Think of this place as it was then, an endless expanse of forest and fine green moorland rolling gently down in soft folds to a band of thick dank forest, then cliffs, then the sea and France beyond.
A few centuries before the first millennium, a Saxon youth of middling years, a shepherd, leaves his village before dawn to tend livestock (cattle, sheep and horses) in a meadow at the edge of the weald. He wears leather boots, a wool and linen shirt, a tunic of felted wool belted at the waist, and a heavy sheepskin cape which he fastens against the bitter cold with a silver buckle set along the edge with garnets. A pair of wolfhounds follows, snapping at the heels of a red ox he leads on a rope.
Yesterday it snowed, and the land lies still under a blanket of pale grey that will glow pink at sunrise. A wad of woollen felt insulates the shepherd’s feet from the frozen ground. He wraps his cape close around his body and walks quickly, pacing out the cold dark miles between the village settlement and his fields as he has done every morning since he was old enough to walk, secure in the knowledge (through two decades of experience, an average lifetime) that his enemies are wolves and bears and Viking invaders and hunger and cold, and that everything in his life has been seen before or told, or imagined.
He arrives at his inheritance, five hectares of hilly low chalk downs. The snow is deeper here, still heaped unmelting in soft pyramids on the backs of his horses (Exmoor mixed with native German stock), which stand quietly, head to tail for warmth. He grasps hold of the mane that lies along the thickly muscled neck of one mare and sweeps the snow from her back. Blinking through half-closed eyes, she pulls the pale lips of her muzzle back from long yellow teeth with a hiss of annoyance, which he ignores. His dogs box like hares, exhilarated by the unexpected brilliance of the day.
He sets off through snow for the far corner of the field where his cattle (stunted by any modern measure of the species) stand bunched together at the edge of the wood. Though warmer here, and shielded from the full force of the wind, their position is dangerous. The frozen carcass of a sheep reminds him of a week ago, a battle and wolves, and one of his dogs, throat ripped and bleeding to death, as the shepherd watched helpless in this field.
A dozen black pigs scatter at his approach. The cows barely look up, impervious to his presence and slow-witted in the cold. No scent of nearby wolves arouses the dogs. Thus reassured, the shepherd addresses himself to a pile of stakes, the height of a man and eight centimetres across, each cut from a straight new tree at the edge of the wood, stripped of its bark and sharpened at one end by means of a heavy, Roman-style felling axe of iron and ash. The tool doubles as a mallet; its weight would defeat most modern attempts to make it useful. He strains to drive his posts at regular intervals into the frozen ground as the cold bites his face and hands; later, he will weave branches through them to form a windbreak, reinforced and hardened with dung and mud.
By mid-morning, steam rises off his sweat-soaked back; arms shake with exertion as he battles the frozen turf. He stops for a meal of fatty mutton, hard cheese, and bread (unwrapped with stiff hands, eaten crouching, cape pulled round his shoulders), throws a chunk of gristle to one of the hounds.
The sky clouds over. By nightfall, he knows, the snow will melt and then by morning freeze again. Sighing, like any workman returning to a task in this or any century, he calculates the number of posts he must drive before returning home to his village — and a meal, and a night’s rest — when something glints through the small clearing at his feet. Pausing, curious, he bends down, parts the trampled undergrowth and picks out one, two, five, a handful of slim silver metal objects. They are so uniformly straight and smooth that he cannot at first absorb the fact of their perfection.
He has never before encountered such things, each as long as his little finger and as slim as a stem of wheat. Each finishes at one end in a tiny flat circle of unnatural precision, and at the other in a sharp, slightly flattened point. There are exactly a dozen of them and they are identical, impossibly so. He turns them over and over in his hands, one by one, then all together, jingling, correct in some dim awareness that they could not have been created in this century, by such men as he has known, or of whom he has heard.
He handles the objects carefully, can almost feel the blood pulsing, agitated, in his fingertips. Something unnatural (perhaps something evil?) may be signified by the presence here of such objects, or his discovery of them, or the mere fact of their existence. Has he been chosen, rewarded for his honest labour by this discovery?
Their creator may not be human, could not be. What superior being, he thinks, what warrior tribe?
Or: What malignant spirit?
He casts about in panic, seeing nothing but what is familiar: his ponies, pawing the snow with their sharp black hooves or tearing bark from trees at the forest edge; his cattle, still as stones, their heads lowered and turned away from the wind. The bitch barks once, anxious, seeking reassurance. His suspicions drift to the edges of the field, to the edges of his knowledge, where fear and false notions hide in shadows and in empty trees.
