‘Should lost out to want, as usual. She grabbed a coat, her car keys, and Aunt Siân’s digital camera and headed for the hills. The sketch she’d made of standing stones in the mist was atmospheric, but she needed to see the stones again within the landscape to understand them.
She parked on a rocky patch of close-cropped grass at the side of the road. A tall finger of lichen-covered rock leaned into the soft breeze, beckoning her. Heather moorland bleached by the salt wind stretched in every direction; higher up the slopes, sheep and ponies grazed. She slung her bag over her shoulder and followed a rocky track towards a low mound in a depression among what Harriet laughingly called the mountains. The low hill wore the stone circlet like a crown.
Twelve huge stones erupted from the ground like teeth. They were ancient; even she could see that. Frost, rain, wind, and sun had cracked and eroded them; sponge-full emerald mosses and tufts of brittle green-grey lichen clothed their sides. The sun followed its low arc as it had for eons, and a sea mist obscured the headland across the bay.
She walked to the centre of the broad circle and mounted the smooth, flat stone slab, letting her mind drift back to those who had stood here thousands of years before. The breeze lifted her hair as it had lifted theirs, caressed her cheek as it had touched theirs. She closed her eyes; the sun rose and set, rose and set again, lower, ever lower until she feared it gone forever. A sacrifice would appease the sun god: blood stained the stone at her feet. She turned slowly and opened her eyes. Hills undulated into a blue distance, hill fort called to hill fort, and the sea sparkled with the sun reborn.
The mewing of a large bird of prey brought her back to the present with a jolt. It spiralled in ever higher circles: a buzzard? Dad would know, and he’d never tell her unless she made her peace with him. He was still her father, despite her having Dafydd’s genes. None of this was his fault.
She made a quick sketch of the stones within the landscape, and took photographs from different angles, then crossed to examine one tall stone more closely. Where it faced the sun it was bare of growth. Grooves came alive beneath her fingers, making shapes in the stone. She peered closer. They made the pattern of an arrow pointing skyward. Other, fainter, parallel lines ran in from the stone’s edge. They looked older, more primitive, but too regular to be natural.
The next stone had markings, too. Two oblique strokes, like the mathematical sign for less than, again too precise to be accidental, preceded something like a wilted F. The third looked like an egg-timer on its side and the last one was the fat-topped I that had been on her door when she’d first come to The Haggard. What did it mean? Who’d put it there and why? Lower down was another I, the edges sharper.
She moved from stone to stone: it was hard to tell which marks were natural scratches made by glaciers and which were man-made signs. Harriet had mentioned a sign when she told her about the house fire. She pushed down a feeling of unease as an idea took shape. Courage was freedom. She sketched the symbols; if they were a long-dead language, could she, in her own way, make the stones speak again?
She roughed out three-dimensional images of the scratches in the stones, joining them in a circle of symbols. A giant crown of stones, leaning towards each other and whispering, like the gravestones; a sculpture, not of the stones themselves, but of the symbols, of the mystery hidden within.
Working feverishly, she searched each stone with her fingertips, noting any marks, and drawing their relationship to one another. She would make working drawings, buy more stone, mock up a small version, and sell the idea of the larger sculpture, maybe as large as the original circle, to The Arts Council or whoever in West Wales would pay her to carve it. She must identify a site where it could be placed.
She was letting her imagination run away with her. “There’s nothing like not knowing what you can’t do, Alana.” It was a maxim that had always stood her in good stead. Satisfied she’d done enough, she put her pad and pencil away, suddenly aware of the damp chill blowing in on the quiet air. The light was fading and the bright sea had gone, devoured by a mist that had crept along the coast and up the valley. The hills had disappeared and the stones pulled their shrouds around them and returned to their silent, secret vigil. She swivelled on one heel. She couldn’t see the car anymore. Which way was the car?
She pushed down a surge of panic; she only needed to locate the stone that she’d first approached, the one with the arrow mark, and then she’d find the track that led down. A stone ahead of her disappeared into the mist. She kept her eyes focused on the spot and moved towards it. She tripped and landed face down in spiny bilberry. Her hand found soft dark soil: a mole-hill, newly excavated. She grasped something. It looked like bone. Next to it was part of a dog tag, rusted beyond reading.
