‘A Bird Becomes A Stone’ by Jo Mazelis
Our short story of the month is ‘A Bird Becomes A Stone’ by Jo Mazelis.
Jo’s new short-story collection, Ritual, 1969, will be published in April by Seren. This, her third collection, welcomes you to a darkly disquieting world of make-believe and performance, where nothing is quite as it seems and first impressions may only lead to further disguises and false trails. Twins, circus acts, playground games and play-acting, the path from the schoolyard to adulthood is beset with misunderstandings, missed dates and traps for the unwary.
Awarded a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize for her debut novel Significance, Jo has also had numerous short stories in anthologies and listed for awards, including five short-listings for the Rhys Davies short-story prize. Several of her stories have been broadcast on Radio 4.
A Bird Becomes a Stone
The film Sarah had volunteered to act in was written and directed by a Welsh girl called Catrin, who was at college in Bristol. She’d brought a crew of other students to Wales, one to do sound, another was a cameraman. There was also a sulky girl with bad skin called Morgana whose role was not explained. They drove in a grubby white VW van up to the Brecon Beacons, careering and bumping along narrow tracks in search of good locations. The cameraman drove and the girl with bad skin sat up front because she claimed she’d get carsick otherwise. So the other three had to suffer in the back, wedged in among the film equipment and two plastic sacks of what seemed to be dirty laundry but turned out to be props and costume.
Sarah played the main role. According to the storyboard a lot of footage would consist of her running through woods, along a shoreline (brooding clouds and crashing waves in the background) and along treacherous mountain paths. The schedule demanded that they shoot with her for three days, then on the fourth and fifth days another actor would join them. He was to play a man who had molested her as a child. The chief premise of the film was that every impression in the early sequences led the audience to believe she was being chased, but actually it emerged that her character was the pursuer. The hunted becomes the hunter.
They parked at a lay-by above a stream. The day was still and unusually warm, white puffs of cumulus clouds moved lazily across a yawning blue sky.
‘This weather is crap,’ Catrin said.
The girl with the bad skin sat on a rock and stared hatefully at the rest of them as they unloaded the van.
From eleven o’clock until almost two, Sarah helped Catrin and the sound man scatter torn white sheets along the side of the stream while the cameraman shouted directions at them. At two they stopped for a lunch made by Catrin’s mother. Sandwiches with cheap white bread, some sort of meat that might have been pork or possibly turkey, hard-boiled eggs, crisps and an assortment of chocolate-covered biscuits which were warm and sticky and reminded her too much of long journeys in the back of her parents’ car; of her loneliness as an only child.
After lunch Sarah climbed into the back of the van and struggled into the costume they had brought for her; a grubby, ivory-coloured floor length dress. It had a plunging front and tied behind her neck leaving her back bare. It was made of artificial satin and the rough skin on her hands caught on it like tiny barbs.
In this scene she was meant to wander along by the stream charting a course between one discarded rag and another. Catrin showed Sarah some photographs taken after a battle; women searching for their menfolk in a field littered with the corpses of soldiers, explaining that this was the atmosphere she wanted to convey.
Sarah set off barefoot; in places mud oozed between her toes. The dress was thin, she shivered as the sun began to drop behind the mountains, but she persevered.
That night Sarah dreamt that she was filming the scene over and over, but her dream was invaded by the war photograph and as she stared at each flung-down rag, the torn scraps came to life turning into dreadful ghosts with scarred and half-flayed skin who moaned and tried to touch her.
The next day Catrin was overjoyed as weighty blue-grey cumulonimbus began to gather behind the mountains threatening an approaching storm.
‘We’re going further north today, then as far as Dolgellau on Thursday.’
There was little time wasted on the second day; they parked on a bleak mountain with a ribbon-like road running through it. Plynlimon hunkered under dark skies to the north.
‘Now just run towards the camera but look beyond it, not directly at it.’
She ran. Barefoot in wet grass peppered with shiny black sheep droppings, her long dress saturated up to her thighs. A few times she fell but pulled herself up and stumbled on.
‘That was brilliant! It looks so real when you fall,’ Catrin said.
‘Hey,’ the sound guy said, touching her arm gently. ‘Is that blood? Did you hurt yourself?’
She looked down; the dress was torn over her right knee, bright crimson blood mixed with muddy grey stains. She lifted her dress, her knee was grazed and in one place a small cut sent a trickle of red coursing down her leg and over the arch of her foot.
