A Morning on Crow Hill
by Richard Daniels
er most fearsome maledictions, as she trudged to the rhythm of a squeaking barrow, were directed at her husband, Thomas Watkins.
Beneath the nearly dawn sky she grumbled at her husband’s uselessness, grumbled at his drunkenness and grumbled upon his very existence. The wheel of his barrow squeaked because it had not been oiled, though he had made such grandiloquent assurances to her that the recent quiet period had provided time for checking and repairing all the equipment he regularly used for interring the dead. With no deaths in the parish, a gravedigger must keep occupied, Thomas Watkins had said, and solemnly added, it wouldn’t hurt to pray that the lord may call one or two of the faithful to his side sooner rather than later, or at least allow a brief sprinkling of dysentery or apoplexy to waft through the village upon a malodorous breeze.
Nora Watkins stopped. She took a moment to catch her breath before starting up the incline of Crow Hill, making sure the lantern that hung from the end of the barrow was still secure and the shovel remained fastened across the handles. With a deep breath she continued, and the squeaking wheel started again but less frequently as her speed became hampered by the scrappy and uneven desire line that followed the rise in the ground.
What annoyed her most was that her husband would hardly even care to know the details of the morning’s events by the time he’d sobered up later that day. She could picture the scene; Thomas would clatter about the cottage, oblivious – save for vague recollections of drinking at the Black Horse Inn with the Reverend Lucius and all the other pontificators of the village. Nora knew Thomas might feel sheepish and sick from the ale for a time, but no longer a time than it took him to empty his chamber pot, give her a peck on the cheek, then smoke his first bowl of the day. He would show no real gratitude that she had done his job and collected a corpse. If indeed a corpse it was.
Nora had answered the knock upon their cottage door though it was well after midnight. Stood in her night gown, Nora made assurances to the watchman that her husband would soon be roused. At first Nora had feared that the watchman, whose name was Mr Blake, would wait upon her husband and she would have to confess that Mr Watkins was stewed and oiled and thoroughly bed bound, but the watchman only appeared relieved to have delivered his message. Mr Blake nodded stiffly. It was then Nora noticed how white his face was and how it was smattered with drops of blood, all the more scarlet against his pale skin.
“Is there something the matter?” she asked
“I have shot a man, Mrs Watkins,” he said once again, his gaze falling on the space between them both. “It is not something a man, even a night watch, ought do without his soul entreating the mind to consider the action which God must see so clear.” His eyes continued to look at something which wasn’t there.
“Right. And you’re sure this man be dead?” Nora frowned.
The question seemed to return Mr Blake to the present moment. “It may be thirty years or more since I fought upon the battlefield but I can assure you my aim is still as true, such as this office demands.”
“Of course,” she agreed. “I only ask with it being such a moonless night.” Nora knew that during the war Blake was a cook and had likely killed more men with his boiled chicken than any musket. “And you say the body is upon Crow Hill?”
“Yes.” His hand trembled as he wiped at the moisture which had bubbled above his lip. “Neighbouring villages have reported some minor thefts these past few days and then tonight Mr Waite on Oak Lane saw a light coming from the stones upon the hill. I went to investigate and on discovering the interloper I had no choice but to fire upon the strange creature.”
Mr Blake nodded. “Your husband shall see. The garments of this man were outlandish. He is probably Dutch. See that Mr Watkins collects the body and places it in the barn behind the Blacksmith’s. I shall summon the Sheriff. In the meantime, I think it best that a grave be dug. Tell your husband.” The night watchman nodded curtly, retrieved his lantern from the doorway and left.
Nora felt a gloom. Her husband would be aware of nothing for hours. She stood in her kitchen and tried to recall when she had last visited the stones but couldn’t. No one ever went there, save the daft or deranged.
At the top of Crow Hill the stones stood as they had for thousands of years; silent, solemn and content in their remoteness. What was different on this morning was the body of a man, his back slumped against one of the large standing monoliths, wearing clothes that appeared to Nora to be made of pure silver. Even in the dim light and the glow from her lantern his garments sparkled. Her first thought was that the night watchman had shot an angel and not a man. She looked about her but there was only the loneliness of the spot and the shiver of dawn proceeding from a split in the clouds. She took the lantern from the barrow and cautiously approached the stones to get a better look at the fallen angel.
Nora had such a powerful inclination to reach out and touch the material of his outfit, bloodied or not. If spring moonlight could be woven, she thought, then this is the cloth it would make. Even his boots were lustrous like valentine frost. Nora took a step nearer. The eyes of the man were closed and long hair obscured his face. She knew that something was not right about the scene. Any idiot, apart from the bumptious Mr Blake, could tell that this stranger was no simple thief – this was something more. Nora sighed, knowing well that the corpse, indeed the whole matter, would be buried and dismissed and, like as not, the menfolk would be congratulating themselves upon their work in the Black Horse before the day had ended.
