My Father’s Axe

These three stone tools date from the Stone Age. They were mainly used to cut down trees and chop wood but sometimes as weapons. The large polished axe was found in the Broadgate area of Preston and the smaller axe and large mace head were found in the Forest of Bowland.’
The Harris Museum

It’s not
one of those
new born-of-mountain
green-blue shiny polished
“wrap it up tightly” “do not get it dirty”
ceremonial “do not touch” “the Thunder God
at the top of the mountain who stands on a bull with
a bolt of lightning in his hand will blow your head off”
“only she who has bathed in the spring at the foot
of the Green Hill on the Water then walked
round it sunwise blindfold on one leg
after fasting for a year,”
kind of things…

No, my father’s axe
was split from an old flint
abandoned on the hillside slightly lopsided
blunt at one end sharp at the other like his temper.
He worked at it all his life – knapping, sharpening,
polishing between felling trees and splitting heads.
Grumbling, cursing, like the odd dwarf who
led him to it – a gift of the Sons of Stone,
from the Lord of the Mines
tapped from his veins.

There was flint in him,
my dad, flint and river water,
bulls and lightning too when
he wanted his own way…

This is my my last piece
of him chipped from the hills
where he wandered with the cattle
brought them home safely with
the hornless skulls of men.

Yet I am no axe-wielder.
I will bury it within – return it
to the mines of the Old Ones.
Sharpen and polish the stone
axe of this voice instead.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photograph.

Ribble Ancestors

Fists of Stone

The face of a Stone Age man from the North West… about 40 years old when he died
The Harris Museum

They’ve given you a face.

Taken your 5,500 year old skull,
added facial tissue and facial muscles –
temporalis, masseter, buccinator,
occipito frontals, nose, lips.

Decided upon your expression.

It’s 2019 and the ‘ug’ caricatures
and Flintstones references are behind us
yet there is flint and stone in your jaw.
Your shoulders are like a boxer’s

so I imagine you ‘putting them up’.

Fists of stone – you were a prize fighter.
You would have been the strong man
of your day, felling old bog oaks
with your rough stone axe,

pulling them two at a time,

the muscles in your back –
trapezius, rhomboideus, serratus,
teres minor
and major, thoracolumbar fascia
straining as your broad feet sucked
in and out of the marsh.

Your children swinging from
your broad arms like long-tailed tits –
countless, twittering, as you tossed them
like juggling balls into the air.

Your wife liked to massage out
your knots and twists – tighter more oaklike
as you aged, treating each muscle
in turn like a polished stone,

tending to your calloused hands –

bathing your blisters, dabbing ointment
on your cracked knuckles, mending
your broken fingers with oaken splints.

When you fell like a tree,
not in battle but quietly on
your way back from the woods,
little birds in your branches,

muscles knotting one last time,

she did not carve your head but your fists
in stone, cast them into the river
with the oaklike log
of your corpse.

The little pebbles
of your pisiform bone,
metacarpals and phalanges
can be found on the riverbank
where she once grieved.

~

Cribra Orbitalia

This is the oldest skull so far dated – to between 3820 and 3640BC… This woman may have suffered from anaemia, indicated by an area of pitting in her left eye known as cribra orbitalia.’
The Harris Museum

You were a pale child.

Always the first to tire
on the walk from camp to camp,
struggling for breath, clutching at your chest.
You said your head was light as a wisp of smoke
before you lay down and floated away.
You said you were a feather.

The reddest of meat failed
to bring a blush to your cheeks,
to keep you to the ground.

Often you touched the ridge
of your left brow and pressed
as if probing for the lesion.

When your skin turned yellow
as the beak of a whooper swan,
your eyes eerie and wolf-like,

you were exalted and they listened

to your visions of flying white-winged
to the distant north where frost giants fought
with fists of ice and the claws of bears
were hungry for your children.

When you returned with
seven cygnets ghosting from
beneath your right wing

they walked on egg shells
fearing you were the daughter
of the God of the Otherworld.

When you were found
with a single feather on your breast
it was said you flew with him to Cygnus,
rising on your last swan’s breath.