‘It’s fine,’ she said.
The girl with bad skin, Morgana, wrote something in a notebook, then lit a cigarette and wandered off.
Sarah asked the sound guy what Morgana did.
‘We have to work in teams of four,’ he said. ‘We’re stuck with Morgana, she’s stuck with us. And she hates Catrin and says the film is a pile of romantic twaddle.’
Sarah almost wished she didn’t understand the relationship between the four students. She felt angry on behalf of Catrin. To be forced to drag along the dead weight of Morgana just because the college dictated it! The lecturer’s reasoning, or so she understood, was that in the real world you had to work with people you didn’t get along with, but hell, in the real world Morgana would have been sacked on day one.
Because of this Sarah developed a deeply emotional sense of commitment – she, at least, would do everything in her power to make the film a success, regardless of grazed knees and damp unpleasant conditions.
On the third day, they drove for almost four hours. Sarah had ended up sitting on the floor behind the passenger seat, which was fine until Morgana decided to brush her hair. Morgana’s hair was dry and wiry at the ends, greasy at the scalp. The spiky plastic hairbrush made crackling noises as she pulled it through the tangle. Sarah looked up at the sound and noticed how Morgana’s hair was plastered to her scalp and wet-looking with grease. She could smell a strong animal odour, pelt and sweat. Stray strands of Morgana’s hair were drifting down, landing on Sarah’s bare arms, her chest and legs.
‘Hey! Do you have to do that?’
Morgana carried on dragging the brush through her hair.
Sarah poked Morgana’s shoulder.
‘Ow!’ said Morgana and craned her head around to look at Sarah.
‘Do you have to? You’re covering me with hair! It’s bloody revolting.’
Morgana pulled a sneering face. ‘It’s only hair.’ Then she continued brushing, even more vigorously than before.
‘Get a fucking life!’ Morgana said without turning around.
Catrin pulled the van into a lane, and parked halfway up a verge opposite an aluminium cattle gate. Sarah, Justin and Si began to unload the equipment. Morgana sat in the passenger seat with her feet on the dashboard, smoking.
In the distance was a small whitewashed cottage surrounded by a fence made of upright slabs of slender black stone that reminded Sarah of tombstones.
Catrin climbed a stile into the upward slanted field that led to the house. Si, Justin and Sarah began to pass cases of equipment over the stile. Sarah glanced back to look at Morgana, but a bright shaft of sunlight had caught the windshield turning it into a dazzling mirror so she could not see her.
Rather than go back to the van to change, Sarah hunkered down out of sight by a bent wind-stunted tree to slither out of her jeans, t-shirt and bra, and into her costume. The dress was damp, muddy and bloodstained from the day before. As Sarah stood up, twisting and tugging at the dress so it hung properly, she thought she saw a figure move behind a window in the cottage.
She walked briskly over to where Catrin was. Si had set the camera on a tripod and Catrin was looking through the lens while he stood to one side.
‘Catrin,’ Sarah said, ‘do you think we need permission to film here? I mean it’s private property, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, it’ll be fine. Come on, it’ll only take twenty minutes or so. Could you go to the furthest end of the fence and just stand there, then look at the house and maybe touch the fence like this?’ She demonstrated with a tentative stroke of her fingers in the air.
Sarah took up her position and stood still until Catrin gave the signal. She looked longingly at the house then reached out and tenderly touched the fence, then she noticed Morgana stalking through the field towards her, her expression midway between deadpan and a scowl. Sarah heard the tinny sound of some awful dance music coming closer. Morgana was carrying a boom box in one hand and a tartan rug in the other. She flung herself down on the grass about seven feet from where Sarah stood.
Moments before the air had been filled with birdsong and the occasional murmur of wind; now Techno was renting the air with its jagged infernal beats, thudding and stuttering at high speed.
Sarah, without looking at Morgana, ran over to the crew.
‘Aren’t you going to stop her?’ Sarah asked breathlessly as she drew near.
‘Oh, it’s okay, she’s out of shot,’ Catrin said.
‘Yeah, it’s fine,’ said Si, looking up from the viewfinder. ‘I’ve just got you, the fence, the mountains. Looking good.’
‘And the sound?’
‘Oh, it’s not a problem,’ Catrin said. ‘Some bits will have music anyway. It’ll be fine in the edit.’
‘I’m trying to act here. To create a mood and an atmosphere. I have to believe it. How the hell can I do it with that bloody noise?’
