Chris Power | A story from the collection Mothers | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | January 2019 | 25 minutes (5,051 words)
Several months ago, while travelling in Sweden, I experienced something I have given up trying to explain. In fact, since it happened I have tried to push it as far from my mind as possible. But yesterday afternoon, searching for an errant set of keys, I found, nestled deep in a coat pocket, an acorn that I plucked from its cap in the forest beneath the fortress of Stenshuvud. Then it was smooth and green, but now it is tawny, and ribbed like a little barrel. You wouldn’t know it was the same acorn I picked on a whim, but holding it I felt again the compulsion that propelled me, at the end of that strange day, into the burial chamber at Haväng.
It was the end of September. I was attending a three-day conference in Lund. It finished early on a Friday afternoon, and with the weekend ahead of me, and nothing to hurry back to London for, I elected to stay. My colleagues recommended some sites – Iron and Stone Age, neither era of particular interest to me, but I thought why not. The only one I had heard of was Ale’s Stones, Sweden’s Stonehenge, built on a clifftop above the Baltic in the shape of a great ship.
I had presented a paper at the conference, ‘Digging Deeper: On the Aetiology of Archaeological Belief.’ It was good work, and I was excited about the presentation, but the few people who turned up lacked the ability to grasp even the simplest of the points I was making. It was a blessing when it was all over and I could leave Lund. I needed some time away from people.
Escaping the rush-hour traffic I drove my hire car east on Riksväg 11 to Simrishamn, a small fishing village on the eastern coast of Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost county. I drove between gently sloping hills, past apple orchards, and beside the ruffled green seas of sugar beet fields. The weather swung rapidly, as it had all week, between showers and sun.
Approaching Simrishamn on the coastal road I saw a rainbow springing from the sea. I pulled over and got out of the car to admire it. It arced from the water and disappeared into a low, dark cloud. Its bands had an unusual solidity. The wind gusted, and the grey sea was ridged like a tilled field. I felt a long way from the stuffy rooms and obtuse debates of Lund.
I checked into a small hotel a short walk from the harbor. I thought the holiday season was over, but in fact I only managed to get a room because of a late cancellation: The receptionist told me an apple festival, one of the locality’s most significant annual events, was taking place in the nearby town of Kivik.
Finding a small fridge in my room, I decided to get supplies and make the following day’s lunch. The hotel might have been full, but I didn’t see anyone in its corridors. The town also seemed largely deserted. Everyone was in Kivik, I supposed, worshipping the apple. The wind was blowing less forcefully now, but the sun had also faded. It was wet and warm, and the light had a greenish cast. Near the harbor the buildings were old and low, half-timbered, divided by narrow lanes and small cobbled squares. Further back from the shore the stock ceded to concrete and brick modernity, as typical as it was ugly.
I bought bread, meat, cheese and two blood-red apples. As I was queuing to pay I noticed a commotion by the entrance; a boy, seemingly drunk, was taunting shoppers as they passed. He accosted me, too, as I exited. He didn’t touch me, but stood in my way so that I was forced to stop. We faced each other. He was perhaps eighteen or so, with very short hair, an upturned nose, and blue eyes that, despite his unsteadiness, were extraordinarily clear and penetrating. His face reminded me of someone – I couldn’t place whom, but I had the sense it was someone I hadn’t thought about for a long time. In that moment, as he stared at me, I felt certain he was about to speak my name. What came out of his mouth instead was no less strange: a series of drawn-out screeches, aggressive and birdlike. I tried to move past him but he shifted position to block me, continuing to emit the aggravating noise. His lips were drawn back from his brown teeth; he reeked of alcohol and tobacco. Behind him, on the short flight of steps leading up to the street, a fat, vacant-looking girl sat smoking. Looking at me she spoke rapidly in Swedish, giggling as the shrieks grew even louder. Shoppers were hurrying past, not wanting to get involved. The concrete porch we were standing in felt as though it were shrinking, pushing me, the boy and the girl closer and closer together. Beginning to panic, I forced my way past the boy and hurried away, not stopping until I was back at my hotel. His screeches rang in my ears long after I had left him behind. I made sandwiches and put them in the fridge ready for the next day’s expedition. I had some food left over and considered having it for dinner, but my room felt too confining. I walked through the still-deserted streets in the direction of the harbor.
