A Discovery in the Woods by Graham Greene

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Title for Graham Greene's 'A Discovery in the Woods', from The London Magazine May 1963

I

The village lay among the great red rocks about a thousand feet up and five miles from the sea, which was reached by a path that wound along the contours of the hills. No one in Pete’s village had ever travelled further than that, though Pete’s father had once, while fishing, encountered men from another small village beyond the headland, which stabbed the sea twenty miles to the east. The children, when they didn’t accompany their fathers to the shingled cove in which the boats lay, would climb up higher for their games — of ‘Old Noh’ and ‘Ware that Cloud’ — beneath the red rocks which dominated their home. Low scrub a few hundred feet up gave place to woodland: trees clung to the rock-face like climbers caught in an impossible situation, and among the trees were the bushes of blackberry, the largest fruit always sheltered from the sun; in the right season the berries formed a tasty sharp dessert to the invariable diet of fish. It was, taking it all in all, a sparse and simple yet a happy life.

Pete’s mother was a little under five foot tall; she had a squint and she was inclined to stumble when she walked, but her movements to Pete seemed at their most uncertain the height of human grace, and when she told him stories as she often did on the fifth day of the week, her stammer had for him some of the magical effect of music. There was one word in particular ‘t-t-t-tree’ which fascinated him. ‘What is it?’ he would ask, and she would try to explain. ‘You mean an oak?’ ’A t-tree is not an oak. But an oak is a t-t-tree, and so is a b-birch.’ ‘But a birch is quite different from an oak. Anyone can tell they are not the same even a long way off, like a dog and a cat.’ ‘A dog and a c-cat are both animals.’ She had from some past generation inherited this ability to generalize of which he and his father were quite incapable.

Not that he was a stupid child unable to learn from experience. He could even with some difficulty look back into the past for four winters, but the fur-thest time he could remember was very like a sea-fog which the wind may disperse for a moment from a rock or a group of trees, but it closes down again. His mother claimed that he was seven years old, but his father said that he was

nine and that after one more winter he would be old enough to join the crew of the boat which he shared with a relation (everybody in the village was in some way related). Perhaps his mother had deliberately distorted his age to postpone the time when he would have to go fishing with the men. It was not only the question of danger — though every winter brought a mortal casualty along with it, so that the size of the village hardly increased more than a colony of ants; it was also the fact that he was the only child. (There were two sets of parents in the village, the Torts and the Foxes, who had more than one child, and the Torts had triplets.) When the time came for Pete to join his father, his mother would have to depend on other people’s children for blackberries in the autumn or just go without, and there was nothing she loved better than blackberries with a splash of goat’s milk.

So this, he believed, was to be his last autumn on land, and he was not much concerned about it. Perhaps his father was in the right about his age, for he had become aware that his position as leader of his special gang was now too incontestable: his muscles felt the need of strengthening against an opponent greater than himself. His gang consisted this October of four children, to three of whom he had allotted numbers, for this made his commands sound more abrupt and discipline so much the easier. The fourth member was a seven year old girl called Liz, unwillingly introduced for reasons of utility.

They met among the ruins at the edge of the village. The ruins had always been there, and at night the children, if not the adults too, believed them to be haunted by giants. Pete’s mother, who was far superior in knowledge to all the other women in the village, nobody quite knew why, said that her grandmother had spoken of a great catastrophe which thousands of years ago had involved a man called Noh — perhaps it was a thunderbolt from the sky, a huge wave (it would have needed a wave at least a thousand feet high to have extinguished this village), or maybe a plague, so some of the legends went, that had killed the inhabitants and left these ruins to the slow destruction of time. Whether the giants were the phantoms of the slayers or of the slain the children were never quite clear.

The blackberries this particular autumn were nearly over and in any case the bushes that grew within a mile of the village — which was called Bottom, perhaps because it lay at the foot of the red rocks — had been stripped bone-bare. When the gang had gathered at the rendezvous Pete made a revolutionary proposal — that they should enter a new territory in search of fruit.

Number One said disapprovingly, ‘We’ve never done that before.’ He was in all ways a conservative child. He had small deep-sunk eyes like holes in stone made by the dropping of water, and there was practically no hair on his head and that gave him the air of a shrivelled old man.

‘We’ll get into trouble,’ Liz said, ‘if we do.’

