Trundle up. Stagger. Stumble. Up, up, up, up to where they were – where they are- in the gloaming. Feel your legs straining. Your old sinewy flesh breaking. Your chest rattling. Your swellings flaming against mothy fabric. There’s no gliding, no hovering above the sheen of the wet grass, not like in the stories. Only old pain. Only old aching. Trundle up. Trundle up.
Feel the parcel where it always is, heavy and slapping against your thigh in the knapsack slung over your left shoulder. The strap is digging into your skin. Take the parcel out and be ready. Distribute the goods like you were always meant to, like you promised to, like you eventually refused to. You bastard.
Sing it in your mind’s eye. Sing it: Seven years a tongue in the warning bell.
And seven years in the flames of hell.
Old Jim is first. Old Jim always sat on the ridge, the spire below him, its golden cockerel wavering in the western wind. Old Jim spitting curses under his breath, deep enough and true enough to be engraved on new stones in the mossy graveyard. The years haven’t erased, not for him. Not yet. It will take longer, much, much longer.
A piece of bread for Old Jim.
Give it to him.
Seven years a fish in the flood. Seven years a bird in the wood.
But God, keep me from the flames of hell.
It’s been a lot longer than that now, hasn’t it? For a lot longer you’ve been tramping up this hillside, far from your hearth fire, far from comfort. It’ll be seven centuries soon enough. What’s the difference, really, between a year and a century, a century and a year? It’s just time, and time is nothing. Men give names to time, men try to parcel it up, put it in their knapsacks for carrying like your bread, but time is time and it goes on, by itself and for itself, slippery, sliding away…
Massen is next. Massen came to the Dean from the near-West, bringing only his name with him, stranger and more alien to these parts than it has any right to be, him having not come so far from his home. He married Mary. His hands had veins like the runnings of ivy on the church wall, thick and dark and intricate. Mary died before him. Massen died first of this group. He sat here and died, and yet he also sits here still, now, eyes wide open. The boil on his leg never burst, and never will, although it always whispered, it always promised it would.
A piece of bread now for Massen.
Back resting against an oak.
All alone and a-lonely-o.
Say goodbye to Massen again.
Then it’s farewell again to Lovely Joan, too. She was touching herself with the pedlar’s ointment until the moment of death. She still does it now, sometimes. It must simply be habit. He told big lies in the square, the pedlar, all broad-shouldered in his big dark hat, his sign tied to the trunk of the oak tree. He always had a ballad on his lips, and his eyes were wild. Not like Joan’s, all soft and tired and grey. Milky and overflowing.
A piece of bread for Joan. She wants a drink too. Give it her this time. Leave her the container. Tell her when it’s empty to let rainwater fill it. Pure water. Heavenly water. Not from the boggy. Show her some kindness once, for the sake of all that’s good. The Lord knows she never had much of it in life. The lines on her, her puckered chalk white lips, the tatters of her blue shawl, they tell their own story: Old England’s tragedy; Old England’s rot; Old England drunk dry.
O babes, O babes, what can I do,
Down by the bonny Greenwood side-e-o.
It was one of Joan’s, much further down the line, a twisting twig from the family tree, who sung that song in the fields below. It was her who taught it to you without knowing; left the jumble of it in your mind now, twisting and slashing, words streaming through flooded Eden, the moral ringing with cathedral clarity. The knives. The Greenwood. Seven years. The Cruel Mother. Her sin punished, her penance to be paid after death. Before Hell, before Heaven. No mercy shown for her broken-heartedness. There never is. It all goes on; shadows on the stream, drifting down and out of sight, but always bobbling along, half-submerged. Shadows on the hill, flickering. That’s you now. That’s us.
Little Hamble is coughing. Black coughing, flecked with yellow. Tell Joan to pass him the water. He sips long, like always. Joan smiles. Strokes his hair. Takes the hat from his head. Soothes. Spares him some ointment where he’s marked. Habit.
Some bread too, for little Hamble. His family gone and gone early. Almost the first away. He broke out the house when they sealed it. No one went looking. They knew they’d done wrong. Acted from fear. Inhumane. You called them that, didn’t you? Hypocrite. Carve that oath on the polished wood of a pew. Hamble was on the hill already, before you sent the rest of the damned up there. He was grabbing at berries and setting traps for rabbits as his father taught him. His father, the poacher. But the rabbits never came. He was already slowly dying when the rest came up. They nourished him a little while longer, but when you didn’t arrive-
All alone and a-lonely-o.
