few times, she recalled an unsettling detail: Simon looked like he normally did, except that on his forehead grew two small, bony nubs, like the first protuberance of a goat or ram’s horns.
Aleister Cavendish spent most of his afternoons sitting at one of the picnic benches that overlooked the estuary, idling and chatting to passers-by. He would have been happy not to talk at all, just to watch the slow, quiet rhythms of Blackcross life as they ebbed and flowed. They ebbed and flowed like the shallow waters in the estuary: constantly moving and changing, but in a regular, fluid way which was almost imperceptible to the eye.
From this vantage, he could take in at a glance everything of significance in the tiny village which had been his home as far back as he could remember, and the home of his ancestors as long as any record of them existed. To his right, he could see the Black Oak River where it flowed into the mouth of the estuary, producing a network of tiny streams and pools along the glistening floor of sediment. Further back along the river, he could see the towering form of the disused railway bridge the locals called the “Viaduct”, because of its seven tall Romanesque arches. In the clear, cloudless sunlight, a perfect reflection of the arches receded into the waters of the Black Oak, pointing to a fluid, rippling sky in the bowels of the earth. When Aleister was a boy, a steam train chugged and rattled across the Viaduct three times a day, trailing long, billowing plumes of steam in its wake. The trains had stopped running decades ago, and in the last ten they’d opened and pedestrianized the bridge. For a fleeting instant, Aleister thought he saw a great commotion of grey steam arcing across the sky’s reflection on the surface of the water.
Across the estuary on a small hillock lay the nucleus of the village. Main Street, which contained the bulk of Blackcross’s pubs, restaurants, and shops, climbed the edge of the northern flank of the hillock, culminating in a precipitous square. From where he sat, Aleister registered the gaudily coloured beach balls and toys that hung in nets outside the shops. The rest of the town proper was arranged somewhat haphazardly on the slopes of the hillock: housing estates, hair salons, and art and craft shops perched on a maze of narrow, winding streets and walk-ways. The opening of the craft stores was one of Blackcross’s many harbingers of summer. Along the river, Aleister could see another: young teenagers working diligently on the pathways, gathering rubbish in refuse sacks, and filling the flower baskets. Other than those youths, the village was restive and still. Up on the square an elderly couple sat at one of the tables outside the Seven Arches Inn, their indistinct shapes as still as statues. The fishing boats and yachts that crested the edge of the estuary lolled on the lapping tide. On a higher vantage overlooking the whole town, the church reared its magnificent and premonitory tower into the pristine azure of the sky.
A hand lighted firmly on Aleister’s shoulder, causing him to start. It was old Mae Walshe. She stood gazing across the bay, her hand resting absently on his shoulder. Mae lived by herself, and smelled like an unmarried farmer: a mixture of stale tobacco, sweat, and dung announced her presence. But there was something else: an overpowering smell of earth, as though she lived deep underground, and clawed her way out first thing every morning. The smell unnerved Aleister, as did the old woman’s appearance: the thick, unruly head of white hair like tufts of wool caught on a barbed wire fence; the channels and ridges that lined and weathered her face; the distracted facial expression that echoed the essential wildness of her odour. She wore old clothes that evoked the vanished world of Aleister’s youth, and her single concession to vanity was a brooch pinned to the hem of her coat. It depicted an owl’s face with glistening oval eyes, and was always polished to perfect sheen.
Mae stood for an interminable interval with her hand on Aleister’s shoulder, her eyes darting about the panorama of Blackcross that lay before them. It seemed to Alesister as though she followed the fitful, lightning fast motion of some imperceptible object, as it flashed in an instant from the weeds and willows in the water, up to the tip of the church steeple. Finally, she spoke: “It will be happening again now. Either this summer or the next, it will be happening again.” Aleister signed, and shuddered. He knew she was going to say it, but he didn’t want to believe her. He was an old man now. The things he had learned in his youth seemed distant, and not quite real. He thought in his heart of hearts that the burden had passed him by.