‘Nobody need know,’ Pete said, ‘so long as we take the oath.’

The village by long custom claimed that the land belonging to it extended in a semi-circle three miles deep from the last cottage — even though the last cottage was a ruin of which only the foundations remained; of the sea too they reckoned to own the water for a larger and more ill-defined area that extended some twelve miles out to sea. This claim, on the occasion when they had encountered the boats from beyond the headland, nearly caused a conflict. It was Pete’s father who had made peace by pointing towards the clouds which had begun to mass over the horizon, one cloud in particular of enormous black menace, so that both parties turned in agreement towards the land, and the fishermen from the village beyond the headland never sailed again so far from their home. (Fishing was always done in grey overcast weather or in fine blue weather, or even during moonless nights, when the stars were obscured; it was only when the actual shape of the clouds could be discerned that by general consent fishing stopped.)

‘But suppose we meet someone ?’ Number Two asked.

‘How could we?’ Pete said.

‘There must be a reason,’ Liz said, ‘why they don’t want us to go.’

‘There’s no reason,’ Pete said, ’except the law.’

‘Oh, if it’s only the law,’ Number Three said, and he kicked a stone to show how little he thought of the law.

‘Who does the land belong to?’ Liz asked.

‘To nobody,’ Pete said. ’There’s no one there at all.’

‘All the same nobody has rights,’ Number One said sententiously, looking inwards, with his watery sunk eyes.

‘You are right there,’ Pete said. ’Nobody has.’

‘But I didn’t mean what you mean,’ Number One replied.

‘You think there are blackberries there, further up?’ Number Two asked. He was a reasonable child who only wanted to be assured that the risk was worth while.

‘There are bushes all the way up through the woods,’ Pete said.

‘How do you know?’

‘It stands to reason.’

It seemed odd to him that day how reluctant they were to take his advice. Why should the blackberry bushes abruptly stop their growth on the border of their own territory? Blackberries were not created for their special use. Pete said, ‘Don’t you want to pick them one time more before the winter comes?’ and they hung their heads, as though they were seeking a reply in the red earth where the ants were making roads from stone to stone. At last Number One said, ‘Nobody’s been there before,’ as if that was the worst thing he could say.

‘All the better blackberries,’ Pete replied.

Number Two said after consideration, ‘The wood looks deeper up there and blackberries like the shade.’

Number Three yawned. ‘Who cares about blackberries anyway? There’s other things to do than pick. It’s new ground isn’t it? Let’s go and see. Who knows . . .’

‘Who knows?’ Liz repeated in a frightened way and looked first at Pete and then at Number Three as though it were possible that perhaps they might.

‘Hold up your hands and vote,’ Pete said. He shot his own arm commandingly up and Number Three was only a second behind. After a little hesitation Number Two followed suit; then seeing that there was a majority anyway for venturing further, Liz raised a cautious hand but with a backward glance at Number One. ‘So you’re going home?’ Pete said to Number One with scornful relief.

‘He’ll have to take the oath anyway,’ Number Three said, ‘or else…’

‘I don’t have to take the oath if I’m going home.’

‘Of course you have to or else you’ll tell.’

‘What do I care about your silly oath. It doesn’t mean a thing. I can take it and tell just the same.’

There was a shocked silence: the other three looked at Pete. The whole foundation of their mutual trust seemed to be endangered. No one had ever suggested breaking the oath before. At last Number Three said, ‘Let’s bash him.’ ‘No,’ Pete said. Violence, he knew, wasn’t the answer. Number One would run home just the same and tell everything. The whole blackberry picking would be spoilt by the thoughts of the punishment to come.

‘Oh hell,’ Number Two said, ‘Let’s forget the blackberries and play Old Noh.’

Liz, like the girl she was, began to weep. ‘I want to pick blackberries.’

But Pete had been given the time to reach a decision. He said, ‘He’s going to take the oath and he’s going to pick blackberries too. Tie his hands.’

Number One tried to escape, but Number Two tripped him up. Liz bound his wrist. with her hair ribbon, pulling a hard knot which only she knew — it was for such special skills as this that she had gained her entry into the gang. Number One sat on a chunk of ruin and sneered at them. ‘How do I pick blackberries with my hands tied?’

‘You were greedy and ate them all. You brought none home. They’ll find the stains all over your clothes.’

