Sunday 12 March 2017

A Stone is Just a Stone

Richard Hillesley 

cafe au lait  

Gwynfor stood with his back to the sky, a field away from where we were. The wind rose from the valley and bit into his side. His eyes were a dark line under his brow. The gun in his hands glinted in the sunlight. Behind him the house and a stream that fell straight from the clouds.
    We saw him when we came over the hill, legs apart, hair and clothes blown sideways by the wind. He lifted the gun to his shoulder and fired. The sound followed after the smoke, and Rachel fell in the grass, her hand and her skirt rising through the sky as she fell, and I ran towards her, thinking she had been hit. 
     'Why did he do that?' she said. 
       'To scare us',I said. 
He moved in gestures through the wind as he came towards us, his massive face beneath his cap, dark eyes beneath the crevice of his brow. He stopped by the wall to pick something up.
        'Rabbit',he said, and his lips stretched across his mouth in the shape of a smile.

The past repeats itself through the seasons, in the wind and the rain and the rush and chuckle of the streams. Clouds hanging over the mountains, fields obscured by mist, a landscape that is harsh and soft, cold and indifferent. At Bryn Hyfrid, on a corner by his land past the ruins of the quarrymens' cottages, there are the remains of a bronze age hut circle in a field, set at angles. Further to the east there is a line of stones and one at the end of the row, standing on its own and taller than the rest. 
    Not that it mattered, because nobody knew or cared except the walkers and Gwynfor himself, but when we told him we were going to see the circle and the stones, he said 'A stone is just a stone', as if that was all there was to say. 
    And when we were up there among the stones we could see him across the valley herding his sheep from inside his Land Rover, perched on the diagonal tracks between the gate posts and the irregular walls, watching us and whistling to his dogs on the opposite slope. The sheep swarmed in circles. The shadows of clouds left pools of light across the fields. And Gwynfor leant against the door of his Land Rover, his body like a landslip on the Berwyns, looking up at us. 
    I waved to him but he made no response. And when we left the stones he started up the Land Rover. We could hear the noise and bang of the gears as he pushed the vehicle down the tracks. He sat at the wheel, his arm out the window, slapping the door as he passed us, and accelerated loudly as he pulled away, shouting at us inaudibly. And when we passed him a few minutes later, he was back there with his gun and his dogs. 
    When we told them in the village, they laughed and said,'Well, what did you expect?'
    Gwynfor was part of the landscape, a chip off the mountain, at home in the fields. He moved like the seasons, slowly and deliberately, merging into the landscape, a simple farmer, circumscribed by the hills, the drystone walls and the clouds. And we were incomers. What did we expect? He didn't like us and he didn't like the stones. The stones had a mystery and a purpose of their own and belonged in a way that he never could.  He wanted us to leave him alone and the stones to go away.

That evening we saw him in the pub, standing at the bar in his boots and his work clothes. He had the rabbit in a bag in his hand and slapped it on the bar. 
     'Something for the pot',he said to the landlord, and turned to look at us.'Rabbit', he said, throwing a note of dissonance into the air. He was pleased with himself, and wanted us to know it. He had few words but he coughed and scraped and threw us glances just to let us know he was there. And when he left the bar to go to the toilet he came past us and whispered in Rachel's ear,'Shut up, you ',though she had said nothing. She pushed him away, and though she hadn't meant it, he fell to the floor among the coats and chairs, unbalanced by her indignation. I tried to help him to his feet but he wouldn't let me.
    He put one hand on the floor and one on a chair and lifted himself up and shook his head as he walked away to the toilets in the yard, leaving us to deal with the silence and the stares around the room. The only one hurt was me, kicked on the shin by her when I tried to come between them. A few minutes later he came back into the room with another rabbit in his bag and threw it on the table in front of us.'Rabbit',he said and bared his teeth, barely a grin, and left a threat hanging in the air 'You'll see',he said, and left us staring at the rabbit.

