Appeal to the Ancestors
It’s my turn to be the lookout. This is a good spot, high enough to get a clear view and easy enough to slip away unnoticed, but I can’t say I enjoy it. I've been watching the horizon shimmer in the heat until my eyes smart and I can’t tell if that tiny shape between the sea and the clouds has sprung from my imagination, or from the dark places of the earth. Unfortunately, someone has to do it, particularly on a day like today when we will be gathering for the ceremony, for the ancestors.
They approach from the East but they come from the North, the ships of the men with pale skin and red hair. We’ve had a respite recently but they struck again further up the coast a few weeks ago. Men, women or children, they took whoever they could lay their hands on. Some say they’re looking for slaves; others say if they catch you they will roast and eat you in a market place or sacrifice you to their evil gods. I never know who to believe but I don’t intend to hang around to find out.
Some of the young men of the village are full of fighting talk: “we’ll kill them all, we’ll drive them away” and so on but that’s just bravado. They don’t fight like we do. They’re better armed and they only attack where they know they will win. I wouldn’t admit this to the others but I have a hiding place, a cave with fresh water dripping in its deeper reaches. If the beast-men arrive that’s where I’m heading – after raising the alert if they arrive on my watch. It’s a good place to cool off in the heat of the afternoon; I might take a break there on the way back.
For the time being everything is quiet; the sea is calm and I can see no shapes, real or imagined. Boredom is gradually replacing anxiety, listening to the muffled lap of the waves, looking into emptiness with the past and the present spinning loops through my mind. My father will be with the elders now, preparing for the ceremony, planning their appeal to the ancestors. I would never say this to him but I’m not sure the ancestors are in any mood to grant us favours. If they’d been listening to us so far, we would never have known this desperation.
The sun had passed its zenith when they sent someone to relieve me. My head is burning as I turn inland. I reckon my father will be too distracted to wonder where I am, for a while. Nothing to stop me taking a long cool rest in the cave; the prospect is so enticing. I try to approach it by a different route each time, to avoid creating obvious tracks. I think I’ve managed to keep the tiny entrance hidden, at the cost of a scratching every time I climb through the bushes.
When I reach the entrance, something looks wrong. Has the bush that covers the opening been disturbed? It looks different, but I’m not sure. I hesitate, then thrust my head into the cool, dark, damp air. My eyes take a few moments to readjust. There are no signs of disturbance in the visible outer reaches of the cave. I hear nothing but slow dripping from inside; if anyone has been here there’s no trace of them now. Go for it.
The cool washes over the rest of me. I lay down on the bracken I brought here last time; its smell has melted into the damp of the cave. There’s just enough to cushion my back and my head from the hard ground. It’s still quite hard but I don’t care; I need to rest.
Soft orange and purple shapes float across my vision as I close my eyes and sink towards restfulness. The beast-men are scrambling ashore where no-one expected them to land. Some of them can fly and they’re coming this way. I want to move but I’m stuck. One of them is standing over me ready to strike.
“Who are you?”
I’m back in the cave but something has changed.
“Who are you?”
A real voice is shouting at me. I try to leap up but a foot pushes me back down.
“Who are you?”
“I need help; tell me who you are.”
I have to let my heart subside before answering. At least he speaks our language.
“I’m Edgar, from the village.” I was going to add ‘this is my cave’ but think better of it.
“What brought you here?”
“They destroyed everything… ”
His voice cracks and I lie there in silence, wondering what he might do, or what I should say.
“Can I get up?”
He says nothing but steps back into the half-light. As I stand up, our eyes meet at exactly the same height and I catch a glimpse of a face like my own grey ghost.
“What do you want?”
“Food – and a boat.”
Food would be difficult enough.
“I need to reach the mainland.”
“I don’t know about a boat, but I might be able to get you something to eat. We’re slaughtering a goat…I’ll be back before sundown.”
He makes no reply as his face retreats into the darkness, so I turn away and pull myself back towards the light.
I am standing in the ring at the start of the ceremony but I am not paying much attention. Who is the man in the cave and why did he tell me so little? I thought the beast-men took or killed everyone from that village up the coast. He might be lying; he might be a killer himself, but then he didn’t try to kill me. Food is running short again this year so he wouldn’t get much of a welcome here. Perhaps he is right to hide.
