Rowan, by K.G. Orphanides

Rowan high res

Art by Dave Felton – http://psychiatryalbum.tumblr.com/ – click to enlarge

At the end of the terrace, three houses stood empty. Hardly unusual. The town is home to fewer people with every passing year. No one moves here. I mean, why would you?

The factories and the pit once meant jobs for everyone, mining and baking coal into smokeless fuel. Now we have clean air, but not much else. Old photographs show the town wreathed in smog from the coking. Even colour photos looked sepia-tinted up until 1988, when they closed the mine and the processing plant. That was before I was born, when my mother was still a girl. She showed me a photo of her with her ma and da, taken outside our small, terraced house. They’re both dead now, and mam’s been sick since before I turned ten.

A lot of people here got sick and died: lung disease, cancer, and a scattering of ailments less obviously linked to our old industry. Those that could, moved away, leaving their homes empty behind them. Some clever estate agent in Aber somehow managed to sell these three to an Australian who’d heard that property speculation was the way to make easy money. Maybe in some other part of the country, but not here, mate. The houses stood empty for years until the girl moved into number 178.

She rolled up one morning in a battered white rental van driven by another woman, who just sat there looking impatient while the girl unloaded dozens of identical square boxes and bits of cheap furniture. She’d barely finished getting everything out when the driver slammed the rear doors shut and drove off without a word. The girl looked like she was going to cry for a while there, flushing and holding her hands to her face, before she visibly pulled herself together and carried the last few boxes in through the narrow front door.

I was watching all this from across the street. I’m not usually one for curtain twitching, but the nurse was looking in on mam, so I just sat there staring out of the window. The girl was tall and oddly dressed. Everything she wore was black and very plain: black jeans, black t-shirt, black suit jacket. Around here, the only time you’ll see someone wearing a suit jacket is at a funeral. Framed by short black hair, her face looked incredibly pale, all hard angles and shadows.

The next time I saw her, she was trudging down to the shops, wrapped up in a big black coat. I was poking at my Nokia, waiting outside the post office for Bethan to meet me after she collected Dylan from playgroup. In an awkward conversation full of gaps and silences, I introduced myself and learned that the stranger girl was called Gwen.

“How’re you finding it here?” I didn’t want to come right out and ask what had possessed her to move to the valley in the first place.

“Fine, mostly.” She looked twitchy, like she wanted to run away. “Some kids knocked my bins over. Threw them down the alley next to the house.”

“They’ll get used to you. There’s not enough to keep them busy, and they don’t know what to make of strangers.” They weren’t likely to get used to her. They don’t like strangers. Most people here don’t. I suppose they think anyone new moving here cuts in to our valuable local resource of sweet fuck all.

Gwen seemed nice. Naïve, although she was obviously older than me. Between both of us showing off our complete lack of social skills, I somehow managed to ask her out for a drink. I offered to introduce her around.

“I’m not sure.” She smiled, though. “I’m not great with people.”

“Well, just us then. At the Colliers? Just go in the opposite direction to town, and it’s a couple of minutes’ walk. Half six?” I beamed encouragingly.

“Okay. See you then.” A long pause. “Thanks.” And without another word, she headed off down the road just as Bethan was walking up it with a wriggling Dylan in tow.

The Colliers Arms is what you’d call a classic old-man pub. Dan, the landlord, remembers when this was a working town, when the mine and the factory gave us all a purpose. The décor’s all brown fixtures and faded red upholstery, with grainy photos of groups of miners among the pinned-up rugby shirts. Dan does his best to keep the pub clean, but he can’t hide the way the carpet still has that lingering smell of cigarette smoke when it gets wet, or the dodgy state of the plumbing in the ladies’ loos.

It was a Monday night, and the Colliers was quiet–just a few regulars watching Sky Sports with the sound off. I bought us a couple of pints of Ddraig and we occupied a table in one corner of the pub. It was awkward at first, like talking to strangers always is, but once we’d got halfway down our pints with uncomfortable silences and sheepish grins, she started asking me about the town, the valley, and the people who lived here.

