12th March

The Skull

for Ange

‘Now,’ the old woman said, ‘before you go up there I want to introduce you to someone.’

She moved to the shelves lined with bits of stone and bone, the fragments of prehistory. She moved slowly, not because she was sore or stiff, but because she had passed the age of hurrying, for anything. Her face was like a pencil drawing, cross-hatched and grey.

‘Here,’ she said. ‘Meet the ancestor.’

Her thin, strong fingers lifted it, the small brown skull like a helmet. The mandible missing, but five long teeth hanging from the upper jaw. The nasal cavity where a mouse might have made its nest, the eye sockets deep and sulky, and in their recesses tunnels back to where the brain once sat, sending and receiving messages, taking on and defeating the world day after day and storing its victories away. The mottled crown, pitted and smoothed, a stone rolled by a million tides.

It wasn’t an archaeological site, it was a croft with a tomb, and the house was not a museum. In a museum the curator wouldn’t be an old woman in a cardigan, inviting us to feel, to touch the past. Rain battered the window behind her.

‘Take it,’ she said, ‘she’ll not bite. Hasn’t bitten anything for five thousand years. Bonnie, isn’t she?’

And she was – that half-mouth’s grin, that cranium map of however many years she’d lived, that stony vault from which she’d seen an island of stone. I held the skull and felt someone’s breath on my neck, but there was only you and me and the old woman.

‘Follow the path along the fence,’ she said. ‘When you get to the entrance you will see a flat board on wheels, like a big skateboard, and you will lie down on that and push yourself in, then send the board back out for the other one. Lie flat and you will not bang your head.’

‘You’re not coming too?’ you asked.

‘Och no, I don’t go out these days, not in weather like this anyway. But you’ll be fine, it’s dry inside. Cosy, it would have been.’ She held out her hands for the return of the skull.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Harmonium: Kit Downes
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