When the Hills Fell by Sarah Harley

I grew up believing we lived in the mountains, surrounded by fir trees. When the tops of the trees began to flutter, I hid inside a cupboard, afraid that the hills would fall in on us.

In the evenings, my father built the nightly fire outside in the garden. The smoke came through the window. Inside, my mother sat in the brown chair smoking her last cigarette of the evening as she drank the next drink, watching the night fall softly and regretfully around her. They did not speak.


Our family lived on a fault line. The family was created from it. I find traces of it, like mold or rising damp, in every single house I’ve ever lived in. I find the tell-tale signs in the creeping and winding cracks along the line of a house’s foundation. I have learned to discern its ways. The fault line follows me wherever I go, even thousands of miles away across an ocean from where it was first detected. From where the curse took root.

The fault line ran first under the house where I grew up. My mother knew. She observed it widening in its subtle and awful way one morning while she was pegging out the day’s washing. Her daughters, including me, watched her from a window upstairs. One day, with a peg pursed between her thin lips, her right hand holding the corner of a cold wet sheet, my mother watches a starling with silver flecked wings and a bright yellow beak. The bird pecks at the ground with growing frustration, trying to push a small piece of gravel with its beak, mistaking it for something else completely.

My mother makes a sudden gesture with her hands to shoo the bird away, waving her arms like a bird, while deftly holding a corner of the wet sheet. As she shakes the damp cloth at the bird, she notices the faint morning light filtered through the material. She sees the faded stain, observes it. It is a blood stain that had not come out in the wash as she had hoped. She elicits a clipped curse about the situation under her breath before stuffing the bed sheets, against their will, back into the washing basket.

Back inside the kitchen, my mother takes another stab at the stain. The house is empty. She has all the time in the world. She has forgotten her daughters are hiding in a room upstairs. We had forgotten we were supposed to be hiding and watch her from a hidden vantage point in the doorway. With both arms outstretched, she spreads the bed sheet over the large wooden table, finds the faded blood stain and pours the coarse rock salt from a glass jam jar in the cupboard upon it.

My mother adds some boiling water from the kettle and watches the salt bubble up, crystalize,  and then dissolve. Then, she picks up the scrubbing brush by its wooden handle and begins to scrub away at the bed sheet without mercy. She scrubs so hard, the material might tear or be washed away into nothing.

My mother’s wretched guilt is exacted upon the cloth that contained the evidence, the harsh reality of her domestic misery. I imagine a refrain in her mind, to accompany her madness. Her hands grow red and she winces as the salt goes into the skin that has open cuts. The hands are red raw. Even after the salt, the hot water, and all the scrubbing, the stain is still there, clear as day, stubborn unto itself.

My mother makes a decision. She takes a pair of scissors from the drawer. Holding them with care not to cut herself, she plunges the scissors into the wet material and carefully cuts out the stain.

“There” she says to herself. “They will think they have put their foot through the material while they were thrashing in their sleep.”

It was a plausible alibi. After all, the sheets were so threadbare you could almost see straight through them.

 A crow flies past the window, darkening the room for a moment. The foundation of the house shifts as the fault line widens under the house. My mother is the only one to notice.


There are three types of faults: strike slip, normal, and thrust.

Strike-slip faults are characterized by horizontal movement of the ground along the fault line, often the result of one force sliding past another. Normal faults happen when things are pulled apart.Thrust faults are caused by compression and squeezing.

My father’s knowledge of granite and other rocks helped him to understand the geology of the area where the fault was located, under the childhood house, even how different types of rocks can behave differently during faulting.

I wonder if he had explained the different fault lines to my mother on their honeymoon to a mountain in the Northern Fells of the English Lake District. The story was told that he had made her climb a sheer rock face, covered with small falling loose stones, and how the marriage almost ended right there. My mother did not own a pair of hiking boots or thick socks to prevent blisters.

When she was young, my mother only wore high heel shoes, aware of the sound they made when she walked down the street and all heads turned in her direction. She always wore high heels except when the heel broke or it was caught in a crack in the ground, like that one night when she was running from a man who followed her from the foundry.

Whenever it rains, men cross the street to open umbrellas over my mother: a tiny woman in the navy blue raincoat, cinched at the waist, with the flash of platinum blonde cropped hair she scrunched into handfuls to dry.


Once married, my mother was like a songbird inside a cage or a yellow canary in a coal mine. Looking at old photos, I can see how the institution of marriage did not sit well with her. In no time at all, the woman with platinum blonde hair had vanished without a trace. The house was the cage. She sat inside looking out of the window at the day’s washing on the line, watching as the gusts of wind took the bed sheets every now and then, making them look as if they were flying. But my mother always secured them carefully in place. She watched the ways of the wild birds. Her fascination with them grew. When I watched my mother, I always wondered what she was longing for when she looked out the window. But the chaotic spiral of her moods made such questions hard to ask.