His face reminded me of someone – I couldn’t place whom, but I had the sense it was someone I hadn’t thought about for a long time.
I hadn’t been walking long before I found a restaurant with a name that called to me: Cimbris. It was familiar, I realized, from the conference. Someone had spoken about the Cimbri, an Iron Age tribe that spread from Jutland. They harassed the Romans, even getting as far as Italy at one point, then disappeared from history the way tribes, even entire civilizations, sometimes do, the archaeological record providing no answer to why they should have dropped off the face of the earth.
The restaurant was busy, and I was stuck in a corner at a small, wobbly table on the threshold of the men’s toilet. I thought about complaining, but my waitress was so thuggish I didn’t want to interact with her any more than I had to. The food was surprisingly good, though: grilled plaice in a butter sauce, and boiled potatoes dressed with dill. For dessert, fried apples with whipped cream: the surplus, I presumed, from the nearby festival.
After dinner I crossed the street to the harbor. Lamps cast pools of yellow light along the jetties. The air was cool, and the water so still that every boat had a perfect double hanging from its hull. As I wandered, enjoying having the harbor entirely to myself, I realized I wasn’t in fact alone: A figure, tall and thin, was standing on the seawall and looking out over the black water. I considered approaching him. There was no one else around, nor any movement in the town at our backs, nor even – or so it seemed for a few moments – any sound from the invisible sea. Where was the screaming boy now? The thought of him prowling the streets unsettled me, and instead of joining the watcher on the seawall I hurried to my hotel, half expecting to hear that uncanny shriek again. In fact I walked back in perfect solitude, but in my room, lying in the dark and beginning to slip into sleep, I unexpectedly heard the excited shouts of children from somewhere in the nearby streets.
I set off early the next morning. The day was bright, the streets still and peaceful. First I would visit the remains of an Iron Age fort on the headland at Stenshuvud, then pass through Kivik on my way up the coast to the Haväng Dolmen.
When I arrived at Stenshuvud the visitor centre was shut up and silent. Through the trees the white sea dazzled, but despite the sun’s brightness there was no warmth in the air. The walk up to the fort began in a low, uneven pasture where sheep grazed. The churned ground was spongy underfoot, and at its lowest points was more sea than soil. Skirting muddy pools I thought of a lecture I had attended in Lund, more to fill time than anything else, about the Iron Age bodies found in bogs across northern Europe. Tollund Man was found in the Jutland Peninsula, home of the Cimbri, and was so well preserved that police mistook him for the victim in an unsolved murder case. Inside his stomach they found traces of the gruel he had eaten before he died. The lecturer, a Dutchwoman, concentrated mostly on the scientific methods used during the examinations and subsequent re-examinations of these finds, but she wasn’t a gifted speaker, and it was only when she began showing pictures of the remains and describing how these men had died – some of this new to me, some half-remembered from undergraduate studies – that she won my full attention. Tollund Man had been hanged. Grauballe Man, another Jutlander, had his throat slashed. Lindow Man was strangled, received a double fracture of the skull, and had his jugular sliced. Clonycavan Man’s head was split open with a stone axe. Arms and a torso appeared on the screen, purplish-red and wrinkled as a dried chili. This was Old Croghan Man. In her monotone the lecturer recited the details of the overkill this young, unusually tall man had suffered: he was bound with hazel branches threaded through the skin of his upper arms, his nipples were snipped off, he was stabbed in the chest, stabbed in the neck, decapitated, and cut in half. “Somehow,” she said, her voice thickening with rehearsed mirth, “these wounds proved fatal.”