“How can you be sure?” he asked. “I’ve my ways of knowing,” she answered stubbornly, “I’ve my ways of knowing. I can see them in the woods and the water.” “What do they look like?” Aleister asked with a tremor in his voice. “They don’t look like anything. They look like fire in a gale. Sometimes I see faces in the fire, but them faces are gone as soon as I’ve seen them. They’re always there. When the time comes, they start to burn very bright, and so fast that you can hear a sound like fire licking and crackling. That’s how I know”. Mae turned her head to the ground, and walked briskly away. “Whose faces?” Aleister whispered belatedly.
When Aleister was twelve, everything had gone wrong in Blackcross. It was an unusually hot, parched summer, without a day of rain, with barely a cloud in the sky. He remembered once more the impossible vividness and intensity of everything, the leaves and grass bright and dry, unshaken in the listless air, receding to the foot of the mountains, and further away. It felt like everything was going to catch fire, and blaze away into ashes in the heavy air. Then one night he heard a commotion rousing Cavendish House. Looking out his window, he saw his father and three other men walking briskly away in the direction of the village, bearing torches. He went downstairs and found his mother standing in her nightgown in the main hall. Her appearance frightened him; she looked like a sleepwalker, and her face was distracted and barely recognisable as her own.
“Where are they gone?”
“They’re gone to drive the Old Things away.”
she replied, as though it were a normal thing to say, and required no further explanation.
Maggie Kittredge dreamt that she wandered around the streets of Dublin stone drunk, not quite able to speak, constantly rooting around in her pockets for change to buy another glass of wine. Her friends ushered her from place to place, and she tried unsuccessfully to tell them that she wanted to go home. She felt like a hapless child on a carousel that was spinning faster and faster at every turn. It was a sunny evening, and they went along the canal, stopping at various beer-gardens to buy drinks and sit in the grass at the edge of the water. Again and again, Maggie would see a trio of strange, incongruous figures lurking in the background: an old man with a young couple. They seemed to have been following her at a distance throughout the day. They were dressed in period costume which she guessed to be eighteenth century. The elderly man was tall, slender, and fragile-looking. His broad forehead was bald, but he had grown the remainder of his curly, snow white hair in unkempt profusion down to his shoulders. His face was aristocratic, studious, and stricken with a blank, hapless look of terror and disgust. His attention was focussed on the young couple, who stood a few steps ahead, and appeared aloof and oblivious to him.
The young man’s appearance unsettled and excited Maggie. He was dark, handsome, and powerfully built, but there was an air of ferocity and barely suppressed violence etched in every sinew of his body. His face would have been beautiful in its chiselled symmetry, but its natural delicacy had been coarsened beyond repair by simmering anger and resentment. His eyes, which were a deep, dark shade of brown, glared at the world with an overweening insolence, and the face as a whole suggested incalculable bitterness and a desire for revenge. Like him, the young woman radiated a sense of almost demonic vitality and attractiveness. Her hair was red and her eyes a glittering, liquid shade of green. Her skin was so smooth and white that the deep hue of her full, pouting lips evoked a shock of fresh blood on the flesh of a carefree child. Looking into her eyes, Maggie became convinced that the young woman, and perhaps the man too, were possessed by something very old, something that wore their bodies as a tree wears leaves that will always fall away and be replaced. “Wore their bodies as a tree wears leaves that will always fall away and be replaced” she tried to say, but the words wouldn’t come out.
After Maggie had watched the three strangers again and again, it occurred to her that their facial expressions and movements followed a limited repertoire that simply repeated itself to the letter every time they appeared. They had the unnerving quality of a recording, of a tape or a record trapped in loop. They never made eye-contact with one another, and yet there seemed some invisible thread holding the three of them together, like a convict’s chain linking their legs so that they might rove about from place to place, but never part from one another. It felt to Maggie as though some complex story was contained in the details of their facial expressions and body language, like a picture ripped from a story book or a stained glass window. As she watched them, Maggie felt one of her companions nudge her gently. “The girl is with child,” her friend whispered solemnly “but the child does not belong to either of the other two.”