She seemed so sincerely interested, so desperate for someone to talk to, and so keen for everything to work out for the best I didn’t have the heart to tell her how shit it is here. How we’ve got no jobs, no prospects, and no way out. Instead, I dragged out stories I barely remembered from when I was a kid, about how brave and loyal everyone here was. About how the miners had stood up to Thatcher in the strikes, been heroes even before that, fighting for fair wages in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

I told her about our local heroes, such as they were, like Bryn Jones, the boxer who became a champion despite drinking like a fish and smoking sixty a day. I even told her some of the stories we heard in school–local legends and fairy tales. There used to be a book of them in the library before it closed, written by some old Oxford don who’d retired to Wales.

Only one story was specifically about this valley, supposedly an old folk tale that had made it into trade union pamphlets as an allegory about the beast of industry that lived in the very rocks of the place. At first, the beast’s path never crossed that of man, but as humanity’s reach stretched out to touch all the wild places, it awoke to their presence. The towns, farms, and industry were consuming not only the creatures on which it had fed, but were also reaching down into the earth and mountains that were its flesh and bones.

So the beast, as wise as it was deadly, decided to make the people of the valley its own. It pulled itself out from the roots of the mountains and coiled around the base of the great shafts that men sunk into the ground. And with its yellow, poison tongue, it licked at the tops of the factory towers that had sprung up by the shafts. And the beast took coal into its belly and breathed out across the town.

Town and mine filled with an acrid yellow fog that smelled like sulphur and poured out of all the caves and shafts. The town was shrouded in smog, thick enough to cut with a knife and harsh enough to burn the eyes and lips. All the people stayed indoors and trembled in fear. For six days, the town was wrapped in mist and terror. The seventh day was a Sunday, but the church bells hung silent. And then, as fast as it had come, the mist subsided. No official reason was ever given, but they say that a bargain was struck by the miners, who knew the ways of the earth and told stories far more ancient than those preached from the church at the centre of town.

They went down to the mine entrance, the story goes: men and women, children and old people. Together they entered the mine, the fog taking them into its embrace. Hours passed before their return. And return they did, but for a young woman, a clever miner’s daughter known for her skill in bargaining. As they left the mine, the fog rushed back into its depths leaving behind only clear valley air. But some of those who were watching say that, in its final wisps, they saw a figure of a woman walking back into the shaft.

“And as the years went by,” I wound up the story with my own flourish, “the valley saw great prosperity, although men died in the mines and factories to feed the beast of progress. In time, the yellow smog returned, this time belching from the chimneys of huge coke plants that gave us our livelihoods. But like the beast, they’re all gone now, never to return.”

“Hang on,” Gwen gestured with her pint. “How do you get mythic beasts and coal miners in the same story?”

“This is the Valleys. You get mythic beasts and miners in everything. The story’s only from the 1800s or so. And mining’s not exactly new technology, is it?”

“Sorry. City girl. I think everything was invented last week.” She grinned at me and drained her pint. “Want another? My round.”

I liked talking to her. I know it sounds funny, but it felt like I’d known her for years. She bought us another round, and I blew some of my food budget buying us one more before Dan rang time. The cider was strong and I was doing all the talking that I’d saved up while I’d been sitting in silence at home, waiting for the nurse or trying to make sure mam slept through. For her part, Gwen told me about the partner she’d broken up with, the parents she couldn’t move back to, and the money she didn’t have. This was supposed to be a new start for her, somehow. And, between our happy company and the strong cider, it looked like she might make a go of it after all.

The evening passed in the blink of an eye, and then we were tumbling out of the pub and into the cold. I walked her home, both of us giggling, our breath steaming in the air. At her door, while she rummaged for her keys, I kept one arm round her as we held each other up.

After that, it became a regular thing. I think I was her only friend here. I just liked having someone who’d talk to me about books instead of babies. So we started to hang out two, three times a week, almost always at the pub. Winter rolled on, bringing darker days and freezing drizzle. With mam being so sick, I couldn’t always get out, especially once it started getting really cold. So it was a week or so since I’d last seen Gwen when she came to my door. She was wrapped up against the wind and refused to come in when I asked her.

