Silencing the Echo

The black clouds unleashed their rain, pelt­ing Adlais’s face. The drops melted into her tears. Now, in the centre of the circle, the priests grip­ping her, she under­stood what happened to her friend Branwen.

Once again the crops had failed. The gods were angry. Someone in the tribe must be anger­ing them and the tribe would have to be cleansed. Adlais had been called to the priests, who had asked if she would sing at the cleans­ing. She had never liked cleans­ings, but it was import­ant it was done right, so she had will­ingly agreed and drank from the horn to sig­nify her sub­mis­sion to the gods. Now, barely an hour later, her head felt like it was split­ting, her ears rang with sound of her own heart­beat and her limbs jerked of their own voli­tion as the priest lis­ted her crimes.

Witnesses came into the circle to testify to see­ing events that had never happened, to spy­ing acts that had never been com­mit­ted. They briefly recited their words, as they had for Branwen last year. Then they scur­ried back bey­ond the safety of the ditch that sep­ar­ated the world from this cursed space. As always, the accused was chal­lenged to deny her crimes, but Adlais’s blood felt thick and pois­on­ous. The words would not come to her tongue. She had been on the other side too many times to hope that people would see her dis­tress. Her silence would con­demn her. Her spasms would be vis­ible evid­ence of the guilt tor­tur­ing her.

The judge­ment came. Adlais filled with fear. Not for her­self, her future was as obvi­ous as the grave in front of her, but for her fam­ily and her friends watch­ing from bey­ond the ditch. They were des­per­ate, hop­ing this cleans­ing would finally rid the land of the blight. But what gods would be appeased by falsehoods?

It was almost a relief when the last act came. The blow to the back of her skull sur­prised her, as she dis­covered the pain in her head could indeed get worse. She stumbled, then fell into the pit dug for her, to the cheers and relief of the watch­ers. Still awake, she lay in her final bed as the priests began to cover her. Adlais cried. Not for her­self but for the friend she had aban­doned a year ago.

Adlais slept, or at least she dreamed.

She dreamed of the passing of time and the turn­ing of the sea­sons. She dreamed of the circle being aban­doned by a dimin­ish­ing tribe. She dreamed of oth­ers com­ing much later clad as though they wore chip­pings from the sun in their clothes. Still the sea­sons turned in her world, lim­ited by the bank and ditch that marked the curse that held her inside.

Time eased her isol­a­tion. No one would want to spend time with an angry ancestor, but as people aban­doned the place, so new vis­it­ors came. Each year new lambs and calves would arrive to feed upon the grass. Maybe the circle was blessed, not cursed, as over the pas­sage of time Adlais could see sheep become wool­lier and cows become fatter.

Sunlight came as a shock.

She’d been aware of sun­light, but she hadn’t felt it for so long. She felt awake, alert for the first time should could remem­ber since… had she really been alert when she had vis­ited the priests on her final day? Could it be the longest dream? She stretched, or at least tried to, but she had the wrong body. Concentrating, she real­ised she was feel­ing the sun on one of her bones, a thigh. A woman in the strangest col­ours used the tini­est brush Adlais had seen to move soil from her bones. The sen­sa­tion was strange, intense, but not painful.

She heard the bleat of an annoyed sheep in the dis­tance. She must have heard bleat­ing in the circle, she must have seen its col­ours, but both felt entirely new.

She was keenly aware of the oth­ers in the circle. A woman was tend­ing to her. A young man with some kind of spoon was dig­ging away else­where. Were they desec­rat­ing the site? Elsewhere she saw artists sketch­ing, it was hard to tell. They were look­ing closely at the bank and mark­ing, maybe paint­ing, a can­vas of a type she had never seen. However, the biggest rev­el­a­tion was yet to come.

In the after­noon they lif­ted her from her grave. For once, she felt fear for her­self. Her bones were boxed sep­ar­ately, like the priests would do to cas­trate those who they thought could be prob­lem­atic ancest­ors after death. Had they a worse tor­ment planned for her? They lif­ted the boxes and loaded them into a chariot by the edge of the circle. Adlais looked for the horse, but there was none. The chariot was a beast itself and, with growl, it shook itself before mov­ing forward—beyond the circle.

