Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Swallow Grave Bothy - a short story

Swallowgrave Bothy

Granny said yon budgie died, budgie died, budgie died
Granny said yon budgie died, put it in the bothy,
Granny said the wee dog’s deid, wee dog’s deid, wee dog’s deid
Granny said the wee dog’s deid, put it in the bothy,
Granny said, yon poor boy’s deid, poor boy’s deid, poor boy’s deid,
Granny said, yon poor boy’s deid, put him in the bothy.
Granny said, the thin man’s deid, thin man’s deid, thin man’s deid,
Granny said, the thin man’s deid, put him in the bothy...
                                                                  Skipping chant.

“Bothy” – noun, Scottish.  A simple hut or shelter, open and available for public use, especially for estate workers, or travellers.  Generally provided in mountainous or wooded areas. Plural “Bothies”.
                                                                        The Poor Traveller’s Guide (2015)

Patrick isn’t lost in the woods.  Not lost as such.  He has a compass (flat and hard and comforting) and a mobile phone (fully charged) with GPS – not that he has a signal, but he’s pretty certain he might get that on a hillside.   He doesn’t look at the phone but he can feel it hard in his pocket.  The phone is, he thinks, old but reliable, even if his present circumstances make it useless.  He has good boots, and they’re worn enough to fit his feet – and more importantly his ankles – without chaffing, but new enough to be water-tight and have sturdy grips.  The same goes for his clothes.  They feel to him as if he’s worn them for many other hikes, and he’s not surprised by them in any way.  They feel right.  He can’t remember the technical names of the specialist walker’s bits and pieces that they’ve got, but they’re not unexpected.  The draw-string sleeves, the water-proofed flaps on the pockets, the special ‘breathing’ web-lining,  and so on,  are all exactly what he expects to have, in what he expects to be wearing.  But he doesn’t know where he is, nor how he got there, and he’s shaken by that.  He doesn’t know his last name – and that’s terrifying.
There’s a gap in his memory - more than a gap - a great black cloud of past he’s not aware of, roiling like fog on the moors.  He doesn’t remember getting to this wood.  He doesn’t think he drove his car here, navigating his way to the constant slightly nagging interjections of the sat nav.  He remembers his car.  He remembers its blue sheen.  He can’t remember its number plate, or its make, but the colour is there in his mind.  Duck egg blue.  A car-park scrape on the left side, waiting attention.  He sees the line of the scar in his mind’s eye.  He can remember the annoyance when he came out of, where was it now?  He can’t remember the name of the place.  It was a type of big shop. He knows that.  A famous big type of big shop, were many people went, with a big place for parking cars.  His head hurts.  It’s a slow weird ache, that feels like two hands are pressing down on his temples. Two cold mechanical hands.
Patrick wonders if he’s having a stroke.  That would be bad.  To have a medical problem while being mislaid in the woods.  Is a stroke just a “medical problem” or worse?  Can it kill you? He can’t remember, but he knows people can survive strokes. He can remember it being easier to think than this.  He can’t remember what he used to think about.   A stroke is like your brain being touched with a point of fire, he thinks.  Where the fire goes, you stop having thoughts.  When it stops you have ash in your head.  As he thinks this, he sees a light through the trees.  Fire-light.  He stumbles in that direction.
The fire’s a hiker’s fire.  Laid carefully.  Stones moved in at the edges to make a fire-break.  Dry wood used at the core, placed in layers.  A pile of kindling yonder.  It’s only just still burning.  In another minute or two it would have gone out, leaving no fire-light for Patrick.  The thought is very sad: not because the wood is dark enough yet to make the fire necessary, but because it would have been sad not to know someone else was near.   Patrick shouts:  “Hello, I’m Patrick,“ and remembers he’s forgotten his last name.  He remembers people have last names, but not why they’re called that.  Is your last name the one you’re told just before you die?  he wonders.  Patrick, he knows is his first name, because his mother gave it to him when he was born.   He can remember the colour of her eyes, he thinks.  Blue.  Duck-egg blue.   In the core of the fire, he finds a heap of molten plastic.  Credit cards burned black and unreadable – some old yellowing papers scorched to the point that touching breaks them into ash.  The ash is oddly aromatic, as if it were a cooking fire carelessly sprinkled with herbs rather than a rubbish burner.  As if the fire meant something.  Keep away, or come back?  He can’t tell.
Did he do this himself?  Kill his old self here?  Burn up his last name? If so why?  He can’t imagine any reason.  If he had one, he’s forgotten it.
It gets darker.  No one else comes back to the fire.  Patrick feeds it with the kindling.   He tries to remember things.  Perhaps he came here by train.  Maybe there’s a little station in a valley with a cat on a seat, and a long Gaelic and English station sign, black and white behind a carefully maintained bed of flowers.  That would be nice.
He remembers being told by a teacher years ago, that only un-imaginative people used words like ‘nice’, instead of – as it might be, ‘rustic’ or ‘oldworldly’ or ‘charming’ or another word, one that he can’t recall just now.  But he likes ‘nice’.  It says everything he wants to say to himself about the station he imagines in his head, and which he very much wishes to find.  Thinking nice thoughts, he dozes, by the fire.  He’s not lost, he tells himself in his dream.  He isn’t hungry, and he doesn’t wonder that he isn’t.  His mouth feels like a leather-purse.  It would only hold food like a cherished memento, or a spinster’s love-token. 
Patrick’s Dream doesn’t take very long.  At least he doesn’t think it does. It might have taken a day or multiple days, if the planet had turned the same multiple amount in addition to the hour or so of night he imagines he slept, but the twilight of morning greets him as he opens his eyes.  This time when he wakes he remembers all his dream, or perhaps enough of it to seem like all of it.  He also remembers that dreams are not usually things that he remembers so well:  in fact he rarely has them (or if he does he forgets them immediately upon waking). This one is different, or perhaps now he is different.
            He is on a train.  Travelling with his teacher, but she is old now, old enough to be a Grandmother, he thinks.  They are going somewhere so she can show him something, which he is on no account to call ‘nice’.  He will need other words for it. Some one has left a mirror on the table in the train.  It lies there between him and his school teacher daring one of them to pick it up.  It’s an old ladies’ hand mirror with crystal facetted edges and it’s a colour he thinks is called Jade.  She picks it up first, but turns it as if she’s looking into its back, so that it faces towards Patrick across the table.  His face in the mirror is too old, and his smile slopes sloppily like an avalanche of teeth and lips.   As he sees himself for the first time, and is forced to remember how he looks, or thinks he looks, and to judge how different is this mirror’s jade opinion of him, from his own, he hears the teacher sneeze behind the mirror, and it falls from her limp hand.  Her hand that is only bone and can not hold a mirror well enough, and the sneeze dislocates her lower jaw that is also, in the dream, only bone now, and which falls after and onto the mirror with a crash.  Jade and Ivory, he thinks, and wakes up. Somewhere years ago he has read that there are two gates of Dream, that are made of those materials.  From the other end of the carriage of the duck egg-blue train, he hears a child’s voice singing:
            ‘What will we do when you die, when you die, when you die?
            What will we do when you die?  Put you in the Bothy!”
           And in the dream, the people in the train start to clap and sing along as if they’re pleased that Patrick is going home.