At some indeterminate stage, Maggie came to from her dreams. At first, only half awake, she thought about her classes at the university, about papers that needed correcting, emails she would have to answer, and a thousand other minor nuisances that assailed her peace of mind. Then, in a blissful flash, she realized the semester had ended on Thursday. All the papers were corrected, all the emails answered, everything done. It was summer again. Her dreams, which were already receding briskly into oblivion, were essentially a groggy continuation of the past few days she’d spent out celebrating. She hadn’t been fully sober since Thursday afternoon, and was waking up in her own apartment for the first time since that morning. By rights, a vicious hangover should have kicked in with that realization, but instead she felt supremely relaxed and renewed. Through the blinds of the window, she could see the bright, brilliant texture of another beautiful summer day. She could hear the particular ambient sounds that such a day unfailingly produced – an airy, giddy hum full of promise and exalted possibility. It was nice to stay in bed, and lazily anticipate what was to come.
An hour later, Maggie dressed herself, and strolled into the apartment’s large kitchen/living area. Her flatmate Jennifer was in the final stages of packing a suitcase. She looked fitfully around the room, trying to remember if there was anything else she needed to remember. “Hi” she said. “Hi” Maggie answered. “It’s stuffy in here,” Maggie muttered, pottering over a mass of Jennifer’s belongings on her way to the balcony door. “There’s some coffee there” Jennifer said, adding: “You were some mess last night.” Maggie turned the key, and swung the sliding doors open. She stood in the balmy, brisk air. “Oh yeah?” “Yeah. Talking gibberish. Speaking in tongues. Like a pythoness. You made waffles. I put you to bed and ate the waffles.” “Thanks” Maggie muttered, pouring herself some coffee. “Is Sean driving you to the station?” she asked. “Sean is in an early house, so I hope he doesn’t get anywhere near a car in the next 24 hours. I have a taxi coming.” At that instant, her phone started to ring. Jennifer rolled her eyes. “Speaking of which…..what have you planned for the day?” Maggie lit a cigarette. “I’m actually gonna do some work today, I think.” “Jesus, you’re a freak” Jennifer said, and kissed her on the forehead. Then she forced her suitcase shut, and lumbered briskly out of the apartment, swearing under her breath. After the door closed, it was quiet. Maggie took her laptop and a parcel she had received from Amazon out onto the balcony.
Maggie’s most vivid memories of her childhood were of when her late father used to play records for her and her two sisters. Her father had a particular fondness for English and Irish folk music, and the songs Maggie liked the best were murder ballads. When she was older, it mystified her as to why those songs had exerted such a powerful fascination over somebody so young. The murder ballads dealt with very dark and adult passions – with adultery, jealousy, and ultimately, with violence. She couldn’t have understood what those songs were really about at that age. And yet, somehow she felt that she had, on some intuitive level. The songs created very powerful images in her imagination. She could see the maidens or wives from the songs – they always stood by lonely crossroads, or in secret places deep in the fields, awaiting their lovers in the dusk twilight. She saw the lovers as dark, powerful, silent men who came from somewhere else along the road, somewhere far away, and only spoke with the longing of their eyes. Often the songs dealt with a woman who had a wealthy husband, who lived in a mansion, and yet, would trade all that luxury and security for one night with the vagabond – one night with the strange, silent man who had come from somewhere else along the road. With a degree of intuition that startled her later on, Maggie saw the protagonists of the songs – the maidens, the husbands, the lovers – as having lost all self-control, as being involved in a mutual tragedy that was beyond their understanding. Instead, however, of perceiving them as being enslaved by their passions, she saw the passions themselves as living creatures that controlled the action from the background. She saw the passions as dark, swirling, wraith-like creatures that stood at the shoulder of the maidens, the husbands, and the lovers, whispering softly in their ears. They could never see these wraiths, and the sound of their voices was indistinguishable from a breeze thrilling through the bushes, or a stream flowing in the distance. In this way, they were lead heedlessly to their destinies – to acts of desperation and violence, to lonely, unmarked graves deep in the fields, and finally, to the gallows. This was how Maggie saw the murder ballads when she was a child.
