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The Spider’s Spinning

by Marian L. Thorpe

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


To my surprise, this floor was round, not octagonal: a dome. It was dark; the blue sky had clouded over. The stairs emerged onto a small circular landing, from which four doors opened. Each vertical in the door frames extended upward and ran across the domed ceiling to meet at a central boss half the size of the dome, supporting a curved skylight between each pair. At night, I realized, there was nothing between the house and the stars except the curved glass.

The bedrooms — there were only two, each with an adjoining bathroom that could be accessed from both the landing and internally — were, of course, wedge-shaped, and well-windowed, in the same, small-paned glass. I thought about the heating bill. Maybe something could be done with alternative energy sources: sun and wind?

The painted walls, here too, showed the same fine cracks as in the room below, suggesting the plaster was failing. I put my hand on the wall: it was cool, and the plaster did not flake. Looking closer, I saw what I had taken for the effects of time was in fact a pattern embossed on the surface of the plaster, purposeful. How? I wondered. Stepping back, I realized it looked as if the walls were covered with a fine, loosely-woven net.

I walked out again onto the landing and looked up. It was brighter now; the sun had emerged from behind its obscuring cloud, and I could see the detail on the boss. It was carved with the skulls of deer, the antlers intertwining, a motif repeated, I saw now, in the plaster above the doors: bas-relief skulls behind the plaster net, with antler tips poking through. I put my hand up to touch one — I could just reach it — and realized with a start that the skulls were real. I pulled my hand away quickly.

I took a last look around and went downstairs again. Cuilean was whining steadily now so, instead of the cellar visit I had planned, I went outside. The dog bounded out and ran straight to the Jeep. I locked the door and looked around. To the southwest, I could see what must have been the service road, now overgrown with saplings and meadow plants. I whistled to the dog and began to walk towards it.

It was still possible to follow the old road, at least on foot. After ten or fifteen minutes, I passed through an old boundary wall of limestone and turned south. Beyond the fringe of trees that bordered it, I could see in the distance the reconstructed Iroquoian village at Crawford Lake. I had come here a time or two, to look at the construction of the longhouse, comparing it to what I knew about the construction of Viking longhouses.

After high school, fueled by the books my Scottish-immigrant parents had given me as a child and not really knowing what else to do, I had come to Guelph to study Scottish history at the University. A fourth-year course offered a three-week tour of the Highlands and islands. I went to see where my grandparents had lived on Hoy, to give shape and substance to the history I had learned.

I knew by then that architecture was where my deepest interest lay, and it was the buildings, or the remnants of them, that caught my attention. I found myself drawn to what Wright had called organic buildings, buildings that took inspiration from and used the materials of their local environment and, in my architectural degree and practice, I focused on those forms of construction and design. In environmentally conscious, locally-focused Canada in the early 21st century, this had served me well.

My phone vibrated. I had set it to remind me to leave in time for a meeting with a client in Guelph, and it was time to go. I turned and walked back to the clearing and the Jeep. I had planned to detour to Mike’s office, to drop off the key, but exploring the old service road meant I hadn’t the time. I would return the key tomorrow.

The dog, which had remained subdued until now, jumped into the back of the Jeep with alacrity. I looked back at the house, reluctant to leave. Business called, though, and I climbed in and drove away.

That evening, after dinner with my client, I found myself thinking of Tigh an Spiorad, drawn to it against my will. When I found myself planning how solar panels could be incorporated into the dome without destroying the architectural integrity, I realized I was thinking of the house as mine. I got up from my drafting table and went to bed.

I slept little and, when I did, I was troubled by dreams of dark underground places, like the passage grave at Maeshowe. In the dream, I felt both an uncontrollable pull towards the dark, and a sense of smothering, as if I were wriggling through a narrow tunnel or wrapped in a silken net.

At dawn, I arose and made coffee, and then took Cuilean out for a run. As I ran along the river path, the dog beside me, I felt better: unconstrained.

