‘And Our Land Will Yield Its Harvest’
In the lit corner of a small room,
Look closely at the wall; no, not at it but on it – you will need to crouch lower, bend at the knees that creak a little now that arthritis has started to crackle through the bone, look here using the magnifying glass you keep in your desk drawer by the scrapbook full of stamps from Guyana and Equatorial Guinea, of lilies and birds and yellow steam trains – you’ll see scratch marks cracking the eggshell of the skirting board; tiny cryptic grooves in a gathering mess of half circles and angry spitting punctuation, and, even lower now, the shavings in slivers along the edge of the carpet that stretches like a quiet sea into the room where you are variously moored and marooned, depending on the angle of the sun and the alignment of planets in the solar system and gyres in the sea; vast islands of plastic spinning their way across the Atlantic and gathering weight like wet clothes.
Focus your lens now, back to those marks on the skirting board. A pristine fleur de lys wallpaper a hand’s breadth above, just out of shot, but focus in on these marks, these miniature runes. Evidence of the creatures you hear at night scratch-scratching beyond the walls, the rats you’ve read about and dreamed of and heard biting through plaster and wiring, sparking small electrical fires you can smell in the morning as you fit another bulb into the dusty socket above the bed. They don’t believe you but you know they are there. These are the rats of nightmare and folklore, pouring like black shadows from cracks and crevices and the open gaps in the sleeves of suffering saints, as real and as imagined as these scratch marks that you wouldn’t believe you could see if you hadn’t heard the squeaking, snuffling, scratching yourself, couldn’t press into the traces they leave with your fingers and watch the same marks appear in mirror image on your fingerpads, fading like some kind of ghost message, an afterthought, or a preface to something like your death in a small room by a long-gone-silent sea.
The planting of bulbs will begin on a pre-ordained morning in March if the conditions are clement. On this day the farmers gather in the crisp blue of pre-dawn and wait for the sun to shine; if it shines through fog, they will take up their wheelbarrows and tools and make out to prepare the soil. If it shines through clear air, they will anticipate frost and break the dewdrops from the grass to anoint their babies’ heads with once it has melted to water which they will collect in small glass vials. Then they will draw the curtains closed and doze. The wives of the sleeping men will bake bread and across the valley smoke will rise from all the chimneys of all the stone houses, and when the men wake the wives will record the dreams the men dictate to them, hooked up to machines that blink and produce graphs with thin lines. The images of these dreams will be embroidered onto the white faces of small pillows each family place carefully along their windowsills beside the glass vials that catch the last of the day’s sunlight, and the men go out again in the blue morning of the following day. This process will be repeated until the bulbs are swollen big as knuckles, and springtime can begin.
Sometimes the process of recording the men’s dreams continues into the long wet pre-summer months, and the dreams become heavy as the yeast of the bread loaves that line the windowsills now alongside the empty glass vials and the pillows showing all the secrets crammed tight, full and straining toward love, which is, the wives nod in agreement, an attitude, just as luck is. They are superstitious round these parts. They acknowledge this and tuck lavender sprigs into their aprons, wind string around the fingers of their husbands and sons to remind them of promises to be kept late into the night. Far into the woods, beyond the coppices at the edges of the tilled fields, wild wolves howl, and back in the village the young women bury silver between the cabbages to ward off bad spirits. In winter they hang evergreen in the doorway, and scatter winter berries and salt onto the icy stone paths. The men stamp the berries into the ground when they return from their work in the fields after sundown, and in the flickering light of the lantern held in the doorway of each house, all the men of the village stamp their boots, and it is a sombre silent dance, elegant and slow and sure-footed even on the ice because the salt holds them fast. And in the morning the paths are clean, and gleaming, and the children sleep well, and no one dreams through the winter, because it is bad luck to dream when it is cold. The villagers keep their feet warm by burning a fire by the foot of the bed, and keep their hearts covered with a special blanket sewn with rosemary. They drink hot apple in the evenings together, each out of the same wooden cup, and leave a few drops at night to appease the spirits who spin their magic underground. From time to time, there is a Disappearing. Someone will fall asleep and a dream will flare in the corner of their mind’s eye, and before the family can be alerted they have started to freeze solid, and that is when they are pulled down into the Below world. No one speaks of the Disappeared, but every so often a red rose will appear on the stone wall of a house in the village, and families will nod to each other to show respect, and pull their loved ones tighter, and sew more rosemary into the blankets they huddle under at night. Often, the children will sit by the windowsill with its empty vials and sun-bleached pillows, to watch the sky move beyond the glass – which they are not yet aware is really the world spinning, but slowly, slowly – and watch how the light spills and collects, how beautiful and still everything is, here in this small world of charms and magic that is everything they know. All beyond is white, and silence, and woodsmoke.