“Let’s go for a walk,” she said.

It was mid-December. The rowan trees along the river valley had all shed their leaves, leaving behind a skeletal mesh of branches, dormant until spring–ghosts among the green-clad conifers. Gwen waited outside, gusts flapping at her coat, while I got my gloves and pulled on a second jumper. The nurse had been, and mam was asleep, murmuring and wheezing gently.

There were a bunch of kids hanging around the alley opposite, laughing amongst themselves and occasionally pointing at Gwen. She’d toned down her clothes a bit since moving here, but she still had the all-black thing going on.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come in?” I said, closing the door behind me. “I hope those little shits haven’t been giving you grief again.”

“No.” She sounded oddly distant. “Nothing like that. It’s the parents that worry me, anyway.”

“They’re barely more than kids themselves.” And here’s me, all of nineteen. At twenty-eight, Gwen’s positively ancient by local standards. “Old enough that they should know better, mind. Shall we?”

“Can we go across the river? I want to show you something.” She asked, but she was already leading me down the steeply-stepped passage between her house and the next terrace. Wind funnelled up the passage and whipped newspaper and crisp packets around our feet like late autumn leaves.

The steps extended well past the backs of the houses and past the long, narrow gardens beyond. Foul-smelling black streaks showed where bins full of over-ripe rubbish had been tipped down the stairs. Gwen’s garden was on our right, the rickety, waist-high fence doing nothing to conceal overgrown shrubs and clumps of dead grass. On the left, sturdy wooden panels loomed above our heads, casting the stepped alley into partial shadow.

The sun was already going down, obscured by thick banks of grey and black clouds casting an almost purple semi-twilight across the valley. Below us, on the track beyond the river, one of the four daily trains pulled across towards the tunnel connecting us to the rest of the world.

“The rails are going to be clear until nine,” I said, “and we can cross the river on the stones, just down the right-hand fork”. We were past the bottom edge of the gardens now. The rows of tall, narrow houses looked down on us, some warmly lit against the dark even at this early hour, others staring out empty and blank-eyed. I could still hear the kids yelling at each other on the street, but there was no one back here where the sharp breeze from the east was enough to bring tears to your eyes.

The river was high and the stepping stones were almost completely submerged. The fast-running water was ice-cold and clear where it ran over a bed of pebbles. I stepped surely from one rock to the next. Gwen followed gingerly behind me. I took her hand to help her from the last rock to the far bank, where dark river mud sucked at my trainers and her boots. The treeline lay ahead of us, past the railway and up the valley’s steep southern side.

“There,” she said, pointing up the rise. “Do you see it?”

Night had fallen and my view was half obscured by trees, but I saw it all right. The only question was why I hadn’t seen it before we’d crossed the river. Through the trees, I could make out the black silhouettes of the cairn and its little sisters, a trio of slag heaps like burial mounds for the ancient god-kings of coal.

The mounds were silhouetted by a poisonous yellow light which seemed to seep, rather than glow, from behind them. And rising above the trees, I saw the jagged struts and half-ruined walls of factory towers that I knew were not, and could not, be there. I gaped, dumbstruck.

“You can’t see them from the other side of the valley,” Gwen said. “I started walking home on this side of the river to avoid the kids on the recreation ground. The buildings aren’t here during the day, either, I swear. But I got back late from the Jobcentre yesterday. It was dark by the time I reached the bridge up the way, and then I saw the factory rising up further down the river. It called to me.”

And the factory tower really did seem to be singing to us. Woven into that sound was the whine of high-tension cables in the wind, an electric hum, and the near-subsonic rumble of vast machines. Of any of these things, there was no sign. Even the thinnest branches of trees were motionless in the suddenly still air, and no eddies or zephyrs disturbed the faint tendrils of freezing fog that crept around the mounds and clung about the tree roots. I shivered and drew my jacket in closer.

“I want to take a look.” said Gwen, reaching for my arm. I pulled back.