One evening not long after, when the sun was sinking through a low wet mist,  stirrings of a storm in the clouds, John Evans saw Gwynfor on the side of the hill, his Land Rover perched at an angle through the wind, stretching a rope between the Land Rover and one of the stones. John said to him,'I wouldn't do that',
   and Gwynfor said,'You don't believe that stuff',though he wasn't sure himself. There were stories about the stones that had been passed down through the generations and left a doubt lingering in the air. 
    'But I do',said John.
     'I don't believe you',said Gwynfor, and tied the rope around the stone and twisted the other end around the tow-bar. The stone seemed to give a fraction, but the rope was old and weak and snapped as he pulled the vehicle forward. 
     John, leaning on his stick, said nothing. And Gwynfor threw his Land Rover down the hill shouting at John above the noise of the engine as he went, harsh words lost in the storm of evening.

After that we went out of our way to watch the stones just to be sure. One day we saw Gwynfor high in the trees over the top field, watching us, a wisp of smoke rising behind him from a fire he had made, his gun in his arms. He lifted it to his shoulder and pointed it in our direction, making as if to shoot. But he didn't. And the stones stood still and silent, streaked with moss and lichen, aching through the mist.
    At times like this it was easy to believe the myths, to feel something in the wind, but we knew that the stones were only stones and the mists were only mists. A line of stones on the side of a hill like pieces in a children's game, a stone dropped here, a stone dropped there, and the ancient field boundaries mapped out like the squares on a children's gaming board, F sharp minors and stunted fifths, walking at angles and leaning on the wind. I would pull my scarf more tightly round my face and stamp my feet hard on the ground just to feel the earth beneath. 

Gwynfor moved the stones early one morning when no-one was about, when the stars were out and the sun was just a shadow of itself, when his breath made shapes in the air and the grass flopped with dew. Two of the stones were pulled from the ground and discarded there. Another he towed across the fields with his tractor and left among the gorseclumps just above his house, to pave his yard. 
    That night we met at John's to do something about it though we didn't know what we could do. The rain had begun to fall, splattering through the leaves and drains, rushing over the pebbles and moss, lifting the river over its banks. We walked over the hill towards the stones, six or seven of us, torches in our hands, stumbling on the rough ground, to put the stones back where they belonged. Two of the stones lay on their side, where Gwynfor had left them. We pushed and pulled by the light of our torches and we were lucky and they fell back into place. 
    The rain had stopped and the moon shone through a gap in the clouds as we went down the hill to Gwynfor's place to move the other stone. But it wouldn't move. The stone was too big and we were too few. And Gwynfor, disturbed by our noise, came out and watched us as we walked away, the last stone still lying there among the clumps of gorse. He had won, or so we thought until two weeks later when Gwynfor came visiting. 

I saw him first from our upstairs window, pale in the gloom of the smoke from the bonfire that Rachel had lit in the garden. His jacket hung from his body limp as washing in the wind, and a confusion of submission and defiance made war with his body and his clothes. He wouldn't come in but something was on his mind. Rachel moved towards him and I followed her. He cocked his head to one side, cap in hand, scratched his scalp, and said,'You did it, didn't you?'
    The stone had been taken the previous night and was nowhere to be seen.
    'It was you that did it, wasn't it?'he said, his voice suddenly thin and cold, like the wind in the winter trees. We hadn't seen the stone since last we saw him and our car couldn't have made it up to his farm. But he didn't believe us, because if it wasn't us it must have been magic.'It must have been you',he said, and left us, his face plumbed of feeling. He walked up the lane and became a shadow on the distant hill. 

We went to Bryn Hyfrid one morning not long after, when spring was flushing out the trees and the heavy streams and the soft sunlight touched the grass on the mountains with warmth, and the stones were all in place, even the one that we had left in the gorse. It had found its way back to its place in the row.
    Gwynfor watched us from the line of trees by the top field, his shotgun cradled in his arms. He walked towards us, his dogs running behind him, and we stood by the stones, and watched him as he came.
    'It was you that did it, wasn't it?'he said, and we told him it wasn't. We really didn't know how it had happened. So he knew it was magic and it left him pale and empty, as if his life had spilled into the stones. His instinct was to lift his gun to his shoulder, and to twist his body around to take aim at the trees and us and the stones.
  And I yelled,'No',at the top of my voice, thinking that he would do something crazy, but he turned slowly, lifted the gun towards the clouds, and fired at the empty sky above us.

About the author  

Richard is a former editor of LinuxUser magazine, and has written features, poems and short stories for a wide variety of publications, most recently Storgy, Prole and The Angry Manifesto.

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