“I don’t understand,” spoke the corpse with a jolt of its head.
Nora stumbled back and into the wheelbarrow which tipped forward so that she fell upon the ground and sat face to face with the silver man only a few paces in front of her.
“My stomach hurts so much,” the corpse went on, not seeming to notice the blood. “It must be that stupid homebrew they were passing around last night. Then this morning I just wanted to sleep but they dragged me up this hill and now I’m having some sort of a seizure.”
The man breathed heavily and raised his head to see Nora staring at him. He did not seem surprised. He nodded at her and breathed again.
“I’ve come to collect you,” Nora told him, her voice gentle but more from confusion than benevolence.
“Wonderful. You’re not from the magazine, are you?”
“I’m from the village.” She pointed a finger back behind her, not taking her eyes from him. “I’m the gravedigger’s wife.”
The man turned his head about him. “These stones. I don’t like them. They made me feel bad as soon as I got here.”
“Where is it you are from?” Nora asked, her voice now a whisper.
He coughed and winced with pain. “We were coming from Hull and on our way to Cambridge for the next gig. Dave, that’s our manager, suggested we stop off here for a photoshoot for Popfizz Magazine. He thought it would add a nice mystical ambience. The man’s an idiot but the others don’t see it. We’re on the up. That’s what I keep telling them.”
Nora could understand some of the words but the meaning was lost to her. “These stones,” she told him, “are bad. Many years ago, before I was born, in the time of Good Queen Bess, witches gathered here and worshipped the devil, so they say. The devil’s hand has touched these stones and things aren’t right upon this hill – never have been.”
“I shouldn’t be here,” the man said shaking his head. “I ducked behind that big stone over there, you know, to relieve myself. One minute it was daylight and then the next thing I knew it was dark and everyone had disappeared.”
For a time the two figures said nothing. Nora only stared, trying to understand what was before her. At last the man spoke again. “My name is Kenny Fry,” he told her, with a faint smile obscured by pain. “What is your name?”
“I’m Nora Watkins.”
“And you’re the gravedigger’s wife?”
“Yes,” she said with a nod. “I shouldn’t be here either. My husband is sleeping off the drink.”
Kenny sighed. “Please, tell me; what year is it?”
“The year sir?” she said to check her understanding.
“Yes. Because I don’t think it’s the same year that it started out as this morning.”
“Well this morning, tis Thursday, the twenty ninth day of March. The year is 1674 of course.”
He shook his head. “It’s supposed to be 1974.”
The sun had risen further to meet the morning and Nora could see the blood more clearly upon the silver man now. “The night watch has shot you. He has sent me to collect your body,” she told him. Nora knew that Kenny Fry could do her no harm but still she felt afraid.
“No,” he said, his head barely raised. “I’m supposed to be on tour. We’ve got a dozen more gigs to play. I’m in a band. I’m the guitarist in this great little band and we’re finally getting somewhere.”
Nora did not understand. His words made sense but only like a dream made sense in the moments after waking. Even when she thought she had grasped each sound he made, its meaning suddenly dissolved. It was the stones. They were the cause of it. Of the corruption. It was the stones that had conjured Kenny Fry; that much Nora understood.
“Listen!” he declared. He lifted his head and the hair fell from his face. He was handsome, Nora thought. His skin, though pale, seemed to glow. “I can hear the others. They’re looking for me. They’re calling my name.”
Nora listened but heard nothing more than the wind beginning to skirl about the stones. There was no one. Kenny Fry had slumped again and was murmuring to himself. She stood and straightened the barrow, then searched inside the leather pouch that hung upon one of its handles. She took hold of the small knife that her husband always kept inside it, along with the cloth he used to wipe the sweat and muck from his face.
“The others are looking for me,” Kenny said again. Nora was stood in front of him. “I’m in a band,” he told her.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she lunged the knife into the side of his neck and dragged it as far as the blunt blade would allow.
A strained gurgle and cry issued from Kenny’s mouth, but it took no more than a moment for him to die. Nora made sure that her cloth caught the blood. She then managed to guide and tip the body and drag it on to the barrow. When she had wheeled the corpse of Kenny Fry to the centre of the stone circle, she went to each of the stones in turn, wiping the blood from her cloth on to the boulders. It would be the only way to mollify the dark spirits of the stones – it had always been done that way. When she had finished, she did not bother to say a prayer. There was little point.
Whilst wiping blood upon each stone, Nora had considered what to do and had decided not to take the corpse of Kenny Fry to the barn behind the blacksmith’s. It would do no good. It was best that the body be kept among the stones. She would explain things to her husband and he would understand. He’d have to. It was as Nora began to dig the grave in the stone circle that the wind seemed to change. She could hear distant voices calling out for Kenny. There appeared to be a sudden flash in the sky. Nora stopped and looked about. The air smelt different. Stood a little way in front of her were three men with long hair and dressed in bright, shining clothes.
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