In the Valley

Nights get dark in the valley, but the lights blaze on in this house of ours. We're hooked up to the national grid but we still have frequent blackouts. When the power goes down we light paraffin lamps, greasy oil lanterns, thumb-printed candles with moth wings and bits of dead insects sunk into the wax. Solar lamps with a wan, sickly glow. Hungry kerosene torches. We throw all we can at the night. Everything's blazing away.

The house is built of dark pine, with clapboard walls and a roof of tin. A veranda runs along three sides, with four wooden steps going up to the door, and a low oak bench with tree-stump legs, and the tangled remains of a hammock that looks like a long-escaped from web. That's all there is. A box of light. Beyond this, the valley.

There's nobody else around for miles.

We were building this place for years and years and years.

Lichen grows on the balcony rail, faint vomit-coloured patches like space photographs of dying constellations. One of the side walls is spongy with moss. The corrugated grooves of the roof are clogged with rotten leaves, and pale fern-like tendrils have sprouted, trembling like antennae.

And around us the great silence of the woods, like the silence of a recently-departed mansion. I find myself listening to it at night.

If you listen closely, you can almost hear the thud of the last door as it closed. A foot scuffing the welcome mat. The soft click of the latch.

It's just you and me in the valley. It's dark, but we keep the lights on.

The yellow light rushes over the lawn, to the edges of the brush we cut back. It throws spiked shadows across the grass, creates dark sides of pebbles and rocks like dark sides of the moon. Sometimes I carry the bench down there to the jagged frontier of the light. I sit and listen to the silence of the woods with the light tickling the back of my neck. Dipping my feet in the dark.

From here I can smell the cool smells of night, the dampness rising up from the earth. The silent weight of water in the leaves.

The light shines dully on the trunks of trees along the border of the woods. Fish-wet trunks parading into blackness. Sometimes I get out the halogen torch and sweep its beam across the trees, a two million candlepower searchlight punching a hole in the night.

The trunks of the trees scan past like x-rays.

Here and there a single leaf is illuminated, shockingly defined.

Over there a clump of nettles, drooping listlessly. And over there, a nest of brambles with the good blackberries mostly gone.

There's nobody else here. Just you and me. It wasn't always this way.

I know you don't like me to talk about this. About the others that were here.

'I just don't think of it as important,' you say when I try to remind you.

Perhaps it is not. Nevertheless.

If you sit here, at the edge of the light, if you sit quietly, and look slowly, you will see that the blackness is not uniform. It has depth and density, dimensions of varying darkness. There are layers in the night, blacknesses behind blacknesses, pulling your vision ever deeper inwards through the leaves. If you let your eyes be drawn, your pupils seeping with their own dark, if you follow the long curve of the valley rising up beyond the woods, then dimly, you can reconstruct the body of the mountain.

She's up there somewhere, out of sight. Looking down on the valley.

'There's no-one there,' you say to me.

Sometimes a thing is so far out of sight you must close your eyes to see it.

She's up there, where the two slopes meet. At the narrow place, the windy place, the place where trees don't grow.

Old Far-and-Away, bunched up against the cold. Gorse between her toes.

Down the wrong end of the telescope. On the other side of wind and rock and rain and layers of darkness.

Is she lonely, up there in the cold?

She was always lonely.

Can she see the lights of our house?

Our house is a dream she once had.

You stare at the black heap of the mountain, and perhaps you almost remember. You almost remember remembering. But then you hear a sound from indoors – the clunk of a plate on a table, the burble of a radio – and you glance back towards the house. The yellow light behind the window. A kettle has just been boiled. It's cold out here, and the grass is getting wet. The darkness has gone from your eyes. You take one last look at the mountain but forget what it was you were trying to remember, and now you are only looking the way a tourist takes a photograph.

So you get up and go back inside the house. Back to the lighted dream.

'Forget about it,' is what you say. 'That was so long ago. She was here, and then she left, and she can't come back.'

That night we eat dinner and watch a film, and step out for a smoke before bed. Darkness is total in the valley. There's nothing to be seen.

But she was not the only one. There were others, too. They came later, and they stayed a long time. Some left quite recently.

'No, they left long, long ago,' you keep saying, with increasing irritation. 'And none can come back, none of them.'

I'm not saying they can come back. I'm just saying they were here.

Step-after-Step, he was here. Don't you remember him? It's difficult, I'll give you that. We can hardly make him out at all, he's only a feeling we once had, an impression of an impression. The taste of dust. Dry hissing grass. It makes the soles of your feet itch. What do you do with a feeling like that?

'Do what you like,' you say.

It's tiring just to think of him. Walking, always walking.

You feel it after you've walked for miles, climbing a long hill whose crest endlessly recedes. About two thirds of the way up the slope, when the muscles in your legs begin to ache, and the ache spreads through the flesh and through the bone.

Or when it's hot and you haven't drunk all day. The memory of water.

He was here, that was him. At some point, he stepped too far. He stepped right off the map and kept on going.