Now instead they point to the pitting
of your left eye and speak of cribra orbitalia –
the hypertrophy of red bone marrow, megabolasts,
megabolastic anaemia, lack of intrinsic factor,
the uptake of coblamin (vitamin B12).

And I try to hold both science and myth
in the cavelike porosities of your left orbit….

~

Shades of Blue

‘an older man who may have lived in the Stone Age as there is evidence that he has been killed with a stone implement, similar to the axes displayed’
The Harris Museum

You had a violent reputation.

It travelled with you across
the Water Country like the flies
on the back of the aurochs

who buzzed around the heads
of your enemies clotting like blood
around their pecked out eyes.

She always knew when you
were coming back by the noise
of the bluebottle… zzz…???

A flicker across the rush light.
Zzz… zzz…. zzz… unmistakeable.
A rush of dread as it was lit up on
the wall shiny iridescent blue.

When she was little she counted
its colours and gave them names like
New Dawn Blue, Noon Blue, Happy Blue,
Deep Waters, Dwellings in the Sea-Sky Blue.
As the shadows of her marriage darkened
she named them Twilight Blue, Indigo,
Bruise Blue, Black Blue of Murder.

Her hand went to her broken cheekbone.

She took the children to the Whistler in the Rushes.

In her hands she took the sharpened stone.

Nobody questioned or regretted your death:
“A crash in the night – so many enemies.”

Except the bluebottle who buzzed in circles
around your head, spiralling, spiralling upwards.
Death Blue, Decision Blue, Tear Blue, Last Bruise,
River-mirror Blue, Bright Blue of Freedom.

It disappeared as you sunk into eternal blue.

~

Loose Tongue

‘Experts disagree whether it is a skull of a woman or man. It’s smaller than other skulls found in the dock, but it has distinct male eyebrow ridges. There is evidence that this person may have died by from a weapon entering their skull. It may be the skull of a Roman settler or someone born in Iron Age Britain.’
The Harris Museum

No-one knew
if you were Roman or Briton,
noble or commoner, male or female,
only that you were not from the North.
The names of the gods mixed on your tongue
like wine and mead in the fortresses of the Otherworld.
“Vindos-Dis, Mars-Nodens, Apollo-Maponus,
Belisama-Minerva, Taranis-Jupiter.”

Your tongue got you into trouble
stirring the desires of the young but
allowing none to lift up your robe.

Everywhere you went there was gossip.

You’d come to the High Hills in purple
wearing sandals, golden bangles, golden rings
on your fingers and toes and a jewelled golden crown.
Come back down like madness to the Water Country,
ragged as a beggar, preaching of a world where
Roman and Briton lived in unison with no
divisions between man and woman or
wrong places to put one’s tongue.

A parochial chieftain hated your
androgyny and the hateful looseness
of your tongue so it was not long before
you were stripped naked and fishlike
beside the river before the gods.

The spear thrust into your mouth
did not stop your brazen tongue from
wagging on as the water embraced
you as both daughter and son.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photographs.

The Elk Pool

The elk found under a bungalow provides compelling evidence of a hunt in early winter 13,500 years ago. The badly injured elk escaped but died in a pool, whilst his human hunters went hungry.’
The Harris Museum

It was a time of hunger for hunters and for elk; all skeletal, ragged hip bones, like the naked birch. Snow fell on the heads of reeds, on bulrushes, on spiky sedge. The elk limped on, broad-footed, in his rolling gait, in spite of the barbed point stuck in the bone of his left foreleg. His hunters followed. For them with their two legs the wetland was treacherous, each patch of ice an unknown depth. Hunger, the gnawer of bellies and deadly as a spear in the guts, drove them on, following the prints.

At sunset they saw him illuminated before the blood-red sun and dug deep into a place beyond our understanding of endurance, readied bows, spears, called for blessings from the gods and spirits of the hunt. And they ran, as quickly as two-legged beings can, leaping between frozen tussocks of grass. For the elk had slowed and when he looked back at them they had seen his death in his eyes. The icy puddles and the pools glinted red with the sun’s reflection. Startled widgeon flashed up in a whistling flock and fled toward the coast. Somewhere a curlew called and called and did not stop calling.