I stepped over a wooden stile and entered the beech forest that climbed towards the fort. The light beneath the trees was tea-colored, the air cool, which I was glad of as the ground began to steepen. Stenshuvud is an outcrop rising a hundred meters above the sea, and my breathing was labored by the time I broke free of the trees and felt the soft earth of the forest floor give way to rock.
The fort’s remains, spread over three small peaks, were scant, but it was easy to see how well chosen it had been as a stronghold. From here you could keep watch over your entire surroundings. The first peak faced south, where heathland studded with junipers stretched to sand flats and, beyond, the sea; the second east, where bluffs dropped sharply to the water; the third looked back to the interior, down a creased and thickly forested valley.
This was the route I chose for my descent. Berry-like clusters of sheep droppings lay in mounds. Heather writhed across the ground. A regal oak stood heavy with plump acorns: green, orange and brown. I slipped one from its cap with a gentle tug. When I was a young child our next-door neighbor, a kind Welshman who whistled constantly through nervous habit, gave me an acorn he had taken from the grounds of Windsor Castle. My mother helped me plant it in the back garden, and from then on that little patch of ground was thought of as belonging to me. Over the years the oak grew to twice my height. When I was older, and I needed to move home for a period of time, I sat beneath it every day, telling it things I wasn’t able to tell other people.
The acorn rested in my hand, smooth and apple-green. I rolled it between my fingers, deeply pleased by its shape and texture. At some point my old tree was stricken by a fungus and chopped down. My mother didn’t tell me until after it was done. Now just a mossy stump is left. The fungus is still alive somewhere down in the roots; my mother tells me she scrapes it off when it pushes through the cracked surface of the wood.
I tucked the acorn away and walked on. My water bottle, half full, gulped in my pocket at every step. I heard chestnuts rattling through branches as they fell to the ground. On this side of the hill, where the beeches weren’t dominant enough to block all the sunlight, the undergrowth was thicker and there were more signs of life. Stepping over a huge slug lying across the path, I heard a thrashing off in the distance. I stopped to listen and the sound ceased, but I had the sense that someone was very close by. I turned, thinking I’d see a fellow walker somewhere behind me. There was no one there. But turning again I did see someone, perhaps thirty feet ahead, part-screened by leaves and branches. They were tall, and seemed to be standing slowly from a kneeling position. “Hey!” I called. There was no reply. I started towards the figure, which was still rising – now it seemed impossibly tall, perhaps twice my height. I had halved the distance between us when I heard something rushing at me from my left.
“Ursäkta!” a man cried as he sprinted past, almost knocking me to the ground.
“Idiot!” I shouted, but the runner had already disappeared among the trees. I turned back, but on the spot where I thought my watcher had stood I found nothing except bushes and a pile of dead branches.
By the time I reached Kivik I was hungry and the roads were crowded. Trapped in a slow-moving line of traffic, I crawled past the Kungagraven. In Lund, having coffee after a morning session, a Bronze Age specialist had stood too close and excitedly briefed me on “the largest circular burial site in Sweden.” He had halitosis, and his enthusiasm for barrows was something I couldn’t share, not when he stood breathing on me, and not as I stared from the car at a large, low mound of grey stones.
I rolled slowly past a group of boys sitting on the fence dividing the road from the field in which the Kungagraven lay. They were passing a bottle back and forth and shouting things at the cars, goading one another to be ever more outrageous. They seemed possessed by a hectic energy, and the violence of their laughter made me uneasy. It was then that I realized who the boy at the supermarket had looked like. Guillaume. I met him in France, on a family holiday when I was a child. He was short and muscular, like an acrobat, and had – just like that strange boy in Simrishamn – the most piercing blue eyes. I hadn’t thought of him for years, but now his face hung before me as I listened to the boys’ malicious laughter. They were like animals.
