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THE CLAY FIGURINE

He'd watched the progressive renovation of the cottage with satisfaction. The small front door re-hinged and repaired to retain its original, slightly out of vertical, charm. The tiny square windows rebuilt with new oak frames - stained to give a mellowed look. The bare patches on the outside walls re-plastered to blend carefully with the old and then painted off-white to resemble the weathered look it had before. The thatch renewed - the criss-cross lacings on the ridge following the old pattern. Then the garden cleared of wild ferns and its broken path re-laid.

Externally, the cottage appeared as it must have done many years ago - before its decline. However, not internally. There, all the worn and rotted floorboards torn out and replaced; the old staircase widened; the beams strengthened; the walls and ceilings re-rendered and painted in matte pastel. Downstairs, the centre wall removed to give more space. Everything restructured. Everything, that is, except the old fireplace. Something about it demanded no disturbance.

Its old stones, stained by the smoke of countless log fires, seemed to forbid interference. The iron crossbar set above the fire in the wide throat of the chimney showed the grooves of long use: witness marks of the many kettles and cauldrons that must have taken the heat of the blaze. No; something told him that the old fireplace could not be touched. The cottage had been an absolute bargain despite its dilapidation.

He'd questioned the Agent about this, and raised an eyebrow when he - the Agent - finally admitted - with a laugh, of course - the true reason: Belonged to an old woman. An old recluse. Lived to an age more than ninety. Got a local reputation as a witch - but such creatures do, don't they? Vowed no one would live in the cottage after she died. Been right so far. Took ages to find next of kin. Gone abroad. Didn't want to be bothered. Sold it to the Agency - cheap. Been on the books for years. He did want it - didn't he?

He smiled with the Agent about the peculiarities of people: No, he didn't concern himself with superstition. He had the discipline of science: Biology and Botany. Yes, he would take the cottage and live there as long as the area offered its wealth of botanical specimens. No, the Agent hadn't put him off - as long as the price was right.

The cottage was ready by the late autumn, which pleased him since it allowed time to move in before the onset of winter. He arranged a good stack of logs ready for his winter fire - feeling it would seem sacrilege to burn anything else in the old fireplace. As winter drew near, he sat by the hearth with his pipe and a dash or two of whisky; absorbing the warmth of the blaze and fascinated by the play of light and shadow in the deeper reaches of the fireplace.

The fireplace drew him every night. He began to know each individual stone. One right at the back looked as if it had come loose at one time and inexpertly pushed into position. This began to cause annoyance. He resolved to fix it. He remembered the builder saying that he'd left some cement in the old shed.

The next morning he rose early in order to work on the fireplace. He went to the shed, realising it was the first time he had bothered to look inside. The door creaked on neglected hinges but gave to his push. He screwed his nose at the pungent smell of herbs that the opening of the door released. However, the interior was dry and the small plastic bag of pre-mix sand and cement left on the hard-packed earthen floor seemed usable.

The bundles of withered herbs suspended from the ceiling at the back of the shed caught his curiosity. He could identify nearly all of the species, despite their mummification. He recognised the one hanging nearest to him as Hyoscyamus niger: a member of the Nightshade family known as Henbane, which had those rather sinister pallid yellow flowers with purple throats and veining. He touched the withered clump carefully; knowing it might contain the poisonous drug, hyocine. The folklore associated with Henbane came to mind: 'it could raise the spirits of the dead if burned'. He laughed aloud at such nonsense. However, the laugh quickly died as he realised that the old occupier of the cottage might have meddled with these herbs - some of them highly dangerous - to indulge her superstitions. He felt a sudden irritation: such irrationality profaned his science. He pulled the herbs from their rotted strings and stuffed them in an old hessian bag he found lying in the corner of the shed. They would do to light his fire.

He took the bag into the cottage along with the cement. He then inspected the stone more closely. Someone, it seemed, had clumsily mortared it with clay, using fingers whose indents were still there. This ineptitude along with the heat-fissure in the clay made the stone easy to prise out. Laying it down on the hearth, he turned his attention back to the cavity. There - in the gloom at the back of the recess - crouched what looked like a tiny figurine. Somewhat amazed, he reached in and brought it out to full light.

He gazed with increasing wonderment at the crudely made representation of a human form; its details indistinct enough to represent either male or female; yet, because of this, had all the vigour of primitive art. He knew from its texture that it'd been moulded from the same clay that plugged the stone. It had baked hard with the heat of the fire and become blackened by infiltrations of smoke. It had a curious pose as if shrinking away from something. He smiled: shrinking away from the heat and smoke of the fire, no doubt. But who had put it there? A child? And for what purpose? However: no matter. It added a touch of the enigmatic to the cottage. He'd leave it on the mantelshelf as a curio. When he returned after his sabbatical, he'd show it to his colleagues at the University. Perhaps those in Anthropology? He placed the figure on the mantelpiece then wet the mortar and sealed the stone in place. The herbs blazed fiercely when he lit the fire.

