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Fiction

To Rectify in Silver

At least twice a day it occurs to Marissa that the photos she uses to find Neolithic long barrows and Roman forts were taken to better plot destruction. Every image passing through her hands is labeled at the top in a language she cannot speak. A freezing of the land to ease the locating of bombs and the advancing of invasions. What she prizes in the silver nitrate landscapes are incidental. At least twice a day Marissa catches herself and has to lean back from the stereoscope to clear her mind of the horrors of war. Shattered bone and the accidental dead.

She writes down coordinates for several intercutting hut circles, then moves one photo to the side, slides the second across, and places another one down.

When she first studied archaeology, Marissa imagined herself sitting in trenches on gently rolling chalk downs. Striding across earthworks staring down the barrel of a Total Station as she recorded the ebb and flow of prehistoric topography. Not stuck in a windowless room in the basement of a concrete block surrounded by stacks of old manila envelopes that smell of acacia gum and dust.

She catches sight of Simon’s photo pinned up behind the desk, taken just before the accident, and shudders at the memory. Turns her attention back to the pile of work. The photos still left to study.

There is magic here, conjured when two aerial photographs are brought together under the twin lenses of the stereoscope. Landscapes resurrected.

She leans forward, her back feeling the strain of six months staring into the past, and slides the two photos until the images come together. One moment, there is a doppler of hills and streets, the next a three-dimensional monochrome landscape. She lets herself fall into the contours, watching hanging valleys and frozen waterfalls manifest. Tracing earthworks caught in strafing sunshine along the steep deserted fields.

She knows Daltondale and the surrounding moors as well as her own town, if not better. She knows the strip fields near the villages, marked in stone walls and memory. She knows the vast straight enclosure boundaries transferred from surveyor’s map to the commons. And she knows the Daltondale Henge that stands in the middle of the upland moor, now overgrown and half forgotten, but in the photos clear and bare from heather burning.

The Henge is already recorded. Already well known. Her project is to find all those features now hidden by the undergrowth. No matter what she is searching she always returns to the vast banked enclosure, curving ditches on the inside filled with silt and weeds. The centre covered in a scatter of recumbent stone. At the end of each day, she allows a moment to spread out the two photos. Uses the feature to centre herself.

The banks are uneven. Bulbous and bisected, like two loops of distended muscle. It is her anchor. A reassurance of stability as she studies the changing land.

• • • •

The two photos are still underneath the stereoscope when she arrives at work the next morning. While the kettle boils, steaming the grey pitted wall, Marissa rearranges the photos so they swim into three dimensions once more. She is a minor god shaping rock like wet clay.

She notices something isn’t right straight away, but struggles to put her finger on what it is. Whether it is the lack of alignment in the photos, or a shadow cast from some object in her office.

She leans back, closes and opens her eyes, then looks again.

The prone stones in the centre of the henge have sunk. Not far, but noticeable. Around the edge of each one is a rim of bare peat, their upper, roughly hewn, faces below ground level. She tries to estimate how far, but it is too minor. Too small a variation, though there should be none. She checks the flight run numbers, puts them to one side, and opens the first envelope for the day. A run of vertical shots far from the Henge. Distance and distraction put the change she thought she saw out of her mind, and she lets herself fall into the silvered fields.

• • • •

By close of day Marissa has worked her way through several runs, none of them showing any sign of parchmarks or earthworks. On some the vegetation is too dense, on others the weather too poor, or the light in the wrong place. She works through lunch, and snacks through the afternoon, until the wall-mounted clock shudders to hometime.

Clearing the desk, she pulls the two photos back under the twin lenses of the stereoscope, slides them around until the two images of the Henge overlap, then conjoin, then become one.

There is no doubt now. The Henge in the decades-old photograph has changed; the stones plunged through the vegetation. She tries to estimate the depth by the shadow, and comes up with a figure of one metre. The descent is rapid. She looks around the room where she works.

Concrete walls are hidden behind posters still colourful with no sunlight to strip them of their vibrancy. Not for the first time she feels the isolation press upon her. Her thoughts are only hers and not something she can share, but this is something that needs another person. Her eyes might finally be failing. The view flattening or distorting. She puts the defective world into a new manila envelope, picks up her coat and closes her door.