I had planned to eat my lunch in Kivik, but it looked unbearable. From the main road all the way down to the harbor the streets were thronged with festival-goers drinking cider and carrying sacks of apples. They clogged the pavements and spilled onto the road, braying and grinning like morons. I decided to head straight for Haväng, another ten kilometers up the coast.
I heard a crow’s loud complaint as I got out of the car. The empty car park faced a grassy field inhabited by a few black and chestnut mares. The nearby sea was out of sight and silent. I closed my eyes and absorbed the quietness.
At the edge of the car park stood a cafe, which was closed. Beside it there was a small cement toilet block. Inside the men’s a flickering tube spat yellow light on the damp cement floor and the dirty porcelain of the sink and urinal. A sodden, dissolving mass of toilet paper stood on the ledge of the sink. Barnacles of rust had formed on the taps. There was a single cubicle, which I was surprised to see was occupied. As I urinated I heard someone shifting on the toilet seat. For the second time that day I felt watched. I turned and looked at the small gap between the base of the cubicle and the floor, half expecting to see a face glaring out at me. I had an urge to go down on my knees and peer under, to see at least the shoes of whoever was in there. I went to the sink, but having my back to the cubicle made me almost shake with fear. I yanked open the door and threw myself outside.
For the second time that day I felt watched.
There, my uneasiness instantly became laughable. The sun was shining, and now there was even some heat in the day. Realizing how hungry I was, I decided to walk down to the beach and eat my lunch before visiting the dolmen. I passed through a gate, walked up a short rise and from its crest saw the sea. A duckboard path sloped down to the beach, cutting across tussocky grass. I saw white, brown and yellow mushrooms bursting from cowpats, clumps of buttercups, and small networks of a blue flower I didn’t recognize. When I was a child and we went on walks, my mother, a woman who never wasted words, would recite the names of the trees and flowers we saw. The way she spoke made them sound like the words to a spell.
At the border between grass and sand stood a large concrete pillbox built into the bank, so I could walk directly onto its roof from the grass. It probably dated from the early years of the Cold War. The thickly littered steps leading down to its interior announced its dereliction. Beer bottles, plastic bags, crisp packets, fragments of wood and metal: the archaeological record in waiting. I sat on the edge of the concrete roof, my legs dangling. Sun and shadow alternated at speed. The ocean was flat and the beach was empty of people. Silver water lapped at the floury white sand. I ate my sandwiches slowly, lulled by the gentle sound of the waves and the drone of insects. The dolmen was somewhere behind me, but I didn’t want to look at it yet. I wanted to save it. To my right, above a small pine wood, a dark, cracked cloud seemed to hold the sun prisoner: Fissures in the cloud glowed with brilliant light.
I ate an apple and watched the currents show as zigzagging lines in the water. Scrolls of cloud receded to the horizon. I thought of the pillbox I was sitting on, and Stenshuvud, and the millennium that separated them: structures erected at the edge of things, repelling invaders. But our defenses are always overrun eventually, by time if by nothing else. I decided I wouldn’t go to the dolmen yet. I would walk along the beach, then climb the low cliffs to the sloping grasslands above. They would carry me back down to the site.
I put the litter from my lunch in my knapsack and descended from the pillbox. Gulls launched themselves from the trees edging the beach and patrolled the sea in shallow parabolas. Sand flies flickered at my feet. Before two black wooden boathouses, their doors and windows sealed, I passed a large patch of burned straw, the remains of a beach fire. A little further on, climbing over some rocks, I slipped and sliced open the side of my hand on a jagged piece of granite. The wound wasn’t so deep, but enough blood continued to well from it that I needed to staunch it: Looking back I saw a line of dark spots running alongside my footsteps.
I sat down amid the exposed roots of a chestnut tree, its split, spiked pods littering the sand around me. I took a lightweight scarf from my knapsack and knotted it as tightly as I could around my hand. As I did so I felt, for the third time that day, that someone was watching me. As I looked around, confirming I was utterly alone, I dug the fingers of my good hand into the powdery sand. Dry and fine on the surface, it was dense and cold beneath.