‘Oh,’ Catrin bit her lip and looked doubtfully over at Morgana, frowning.
‘I think we got it,’ Si said. ‘First take was good.’
‘Okay then, problem solved. It’s a wrap. Lunch?’
The next morning Sarah’s legs were battered and scabby, some bruises were still purple, others were already yellow as if she’d sponged iodine over them. She had just enough time to eat a yoghurt and drink a strong coffee before she heard the van beeping outside. Justin was sitting in the front seat and seeing Sarah’s look of happy surprise at Morgana’s absence, said, ‘We’re meeting up with Morgana tomorrow.’ He gave a snorting laugh and rolled his eyes. ‘Think we can manage without her?’
Sarah put on the ivory gown once again, noting as she did that it was beginning to smell a little. Sweat and mud and blood; unpleasant but she savoured the scent, breathing it in and assuming the persona of her nameless character.
Catrin and Si set up the camera and were comparing whatever they saw through the lens with a postcard of the painting ‘Christina’s World’. As she drew near, Sarah overheard them talking about the fact there was not the slightest breeze.
The day was overcast; opalescent pale grey clouds hung overhead holding the world in silence and stillness.
‘Can you kind of crawl through the grass, about here?’ Catrin had set off up the hill until she was fifteen feet away. ‘Like this,’ Catrin got down with her back to the camera and lay with her body twisted at the waist and groped in the direction of the ruined cottage.
Sarah copied her and Catrin ran back and forth a few times to make minute adjustments.
‘Now, if you could keep absolutely still. We’re gonna run the camera for a while and out of shot I’m going to flap a board so hopefully your hair will lift and move in the wind.’
Sarah held the pose. She was aware of a waft of air passing over her, but didn’t know if they were getting the effect they wanted. The pose was awkward, her weight unnaturally distributed, within a minute or so her right shoulder began to quiver in protest.
They hadn’t told her much about her character, so she made up her own scenario. It was in that house that she’d grown up. Her mother had died or left. She had suffered. Then one day she had run away. Now she was back, but somehow she was unable to move from this spot. The memories were too much. She could neither go forward nor back. There was no future and no past, only this empty field, this broken- down house and the wind gently rippling her hair.
Si dismantled the camera and followed the two women back to the van. Sarah wrapped herself in a blanket that smelled of engine oil and wet dog and ate a scotch egg without complaint. She was still in character; she let it wash over her, this sadness, this beaten-dog attitude, this sense of loss.
They did more scenes, Catrin and Si and Justin worked almost silently together, each seeming to know instinctively what was required of them. The absence of Morgana was almost as palpable as her presence.
The atmosphere during the journey home was giddy, as wild and silly as a children’s party. They played a game in which each of them sang show tunes and the others had to guess the musical. Then they sang as many songs as they could remember, gleefully at the top of their lungs. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ which Si knew the words to, while the others da-dummed between the bits they knew. Nodding heads in unison, in knowing and ironic parody of Wayne’s World.
Scaramouch, Scaramouch, can you do the fandango!
Every day of filming should have been like this, would have been if it hadn’t been for Morgana.
Ding dong the witch is dead sang Justin as if he’d read Sarah’s mind.
That night Sarah fell into bed exhausted, phrases from a dozen songs mingling in a mad melody that trilled in her head. She set her alarm for five a.m. She had almost entirely forgotten Morgana, her ugly face and bad, pockmarked skin, her nasty greasy hair, the animal smell of her.
‘I watched the rushes last night,’ Catrin said the next day. ‘I’m really pleased with it, you’ve all done a brilliant job, especially you, Sarah.’
Outside the sun shone brightly, though to the north, blue-black clouds were gathering.
Sarah wondered why they tolerated Morgana. She grew more determined that Catrin’s film be a success and that in itself was like putting a foot upon the serpent, Morgana’s, throat.
The weather worsened as they neared Blaenau Ffestiniog. The mountains loomed, black and implacable, with silvery slivers of waterfalls here and there, and black lakes, and white specks of improbable sheep.
Catrin parked on the verge of a broad lane, one part of which was bordered by high hedges and led into a wood while the other led to a farmhouse that clung to the hillside some way off.
‘There they are!’ Catrin said, and Sarah saw Morgana and a tall man, the other actor, ambling down the track from the farmhouse.
‘You guys start unloading, I’ll be back now,’ Catrin said, then she got out of the van and jogged up the path to meet Morgana and the stranger.
After twenty minutes or so, Morgana and the man turned around and went off in the direction they had come.
