Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘The Dig’ by Graham Mort, from his newest collection, Terroir, in which past and present intertwine as amateur archeologists dig for answers in an area whose violent, territorial history they know nothing of.
From England to Europe, Africa to South America, these stories from prize-winning short story writer Graham Mort explore relationships: father and child; man and wife; man and his environment.
All these stories are sensitively told and beautifully written, bringing fresh perspectives to our place in the world around us.
Graham Mort has won the Edgehill and Bridport and Short Fiction short story prizes.
This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on our website.
A Thistlethwaite, red-haired like all her clan. Longshanked, full-breasted, tall. Freckled, grey-eyed, jug-eared, a crooked smile creasing into dimples. Climber of rockfaces for hawk’s eggs. Horse breeder, dog hater. Broadshouldered, a fighter who’ll take on her brothers and anyone else. Fey, man-shy, loyal. Fierce to the lie, quick to offence. Footsore now, limping from a bruised knee where the gelding took her into a dry stone boundary.
Homeward bound, the moor’s peat squelching underfoot, the heather springy, bog cotton in the hollows. Hungry and used to it.
The Land Rover lurches on the bridleway, loaded with wire ladders and lamps, yellow waterproofs, digging gear. The man’s helmet lies beside him on the front seat. His hair is spiky grey, his hands badly scarred from a fire. The flesh has grown back in purple patches. He’s got a blue thumbnail where a hammer missed. He wears a diver’s watch with a black plastic wristband. Sun shows up the scratches on the spattered windscreen, tyres jog over stones and ruts and into mud puddles. The exhaust stinks in low gear. He’s arranged to meet the others at the dig. This one’s been on the go for months and you never knew who’d turn up.
She’s a long hour from home after trading her grey horse in the next dale. There are coins in her purse but she’s packed it tight with grass to stop them chinking. She rode the gelding bareback to the Sykes place, now she has the walk home. It was a good sale. The bridle and harness are
tight under her jerkin. She’s taken a short cut over a flank of moorland, crossing a corner of Abel Rintner’s land, past his new peat cuttings where turves are piled. She’s black to the ankles and there’s a foul gas from the moss. She could have played it safe and detoured by the valley head,
then down past the inn where there were other folk. There’d be drunken, groping bastards too. Fenmen and Dutchlanders draining the land for the monks, gabbling, fetching up phlegm and laughter. She can’t bear that. No need if the light holds. Her feet catch in rushes. She can hear the calling of fat lambs. Soon they’d be cutting their throats for Eric’s wedding.
There’s a dirty Peugeot estate parked where the bridleways meet. Dark blue with a roof rack. Two other cavers are already climbing into their gear. A woman in her late thirties with pulled-back hair and acute blue eyes; a fifty-year-old man, bow-legged, short and bearded. He’s coiling a climbing rope clarted in dried clay and she’s fastening her overalls over rubber boots. Their greeting is a stubbing of cigarette butts, a faint smile, nods to the stile, the causeway they’ve laid across the marsh that leads to the dig. Another path goes up over the limestone edge, past the killing pit – a swallow-hole with almost sheer sides, twenty yards across and twelve deep. They’d help excavate that for an archaeological dig, uncovering broken animal bones and Mesolithic flints. Hand axes, arrow tips, flensing blades. The ancient people had hunted with dogs, driving red deer, elk, auroch, and wild boar over the edge then stoning them to death. They’d been proud of that dig, the way it made sense of things, of the past. The man with the
scarred hands slams the Land Rover door and takes two yellow plastic trugs from the back. They pick up their lamps, two folding spades, a short-handled pick. The bearded man carries the rolled-up ladder and the woman with blue eyes lifts a coil of rope.
Jogging across the moor to strike the track, Hannah’s breath is harsh now. She’s anxious to get to the commons below. Sun is dropping over the sea about thirty miles west. The air is cooling, smoke coiling from the farmstead she’s too close to. A flight of geese follows the river to the estuary in
a double vee. She stumbles, pauses, rights herself, touching a hand to her sore knee. There’s the sudden hiss and flicker of plumage. A streaking bird is attacking her. Then the arrow strikes into her forearm, almost parallel to the bone, the point driving right through. She sucks her breath, freckles starring her suddenly white face. She glares round quickly and keeps moving. She should have covered her hair. That was stupid. The mistake will cost her. She’s wearing an amber amulet that hangs from a leather thong. It tosses as she runs. The arrow stings, evilly. She needs to get out of view, jags to the left, drops into a gulley and lies listening for dogs. Nothing. She follows the gulley down, stumbling, nursing her arm, trying to let blood drip onto her and not bare rocks where they can track her. There’s a little water in the beck bottom, not much.
They walk up the lane in single file, trudging a little after their day of work. Each to their own: wrought iron making, timberwork, the work of the body. There’s a gate on the left leading to the wooden causeway laid over the moor. The timber smells of creosote. The man with the beard grimaces, but the woman half smiles, bends her head a little closer as she swings the gate back onto its catch, savouring a memory. They move across the peat bog, feeling the planks sink a little under their weight. There are black pools on either side. Petroleum from the peat has stained them with iridescent patterns. A stand of bog cotton stirs in a slight breeze coming off the Irish sea. The man in the lead flexes his fingers and switches hands on the trug. The woman’s eyes are paler here, bluer, as if cut from underwater stones. She’s thinking of a bright room, how she loves the touch and smell of babies though she’s had none of her own. Their pure skin, their tiny hands reaching to their awed mothers’ faces.
Voices, thick and faint, not far off. A hundred yards. Maybe more. Men’s bass tones. She pauses, hunched over. Dark blood is oozing where the arrow tip has gone through.
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