The hunters ate the distance between them and the injured elk and also, it seemed, between them and the huge red sun. The elk limped and plunged. They released their flint-tipped arrows, singing through the air, thudding into his ribcage with thumps that sounded like the last heart-beat before death.

Stalwart, the fastest runner, the strongest hunter, sprinted up and thrust his spear into the elk’s chest. Its barbed point he had splintered from elk antler, carved, nocked, blessed, for this very moment in response to a dream. He clung onto the haft as the elk’s forefeet plunged onto ice, through ice, into water, as down he dove into the icy pool. With a crash, a splash, a splintering and bucking, both elk and hunter disappeared. All that was left as the sun sunk was a red pool and the curlew’s bubbling call.

The cold of the ice stole Stalwart’s breath before his lungs filled with freezing water. Something told him to let go of the spear, to swim up, to swim away toward the dim red light, yet he could not. It was if his hands were glued to it with birch bark tar – his fate and the elk’s bound together. They shared their final agony, the filling, the burning of lungs, the darkness of the deep growing darker, warm bodies entangling and growing colder as they floated down to rest together in a muddy bed.

***

When Stalwart opened his eyes the whole sky was crimson and the watery landscape a vivid blue. There was an elk-shaped hollow beside him, elk-prints leading away, reminding him briefly of something. Prompted by the hunting instinct within he got up and follow the prints through a landscape both strange and familiar – birch trees who greeted him with open arms, widgeon whose whistles contained messages he could not quite decipher, two long-legged cranes dancing in the distance.

As the light bled from the sky Stalwart lost sight of the prints. In the inky indigo of twilight the landscape became stranger, terrifying. A group of alders shaking their cones when there was no wind. One moment the grove was on his left and then it was on his right. Dark shapes began to pull and splash themselves out of the water. He began to run, tripped over what he thought was a root then realised was the leg of a man, lying face down, arrows and a spear-haft protruding from his ribs.

A memory tugged at him. Like a barbed point lodged within his chest. But fear drove him to flee. On and on, sinking waist-deep, feeling something slimy-cold and eel-like brush his leg, staggering out trembling. On and on not sure where he was going or whether he was getting anywhere. On and on until he looked back and was appalled by his guilty relief when he saw far behind him the dark creatures crowded around the dead man, necks sinking, heads rising, sharp teeth full of flesh as they fed.

As the light ebbed out of the sky flickering campfires flared up where he was certain no camp had been with the scent of smoke, and drumming – a beat that awoke something within him like a heart.

Its thump bore his steps, walking on water, to the camp of elk-skin tents. Lining each side of the way to the central tent, which was topped by a mighty pair of antlers, were people with drums and rattles, clad in elk-skins, with rattling bone necklaces. The men wore antlers and the women did not.

Some of the younger men and women were dancing ecstatically and all were shouting their welcomes.

“The Chief of the Herd returns.” “The Chief of Elk.” “Our Chieftain.” “The Timekeeper.”*

As Stalwart looked about him for this regal figure the crowd descended on him as one, fighting to touch his flesh. They lifted him up high, yanking him up by his armpits and waist, many hands on his thighs, knees, and lower legs, bearing him upright to the central tent and the woman before it.

She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was tall. Long auburn hair flowed over strong, broad shoulders. Her eyes were dark and liquid. Her lips looked soft as her large, bare breasts.

“My love you have returned,” she spoke softly as he was set down and she cushioned him in an embrace. After she kissed his stiff then unresisting lips and stepped back she said, “you are much changed.”

“I… uh… I think there’s been a mistake…” Stalwart stammered weak at the knees.

As the woman looked at him uncertainly an older man, with heavy antlers, leaning on a staff, reassured her, “Chieftess, he has spent long on the Otherside. Memory loss is common. Once he has eaten our food, drunk our drink, been re-crowned, our Timekeeper will recall himself and our stories.”