But by that time, others had come. And they kept on coming.

Handyman came, and Standyman came. Clumsily overlapping. Embarrassing uncles with unfathomable habits, leaving their chipped lumps of rock around the garden, in the house, under the floorboards. Discomforting piles of ashes in corners. Edges of flint you could test with your thumb, and never quite draw blood.

Sometimes we still find these items in drawers, underneath the forks and spoons. Stains on the balcony rails. Oddly smoothed pebbles.

They stayed here a long time, so long it seemed they would never be gone. But eventually, they left too.

Up-and-Standing was here long before. Before we built the house. This was all his once, everything you can see, from one side of the valley to the other, the plunging gulf of air in between. He lived here for longer than any of the others, impossible distances of time, always a pace ahead of the world. But the world caught him up.

He left a deep disturbance in the air. Something that perhaps can never be righted. I have visions of him. Drawing his knees up to his face and moaning, with chattering teeth. Jumping at shadows. A nervous wreck. Startling at sudden sounds. Always peering fretfully into the darkness behind doors. What was it that he thought he saw?

Perhaps it saw him too.

We can still see the path he took, off into the trees. It leads away from our house, meandering into the woods, as if he was blind or drunk or confused when he passed that way. It gradually narrows, becomes less distinct. You can follow it for a while until the undergrowth covers it up, the branches close on either side, and suddenly it's not a path anymore, only a half-imagined gap between indistinguishable trees.

It's a path that leads only to forgetting. I wouldn't go down it too far.

'He had to leave. There was no other way,' you say, putting your arm around my waist.

I didn't realise you were in the room. You startled me for a moment.

I grip your elbow with my hand, feeling the skin move over the bone as you pull me tighter. I put my arm around you too. Together we walk out to the veranda and sit on the step, and then you fetch some beer, and we talk a while and then we fall silent and later the sun goes down. It goes down and up and down and up, and the shadows fill the valley and empty and fill the valley and empty again, and we turn the electric lights on and off and on and off in this house of ours. And sometimes, because life is pleasant here, I forget the others.

The others don't forget us, though.

We are a dream they once had.

In the long light of the evenings, we do repairs on the house. It's old, and there's always something to mend. The moss has to be scrubbed off the walls. One of the steps leading up to the door has split, and needs replacing. On the veranda I measure the wood and cut a plank and sand it down, and then hammer it into place. The new step springs a little under my weight. The sawed wood looks too fresh, too bright, so I rub mud into the grain.

One day we paint all the doors in the house. Another we get on the roof with brooms and clear away the rotten leaves. I find a small grey stone up there, idly scratched with concentric grooves, which fits nicely in my palm. I carry it with me for half a day, and then toss it into the bushes.

Later I try to find it again, but sometimes these things can't be found.

Lay-me-Bones avoided the path that melts away into the trees. Perhaps she walked a little way down it, stooping and frowning, pushing back branches, and then changed her mind and turned around and came back to the clearing. She spent much of her time scratching holes in the ground, carefully filling them back in again. Making obscure designs in the rubble. Peculiar bumps in the landscape, like tumours. Tramping down her own paths in the grass.

One of these paths leads to our door. The ground is flattened, a trace in the sunlight. You can still see it faintly. The grass doesn't grow so high there, and the small flowers don't grow at all.

'We should put stones down,' you say from time to time, 'so people don't slip in the mud when it rains.'

'We should put a proper fence up here,' is another thing you say.

I suppose we will do these things. We don't plan on leaving soon.

Sometimes I have problems sleeping at night. I wake suddenly at two or three in the morning with a sour taste in my mouth, almost a flavour of burning. I get the feeling I've forgotten to do something, and it troubles me. When this happens I leave the bed and wander through the smoke-black rooms. The smell of the house is different at night. The moonlight gleams off sharp things in the kitchen. I sit down at the table and drink coffee.

I try to think about what I've forgotten, but there's no way to catch hold of it. Just a feeling of unease, somewhere between guilt and loss, that contracts and expands when I breathe, pushing up against me.

I get up to rinse out my cup at the sink, and raise my eyes to the window.

There's a black shape standing there. Someone staring in.

Both of us remain absolutely still. I'm not sure if it can see me or not, motionless inside a dark room. We wait to see who moves first.

It has my height, the shape of my body. There's no-one out there. It has the outline of my shoulder, my arm. There's no-one out there. The same tensed stoop. The hint of a nose, the gleam of one eye, fearful, shy, half-thrilled. There's no-one out there. It's only my reflection. Of course I know, I know. But occasionally, if I stare the right way, if I let my eyes be drawn, I can almost fool myself, for a genuine second or two.

I can stand for minutes on end, unable to step away.

If I step away, I might disappear.

So it was with one of the last of the others that left us here. The one who stayed until quite recently, despite what you say. The shadow presence in our house, whose life was so nearly our own. Always in a different room, making the floorboards creak. We could hear him breathing through the walls, keeping in time with our own breaths. It was hard to escape the suspicion that every time we walked into a room, a similar someone had just departed, rucking up a rug as he left or repositioning a table, picking objects up and putting them down in a slightly different place, mysteriously and subtly rearranging the planes of our existence.