“What? You have got to be crazy, woman. We should do no such thing!” But before I even got the words out, she’d set off up the slope towards the slag heaps and the structure beyond, her torch pointed at the ground ahead. I could only follow or leave. Of course, I followed her.

The path she picked through the trees seemed oddly smooth and free of roots. I would at times have sworn I was walking a paved surface, but when I looked at my feet, the dim light from Gwen’s torch and the sickly yellow glow from behind the mounds showed me only knots of undergrowth seeking to trip and tangle me. Look away, and once again the way was smooth.

I picked up my pace as Gwen began to move further away from me, but she soon pushed through the tree line and out of sight behind the huge dark mass of the heap of mining trash. In the absence of her torchlight I had only the oozing yellow illumination to guide me, for the sky was black and empty of moon and stars. Without her light the path grew tangled again, and I tripped and stumbled.

I rounded the cairn to see her running towards the centre of a great skeletal tower of girders and broken brick. The hum was louder here–a high-pitched screech that set my teeth on edge, and a thrumming vibration so deep that I felt it in my chest. Through the rips in the tower’s jagged brickwork leaked jaundiced light and a heavy mist.

By the time I’d clambered in through a ruined wall, it was already too late. Gwen was out of sight. In the murky yellow light I could see a great round shaft and a winding spiral stack of rusted metal stairs leading into the depths below. A burning, sulphurous stench rose from the shaft.  Mist caught at my feet and shrouded my vision, but I could hear rapid footsteps clattering down the stairs. I moved to follow, treading carefully in the dark, but as I got my foot onto the first step, the entire structure emitted a hideous groan of warping, twisting metal. Far below me, the yellow glow pulsed once. The footsteps ceased, then began again, faster still. I jumped back, away from that cavernous void. I stood there for a while, calling her name and begging her to come back until long after her footsteps had faded. I couldn’t bring myself to go down. Not for her. Not for anyone.

I don’t remember exactly how I got home, but I vaguely recall a maze of forest and mining waste that seemed unwilling to release me. It was dawn by the time I let myself into my own front door. By long habit, I closed it with quiet care to spare my mother the pain of being woken. And then I slid to the floor, holding myself as I began to shake uncontrollably.

When the tears had subsided, I called the police to report what had happened. They took notes and asked me to show them the way to the shaft. I couldn’t find my way back. We got as far as the path that shadowed the river on the far side of the valley, but I couldn’t so much as find a way through to the slag heaps, let alone the ruined factory and the yawning chasm that had devoured Gwen without a trace. The police officers, brought up from Aber, started giving each other looks and asked me questions about whether we’d been drinking, whether we used drugs. In the end, they dropped me home in stony silence.

I didn’t sleep well that night, plagued by fleeting dreams of tangled forests and narrow tunnels underground. I started awake at the slightest creak of the house or tap of branches brushing my window. Three times I was woken by my mam, screaming in her sleep. I held her as her screams turned to gasps and then a rattling, sobbing cough. The third time, I changed the sheets and cleaned her. It was five in the morning, with hours to go before dawn, but I saw little point in any further attempt at sleep.

Even through my thick dressing gown, the kitchen was freezing. The back door faced out, up the hill, but it was too dark to make out the treeline or the plateaus above. When I stared through the door glass, I saw only my own reflection. I could see my mother’s face in it, tired and worn out, with sunken eyes and flushed areas on my cheeks and around my nose. I caught my own eye and, for a moment, it felt as though I was looking into someone else’s face entirely. In the reflection in plain glass, my eyes seemed huge and inhuman, irises and pupils merging into a single dark circle that, as I watched, grew huge, as if seeking to swallow up the whites that surrounded them. I pulled away, blinking, and turned to fill the kettle.

Strong tea, milk, sugar, leave the bag in. I deliberately turned my back on the door, but that just left me feeling as though someone was looking over my shoulder. I took my cup back up to my room and stared out of my window as the sky slowly lightened, throwing the hills that rose behind the house into sharp contrast.