‘Okay,’ Catrin said breathlessly, ‘Sarah, costume. Justin, Si? Can I have a minute?’
Sarah slithered into the bedraggled dress for the last time. It was as if she were donning the shed skin of her character, assuming the mantle of a woman unlike her real self; a wilder creature, a victim, but also one capable, when cornered, of terrible brutality and rage. She pictured her bare foot on the neck of her vanquished enemy once more.
Where had that image come from? It was Old Testament. Vengeance is mine. An eye for an eye. The old fire and brimstone preachers rising up from their barren tombs, shaking their fists at the Sodom and Gomorrah cities of the twenty-first century.
A stone that becomes a bird.
A bird that becomes a flame.
She let the ideas and images flow around her. Snippets and scraps of scenes from films and books and things from her childhood and dreams. Opening the doors to them, instead of slamming them shut with logic.
She shivered, closed her eyes for a moment, hugging herself.
The last day.
Catrin led Sarah and the two young men up the lane into the forest, all of them carrying pieces of equipment. Sarah with a blanket over her and trainers on her bare feet. How strange they must have looked; three young anthropologists leading their captured feral woman back into the woods.
They left the path and entered the pine forest. The trees were regularly spaced and hardly anything grew underneath, giving it a sort of harsh beauty quite alien from the natural deciduous forests of oak and elm, with moss and bluebells and mushrooms underfoot.
In a clearing under a high ridge Catrin stopped and put down the camera. ‘Okay, Sarah, can you stand behind that tree there. We’ll begin filming when I shout action but I’d like you to count up to 60 seconds then slowly come out from behind the tree; look around until you’re looking up there, turn around a few times, then walk away from the camera. We’ve got a long view of the woods and I want the figure to keep going and keep going until you’re only a tiny speck.’
Sarah nodded. No words now. Sarah was gone. There was no Catrin, no film crew. Just this creature with no name.
By the tree Sarah shed her shoes and the warm blanket. Goosebumps rose up instantly and her nipples hardened in protest. She heard, ACTION! Closed her eyes and counted; one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi and when she got to sixty she slowly, gracefully, moved from behind the tree.
She was in the moment. Lost in the zone. She did not think about the camera trained on her, or on three sets of eyes studying her, urging her on.
She gazed about her, looked north, south, east, west, then over at the spot above and beyond the camera. She did not want to catch a glimpse of the camera crew as she did this, but she was genuinely surprised to note that she could not see them. It was as if they had evaporated.
Turning, turning, in her bare feet, like a clockwork toy as its mechanism winds down. Underfoot, earth and pine needles. Ants and beetles. The scurrying highway of minute life. Under stones, spiders and woodlice. Underground, worms and twisted roots and moles.
Then her back was to the camera again and she began the journey forward, away. Off in a straight line into the forest. Off until she could no longer be seen.
She walked slowly, concentrating mainly on staying in a straight line which, given the trees and fallen branches, was harder than she might have imagined.
The part of the forest Catrin had selected for this scene was perfect and afforded Sarah the longest distance to go in one direction without a slope or a natural outcrop to hide her from view.
So she walked, sometimes imagining her figure shrinking in the distance as she did so. The choice of the ivory satin gown was perfect, nothing else, except perhaps a vibrant buzzy scarlet would show up so well against the dark browns and greens of the trees.
At one point she recognised the flaw in this plan, how should she know when she had walked far enough?
Oh, she would know.
Besides which, walking at this preternaturally slow pace and in such an alien and yet repetitive landscape disturbed her judgement of time and space. How long or how far she had gone was in some ways merely a tautological riddle, her job was to walk until she disappeared.
Another minute. Another few steps.
The more we invest in something, the more we have to lose if our nerve fails us.
So Sarah continued on until she at last came to a dry stone wall, beyond which was a scrubby pasture. The edge of the forest.
She turned around and looked back the way she had come. The trees presented their same featureless regularity; there was no sign of life at their furthest reaches.
The pasture curved down to a copse of deciduous trees, near which twenty or thirty sheep pressed themselves together until, as she watched, one broke away and ran in that panicky silly sheep way, back up the hill, followed very swiftly by the others.
All she had to do was walk back the way she’d come.
The sun came out momentarily warming her skin. Her pace was more normal and after only ten minutes or so she saw the break in the trees and the glint of light upon a camera lens. She picked up her pace in anticipation of their pleasure at her performance; of smiles and hot tea from the flask and the rough warmth of the blanket around her shoulders.