‘Oh, he’ll get such a beating,’ Liz said with admiration. ‘I bet they’ll beat him bare.’

‘Four against one.’

‘Now you are going to take the oath,’ Pete said. He broke off two twigs and held them in the shape of a cross. Each of the other three members of the gang gathered saliva in the mouth and smeared with it the four ends of the cross. Then Pete thrust the sticky points of wood between the lips of Number One. Words were unnecessary: the same thought came inevitably to the mind of each one with the act: ‘Strike me dead if I tell.’ After they had dealt forcibly with Number One each followed the same ritual voluntarily. (Not one of them knew the origin of the oath; it had passed down through generations of gangs like this. Once Pete, and perhaps all the others at one time or another had done the same in the darkness of their beds, tried to explain to himself the ceremony of the oath: in sharing the spittle maybe they were sharing each other’s lives, like mixing blood, and the act was solemnized upon a cross because for some reason a cross always signified shameful death.)

‘Who’s got a bit of string?’ Pete said.

They tied the string to Liz’s hair ribbon and jerked Number One to his feet. Number Two pulled the string and Number Three pushed from behind. Pete led the way, upwards and into the wood, while Liz trailed alone behind; she couldn’t move quickly because she had very bandy legs. Now that he realized there was nothing to be done about it, Number One made little trouble; he contented himself with an occasional sneer and lagged enough to keep the cord stretched fight, so their march was delayed and nearly two hours passed before they came to the edge of the known territory, emerging from the woods of Bottom on to the edge of a shallow ravine. On the other side the rocks rose again in exactly the same way with the birches lodged in every crevice up to the skyline to which no one from the village of Bottom had ever climbed, and in all the interstices of roots and rocks the blackberries grew. From where they stood they could imagine a blue haze like autumn smoke from the great luscious untouched fruit dangling in the shade.

II

All the same they hesitated a little before they started going down; it was as though Number One had retained a certain malevolent influence and they had bound themselves to it by the cord. He squatted on the ground and sneered up at them. ‘You see you don’t dare…’

‘Dare what?’ Pete asked, trying to brush his words away before any doubts could settle on Two or Three or Liz and sap the uncertain power he possessed.

‘Those blackberries don’t belong to us,’ One said.

‘Then who do they belong to?’ Pete asked him, noting how Number Two looked at Number One hopefully as though he expected an answer.

Three said with scorn, ‘Findings keeping,’ and kicked a stone down into the ravine.

‘They belong to the next village. You know that as well as I do.’

‘And where’s the next village?’ Pete asked.

‘Somewhere.’

‘For all you know there isn’t another village.’

‘There must be. It’s common sense. We can’t be the only ones we and Two Rivers.’ (That was what they called the village which lay beyond the headland.)

‘But how do you know?’ Pete said. His thoughts began to take wing. ‘Perhaps we are the only ones. Perhaps we could climb up there and go on for ever and ever. Perhaps the world’s empty.’ He could feel the way that Number Two and Liz were half-way with him — as for Number Three he was a hopeless case; he cared for nothing, but all the same if he had to choose his successor, he would prefer Number Three’s care-for-nothing character than the elderly inherited rules of Number One or the unadventurous reliability of Number Two. Number One said ‘You are just crazy,’ and spat down into the ravine. ’We couldn’t be the only ones alive. It’s common sense.’

‘Why not?’ Pete said. ’Who knows?’

Perhaps the blackberries are poisoned? Liz said. ‘Perhaps we’ll get the gripes. Perhaps there’s savages there. Perhaps there’s giants.’

‘I’ll believe in giants when I see them,’ Pete said. He knew the shallowness of her fear; she only wanted to be reassured by someone stronger than herself.

‘You talk a lot,’ Number One said, ‘but you can’t even organize. Why didn’t you toil us to bring baskets if we were going to pick things?’

‘We don’t need baskets. We’ve got Liz’s skirt.’

‘And It’s Liz who’ll be thrashed when her skirt’s all stained.’

‘Not if it’s full of blackberries she won’t. Tie up your skirt, Liz.’

Liz tied it up, making it into a pannier, with a knot behind above the opening of her small plump buttocks. The boys watched her with a certain interest to see how she fixed it. ‘They’ll all fall out,’ Number One said. ‘You ought to have taken the whole thing off an’ made a sack?