But as soon as I was back to the house, and showered, I found myself picking up my car keys. I found a flashlight, and left Cuilean behind. The sun was barely above the wall of the eastern escarpment outlier when I pulled into the driveway of Tigh an Spiorad.

Inside, I walked back out onto the patio to watch the sun rise over the trees and fill the valley below me with the clear light of early morning. Then I walked back into the dank, tiled kitchen and opened the door to the cellar.

What electric light there was barely chased away the shadows, and I was glad of the flashlight. As my eyes adjusted, I saw, in the center of the octagonal floor, a rounded boulder, with a depression in its center. It had been placed there to echo and mirror the boss of the dome. I shone my flashlight on it. As I had suspected, its outer surface was worked with a pattern of intersecting lines and small shapes. An elaborate grinding stone?

I went closer, and knelt: the shapes were small animal skulls. There were eight verticals carved like ropes sectioning the boulder, and they met terra cotta tiles embedded in the concrete floor and running in thin strips out to each corner of the cellar. As I stood, I put my hand on the quern to steady myself. Something scuttled from the bowl, and I felt a sharp pain. I looked down: blood dripped into the bowl.

I played my light along one strip out to the wall. At each meeting of the walls an upright limestone slab stood, emerging from the ground, massive. The foundation walls must be thicker than I had thought. I shone the flashlight onto the slab, following it up, to see another slab resting horizontally on the upright, just below the floor. I turned slowly. Four pairs of uprights, each with their capstone. It took me a long minute to acknowledge what I saw. Underground, out of sight, Sutherland had built a henge.

In the base of each dolmen I saw an alcove, quite deep. More animal bones lay embedded among the limestone blocks. With a sense of calm that at some level surprised me, I walked towards the eastern wall, leaving drops of blood on the floor. Closer, I could see that from each bone, each skull, a fine thread ran, attaching it to the next, and the next, creating a cat’s cradle that gathered more and more threads as they ran towards and disappeared into the alcoves. Over my shoulders, the fine silken net from my dream settled once again.

I thought of Cuilean and his aversion to this place and, with no free will at all, I took the few steps to the left-hand alcove and shone the light in. A human skeleton lay there. The threads circled around it, and one thicker thread ran across the ribcage; beside the bones of the hands lay an axe-head on one side, and some fragments of fibre and wood on the other.

I moved from that alcove to the next, and the next: in all, the same sight lay in my light: a skeleton, and a few grave goods: tools, jewellery. Whose were these bones? Had Sutherland disturbed an Iroquoian burial ground, in the excavations for this cellar? But no, I thought. I recognized the form of the axe-head, the intricate weave of the metal pieces. They were not from this land. Had Sutherland brought them back, the bodies and their grave goods, from that trip to his ancestral land? He must have, I realized. There was no other explanation.

How? I wondered, but that had been another time, and money could always buy even the most protected things. Then, here, in his recreated henge, he had re-interred them, incorporating them into the very foundations and design of this house.

At the very centre of this burial site, where he had moved the bodies of his ancestors and mine, he had placed not a quern, but a stone of sacrifice. A stone to take, I was sure, his blood, as it had now mine, to weave us into the design, too. Had he had a choice by then? Did I now? I felt the silken ropes encircling, pulling me in, answering the question. Through the fine spinning of design, through stone and blood and bone, I was caught.

And so it is. I had to give the dog to friends; he could not live here. I leave occasionally, as I must, for business, and whatever it is that holds me here allows me the henges and graves of the Orkneys. But always that netted robe is over my shoulders, with its fine threads holding me to this limestone scarp, whether I am watching the sun rise at the winter solstice at Maeshowe, or greet the summer solstice here at Tigh an Spiorad. I stand at the hearth, and look out towards the sky, or inwards at the tiny skeletons embedded in the hearthstone, and I wonder: Am I spider or fly?

Copyright © 2017 by Marian L. Thorpe

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