Geoffrey Heptonstall's fiction has been published or performed by A Word in Your Ear, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, Coastword Festival, Cerise Press, Every Writers’ Resource, Gold Dust, Liars’ League, Litro, Open Wide, Punch, Sunk Island Review, UNESCO City of Literature [Norwich], Vintage Script, White Rabbit, and Writers’ Hub. Regular reviewer for The London Magazine. Essays in Cerise Press, TLS etc. Poetry in many magazines, most recently The American Aesthetic, Envoi and Meniscus. Plays for Duck Down Theatre, Lampeter Writing Centre and Stand Up Tragedy.
The following work is copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
The Road to Jericho
Thunder is when the gods are angry. Rain is when the angels weep.
She cut for him a generous slice of quince. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, I said. ‘Peter Quince,’ I explained. They did not like that. They wished for us grandchildren to be bright without being too clever. They wanted it both ways.
It was past midsummer now, approaching harvest time. The fields of wheat reached out, not to the horizon but to the neighbouring farm, a doll’s house of a place in the midst of the prairie. It was a storybook farmhouse of pink and ultramarine stone.
One time, years later, I walked there and saw it was deserted, falling into dereliction. Later, quite soon afterward, came the developers. They preserved the farmhouse, restored for domestic use, and surrounded it with houses. One of the streets they named after my grandfather. It was his memorial, although his true memorial is the memory I am sharing now of the fields as they were when he was alive.
On the horizon itself was yet another farm, gleaming white like a bride’s adornments. The theme of this image is innocence. I am remembering, in my mind’s eye gazing out at the edge of the known world.
There was the pathetic cry of a mule, so lonely a creature, bred for its strength in toil. It never could know love. There was something unworldly about a mule. It was not meant to be. It was half out of nature, half in the mythical realm I knew to be out there.
It was the things almost heard, almost seen that were more real than the actual There and Then of a taciturn reality. No-one spoke to a child except another child. To the world beyond us it might seem we were invisible. That is how I can see it all so well as it was. I am there, as unseen now as I was then.
I am walking along the road to Jericho. It is a cinder track across some common land where a pretty girl my age is tending to an old workhouse tethered to the ground, living out his final years in retirement. I speak to the girl because I like the cadences of her voice. I can hear her talking.
The Jericho road is where I pictured Jesus walking in the Bible story we heard at school. The story of Ruth amid the alien corn I could easily picture also in the fields at harvesting.
This life was not only about harvesting. It was also about hunting. The hunting of hares demands a steady hand to aim and fire at the leaping course of terrified quarry whose death will be mourned away from human eyes. A death accepted in common understanding. What happens is thought natural- a mass of fur and blood on a country kitchen table without a word of ceremony. The body is waiting to be skinned and severed while wood spits in the stove, impatient for the roasting.
I was at a friend’s house when his father came in, shotgun in one hand, hare in another. It was a life taken because everything eats everything else. That is nature. That is how things are. In life we are encompassed by the natural limits to life. Nothing lives forever.
A boy, mistaken for a hare or a game bird, was shot one summer in the fields of golden grain. But that was another summer. The boy crouched down, playing with a friend. All the farmer saw was movement before he took aim with his rifle. His sister cried inconsolably the first day of school in September. Now she must think, ‘I had a brother who died.’ She must think that often. It isn’t something to be forgotten.
I am walking where a cargo boat capsized some time ago, an age ago. I come across floodwater at a confluence of rivers. There is darkness in the air. I see on the water the shadow of flight. Feathers lying in the undergrowth. These are the signs of escape for the game bird at the sound of the guns carefully raised at the sight of aimless, flustered wings. Rarely dare they evade the sacrifice of self by fear.
And after the shooting a silence….
Somewhere a bell sounds the hour in measured resonance as solemn as bad news. The heavy tread on the steps leading down to a dark place. Leaves in the churchyard are disturbed by the wind, for it is no longer summer now that the night approaches ever closer. We tried to read the patterns of the stars, but there seemed only a random display without any meaning beyond the wild supposition of the plough, the bear and whatever else was said to be displayed in the heavens. What intrigued me was the sight of the moon in bright daylight. Even today it seems strange, like the thought of perpetual sunlight or of perpetual darkness.
A barn owl rests in the hollow of a tree, indifferent to our peering eyes. Owls are associated with wisdom, but the owls I have known have seemed weird. They are linked in my mind with full moons, ancient ruins and the sound of water in the subterranean river over which we walked daily.
Yes, you could hear it at certain times. You really could. Because living is so like a river. It changes course. There’s an ebb and there’s a flow. And much of it is rumoured rather than seen.
I am walking across the causeway. Before that – before I was born – there was only one way, a long way round. Now it’s easier. A riderless horse passes at full gallop. It is saddled, but there is no sign of a rider. What happened, I wonder, to cause it to bolt? A rifle shot perhaps? But the boy is dead by this time. Another rifle shot? Something has startled a fine chestnut mare. I imagine a girl – I think it will be a girl – alarmed at the sight of the retreating horse. She may be injured, thrown to the ground.
A girl at school told the class about a nest of mice that harvester pulverized. That was her word, said with a relish. Pulverized. She lived on the farm closest to the school. But as a class we walked to another farm, a little further away, to see the sheep being sheared. The locks of grey wool fell in bundles to the floor. And the sheared sheep looked so strange. They were naked and humiliated. The lesson was that animals do not live peaceful lives.
In the library was an unearthly silence. The threat of retribution seemed to be kept in a cage, like a tiger. The bearded librarian constantly threatened to release the tiger from the cage beneath his desk. We could hear the faint growl. He could see his tiger. We could not, although we knew it was there. The tiger was always eager to devour not only the noise but those who made that noise.
Children make a noise, often in imitation of sounds heard. The bearded librarian did not seem to know that silence was unnatural. In life there is sound always and everywhere. Horses, bells, sheep, children. There was a sepulchral air about the library, as if books needed to revered rather than read. They were sacred objects not to be defiled by human fingers, especially young ones.
Violation of the sacred principles makes the gods angry. The night of the storm was a time of war in the skies. Veteran soldiers recalled their terror in the dread of battle. We played games as warriors and spies, but the real thing was happening above our heads in the dark of night. And in the dark was lightning flash, the sudden strike of angry revenge on the world.
There was a crazy woman who forever afterward spoke of her fear of the bombs. She relived a perpetual blitz, warning us solemnly to take care on our way home from school. There was likely to be another raid that night. She would burst into tears were anyone to deny this, telling her it was a time of peace. People said such foolish and cruel things to her. There was such wickedness in the world.
The old man in the organ loft was being held prisoner. Or so I thought. I wondered why the church authorities were holding him. There need not have been a reason. These things happen. Below a row of old buildings were disused cellars, dark and dusty, with iron bars to give a little and light. You could see them beneath the shops. ‘Dungeons!’ some boys said excitedly, imagining ragged prisoners in chains. I knew that was not the case because I was older by this time. A year or two before who knows what I might have believed?
I did not believe, although I hoped, that my godparents were going to return. They had moved far away. We had gone to see them. They had come to us. But I look at the house and wonder when they are going to return. Not for a while. Memories of such kind of course are always in sunlight.
And when the rain came down it was like shattered glass. The sky had broken and it was collapsing onto the earth. This was the end of the world. This was how it was sure to end. An apple core thrown carelessly by a child had grown into a tree. The girl had grown into an aunt. She had left as her legacy an apple tree that could withstand the storm.
And if that were possible anything was possible. Perhaps. Not everything was possible on the road to Jericho, but a few things had happened to travellers on the cinder track and the fields that once surrounded it.