‘How could I climb holding a sack? You don’t know a thing, Number One. I can fix this easy.’ She squatted on the ground with a bare buttock on each heel and tied and retied the knot till she was quite satisfied that the pannier was firm.

‘So now we go down,’ Number Three said.

‘Not till I give the order. Number One, I’ll release you if you promise to give no trouble.’ ’I’ll give plenty of trouble.’

‘Number Two and Three, you take charge of Number One. You’re the rear-guard, see. If we have to retreat in a hurry, you just leave the prisoner behind. Liz and I go ahead to reconnoitre.’

‘Why Liz ?’ Number Three said. ’What good’s a girl?’

‘In case we have to use a spy. Girl spies are always best. Anyway they wouldn’t bash a girl.’

‘Pa does,’ Liz said, twitching her buttocks.

‘But I want to be in the van,’ Three said.

‘We don’t know which is the van yet. They may be watching us now while we talk. They may be luring us on and then they’ll attack in the rear.’

‘You’re afraid,’ Number One said. ‘Fainty goose! Fainty goose!’

‘I’m not afraid, but I’m boss, I’m responsible for the gang. Listen all of you, in case of danger we give one short whistle. Stay where you are. Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Two short whistles mean abandon the prisoner and retreat double-quick. One long whistle means treasure discovered, all well, come as quick as you can. Everybody got that clear?’

‘Yah,’ said Number Two. ’But suppose we’re just lost?’

‘Stay where you are and wait for a whistle.’

‘Suppose he whistles — to confuse?’ Number Two said, digging at Number One with his toe.

‘If he does gag him. Gag him hard, so his teeth squeak.’

Pete went to the edge of the plateau and gazed down to choose his path through the scrub; the rocks descended some thirty feet. Liz stood close behind him and held the edge of his shirt. ‘Who are They?’ she whispered.

‘Strangers.’

‘You don’t believe in giants?’

‘No.’

‘When I think of giants, I shiver — here,’ and she laid her hand on the little bare mount of Venus below her panniered skirt.

Pete said, ‘We’ll start down there between those clumps of gorse. Be care-ful. The stones are loose and we don’t want to make any noise at all,’ He turned back to the others who watched him with admiration, in envy and hate (that was Number One), ‘Wait till you see us start climbing up the other side and then you come on down.’ He looked at the sky. ‘The invasion began at noon,’ he said with the precision of an historian recording an event in the past which had altered the shape of the world.

III

‘We could whistle now,’ Liz said. They were halfway up the opposing slope of the ravine by this time, and they were both out of breath from the scramble. She put a blackberry in her mouth and added, ‘They’re sweet. Sweeter than ours. Shall I start picking?’ Her thighs and bottom were scratched with briars and smeared with blood like blackberry juice.

Pete said, ‘Why, I’ve seen better than these in our territory. Liz, don’t you notice, not one of them’s been picked. No one’s ever come here. Those ones are nothing to what we’ll find later. They’ve been growing here for years and years and years — why, I wouldn’t be surprised if we came on a whole forest of them with berries as big as apples. We’ll leave these little ones for the others if they want to pick them. You and I will climb up higher and find real treasure.’ As he spoke he could hear the scrape of the others’ shoes, where they followed behind and the roll of a loose stone, but they could see nothing because the bushes grew so thick around the trees. ‘Come on. If we find treasure first, it’s ours.’

‘I wish it was real treasure, not just blackberries.’

‘It might be real treasure. No one’s ever explored here before us.’

‘Giants?’ Liz asked him with a shiver.

‘Those are stories they tell children. Like Old Noh and his ship. There never were giants.’

‘Not Old Noh?’

‘What a baby you are.’

They climbed up and up among the birches and bushes, and the sound of th. other’ diminished below them. There was quite a different smell here: hot and moist and metallic, far away from the salt of the sea. Then the trees and bushes thinned and they were at the summit of the hills. Looking backwards Bottom was hidden by the ridge between, but through the trees they could see a line of blue as though the sea had been lifted up almost to their level by some gigantic convulsion. They turned nervously away from it and stared into the unknown land ahead.

IV

‘It’s a house,’ Liz said Vs a huge house.’

‘It can’t be. You’ve never seen a house that size — or that shape,’ but he knew that Liz was right. This had been made by men and not by nature. It was something in which people had once lived.

‘A house for giants,’ Liz said fearfully.

