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My Mother Believes in Giants

J

ust after dawn, on the first day of March, Gerry brings us a stone on the back of his tractor. It’s been scored white in three parallel scrapes by steel prongs – where his spring ploughing struck it and dragged it from the awakening earth – but otherwise it’s a huge lump of blood-red sandstone that my mother greatly favours.

It’s the stuff of giants, she says.

Mother hurries to throw open the great doors on our converted coaching house, white and empty for tourists, so that Gerry can get the tractor and cargo into her workshop. She tells him to mind her ‘exhibits’: the row upon row of sword hilts, helms, cups and flails, in the same red stone. They are huge in scale, lined up on the slate floor, each as tall as a man or even larger; each chiselled new and red into similarly massive fragments, though carved to be curiously aged or broken as my mother’s whimsy overtook her.

There is the beeping of the tractor reversing, and the hollow bang and scrape of the hydraulic bucket dropping its load. My mother is ecstatic, still in her dressing gown, running and hopping around this new stone, from corner to corner, brushing, tapping, a hand resting here or there, sighting along her thin fingers, as if already cutting to the heart of it.

When Gerry steps down from the plate, engine idling, my mother flings her arms around his neck and kisses him soundly and wetly on the cheek.

“Oh, Gerry, it’s wonderful. Wonderful!”

He stares at her bare feet, taps his cap, and says “Well then, Mrs… good luck.” Then to me a nod of good day, and “Alios.” There is a burst of diesel smoke and the tractor lurches its way back down the track, retreating politely but swiftly, rattling chains and kicking up mud as it goes.

“I can see it,” she says. “The crown. It’s here, Alios, it’s finally here,” and my mother dances around and around with both my hand in hers, smiling widely, feet scuffing across the slate, while I clump round in my wellies, revolving, somewhat miserably, on the spot.

The legends of the crown – of crowns – is as old as the hills around here, and it’s not something to be found in a boulder. Arthur’s Crown, or the Crown of Alba, or even the Crown of Thorns, they say, lost in a mound, in a pool, in a tree. Somewhere out on the landscape.

Older, still, my mother says – they remember something far older – to the shifting ice across the continents, the one continent, and the giants roaming tall as houses, waging war from their glaciers, irrevocably changing the landscape; great in their capacity to carve and erode the stone. As hard and uncaring, as they were industrious and magnificent.

But no one believes in giants now.

“Can’t you see, Alios? The circle on Blaeberry Hill is theirs.”

(I have seen only a rude stone circle encroached on by brambles, though the stones are vast.)

“The scarp is covered in their creations: their tables, and chairs, and tools and larger things – temples, or living quarters; perhaps other things locked in the landscape, yet to be freed.”

(And while the hill behind her workshop is amazing, covered with the fantastical works of hard and soft stone, carved by the slow drip of nature, it’s still something for the tourists, who come to photograph the unlikely stacks of boulder-upon-boulder, or undulating nodules of sandstone hanging out over the tall cliffs; or leave their children to clamber through the eroded crawls. Eroded by wind and rain, not giants, Mother!)

Sweating, we have winched the stone into place upon a stout wooden table, spinning an endless loop of chain in low gear. My mother already holds a mason’s mallet, and a long spike of tungsten-carbide-tipped steel. I am here, but not really here, because she’s already addressing the stone; Pre-Raphaelite hands bringing forth tools in benediction.

“You have never understood what sculpture can be, Alios. I so wish you could. Is there only imagination, like you think? Or is there something already there? Waiting to be released; pared away from fragments?” And then whispered, lips brushing the stone, eyes staring into a sandy glass box, “I see you. I see you, and you are magnificent.”

I see, as I’ve always seen, a boulder, and a week or two of mania and microwave meals, along with bad hair, body odour and tantrums. If you knew my mother, you’d know she often talks this way, in her artistic moods, and so I leave her to the workshop.

In the days that follow, I have myself some peaceful walks amongst the trees and stones; wander the brook and its muddy mat of winter-rotted leaves, and take a camera and photograph the stones, while the weather is chilled, the sky is crushingly blue, and the tourists have yet to appear by the bus-load. A man is walking his dog one day; I see a field mouse in the snarly grass, another, but that is it.

When the crown is done, it is the size of a cartwheel and weighs around one and a half tonnes. Unusually for my mother, it is whole and perfect, and even I am impressed by the luck she has had with the stones that seem to adorn it as jewels – dull, brown pebbles in some old ocean sediment, now exposed as riches on the circlet. It is a simple gathering of spires and angled tines, carved to a meaty red, while blocks of chisel marks, first one way and then the next, have pared it back, to where it sits on a presentational plinth of the original stone. She holds out her hands in a sort of ‘Ta-da, what do you think?’ grinning at her creation, and then at me, shaking with exhaustion.

