(published 26th February 2018)
On a foul night in fickle early autumn, when the wind sobbed and wailed like a lost wandering wraith, Constance awoke from a garish dream, aghast to hear her garden crashing into the sea. It clattered down the cliff thud by thud into darkness, sodden by the pelting rain and bludgeoned by the gale.
Up at the farm, we kept an eye on our neighbour, so the next day I tracked through the glen to discover how she was. I remember the feral scent of the earth after rain – how that smell takes me back to that day. As I arrived, I saw Constance through a shroud of mist, waiting for me outside her house, wearing an ethereal smile; I remember thinking, ‘She looks frail’. How anyone could live here in such precariousness – crumbling in a cottage on a cliff edge, without electricity or gas, drawing water from a corroded pump, surviving in such isolation, always beggared belief, but especially someone of her age.
‘Of course, the house itself is built on solid rock’, she said, when we sat down in the mildewed kitchen, with its sour reek of boiled foliage and overripe fruit. Her voice was quaint; febrile and dulcet, like the trill of a small songbird. ‘It will always be here’, she said with giggle – ‘as will I’.
I tutted at this, as it was well known the authorities sought to relocate her, but I said nothing as she brewed tea with milk from the pail I’d brought, tinkling chipped cups on the stove. With a flare of animation she then said, ‘Last night, just as the cliff came down, I was in a dream…’ She suspended her hands motionless in mid-air, transfixed, and a teaspoon she dropped jangled as it struck the stone floor.
‘…A dream about Clement,’ she said, beaming, and I gave a look of assent – as I understood it, he was her brother, lost whilst searching for fossils, lost presumably to the sea, and in recent years, he’d become her main topic of conversation, endlessly referenced.
‘I saw him in a cave’, she said, her smile abstracted; ‘…in a grotto, with a high, high ceiling…and it gleamed with the strangest light…and rainbows shimmered on the walls from all the insect wings, and the fish scales embedded in them…’
I listened with politeness, sipping my tea, tasting rust in the water. She blinked with amazement, ‘You know, he’s disappeared from all family photographs’, she said. ‘Have I ever told you that?’. I nodded in commiseration, because she mentioned those pictures regularly, often showing me crumpled albums of her younger self with sepia relatives, sealed together in sombre poses – but I never saw a boy amongst them.
In the empty silence, I heard the ticking clock and its echo. I remember her eyes – their faded colour: an opaque robin’s egg blue. She said, ‘But he wasn’t alone in that cave – no. Someone else was there – can you guess who?’. As she rose, her chair creaked, wobbling the battered table; she fussed with the milk, stowing it in the dusty larder, no doubt intent on making cheese with the remainder, fermenting crumbly blue moulds in the dark.
Through the window, I saw the treetops whispering. I half expected her dream narrative might now digress into a raising of The Devil – another of her familiar subjects, so much so that local children, the meaner ones, claimed her to be a witch, a witch who snatched children, turning them to stone. But instead she asked, ‘Will you come with me to the beach at low tide to see how much land has slipped?’. I answered that of course I would.
Outside, an oppressive mackerel sky occluded the washed-out sun. By the top of the escarpment, a short iron ladder lead down to the rocky beach, weathered by years of exposure to salt spray. The tide had retreated enough to descend, so I went first, making sure the ladder was sound, acting as a buffer whilst Constance followed me. Seagulls cackled a raucous cacophony as we climbed down.
On the foreshore, I remember the enigmatic tang of the sea, combined with a rotting stench dragged up by the waves. Clods of earth and shrubbery tangled over gnarls of wood jutting out of the shingle, the remnant of an ancient petrified forest, now encrusted with slimy seaweed. A recent avalanche of shards covered boulders and revealed layers of variegated strata in the sandstone so potentially full of fossils that I wished I’d brought my hammer and chisel.
Glimpsing up at the hillside, with its pelt of prickly gorse and yellow ragwort, Constance drifted back to her dream. ‘No, he wasn’t alone’, she said. ‘He was trapped: trapped with some other children’. I raised my eyebrows in response, inclining my head, wondering what to say; and as I did so, my view was drawn along the beach to the left, past a plashing waterfall, to an opening in the rock face I’d never seen before.
Pointing it out, I set off in that direction, collecting firewood in a bundle as I went. Constance trailed after me, and as we crunched on the pebbles, I heard her say, ‘I often hear his voice’. From the corner of my eye, I could feel her study me with fascination as we trudged along. ‘His voice calling for help’, she added with a smile.
Soon, we stumbled upon the gap in the cliff; I unearthed the entrance, bringing to light a fissure wide enough to squeeze into. Enthralled by this discovery, she gasped and cooed, prancing like a child. ‘Maybe there’s a passage’, she said, ‘maybe he’s in here! He must be. Look! I could fit through: I’m thin enough. I’m going inside – to rescue him!’. She pealed with frenetic laughter.