From the house – if you can call it that – that you are staying in, in this remote spot of overgrown orchards, fallow fields and ancient woodland, the remains of the village rise broken against the sky. There is no window, and a rowan tree has grown through the brickwork. The tour guide is surprised you wish to stay here, since the rest of the group is camping just up the hill in a little patch of cleared land by a brook and a nestle of bluebells that is really quite stunning in the sunshine. But you knew as you passed it on the tour bus, as you rattled along the uneven ground with the chattering of the group buzzing in your ears, that you wanted to get closer to the village. And some of the houses are perfectly safe, un-collapsed near the outer edge where the fire must have died out. In the burnt areas, here and there, circles of mushrooms whose names you don’t know, in buttermilk colours and with patches of warm brown and deep reds, some of them mouldering beautifully into mulch and fluffy white outcrops. Perhaps if you were an artist you would do better at naming these hues. You think back to those long-ago days of art lessons in rickety wooden huts, and you can’t remember anything except that Cyan was a strong, deep colour. And weren’t there also lots of colours that were ‘burnt’? Siena and ochre. When you think of Siena you think of bright, clear sunshine pooling on a plastic table overhung with parasols, a small ceramic bowl of glistening olives, clusters of cypress trees always on the horizon which is large and flat and just like in the postcards.
You return to your present surroundings; to the village. It is mysterious how the fire stopped so abruptly. The safety cordons set up around the middle part of the village, where the sinkhole opened shortly after the fire started, look unnatural here among all this greenery. Stepping outside of your stone house, where you have set up your tent in the living room which is open to the elements on one side, you walk slowly around the cordons and the cloth flags, sun-bleached and thin when you get close. You think it looks like an archaeological site, the ground ripped open in cross section and underneath, this astonishing network of tunnels, all black and glistening with some substance that might be tar, or perhaps it is simply everything that fell here, melted into the stone.
The tunnels are narrow, barely wide enough for a child to crawl through, and intricate, running in dizzy intersecting channels. When news of the collapse was reported, so too was the suggestion that an old mine was likely to blame for the weakness in the soil, but you aren’t so sure, looking at it, that this can possibly ever have been a mine. The workmen who cleared the place dug out all the brickwork, and the collapsed parts of the houses, which are piled in a heap just to the west of the village ruins, like a run-down castle or a mysterious, half-built henge, now growing over with scatterings of small white flowers along the topmost ridges, long grasses at the base. You remember hearing that the bodies had had to be dug up in the weeks after the collapse, since the village was so remote no one noticed it had gone up in flames, and no survivors were reported despite some of the houses remaining intact. It was rumoured that along with the bodies, deep in the ground under the rubble, they found a museum's worth of silver.
On the furthest edge of the cordon, the tunnel network collapses, and all that is left is darkness, a hole like a mouth with torn edges, and then nothing, for hundreds of metres, or something like that, so the tour guide says. Sinkholes, he tells the group, are one of the world’s greatest unexplained phenomena, then goes on to explain them. This area is known, he explained, for its limestone. The fields to the north have more iron, which is why you emerge from them covered in a fine red dust, but here the bedrock is limestone. Rainwater and other ground water becomes acidic when mixed with the carbon dioxide present, and this bedrock erodes. The water forms conduits for itself, and eventually this network of waterways becomes compromised, then collapses. You were shown pictures of famous sinkholes from around the world, but at this point you closed your eyes; the pictures, printed in colour and slipped into a plastic pocket, were passed around the bus, and you pretended to be sleeping. The group seem nice, but you keep yourself to yourself, as usual, and soon enough they leave you be. No one seems surprised at your request to set up camp in the village, and you pretend not to hear when an American tourist with a fishing hat clamped down on his head mutters to his partner, ‘Weirdo.’ Instead, you nodded your head to him as you climbed down out of the bus to retrieve your gear from the hold, and he responded by putting an arm protectively around his wife, who was stabbing aggressively at the keypad of her phone. You wonder where they are from, but you haven’t been able to place the accent.