Just before I left the beach, beside a steep track up the cliff that would allow me to double back towards the dolmen, I was confronted by a strange totem. It was a section of birch trunk embedded in the sand, its white bark mostly stripped away by the salt air. Halfway up the trunk a small branch reached out from it like a withered arm. The remains of an emerald-green net hung from the end of the branch. At the top of the trunk someone had wound a mass of white and yellow rope that had an unpleasant resemblance to human hair. Its frayed ends shifted in the breeze. Beneath the hair a crude face had been cut and scorched into the wood, its round eyes and slot mouth giving it a hateful, imbecilic expression. It stared back down the beach the way I’d come. Maybe this was my mystery watcher, I thought, and felt a fury rise up in me. I took up a length of driftwood and used it as a cudgel, thrashing at the totem until it lay in fragments on the sand.
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Breathing hard, I climbed the path up to the grasslands. In the far distance, to the north, I could just make out a family: a woman, a child and a man. They were walking away from me. There was no one else. My only companions were sheep, grazing at a distance from one another on the ground sloping down to the dolmen.
At the edge of the site stood an information panel, angled like a lectern. The Haväng Dolmen, five thousand years old, was uncovered by storms in 1843. I didn’t read any more; I was impatient to explore the site for myself. I skirted the square of jagged stones that marked the dolmen’s perimeter, the grass around them springy, cropped, and dotted with rabbit droppings. At the centre of the site, an enormous porphyry capstone rested on several smaller stones to form a grave chamber six feet long, four wide and three high. The chamber stood open on the seaward side like a waiting mouth. A large red admiral swirled past. I felt the lightness of being far from home, the pleasure and terror of being free to do as I liked. No one knew that I was here. No one would know if I didn’t return. I felt faint, and put my hand out to balance myself. My cut hand throbbed against the perimeter stone, coated in flaking grey lichen. It was then that the feeling took hold: a keen urge, a need, to lie within the burial chamber. I scrambled towards its mouth, got down and squirmed inside on my belly.
Once I was in as far as I could go, I twisted onto my back. My clothes had ridden up, and the small of my back pressed against the icy sand of the chamber floor. Looking out between my feet, which lay outside the chamber still, I saw a strip of green grass and a grey band of sea. I dropped my head back into the sand. I looked up at the base of the capstone, streaked black and copper red. I reached out my hand and pressed it against the frigid rock, smooth against my palm.
I felt a deep tiredness seep through me. As the walls of stone closed in I shut my eyes. I heard the sea in the distance. I saw a cave mouth, and darkness streaming from it. Guillaume was beside me, I could feel the nearness of his body. I was ten again, on holiday in the south of France. He was a few years older, leader of a gang of local kids. He was fearless. I saw him on the beach, devising games, issuing orders, leaping about in the water. I thought he was magnificent, and as soon as he spoke to me I became his most loyal disciple. I followed him everywhere, to the surprise and relief of my parents: now I wouldn’t be a burden to them.
I scrambled between capstone and sand, digging my heels into the ground to help lever myself out, but I couldn’t move.
On our last day together Guillaume and the others showed me a large cave you could swim into, just around from the little bay that had briefly been our kingdom. The cave’s entrance was a shallow arch. At high tide, Guillaume said, it was all underwater. Inside, in the half- darkness, our cries merged into a ringing echo. The cave’s entrance was a burning eye. Ripples in the water glided in golden ribbons across the stone above our heads.
My friends – I still thought they were my friends – showed me a ledge at the back of the cave where you could sit and hang your legs in the water. Guillaume pulled himself onto it and hauled me up beside him. The others stayed in the water. Guillaume showed me a passageway leading back into the rock. He told me that beyond this passageway lay another cave the others hadn’t seen, one he wanted to share only with me. Gesturing towards the narrow crack in the rock, he said I should go. I eagerly complied, but after just a couple of steps I had to turn my body sideways, and after only a little more progress squeezing myself through the passage I was stuck fast. I couldn’t even turn my head to ask for help, so I shouted back to Guillaume. I heard him laugh at me. There was the splash of a body returning to the water, and someone shouted, “Bye, English!” There was more laughter, then only the sound of water sloshing in the empty cave.