Adlais’s world exploded.

Until now, Adlais’s world had been lim­ited by the ditch sanc­ti­fied by the priests. Even the bank sur­round­ing it was bey­ond her reach, so she could never see bey­ond it. She wasn’t cer­tain the world out­side was the same place.

The trees were gone. Her home hadn’t been thickly for­es­ted, they’d needed to grow crops, but the trees were a valu­able source of fuel and build­ing mater­ial. It was like a blight to end the world had hit the land.

How impov­er­ished could these people be without trees?

At the same time, the land looked chained. While truly tall trees were few and far between, the people here had gone mad with hedges. As if the whole land had been par­celled and boxed. It stretched to the hori­zon. Migrating to fresh land when the soil turned sour would be a long and ardu­ous trek here.

The chariot fol­lowed a path, beaten black by the wheels pound­ing it, pre­sum­ably. More than once they almost col­lided with a titan that passed by mere feet away to one side at enorm­ous speed. Even being dead could not free her of the ter­ror that filled her when another beast roared past.

The sun was low in the sky when they arrived at a gath­er­ing of houses, that almost defied descrip­tion. The houses, if that was what they were, were all much more massive than the grand­est halls of home. And there were so many of them. Not simply a dozen. Not even the scores she had seen once as a small child at a once-in-a-generation gath­er­ing. They uncount­able and they reached higher than even the largest burial mounds.

The chariot arrived at a build­ing that dwarfed even most other places she had seen. The interior was like a cave, cut by someone obsessed with straight lines. Inside was brightly lit, so that Adlais could see a mass of art. Some looked like ren­der­ings of places in such detail that she almost wondered if she were look­ing on to the real place. Everywhere were small, detailed curves, arcs and crosses, all regi­men­ted into straight lines. Presumably they had some mean­ing, but why so many, and why in such rigid lines was a puzzle.

Her bones were even­tu­ally placed into a cab­inet and some­how one of her vis­it­ors extin­guished the light here. She was both scared and thrilled. That night dis­cre­tion defeated valour. She did not explore this new place, instead she remained by her bones.

The next few days fol­lowed a routine. The people would come in and work well after sun­rise and leave well before sun­set. Every few days they’d spend two away for some reason. Familiarity, and frankly bore­dom, led Adlais to explore her world farther. She was cau­tious at first, but found she had a sense of where she phys­ic­ally was, even as her spirit wandered. Returning to her bones was simply a mat­ter of will. Finding her way around the build­ing was more work, but she soon recog­nised famil­iar places and if she was utterly lost she could return.

Communicating with her new com­pan­ions was more test­ing. They could neither see nor hear her. This was no sur­prise. She’d always known the ancest­ors were with her, but Adlais had never actu­ally seen or heard one. More frus­trat­ing was that she couldn’t under­stand their strange language.

The lack of under­stand­ing at home caused her to roam farther. While she could move any­where by thought, she had no idea of where she could go. Instead she fol­lowed the traffic as an invis­ible hitch­hiker roam­ing the land. She had never real­ised it was so large. Sometimes she reached ports with ships cross­ing the sea. She had heard of other lands, but so far she had shied from cross­ing the water.

After a couple of months she was spend­ing days at a time away from her bones, trav­el­ling fur­ther. On a whim she chased the sun­set. She didn’t find the house of the sun, but what she found held a greater treas­ure: words she understood.

She didn’t under­stand all of them. It wasn’t exactly as she spoke. The closest com­par­ison she could think of was of when her father and uncles would return home drunk. These speak­ers weren’t drunk, but they hovered on the edge of intelligibility.

With prac­tice she could retrace the route quickly from her bones, trav­el­ling in less than an hour. Eventually she found she could fol­low chil­dren who would gather for teach­ing most days. The les­sons she sat in on, unob­served opened the lan­guage to her, includ­ing the alien concept of read­ing. The fas­cin­a­tion of organ­ising scribbles into lines finally made sense.

Once or twice she tried to com­mu­nic­ate with the pupils who seemed more recept­ive, but her clumsy attempts only scared the chil­dren. After a few attempts she decided to leave the liv­ing in peace. Instead she would sit unseen in their classes and share in the won­ders they would dis­cover. She found the bored faces of the school­chil­dren com­ical. For her each day was filled with astonishment.