The Chieftess of the Elk took Stalwart’s hand and guided him gently into the central tent. She sat him beside her on a fur at the head of the tent and the rest of the herd seated themselves cross-legged on furs in a circle around the warm fire that blazed in the centre. How so many managed to fit into the tent, which suddenly seemed so warm and womb-like, so large and spacious, he could not guess.

Children entered with wooden bowls filled with birch leaves wrapped around mashed up bark. Stalwart knew he shouldn’t eat the meat of trees, the food of the Otherside, but he couldn’t remember when he last ate. He was so, so hungry. So he tucked in, chewing with strong molars, savouring the bitter taste, dimly aware of the chomping of the herd around him. The meal was washed down with cups of the blue, blue, water, the sweetest, clearest, purest water he had ever tasted.

“Now for his re-crowning,” spoke the old man. The herd got to their feet and cheered and roared as the antlers from above the tent were carried in and set upon Stalwart’s swimming head. They didn’t fit, they felt too big, they reminded him of something kicking in the water, yet he did not resist as they were forced down and stuck on fast. A heavy weight, an unbearable weight, for an imposter.

“Now, Timekeeper, do you remember?” asked the old man with a show of long yellow teeth.

A man, stuck with arrows and a spear face-down in the water, the dark things eating him. “No stories.”

“Perhaps,” said the Chieftess, glancing meaningfully around the gathering, “I may have a chance to revive his memory.

The herd exchanged knowing glances. When they had departed Stalwart slept with the woman. As he watched their shadows cast by the fire on the tent-walls he almost remembered someone else’s face.

When they were done she took his chin in her hand, turned it toward her, forced him to look into eyes filled with the shades of her strange land. “Do you not remember anything? Do you not feel?”

“No,” said Stalwart helplessly. “Nothing at all.

“You will,” the Chieftess embraced him fiercely, “you must,” almost crushing him. “For the fate of the herd depends on it. Only our stories maintain the Elk-Scape, keep the Dark Ones of the Seas at bay.”

***

The next morning Stalwart and the Chieftess left their tent with elongated faces ending in dexterous lips, thick furred coats, on four broad-footed legs. By day, at the head of the herd, they feasted on long tussocky grasses, reared up to tear down leaves from the highest birches, plunged deep into the pools and rose dripping with green tresses of underwater plants hanging from their mouths. When the crimson light began to fade and the dark things beneath the water to stir they set up camp.

After they had eaten and drunk, “last night,” said the old man, “we were lucky. Although another poor storyless soul was not. The Dark Ones feasted well, were well fed, on one newly passed, but tonight they will be hungry again. One of our herd, a piece of the Elk-Scape, will be lost if we have no stories.”

“Timekeeper.” “Chieftain.” “Please.” The herd implored Stalwart. “Our people are dying.” “Our land shrinks.”

Stalwart shuddered with guilt and fear as he recalled that horrible feast. “Is this true?” he asked the Chieftess.

“Yes,” she replied, squeezing his hand. “Please try to remember. For our people. For me.”

“Perhaps if you tell me a little about the Dark Ones that will jog my memory?”

“You once told us,” said the Chieftess, “that they are the last remnants of the primal waters of Old Mother Universe, the birthing and devouring goddess, from whose womb our world was born.”

Two bodies tangled together in the darkness and the tugging of a bond between them like conjoined twins.

“That the god who can not only control them but rides their fury is the Hunter, Lord of Death and the Deep.”

A dream of the Hunter gifting him an antler, guiding his hands as he carved and blessed the barbed point.

“He who favours neither man nor beast, hunter nor hunted, nothing but the thrill of the hunt, its finale. When we complained that antlers were not enough to defend us from the Dark Ones he gave us stories, and when they began to fail you went to the Otherside to the Man-Scape, to find new tales…”

“So I did,” it was not Stalwart who spoke but his story which seized his tongue. “I was born a man.”

The herd gasped in collective disbelief.

“A small boy in a land of water and ice. Three days after my birth a Wise Woman proclaimed that I would grow up to be a mighty hunter, and so it was, for I was shooting arrows before I could walk. Widgeon rained down from the skies and my barbed spears felled all my prey in one throw, but one elk.

