‘The Dig’ by Graham Mort
Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘The Dig’ by Graham Mort, from his new collection Terroir, in which past and present intertwine as amateur archeologists dig for answers in an area whose violent, territorial history they know nothing of.
Graham Mort is currently professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature, at Lancaster University where he directs the Centre for Transcultural Writing and Research. Amongst his many awards are the Edge Hill University Short Story Prize 2011, the Bridport Prize for the short story collection Touch (Seren 2010), Cheltenham Poetry Competition first prize (twice), a major Eric Gregory Award, two Duncan Lawrie prizes in the Arvon Foundation International Poetry competition and a Poetry Book Society recommendation.
A Thistlethwaite, red-haired like all her clan. Longshanked, full-breasted, tall. Freckled, grey-eyed, jug-eared, a crooked smile creasing into dimples. Climber of rockfaces for hawk’s eggs. Horse breeder, dog hater. Broadshouldered, a fighter who’ll take on her brothers and anyone else. Fey, man-shy, loyal. Fierce to the lie, quick to offence. Footsore now, limping from a bruised knee where the gelding took her into a dry stone boundary.
Homeward bound, the moor’s peat squelching underfoot, the heather springy, bog cotton in the hollows. Hungry and used to it.
The Land Rover lurches on the bridleway, loaded with wire ladders and lamps, yellow waterproofs, digging gear. The man’s helmet lies beside him on the front seat. His hair is spiky grey, his hands badly scarred from a fire. The flesh has grown back in purple patches. He’s got a blue thumbnail where a hammer missed. He wears a diver’s watch with a black plastic wristband. Sun shows up the scratches on the spattered windscreen, tyres jog over stones and ruts and into mud puddles. The exhaust stinks in low gear. He’s arranged to meet the others at the dig. This one’s been on the go for months and you never knew who’d turn up.
She’s a long hour from home after trading her grey horse in the next dale. There are coins in her purse but she’s packed it tight with grass to stop them chinking. She rode the gelding bareback to the Sykes place, now she has the walk home. It was a good sale. The bridle and harness are
tight under her jerkin. She’s taken a short cut over a flank of moorland, crossing a corner of Abel Rintner’s land, past his new peat cuttings where turves are piled. She’s black to the ankles and there’s a foul gas from the moss. She could have played it safe and detoured by the valley head,
then down past the inn where there were other folk. There’d be drunken, groping bastards too. Fenmen and Dutchlanders draining the land for the monks, gabbling, fetching up phlegm and laughter. She can’t bear that. No need if the light holds. Her feet catch in rushes. She can hear the calling of fat lambs. Soon they’d be cutting their throats for Eric’s wedding.
There’s a dirty Peugeot estate parked where the bridleways meet. Dark blue with a roof rack. Two other cavers are already climbing into their gear. A woman in her late thirties with pulled-back hair and acute blue eyes; a fifty-year-old man, bow-legged, short and bearded. He’s coiling a climbing rope clarted in dried clay and she’s fastening her overalls over rubber boots. Their greeting is a stubbing of cigarette butts, a faint smile, nods to the stile, the causeway they’ve laid across the marsh that leads to the dig. Another path goes up over the limestone edge, past the killing pit – a swallow-hole with almost sheer sides, twenty yards across and twelve deep. They’d help excavate that for an archaeological dig, uncovering broken animal bones and Mesolithic flints. Hand axes, arrow tips, flensing blades. The ancient people had hunted with dogs, driving red deer, elk, auroch, and wild boar over the edge then stoning them to death. They’d been proud of that dig, the way it made sense of things, of the past. The man with the
scarred hands slams the Land Rover door and takes two yellow plastic trugs from the back. They pick up their lamps, two folding spades, a short-handled pick. The bearded man carries the rolled-up ladder and the woman with blue eyes lifts a coil of rope.
