“Stars and Stones”
by Paula Hammond
In this flat land, nature is our constant companion. On wild days, visitors become flesh-bows, spines curved, heads arrowing forwards through the buffeting turmolt. There are mornings when fog-shrouds hover like kestrels, and all we see are feet and ankles, bobbing faces, and the occasional hand, reaching out through the ashy air to caress us. At other times, ice wraps itself around us with the passion of a lover and there we stand, awkwardly entwined, a gestalt entity transformed by hoar-frost into a thing of feathery wonder. Twice a year the Sun rewards our constancy with a dawn caress that warms our petrified hearts, but she’s a rare visitor to these wind-swept plains.
For millennia people came to this chalky plateau to till the land, fell the tress, and carve their byways into the limestone. Through it all, we have endured. We may be lesser now than we were then, but time does that to us all.
The oldest of us are the sarsens—hunks of stone thrown up by glacial ice 66 million years-ago and looking like we still feel the chill. Uprooted from nearby hamlets, we were given a place of distinction in these rings of earth and wood. Our bluestone sisters hail from further afield, plucked from their bedrock, hauled over hill and river. They travelled 160 miles as the raven flies to be finally set, here, amongst the bones of esteemed ancestors.
They chose us carefully—those strange, new people. They knew the way of things and understood that not all stones are friendly. So they cast the bones. Read omens in bloodied entrails. Channeled us. Promised honor. Worship. A purpose. We didn’t necessarily believe them, but we liked the sound of it all the same.
In our number and in our positioning, our axe-hewn forms were placed to echo the motion of the heavens. To tell the story of the stars. And, as they changed, we too were reshaped and remade to reflect the shifting lunar and solar cycles. The form you see today is simply our most recent: a monumental calendar built by a people whose night sky was full of stories.
Only one of us—the misshapen heel stone—has been here long enough to see it all. Her memory stretches back to a time when the Moon hung large and heavy. A time of sudden cataclysms and painful, new beginnings. She claims to have been the one constant in an ever-changing landscape. The henge, she says, was built for her and around her. We think it best not to argue.
For most of her existence she has been alone with her thoughts and the vaulted canopy, above. Over our planet’s 26,000 year axial procession, she has witnessed over a dozen different Pole Stars. When this ring was newly built it was Thuban, in the constellation of Draco, that guided visitors to our sacred avenues. But Thuban—a pale and inconspicuous light—is invisible now in the polluted skies and Polaris has taken her place in a celestial relay which sees the role of Pole Star pass from one star to another as the Earth slowly shifts on its axis.
It was through these avenues that people would come on festival days, on market days, and at the turning of the seasons, to gaze up at a gleaming zodiac. Around them, we would stand in sentinel silence and watch and listen as they spun myths of ethereal bodies in thrall to a yellow Sun. They knew, then, the names of every twinkling filament and, for each, there would be a story and a moral to relate. Here, they would say, is Betelgeuse, one of the most dazzling stars in the firmament. To modern eyes, it is nothing more than a variable super-red giant, at the end of of its long life, brightening and fading over a cycle of 400 days. But we stones remember how the ancients told it: a legend of a hunter forever chasing the object of his desire across the darkened sky. Never quite attaining his goal but never completely losing his quarry either. On and on he races, in a torment of endless hope and loss, until the stars grow cold and finally he can rest.
Everyone, then, knew the tale of Gemini. Not twins but two men battling for the love of a coquettish lady dressed in sunburst red. And the story of Rhiannon, a goddess on a white-winged horse endlessly quartering a sky as shimmering as a fish-filled ocean.
Some might think that it is the Sun who is our mistress but really we only come alive at night.
On a clear evening, the human eye can see 9,000 stars. We stones see further. 380 billion heavenly bodies in our own galaxy. There, Jupiter’s stripes and swirls—in reality freezing clouds of ammonia and water suspended in an atmosphere that is toxic to man. There, the Orion Nebula, a stellar nursery, where gas and dust clouds noiselessly rumble before giving birth to brand new stars. There, Sirius’ shy pup—a bloated, ancient sun that’s collapsed into a white dwarf, but looks like a faint spec besides its more luminescent binary. There, tumbling asteroids and flame-tailed meteors. We see it all: a universe of mysteries and marvels laid out above our heads.
It seems to us odd, then, that no one ever looks up any more. People come to visit, as they always have, but no one knows or cares to tell the old tales, either. It’s sad, but it is the way of things. We elementals appreciate change more than most. The world has changed, and perhaps we must too.
An eye-blink ago, on our timescale, some of our sisters noticed the belching chimneys, felt the stinging rain, heard birds singing to artificial dawns, and decided it was time. Time to move on. We listen, now, as the guides tell earnest tourists how some 67 of the original henge stones are missing. Stolen, re-cut, and reused, they claim, in some terrible act of Medieval vandalism. The truth is that we elementals still have a little of the old magic left. Our companions merely shook off their calcified skins and slipped away into the wider world.
We do not blame them, but when the dry summers come, their footprints materialize in the shrinking earth to haunt us with their absence. Listen and, on quiet nights, you will perhaps hear our silicified-whale song drifting across the plain, mournfully calling them back to us.
Today just 83 of us remain. Almost half-and-half—sarcens and bluestones—which at least keeps the arguments balanced. The bluestones dream of the Welsh skies that they knew in their youth. We sarcens scold them and tell them that we must hold true to our purpose. We reassure them that, one day, our sisters will return and once again we will resume our role as chroniclers of the celestial sphere. But secretly we, too, itch for new horizons. Or maybe just the old ones. The world has become a sooty, grimy place, and even here, the stars don’t shine for us as they once did.
Maybe they were right. Maybe it is time. Time for us to follow our sisters down the sacred ley lines, in search of darker skies and people who know their stories. Maybe, one day, you will find yourself driving past and catch something curious shimmering in the distance. Maybe you will laugh and imagine that those crumbling monuments, hazy in the headlights, have wrenched themselves from the ground to go a-wandering. Maybe we will find a new place where the night is welcoming and we can dance in the moonbeams. It would not be the first time. And it will not be the last.
Paula Hammond has written over 60 fiction and non-fiction books, as well as short stories, comics, poetry, and scripts for educational DVDs. When not glued to the keyboard, she can usually be found prowling round second-hand books shops or hunkered down, soaking up the joys of the natural world.