Created | Updated Oct 28, 2012
If this one makes you shiver, pull up to the fire. Mind the ghosts.
Jim shivers. The darkness is thickening under the trees behind him and the October night is growing cold. It is time to go home. But he finds it difficult to turn away from one of Susie's favourite places. Before she was ill they often walked here, to the flanks of Wolstonbury Hill, and sometimes continued to the summit. In the moonlight, he can see the dark bulk of the hill, rising to an ancient fort.
Susie loved to come here to look for wild flowers: cowslips in May, orchids in July. At this time of year, there are no flowers, only clumps of mushrooms among the tree roots, and trailing stems of old man’s beard. He and Susie sometimes stayed until dark, waiting for owls and badgers. There are badgers here, deep in their holts, but he didn't see any this evening. No owls either. Only clouds, which pass across the sky, sometimes veiling the moon and stars, only to reveal them later. It’s Halloween, but the date means little to Jim.
The date that matters is May 20th – the day Susie died. At her funeral, the vicar talked of her long fight against cancer but, after the tumour spread, she faded. Jim placed her chair close to the window, so she could watch blue tits pecking at the hanging fat. That was her last pleasure. Now she has gone and the hole in his life is threatening to swallow him.
Jim turns to go home and stops. There is something strange about the darkness under the trees. It is twisting and gathering, taking shape, becoming human. The shadows coalesce into a man crowned with a set of antlers. He is joined by other men, with white-smeared faces, carrying spears and axes. There are women in long skirts, with children at their sides. Jim watches with wonder, but without fear, as the people seem spirits of the earth. They flow towards the hill, and Jim feels drawn to follow them. As they climb, the wind snakes through the grass with a whisper. Jim realises that his ghostly companions are singing, in a language he doesn't understand, but which feels somehow familiar.
They approach the summit of the hill, where a dyke marks the edge of the fort. The grass melts away, revealing a bank of earth, topped with a palisade of sharpened posts. Men with spears guard the gateway, but pay no attention as Jim wanders through. A crowd of people is gathering, throwing bundles of bracken and sticks into two bonfires. A ring of huts is visible at the edge of the firelit circle.
The man wearing antlers stands in the centre of the clearing and raises his hands. Men with wooden drums surround the space and hammer out a rhythm. The leader begins a whirling dance, which leads towards one of the bonfires. The men with whitened faces follow, circling the fire, faster and faster. The drumming blends with shooting sparks and the scent of wood smoke, creating a trance like mood. Jim joins the dance along with everyone else.
After many loops, the leaders peel off and dance in the space between the two fires. The sky fills with smoke, which eddies and swirls into shapes. At a cry from the leader, the dancers stop, but the drumming continues, faster than ever. The shapes in the air begin to resemble faces, dissolving and changing until the smoke is thick with them. Jim peers at the features of long-dead members of the tribe, in the hope of glimpsing someone he knows. At last, he finds his father, with firelight reflected on his glasses, and his mother, her hair neatly permed. The wind gusts, the shapes move and Jim sees Susie, as he remembers her before her final illness – eyes bright with intelligent interest.
Even as the vision fades, Jim is aware of a sense of peace. He sees his own life as a thread, woven into an intricate pattern, in which seeds germinate in burnt earth, mountains rise from the sea bed and elements from the birth of stars form part of the human body. He feels sure that the dead never quite leave but become part of the earth, along with flowers, birds and sunshine.