That early fascination made a lasting impression on her. Whereas her sisters had followed after their mother, and grown up to be decisive and eminently practical in all things, Maggie had become introspective and bohemian like her father. While her sisters scarcely paused in their pursuit of careers, houses, and husbands, Maggie devoted her time to increasingly abstruse and impractical interests, starting with arts as an undergraduate, and later moving from anthropology as a post-grad, to the PhD she was currently pursuing in folk-lore. Her mother indulged her in these pursuits, since, as a result of her husband’s death and the almost tiresomely independent and capable nature of her other daughters, there was really no one else for her to indulge. Maggie had chosen as the subject of her PhD the manner in which real murders became embellished, mythologised, and repackaged as folk-lore. Her intention, if she really had a definite one at all, was to ascertain the degree to which these folk-tales reflected a fascination, even an ambivalence, towards violence and those who transgressed the most sanctified moral codes. A year and half into the PhD, however, and she was making very little progress. Her supervisor, a typically sedate and owlish Londoner named Professor Malcolm Garner, suggested that what she really needed to focus her project was a central case-study, a real historical murder which preferably would still have strong folk traditions attached to it today. So they both went about trying to find a case-study, with very little success, until about month ago, when Malcolm emailed Maggie excitedly to tell her he had found the perfect murder.
“I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before” he said as he led her into his narrow, cramped office. “Would you like some green tea?”
“No thanks, I’m fine.”
Malcolm poured himself a cup, and then spent a minute rearranging the clutter on his desk to make room for it. Maggie noticed a large, lavish hardback with a sparse and somehow highly evocative dust-jacket: The Stone Circles of The British Isles.
“About twenty years ago, or so…..”
Malcolm began –
“I attended a dinner party in a beautiful old Georgian house…..oh, I’m not quite sure where….that was when I used to attend parties regularly, so it was a very long time ago….”
“Nothing to stop you going to parties now.”
“No, I suppose not….anyway, at this particular party, I met a young archaeologist who told me a marvellous story…..it was such an intriguing tale that it really stayed with me, and I began to study the particulars of it for a while….have you ever been to Blackross?
“Blackcross. It’s a little village on the west coast, in Mayo.”
“No, I’ve never been there.”
“Me neither. Apparently it’s a beautiful little spot, very picturesque….a lot of anglers go there in the summertime….anyway, this archaeologist told me that he had been in Blackcross in the seventies, with a team who’d been commissioned to carry out a survey of a stone circle in the vicinity…..”
Here Malcolm paused, and began leafing through Stone Circles of the British Isles.
“This” he said, passing the book to Maggie.
The book was open at a large black and white gate-fold photograph. The picture had been taken inside the circumference of a Neolithic stone circle. At the centre of the image lay a rounded, recumbent stone, like a rugged, half-buried egg. The egg-like rock had been engraved with circular spirals that seemed to eddy and flow into one-another, like a phalanx of giddy whirl-pools. In the picture’s background, the standing stones that marked out the circle proper formed a dark, precise grid around the engraved stone. The standing stones were roughly rectilinear, and there was a strange purposefulness about them.
“Eerie” Maggie said, after studying the picture for a moment.
“Yes, quite spectacular, apparently. Anyway, this young archaeologist and his team were in Blackcross to study the stones, and they found themselves receiving a very cold welcome indeed from the locals. They were treated with diffidence, sometimes even contempt, everywhere they went in the village. At first, he thought it was simply that they were outsiders intruding on a small, closely-knit community. He thought that perhaps their manners must have appeared a little too pompous, too urbane, for the rather down to earth locals. But as time passed, it began to occur to him that the antipathy of the locals was based not on any of their personal characteristics, but rather on what they were doing. It was to do with the stones. He discovered an extraordinary, irrational aversion whenever he attempted to discuss the stones with any of the locals. The response, he said, divided into two categories. Some people that he spoke to simply froze, and behaved as though the stones didn’t exist. These people, as a rule, were younger. The older people would often become aggressive, and tell him straight-out that the stone circle was a bad place, and people with good sense avoided them altogether.”