I remember drawing a deep breath and turning towards her. ‘Miss Ash’, I said, in a hollow voice, for I dislike having to speak. ‘Miss Ash, no. It’s not safe. Think of the tides. Think of the risk.’
Her face curdled into an outraged gape. Then in a tone of petulance, she said, ‘You could fit through there easily – you’re just a boy’. Her eyes scoured me with an accusing leer. I replied that yes, I’m considered small for my age, but my parents have been strict in warning me about the perils of entering cliff caves and of always showing respect for tidal danger.
There was an awkward impasse and all I could hear was her rattling breath. The whorls of her hair writhed and seethed, serpentine in a churn of wind. She hissed at me, ‘Go inside!’, she said, ‘That’s why we’ve come. You’re going to take his place. And if you don’t…then you know what I’ll do…’
She glowered, demented with ferocity, and it was then that I saw her left eye start to distort, to enlarge and intensify; it raked its stare over my face again and again like the searchlight of a lighthouse. She muttered sinister words, sibilant and fricative, like curses or spells, then she thrust outwards, snatching my arm with what felt like a talon, impaling her nails into my skin, causing me to stifle a yell. And for a twisted instant, the earth tilted and slowed its spin to a crawl, and I was seized, seized by a monster; I was petrifying, I was congealing into cold impenetrable stone. I took one last appalled look upwards at the desolate sky above.
But then something unexpected happened – she fell into a strange silence; she fell inert and her eyes dimmed to a grey emptiness. Her grip eased, as did my panic, and we stood there before the fissure. The breeze swelled and the bleak breaking waves snaked on the shore. The landscape seemed to watch us. In a stammer, I urged our return to the house and steered the way back, prattling clumsily to dispel the bizarre incident, asking if she wanted me to clean anything, to carry or fix anything for her, but she didn’t answer. I had to almost push her up the ladder, because her limp arms wouldn’t grip the rungs.
I’d seen capricious behaviour before with Constance; I’d been told this was a natural consequence of ageing – so I soon made my excuses and said goodbye, leaving her glaring into empty space in the kitchen, with a fresh cup of tea. I sauntered home, picking blackberries on the way, kicking conkers, poking at fungi, gawking at starling murmurations, and eyeing spiders’ webs; doing the things that boys do.
The weather on the following day was atrocious, with gale force winds and excessive rainfall. On the day after that, I brought my father with me across the glen, back to her cottage. We discovered it empty, with a tree smashed through the roof. With increasing dread, we called her name but she didn’t answer; we searched with thoroughness but found no clue as to her whereabouts. We hurried down to the beach, through a veil of rolling sea mist, and along to the crevice in the rock, but it had vanished under a slump of debris and we could find no trace of it. Despite scouring the area many times, I’ve never found evidence of it again.
What happened to Constance remained a mystery – she slipped and fell into local legend. Years later, storms battered the coastline again, near to Witch’s Cliff, as it came to be known, and a landslide uncovered the entrance to another cave and, because human bones were found, I obsessed about the story with intense interest.
But the bones turned out to be very old, so archaeologists came to dig. They exhumed five medieval skeletons, thought to be travellers to or from the nearby monastery who might have sheltered in the cave, becoming trapped; but it was the revelation that they were all children which caused me to puzzle over Constance, and her tragic Brother Clement – invisible in photos and imprisoned in caves. And I’ve been pondering the echo of her words ever since.
Because over time, I’ve shouldered a burden of guilt about what happened; if only I’d known about seizures or strokes, I could have run for help – but I was a mousy boy who hardly spoke. And now as an adult, I’m still tongue-tied and withdrawn; I’m stony silent – and no help to anyone.
I return again and again to Witch’s Cliff, especially when that sharp scent of petrichor is on the wet earth. I feel compelled: urged to pursue the trail she left; unable to stop searching for signs, searching for clues in the unstable rock face – haunting the landscape like a lost wandering wraith. Once or twice, I’ve slept in the rubble of her cottage, listening to the skitterings of the darkness. I’ve woken at dawn blanketed in centipedes, my ear straining to identify her voice in faraway birdsong; then I’ve roamed back to the farm alone, through a dank mist.
But on one such night, a muggy one with a lucid full moon, I discovered something. I was ferreting through a jungle of tall ferns near the archaeological dig when I chanced upon a twisted fallen tree covered with lichens – it was blocking the entrance to an opening in the cliff. A myriad of gleaming eyes in the undergrowth bore witness as I crawled into the gap, through strangling tendrils of ivy and a sticky mask of cobweb.
The passage enlarged and I was able to stand. My head torch lit up a pathway of green mosses leading downhill. I became aware of a pervasive sweet musty fragrance on the air and my ear picked out a distant trickling of water. I edged further inside. Pale moths skimmed against my skin in the dim light.