Pete lay on his stomach and peered over the edge of the ravine. A hundred feet down among the red rocks lay the long structure glinting here and there among the bushes and moss which overgrew it — it stretched beyond their sight, trees climbed along its sides, trees had seeded on the roof, and up the length of two enormous chimneys ivy twined and flowering plants with trumpet-mouths. There was no smoke, no sign of any occupant; only the birds, perhaps disturbed by their voices, called warnings among the trees, and: a whole colony of starlings rose from one of the chimneys and dispersed.

‘Let’s go back,’ Liz whispered.

‘We can’t now,’ Pete said. ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s only another ruin. What’s wrong with ruins? We’ve always played in them.’

‘It’s scary. It’s not like the ruins at Bottom.’

‘Bottom’s not the world; Pete said: it was the expression of a profound belief he shared with no one else. The huge structure was tilted at an angle, so that they could almost see down one of the enormous chimneys, gaping like a hole in the world. ‘I’m going down to look,’ Pete said, ’but I’ll spy out the land first.’

‘Shall I whistle?’

‘Not yet. Stay just where you are in case the others come.’

He moved cautiously along the ridge. Behind him the strange thing not built of stone or wood — seemed to extend a hundred yards or more, sometimes hidden, sometimes obscured by trees, but in the direction which he now took the cliff was bare of vegetation, and he could peer down at the great wall of the house, not straight but oddly curved, like the belly of a fish or…He stood still for a moment and looked hard at it: the curve was the ‘enormous magnification of something which was familiar to him. He went thoughtfully on, thinking of the old legend which had been the subject of their games. Nearly a hundred yards further on he stopped again. It was as though at this point some enormous hand had taken the house and split it in two. He could look down between the two portions and see the house exposed floor by floor — there must be five, six, seven of them, with nothing stirring inside, except where the bushes had found a lodging and a wing flickered. He could imagine the great halls receding into the dark, and he thought how all the inhabitants of Bottom could have lived in a single room on a single floor and still have found space for their animals and their gear. How many thousand people, he wondered, had once lived in this enormous house. He hadn’t realized the world contained so many.

When the house had been broken — how? — one portion had been flung upwards at an angle, and only fifty yards from where he stood he could see where the end of it had penetrated the ridge, so that if he wished to explore further he had only to drop a few yards to find himself upon the roof. There trees grew again and made an easy descent. He had no excuse to stay where he was and suddenly aware of his loneliness and ignorance and the mystery of the great house he put his fingers to his mouth and gave one long whistle to summon all the others.

V

They were overawed, and if Number One had not so jeered at them, perhaps they might have decided to go home with the secret of the house locked in their minds with a dream of one day returning. But when Number One said, ’Softies, Fainties…’ and shot his spittle down towards the house, Number Three broke silence. ‘What are we waiting for?’ Then Pete had to act, if he were to guard his leadership to the end. Scrambling from branch to branch of a tree that grew up from a plateau of rock below the ridge, he got within six feet of the roof and dropped. He landed painfully on his knees upon a surface cold and hard and smooth as an egg-shell. The four children looked down at him with awe and waited.

The slope of the roof was such that he had to slide cautiously downwards on his bottom. At the end of the descent there was another house which had been built upon the roof, and he realized from where he sat that the whole structure was not one house but a succession of houses built one over the other and over the topmost house loomed the tip of the enormous chimney. Remembering how the whole thing had been torn apart he was careful not to slide too fast for fear that he should plunge into the gap between. None of the others had followed him; he was alone.

Ahead of him was a great arch of some unknown material, and under the arch a red rock rose and split it in two. This was like a victory for the mountains with which he was familiar; however hard the material men had used in making the house, the mountains remained the stronger. He came to rest with his feet against a rock and looked down into the wide gap where it had come up and split the houses; the gap was many yards across, but it was bridged by a fallen tree, and although he could see only a little way down, he had the same sense as he had received above that he was looking into something as deep as the sea. Why was it he half expected to see fishes moving there?

With his hand pressed on the needle of red rock he stood upright and looking up was startled to see two inscrutable unwinking eyes regarding him from a few feet away. Then as he moved again he saw that they belonged to a squirrel, the colour of the rock: it turned without any hurry or fear, lifted a plumy tail and neatly evacuated before it leapt into the hail ahead of him.

