Teeth of the hill

Words by:
Maxim Griffin
Featured in:
January 2024

Up the chalk – on the flint – new boots turning the clay – big coat weather – a trusted overcoat is more suitable than waterproofs – reliable and ancient herringbone – a collar to hunker into – the trees are showing their bones – a squall of leaves – the combination of decay and gravity – copse ahead – a hundred or so sentinels, mixed deciduous – an exposed spot – the Wolds are a brown chessboard scored by the rain, the wind and the drone of arterial traffic.

Other counties would have a name for the hill, something tump, something clump – here old maps mark it with a single inked tree and new ones don’t seem to bother – even on the most recent satellite images the hill is obscured by cloud – perhaps this is a good thing – some places ought to remain an enigma.

Fresh treads on new boots hold a new sole of slick clay – it peels off in one greasy layer with a stick leaving a cast of that particular footstep – one could bake it and set it in plaster, if one had the inclination – something pops elsewhere – jackdaws scatter as if they’d been waiting for the starting gun – that feeling of sudden weight and wings in the air – the jackdaws clatter and call and swing back into the ruined canopy of the copse, settling high up in silence – a volley of rain lands hard and passes fast, hammering across the hill and off east.

Reaching the top, weathered and muddy – crossing an ankle-high tangle of old brambles and into the shelter of the small wood – there used to be a sign here that said Keep Out, it’s gone so best keep in – the ground dips in – mostly beech and sycamore – they’re shielding the weather for the most part – drier underfoot, a bit of crunch to the leaf debris – chalk and flint grin from the earth – the bare bones of a promising node – won’t budge – work around it with a stick – it’s big – push the stick down, find an edge, a little purchase – the stone won’t budge – clay keeping it – something crunches – a visitor? Sure that was footsteps – nothing but the wind.

Prying the flint out of the earth
A bigger stick is needed – something to pry that flint out of the earth – plenty of deadfall about – but most of it is lace with fungi and soft to the touch – an old limb that seems solid has a corroded heart but has enough strength in it to act as an improvised crowbar – the extraction continues – a combination of push and jemmy – the flint shifts in slightly from its gums – the jackdaws stir – the flint shifts, a sucked toffee slurp, an oyster shucked – it comes free – a mostly full lump the size of a smaller dog or the leg bone of a particularly big pig – all joints and sockets – heavy too – much more so than expected – clean some of the muck off and inspect the prize – there’s a hole – straight through – three fingers wide – this stone is a keeper – in the old days, that unspecified area of the past, hole stones, especially flints were prized for their protective properties – guard your horses from the dark arts, reveal the true form of the sorcerer, that kind of thing – it’ll make a fine addition to the collection – a natural Barbara Hepworth – the question is getting it back home.

Someone there in the corner of the eye – no, just a tree – the flint just fits in the rucksack but sits awkwardly at the small of the spine – grin and bear it – the rain passes over the fields with the menace of a slate grey serpent – cold – coffee then – flask of thick, strong stuff from a friend in Lebanon – rocket fuel that takes the edge off and inspires renewed efforts and invincible thoughts – did someone speak? Turn around – jackdaws – nothing, nothing but that feeling of presence – no, nothing, just the weather.

Homeward bound
Time to haul this stone home – it squeezes into the sack leaving no room for the flask – fine – coat pockets are deep enough – the sack goes on, heavier than expected, carriable but heavy – the nodes of flint stick in below the ribs as though it were something you really should get checked out – no matter – once crossed the Black Mountains with four broken toes – onward – first steps against the rain – looks as though it’s getting brighter, sun’ll be out soon – second steps – the jackdaws flinch – third steps – the straps of the rucksack break and the big flint falls to the sound of a curse – never mind – it can be restitched, needed a bit of TLC anyway – the rain digs in again.

The other option is to carry it home by hand – it’s a good stone, so worth the hassle – holding it to the edge of the copse is easy enough – the hole in the flint offers a bit of grip – it slips but is caught, a new boot catches something else – old bramble tangles with fresh, wet laces – gravity does the rest – landing on the stone with force enough to shock away the jackdaws and to possibly break a rib – no, just stuffing knocked out – brushing leaves and what have you off – point taken – the jackdaws agree – the hill wins – keep the flint – carrying it back to the site of extraction and sinking it back into the gummy depths of the clay – hole back in the hole – stone back in the hill – cover the rest with the leaf debris and leave that one good node sticking out for the next rock bothering shill to stumble over – that feeling again – that feeling of something just out of the corner of the eye – look – it’s starting to brighten up – a swig of coffee before the off – that tell-tale glassy splosh – the flask’s innards must have shattered in the fall – the old Thermos has finally given up the ghost – onward then, with a broken flask, a torn rucksack and bruises yet to appear – should have known better than to take teeth from the hill.

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