“Yes, it struck him as a strange way indeed to treat a major heritage site, and a potential tourist boon for the local area. He said that their heritage centre made no reference whatever to the circle. It was as though they wanted to blot out its very existence. As the survey continued, the situation became almost intolerable. The archaeologists were renting a couple of cottages in a nearby village for the duration of the survey. On two separate occasions, some men came around the rear of the cottages, very late at night, and shone torches in at them. The second time it happened, my friend got up and went out to confront them. He said that the experience was very unnerving. The small garden at the rear of the cottage was fenced off from a larger field behind them. About ten feet away, four men stood in the other field, shinning powerful torches in at the cottage. They were completely silhouetted behind the glare of the torches, just dark outlines. Our friend went as far as the fence, and managed to ask them what they wanted. The torches were then turned on him for about thirty seconds, an excruciatingly long thirty seconds as he put it, and then, almost instantaneously, all four went out, and the men walked slowly back into the bushes.”
“Wow. What happened then?”
“Well, nothing really. The survey was completed without any major incidence. The young men finished their work, left Blackcross, went their separate ways, wrote up their papers…..That was the end of the story. Except that our friend, the young archaeologist, remained fascinated by the whole business. He had never encountered anything like the antipathy, the superstitious dread, with which the Blackcross locals regarded the stones. Before or since. So he began to look into the history of Blackcross, and discovered something that the whole archaeological team, with their gimlet-eyed preoccupation with the distant past, had been completely unaware of. Have you ever heard of Lord Anthony Suxsdale?
“It rings a bell. I’m not sure.”
“Well, the Suxsdales were a rather distinguished and well-connected family. Still are, I suppose, after a fashion. Anthony’s father Edward was the 4th Earl of Somerset, and he grew up in Beufroy House on the banks of the river Exe in Devonshire, in the early part of the eighteenth century. In his youth, Anthony was something of a black sheep, or at any rate, a holy terror when it came to drinking and carousing. When he was nineteen, he was sent to take lodgings in London. His father wanted him away from Beufroy House, and the hope was that Anthony’s older brother Richard, who sat in the House of Lords at that time, might keep an eye on him. This was the pattern in Anthony’s youth. He was always being moved out of harm’s way - but always finding his way straight to harm, despite everyone’s best efforts. In London, Anthony became a gregarious socialite, and expressed a desire to write poetry and Gothic literature. He also acquired a great fondness for gambling, and the seamier side of London nightlife. Whether intentionally or intuitively, he was always blackmailing his family; always demanding money to cover his gambling debts, or kick-start one or other of his hare-brained projects. The implicit threat, of course, was that without the money he would find himself in even greater mischief, and blacken the Suxsdale name beyond all repair. It seems that Richard was forced to intervene in order to prevent several scandals from seeing the light of day. Eventually, Richard grew rather tired of all this, and some kind of arrangement was made whereby Anthony, then aged nearly thirty, was sent away to travel the world.”
“In 1758, Anthony surfaced in Bengal, just as the British East India Company was beginning to consolidate their trade dominance in the Indies. In the years that followed, he made a considerable fortune exporting silks back to the UK, and opium to China. Oddly enough, during the same period which saw him thrive in the extraordinarily venal and corrupt climate of the Company, he also appears to have experienced a spiritual awakening in India. Lord Anthony was apparently enraptured by the company and teachings of a variety of fakirs, swamis, and yogis in Bengali in the 1860s. He seems to have been particularly fascinated by certain esoteric Buddhist doctrines regarding reincarnation and the cyclical nature of history. Anyway, however he balanced the contradictory occupations of colonial pirate and esoteric scholar, he returned to London in 1768 a man considerably enriched, both materially and spiritually”.
“At this point in the story, Lord Anthony became preoccupied with a very mysterious young woman who was then making waves in the stranger, more speculative corners of London social life. Mary Margaret Cameron was an orphan who had grown up in Chatham House in Kent as a ward of Lord Carmichael. Rumours abounded that she had been fathered by Lord Carmichael’s wayward nephew William, or perhaps even by Carmichael himself, but nobody really knew for sure. Later, when her repute became somewhat more exotic in nature, members of her London circle would claim that she was an elemental, a faery child of some kind that Lord Carmichael had discovered in the bole of an oak tree on the grounds of his estate. As a young child, she was firmly segregated from the Carmichaels, and lived in the servant’s quarters where she was raised by one of the kitchen girls. However, Helen, the youngest of the Carmichael girls, seems to have been mysteriously drawn to the orphan from a young age. Though they were forbidden to associate with one another, they became secret friends, sneaking away to play in the midst of Chatham’s large maze, or in the Estate’s sprawling woodland. In time, the family simply came to except the girl’s friendship, perhaps to avoid the dangers of further mischief or injury incurred by making them secretive playmates. Mary Margaret was gradually welcomed as an extra member of the Carmichaels. She received a proper education like the rest.”
