Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Guest Writer: Sandra Davies

Curve of Early Learning

“Mind the edge!”

A warning since before memory, always an edge to beware, to be forever aware of.

First, at Liddle, had been slabs, as thick as three of her three-year-old fingers, flat patterned stone, hard and often sharp when new, both separating bed from bed and on which they lay, degree of comfort dependent on the depth and newness of the heather piled thereon. Their edges had too often bruised or marked her, although in time more so by accident, in darkness or too many people in the space. Sometimes her brothers pushed her, but less so once she had learnt to scratch and pinch.

And beside the central fire the stone slabs sunken in a square, a fifth slab as a base, joints sealed with clay so as to stop stone-heated water seep away too fast. Here the need to watch for hot for heat stayed long after fire had gone and pain from heat was different, and far greater. And pain could be from ashes or the splashes from the water or the spitting from the meat when it was cooking.

And as she gained years the edges of her wanderings extended, beyond the need to stay in sight: first of her mother then of the younger boys she was required to watch.

Later still, and with her father, walking to another edge, the edges of their family land, land long belonging to their family, their families and their ancestors. A time of light, near always light, she had not noticed it before, had slept despite the light before, and her father had reminded her, had told her of the inbetweentimes of the almost always dark time which also came with greater cold and wind and wet. That year the edge she saw of land was where the land met land; stones and hollows and narrow running water marking boundary lines between the edge of what was theirs and what was not.

Not until another dark and the following time of light, when she was surer-footed, did he take her to the edge of land itself, to where the land did stop and the bones of land were visible, stone slabs laid down, layer piled on many layers, beneath the thinnest layer of soil and grass. Slab upon slab, just as they built their shelter walls, but these high stack-piled edges were pounded endlessly by mass of pushing heaving water - her father said it never stopped, was ever-present noise and movement, as was the movement of the air, although air changed in noise and where it came from, and how strong and whether warm or fierce or flecked or filled with water.

From here she saw the final edge, where far-off edge of water met the that-day light-filled sky, and she wanted urgently to know and asked her father and he told her he did not know, that no-one knew, but that if she looked to where the sun was now, midway between the edges, in between its coming and its slipping down, below its highest arcing in the sky she would see that there was more land, that the water did not go on forever, but that where the sun slipped out of sight, there again was where no-one he knew had known or seemingly could ever know.

Three or four more light-dark times and then she did know more. Knew then that men could come from the edge of sky met sea, knew then that men could hurt as much as edge of stone, as much as heat and even more, another hurt that did not mark her skin, could not be seen but gave an edge of hurt to everything that came thereafter.

One man had later been less hard, had tried to make amends and after she’d lain down for him, and then again to birth his son – more hurt but yet another kind - had given her a ring, shiny black and heavy on her finger, as his hand had been on her at times. But time did thin the edge of hurt, of people known and now long gone, and he was not so hard as many, so that when he died and his bones stripped and laid at Isbister with others, honour made with totem white-tailed eagle bones, and when soon after she was taken by another, she broke his ring as symbol of her hurt – this time an empty aching hurt - at losing him.

[Isbister, in Orkney, is the location of what is now referred to as the Tomb of the Eagles, a Stone Age burial chamber where half of a jet ring was found in 1976. Subsequently the tomb was excavated and found to contain some thirty human skulls and hundreds of bones from humans and white-tailed sea eagles. Ten years later the second half of the ring was found and given to the farmer who had discovered the first for him to place them back together for the first time in more than 5000 years – an act which, he said, ‘caused the hairs to stand up on the back of his neck’. Liddle is the site of a nearby dwelling, identifiable from its square stone water sink wherein hot stones were laid to heat the water after heating on the hearth and before being placed on the burnt mound midden.]

© Sandra Davies 2011

Sandra Davies is an artist and printmaker and recently-emerged writer of fiction, with a long-established interest in family history. Born on the Essex coast, she now lives in Teesside in the north east of England, both places having the flat landscapes and sea-edged horizons considered essential for a sense of well-being. More writing can be found at lines of communication and some prints at Print Universe
This piece can be found in Sandra's excellent book Edge which comprises Curve of Early Learning, Arc of Adaptation, and Circle of Celebration


  1. What a life she led. You've painted quite a scene. I will think about this through the night. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I've never been to Orkney, but you create a bleak environment that feels in tune with what I know of the land there. A kind of keening.

  3. This is a refreshingly different look and mindset, taking those things that face us - we confront, learn and ultimately act upon. But of couse, Sandra had made the mundane, every-person-does-this, into a woven tapestry to ultimately discover emotions!

  4. Sandra, that was the most fascinating thing I have read in months. Your voice was so clear and insightful - you gave us a truly remarkable story. I think the eagles and the people rest more softly from your telling of their tale.

  5. Excellent blend of history and humanity Sandra. Your chameleon voices continue to surprise me.

  6. This makes two Orkney tales now that have fascinated me. Clearly, Orkney goes on the list of places I will see when I visit. I especially liked the cadence of this piece. Were you playing with rhythms when you wrote it? You've done a royal job with fact-based fiction in the past year. I hope you know you're really good at this genre!

  7. so much history in your words and you write them in an authentic way no one else could, sandra.

  8. I think the tone and the rhythms here are marvelous. And it's interesting: I didn't quite know if this was a prehistorical or post-apocalyptic setting. What you've done really well is, among other things, give us stages of the girl's childhood and teenhood is sharp, clear, brief strokes, a hint of the relations between the generations, and how the relative lack of technology shaped their view of the world. Good work!
    I do think that the second-to-the-last paragraph could be a little more concrete; I couldn't figure the nature of the hurts these strange men inflicted "that did not mark her skin, but gave an edge of hurt to everything that came after."

  9. I have to agree with several others...the first thing that jumped out at me was the rhythm and the seamless sentences that made this a breeze to read. Great tale, Sandra.

  10. Thank you all. This was a story I worked hard with to ensure that the antiquity of the voice came over as intended, and yes the rhythm was important too. I've been visiting Isbister since 1982 and Ronnie Simison, the farmer who put the ring together, told me the tale himself, as he told us of his discovery and initial excavation of the burial chamber. I've held the skulls and seen the bones and lain in the tomb, and stood by the hearth at Liddle - it's a deeply heart felt story, and was important to me to tell it. MuDJoB was the perfect place for such a tale and I'm grateful to Michael for accepting it so promptly and enthusiastically.

  11. The other comments peg the same high points I experienced in this read. Few writers' tales demand my rapt attention and focus and succeed my readers' appetites. Your work does this with consistency and with surprising variety. Kudos!

  12. This is fantastic. I will read this over many times. I loved the repetition which creates a dramatic tension. The end is a release.


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