Tension came early to the marriage before it was irretrievably broken, although they stayed together. My father went outside the marriage to find a softer place as my mother had grown hard and cold from mistrust. It’s hard to know what came first, the mistrust or the mistresses. But he went off in search of adventure. My mother, in turn, felt bitterly betrayed by my father’s transgressions.

Feelings of betrayal and inadequacy were expressed in daily arguments and accusations that often escalated into raging fights that caused such upheaval it was registered in geologic time. My father turns things around and makes my mother responsible for his actions. This makes her lose control. The arguments slide headlong into a place of no return. The truth is submerged in all that wasn’t said – the vast repertoire of unexpressed feelings of anger and distrust. Things left unsaid fail to articulate the real pain. So instead the pain goes underground and finds an ever expanding space for itself. The pain found a home in the ground, in the recesses under the house, in a desecrated carved out hollow.

After the fights, my mother sweeps up the broken glass, the smashed plates, and other debris so no one cuts themselves.


All fault lines create space to relieve the brittle tension that has been building. Each type of fault is the result of different forces pushing or pulling, each describe a relative motion. This causes a surface to pitch up or push down or past each other.

Through his affairs, lies, and secrecy, my father mastered the art of exacting all of these forces upon my mother. He does this in a passive way while making himself look innocent. Eventually, my mother stops caring about herself. She stops dying her hair and wears drab mousy sweaters and old brown corduroys. She sinks deeper into a depressive escape, afforded by pills and alcohol, in which she gives up on life altogether.

I imagine my mother’s mind becoming a dead end without refuge or escape. She becomes remote and her moods grow dark and unpredictable. I learn the art of becoming invisible.  

The cancer in her breast that will kill her is detected.


Whenever I summon my mother’s pain, to heal us both, I want to time travel to rescue her although I know that’s not possible. The desire to protect my mother never goes away. In fact, it grows stronger as I grow older. Even though she didn’t protect me in the way that mothers are supposed to protect their daughters, I know it was because she could not protect herself.


My sister carries the preference to keep everything in the vault – the family crypt – the mausoleum that contains a single flickering candle. This means I am alone to work out what happened to us in the childhood house. In the weak candlelight, you can make out the shadows of abuse, addiction, the chaos of my mother’s spiraling moods. In dreams and nightmares, there are shadows in doorways in the death of night.

As children, we slept under the soft threadbare bed sheets covered with heavy wool grey blankets. My mother tucked the blankets around us tightly, against the edges and corners of the bed, to keep us calm when the fighting started, to prevent me from sleepwalking into the garden, to prevent the bed from being ruffled when the night terrors came, which they always did. Our feet went through the sheets which explained everything. We always slept lightly, always on high alert, the warning systems never turning off or resetting themselves. We grew up in the damage, in the ruins wrenched by the fault line from which our family was created. We lived in a landslide; when the hills fell in on us, all that was left was ruin and desolation.


I rewrite the fault line as a recursive storyline in my own life. In the story, from which I am always trying to escape, I am always to blame for everything that goes wrong. Without knowing, I seek out relationships that harm me and yet confirm and validate my view that my world is not a safe place. Relationships are hard when trust does not come easy, when the ground beneath you may shift or slip away altogether. In bedrooms, I detach and watch myself lying on a bed next to men that scare me.

To disappear, I imagine I am in a hotel in the mountains. Through the windows, the tops of the fir trees begin to flutter, for I have carried the fault line with me. I hear the unmistakable sound of rocks falling, sliding into a place of no return. In my mind’s eye, I walk into the landslide, stepping over rocks to the other side of the mountain where there is an open field. When I get there, I shake out an old soft blanket and wrap it around my shoulders. I stand on the soft earth, pointing my toes toward a gravitational force that tells me that I am enough.

Sarah Harley is originally from the U.K. and currently works as a teacher at Milwaukee High School of the Arts. She is dedicated to supporting her refugee students and helping them tell their own stories. Sarah holds a BA in Comparative Literature and French, as well as an MA in Foreign Language and Literature. Graduate School allowed her to explore neuroscience and architecture in addition to writing a thesis about the concept of hysterical space. Having worked briefly as a translator, her passion is connecting with her students and writing by night. Sarah’s work has been published in Halfway Down the Stairs and elsewhere.

Website: Sarah Harley

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