Not-lost Patrick is what he’s decided to call himself now, until he remembers his last name.  All he has to do is keep moving in a straight line, and for that he has his compass.  The mobile phone has probably stopped working (not that he’d bothered to check it was actually working before) and he can no longer even imagine that it would show a light on its duck-egg blue screen.  It just registers as deadweight at his hip.  He decides to walk east, as the ground slopes slightly down that way – like an avalanche or a stroke victim’s smile.  He knows things are not right, and tries to cheer himself up with a joke.  Why did the hiker cross the road?  Because he wasn’t lost and he was going east and the road was going north to south.  H’m maybe that still needed some work.  He’s wondering why things strike people as funny (he can remember laughing at a good many things but not exactly why) when his trail east begins to run by the side of a stream, curling in from the north and trickling along in his direction of travel.  It makes a cut in the flesh of the land, dipping into it and driving its fluid fingers wider.  The land groans mudflats and stepping stones, and wet wedges of foliage.  Everything underfoot is slimier now.  Even with his good boots, Patrick slips and lands hard on his left knee, driving something askew.  There is less pain than he remembers feeling, on other occasions.  Less pain than catching a finger in a door. Less pain than his wife leaving.  He remembers he had a wife once.  Her last name escapes him, until he remembers it’s already escaped him once, for it would by all normal practice have been his own: and that, he cannot remember.  He thinks he’s walked through the last lees of the night, into the trepidatious morning: but the sky is missing a sullen teenage Sun, still guttering in its bedroom.   He remembers a song, or part of a song, and starts to sing it.  ‘The Sun has got it’s hat on, hip hip hip hooray, the Sun has got it’s hat on and...’  He can’t remember what the Sun will do when it has its hat on.  He can’t remember the last time he saw the Sun.