Our row is nearly at the end of the town. Just a single long road packed with terraced houses and not enough shops, reaching out in the direction of the next town. On Gwen’s side of the road, a sharp descent to the valley floor. On mine, the hills, the occasional bare outcroppings where kids dumped stolen cars, and a forest of rowan and yew that seems to draw closer to the houses with every passing year.

It wasn’t yet dawn when I went back down to the kitchen, but the sky was light and I could no longer see myself in the door glass. I unlatched the door, made another cup of tea, and sat down at the kitchen table to wait. It was still cold, but I’d got dressed in the intervening hours with thermal tights under my jeans and a thick hoody. My puffer jacket hung on a hook by the door.

Outside, the wind rattled through the trees, across the concrete patio in our garden, and battered against and under the door. Back in the mining days they’d have welcomed a wind like this. Something fresh to blow the smog right out of the town. I kept waiting. The wind hushed and, in time, died away to nothing. The sun rose, somewhere behind a thick bank of cloud and mist, giving birth to a murky dawn. Yellow mist hung heavy among the trees.

I left through the back door, locking it behind me and leaving the key under the doormat. The nurse had a copy of the front door key, of course, so mam would be seen to regardless of whether I returned or not. I briefly considered going into town, catching the 8a.m. train to Cardiff and never, ever coming back.

Instead, I walked through the garden that had once been my mother’s pride and joy, and her mother’s before her. Looking at our old photos, all sepiated monochrome and faded Kodak colour, I knew the garden was lush once. No matter how bad the smog got, the roses kept blooming, all the way from spring through to late autumn, with winter roses at Christmas.

Mam had done her best, but she’d never managed to match gran’s garden. I’ve had even less luck. Back when mam could still walk and came to sit outside on fine days, I tried. I really did. But the roses seemed to wither under my care, or pushed out scores of tendrils that spanned the garden in search of nourishment, but never bloomed. The old rose bushes were still there, wreathed and swamped by wild brambles, their dead winter branches reaching out to trip me and catch at my clothes. I pushed through a particularly thick clump that stood guard at either side of our rickety garden gate, and out onto the narrow path that ran behind the houses on this side of the road.

Muddy ground embedded with crisp packets and beer cans sucked at my feet. It smelled of rotten food, piss, and rich, damp earth, but overpowering all of that was a sharp, rotten smell of tar and ancient eggs. A fence kept the forest at bay here, but it was in a terrible state, more a climbing frame for brambles than anything else. Four houses down the way some enterprising kids had cut a hole through, and from there I squeezed into the woods.

The forest looks big and cohesive from my kitchen window, but it’s really made up of scabby clumps of trees. All the same, the early morning mist and odd yellow light made it difficult to pick my way through tree roots, dumped fence panels, and the shattered carcasses of wheelie bins. I kept pushing on in the direction of the upland fields.

The trees peter out where the hill gets steeper, and you start to pass tumbled old stone walls that must have been keeping sheep in their rightful place a good hundred and fifty years ago. My thighs were burning as I topped the first rise. Almost above the fog line, I could see the faint outline of the sun shining through the mist. My hands looked jaundiced in its light, and so did the winding dirt path that lead up what at first looked like a sheer cliff. The foul-smelling air burned in my lungs as I puffed and panted up the slope.

The path flattened out to lead me, gasping, up onto the plateau where the burned-out shells of cars bore witness to the ingenuity of joyriders, although I could see no way by which they could have reached this lonely place. Thin tendrils of mist still oozed and clung about my feet, but the air around me was cleaner. I could see solid grey clouds and the haloed outline of the sun in the sky above.

At the plateau’s widest point, I found a wide ring of bare brown earth and a charred, burnt smell. The most likely cause of the smell was immediately apparent: eight ruined cars, overturned and set alight, standing in a ring–obelisks of rusting metal and melted plastic. Trees surrounded the circle, but at this time of year it was possible to look right through their bare branches and across the valley: houses, railway, slag heaps and all.

