The morning run has been the regimen for the past few months now, ever since moving back to this rural area. Nice and early, no one around, never mind the clinging morning mist, just get out there and do it. I tell myself, ‘Once started you’re half way there’. Pit, pat, pit, pat, down the Street, past the medieval church, into the loke, and the sheltering wood. Straightaway, I notice the sound of my running changes on the gravelly surface, crunching into the few centimetres of overnight snow. Although chilly, there’s no breeze and I’m already warm from the exercise. The trees appear a little unsettling though in the hanging mist but the babbling beck is at least reassuring.
Despite the competing extraneous sounds I hear another one, an unusual sound, almost inaudible in the distance. One that I can’t quite identify; almost like laughter. Straining to hear whilst running is difficult. It’s impossible to tell whether the distant sound is increasing or decreasing in volume?
So, I stop and listen, and listen.
Just as I am about to set off, I hear it again, closer this time. Silver chimes on the still air, a tinkling laughter that seems to infuse into my being like warmth and light. I start walking, then running, following the sound as it seems to dance through the air ahead of me.
I barely notice that I have left the shelter of the wooded trail and am now jogging across the field. I stumble as I run, but nothing can keep me from moving forward, finding the source, for I am captivated. I only slow to a walk as I enter the woods. My way hampered now by fallen trees and tangled roots, but I press on, straining to hear as the laughter fades into the distance. But now, my heart seems to lead me, as if joined to the source by some invisible cord. Finally, I step into a clearing. A huge, round, flat stone sits at the centre. I take a step, then another and another towards it. And now, the laughter chimes all around me. I am surrounded.
The sound is joyous, intoxicating. A smile forms as, still heading towards the stone, I search for it’s source. Am I dreaming?
And then a sense of motion, ethereal, almost imperceptible, but moving very quickly across my vision wherever I turn my head. Amorphous shadows which refuse to materialise and I can’t quite discern. Still the musical mirth envelops me, and I become aware that it’s gradually increasing in volume.
I reach the stone, reeling as I unconsciously falter into it. Recovering my balance, I stand upright and still and am immediately met by an instant and deafening quiet. No sound, no movement, only a perfect and somewhat unearthly stillness. Only a second ago, I had been in an oasis, mesmerised by everything I could see, hear and almost feel around me….and now nothing! Surely I had indeed been dreaming?
As I stand motionless I slowly become conscious of how cold it is, I can see the light fog of my breath, the hair prickles on my neck and, as if from nowhere, I feel a rising sense of dread…
..and I try to shake it away. What is going on? I try to take stock of the situation and make sense of my experiences or were they just my imaginings? The recently fallen snow muffles and distorts sounds, the watery sun, newly risen and still low in the sky sends long shadows both illuminating, yet hiding the wood surrounding me. It probably hasn’t helped that I’m chilled and weary so accentuating all my senses.
Feeling more my normal self I look more carefully at the large flat stone. Crouching down I brush the covering of snow and dead leaves from the surface and realise, despite being slightly embedded in the earth, how big it is. I can’t tell if it’s a naturally found stone or manmade but certainly there has been some human involvement as with my fingertips I trace finely etched swirling circles.These are very faint but there is a definite deliberate pattern, have I seen something like this before? Dimly I recollect a visit to Ireland, but the memory escapes me and anyway this is rural Norfolk. What can it be and how long has it been here, centuries or a recent piece of work from a local artist? I look around me in this ancient wood but there are no clues, just stillness and quiet. But surely someone in the village will know, so quickening my pace I set off for home trying to ensure that I’ll remember the way back to find it again.
Memory is continuous. But does memory have a life of its own? Can memory overwhelm me? I felt it would be cowardice not to look at the stone again. Doubtless it will have a life of its own. But of what? The history of the village? The history of itself? It seems clear from its age that the stone was placed here in those dreadful days when the village was struck by the pestilence that some called the Black Death, a pandemic so deadly that a man who ate a healthy breakfast at dawn could be dead by evening and distracted mothers searching for their children out at play would find them lying dead in the road. It was wild, outrageous, malevolent. When the priest died, there was no one left to conduct the burials. Villages like ours had to use a common pit for all the corpses. And afterwards, the world seemed changed forever; the fields empty, the cows unmilked, the crops not reaped, women and children obliged to drive the plough as there were not enough men left to work the land. The old feudal duties that men owed to the lord of the demesne were forgotten as men could only be persuaded to work for higher wages and better conditions. Will Baxter was one of those labourers who saw his chance, ducked his feudal dues, rented a farm and set out to make a new life. He built a new cottage, He married. He put the old world behind him. There would never be another pandemic like it, he told his children. Was he the man who had placed the stone to remember those who had been buried in such unsanctified haste?