Jogging across the moor to strike the track, Hannah’s breath is harsh now. She’s anxious to get to the commons below. Sun is dropping over the sea about thirty miles west. The air is cooling, smoke coiling from the farmstead she’s too close to. A flight of geese follows the river to the estuary in
a double vee. She stumbles, pauses, rights herself, touching a hand to her sore knee. There’s the sudden hiss and flicker of plumage. A streaking bird is attacking her. Then the arrow strikes into her forearm, almost parallel to the bone, the point driving right through. She sucks her breath, freckles starring her suddenly white face. She glares round quickly and keeps moving. She should have covered her hair. That was stupid. The mistake will cost her. She’s wearing an amber amulet that hangs from a leather thong. It tosses as she runs. The arrow stings, evilly. She needs to get out of view, jags to the left, drops into a gulley and lies listening for dogs. Nothing. She follows the gulley down, stumbling, nursing her arm, trying to let blood drip onto her and not bare rocks where they can track her. There’s a little water in the beck bottom, not much.
They walk up the lane in single file, trudging a little after their day of work. Each to their own: wrought iron making, timberwork, the work of the body. There’s a gate on the left leading to the wooden causeway laid over the moor. The timber smells of creosote. The man with the beard grimaces, but the woman half smiles, bends her head a little closer as she swings the gate back onto its catch, savouring a memory. They move across the peat bog, feeling the planks sink a little under their weight. There are black pools on either side. Petroleum from the peat has stained them with iridescent patterns. A stand of bog cotton stirs in a slight breeze coming off the Irish sea. The man in the lead flexes his fingers and switches hands on the trug. The woman’s eyes are paler here, bluer, as if cut from underwater stones. She’s thinking of a bright room, how she loves the touch and smell of babies though she’s had none of her own. Their pure skin, their tiny hands reaching to their awed mothers’ faces.
Voices, thick and faint, not far off. A hundred yards. Maybe more. Men’s bass tones. She pauses, hunched over. Dark blood is oozing where the arrow tip has gone through. It’s fletched with partridge feathers. There’s a waterfall ahead where the beck drops twelve feet. Another stream trickles
out beneath it from a tunnel behind. It starts half a mile away on the fell where a gill runs into a long shaft, down into its darkly dropping space. Dan, her elder brother, had shown her the place. They’d played a game once. He’d let a handful of duck down fall into the shaft and she’d waited. Sure enough, white tufts appeared in the stream below the waterfall, where overground water met underground. She’s there now and needs to be careful. The cave entrance is awkward to scramble into. She grips wet rock slimed with moss and lowers herself, then swings on one hand and leg into the space behind falling water. She holds her arm under its chill so that the pain is dulled, then draws her knife. The arrow is new and smooth. A shaft of alder. She cuts into it below the fletching, snapping it close to her arm, pulling it through the wound. It hurts like fire, like devil’s breath. She bites on a corner of her gansey so she won’t call out. The she holds her arm under the water again, numbing it, watching the blood thin and run away. It’s nasty. But it could have lodged in her guts with no way out. That way you bled to death, drained like a slaughtered sow. She throws the broken arrow deep into the tunnel behind her.
They’ve diverted the stream where it seeps from the bog and runs into the pothole. Digging and sandbagging. They’ve rigged iron loops next to the lip, set into an old railway sleeper pinned onto rock that underlies peat. These lugs will hold a ladder safely down the first pitch. The hole smells of under earth, of nether space, of what draws them. Something hidden or lost, something unknown, othered by upward space. They fasten the ladder and let it down and the bearded man puts on his helmet and begins to descend. When he calls up that he’s safe, they lower the folding spades and the little pick in one of the trugs. It’s almost luminous as it sinks below them, like spilled sulphur or a patch of primroses. The woman looks out to blackheaded gulls and curlews and withered birch trees. Her eyes are those of an arctic fox. There is the sunset beyond the sea, a smudge of orange that darkness is gulping, bay and sky smeared into light’s entropy.