Or rather, it would have been possible if I’d been able to see through the fog that shrouded the town, river, and rails. I could still see the tops of some of the three storey buildings and the transmitter mast near the train station, but our road was completely obscured and, even from this height, you couldn’t see to the next valley. It was as if we were walled off from the world by the sickly yellow mist. On the hillside opposite, I saw, or perhaps imagined, darker, denser patches of fog where I knew the slag heaps lay.

I sat on the bare earth in the centre of the circle of torched cars and waited, staring at the fog from above. The sun remained obscured by thick clouds; the day was cold, something I was painfully aware of through even my thickest clothes, but the air was very, very still. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the fog rose up around me, wisps and eddies reaching out to brush my skin with almost tangible force, leaving a faint, oily trail behind them where the smog had touched me. The acrid, rotten smell rose with the mist, turning my stomach. I held my bile, swallowed, and took a deep breath.

I felt it enter me, filling and warming me like the embrace of an old friend or long-forgotten lover. It felt like pouring liquid resin into my lungs, but I held the breath and let it spread through me. Geometric shapes and colour pulsed behind my eyelids before shifting into a series of…not images; images would be entirely the wrong word. In my mind, I felt the shape of the valley, not as it was now but as it had been fifty, a hundred, a thousand years ago. Longer. I felt the land change in response to the work of human hands that toiled at my side to bring forth the bones of the earth, to break and re-form them. I felt the thrum of life as I entered every part of the plants, animals, and people that lived here, becoming one with them.

And I felt betrayal when the animals that called themselves human set aside their tools, filled in their mines and covered over their coke refineries, leaving only a few scattered heaps of unprocessed slag for me to remain in, like a rat scurrying around the ruins of a once-magnificent palace. Much of what I was blew away in the freshening breeze, and my only connection to my people were the deepest traces that I had left inside them. But they rarely lasted long, the ones I had loved and blessed, the ones that I had shared myself with. They wore away from the inside, fighting my best efforts to care for them in the face of their unkind attempts to expel me from the safe, warm moisture of their innermost organs.

All too soon, one generation had given way to the next; a young kind of human that had never seen the valley when it was mine, never worked together with me to fill the air with my essence, never truly lived and breathed my gift. It had taken years to conjure this fog, and finally a sacrifice. It was built of fragments and memories, living parts of myself hidden within the remains of the coke works and the lungs of miners’ children.

As quickly as it had come, the hallucination faded, and the fog that wrapped me receded with it. It oozed down the hillside to the heart of the valley, although faint traces of yellow still tinged the cold mist that hung about the river and forest on its far side. My skin and clothes were clammy, foul-smelling, and smeared with a fine grey-black grit. I folded my arms about myself and held tight until the shuddering died away, now fully aware of what we had awoken. With the factories closed, I have no idea of how we will ever keep it fed.

kgK.G Orphanides is a writer and journalist who’s recently fled civilization to become one with the dark places of the earth. Previous publication credits include fiction in Cthulhu Sex magazine and the Lovecraft eZine, as well as technology, music, and science features for numerous magazines and websites far too respectable to associate with this story. You can find more of K.G.’s work at www.wyrdsmith.co.uk

If you enjoyed this story, let K.G. know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Dave Felton.

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5 responses to “Rowan, by K.G. Orphanides

  1. Hwyl fawr, as they say in Cymraeg (which I have no fluent command of, unlike Scottish Gaelic which I teach), “good craic”! – you have not only made Lovecraft proud (wonder where he is in the Dreamlands just now), but likewise the grand old Welsh master of Weird Fiction, Mr Arthur Llewellyn Jones, aka A. Machen…

    • Thank you for the kind the words! And my always-vestigial Welsh is decidedly rusty, so I’m in absolutely no position to judge! Both Machen’s work and some time living in the valleys made an enduring impact on me.

      • Nice work, KG. I have to say you write very convincingly of of the Valleys (this from someone who grew up in Mountain Ash). Not at all suprised to hear that that you’ve lived there (what part, out of interest?). A brilliant atmospheric tale – it really ought to be filmed.

      • Thanks very much, Frubgarde.
        And coincidentally enough, I think it’s the time I spent living in Abercynon that informed the story the most.

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