“But there was an extraordinary strangeness about the girl. She had apparently developed the curious habit as a child of going into a deep trance, wherein she would begin to recall previous lives. The kitchen girl who raised her regarded her as a gifted child, and is believed to have instructed her for a time in certain folk magic and witchcraft practises which had been passed on to her by her grandmother. From the onset, this aspect of her character seems to have fascinated Helen Carmichael, and it was the Lady Carmichael that first introduced Mary Margaret into London society when both had matured into young women. Mary Margaret quickly acquired a name as a striking, if slightly eerie, beauty. She was tall and voluptuous, and had a famously sensual quality about her. She had thick, luxuriant red curls, a pale complexion, and the most extraordinary green eyes. This faery-tale look no doubt contributed to the air of mystique that surrounded her. In many respects, Mary Margaret and her group were pioneers. It would be nearly a century before the craze for Spiritualism would grip London on a large scale. Mary Margaret was perhaps the first English woman to acquire a noteworthy reputation as a medium. There was a town house in Charing Cross that belonged to Lady Helen; it was here that the group which had developed around Mary Margaret met every fortnight. They were understandably secretive about their activities, but it seems that they engaged in the type of things that would become commonplace among the spiritualists in the nineteenth century. Mary Margaret went into her trances, with Lady Helen and others taking notes. They held séances, and discussed matters of high and abstruse history and philosophy. Among this little clique was Lord Anthony, who had become completely infatuated with Mary Margaret.”
Claire’s recollection of the dream had become so clear and precise that she decided to attempt to draw the circle from memory. It would have been strange if her dream image turned out to correspond exactly with the real circle, which she had never even seen at a distance. She worked on it for a couple of weeks. First she drew a straight horizon line through the centre of the page. The next part was difficult – she had to try to capture the field’s dense tangle of grass, weeds, and rushes, and the way they swayed and billowed in the breeze. She closed her eyes, and conjured up the sound in her mind – a dry rustling caress, a thousand nerve-endings fluttering, a sound rising and falling, rhythmic, soothing, alive, and inhuman. Then she freed up her hand, letting the sound guide the rhythm of her pencil as she drew small, wavy lines for the grass, thick, straight clumps for the rushes, and detailed, fleshy stalks and limbs for the weeds. She was satisfied with how it came out – the rhythm of her drawing seemed to echo, at least to some degree, the character of the untended field – the strange mixture of riot and pattern, wildness and regularity, which rose up out of the earth around the circle.
Things seemed to stay the same and get worse with steady, incremental force. Her sister Jennifer got married in the spring, and moved into a new house with her husband on the outskirts of the village. She seemed happy, but Claire felt that already, whatever they had had common when they were younger was evaporating into the air. Someday, very soon, Jennifer would be a stranger – she would be locked into the tiny details of village life, soured by disappointment and absorbed by children, money, and the small, sharp recriminations that Blackcross residents seemed to inevitably nurture against one another. Claire was alone in the house with her parents now – and they barely spoke to each other from one day to the next. At dinner the long silences accentuated the sound of scraping cutlery and their muted chewing. It was like living with dead people. Jennifer and her husband Paul Blake would be like that someday, Claire thought, so what was there to be happy about? There was a brief, brief period when you were young, and then it was all gone – whatever strong feelings you might have had, whatever you might have been if you hadn’t been a coward – all gone – faded into an old photograph of itself.