Returning slowly home before nightfall, he shows the objects to no one. For seconds at a time (distracted by hunger or thirst) he forgets that the things exist and in those instants feels ordinary once more. Then the noise or the thought or the memory of them transports him back to awareness: of the mystery, and his ignorance.
At last he turns to his wife’s father, descendant of a Roman warrior, whose ancestor told tales of Roman cities, and beautiful women and boys, and streets paved with glass and gold. His treasures include an elaborately carved seal of swirling midnight blue and another of amber, and bright gold coins stamped with the profiles of distant emperors. Yet despite inheriting so rational a culture, the old man examines the objects with trembling hands, warning the shepherd of the existence of elves: cruel, malevolent beings as likely to corral and murder a man’s entire livelihood on a frigid dark night as breathe.
And so, winter becomes a trial. The shepherd must guard his animals day and night against the presence of phantoms, creatures worse than those he has encountered in the flesh. Night after freezing night he paces his fields, resting only in snatches, wrapped tightly against the temperature as the icy fog rolls in from the sea, filters through the damp wood, and pours out again in whitish clouds across the downs. A smouldering fire and the two dogs keep him warm; fend off sleep and death by surrender to cold or worse. Sometimes, when the extremes of fatigue close his eyes, he catches glimpses of wicked beings in flickering focus pointing long fingers at his face and grinning at him with huge mouths full of broken teeth. Their crackling voices mock him in dreams and he seeks refuge in consciousness and what he knows: the ragged familiar warmth of his dogs and the oily smell of sheep’s wool in his nostrils. He sees the outlines or hears the soft presence of stags and boar and hares; he returns to his village for food and the welcome sight of men in whom he dares not confide.
Time passes and his animals, the dead ones and the living, keep him alive.
Spring comes and the cattle thrive, shedding their heavy red winter coats in dense handfuls as the air warms and brings the colour of clover and wild orchids to the hills. His cows, heavy with twins, low softly to notify him of their predicament as they give birth standing up to one or sometimes two nearly-black calves with huge knees and the soft eyes of angels. He cleans the birth blood from their limbs and slits the throats of those too weak to survive, and then, despite their weight, carries the dead calves home on his shoulders. The meat of newborn calves is considered lucky.
In less than a month there are twenty new calves and sheep, and nearly as many pale, white-muzzled foals. The sight of such bounty fills him with pride, estimable shepherd that he is. Christian or pagan, he loves the beasts of his field, such beasts as he has tended and fed and willed to survive, protected from war and theft, starvation and disease. His days now are filled with pleasure and unspoilt joy; the soft spring air, and happiness, smooth the anxious lines from his face and fill him with simple optimism.
And then from the corner of one eye (and the corner of one field), he catches sight of something bright white and floating on the wind. Now it drags across the meadow, catching and tripping over wild thyme and new shoots of grass, now soaring up above his head. It looks joyous, dancing. The beauty of it stops his heart, and the fear of it too, for it is like nothing he has ever seen, so white, so smooth, and weightless.
He approaches it, delighted and aghast. His dogs bound and chase the thing as easily as if it were a butterfly or a seagull strayed inland, and for an instant the good shepherd wishes (in a fervent manner consistent with the concept of prayer) that the vision would resolve itself into something familiar, some flora or fauna of his world – less beautiful, and less awful to behold.
It settles on the field and rests trembling, rectangular and nearly inert, thin as a feather or the edge of a blade. He calls off his dogs, who would plant gigantic paws on it, kill it in play.
Closer. Kneeling now, his heart thunders in his chest. The sound of his own fear deafens him.
He reaches out one hand, and the object flickers on a breath of air, appears to consider flight once more and then changes its mind. It lies, shivering slightly, sensitive and highly-strung as a hare. Once more he reaches out and once more it seems to draw back from his touch.
The thing, when at last his fingers touch its surface, feels smooth and cool, and grasping the nettle, so to speak, he lifts it aloft gently on the palm of one hand, then lets go. It floats to earth in a manner that enchants him, swinging gently left, right, left. Curiosity overcomes fear and he picks it up and releases it again, jerkily this time as a breath of air snatches it sideways so he has to run and stop short, surprised by the sudden vertical descent and its landing at his feet. The wind has flipped it over and now he peers closely at the marks on its underbelly.
The shepherd can read the basic language of his tribe insofar as his life requires it: the name on a coin, or deed to his land, or a declaration of war. But this script is unreadable, flat and tiny and seemingly without inflection.
For the second time in as many seasons his heart sinks and the fear of spells and unknown evil cause him unease. If only he could decipher the words, for he knows they are words. But they mean nothing, remind him of nothing he has seen before.