I was helpless. For a long time I did nothing but cry. Eventually, desperate, I began wrenching my body forward and back against the rock. I felt my skin tearing, but still I wasn’t free. I remember feeling each pump of my heart, how it seemed to squeeze against the rock. I believed what Guillaume had said about the cave being underwater at high tide. I was convinced I was going to drown. I could see my corpse stuck there, its hair waving in the water. Lying in the burial chamber, returned to that narrow space between those pinning walls, I felt the certainty of nearing death.
I opened my eyes and saw the capstone above me. I was very cold. I heard the crashing of waves from the beach below. I scrambled between capstone and sand, digging my heels into the ground to help lever myself out, but I couldn’t move. I felt as though the life was being crushed out of me. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe, and felt a scatter of rain on my face. I looked down at the entrance to the dolmen and saw a pair of legs – my legs – emerging from it, lying completely still. There was a dark figure, very tall and thin. Its back was towards me, but I was certain it saw me. It looked like a column of rags, its tatters whipped by the wind. The water pounded the shore. The figure turned, but there was no front or back to it – it was blank on all sides. I felt something cold and empty press against me. Guillaume, a boy still, slid from the dolmen’s mouth and leapt into the turf, which parted around him like water. The earth warped and surged: The green land and the grey sea and the silver sky became a ribbon of light whipping around me and I was trapped again, wedged tightly, stripping off my skin as I tore myself free. I found myself beside my car. I had no memory of leaving the dolmen. No idea how much time had passed. The sun was sinking. My head felt like it would split open with the pain. I stood up, stumbled to the undergrowth fringing the car park and vomited. It lasted a long time, until there was nothing left but a thick bile that burned my throat. Shadows were spreading across the car park. In the next field stood a tree black with crows.
I drove through the darkness to Simrishamn, packed my things and checked out. The streets were as silent as they had been since I arrived. I drove straight to Malmö and booked into a hotel in the center of the city. I walked the busiest streets. I ate dinner at the most crowded bar I could find. Only when it closed and I had no other choice did I go back to my hotel. In the shower the water ran grey with sand. I sat on the bed with BBC News blaring from the TV. Even with the lights on, even with the room’s comforting ugly modernity all around me, I struggled to stay calm. I told myself I was exhausted. I had been anxious about presenting my paper, a paper I had worked on for months, and it had been misunderstood. I needed rest. I needed sleep.
I woke feeling wet rock pressed against my face. I heard the moan of the sea on the beach below. It grew louder. I woke again to the chatter of the TV and the room’s burning brightness. I lay in bed rubbing my chest, which ached the way it had ached in France after I finally wrenched myself free. I told my mother I fell while climbing. If she knew I was lying she didn’t care enough to get the truth out of me. I never spoke about it, and eventually I forgot it had ever happened.
Back in London I kept myself busy preparing my lectures, answering emails, paying bills: all tasks that bore me away from that strange episode. But the dolmen was always there, looming like a door I didn’t want to open, and when my fingers found this acorn it was as if they turned the key in the lock. Now when I close my eyes I see the chamber, waiting to be filled. When I fall asleep, I feel the rock encase me. There are moments in life when we grasp what it is to die. If we’re lucky we forget them, but my luck has run out.
Excerpted from Mothers: Stories by Chris Power. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux January 15th 2019. Copyright © 2018 by Chris Power. All rights reserved.
Chris Power’s column, A Brief Survey of the Short Story, has appeared in The Guardian since 2007. He has written for the BBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Statesman. His fiction has been published in Granta, The White Review, The Stinging Fly, and The Dublin Review, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
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