Hannah pulls her arm from the water and flexes her wrist. Everything is working, but the wound will stiffen and there are ugly, ragged edges of flesh where the point of the arrow tore in. Lucky it had pierced right through. The head looked clean enough, but you could never tell. She spits on her arm and massages saliva gently into the wound, a trick her father had showed her when one of the longhorns had grazed her forehead, nearly catching
her eye. She leans back against the cave wall, spreading her wet skirts. Hannah has a piece of black bread tucked into her purse. She takes it out and divides it with the knife. Half for now and half for whenever. When she peers through a gap in the falling water there’s a heron standing at a small pool just below, its white breastfeathers puffed out. Its eye is yellow as flame, relentless as the spearing beak, the stillness it makes deeper around
itself. It hears something and takes off, a ghost, jerky and awkward in the air, as if stillness is all it has really practised.
The first pitch – the only pitch as far as they know – is twenty feet down to a ledge then an easy drop to a sandy floor where a long chamber with three symmetrically formed flowstones runs away and narrows. A thin stream flows over gravel at the bottom, gathered elsewhere from the fell, seeping through moss and stone. They’ve dyed the water and know where it comes out. What they don’t know is exactly how. That’s what they’re here to find out. The bearded man pulls on a woollen hat and sorts through the tools. The woman thinks of the inside of a human body, how dark it is, how unrevealed, palpitating with life. It pleases her to risk her own life underground where a sudden flood can leave you perched beside tons of falling water. Courting oblivion, seducing the icy touch of eternity. And maybe for no better reason than a feral need, a wayward longing.
When Hannah turned fourteen she had fine breasts, freckled where they parted, stiff-nippled. You’ll never starve, her mother said. She’d not liked the sound of that. A fair handful alright, Dan laughed, but with that watchful look all the same, as if her breasts might bring trouble, like her bright hair. Years later she’d remember it when they drove a score of cattle to market, sold them above price because beef was scarce, then had a night of tripe and ale in the tavern. A man with a damson birthmark over a half-closed eye tried to grope her in the back ginnel when she went to relieve herself from the weight of drink. He stank of sweat so rank it made her retch. He’d grinned with brown teeth, backing her against the wall, his breath meaty. A twat like butter, he’d wagered. Hannah hadn’t contradicted or resisted, even managed a smile she knew would show her dimples. When he unfastened his britches she put her arm around him, drew her knife and ran it across him, low down into his bowel. He slumped away, gasping, surprised. Then lay in dung and straw and fear, white-faced, holding his belly. When he whispered Help me, she pulled his hands away and his guts had spilled like a butcher’s parcel. That’ll hasten it, she said, mocking his blank eyes, grown shallow of light. Then wiping the blade on his filthy jerkin. Then stepping out into the dim street.
The trug comes down, blocking faint light from the entrance, dislodging small stones and clods of mud. He pulls his helmet straight with the flat of his palm and reaches to help it down, unties it, calls for the others to follow. In the space underground his voice seems to trap him. The ladder tightens again and boots appear, gleaming wet from the moor. Her body is unrecognisable as a woman’s in the yellow wetsuit. He tugs at his beard, hoiks up phlegm from the cigarette, shoots it into the stream, thinks of it travelling underground to the exit half a mile away. Then she’s beside him, switching on her helmet lamp, stooping to direct the beam, letting it bob around the walls of the chamber, casting their shadows. He thinks
of cave dwellers, of what they feared more than the dark. The ladder tightens again with the next man’s weight on it. His hands are livid on the rungs as they look up to him, caught in the light.
