Desert – Stories from Unnamed Places No.01

P. had gone to the village because she was told it would be good for her. The desert air. The sea breeze. The walks along the coast or into the hills. The quiet of the nights, far from the city, beneath big skies filled with stars.

That was what she was told. What she found was a village a few kilometres inland from the sea, tucked beneath a series of low hills that had been hollowed out over the decades by a mine that still stood, bare and abandoned, looking down on the cluster of whitewashed houses and sandy-coloured ruins beneath. The village existed because of the mine, but the mine had closed years before and at the north end of the village the ruins of the houses, taverns, shops and social clubs that had once been the focus of life above ground were closed off behind high fences to prevent curious souls from endangering themselves inside the skeleton-frames of the abandoned buildings.

After the mine stopped operations, the village hung on, home to a motley assortment of locals with nowhere to go and a blow-in crowd of alternative types who set up camp in their vans or the few miner’s cottages that had not succumbed to the salty, dry air. The miners themselves had scattered. Some headed north, to the city and the factory floor. Others had crossed an ocean in search of a future above ground in another country.

Over time the village would attract more visitors, who would find accommodation in new buildings at the southern end of the main street. These rows of slender, white houses looked up the hillside towards the new botanical gardens that had been planted on the desert scrubland between the village and the the ruins of the mine. Botanists came for the plants. Artists came for the light. Birdwatchers for the rare species that could be found nowhere else on the continent. And the sick and afflicted came to try and get better.

They always had. On the day P. moved into the small house that looked out across the botanical garden towards the volcanic hills beyond, she found a map of the area on the coffee table. It detailed the towns and villages, the farmhouses and the beaches, as well as the names of the hills and the walking routes that ran between them. One led out from the end of her road, skirting the botanical gardens until it reached a river, which it followed until the path turned once more and crossed a ridge between two hills, dropping down into a high, hanging valley. A solitary building was marked on the map, with a name: Healer’s Cottage.

For the first few days P. did little but sit out on her terrace, listening to the sound of corn buntings hidden in the scrub across the street and watching for the small lizards that liked to dart between gaps in the stone wall outside her house. She would sleep through the hottest part of the day and in the late afternoon walk into the village, to browse in the small shop and grab a bite to eat in the bar on the main square.

In the shop she found a dusty guide to the region that had been published in a language she could understand. It was a decade old, but as she sat outside the bar with a glass of beer and began to read, she realised not much had changed in the intervening years. From the guide she learned more about the Healer’s Cottage, about how the Healer had lived there, impossibly, from before the mine was built until after the last of the miners had left. She read about how people would travel from across the country to the village and then follow the stony path along the river for consultations, and the herbal remedies they would return home with. And how the Healer’s Cottage had been abandoned when, overcome by solitude and too much of one of her own remedies, the Healer finally lost her mind. The story was that she climbed down into the hill, through one of the mine openings, and was never seen again.

The next morning P. followed the hiking trail out from the end of her road. The path skirted the botanical gardens until it met the river. On the map the river was marked in brilliant blue, but in reality it was dry and stony, and it looked like it had been a long time since any water had flowed over these dusty rocks. P. kept walking, ever higher into the hills. Above her she could see the mine road, carved out of the hillside and wide enough for the ghosts of two articulated lorries to pass with space to spare, but the path to the Healer’s Cottage was narrow and rutted between bushes of prickly pears, and she had to keep her eyes down so as not to trip. Higher she climbed, and as she approached the ridge there were moments she had to use her hands to steady herself, scrambling over thick, red stones.

At the ridge she could look back, across the landscape to where it met the rolling surf of the sea, and forward, down into the hanging valley. The Healer’s Cottage was at the bottom, the track snaking its way down the steep slope to four crumbling walls, none more that three or four bricks high and barely distinguishable from the rocky ground around. Carefully P. made her way down, until she reached the cottage. Now there was no view but the sides of the valley and the blue sky above. No wind could reach her and the air was heavy. She could smell lavender and the constant hum of insects filled her ears.

It has been said that hikers in the hills have heard the sound of a woman’s voice from deep inside the many mine openings to be found on the hillside…

From where she sat on the tumbledown walls of the Healer’s Cottage, P. shouted as loud as she could. What she shouted, she would not remember, but the feeling would stay with her. As she began to climb back up, to the ridge with its view of the rest of the world, she knew it was true what she had been told: this place would be good for her.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

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