CANON COLOUR COPIER 5100, the words spell out, in hieroglyphics from another age, INSTRUCTIONS FOR USE, PLEASE READ BEFORE DISCARDING PACKAGING. The cryptogram continues, spilling out line after line of mysteries. He stops counting at many hundreds and there are double that number again.
He holds the precious thing gently, carries it with exquisite caution all the way to his home in the village, and there, with his wife, shoos the animals and children from the hut, clears a space and lays the thing down, stares at it, mesmerized and frightened in equal parts by its fragile beauty. He takes out the silver pins, secreted in a narrow hole dug in the clay hut wall and together man and wife compare the magic objects: she exultant, he appalled. He reaches no conclusion because there is none to be reached.
Finally, exhausted, he sleeps. His wife wakes him in the deepest part of the night, disturbed by the sounds he makes.
Upon waking, the brutal isolation of his plight settles on him like a choking blackness.
His life, however, continues, as it must. He is a shepherd, after all, and his animals (though no doubt susceptible to strong magic, whatever the source), appear thus far impervious to the signs that have chosen his simple life to invade.
He returns to the fields, instructs his dogs to separate ten of the calves from their mothers, and all the colts. Nearly a season old and grown fat on milk and meadow grass, they mutter and bay for the smell of a familiar teat, but (maternal instincts exhausted) no creature moves to reclaim her young.
The shepherd will travel to market at Lewes, but first, according to custom, he slaughters a calf for his village, and (alongside the farmers) gives thanks at the waning of summer for a year of peace and plenty, and perhaps also for the two strange gifts, on the chance that they turn out to be gifts.
As he sets off before dawn, his wife chases after him, begging him to take the objects to market where they might be exchanged for glass, silver, or wine. But the shepherd sends her back. They are not like baubles or beads to exchange for luxuries, this much (this little) he knows.
With his dogs and the young animals, he travels the eight miles of dirt track and arrives in good time to cross the river Ouse and settle on a favourable position with grass and water. Livestock buyers have travelled from as far away as London for calves reared on the rich meadows of the South Downs and within a few minutes of the shepherd’s arrival, a farmer from Otford buys the calves and pays from a purse at his waist without delay, as if worried the shepherd might change his mind or the price. The other creatures sell in twos and fours and by mid-day are gone.
A sense of sadness overtakes him. He knows that some of his animals will provide mounts for warriors and some meat for farmers, that their lives (as surely as his) will end and be forgotten, and in any case he will never see any of them again.
Walking homeward with his dogs, he wonders at the lost transparency of his days.
All that he observes he has observed before.
Day becomes night and night fades to dawn and soon the chill and the darkening days remind him how quickly time lays waste to everything that grows.
The arrival once more of winter and the pursuit of his livelihood occupy him completely. But eventually, through the inevitable processes of thought and the fact that despite the simplicity of his occupation the young man lives vividly in his mind, eventually the fact of the strange objects, of their mystery and his inability to explain or even imagine a process by which they have come into existence, eventually, they invade his every waking hour, corrupting him with the drip drip drip of questions in the manner of water dripping on stone, harmless at first, gentle, rolling off the impervious skin of history and routine, and only later creating a dent, and then after the dent, a hole.
So that when the third sign appears, he is not surprised; it being the thing for which he has been patiently, fearfully (in secret, a secret kept even from himself) waiting.
His dogs hear it first and freeze, ears flickering as they cast anxious glances towards the far end of the upper field. He keeps them at his side, close at hand, in case. In case of what, he does not know.
The thing, when he finds it, is small and square and silver with a tinny screech of a voice, a goblin’s voice. He squats and picks it up, tentatively, fearfully, yet not without excitement. Perhaps the voice will tell him things, or at least explain its presence in this place. The bitch hound, braver of the two, sniffs it, would like to lick it, but the shepherd pushes her head away. Her mate cowers unhappily. If he could crawl backwards on his haunches all the way to their point of departure in the lower field, he would do so.
The shepherd runs his fingers nervously over the surface of the object, encounters a ridge along one edge and inadvertently pushes the volume up to maximum. BONG, BONG, BONG, the sound of time in the twenty-first century assaults the ears of two hounds, numerous cattle, ponies and a handful of sheep, none of whom (after a moment or two during which ears twitch with the questions: danger? food?) shows any sign of interest in the discovery.
The shepherd drops the thing and retreats, terrified, leaving the voice where he found it, too frightened to lay claim or hold it any longer in his hand. If it is trying to tell him something, he disappoints it by failing to understand.
That night in his hut his head fills once more with fear and something else — a glimpse of another world, though what world and how it abuts his own remains as dark and distressing a mystery as ever. He tosses wretchedly, wondering what is required of him.