She covered her hair with her shawl, went back into the lantern light of the tavern, opening her eyes wide and jerking her head back at her father and Daniel. They’d slipped away, one by one. When her father asked her what had passed she’d shaken her head. The less anyone knew about anything the better. Dan gave her a queer look as they tied their gear to the ponies. At least they’d known better than to get drunk with coin on them. There’d be half a dozen corpses in the town by morning. Those murdered for their money and those who’d gone at each other in drunken hate and lust, clawing, stabbing, cursing in the filth. They passed a woman in a doorway, her face bloodied, snoring in spasms. One hand lay on a heap of horse dung as if she’d been searching in it. A whore probably, but you couldn’t tell which were whores and which were honest women. Then the whores were as honest as most. It was their men who ran them you had to watch. They were rich and sly as stoats.
They’d been digging for weeks. You could forget things underground where the world let your imperfections be, didn’t find fault. Where time had a different motion or none at all. They’d made a spoil-heap in the broader chamber under the entrance, scattering the debris to the far corners. There was nowhere else to take it, except up to the moor. Which made no sense. If you balanced on the ledge, the pitch to the entrance started just below shoulder height. The exit was narrow, so a fit person who was tall enough could chimney out, jamming their knees against the far wall and squirming upwards. The tricky bit was at the top where the lip overhung on one side. An aluminium ladder was easier. That was a no-brainer, though the first blokes down in the twenties had done it with candles and carbide lamps, hemp ropes, bloodymindedness and muscle. They were still around in the
seventies. Legends who sat at bars in the local pubs with their pipes and pints, breaking open a pasty or a meat pie. They hardly spoke, hardly had to. They’d seen what they’d seen and done what they’d done, including two wars. A hole in the ground was nothing. Holes in the ground were second nature. They were a piece of piss. Pioneers of the underworld, they never said what it was they’d been looking for back then between the wars, the post-war letdown and dark.
The light is almost lost to the fell, sunk into grass and heather to soak away underground. She thinks of it flowing to the sea, surging, glinting against black rocks through the weed-green timber of jetties. She’d seen mercury once that a peddler had brought, breaking and flowing and reforming in the palm of his hand, like light itself. Her mother had scolded him and turned him away for hawking things they’d no use for. In the hollow behind the waterfall Hannah checks out her options. Not many and not good. They’d found Dan last Michaelmas on their own land with a broken back, choking on blood from a rib that’d been kicked into his lung. He’d not come home after going out for hares with his lurcher. That had been shot with an arrow, too. He was out all night but they knew it wasn’t over a woman. Not this time. At first light they found him where he’d crawled from the path into ferns and rocks, making a trail like an animal. Hannah, her father and the two youngest boys had found him. We’ll get you home, Hannah whispered, stroking his hair that was flat with dew. You needn’t bother, he said. Then, before his eyes closed, It were’t Rintner boys. Abel Rintner’s sons. Eric and Sam. Those limping, stuttering bastards.
Speleology was one name for it. Call it want you want: caving or crag ratting, you either got it or you didn’t. It wasn’t like rock climbing, but it wasn’t the opposite either. Sometimes they climbed underground in a capsule of light, never knowing what was beyond. Sometimes hearing the terrific roar and weight of falling water. No one had ever been there before, so they were back at the formation of the earth, the universe billowing through a choke in the rock, time roaring through the eye of a needle. They climbed down towards whatever lay beneath them, shaped by water from the melting Ice Age. They found things that had lain there under human history and since long before. No sun or moon or stars or wind. No radio signal. No time passing except the reminder of hunger, the need to pass water, tiredness itself. The woman crawls forward through the shallow spillage, pulling the trug behind her, feeling it drag at her elbow joint, where the humerus and the ulna join, her elbow swollen and tender. A paediatrician. A speleologist.