You pick up a soft clump of clay and throw it into the sinkhole. You miss, and it lands on a wedge of tar, seeming in the blackness to be suspended on nothing; on air. You try again, this time with a pebble, and lean over the cordon to try to follow its descent. The wind has picked up and ruffles the hair by your ears, and you pull your windbreaker more tightly around you, but you don’t hear the pebble land. It has been swallowed without a trace.
It is winter, and there are red roses on almost every stone wall of the village. The villagers are coming down with a sickness; dreams are blooming in every household and the spirits are not appeased by the usual offerings. They have started to pluck off the young boys, and everyone is afraid. An emergency meeting is called with the elders. The old women of the village consult the ancient almanac, after they have ordered it retrieved from the archive of the librarian, who leaves his doors open so that the children of the village can enter and read whensoever they wish. The almanac has been sealed in a hidden drawer in the librarian’s house for decades. They have not had to call it up since the last blood harvest, which only they and the old librarian are old enough to remember. He weeps into his hands after he unlocks the drawer and pulls it from its hiding place. Something beyond the wall shivers when he does. He places a pot of beeswax on the table.
The fathers of each house are summoned to the elders’ meeting place, by the hazelwood coppice at the edge of the woodland. Each brings food in a glass jar, steamed and polished by their wives. Pickled potatoes. Elderberry preserve. Strips of salted herring. The elders have studied the graph-papers drawn by the wives of the dreaming men. The papers confirm their fears. In a single month, the graphs spike in warning; a tremor has started in the Below world and the tremors are growing in strength, pulsing through the dream-papers like an irregular heartbeat. Layered on top of each other and held to the light, the papers form a pattern like something splintering. The spirits have been angered. There must be a sacrifice.
You try to remember the last time you travelled with someone, and not alone. Probably it was with J., but you pretend to continue to search your mind in case there was another time, a time after J., when you weren’t alone. There has to have been something between being and not being with J. But you can’t remember. You try, too, to remember the last time you dreamed. You thought you might have last night, but it felt more like the suggestion of light, a stirring of something beneath you, something underground, something shifting. By the time you were fully awake, there was only the sound of your breathing inside the tent. When you reached up a hand to feel the lining, your hand came away wet. You unzip the front of the tent, to let the air in. You fall asleep, this time, again, dreamless. What was the last thing you dreamed? You take off your glasses, and tap the pressure point at the bridge of your nose as you have been told to, then move your finger slowly upwards. Tap here. Right on your third eye. Count to twenty-one. Breathe. You breathe. You open your eyes, and blink. You hold your hand out in front of you. Everywhere beyond your hand is a blur. You could do with a third eye. You almost smile. You replace your glasses, and the world comes back into focus. You stretch your legs, and go outside to relieve yourself. You crouch down in the grass, looking around, but of course, there is no one here. Everyone disappeared years ago. A whole village, vanished into the ground or burned in the fire. But the sun is shining, and it’s hard to feel anything but calm here. It isn’t like Pompeii. No placards or pictures, no mosaics or reminders, no milling tourists with their clicking cameras like insect-noise in the unforgiving heat, reflecting off all that white.