A girl leads a goat into the middle of circle; it follows her trustingly, confused by the crowds surrounding it. It’s a scrawny-looking beast, so there won’t be much to go round, and I need to take enough for two. This isn’t going to be easy. One of the elders approaches with a long knife. Three men hold the goat while he slits its throat. Some of the blood misses the trough and spills onto the dust as the animal’s last bleat gurgles and fades. A faint gasp from a few of the girls is drowned by the roar of the ring as the three men lift the carcass over their heads. A few more drops of blood spill from its severed throat onto one of their shoulders as they carry it away to be skinned.
As we start to chant I notice a couple of faces on the far side – a man and his wife from just up the coast, who normally come here by boat and I hope they haven’t left it on an open part of the shore, visible to the beast-men. Then another thought springs and falters. A boat? More like a home-made raft; I wouldn’t fancy trying to reach the mainland in that.
On the opposite side, the ring parts to reveal my father in all his regalia. He can still look impressive on these occasions but I notice his back curving a little and lines of anxiety scoring the grave expression on his face. One of the elders passes him the cup of blood. He takes a sip and lifts it above his head as he calls on the spirits of the ancestors to hear his supplication.
How have we offended you?
How may we atone?
Save us from starvation
Deliver us from…
And then his voice cracks like the man in the cave, and I’m shocked to see, for the first time ever, tears running down his face.
Deliver us from evil, and
Grant us a future…
He’s looking in my direction and I have to look away.
I did it! I managed to eat my share of the meat and grab just enough for my secret friend – that’s what I’ve decided he is. Unfortunately, it only leaves me one hand to clear the bushes aside. I lift the precious meat head-high as I push my way through the thorns to the entrance of the cave. I thrust my head inside and call out. No reply. It’s difficult clambering inside with one hand unusable but somehow I manage it:
Nothing but the dripping. I stand, uncertain, a bit disappointed, wondering what to do with the meat. For a moment I am gripped with the urge to eat it, but I resist; he must be somewhere around here. I consider the prospect of climbing out with one hand and decide that I must find somewhere to leave the meat inside. Nowhere obvious is visible, so I search with my other hand until I find a ledge in the rock. It will have to do. I hope he doesn’t think it’s a trap, when I tell him the food is waiting for him inside the cave. I hope he will trust me.
As I pull myself out, I realise I don’t know his name, and calling out might be risky in any case. Instead I try to beat a path around the cave, spiralling outwards, but I see no evidence of human presence. I am hidden by bushes or trees on all sides here; that’s what makes it such a good hiding place.
After circling a few times I stop and wonder where else he might have gone. Then I remember the boat. Surely not?
I head back towards the coast, to a different spot this time; I don’t want to disturb the lookout. The haze has cleared now, revealing a few of the Welsh hills crenellating the horizon. The sun is sinking over the calm grey water to my left, illuminating the particles on its surface and I am filled with a love for this land, our land that we must deliver from evil.
I scan the sea in front of me and am reassured to see nothing bigger than a particle floating on it. My father tells me in the time of the ancestors the seas were full of creatures that men used to eat, but I’ve learnt to make my own mind up on all that ancestor stuff. He even reckons they used to fly – whatever you say Dad.
As I’m musing on all this, just below the horizon I see a speck of movement, or I think I do. Could it really be a boat, heading north towards Wales? Today would be as good a day as any for someone stupid or desperate enough to attempt that crossing in a tiny boat. My Dad says, in the time of the ancestors Wales was part of the mainland. I’ve heard that from a few people I’m more inclined to believe, so he might be right on that one.
I am sure now that it is a boat and I hope my secret friend is on his way to a new life. I hope he doesn’t try to reach the mainland in that creaking craft, but if he makes it to Wales he might be able to cut overland and find another way across the Pennine Straits. He might be lucky. We all might, I have to hope.
Steve Melia has just returned to writing fiction after a gap of 19 years. His novel, Sins of the Fathers, was published by Vanguard in 2002. In the meantime, he has been working as a lecturer and writing non-fiction (see www.stevemelia.co.uk). His latest book, Roads, Runways and Resistance – from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion was published by Pluto Press in January 2021.