He’d taken a long time to die, Daniel, and he was right: they should have left him near the stand of birch trees where crows were gathering. Where his mother couldn’t see him and rage and wail and swear revenge. Her father had set fire to the Rintner place the next night as they celebrated, drunk as hogs on windfalls. Sarah Rintner’s new baby died that night, thrown from a window hole to safety, lying with a staved skull. The valley and its homesteads sank into flames and blood. Revenge and hate gave suck and the taste was sweet as ewe’s cheese and honey to them. Then, after months of it, tit for tat, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, Abe Rintner had choked to death on a mutton steak at his own table, falling face forward into
the trencher. So they’d stopped killing each other and their horses and black cattle and made a kind of peace. Then her father and brothers had wanted Hannah to marry a Rintner to put a long end to it. They chose Eric with the crooked leg, but she said she’d rather fuck a pig. So it was
never settled, the hate between them. He got another lass pregnant; a pox-faced, wizen-dugged little bitch from town who’d hate every minute she spent wedded to rain and cow shit and drudgery on the steading. Then this. An ambush when she’d trespassed too close. Hannah decides to sit it out unless she hears their dogs. The wound hurts where her blood throbs over the bone.
He leads, the bearded man, down to the boulder choke, crawling on his hands and knees in the low passage to do a recce. He’ll dig for now. The other man will drag the trug back and the woman will take it to tip it into the bigger chamber below the ladder. They have headlamps and batteries strapped to their waists. Limestone gleams and the tunnel curves inside the earth’s gut, its infinitely slow peristalsis. They reach the choke through its old digestions. Sixty yards of standing water, crawling, head down. The woman takes a look, nods, then turns back. He starts to dig in the tight space, though the roof is higher here, so they can crouch. He uses the spade and his hands. The trug fills with rounded river pebbles and sand and water. He guesses that a larger boulder has dropped into the space and allowed debris to gather, gradually choking the tunnel’s throat.
Think like the animal, her father said when they were chasing game. They’d wounded her and she’d been spotting blood over heather and moss like a bitch in season. They’d have followed her. They’d have an idea where she was – if she hadn’t slipped away over the fell. They’d bring their dogs over and wait, enjoying the thought of her fear. They’d fuck her before they killed her, or they’d try. She’d paunch them before that happened, the rank bastards. She isn’t afraid, not now they’ve drawn blood. She’s in hate of them and always has been and always will be after Daniel. Hannah creeps back to the cave entrance, crouching behind the sheet of falling water. She thinks she smells a peat fire, hears the whimper of hounds, laughter. Their low voices are like smoke, absent and present at the same time, carrying and dissolving in the air. The noise of the water cloaks
everything, makes her unsure. She needs to piss and lowers herself to the cave floor, balancing awkwardly.
After an hour the two men swap positions and all three of them take a breather. The bearded one has a smear of clay across his face.
– Will it go?
– What, tonight?
The woman is doing something with her lamp cable and the light flickers yellow then burns white again. She turns to listen, a faint smile on her face.
– Doubt it.
That’s almost a night’s conversation used up between them. The woman turns back to pick up the trugs.
– Come on. I need to be home before midnight. I’ve got a clinic first thing.
The bearded man moves aside so the other can get to the crawl. The woman upturns the trug and tips out water. He can’t remember the name for what she is.
– Bugger it.
– Let’s have another bash.
The digging, dragging, digging goes on. They’ve pulled out about nine metres of debris over the past weeks, maybe more. Pebbles, boulders, sheep bones, rabbit spines. The dead. History’s mulch.
Hannah waits. She binds up her arm with a strip of cloth cut from her skirt. It’s awkward and she pulls it tight with her teeth. It hurts now with a dull pain and the muscle is stiffening. She dozes for a while and then the barking of a dog close by jerks her awake. She must have slept for hours because darkness has fallen and light risen again as she lies against the cave wall. She’s stiff and wet and cold, hungry now the nausea has passed. Her arm throbs and feels hot. It’s maybe an hour from dawn. She’s guessing that. They have mastiffs. If they let the dogs into the cave, she’s done.
She’ll have to go inside and trust to darkness. If she makes it home there’ll be blood let, though. The thought satisfies her, slakes her, gives her purpose. She sees it bubbling from Eric’s throat into his beard. He’ll die like a slaughtered tup if she gets her way. Hannah finishes the bread, scooping water to her mouth. Then she crawls in twenty feet or so. The tunnel curves slightly and it’s absolutely dark ahead, only a faint glimmer behind, where they are waiting for her. A rivulet of water runs between her knees. She can feel the steady current guiding her. It’s so dark that white stars dance in front of her like tiny maids at a maypole.