There’s nothing here to stir back any memories, no ghosts with stories to tell, just a nice sort of emptiness. A light blue emptiness, like a worn denim shirt, soft at the elbows and the cuffs. You strain your ears in case you can hear anything from the camp, but the group is too far away. You should join them for dinner tonight; you haven’t managed to start a fire yet, and it’s cold even with your extra blanket inside the house, which has only three standing walls. When you are finished, you kick some dirt over where you have gone, and pull up your trousers. Just before you straighten yourself up, you notice a series of small marks along the bottom of the wall. You move further, away from your own mess, and sink down again, hearing your hips, then your knees, click. You examine the scars along the bottom of the wall, and they remind you of something, but you can’t think what. Perhaps it was that almost-dream. How exciting, after all this time. You saw a therapist briefly, before deciding therapy was nonsense. He warned you gravely that not dreaming was a terrible thing. It’s the only thing you agreed on. But how does one start to dream again, after so many years? The therapist suggested it might be a result of fear. You don’t feel consciously afraid, and are immediately suspicious of this suggestion. Fear of what? Of dreaming about J., says the therapist, and that’s when you decide to stop the sessions. Because what fool couldn’t see that all you want, all you could ever want in the world, is to be able to dream about J.? Just once would be nice, wouldn’t it? Then you could be done with this ridiculous business of going on living alone, which isn’t much fun, and you’re tired, and would like to sleep now.You still have coffee in your thermos, so you take a sip, and it’s even a little warm still, which is a welcome surprise. You shake your legs out gently at the ankles. You decide to walk through the village and up toward the woods, where you think you’ll join the group. Why not. Coffee will keep you going for another day, and then a little death, and then a little life again. You try to remember a quote about sleep and death, something from Shakespeare perhaps – vaguely you think you remember seeing a stage play some years ago, in which someone soliloquises about sleep stage right for a tediously long time just before the interval, you’re sure it must have been Shakespeare – but you were never good at remembering quotes. Or dates. You were always terrible at dates. You’ve even forgotten your own birthday. Not that it matters. It might be today, for all you know.
The village takes longer to get through than you thought, and you realise a lot of the roads are still intact, or at least their shapes and the suggestion they make of how best to navigate, which is tricky now that so many of the buildings are gone or have fallen into the path. Climbing over them isn’t easy, and your hip clicks every time you move your leg. You try to ignore the pain swelling in your right kneecap. You imagine, briefly, stumbling upon some treasure – a box of love letters, some jewellery, artefacts of significance – but everything has been stripped out. There’s nothing left. Just burn marks, and stone, and the sinkhole dotted with flags, more like bunting than a warning to Keep Out. But your heart is starting its tick-tick-thump-tick-thump-tick so you have to sit down, here by the edge of the sinkhole, and you probably should have taken your medicine with you which is zipped up safely into a pocket sewn into the side of your tent, to keep the box dry. The network of tunnels looks even stranger in the sunlight, and you sink down onto the ground, which is warm and soft from all the sun and rain, and your hands sink into the clay, and you decide the best thing to do is to rest here for a while.
Spring rolls in like a tide, and the birds pull the rain behind them like a veil. The village is quiet, and all the doors are shut. Dusk is lilac and honeysuckle, and in every front garden a small pocket of herbs lies sodden in the mud. The soil is fresh and there are trowels and spades lined up behind the houses, glittering silver as fish under the eaves. A smear of honey marks some of the gateposts. It is too cold and wet for bees or flies, so the honey sits like molten glass, and the rain slides off it. Small mounds of earth betray that it has been removed, carefully, but the lawns look untouched. There are no dream-pillows in the windows, or glass vials. The curtains are drawn. All of the windows and doors of the village have been sealed shut with beeswax. Only the librarian’s door is open, because he has sealed everyone else in, and cannot seal himself in, and besides, he is old and has lived through one blood harvest already, and though he has not told the elders this, he has no intention of sealing himself into his attic as he did the last time. The almanac with its graphs and forecasts has been locked safely away in its hidden drawer, and the librarian is quietly re-arranging the books on his shelves. There is no wind, and darkness is falling as swiftly and silently as snow. The librarian carries a chair out onto the front porch.
There is no church in the village to chime the hours, but it must be just past midnight when the ground begins to move. At first, there is just a tremor in the air, but soon a deep rumbling can be heard, like an engine stirring deep below the ground. Then, there is a rustle, which sounds like the wind picking up, though the air is heavy and still. The rustling grows into a steady shh-shh-shhshh, sounding now like a great volume of water, spilling and tumbling and crashing just below the surface of the earth. The porch begins to move beneath the librarian’s feet. The sound increases in volume, until the air is shaking with the force of a roaring, crashing, groaning, as if something is about to break. And then, it does. From the walls of the houses, suddenly, black starts to pour. A torrent of black, and there is a sound like stampeding, and from all corners there is blackness, pouring out of the walls. The librarian is opening his mouth to shout but it is all over him already, the teeming, heaving black which he realises, too late, is rats, hundreds, thousands of rats, scrabbling, and as he opens his mouth they rush in and eat their way through his body, slithering down his throat and into his gut, biting their way through his soft organs and cracking his bones with their sharp teeth. They shiver and gnaw and bite then rush onward leaving nothing, just the smallest vibration of air where his chair once was.