O babe, babe, if you were mine,
I’d dress you up in silk so fine.
The others are on the furthest edges of the rim, way back, hidden where the moon’s light doesn’t touch and where the stars are weak behind clouds, by the cracked barks and stumps of the dead elms. A bed of thorns sleeps behind them; strands of briar twined with themselves, not with red roses, making a more truthful lover’s knot, stinging without beauty. These few stragglers don’t know it, can’t know it, but they’re sitting atop old, old bones, bones deep in the mud, while they also show like skeletons, their own memento mori, blinding white amongst green and brown. They remind you of carvings in the church, don’t they? So sharp and stark they are. They could be new night terrors for the parishioners, to replace the old; fresh visions of ugly doomed tongue-lolling faces. But they’re not in the church. They’re here instead, sinking in the mud, because of you. Falling into the old burial plots, the six-feet-deep-forget-me-nots of Wessex. Bluebells will come in the spring, all over the hill. Buttercups and cow parsley. You won’t see it, and neither will we. Not any of us.
Bread for the stragglers.
Bread for Daniel Earwaker and Blind Moran and Lewes the golden young ploughboy, pride of the village, and Rosie Ann Tewkes.
Your secret darling. Darling, dusty Rosie. Dust to dust Rosie. Ashes to ashes Rosie. Her face looks like it’s falling into her skull. Look at those deep black rings around her eyes, staring out. The flower of the Sunday congregation has gone to rot, like an unsold Covent Garden bloom as summer afternoon closes, thrown on the ground, abandoned, stepped on. She knew all her verses, Rosie did, when the time came to recite them. But her hands are too weak to clutch any prayer book now. Don’t cry for her. You can’t cry. You won’t cry. Don’t register one last insult. Focus on the pain in your legs. Distract yourself.
Bread for them all. Let them eat it.
Think. Rosie Ann, could she have lived if- if? No. Pain in the legs. Burning. Hurts. Feel it. Feel it all.
She leaned her back up against a tree
And there the tear did blind her eye.
They always eat as fast as their strength will allow. They pick the crumbs off the grass with blackened fingers and let their dry tongues turn drier on the crust. Saliva drips from their slack mouths. Their eyes bulge. Push your disgust down. You don’t have the right. When will you stop feeling it? Turn the hourglass over. The words of recrimination are coming soon- when they’ve recovered from their exertions.
Old Jim is picking at his buboes. He’s digging his fingers in and grunting, listen. He knows they can’t hurt him now. The weather vane turns. The quarter-moon glints off it.
Massen is gaming in the grass. Rolling back and forth. Rosie Anne’s smiling and dissolving into the black of the thorns. They’re piercing and tearing at her skin. She’s doing it for you. Because she knows it hurts to see. Massen’s laughing, howling, wild screeching into the night, like a mad dog. Blood’s dripping from Rosie Ann, from her face, her fingers, her hands, her arms, her legs. She’ll never stop hating. The sand is running down in the hourglass. The words are coming. The reminders. The recasting of the penance. Fortify yourself. Barricade yourself. If you still can. If there’s still spare timbre left to support your buckling doors.
As she looked over her father’s wall.
She saw her two bonny boys playing ball.
“Oh cruel mother, when we were thine
We didn’t see aught of your silk so fine.”
Her skin is hanging from her cheeks, but she’s still smiling. Massen’s still laughing. The pleas are rising in your chest, aren’t they? The same pleas as always. ‘Don’t give me this. Don’t give me this and the words. Please.’ Joan’s laughing now too. Lovely, hating Joan. Old Jim’s picking, picking, picking. Watch the ploughboy dance to the laughter. His body creaks as he’s moves. Not again. Bargain again. Beg. ‘Rosie Ann, step back!” “Earwaker, go to her!” “Don’t just lie there! Don’t just die there!” “Stop it all! Stop it all of you!” “No more seven years! Bring them to their end!”
“She’s taken out her little pen-knife
And she has twined them of their life”
That’s it. The song. The disgraced betraying mother who killed her two babes. Their return from the grave, in the castle gardens, bringing justice, harsh justice, angry cold steel justice, to her. But here- here- you are death, wiping your knives on the grass, and they are your misbegotten children. Betrayal, betrayal. You let them down. You spat in the face of your scarecrow God. All you ever said was weightless. Nothing. They cast you down. Seven years. Accept it, or no.