After a while, I came across a rustic wooden ladder reaching down into a chasm in the stone, and peering in, I thought I saw faint lights flicker through the gloom. Without hesitation, I began to descend. As I did, the rock face around me glowed with an odd pearlescence which made my head swim. Pausing to rest, I wondered if the air might be bad, and if I should turn back – but I pressed onwards, and in that way, I sealed my fate.
I climbed again as if in a daze – the heat was suffocating. I think I may have blacked out and lost my footing because suddenly I was at the bottom of the ladder, prostrate and leaden. But when I stirred, it was to a familiar sound – my name was being called.
I found myself stumbling into a bright cave with a high high ceiling. The walls scintillated with flecks of gold, and quartz crystal geodes snared the light in facets of amethyst. Ammonites underfoot curled and uncurled where I trod, entombed in the pulsing stone floor. A kaleidoscope of dragonflies hovered by a turquoise spring which coiled from a cleft above, snaking over seams of agates in the rock, and chiming into a luminous glassy lagoon.
Hearing my name again, this time nearby, the timbre of her lost voice echoed in my memory. I shut my eyes and I made a wish. And through the thick shimmering air I felt her coming closer – coming back. From a crescent of shadow by the water’s edge, Constance shifted into the light. Younger now, revivified, her eyes a clear aquamarine, she stepped towards me like a mirage.
I saw her likeness refract through a prism of spilling tears. Relief sagged through me. My stale mouth lurched into speech, forming words I’d waited a lifetime to shape – they buckled and seethed inside, then spewed out of me like sharp gravel. ‘Unturn me from stone!’, I bellowed.
I saw the corners of her mouth curve upwards and for a third time she spoke my name, stressing its sibilance. ‘Earnest’, she said, fixing her gaze on me. ‘But why? It’s your nature. You’re a jewel, you’re a gem. You belong here in the earth – with us’.
It was then I noticed the other figures present – silvery outlines standing in the background, watching.
‘No’, I said, frantic to articulate, sputtering out words; ‘Stones are lifeless – and I want to be…alive’, I said. I took a snort of breath. ‘Turn me back!’ I said, ‘and let me g-go home’.
Her smile widened and lingered. Then it waned, ebbing away, and in the hush, I felt the visceral thumping of my blood.
‘You can’t return home’, she said, ‘because the ladder only comes downwards’.
I contemplated this, clenching and unclenching my fists. ‘Turn me b-back anyway’, I said.
She sighed a long limpid sigh. ‘Back to what?’ she said. ‘The little boy you were? He’s long gone’.
She began to walk away. ‘Turn me t-to anything then’, I said in desperation, ‘but just – turn me’.
A faint murmur arose amongst the nebulous audience and they jostled together.
‘Get into the water’, said Constance, pointing towards the wellspring. I steered through the space to the pool’s edge and, obeying, I waded in up to my waist, feeling no change in body temperature. The water was as flat as a mirror; it felt dense and viscous around my legs.
‘Reach down’, she said, ‘What can you feel?’ Outstretching my hands, I pawed clumps of sand up from the floor, full of shells, pearls, even gold coins; but grasping down again, my nails scraped against a slab of granite.
‘Turn it over’, she said. So I gripped and heaved but it just wouldn’t budge.
As I glanced up in askance, I saw her eyes flash. Without warning, as if on cue, the mass of blurry figures swarmed upon me. The last thing I remembered was a wisp of wind billowing over my face, and that sweet musty scent. When I came round, the water had drained away and I was looking down at an old gravestone lying flat on the wet ground.
The ornate carved lettering on it was too weathered to read. ‘Who’s is it?’ I asked.
‘Turn it over’, she repeated. I traced a furrow in the damp sand around the slab, stuck my fingers beneath and levered it up until it pivoted over with a thud. Revealed underneath was another cave entrance, with a short drop leading to a moving river.
‘It goes out to the cliffs’, she said in a soft tone. ‘Goodbye, dear brother Earnest. You can leave – and, in doing so, you will change’. She stepped nearer, I thought to embrace me but instead she gave me a push and I plunged down into the flow.
At first I expected to sink like a brick but the current held me in a caress through miles of secret caverns deep within the earth; I seemed to travel for aeons. Eventually I felt myself floating down waterfalls – I saw clusters of stars and deduced I was now out at sea. I gazed up at the silhouette of the coastal cliffs I’ve loved so much in this life and I wept.
And, as the heavenly bodies wheeled across the sky, I became amorphous and fluid; I became mutable and free. And what I discovered was that transformation can’t be sought out – in every case, it will always just happen, given enough time. Water wore away the brittle stone within me and rinsed me clean; and now every rippling wave in the ocean creates a metamorphosis inside my soul, a sea change; and I’m turned and unturned back again and again by the tide, and rocked gently into peaceful rest.
Aviva Treger was born in Hastings, UK. She studied History at UCL then later trained as an actor with Questors Theatre in Ealing. She’s a new writer, with three short stories published so far.
“Unturn This Stone” was published previously in Un-Turn This Stone: Short Stories for Children.