Scrambling to her feet, she tossed the found items away. Which direction had the stone been? Suppose she’d walked past it – she could walk right out of the circle and off the edge of the world.
A broad, squat stone hunkered into the ground not far ahead of her, menacing and unyielding. She was still in the circle. She traced the grooves on its surface and her finger came away covered in dirt. It wasn’t a mark she’d noticed before. It was the same shape as the less-than mark, but the other way round and the edges were sharp. An arrow pointing to what? She peered closer; the dirt made it blend in with the rest of the stone’s surface, but it looked newly carved.’
That is an excerpt from The Silence of the Stones, a mystery set in my beloved West Wales where I have the good fortune to have lived for many years. The story was partly inspired by the local landscape and the winter solstice. Darker and more tragic inspirations were the disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine McCann in 2007 and the release of Angela Canning in 2004, after years of wrongful imprisonment for the ‘murder’ of her two baby sons – thought to have died of cot-death syndrome.
On a brighter note, today is the winter solstice – the shortest day, when the year turns towards spring and the renewed hope of warmer, better days. Every year, I celebrate this day as our ancestors did for millenia before me. I can understand them praying to whatever god they believed in as the days grew shorter and the sun ever lower that the sun wouldn’t desert them for good. This year, we need that hope more than ever.
I take solace from the earth already burgeoning with new life. In the garden, there are striped crocus tips, daffodil spears, and a lone snowdrop already bends it delicate head above stiff blue leaves. In a sheltered spot on the village green a clump of daffodils have been in flower for over a fortnight. There are a few hardy red campion flowers clinging on from last summer beneath the lichen-clad blackthorns, and brave primroses and bright celendines peep from a hedgebank. Bluebells are already pushing up through the soil, and catkins, my personal harbinger of spring, hang in tiny perfect seasonal decorations, ready to explode with pollen once the hazel’s minute red female flowers appear. And, somewhere, hidden by the winter grass, there will be violets.
On my morning walk, hedge sparrows, house sparrows, a charm of goldfinches, and some bluetits flitter along the overgrown hedge at my side, always keeping a few strides ahead of me and chattering in warning as they fly. In an old ash tree, a lone jackdaw sits on a branch beside part of a nest. Is he an opportunist, claiming the only piece of real estate not to be demolished by the winter storms, or an optimist, beginning to build to attract the best mate? Early birds and worms come to mind… Blackbirds and collared doves call from a sycamore tree as if it were the first day of spring, not the winter solstice. Are they tweeting about the lockdown, joyful that they’ll have the countryside to themselves for a while? They can’t have heard about the 84,000 more kittens that were forecast to be born during the summer that will devastate their lives and the lives of small mammals and reptiles next spring. If you have a cat-kin, please keep it indoors at dawn and dusk, their prime hunting times, and maybe attach a bell to their collars to give small animals and birds a chance of surviving to raise their young.
But spring is a way off yet, and that there are more dark days ahead of us is a certainty. The cold grey days of January, the wet of February, the gales of March – but these are things we know, things we expect and prepare for. It’s hard to prepare for this invisible enemy that is trapping us in our own homes and taking our loved ones like a cat stalks and pounces on its prey. Hard to see that the sun will get higher in the sky and the days will lengthen towards spring and summer: hard to imagine life ever being normal again.
Yet the sun will rise tomorrow morning as it has for billions of years. Just because we can’t always see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there, waiting for the world to continue its slow progress around it, and for us to turn once more towards it and have the wind blow away the clouds of fear and doubt.
I don’t consider myself a pagan, and I don’t dress in weird clothes and parade around standing stones at dawn on either solstice, but I do, in my own way, take comfort from the turning of the year in winter and the spirit and courage of those who came before me, and those who were sacrificed that the sun might rise once more for their friends, families, and fellow man.
With a little self-sacrifice for the good of others, be it man or mouse, our sun will rise again, spring and summer will come, and hopefully with them, an end to this dreadful time.
Be of good heart, protect those you love, and stay safe.