As I stumbled through the undergrowth trying to retrace my steps and reach the warmth and comfort of home I could not stop thinking about the plague and the effects on our community 350 years ago. So many people had died; the fields went untilled and untended, survivors fled from rat-infested farms, trees sprang up, temperatures dropped, and a mini-ice age followed. The thought of it happening again….but the name Baxter stirred a memory of a story I had been told as a child by an ancient crone who lived by herself at the end of the village in a hovel with no running water, heating or light. There had been a second wave of infection and Will Baxter, so hopeful of making a new life, had lost his wife and four daughters to the dreadful pestilence. Distraught and suicidal, he had hanged himself in Baxter’s wood. As children we had never dared to explore the interior of the tangled, sinister and overgrown wood, but as I peered through the mist the path became clearer and thoughts of breakfast and a hot shower dispelled some of the gloom that had pervaded my thoughts. I looked at my watch and realised that I had been running away from the clearing for at least 15 minutes and should have reached the edge of the wood. But then I heard it again – the laughter, remote but pervasive and compelling as if it were taking over my mind and drawing me into another dimension. It was all around me again. I started to panic. I was lost. I was cold. I looked up and saw a dark shape hanging from a branch. I looked down and there was the stone again. The snow had melted on the surface and steam was gently rising. I fell to my knees and the laughter abruptly stopped. And then I heard a sound that made my blood run cold. A tapping was faintly coming from underneath the stone…
I had to repress my natural reaction; faster pulse rate and a need to get away. I listen… the laughter has gone… but there’s a hum, it’s frequency getting louder and higher. Almost howl like coming from within. Below. I gave a start as the stone began to move almost as if gliding over the snowy ground. I begin-to sense the dark shape now hovering above, shadowing my now prone kneeling body. I made to stand up….to run from this place. Just as a sudden inexplicable rise of steam, like a pungent breath released, enveloped me. It tasted of salt. But there was something else familiar and different. I tried to rub my eyes quickly. All at once the hum stopped. An unnatural stillness now permeated the now stinking steamy ground around me, raising the tiny hairs at the nape of my neck. I try to concentrate. I hold my breath as fear has me rooted to the spot…. the shadow has become two ….drifting forward. They were hooded and shapeless….
I try to stand, cold and somehow almost frozen to the spot, as the drifting shadows move around me. Two become four, become five, wandering and merging together, but also apart. Slight sounds of laughter echo through the still snowy wood, which turned to crying, and then a keening begins to emerge from the stone and fill the empty woods. I know the marks on the stone are trying to tell me something – something about these ephemeral shapes that are already starting to fade into the trees, taking the keening with them. I rub my eyes again, the taste of salt has gone, replaced by a faint scent and taste – is it rosemary and myrtle– rosemary for remembrance, and myrtle for everlasting love? I recalled the story of Will and his fated family, whose hopes and dreams had been wiped out by the plague pandemic. Strangely, I no longer feel afraid, but I do want to know more and understand what story this stone and it’s markings are holding, and if it has some resonance in our own current troubled times. As I turn to go, I see an old man, coming through the snow towards me. He leaves no marks or makes any sound, and he is dressed in a bundle of old clothes against the cold. I don’t recognise him, but then I am relatively new, having only recently returned to the village, so don’t know everyone. He stares straight ahead.
Anxious and disturbed
I can’t remember how I got home but pushing the door open into the familiar warmth was reassuring. I needed a strong cup of tea. Had I imagined that strange atmosphere, sounds and sights? In this time of uncertainty and isolation it would be understandable if the mind tried to replace the reality of today with ideas and fantasies. But no, there was something about that man, something vaguely familiar…what was it? Why didn’t he make eye contact or even acknowledge me. Was he so absorbed in his own thoughts?
Images, smells and sounds crowded in but still something niggled away in the back of my mind, you know how it is when you can almost remember something but it won’t quite come into focus and then while making a sandwich for lunch, it surfaced – that man’s walk. I knew that walk – funny how you can recognize a way of walking even at a distance. I’ve often thought how walking is as individual as handwriting, similar yet different.
There was something else too, I’d glimpsed his unusual scarf just like the one I’d bought from the craft fair at the Forum several winters ago and sent to an old friend I knew from my days at the R.C.A. He had been deeply involved with experimental theatre, soundscapes, sensory experiences, mind games and was famous for his ability to create imaginary atmospheres which the audience could interpret as they wished.
Could it be him? Had I unwittingly been a participant in an elaborate site specific rehearsal…
As the day and its duties wore on, I often caught myself idly tracing the patterns I had felt in the rock. Why couldn’t I shake these thoughts away? I thought again to my trip in Ireland. Where had I seen the pattern before?
After much searching and rummaging, I sat down and leafed through a photography book I had bought on that trip. I closed my eyes and let myself fall back in the memory, tracing the cold stone. The grooves were coarse, but almost sharp at the edges. I followed them as they meandered underneath the creeping ivy and fallen leaves. I brushed these aside and the sudden sound of the dried leaf crackle stopped me. I looked up at the dark forest around me. A cool breeze brushed my cheek and my breath came out in a cloud of condensation as I gasped in exasperation and astonishment.
I was there again! My stomach dropped as dread filled me and my heart started to race. I backed away slowly when an answering beat to my own heart came from without; from underneath the stone.
I turned to run, but tripped on a root and fell with a jolt which… awoke me. I was in my armchair disorientated and breathing hard.
Thump, thump, thump…
The knocking now came from my hallway and the front door. Not loud, but insistent.
I approached the hallway slowly, and could see a shape on the other side of the door. Could it be one of my neighbours? What was the time? I noticed it was very dark outside.
Chiding myself for my foolishness, I opened the door slowly and found myself staring at the old man in the scarf from the forest earlier…