The hall—it was indeed a hail, as he realized, making his way towards it astride the fallen tree, and yet the first impression he had was of a forest, with the trees regularly spaced as in a plantation made by men. It was possible to walk there an a level, though the ground was hummocked with red rock which here and there had burst through the hard paving. The trees were not trees at all but pillars of wood, still showing in patches a smooth surface, but pitted for most of their length with worm-holes and draped with ivy which climbed to the roof fifty feet up to escape through a great tear in the ceiling. There was a smell of vegetation and damp, and all down the hail were dozens of small green tumuli like woodland graves.

He kicked one of the mounds with his foot and it disintegrated immediately under the thick damp moss that covered it. Gingerly he thrust in his hand into the soggy greenery and pulled out a strut of rotting wood. He moved on and tried with his foot a long curved hump of green which stood more than breast high — not like a common grave — and this time he stubbed his toes and winced with the pain. The greenery had taken no root here, but had spread from tumulus to hump across the floor, and he was able to pluck away without difficulty the leaves and tendrils. Underneath lay a stone slab in many beautiful colours, green and rose-pink and red the colour of blood. He moved around it, cleaning the surface as he went, and here at last he came on real treasure. For a moment he didn’t realize what purpose those half translucent objects could have served; they stood in rows behind a smashed panel, most broken into green rubble, but a few intact, except for the discolorations of age. It was from their shape he realized that they must once have been drinking pots, made of a material quite different from the rough clay to which he was accus-tomed. Scattered on the floor below were hundreds of hard round objects stamped with the image of a human head like those his grandparents had dug up in the ruins of Bottom — useless objects except that with their help it was possible to draw a perfect circle and they could be used as forfeits, in place of pebbles, in the game of ‘Ware that Cloud’. They were more interesting than pebbles. They had dignity and rareness which belonged to all old things made by man — there was so little to be seen in the world older than an old man. He was tempted momentarily to keep the discovery to himself, but what purpose would they serve if they were not employed? A forfeit was of no value kept secret in a hole, so putting his fingers to his mouth he blew again the long whistle.

While he waited for the others to join him he sat on the stone slab deep in thought pondering all that he had seen, especially that great wall like a fish’s belly. The whole huge house, it seemed to him, was like a monstrous fish thrown up among the rocks to die, but what a fish and what a wave to carry it so high.

The children came sliding down the roof bringing Number One still in tow between them; they gave little cries of excitement and delight; they were quite forgetful of their fear, as though it were the season of snow. Then they picked themselves up by the red rock, as he had done, straddled the fallen tree, and hobbled across the vast space of the hail, like insects caught under a cup.

‘There’s treasure for you,’ Pete said with pride and he was glad to see how they were surprised into silence at the spectacle; even Number One forgot to sneer, and the cord by which they had held him trailed neglected on the ground. At last Number Two said, ‘Coo! It’s better than blackberries.’

‘Put the forfeits into Liz’s skirt. We’ll divide them later.’

‘Does Number One get any?’ Liz said ‘There’s enough for all,’ Pete said. ‘Let him go.’

It seemed the moment for generosity, and in any case they needed all their hands. While they were gathering up the forfeits he went to one of the great gaps in the wall that must once have been windows, covered perhaps like the windows of Bottom with straw mats at night, and leant far out. The hills rose and fell like a brown and choppy sea; there was no sign of a village anywhere, not even of a ruin. Below the great black wall curved out of sight; the point where it touched the ground was hidden from him by the tops of the trees that grew in the valley below. He remembered the old legend, and the game they played among the ruins of Bottom. ‘Noh built a boat. What kind of a boat? A boat for all the beasts and Brigit too. What kind of beasts? Big beasts like bears and beavers and Brigit too…’

Something went twang with a high musical sound and then there was a sigh which faded into silence. He turned and saw that Number Three was busy at yet another mound — the second biggest mound in the hall. He had unearthed a long box full of the oblongs they called dominoes, but nearly every time he touched a piece a sound came, each a little different, and when he touched one a second time it remained silent. Number Two, in the hope of further treasure, groped in the mound and found only rusty wires which scratched his hands. There were no more sounds to he coaxed out of the box, and no one ever discovered why at the beginning it seemed to sing to them.