In the morning, grim and exhausted, he returns to his field as he must. At first, all that greets him is silence; his wish, his dearest prayer, appears to have been realized. He will not look at his dogs nor acknowledge their superior powers of perception, for how can he fail to know that the thing still whispers where he left it in the high grass, beckoning to him with its insistent voice. And so, resigned, drawn by a force greater than any he controls, he seeks it out again, sends his hounds ahead to lead him to it, as if he couldn’t follow the path of trampled grass back to where he left it only a few hours ago.
He finds it again, helpless and inert, yet even now glinting metallic reproach in the sharp winter light like a god. Its voice no longer shouts questions at him, but murmurs in a tinny whine, which, to the shepherd, sounds more urgent than before, and frantic with tidings.
The hoarseness of its voice torments him. Perhaps by picking it up he has injured it. A choking sound catches in his own throat, of despair, and the inability to make some vital connection. Never have the limitations of his knowledge manifest themselves with such devastating clarity.
He picks up the murmuring thing, holds it gently to one ear. Supermarkets will be air-conditioned, says the voice. Sell petrol. Lend money.
He listens, aghast, as the words pour out at him, faster now even than before, words he can hear but can not put pictures to. Traffic jam on the M11, shortage of flu vaccine, rayon socks, motorcar, diary. He drops the thing as if burnt and runs like a child, like a ewe from a wolf. And yet, where can he run? To the home he has built with his own hands, now inhabited by strange ghosts dug into the walls, whispering in jangling harmony with his wife’s greed?
He sleeps in the field with his dogs, prowls by day at the edge of the woods with his animals, and still he hears the voice. Family values, democratic reform, rainwear, spectacles, Secretary of Transport. Wellington boot.
He cannot sleep. A deep fracture runs through the centre of all he has ever known to be true: that there is one life, that it is here and now and infinitely familiar to him. One of his cows, a wound on her udder untreated and septic, lies down in the field to die, unnoticed by the shepherd. His dogs whine and cower, held rapt in the grip of his fear. Tears slide silently from his eyes.
Finally, unable to stand the noise, or what he imagines he can still hear, he begins to race, blindly, back along the path he has trodden twice a day or more for all the days and the seasons and the years of his life, back towards the village, down the hills, across the wood, past the cliffs and the sea, to his hut, where he collects the objects, tucks them into his tunic and returns, stumbling now, with terror and exhaustion, to the field.
He can still hear it, or has the voice invaded his head? Transubstantiate, wide screen, antioxidant, pineapple, arthritis, stiletto heel. The words run together in unfamiliar cadence, too faint, almost to hear.
Shaking with terror, he scoops it up, holds it at arm’s length and once more begins to run, back along the path toward the village, down the hills, across the wood, until he reaches the white clay cliffs forming a low but significant barrier between the sea and the land. He is gasping when he arrives, and the tide is high, so the waves crash against the foot of the cliffs as if willing them to collapse and give way and allow the sea free access to the land, which, in the fullness of time, they will achieve. With each exhalation of the sea, the shingle rattles out, only to be hurled back again in seconds with the full force of the moon’s fist. Being a shepherd, he is frightened of the sea and cannot swim.
Telephone, lemon, poodle, office block, safe sex, esplanade, font. The wind blows fiercely, the sky is nearly black, furious with storms; seagulls and the sound of waves accompany the mystical mutterings, the taunting reproach pouring forth from the little box.
The shepherd reaches into his tunic for the nails, hurls them with all the strength in his arm and wild-eyed, watches them fall into the sea. Then the copier instructions, crumpled, murdered and thrown over the edge of the cliff. The paper falls lightly, gracefully towards oblivion. It comes to rest at last on the dark surface of the waves, but only for an instant before it fills with water and is sucked down and under into the black depths. The shepherd’s face twists with anguish as he curls his fist around the almost imperceptible whispering of the radio, most feared and fearful of the signs (ice cube, honorarium, hypothetical) and willing the hesitation from his soul, he hurls the thing as far out into the darkening wash as his arm will allow. He watches as it soars up into a perfect arc (domestic abuse, trampoline), away from the cliff, and out, and out, dropping at last to meet the sea. He can hear the faint traces of its desperate voice until the very last second (snack food) when it drops into the turbulent depths and drowns, and dies.
For a long time he stands without moving, looking out towards France in his rough Saxon clothes with the icy wind in his face and his hounds quiet and still by his side. The things are buried now, under tonnes and fathoms of dense salt sea, and at last (at last!) he is free. And yet, as it begins to rain and the rain turns to hail, he continues to stand and stare, far out into the future, dreaming of lycra and pale blue iPods and other thrillingly distant portents of doom.