I mumble through some congratulations.

Secretly I think she could have decorated it more, added more detail – it seems plain as an act of sculpture – but my mother says that’s ‘just the way she found it’.

Thank God it’s all over.

With one last lingering look, my mother snaps off the lights, before bolting the door and we go back to the house for the first decent meal in weeks. She asks me what I’ve been doing. I don’t show her photos of the stones, of course, because then the lectures begin, but I do tell her loosely about some of my wanderings. Then wine to follow, dark chocolate, cards, a warm hug, and bed.

But my mother lies; she does not go to sleep. Instead, she marches up the hill in bare feet and dressing gown, carrying her steel carton of dynamite.

I smooth the shutter closed and throw myself onto the bed, teary-eyed.

I will not sleep.

“Get up Ailios. Get up. We have to go.”

White light so bright, my eyelids buckle. My shoulder shaken roughly.

“Mum?”

“Throw on anything you’ve got. Quickly. Old jeans will do. That top.”

“What…? What is it?”

“You have to see this.” Her eyes glitter with excitement.

And in the distance I can hear what sounds like ice cracking mixed with sound of earth and scree avalanching from the Craich. Then dull booms, that make the bedsprings vibrate, and the glass of water on my bedside cabinet huzz and buzz along.

“What’s that? You’re scaring me.”

“The builders are down from the mountain. The Table has fallen into the Craich. They’ll be coming to mend it. I… I blew it up. But they’ll be here first. For the crown. Do you understand?”

I do, of course. My mother has gone mental.

I huff and tut and pull my pyjamas to myself and look for my rabbit slippers. I wave away the top she’s trying to throw over me like a sack.

“Forget those stupid rabbits, Alios, it’s boots you need. And trousers. Honestly, get your head together.”

There is a crash of trees, closer.

“Get dressed,” my mother hisses. “There is no time.”

It’s three am and snow is falling in a ghostly curtain. Snow has no business in spring – it’s as if we’ve gone back in time; winding back the winter clock. Up on the cliff, I can hear the soft breath of it on our umbrella.

Entirely at my mother’s doing, the Giant’s Table has fallen – slipped right into the gorge; the red stone staining the snow and river below, ivy clinging to it like claws. Black water boils up through the rubble in foamy sprays. I stare at the wanton vandalism.

Behind us there is crash of glass, wood and stone, as if a mountain is smashing its way through our home. The twinkling lights, just visible through the woods, go out.

Darkness.

As I watch, a massive shadow detaches itself from the hillside, swaying branches; spilling trees. There is the explosive sound of rock popping and the crackle of dry bramble stems. Then a grinding, clattering, rumble, inter-spaced with the squeals of stone rubbing together. A massive foot falls into the landscape, spreading into the grass and gullies. Rocks and pebbles clatter and bounce, rustling through the undergrowth like meteors, as a whole heap of moss-covered stone lurches forwards; a gigantic body at the end of that gigantic stride. The huge misshapen mass towers up over the landscape, fifty, sixty, a hundred feet high, now clearing the shadow of the hill.

It – for it is an ‘it’ – is wearing my mother’s crown. Its head is overgrown with a long beard and hair of bracken and bramble sprays, forced through by gnarled horns of oak branches, deeply rooted in the sentient cliff. Moss and lichen grows like skin, and the massive face is built in the image of mountains: rugged, vast, uncaring; its eyes stony crevices in the sedimentary rock.

What are those channels and grooves? Almost weathered to nothing.

And then… and then I realise, of course, that this is a thing that has slept through history itself. It bears the soft erosion of cultures long dead: its arms, legs, head are carved in the looping whorls of bison and ibex, struck through to angled strokes of cuneiform, to regimented lines of ogham with their branching cuts, then circle diagrams, that show, perhaps, the track of the stars in the heavens, or the endless passing of sun across stone, to Roman capitals incised with imperialistic serifs, to a garish daub or two of the present day: neon spray-paint, pink and poisonous.

Earth rattles down.

The giant groans with every movement of an arm, every look, every slow step that booms down onto the landscape, shaking the air as much as the ground. Then hauling itself below, exploding the river water, bending to the remnants of the Table with a moan.

“The king has returned,” my mother says, clapping her flat palms together, fingers spread like arrows pointing to possibilities.

I can only stare at what the world has become.

 

14 comments

1 John Xero { 03.12.11 at 7:50 am }

Outstanding!

So very well crafted. Your control of time in this one is deft, sitting in a moment, then sliding forwards gracefully to the next key fulcrum.

Love the subject and tone, as usual, and glad the mother got to be right.