VI

Had they ever experienced a longer day than this even at the height of mid-summer ? The sun, of course, stayed longer on the high plateau, and they could not tell that night was already encroaching on the woods and valleys far below them. There were two long narrow passages in the house down which they raced, tripping sometimes on the broken floor — Liz kept to the rear, unable to run fast for fear of spilling the forfeits from her skirt. The passages were lined with rooms each one large enough to contain a family from Bottom, with strange tarnished twisted fixtures of which the purpose remained a mystery to them. There was another great hall, this one without pillars, which had a great square sunk in the floor lined with coloured stone; it shelved upwards, so that at one end it was ten feet deep and at the other so shallow that they could drop down on to the floor, on to the drift of dead leaves and the scraps of twigs blown there by winter winds, and everywhere the droppings of birds like splashes of soiled snow.

At the end of yet a third hail they came, all of them, to a halt, for there in front of them, in bits and pieces, were five children staring back, a half-face, a head cut in two as though by a butcher’s hatchet, a knee severed from a foot. They stared at the strangers and one of them defiantly raised a fist — it was Number Three. At once one of the strange flat children lifted his fist in reply. Battle was about to be joined; it was almost a relief in this empty world to find real enemies to fight, so they advanced slowly like suspicious cats, Liz a little in the rear, and there on the other side was another girl with skirts drawn up in the same fashion as hers to hold the same forfeits, with a similar little crack under the mount below the belly, but her face obscured with a green rash, one eye missing. The strangers moved their legs and arms, and yet remained flat against the wall, and suddenly they were touching nose to nose, and there was nothing there at all but the cold smooth wall. They backed away and approached and backed away: this was something not one of them could understand. So without saying anything to each other, in a private awe, they moved away to where steps led down to the floors below; there they hesitated again listening and peering, their voices twittering against the unbroken silence, but they were afraid of the darkness waiting, where the side of the mountain cut off all light, so they ran away, screaming defiantly down the long passages, where the late sun slanted in, until they came to rest at last in a group on the great stairs which led upwards into a brighter daylight where the enormous chimneys stood.

‘Let’s go home,’ Number One said. ‘If we don’t go soon it will be dark.’

‘Who’s a Faintie now ?’ Number Three said.

‘It’s only a house. It’s a big house, but it’s only a house.’

Pete said, ‘It’s not a house,’ and they all turned with one accord and looked their questions at him.

‘What do you mean, not a house?’ Number Two asked.

‘It’s a boat,’ Pete said.

‘You are crazy. Whoever saw a boat as big as this?’

‘Whoever saw a house as big as this?’ Liz asked.

‘What’s a boat doing on top of a mountain? Why would a boat have chimneys? What would a boat have forfeits for? When did a boat have rooms and passages?’ They threw their sharp objections at him, like handfuls of gravel to sting him into sense.

‘It’s Noh’s boat,’ Pete said.

‘You’re nuts,’ Number One said. ‘Noh’s a game. There was never anyone called Noh.’

‘How can we tell? Maybe he did live hundreds of years ago. And if he had all the beasts with him, what could he do without lots of cages? Perhaps those aren’t rooms along the passage there; perhaps they are cages.’

‘And that hole in the floor ?’ Liz asked. ‘What’s that for?’

‘I’ve been thinking about it. It might he a tank for water. Don’t you see, bed have to have somewhere to keep the water-rats and the tadpoles.’

‘I don’t believe it,’ Number One said. ’How would a boat get up here?’

‘How would a house as big as this get up here? You know the story. It floated here, and then the waters went down again and left it.’

‘Then Bottom was at the bottom of the sea once?’ Liz asked. Her mouth fell open and she scratched her small buttocks stung with briars and scraped with rock and smeared with bird-droppings.

‘Bottom didn’t exist then. It was all so long ago…’

‘He might be right,’ Number Two said. Number Three made no comment: he began to mount the stairs towards the roof, and Pete followed him quickly and overtook him. The sun lay flat across the tops of the hills which looked like waves, and in all the world there seemed to be nobody but themselves. The great chimney high above shot out a shadow like a wide black road. They stood silent, awed by its size and power, where it tilted towards the cliff above them. Then Number Three said, ‘Do you really believe it?’

‘I think so.’

‘What about all our other games. “Ware that Cloud”?’

‘It may have been the cloud which frightened Noh.’

‘But where did everybody go? There aren’t any corpses.’

‘There wouldn’t be. Remember the game. When the water went down, they all climbed off the boat two by two.’

