After seeing the oak tree it was easy for Neave to find the path to the heart of the village.
“Where is everybody?” Sierra asked as they walked into a small yard surrounded by conjoined houses. Desolate and damaged buildings had given way to sturdier ones, wires and rusted satellites hanging from windows, bolted into walls crumbling in yellow dust over loose doors leading into pigsty’s smelling of feces and blood. Tennis rockets of a decaying green were barred between boards nailed into crooked sheds containing molded nuts and dried herbs hung from rusted hooks on walls black with time and ash. Nature crawled over lamp poles lacking bulbs and webbed its way over natural protruding rock, white marking a pathway leading to a mansized oven filled with child’s summer shoes and magazines with faces dated ten years back. It was an anachronism that made Neave tremble with newfound nostalgia.
“There isn’t anyone here anymore. They all…died.” Neave knew with a certainty the person she had come to see here had perished as well long ago. “It’s a ghost village.” Stood there in the middle of it all, Neave recalled the presence that once made this place a living thing.
“This is the village?” Sierra captured the emptiness waiting to see if ghosts would emerge in the Polaroid once she shook it. The three living houses and the barn made for a small world.
“Over time it became that. The wells down in the valley dried and there was not enough water. It drove the people who were still alive to go up the hill and settle in with the wealthier families. Over time they became one. They stayed here for over 100 years, created this area to live close to one another. Almost like one big house. Until there were only five left,” Neave explained useless memories filling the space where she needed the healthier ones, the truth and clarity.
“Which one is your family’s house?” Ambrose stood next to her. Neave pointed to the crooked construction sitting in the middle of the yard. It had a porch aligned with white flower pots but the flowers had waned and only hard soil filled them.
Neave’s gaze filled with lament. She tried to picture it all as it were when she was a child, when she was young. Sweat and blood, hard work and calloused hands, vibrant dialect and echoing songs carried over vast hills overgrown with tobacco, the strange touch of newly shed wool, the stench of guts mixed with shit – all were present under layers of dust and abandonment and Neave took it all in, recalling whatever she could. Her memory had been meddled with; it was not on her own volition that she was a stray without a shadow. Outer help had canceled her existence allowing only short sighted memories and grief and detachment to remain. And this here, a distant home that was never a home. The call of her name upon familiar lips, feminine and gentle but weak with age transformed into the soft whisper of Ambrose raking her out of the past and into the present.
“Neave? Are you feeling alright? Do you want us to go back?”
She declined the offer as the feeling of belonging was somewhat more reachable. Above all the floating sensations familiarity escalated and she wanted more. Neave wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve.
“I think it was the oldest or so my grandmother used to say. I remember sitting on the porch and looking at the-“
Neave tried to remember but she fell in a loophole, memory leaking again. Ambrose caught her, a reassuring smile returning his dimples.
“It’s alright, take your time.”
Again he went first exploring the house, testing the wood, a boot against the floor thumping to raise dust and memories.
“Looks like it was raised from stone and earth!” Ambrose said.
“Boulders brought from the river in ox carts,” Neave remembered. She was surprised the details came to her with such an ease when a fuller, more recent memory was impossible to comprehend. “Over the masonry they used boards crossed with beams and covered that with mud. You can pretty much see the earth pattern on the floor. They made a tracery out of two sets of beams and twined that with oak sticks.”
“Covered it again with mud mixed with straw, right?” Ambrose asked.
Neave nodded. She took the stone steps and crossed over to the unsteady floorboards following Ambrose. The door that had once been shut was ajar, the wire used to twist around the nail to keep it close gone and the latch loose. The primitiveness allowed them to duck into the stale air and gray dark. The beds, twins in size and knitted covers, were still at their places, but the mattress stuffed with old clothes to fill the space was slumped, yellow with black and green and mold from water dripping out of the cracks in the ancient roof.
Sierra’s footsteps were much quieter but the snap of her camera was loud. She had framed the window overlooking the rolling hills. As Neave drew circles in the dust on the table and opened jars collecting dead flies, Sierra had rested her eyes firmly on the small window frame, sneaking closer to it. Her voice came surprised. “That is a formidable rock if I’ve ever seen one. Look, can you see it?”
Ambrose and Sierra tried to distinguish it through the small rectangle fragments of the unwashed window but Neave knew from where she could see it clear. She went back out to the porch where a red carpet was draped over the DIY bench and sat herself there. She fixed her eyes on the greenery swooshing under some distant wind. It was so simple to remember now.
“I used to sit on the porch and look at the cave.”
Ambrose and Sierra joined her on the porch. On the mountain face jutted out a rock formation and they could just barely catch the opening to a cave before it disappeared bellow the trees.
“Inside that cave lived the Fox?” He asked through a chuckle.
“My grandmother used to tell me that a large fox lived in a cave under that rock. It would come at night through the tall grass and sneak into the chicken box. Four chickens it would eat on the first day and four more on the tenth and it would always come for more avoiding all traps and hissing at the gunshots instead of running. I dreamt to see that fox all my childhood. I thought I could see it come through the woods, through the valley, hear the soft thud of its paws because it was always so quiet up here.”
“What about the legend?” Sierra asked toying with her camera. Ambrose sat beside Neave lighting a new cigarette. He settled on her line of view. Neave leaned, back against the house. She watched the empty bulb socket rock above her head. It would get dark soon and there would be no light.