“He haunted my dreams standing on the red horizon looking back at me with his death in his eyes. The Hunter said the hunting of the Chief of Elk was my destiny. The Wise Woman told me that it would be my undoing. I… fell in love…” he glanced guiltily at the Chieftess. “I had seven children. My herd, I mean my people, were hungry, we had nothing to eat. I swore I’d give my life to save them.

“When the Chief of Elk finally appeared I couldn’t believe I missed. That’s when the Hunter appeared in my dream. For seven days and seven nights and seven days again we tracked him and on the seventh night I killed him yet I lost my own life in the pool and here I am and…” as the realisation washed through him, “before he could make it back to his people he was eaten by the Dark Ones.”

“The Chief of Elk became a man?” “A man the Chief of Elk?” “Who is who?” “Are you truly our Chief?”

“I… really don’t know,” admitted Stalwart.

As he spoke laughter began to echo around the tent. Laughter that shook wooden bowls, rattled necklaces, like the wind tore away the tent flaps leaving only a mightier set of antlers above and their wearer on the back of a black water-horse with countless legs churning the skies, gnashing its teeth.

“Well, that’s a story to keep the Dark Ones at bay,” said the Hunter. “They’ll be fuddled for days and days can last forever in the Elk-Scape where the light and the land are held together by a good story.

“Yet on the Otherside the people you swore to stand by, for whom you gave your life, are starving. They too need stories, their Timekeeper, to stop the Dark Ones rising from the pools and from the Seas.”

As the first crimson light appeared Stalwart found himself submerged beneath bloody waters. This time he let go of the spear-haft that bound him to the man who had been eaten by the Dark Ones of the Seas. Lungs bursting, he struggled up, up and away from the sinking elk toward the patch of light.

His wife, Sinew, pulled him out, an auburn-haired, strong, broad-shouldered woman. His people roared and cheered, although they lamented their loss of the elk. They ate little but roots and bark that night, but Stalwart told them a story beginning, “I’m not who you think I am… I should explain…”

Afterwards the Timekeeper moved between the worlds, between man and elk, maintaining the stories. For many thousands of years the Elk Pool was known as a special and sacred place. When the last elk on the Island of Britain was killed he returned to the Otherside and his tales were forgotten. Since then there has been no-one to stand vigil at the pool and no words to hold the Dark Ones back.

When the bones of the Chief of Elk and the barbed point that bound two hearts together were dug up the Timekeeper returned from the Elk-Scape and my rattling fingerbones were seized by his story.

*The elk in the Harris museum has been nicknamed Horace from the Latin ‘Hour in Time’ or Timekeeper’.
**With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the image from a video display about the hunting of Horace in the Discover Preston Gallery.

Englyns on Auroch Skulls

Auroch Skull, the Harris Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staring from the museum
eye pits glare beneath fierce horns,
haunted wells of atrophy,
gazes flee their blind prisons

back to Taurean eras
of thunder down the river,
reeking ride of reddish hides
steaming wild to the water,

skidding sudden to a halt,
thick bones trembling, muscles taut,
bullish courage killed by fear
of men’s spears and swift assault.

Seeing skies alive with darts
herd wheels, swings and departs.
Knees buckle and hocks collapse
at the agony of barbs.

Most escape, some are slaughtered,
five stagger, tidal water
rises as they struggle and sink.
Its cold brink claims their corpses.

Tides turn. Sediments heap.
Silt and till on layered peat
bury bones in sunken sands,
erred, abandoned for centuries

until wrested from repose
five bovine skulls are disclosed
by dockland’s excavation,
shivering blind and exposed.

Breezes trace visages bared.
Tongueless trophies taste the air.
Denied thunder impaled rage
hangs displayed, an endless stare.

Skull songs lie trapped in the eyes.
Visions burst where times collide.
Bones cry for wind-swept stampede,
aurochs released to the wild.

Auroch Skulls, Harris Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

* This poem is based on a simplified variation of Englyn Cyrch, which I learnt from Robin Herne’s Bard Song.