‘Except the water-rats. The water went down too quickly and one of them was stranded. We ought to find his corpse.’

‘It was hundreds of years ago. The ants would have eaten him.’

‘Not the bones, they couldn’t eat those.’

‘I’ll tell you something I saw — in those cages. I didn’t say anything to the others because Liz would have been scared.’

‘What did you see?’

‘I saw snakes.’

‘No!’

‘Yes, I did. And they’re all turned to stone. They curled along the floor, and I kicked one and it was hard like one of those stone fish they found above Bottom.’

‘Well,’ Number Three said, ’that seems to prove it,’ and they were silent again weighed down by the magnitude of their discovery. Above their heads, between them and the great chimney, rose yet another house in this nest of houses, and a ladder went up to it from a spot close to where they stood. On the front of the house twenty feet up was a meaningless design in tarnished yellow. Pete memorized the shape, to draw it later in the dust for his father who would never, he knew, believe their story, who would think they had dug their forfeits — their only proof — up in the ruins at the edge of Bottom. The design was like this:Graham Greene Image

‘Perhaps that’s where Noh lived,’ Number Three whispered, gazing at the design as if it contained a clue to the time of legends, and without another word they both began to climb the ladder, just as the other children came up on the roof below them.

‘Where are you going?’ Liz called out to them, but they didn’t bother to answer her. The thick yellow rust came off on their hands as they climbed and climbed. The other children came chattering up the stairs and then they saw the man too and were silent.

‘Noh,’ Pete said.

‘A giant,’ Liz said.

He was a white clean skeleton, and his skull had rolled on to the shoulder-bone and rested there as though it had been laid on a shelf. All round him lay forfeits brighter and thicker than the forfeits in the hail, and the leaves had drifted against the skeleton, so that they had the impression that he was lying stretched in sleep in a green field. A shred of faded blue material which the birds had somehow neglected to take at nesting-time still lay, as though for modesty, across the loins, but when Liz took it up in her fingers, it crumbled away to a little powder, Number Three paced the length of the skeleton. He said, ‘He was nearly six feet tall.’

‘So there were giants,’ Liz said.

‘And they played forfeits,’ Number Two said, as though that reassured him of their human nature.

‘Moon ought to see him,’ Number One said, ’thatwould take him down a peg.’ Moon was the tallest man ever known in Bottom, but he was a foot shorter than this length of white bone. They stood around the skeleton with eyes lowered as though they were ashamed of something.

At last Number Two said suddenly, ‘It’s late. I’m going home,’ and he made his hop-and-skip way to the ladder, and after a moment’s hesitation Number One and Number Three limped after him. A forfeit went crunch under a foot.

No one had picked these forfeits up, nor any other of the strange objects which lay gleaming among the leaves. Nothing here was treasure-trove; everything belonged to the dead giant.

At the top of the ladder Pete turned to see what Liz was up to. She sat squatting on the thigh bones of the skeleton, her naked buttocks rocking to and fro as though in the act of possession. When he went back to her he found that she was weeping.

‘What is it, Liz ?’ he asked.

She leant forward towards the gaping mouth. ‘He’s beautiful,’ she said ‘he’s so beautiful. And he’s a giant. Why aren’t there giants now?’ She began to keen over him like a little old woman at a funeral. ‘He’s six feet tall,’ she cried, exaggerating a little, ’and he has beautiful straight legs. No one has straight legs in Bottom. Why aren’t there giants now? Look at his lovely mouth with all the teeth. Who has teeth like that in Bottom?’

‘You are pretty, Liz,’ Pete said, shuffling around in front of her, trying in vain to straighten his own spine like the skeleton’s, beseeching her to notice him, feeling jealousy for those straight white bones upon the floor and for the first time a sensation of love for the little bandy-legged creature bucketing to and fro.

’Why aren’t there any giants now?’ she repeated for the third time, with her tears falling among the bird-droppings. He went sadly to the window and looked out. Below him was where the red rock had split the floor, and up the long slope of the roof he could see the three children ambling towards the cliff; awkward, with short uneven limbs, they moved like little crabs. He looked down at his own stunted and uneven legs and heard her begin to keel again for a whole world lost.

‘He’s six feet tall and he has beautiful straight legs.’


May-1963-CoverThis story first appeared in The London Magazine May 1963.

Transcribed by Ludo Cinelli.