• • • •

The project director is distant, both in location and personality. She climbs the stairs past rooms of colleagues who she rarely sees and only vaguely knows, until she reaches the office flooded with all the daylight hers never gets.

Her knock is tentative, as is the voice that answers her. She opens the door and goes in.

Bill Wyatt is an extruded figure of a man whose body extends far beyond his own knowledge of himself. He drapes across his chair and desk as if one single piece of furniture cannot contain him. When he looks up, she thinks his neck is going to sever from the weight of his head.

“You could have just phoned.” While his limbs are overlong, his social skills are shrunken and small. Something to be carried out at distance, like the photos that they both search.

“This needed to be in person, and I thought it important enough to visit.”

He looks toward her hand as if nothing so small could be so important.

“A new monument type? Fill in the records, and bring it to my attention the usual way.”

She shakes her head.

“The photos are changing,” she says, and places the envelope in front of him.

He unfolds the flap and takes out the two square photos, clears a space on the crowded desk and places them side by side. Turning them over, he examines the back of the paper, then the images themselves. Holds them up, looking for laminating along the edge.

“Not the physical photo, but what is being shown,” Marissa says.

“The image is deteriorating?”

“The images are changing.”

From behind him he recovers a small stereoscope, folding out the wire legs. Every movement is slow and exact. She cannot decide if this is because the precision is important to him or because he hopes she will take back the problem and leave.

Once the device is in place above the photos, she watches him shift them back and forth until he is satisfied.

“Focus on the Henge,” she says without being invited to speak. She spends too long working on her own to worry about niceties.

He looks up, his breath steaming the lenses, pauses, cleans them with an old rag, then searches the landscape once more.

“So what has changed? What am I not seeing that you are?”

“The stones. They’re sinking into the ground.”

He looks again, and she wonders how he can see anything straight when shaking his head. Taking his time, he folds the stereoscope away once more, and leans back in his chair that probably costs more than the whole contents of her office.

“In this job, your eyes are your real tool,” he tells her, as if she doesn’t know. “You have to look after them. We can arrange an optician’s test, if you think it would help?”

She stares at him for a moment. There is nothing wrong with her eyes, and they both know it. She will not give him a route to force her out.

“I must be mistaken,” she lies. “I’ll just get on with the other runs.”

He hands her back the envelope and two photographs.

“Please let us know if there is anything we can do.”

Down in her office, she tries to resist looking once more, but she needs to leave the photos out anyway, and the stereoscope is just there.

Two of the stones have completely disappeared, leaving nothing but black shadows. Four more are only just visible. The deceit of the stereoscope makes her think she can plunge her hand down into the shafts which now pepper the centre of the Henge. She shudders and pushes the photos together so the earthworks blur and slide out of view.

• • • •

The next morning Marissa arrives early, makes her coffee and places it on the desk, far enough away from the stereoscope that the caffeinated steam will not opaque the lenses.

The two photos are still there, laid at odd angles to each other amidst the piles of notebooks and unopened archival envelopes. She picks up the first, holds it at a distance for a moment, then stares at it in isolation without its fraternal twin.

The stones are still visible, still just white pills of limestone balanced on a raised platform of scorched dirt, low summer sun turning them luminescent in the photo’s silver nitrate. She places it down and picks up the second, taken moments later by the camera slung under the plane. The same. All six stones lying prone upon the land as they had for millennia while people were born and died and paid them no attention.

She has five minutes until she needs to start work properly. She opens the glasses case that holds the stereoscope, folds out the legs and shifts the two photos until they swim, doppler, and settle into place.

The holes are still there. Deeper now. All six stones disappeared down shafts each the same size and shape of each hewn rock. Tendrils of nausea branch out from her stomach, through her arms and legs until she can no longer stand. The hollows look gouged, too much like a skull collapsed by the impact of heavy aluminium falling from height. She pulls the wastepaper basket close and vomits into the thin plastic rubbish bag. Wiping her mouth, she catches sight of Simon’s photo and her stomach contracts once more.

The photos are still in place. She braces herself and looks again.