Without the distraction of the stone, he found he could settle again to his evenings by the fire. The only disturbance was the sounds. Subdued and furtive sounds coming from all sorts of odd corners: soft tappings; rustlings; the creaking of floorboards. He found himself looking up suddenly from his textbook, listening intently, but the sounds would cease as soon as his attention switched to them. He smiled to himself. All the renovations had disturbed the old cottage. Shrinkage of wood and plaster. He must learn to ignore their annoyance. It would settle down eventually.

The spring came early and allowed him to explore the area more fully - delighting in the unseasonal strength of the sun and the rapid growth this engendered. The varieties of species were overwhelming - especially in the old worked-out quarry. This faced due south and had an almost tropical heat when the sun was high. Large dark-green ferns of the species Pteridium Aquilinium covered most of its floor and its creviced walls held numerous species of trailing plants hanging from the ledges and crannies. Erosion had built up patches of soil within the quarry confines that contained different chemical traces. This supported a wide range of plants in aspects of sun or shade that suited them best. To go through the steep-sided entrance - narrowed by an ancient rock fall - was to enter another world: an almost disquieting world.

However, the place bewitched so much that he became oblivious of the heat and of the strange, silent, brooding walls around him. The place drew him; drew him with a potent spell. Its oppressive atmosphere that no doubt kept the place unfrequented was lost to him.

Spring rushed to an early summer - the sun having blazed down week after week. He invariably rose early and hastily packed a hamper of cold sausage, salad, fruit and bread - commodities delivered once each week by the distant village store and kept fresh in his calor-gas fridge. This fare, supplemented by a large thermos of black coffee and his hip flask of whisky, would suffice for the day. He'd return late in the evening with reams of notes; and, after a quick session of filing and tidying up, would retire to bed to get his rest for the next day's exploration. He had forgotten the clay figurine.

His routine went smoothly except for the occasional feeling that things had been moved. He prided himself on being an orderly person, by nature. It intensely annoyed him to find that articles were not exactly where he was certain he'd put them: notebooks; pencils; specimen cases; tobacco pouch; they'd be somewhere near the proper place but not where expected. One particular morning, he woke later than usual; feeling annoyed because he prided himself on being able to wake unerringly to what he called his internal clock. In his hurry to leave, he almost forgot his pipe. Returning to the fireplace, he saw immediately that the pipe rack was in the wrong position. He always kept it on the right-hand side of the mantelshelf - this being convenient to the side where he sat. Yet the rack was now on the left. He had no recollection of having moved it. He realised he'd been particularly tired the previous night - perhaps because of over-exerting himself during the day - and might have moved it absentmindedly? He reached over the poker-stand to the unaccustomed position and, in doing so, almost toppled the pipe rack. In his effort to avoid possible damage to his valued collection, he knocked over the clay figurine standing alongside. It shattered in the hearth - some of its pieces littering the carpet.

"Damn! Damn and blast!" called out in annoyance - furious at the further delay clearing the mess involved. "Blasted thing!" he exclaimed under his breath as he swept up the fragments with the hand-brush and pan he got from the kitchen. He then tossed the pieces into the ashes left in the grate. Having put the pipe rack back in its proper position, he hurriedly selected a pipe and left the cottage.

The morning had all the signs of a hot, oppressive day. He knew the quarry would take on the heat of an oven but he felt impelled to go there. The weather would change soon and a compulsion told him that whatever he had set himself to do had to be done that day. He felt surprised by his sense of urgency but shrugged this off as a condition caused by his late rising. However, he felt the need to rest for a moment in the shade of the hedge lining the pathway - the disturbance of the morning seemed to have sapped some of his energy. He lit his pipe, thinking this would assist relaxation, but within minutes, he felt pressure to go on.

Having crossed the field whitened by yarrow, he stopped just within the quarry entrance to tap his pipe out on a rock then followed the track he had made through the ferns on his previous call.

The heat seemed more oppressive than he thought possible. It seemed to pulsate. Nevertheless, he pushed his way through the oil-perspiring ferns towards the far wall. The musky smell of the ferns fleetingly recalled that of the old cottage on his first visit.

He reached the apron of soil formed by erosion that lay at the base of the wall. Here, the ferns had thinned to give ground to a confusion of other growths, among which was Valerian of a deep blood-red, their stigmas enlarged beyond any he had seen elsewhere. Their perfume had a peculiar soporific odour. He drew his glass from its case and became absorbed in examining the distended pollen tubes on the surface of the stigmas. It took him some time to become aware of the smoke. He saw it advancing towards him from the entrance of the quarry. His pipe! When he knocked it out on the rock! It had caught the dry grass! The oily ferns would blaze furiously.

He felt the heated air moving towards him then rising upwards. He tried to push back his panic: Climb the rock face! The only way out! He abandoned the hamper where it lay and scampered the short distance to the almost vertical face. If he could climb the first twenty feet or so, to where the slope eased, he would be able to get out. A spindly bush grew out of the fissure immediately above his reach. He jumped to grasp it then felt it tear from its anchorage. Loose rocks and soil poured down. He dodged instinctively beneath an overhang of rock just to his left. He pressed back in horror as the rocks came pouring down to trap him behind their wall. In the sudden silence that followed, he could hear the sound of crackling flames as the smoke seeped into the cavity. He began to gasp; crouching in his cavity like the clay figurine.

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Written by: William Kenneth Jones
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