Old Jim is turning and looking at you. Rosie Ann is suspended on the thorns, writhing. A lover’s knot with her, Rosie Ann.
“Oh bonny boys, come tell to me
What sort of death I’ll have to die?”
“Faring well, Rector? We’re glad you’ve found it in your heart to come again to us on such a frost-smited eve.”
Jim is laughing now.
“With the bread. Our longed-for succour. Salty, bitter and withered.”
Blind Moran speaking from his last dark.
“Pity for us all you didn’t come with the same when it truly mattered. What were we supposed to do in your absence? Till the waste and plant turnips?”
The labouring boy’s words are hollow, like the ringing of the rusty bell whose tongue you now are. The steeple housing that bell points up to Hell, not to Heaven. He’s still dancing, the boy, no sign of weariness. The child is darting between his legs like an imp, like his familiar. Their venom is putting wind in their sails, animating them, raising them higher and higher, black angels flying with swords of fire above the glorious, awful landscape of their demise.
“Go to the hill you said. I’ll provide, you said. I’ll provide in your sickness. I’ll show you the meaning of good Christian charity. The Lord will walk with me, to protect me.”
Joan is advancing; watch her oils dripping down her legs. Hear the bees buzzing through your skull, tearing your mind to pieces.
“Liar. You never came. We called to you, but you pretended our voices didn’t reach you on the wind. What would our Lord think, eh?”
Massen, still devout, rolling and laughing.
“We all know what he thinks. It’s what he thinks what gives us the power to make you finally come here. Again and again and again. Resurrection of the flesh.”
Earwaker is coming forwards too, remembering words from the pulpit, turning them into spears now.
“When you should be snug in your tomb, awaiting the trumpet call of Judgement Day to rise, rise, rise.”
Old Jim is sneering, close to singing village hymns.
“We hate you. We do. I do. Forever and ever. Walk the hill. Keep coming. Piteous creature. Damned creature. Come, starved of peace, starved of rest, just as you left us to starve.”
Rosie Ann is speaking from the thorns. Her words are the hardest to take. They always are, because she’s the one speaking them and speaking them last so that they linger. She’s pulling herself from the thorns now, screaming an imaginary pain that’s real enough for you. It’s clanging between your ears, all through your head, mixing with the burning buzzing. Turn and run. Go on, coward. Run. Before they come any closer. Run, run, run.
Run down the hillside. Slip in the mud. Call out. ‘Help!’ ‘Help!’ Be back again tomorrow, when angry God dips the sun behind the hill. Scream into the night. Scream for it. Scream like Rosie Ann. Scream ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I’m so sorry!’ Weakness. Always weakness. Your flimsy faith failed you. You were too afeared, too afeared to come to them. Yet you fell to their same disease regardless. There was no need to be afeared. No need to turn away. But we’re all fear. All of us. All the time. It runs through time. Bobbles down the stream with it, out to invisible inevitable oceans. No ointment for plague, no ointment for fear. It’s too deep in. Too much in the blood. Scream it.
No keeping from it.
Seven years in the flames of hell.
Down by the bonny Greenwood side-e-o.
Memories drifted down and over the hill and were gone. The hill. Their hill. That’s how the people of Vernham Dean saw it; that’s how they still see it. They never go up, not to the top. They warn their children off it. They’re afeared. Time rests on the hill, sleeps on the hill, wakes on the hill, his companion licking at his heels, scampering about him, nuzzling with him in his earthy bed. Old fear, new fear. It’s too much in the blood. Scream it.
Publisher’s note: In his cover letter for this story, Mr. Stanton provided the following background, which I see as adding considerable depth and dimension.
“…This piece is inspired by a piece of genuine folklore concerning the small village of Vernham Dean in North Hampshire, and the ghostly apparition of its vicar, who traverses the hill where he left his plague-ridden Parishioners to starve during an outbreak of the Black Death in the 1660s. In my short story, this priest acts out his penance, forced to daily enact his spurned charities to the shades of his villagers, tormented by the taunts of his victims and the words of the English folk song ‘The Cruel Mother.’…”
Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short story ‘The Stray Sod’ was published by online horror magazine Horla in January 2022. The short poetic documentary ‘On an Island, Between Two Rivers’ Birkbeck’s Essay Film Festival this year (Covid-Permitting).