Read Sandlands Online

Authors: Rosy Thornton

Sandlands

 

 

 

 

Rosy Thornton
is a Fellow and Tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and a lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge, with specialisms in housing law, charitable trusts and feminist legal studies. She has published five novels, including
Ninepins
(Sandstone Press, 2012) and this is her first short story collection. She divides her time between Cambridge and the Suffolk sandlings.

 

 

 

 

By the same author

More than Love Letters

Hearts and
Minds

Crossed Wires

The Tapestry of Love

Ninepins

First published in Great Britain

Sandstone Press Ltd

Dochcarty Road

Dingwall

Ross-shire

IV15 9UG

Scotland.

 

www.sandstonepress.com

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

Copyright (c) Rosy Thornton 2016

 

The right of Rosy Thornton to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

 

The publisher acknowledges support from Creative Scotland towards publication of this volume.

 

 

ISBN: 978-1-910985-04-5

ISBNe: 978-1-910985-05-2

 

Cover design by Antigone Konstantinidou, London.

Ebook by Iolaire Typesetting, Newtonmore.

 

 

 

 

In fondest memory of John Thornton (1935–2014), who loved the
Suffolk countryside.

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

Four people read these stories in draft and encouraged me with the project: Victoria Best, Julia Chellel, Robert Dudley and of course Mike Gross. Louise Fryer ran her usual eagle eye over the text. My editor, Moira Forsyth, believed in me and gave me the benefit of her patience, precision and insight. I trust they all know how very grateful I am.

Contents

Title Page

 

The White Doe

High House

Ringing Night

The Watcher of Souls

Mad Maudlin

Nightingale's Return

The Level Crossing

All the Flowers Gone

Whispers

A Curiosity of Warnings

The Interregnum

Stone the Crows

Silver Studded Blues

The Witch Bottle

Curlew Call

Mackerel

The White Doe

The first visitation occurred in January, very early one morning.

They came from the Seven-acre, which still bristled with the ruined stalks of last year's barley, up the grass bank and through the patch of scrubby fruit trees that Fran's mother had referred to as ‘the orchard', before joining the track beyond the cottage and heading out to cross the road and regain the woods. In summer, the deer rarely ventured out beyond the cover of the woodland, sticking to the secret, shady places to raise their dappled young. But in the winter months, hard ground and sparse fodder forced them out into wider orbits, crossing field and farmland along well-trodden pathways – the same old ways followed, no doubt, by their mothers and grandmothers.

At the top of the bank, each animal in turn crested the ridge with an identical movement, half lurch and half leap, head lowered and withers high. Five of them, six, eight, dark shapes on a pale canvas, and then there she was towards the back, not much more than a gap in the line, a movement, a reflection. There was a low mist, and in the bleached half-light of the winter predawn she was almost invisible, white upon white. Fran's angle of vision also had a strange foreshortening effect, from where she leant with thighs hugged to the radiator at her bedroom window while she psyched herself to move and head along the ice-cold landing. Through the steamed-up glass the doe, that first time, appeared insubstantial, even ethereal. For a full minute after the deer had gone Fran stood stock-still and almost unbreathing, before a shifting behind her from the bed told her Mark was awake.

His eyes were screwed up, swollen with sleep. ‘What is it? You look like you've seen a ghost.'

 

There was no wonder they were the stuff of mythology, she said to him later, over supper. The aberrant and anomalous, endowed by uncomprehending humans with magical meaning.

‘Isn't there one in the
Morte d'Arthur
?' He broke off more bread, refilled his own wine glass, then hers. ‘I remember it vaguely from school. Gawain gets sent off to hunt for it or something. One of those quests they were always having.'

‘Yes, but that was a stag, I think. The white hart – like the pubs. A hart is a male deer, isn't it? Mine was a doe.'

His attention, however, had shifted to more empirical ground. ‘We should look it up. See how uncommon it is. I wonder if it's an albinism thing, or some other genetic quirk. Probably a recessive gene...'

 

Fran's mother would have shared her curiosity. Ever the hoarder of washhouse tales, both earthly and supernatural, she was also the self-appointed chronicler of family folklore. Birthing stories were her favourite – a grisly pleasure quite at odds with her otherwise mild, fastidious nature. There was Fran's cousin Tom, who, born in the days before rhesus immunoglobulin treatment, had to be snatched from his waiting mother's arms and, according to the established account, his infant blood drained out and replaced in its entirety. But for this, Aunt Pamela's antibodies would have cannibalised her child.