She drew nearer still and saw them more clearly, Catrin standing with her hands on her hips, Justin holding the boom aloft, Si behind the camera. Just as they had been when she had set off. She hadn’t expected that, she thought they would have stopped filming by now and would be relaxing, eating their lunch or dismantling the equipment.
No one waved at her or even seemed to register her presence. A change of plan perhaps? As Catrin had been unclear as to where the film was going they may have decided upon this – to record her return just as they had filmed her walking away.
So I shouldn’t signal them, Sarah thought, I should just walk on as I have been, show no sign that I have even seen them.
She was perhaps forty yards away when she noticed a fourth figure join the group, the great halo of fuzzy dark hair told her immediately that it was Morgana. She walked behind Si and checked the monitor then nodded, raised her hand and pointed with one finger as if it were a gun in Sarah’s direction.
It seemed like some sort of threat. A childish playground sign. Bang-bang, you’re dead.
Sarah continued toward them concentrating her gaze to a place just above and beyond the camera, half daydreaming of how she could walk straight up to Morgana and, without a word, slap her ugly face.
She sensed movement near her, but did not turn to see what it was. A small animal or bird perhaps.
She has learned not to be distracted. Once on stage, playing Ophelia in a youth theatre production, swathed in trailing ivy and plastic flowers – There’s fennel for you and columbines – someone in the front row had a seizure, metal chairs clattered and crashed, but Sarah went on – There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. Her voice was shaky and broken but unstoppable, because she was, as ever, hopeful.
So now this sudden noise, followed by another is ignored by Sarah, until suddenly there is something, someone standing directly on the path in front of her five or six feet away.
A man. Tall, dressed in black, a heavy coarse overcoat, black trousers, black shoes, a white cotton shirt closed up to the collar, with no tie. A chin that’s stained blue-black red with stubble and shaving rash. Lips narrow and pale drawn in a fleshless line. Black eyes in shadowed pits. Cheeks hollow under sharp bones, gaunt and unforgiving.
Sarah makes to go around him. He sidesteps to block her way.
She tries again, this time he raises each of his arms as if in anticipation of catching her.
‘Sarah,’ he said in a low whisper.
Her own name had never held such terror before. She spun out of reach so that all his hand caught was the trailing sash of the halter neck dress. She felt the bow at her nape unravelling swiftly and silkily, let out a scream and shot a hand up to stop the dress from falling.
‘Sarah!’ he said again.
She ducked underneath his grasping arms and turned sharply to her left and began to run down the steeply inclined hill. She ran wildly, tripped in places; picked herself up, fell again.
Cut, scratched, ripped, battered, dirtied, swiped by the low branches of spiteful scrubs, bruised by sudden protruding rocks. She came to a level piece of land where the trees were thinner, the undergrowth denser and her running was more controlled. Beyond one set of low bushes at what looked like the end of the tall pines, she saw a patch of unbroken sky. She raced for it; kicked through, thrashing her arms against the knot of vegetation, gritting her teeth, snarling with the effort then, triumph! She breaks through, pops out of the twisted tangle like a newborn. Out into nothing but air with no hands to catch her, and she is flying, falling, legs and arms comically pedalling as she goes.
Her finest hour.
And no stunt double, not even a straw-filled sack with a dummy’s bewigged head to crack on the river rocks below.
‘Stupid bloody bitch,’ said Morgana, staring down the steep hill in the direction Sarah had fled. ‘I knew she’d ruin everything, the stupid cow!’
She signalled to the film crew with a hand slicing at her throat. Cut.
Then turned to the other actor, noticing with disdain the powdery black shadows painted around his eyes.
‘Romantic rubbish,’ she muttered under her breath. ‘Stupid bloody bullshit.’
Catrin caught up with them.
‘Was that what you wanted?’ the man asked.
‘Kind of,’ said Catrin.
Then she looked off in the direction Sarah had run. ‘Sarah?’ she called. Then louder, her hands cupped around her mouth to project her voice further.
No answer came. Catrin sat down on the carpet of pine needles that covered the hillside. She sighed deeply. Images floated in her mind’s eye; the running woman, the woman searching amongst the scattered rags, the one of her sprawled at the bottom of the meadow with the ruined cottage in the distance. The perfect stillness of everything except for a few windblown strands of hair.
All of it better than she could have hoped for. And completed now by this absence. This beautiful haunting question mark.