After a while, he sees the witch.  No not a witch that’s unkind.  He sees the old woman, by the stone house, and feels a great surge of pain in his chest.  He’s seen her  before but he can’t remember where, or when – the not-lost memories are hidden glimpses like stills from a film cut up and spliced together into an order that ignores more than it’s contents can ever reveal.   He splishes towards the woman, his ragged boots distorting the muddy ground, with a flat set of impacts that sends liquid dirt out in craters as he stamps.  He likes the sky-blue thump of the sound.

Young Sally coined a word to describe this place.  The word she coined was Swallowgrave, because it eventually ate up everything.  The ground is soft and rank here, and unsettling in its settling.  It feels foundation-less and undecided.  Every year she expects the old Bothy to have gone, and an end to have been made by nature or time.  Every year it’s still there sticking out of the earth - a tramp’s single tooth, in a moist fenny mouth.  Like Little John in the stories of Robin Hood, Young Sally is ironically named now, being in her nineties.  For seventy of those years, she’s been a groundskeeper of this estate, and part of her task is the annual cleansing fire, and cleaning out of the place.  When she started she’d been ‘Young Sally’, in truth.  That had been before the Worse Days, may they never return – when there had been proper ‘shallow’-graves in many places, from the sickness.  When the land had grown even more untenanted, and the cities had become piles of cenotaphs, and multi-story mausoleums.   In the country it had always been different.  Country folk looked to their own, they didn’t leave the empty cities to the dead.  The dead needed their own places: country folk had always known that.   And once a year they needed a cleansing.
            Like anything right, like anything needful, it had its dangers.  In the Cities, they didn’t know they were dead, very often.  They’d fight and bite and scratch, and then where would you be?  Citified.  Dead-becoming.  Sooner a job for a Guildsman than for a groundskeeper.  She remembers seeing the Guildsmen ride past in their suits of metal and knives.  Sooner them than her.  It was different in the woods, better. The dead slept their death away here: snug as bears.  But come the turn, they needed seeing to – and there was some slight danger there, but it was a different danger, a natural danger.  Like keeping bees if bee-stings were cancer, but not like being hunted by cancer-hornets in and out of broken shop-fronts.   Young Sally knew how to make the fires.  What to burn in them.  How to draw out any that might still be crawling, and how to drive them back.  What tokens to keep and what to burn.  Each year they’d been smaller, more eaten, less intractable.  As she grew old, so did they.  Eventually they’d wear each other out, their deaths burn away or crumbled into the earth, and in her turn, one morning she’d wake up dead, as they say.  Be planted by her son.
She sees the figure come out of the marshes.  Clad in rags and tatters, its pockets such as they are stuffed with stones that might once have meant something, or been part of an early attempt to hold it down.  It holds something that glints in its right hand.  Not a knife thank God.  They were bad enough without that, but they lacked the sense to use tools generally.  What did it have there?  Something it had been lain with, or something it had found in the woods?
Young Sally watches as it heaves its way past her, and back in through the blackness of the door.  ‘Oh Granny, look,’ she mutters to herself  ‘Mr Azure’s come back on his own.’  That hadn’t happened for many a year.   Last year’s fire must have burned less brightly, in the core of the heap, for this one to know its resting place of its own will.  If only they were all so tractable.
Not-Lost Patrick started to dig out his nest, and the bones in the Bothy moved as if they were laughing, to welcome him again, and he heard, irretrievably, the humour in their clattering as an attempt to iterate his last name.  Snug back in the pile of softly moving bones for another year, he can nevertheless see the sky.  It’s a sliver of a thing, up through the gap in the bodies as they fester, up through the damaged crack in the partly broken roof.  It’s a colour.  What colour, he can’t remember. 

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