The shovel strikes against a bigger stone and the man with scarred hands prises and levers it to one side. There’s a faint draught of air and the water under him begins to quicken, emptying the shallow lake behind. He calls back to the others but his voice bounces off the rock walls, distorted.
– What’s happening?
– She’s draining out. We’re through. Or close.
– That’ll do.
Their voices sound stifled in the hall of rock. The bearded man is panting when he reaches the others, the skin around his eyes pale in the electric light. He withdraws to the entrance and they take it in turns to crawl to the dig to watch the water level falling. Enough for one night. They pack away their gear and climb out to the moor. There are stars mixed with clouds, the faint gleam of limestone from the escarpment as their eyes adjust. They drag the timbers back over the entrance. Then the walk back to their vehicles, their helmet lights bobbing on the wooden causeway, its darkly oozing water. The stone path is rough underfoot. A dog barks from a nearby farm. There’s the rasp of sheep close by, their teeth tearing at grass. An aircraft goes over with its wing lights blinking. Then they’re fumbling for car keys and the fascias of their vehicles light up, showing their hollowed cheeks. The woman climbs into the passenger seat of the Peugeot. Home James. She laughs and they start engines, headlights nosing down the bridleway in convoy to where the faint lights of the village stain the sky.
Hannah crawls on through water that covers her knees and freezes them. The tunnel narrows and she feels ahead with her hands. She wonders if there is a God. They rent their farm from the monks and their agent is a fat-gutted Italian friar. He comes twice a year with his black-grey beard and leather cap and halting accent to take their money. The tunnel widens slightly, letting her breathe, then narrows again almost at once. She has to pass though a pelvic girdle of rock. There in the dark she retreats and strips, lying full length, shuffling out of her clothes, loosening the bridle and harness. She ties her things together awkwardly with the leather straps, then loops them to her ankle so she can pull them behind. She rests, panting, ignoring the pain in her arm and knee. Nearly naked, she forces herself, her head and breasts and hips, through the squeeze and into the wider passage beyond. She’s cold and bruised and blind and the rock has scraped her skin the way they scarify a scalded pig at Yuletide. She crawls on, thinking of Daniel, what they did to him; thinking of that man in the alleyway dying because of her. Because of his own foul-breathed presumption. Hannah sees the faintest gleam of light, as if Christ has stepped into darkness to bless her. She crawls towards it until it glows bright and clear as vengeance.
They return to the dig on a fine day with white clouds rising at the horizon, an unsteady breeze bending bog cotton, throwing crows from the moor like charred fragments of a burning. They drop the ladder and file down into the chamber. They are able to follow the passageway to the almost-cleared obstruction, its scattering of stone that they shovel free and cart back in the trugs. Then they crouch for the final push: the man with his
scarred hands, the bearded man, the woman with pale blue eyes. They’re through and they crawl for a long time, along a tight squeeze towards the entrance under the waterfall until they see light, hear the beck thrumming. The doctor with blue eyes finds a handful of dull beads, a rusted tang
of iron, some scraps of leather in the diggings. She sifts through gravel and collects the beads in her pocket. She’ll give them to her niece. The bearded man let the rusted metal fall back into the stream and shrugs. Somehow it doesn’t feel archaeological; it doesn’t feel as if anything has
ever really happened here. He has a nose for these things. The other man, the one with scarred hands, is already coiling the rope. That way you know a job is done. He’s forgotten his camera, but there is always tomorrow. They’ll get their names into the club newsletter, maybe more.
Thumbs up. They clamber out and sit happily on the moor in daylight, trailing their rubber boots in the stream. A heron flies off from the pool below them. A grey omen, a premonition taking to the air.