Even as under­stand­ing made her more famil­iar with her envir­on­ment, it also made it more alien. What shocked her most was the sense of scale. She’d never thought much about deep time, but she’d never heard much bey­ond four or five gen­er­a­tions past. Even the wisest priests rarely recited more than fifty gen­er­a­tions. She was aston­ished to learn that she had been born at least two hun­dred gen­er­a­tions into the past.

She came to real­ise that the people who had released her from the dark in some ways knew more about her than she did. They were never going to know her name, her friends or the details of her life, but in some ways she found they had found things about the way her world worked that she, as young girl, had never real­ised. Her name and her fam­ily might have been lost in time, but by bring­ing her to the light her res­cuers had at least ensured she was not com­pletely forgotten.

She was finally hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, of a curi­ous sort. Her bones would reveal details of her life to her vis­it­ors and they in turn would report what they had found about her place in time. The lan­guage of the east remained dif­fi­cult to inter­pret. It was no help that they would bury their find­ings with prob­ables and pos­sibles. Despite examin­ing her in ways she still didn’t fully under­stand in extraordin­ary detail, her res­cuers seemed reluct­ant to speak for her.

Then someone even­tu­ally did.

She stopped attempt­ing to com­mu­nic­ate with the liv­ing after see­ing how frightened they could be. So she had asked no one to claim her bones, but watch­ing a tele­vi­sion pro­gramme she learned someone had. She didn’t recog­nise the man who spoke for her. He railed against sci­ence, in a way that puzzled Adlais. She had lived in a time with no sci­ence to oppose, but her people had always had a rev­er­ence for wis­dom, which explained the power of the elders.

While the man did not speak her lan­guage, nor shared her beliefs, there was some­thing she did recog­nise, the tone of his voice. It was the speech of a man who knew bey­ond cer­tainty he was right. Nothing else was pos­sible. In his own words, he claimed a piety for nature, though he never explained how piety differed from intolerance.

The more she learned the more she felt dread in her soul. How could he know that her burial, in cursed ground, was a sac­red act? Yes, she was rest­less on the earth but, com­pared to the stupor of the circle, this was bliss. With so much to learn how could someone not be rest­less? In the years since her release she had chased the sun around the globe. She had felt sun­rise as she had gazed in awe at reefs in the Coral Sea. She had seen the reflec­tions of aurorae glim­mer on lakes in Finland and she had watched fiery lava burst from Kilauea.

Despite years to learn lan­guage and cus­toms, Adlais remained an unseen observer. She could only watch the pub­lic inquiry into her fate. The people who had brought her bones to light spoke about how much they had learned. They even offered a paint­ing. Born into a world without mir­rors, Adlais had rarely seen her own face, but she could see a like­ness to her sis­ter in the brush­strokes. For a brief moment she willed the paint­ing to be her own pres­ence in the room, to plead for her freedom.

The other side offered no such joy. Simply the cer­tainty that they were right. While they had been unaware of her exist­ence before excav­a­tion, they were emphatic that her removal had left them in pain. They spoke of the beliefs of people in other lands at other times, and claimed them as hers. They deman­ded respect, but offered none to their oppon­ents, labelling them crude grave-robbers.

After win­ning the argu­ment the priests pushed on for rapid reburial. Each day Adlais remained out­side the circle was a day of anguish, they claimed. In a way they were right. Once again Adlais could see a grave open­ing up in front of her. Once again she was power­less to speak in her defence.

The final day she tried with all her will to remain out­side the circle, but as soon as her bones crossed the bound­ary she was imprisoned. She was laid in the place she had tem­por­ar­ily escaped. Again the men chose to speak for her. They assigned her beliefs that she had never held and would never choose. Ultimately she coun­ted for noth­ing but the power of the priests. As sun­set came, the priests scattered soil over her bones. She could feel her senses fail­ing. The dying embers of the sun caught the fea­tures of head priest who was watch­ing her silently. Maybe it was des­pair, maybe it was simply an echo car­ried in the genes across uncoun­ted cen­tur­ies, but briefly she looked into the eyes of the priest who had con­demned her so long ago.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.