Then there was Fran herself, a breech presentation whose head stayed stubbornly lodged. When with the aid of forceps she finally emerged, the doctor and midwife could not suppress the recoil of horror at the monster they had delivered – a monster with a second head. What they saw, of course, was no such thing, but a ball of superfluous cartilage and soft tissue attached by a strand of skin: a simple birth defect, removed with a snip to leave only a tiny nubbin close to her left ear.

‘I wanted to call her Miranda,' her mother would relate to anyone who'd listen. ‘My own little marvel. And the doctor said, for a moment back there we thought that Hecate might be nearer the mark.' Then her grin would soften to a reminiscent smile. ‘It was her dad who insisted on Frances.'

There was no chance of a similar shock with the birth of her own daughter twenty-eight years later. By the time of Fran's confinement, obstetric ultrasound ensured that the image of her incipient daughter had been imprinted on her heart from twelve weeks' gestation. In any case, there was no story to be told there: just the routine misery of twenty-four hours' grinding contractions followed in the end by the caesarean she had opted against a lifetime earlier, so that when Mark leaned to lay Libby on her breast – her heart-blood, her life's consuming joy – she was almost too exhausted to greet her.

 

The appearance of the white deer, Fran discovered, was sometimes a divine manifestation. In eighth-century Ardennes, Saint Hubert rode out to hunt on the morning of Good Friday when he should have been at prayer, only to encounter an admonitory apparition – the Holy Spirit in cervine form, which warned him back to the path of piety. But it was a white stag in that story, too. The haloed creatures portrayed on the Internet seemed all to be crowned with majestic antlers.

For the Lenape people along the banks of the Delaware River the Great White Deer was a spirit to be venerated, even though this lesson was one destined to be learned over and over by the young men. I'll be the one, would brag the youths of each successive generation, I'll be the one to slay the Great White Deer and carry home his pelt. It was the women of the Lenape who understood the truth: that the creature was their talisman and never to be harmed. Mothers would follow their sons out on the hunt, and wives their husbands, and when they saw the White Deer would seize their arrows from them, and stay their hands upon the bow. Alway
s his
pelt, though. The Great White Deer was a buck.

Fran found only one tale in which the animal was female, and it was this one that particularly haunted her. Its source was an old French folk song, the lament of the
blanche biche
: the white hind, or doe. She recalled having heard it many years earlier at university, on a cassette tape belonging to an exchange student over from the Sorbonne. The ballad tells of a young nobleman by the name Renaud, who nightly hunts for deer for the table with his dogs. His sister, the fair Marguerite, dares tell no one that she is under an enchantment, compelled by night to roam the forest in the form of a white doe. Going to her mother, she implores her to tell Renaud that he must not shoot the white doe. In spite of this, the brother and his huntsmen are drawn to the mysterious creature, and at the third blast of Renaud's copper horn, she is brought down. While in the kitchens the white doe is quartered for the spit, the cook marvelling at the fairness of her skin, the company are all seated at breakfast but for gentle, blonde Marguerite, who is nowhere to be found. As the search party reassembles, empty-handed, a voice is heard to echo from the castle walls.
My head is
on the serving dish, but my heart is cleft in
two, my blood smears the kitchen and my bones lie
charring on the black coals.

 

There were more sightings after the first. Several times she glimpsed the herd in the woods, away to the left of the path. Twice they moved almost in step with Fran but along a parallel ride, separated from her by a band of silver birches; on another morning they had gathered to graze in a small open area, cleared in the autumn by volunteer coppicers. Always it was the white doe that was visible before her sisters, whose coats bore the same muted grey-brown hues as the winter woodland.

February brought an iron freeze that silenced nature's soundtrack and drew all evidence of life to a standstill. The mercury sank below zero and stuck there, night and day, for the best part of a fortnight. It was too cold for snow. At the forest margins, the leaves stood crisp and edged in white, like bereavement cards in negative; deeper in, the frost was colourless but its grip no less complete. The sand of the path was set to a crust which hardly yielded under the weight of Fran's boots, the patterns of past patterings and scurryings preserved there in a strange suspended animation. Of the deer there was no sign.

When, with the thaw, they made their reappearance it was quite sudden and at unexpectedly close quarters, as Fran was walking early on the road to the village. First one then another, they erupted from a field entrance barely five yards in front of her, their hooves striking an alarming clatter from the metalled surface; she stopped where she stood and waited for the whole string to follow, nine of them in all, then watched as they crossed the road at an angle away from her before shouldering through a gap in the hedge at the other side. It was curious how ungainly they appeared at this unaccustomed proximity; no longer the graceful spectres of the forest glade, they seemed clumsy, earthbound, heavily bovine. And the white doe was no pale ghost but specked and spattered with mud, the fur of her belly matted and yellowing.

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