They attack the lawns now, in groups, and more rats are clawing upwards from the ground into the gardens, bursting out between the hedgerows and the gate-posts dripping with honey, and now wooden boxes are emerging, pushed by currents of rats from the Below, rising and breaking through the surface. And there is another sound now, a frightened wailing, from inside the boxes as the rats begin to break them open, and if the librarian had stayed inside his house he would have witnessed the boxes splintering, the brief upwards reach of small grasping hands before the rats descended on the harvest children; the newborn girls. And somewhere in the belly of the silent houses a family holds down the mother of a harvest baby. It is her first child and she is screaming for it; she is young, she does not understand, she is strong, and she kicks out, and kicks out, and the foundations of the house are shaking, and the lantern hanging from a hook on the wall is swinging wildly, casting shadows about the basement where the young mother is kicking with all her might against her father and brothers who shout as they try to hold her down, and the lantern spits kerosene onto the floor of the basement which is full of sacks of flour she uses to bake in the springtime when the sowing is done and the dreams are ready to sew, and she gives one final kick and breaks free, just as the lantern smashes against the wall and crashes to the ground where there is straw, and pitch, and kerosene. And the basement is ablaze, and the woman is clawing her way up the stone steps, and the house is shaking, and a sack of flour explodes a hole into the wall; the air is sucked into the space, and the rats begin to pour into the basement, where they catch fire, and run back into their tunnels, carrying fire with them on their backs, and the squeals and the screams are drowned out in the crashing, roaring outside, as the boxes split open across the lawns of the village, and the rats tear through everything, and there is fire on their backs and in their mouths and the air is thick with the smell of rosemary and lavender, burning flesh and rotted earth, and everything is ablaze.
You wake up in an ambulance, and the first thing you think is, this is silly, I don’t need an ambulance, and then you realise that something is very wrong, and you can’t move, and you are in a great deal of pain. The face talking at you from the side of your vision is familiar, but you have lost your glasses and so you cannot identify it, and you realise you can’t hear whatever is being said, and you think it is because you have gone deaf. Your whole body is very cold, and you are aware of a whiteness everywhere around you that is comforting, but that your chest feels like it is being crushed, so you flap your arms weakly but there is nothing on your chest, only now a hand, comforting you, and you grab at it until you find it, and it is a warm hand, and your own hand is trembling, and you clutch again, gratefully, and this is when you realise you are afraid. You who have never been afraid of anything, you who have jumped from cliff tops into the sea and run through train tunnels with the lights on your back and run hand in hand with J., with beautiful J., through rubble and gunfire and never let go, not once, you who have stood with J. on bridges when she tried to jump because living in a new country, a safe country, felt strange and frightening, you who held her hand at the hospital when she was pregnant with her first child, and when you caught her hitting her stomach because she was convinced she was being eaten alive, that it wasn’t human, you who were there when it died in her womb, and when they pulled it out from between her legs and it was human, and a girl, you who watched her die for months before they found her hanging from a tree 48 miles away from where she disappeared, you who measured the distance in your car, over and over, retracing her final steps, you who fought the lawyers who claimed it was not negligence to have allowed her to discharge herself from hospital, she had a right to do so, and her father who blamed you for her death so many miles from her home country where she would have been safe, he said, safe despite the bombings and the tanks at every corner and the gunfire you ran through yourself in your white shirt like a flag, unafraid, you who were never afraid of anything, now you are afraid, because you can feel your body shutting down, cell by cell, and it’s like the lights are going out one by one and you want to say, I don’t like the dark, I don’t want it to be dark, I need to tell you something before I go, I need to tell you, I dreamed, I dreamed of rats, and you are now talking out loud because you hear yourself saying, rats, rats, and they are putting an oxygen mask over your mouth and nose, and the approximation of a face beside you is squeezing your hand, and you feel the tears rushing from your eyes over your skin, into your ears, even though you were not aware you were crying, and you think, my god, they were eaten alive, those poor babies, they were eaten alive, and everything is dim, and all that is left is this hand, someone’s hand, holding yours, and you hold it tight, like it’s the last thing that means anything in all of the world.