Something else has changed. Where before the voids were edged in raw peat, decaying plants of three thousand years exposed by the stones’ descent, now the lip of each hole glistens with something damp and fibrous. It seems to seep upwards against gravity, covering the nearest plant life. Even at the distance created by the photographs, there is movement there. She separates the photos and sits back. Picks them up in turn. The stones are still in place. Unchanged. Unmoving. She hesitates before gazing at them once more, as if she is trying to convince herself that this is not her problem. That this is not her concern. She fails.

• • • •

The photocopier is on the second floor. She is first in. First to use the giant block of yellowed plastic that stands between two office doors. The plug is hidden, and she scrapes her hand reaching for the on switch. Inside, the device grumbles to life, and she places the photos in turn upon the glass.

For each one she makes multiple copies, some lighter, some darker, and when she returns to her small windowless room she pairs them in many combinations, including with the original photos. The stones remain on the surface, until she reunites the originals.

• • • •

The knock is soon followed by the door opening. An act of ownership over the space. An act of ownership over her.

Bill Wyatt comes in and stands beside her. She digs her fingernails into her wrists to stop the words, because this is his space too and her time is his time, or that’s what he wants to convince her of.

“I came to see how things were progressing.”

He glances toward Simon’s photo. She wonders if he still blames her for reporting what happened. She started working inside because she couldn’t face going on site anymore. Bill started working inside because she told the truth.

“A lot to do,” she says, her fingers still on the two photos.

“I can take those with me if they’re distracting you,” he says, nodding toward the desk.

“No.” She snatches her hand away a little too fast, spreading the photocopies across her desk. An act of concealment out in full view.

Bill picks up five envelopes stuffed with photo runs and stacks them in the centre of her desk.

“I want these transcribed by the end of the month, or we might have to have a talk about your productivity.”

She nods, picks one up and pretends to look at the information sticker on the outside.

“I might need to do a site visit,” she says, making sure she does not look toward the pair of photos showing the Henge. If she defocuses her eyes, will the holes manifest, like some kind of magic eye picture? The photos both distract her and tempt her to turn her gaze.

“Are you sure you’re ready?”

She nods and knows it is a little too slow. Gives him chance to use her wellbeing as an excuse.

“We’ll talk about it when you’ve finished those,” he says, nodding toward the unopened manila envelopes threatening to topple across her workspace.

“I’ll keep you updated,” she says, and turns away from him toward the work. Behind her, the door shuts. It is only when he has gone she notices he has taken the two photos with him.

Her first thought is to wait until he leaves and collect them from his desk, but his office will be locked, and the receptionist will have too many questions for her, and too many answers for Bill the following day. She glances toward the photo of Simon, unpins it, and puts it in her pocket.

• • • •

“I didn’t mean to be rude,” the receptionist says, hesitating before unhooking the key fob from the board. “It’s just you’ve never asked for a pool car before, and it caught me off-guard.”

Marissa reads the car registration number on the paper tag and drops it in her pocket.

“Which car is it?” she asks, running her finger over the key. She hasn’t had a reason to do a field visit in a long time. She glances toward the door as if the outside is another world, not somewhere she lives for the other sixteen hours a day.

“You’ll need to sign out,” the receptionist says. Each little wall of bureaucracy is another part of her castle to defend.

Marissa writes her name and pushes the clipboard back.

“It’s the white Mondeo, to the left of the entrance. Make sure you leave it with a full tank.”

• • • •

Marissa parks the car in a gravelled lay-by, barely any room to get out without stepping into the road. There are no stiles or gates, so instead Marissa climbs the wall, finding steps where there are none, hands coated in moss and thin soil.

Walking across the moor is like holding the hand of a dying aunt. The sensation that all signs of life are pretence. Paper thin. Everything just below the surface hollowed out by some unseen infection.

The day is warm, but the wind takes away any heat. Unsettles the insects so they swarm into the air, and she needs to walk through them. There is no path to follow, but she knows where to go. Even though the landscape now surrounds her, she has studied every square metre many times. Even with the moor covered in heather, she can find her way across. Somewhere to her left a grouse breaks cover and she starts. Pauses to catch her breath. Continues.

The Henge itself is hermetic, any view of the inside hidden by the banks that seem to pulse and constrict as Marissa approaches. She stares over her shoulder toward the road. A white van is climbing the hill. A flash of the stable world that shimmers and drops below the stone walls as it enters a dip in the road. She continues walking.