Then she drew the stones, and this part was slower and more pain-staking. The shapes were etched in her memory in a weirdly specific way, like faces. She felt as though she was drawing from a specific reference, and many of her attempts were erased and redrawn until they felt right. The night she worked on the stones was the same night a group of her friends went to the dunes on Bertra beach. They did that from time to time, when the weather was good, and somebody had some drugs. They would find a secluded place that wasn’t visible from the main road, light a fire and play music until got it bright, or somebody chased them away. She was supposed to meet Catherine at eight outside the Seven Arches Inn, but she was always deeply indecisive about going out anywhere. She would really want to go, but then some part of her would always reason that things would go badly, that she would feel uncomfortable, that she would be standing around with no one to talk to and nothing to say, trying to hide the cold rictus of displeasure and boredom that came over her face on those occasions. She spent so much of her time in her room wishing she was somewhere else, and then when she went somewhere else, it was never quite what she imagined, or had hoped for, or could even tolerate, so she just wanted to be back in her room. So that night, she was deliberating on whether she should go to meet Catherine at eight, or give the whole thing a miss, and the picture kept distracting her. She drew contour-lines within the stones, and shaded them to add an illusionary dimensionality, until they seemed to rise out of the paper. It seemed like she was remembering something: a time when everything gained an extra-dimension and began to swell outwards onto itself. When she was finished, it was ten o’clock; too late to go anywhere. She felt drained and sad. She thought about the dunes, the soft ripped sand, the sound of the ocean, the textures of the sky as evening darkened imperceptibly and everything gathered itself into the light of the flame.
Claire was walking along the banks of the Black Oak, away from the village. The sun was setting behind her, dropping slowly behind the western horizon, into the waters of the estuary and the ocean. She was aware of the luminesce of the distant water at her back, a thousand shimmering sparks dancing in the ebb of the tide. She wished that the village would take light, and burn away behind her. Suddenly, she saw Catherine ahead, ambling along the path towards her. Her heart quickened. Catherine saw her, and her face lightened to a bright, beaming smile. She ran to her, and put her arms around her. She must have been up all night; she was very happy and excited, and Claire was happy to see her. “Guess what happened?” she said.
“Guess what happened?”
“I kissed Simon last night…”
She continued talking excitedly, but Claire couldn’t remember what she said after that. She felt like the sound of everything had suddenly cut out, and she could feel her face freezing, and she was trying to hide her emotions, and trying to look happy, but she felt like crying, and she felt jealous, and she felt angry at herself for feeling jealous. And she felt that Catherine must have read her body language, and must have known exactly how she felt, and she hated her for the way she continued talking giddily about Simon, and then she hated herself because she was just being jealous, and everybody wanted Simon.
When she got back to her room, she immediately opened her sketch-book at the picture of the stones. It seemed such a hateful thing to her now – weird and obsessive, it was like a bitter, gnarled root that she had nursed in the darkness, far away from the pulse of life. And yet it wouldn’t let her go. Something was still missing from it. Almost involuntary, she took her pencil, and placed it at the central, recumbent stone in the drawing. She closed her eyes, and moved the pencil in a random, roughly circular motion across the top half of the page. Gradually, she relaxed, and her attention became focused on the sound the pencil made as it moved back and forth across the paper. The sound of the pencil became louder and louder, and she became less aware of the movement of her hand – the sound became like a living thing, directing the image without any input from her conscious mind. She was becoming hypnotized. Time seemed to slow down to a crawl, and then vanish altogether. Slowly, the sound of the pencil was morphing into the deep chanting sound she had heard from the stones in her dream - that strange, low, guttural chanting sound, like a chorus of giant, meditative insects. The chant was like a great wave crashing in slow-motion, rising and rising, and crashing away again, going in and out, with the space between its waxing and waning stretching into infinity. Another sound emerged that seemed to whisper softly in her ears, like a breeze rustling lazily through spring foliage. This sound seemed to tell her that she and Simon would always be together, that nothing would ever part them.
She opened her eyes. The effect of what she had drawn was oddly pleasing – a kind of dense cloud of weirdly intricate and elegant spirals rose up out of the stone circle, like smoke from a fire. But as she looked closely at the image, a chill ran through her body as though a wet towel had struck her spine. In the middle of the spiralling pencil strokes, she saw two blank faces, like prisoners gazing through the bars of a cell. Then the faces became familiar, and she recognized an earlier drawing of herself and Simon, which was on the sheet immediately underneath the picture of the stones. The whole experience stuck her as portentous and unsettling, and she resolved there and then to stop drawing altogether; to go places, and do things, instead.