2 Stephen Hewitt { 03.16.11 at 12:13 am }

Thanks John — glad you liked what was in here and how it moved along. I thought it’d be cool if her mother was correct in her beliefs, even if she was a little bit ‘unconventional’. Being a bit mad probably helps in finding giants. St.

3 Steve Green { 03.13.11 at 2:50 pm }

A wonderfully readable piece of writing, very elegant and smooth flowing, imaginative and different. A real pleasure to read.

4 Stephen Hewitt { 03.16.11 at 12:42 am }

Thanks Steve — glad you enjoyed this one, and found it different. It was fun writing it, though the editing was a pain in the behind. Got there in the end, though 😉 St.

5 Aidan Fritz { 03.13.11 at 6:24 pm }

I love how the mother sees the supernatural in this case and the child has the other-worldly not-quite-believing view. Particularly love the scene where the mother states “You have never understood what sculpture can be, Alios. I so wish you could. Is there only imagination, like you think? Or is there something already there? Waiting to be released and Alios translates this into the very real sense that she’ll be eating microwave meals.

6 Stephen Hewitt { 03.17.11 at 11:57 pm }

Hi there Aidan — yeah, I was quite keen that Alios’ mother be right on this one, and Alios be taken along for the ride. Slightly quirkyl, I guess. Alios’ is bound to be a bit of a survivor as far as the microwave is concerned. 😉 St.

7 Harry B. Sanderford { 03.14.11 at 8:16 pm }

You’ve really outdone yourself here Stephen. Quite a ripping yarn and so perfectly told!

8 Stephen Hewitt { 03.17.11 at 11:58 pm }

Thanks Harry — hopefully I do keep improving. Glad you liked it. St.

9 Lara Dunning { 03.16.11 at 7:08 pm }

Wonderful! The POV pulled you in, there was no break in flow. What a sight to see that, craziness turned into sanity, legend into reality…what a great way to bring that all to life.

10 Stephen Hewitt { 03.18.11 at 12:01 am }

Thanks Lara — really glad you liked it. It was fun to make the giants walk again. I don’t read many stories about giants, so I thought it’d be interesting to bring some of them back. St.

11 Joan { 03.17.11 at 3:53 pm }

I wonder how she knew! The mother, I mean.
I like the idea of the sculpture being there in the stone – you would only need to chip away to find it – a bit like growing stories – I do like your idea of organicism (sp?) – I’m referring to your comment on the last story.
This one – it’s very good Stephen. I’m not surprised you said the editing was difficult – it must have been – but every word seems perfectly placed – and it seems as though there must be much research here, also.
A very professional feel to this story – not that your other stories aren’t.

12 Stephen Hewitt { 03.24.11 at 10:14 am }

Hi there Joan — I was reading a quote by Michelangelo that said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I thought that was very interesting that idea, of uncovering rather than creating something. For the editing, this one was one of the stories that didn’t flow at first, and for some reason the bit with the giant took forever (about half a day), but I got there in the end. There’s a place down in Yorkshire (Nidderdale) called Brimham Rocks, which I visited, and was a partial inspiration. If you’ve never been you should check them out — that hill with the formations is real. I make no promises on giant’s, though. 😉

Something seems to have gone right with the feel on this one. That’s good 🙂 St.

13 Joan { 03.30.11 at 4:43 pm }

Hi Stephen – yes, we went to Brimham Rocks years ago – as a family – I don’t know if Mick (Mike) will remember it. Very spectacular and atmospheric, I remember.
Yes, I’ve probably heard the Michelangelo quotation before also – or that idea – you’re right – about chipping away rather than adding to something – two ways to write, I think – and you could use either, or both, whichever suited your purposes at any particular time – or if one way didn’t work, try the other.

14 Stephen Hewitt { 04.01.11 at 2:27 pm }

@Joan, glad you’ve checked out Brimham rocks. Great place.

I guess you could apply that idea of ‘uncovering something that’s already there’ to writing. It might be as much about finding out what’s peculating in your subconscious, splurging out enough story to work out what the story is, and then ‘chipping away’ with editing and re-writes until you expose what’s there. Or, I think quite a bit of writing is about working out the ‘immersive reality’ of the story, upon which agonized phrasing and ‘right words’ are wasted early on. But once you’ve got a deep feel for the thing, and it’s almost real in your head, you can throw away all the old stuff and make a fresh draft out of this feeling of ‘experience’ that hopefully sings. The first part is working out the fictive reality, the second part is expressing a good story within it. Two separate things. Occasionally both come together, and occasionally they don’t. A few of my stories have come from entire re-writes based on the fiction I worked out with initial, broken drafts. Fitcher’s Curve came afresh from two different drafts entirely, but now that I know enough about that neck of the woods, I have a couple of other stories I can tell up on that curve — and beyond — if I get round to writing them 😉

In a way that’s like seeing the sculpture before carving it out of the rock.

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