Grasping the heather, she climbs the banks, stable underfoot though it still undulates. Standing on top she is more exposed. The scent of heather and decaying vegetation is far below her now. None of that matters. She is gazing into the centre of the earthwork. Into six deep shafts edged in strands, grey like silver suspended in gelatine, fibrous like matted hair. She is gazing into an event she tries not to remember.

It’s the sound that stays with her the most. The noise the aluminium platform made as it slid from the scaffold, careered down, forcing splinters of bone so far, they were found embedded in Simon’s tongue. The sound of Bill Wyatt pleading with her not to say anything, even while he was still up the scaffold photo tower. Even while his foot still hung in the air above nothing—apart from the man dying on the grass below.

She wonders if the stones will continue sinking until they melt in the magma that lies at the heart of the earth. There is no heat rising from the pits. The air above the moor is cold and does not still. She walks down the inside of the bank. Lets gravity do most of the work. The strands laid across the bracken look like seaweed. More bulbous than she was expecting. She wants to feel one against her skin but resists the urge. Instead, she walks as close to the holes as she dares and gazes inside.

“It wasn’t my fault, you know.”

Bill Wyatt stands on the bank, buffeted by the wind. Marissa steps back from the edge of the nearest hole.

“None of it was my fault. He should have moved.”

She has to shield her eyes from the sun to look at him.

“You were too impatient. He didn’t have a chance.”

“I didn’t ask for you to work on this project, either. Not because you’re not good enough, but because I didn’t want to punish you,” he lies.

“You didn’t want me to work on this project so you didn’t have to see Simon’s memory every day. That’s the exact reason I made sure I got the job.”

She wonders if the stones are still descending. If she jumps, will she land upon one? Will she lie there, bone shattered and starving as it descends through the planet?

“Why did you have to make things worse? Someone died that day.” She sees tears glisten on his cheeks, soon dried by the breeze.

“He had a name!”

Bill stumbles down the bank, nearly falling several times, before he reaches the foot of the overgrown ditch. Marissa backs up onto the platform at the centre, stepping carefully around the holes.

“I know he has a name,” Bill says. “Do you think I can forget? I see him every night. I see the hole in his skull every night. The sound it made when they pulled out the metal. Every night.” He follows her into the centre of the Henge. She glances back and steps further between the holes. The silver fibres seem to notice her passing.

“And then there you are to remind me. Every day. Every time I see you, you wear that same fucking expression. You don’t have to carry around the guilt.”

“You’re right,” she says. “I don’t. I just have to carry around his memory.”

His expression changes from some kind of contrition to anger. He reaches forward and tries to step toward her.

The fibres from the pits have grasped his feet while he was talking, and when he tries to move, he falls. Slowly, they spread. A bulbous root-mat anchoring itself in his skin. The thin-walled blisters burst against his limbs, and as each one erupts, he screams. The fibres ignore her. Let her step down into the ditch where she watches him slowly become coated and scorched as the fibres constrict. Force their way down his throat and into his eyes.

She does not turn away.

Once there is no more Bill to see, the fibres withdraw, drag themselves back, and when they need to return to several holes they shatter him, each clump dragging a different piece out of sight below the earth.

Marissa walks to the edge and peers inside. There is no sign of the silvered weeds. No sign of Bill.

She considers jumping. Let the void take her too, but that is not an option. She now knows her role. To witness the deaths and carry the memories in silence. She wonders if the stones will return. It does not matter. Her hand goes to the photo in her pocket. She runs her fingers along the creases. Simon is gone forever, and the death of Bill will not return him. All she can do is carry the memory and let him live a little within.

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Steve Toase

Steve Toase was born in North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in Munich, Germany. He writes regularly for Fortean Times and Folklore Thursday. His fiction has appeared in Three Lobed Burning Eye, Shimmer, Lackington’s, Shadows & Tall Trees 8, Not One Of Us, Cabinet des Feés and Pantheon Magazine, amongst others. In 2014, “Call Out” (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year 6, and two of his stories have just been published in Best Horror of the Year 11. His first short story collection To Drown In Dark Water is due out from Undertow Publications in 2021. He also likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails. You can keep up to date with his work via his Patreon, Facebook and Twitter, and his website,  www.stevetoase.wordpress.com.