We called him Lowbrow, Dead-End, Knuckleface, Bones-for-Brains, Tangletongue.

We don't know what he called us. We heard his muttering behind doors, but tried not to listen.

It was a time of being watched, or the feeling of being watched. The tingling sensation of something always hovering in your peripheral vision, looming out of sight as you turned your head. Of footsteps not quite an echo of your own. Items of clothing stretched out of shape. Unfamiliar thumbprints on the mirrors.

Something like the high, electric whine that tells you a television is on, somewhere not too far away, even though the volume is down and you can't hear a sound.

'That was no way to live,' you say. Your hands are worriedly doing up and undoing a single button on your sleeve.

It had you checking under the bed, throwing doors open, switching lights on.

'Of course it made me nervous,' you say. 'Who wouldn't feel nervous?'

I cannot clearly remember the first time we found ourselves in the same room, but once it happened, it kept on happening. It couldn't be avoided. Not quite acknowledging each other, shuffling from door to door or loitering at opposite ends of a room that suddenly seemed too small. Neither of us knowing where to look, or what to do with his hands. Like children caught in the indecision between joining one another's game, and turning to run away.

We were never quite able to meet each other's eyes. It was embarrassing, somehow. To see the resemblance in each other's faces. The sulky mouth and shy, suspicious glances. The same sheepish hunch. There was something unpleasant about it, an echo of revulsion.

But we were never quite able to turn our backs, either. We skirted along the walls like crabs, pretending not to notice.

We lived like this for a long time. We developed unspoken routines. I don't want you to forget that.

'It couldn't go on,' I hear you say. Your fingers are picking at your fingernails, scratching the backs of your hands, doing everything they possibly can to avoid being still.

'It was all in the past,' you say, chopping up meat and hurling pieces into the sizzling fat of a pan. Muscles work beneath your skin. Emotional flickers run over your face as if your skin is dancing.

'Why do we have to do this again?' You are furious now, seething through the house. 'He went away. It happened, it happened, don't look at me, don't look at me like that, don't look at me at all.'

Sometimes when you get like this you slam the door of the house and fume your way through the woods, ripping the leaves off trees. Sometimes you lash out at me, slapping and punching. Sometimes you grab me in your arms, crushing our two bodies together with such violence I can hardly breathe.

'I'm alright now,' you say afterwards, glassy-eyed over a bottle of wine. 'Just one of those moods, that's all. Cabin fever. It gets to me sometimes, living out here. The back of beyond, nothing around but woods and trees and endless nights and no lights and no people. It's so quiet, your thoughts go round and round, you can't help getting crazy sometimes. Sometimes I feel isolated. Sometimes I wish we weren't so alone...'

And then you realise what you're saying, and you pour more wine.

I know you're scared that one of these days I will ask you to tell me what happened back there.

Way back, in the rooms of our house.

You're scared I will ask you to tell me how we came to be alone.

But instead I lie awake at night, or sit drinking coffee at the kitchen table, trying to imagine shapes at the window.

I can never ask you that.

But sometimes I think I know the answer, and that's when I get the sour taste in my mouth, almost a flavour of burning.

However it happened, one day he was gone. I never saw him go.

After him, there was only one, and she almost doesn't count. Little Flower, diminutive, resilient as a cockroach. She had been living here all along, out of sight, too small to even notice. When finally she emerged from the hiding place where she'd squirrelled herself away, creeping out to peer and pry, at first we mistook her for a child. We couldn't help laughing. You played a silly joke on her, putting your hand on her head so her flailing arms couldn't reach, and then pushing her backwards onto the floor. She made no sound, but her eyes were tiny glittering balls of hate. After that she kept her distance, working herself into ever narrower places.

Then one morning we woke up, and she was gone as well.

And so we went about our lives, though I half expected more to appear.

To this day, none have.

It took a long time to sink in. I won't deny that I felt relief, a sudden opening up of space that was almost giddying. The shadow presences were gone. There were no more shifty avoidances, no more awkward half-encounters. We had the whole place to ourselves, the house, the garden, the valley beyond. We could finally be ourselves, we could do whatever we wanted.

I kept walking into rooms and standing there, not knowing what to do.

I still find myself doing this. I can't find the words.

'We are all we need,' you say, locking your fingers in mine.

Perhaps we are. Nevertheless.

Our house feels so empty.

So we tell stories to ourselves. We populate the empty air with trolls, leprechauns, ogres, imps, pixies, giants, goblins, golems, yetis, bigfoots, yerens, almas, yowies, orang pendeks, ebu gogos, am fear liath mòrs, agogwes, aliens, androids. To chase away the loneliness, to fill this house in old Uncanny Valley.

But we don't believe our own words anymore. The light's too bright. There's no-one there. It's just you and me.