Sharif Gemie | Inside the circle

That was the afternoon when it all got too much. I mean, we’d heard a lot from them before. Push this here, pull that there, find this, carry that. And they never agree among themselves, so what is the priority? It’s clear they’ve got no idea what they’re doing. Last year’s big idea is quietly forgotten, this year’s big idea will mean re-building, more labor, more effort… And who’s doing all the work? Us. We’re the ones who actually make this thing, year after year, generation after generation, watching it get bigger and bigger, higher and higher, growing clearer in its shape. While they argue about what should go where, we know what we want.

There was a big group of us, a dozen families, pulling together on the ropes. We’d balanced a great stone pillar over the hole in the morning, then eased into place. That’s a day’s work, you know, and you have to be careful. It’s dangerous. One slip, one lurch from that great stone, and someone could break their leg, or worse. We pulled together, chanting the building spell, men and women together, little ‘uns as well. Our music helped our labor, and our labor helped our music, just as it should be.

The pillar slid into its place, slowly, carefully, correctly, and we packed soil and chalk round it, pounding it in with tree trunks, six pairs of hands working in unison on each trunk, six tree trunks beating down on the mud and chalk, getting another rhythm going, and then another song came out, improvised this time, but none the worse for that, the women leading with the high notes, the men responding with the low lines. By the end of the day the new pillar was standing proud, another step in the great circle. We’d been working on this all summer; you know how much work these great stones are. We’re practiced now; we’re skilled, you see. Generation after generation, we’ve learnt how to do this.

But then this druid… He walks over from the center, from that little cluster who just stand around as we’re working, gazing up at the sky. He’s got one of those symbolic sticks in his hand, one of those signs of power, they say. And he’s got a funny look on his face: kinda embarrassed, but also pleased. We can see he’s got something important to tell us. He raises his hand, and we just stop. That was a mistake: it’s always better to ignore them until they make you listen. But I guess we were tired, and I think maybe some of us thought he was going to congratulate us on our labor.

He coughs and then… It begins well. He says something about how the monument was going to stay as a sign to be seen by generations and generations and generations as the stars circled round, making signs, tracing routes over our lives. I’ve got to admit that I didn’t get that bit, but then I often don’t understand them. Then he pauses, and looks at us, and tells us that the pillar is one hand’s breadth too far to the left. There was silence, and the young ‘uns and the old ones among us just looked at each other. Not a word was spoken, not even a grunt. But we all knew that we were all thinking the same thing. So we let the ropes go loose. The pillar wasn’t going to go anywhere, it was secure in the ground now. And then one guy—I think it was Broken Nose, from Over-the-Stream—put his hand into the mud we’d made by hauling the pillar up from the ground. He does it slowly, as if there was nothing wrong, almost like he was thinking over what the druid had said. And a half a dozen of us see what he’s doing, and we know why. So we follow him: pushing our hands deep into the earth, pulling up some nice clumps of cool, healing mud.

The druid, he doesn’t notice. He’s still on at us, telling us that the monument is there to reflect the sacred circles in the night sky, the movements of the great lights and the little lights through the seasons. And this new pillar must be ready for the longest day, so there must be a straight line, an absolutely straight line from the central stone, through the little pillars, to this pillar…

‘Oh yeah?’ says Broken Nose. He never was one to turn away from a fight. ‘A straight line, right? Well, measure the straight line here!’

And he chucks his handful of mud at the druid. It was a signal: I chucked mine, Straight Back chucked hers, and then everyone joined in, laughing, shouting, jeering, pelting that bloody druid, until it was like a hailstorm on him. He protested a bit, at first, but I think he quickly saw the force of our argument. Then he ran off as fast as he could.

I mean, who did they think they are? Do they own this place? No, this great circle is there to represent all of our people, and I mean all. Yellow-hairs, red-hairs, brown-hairs, black-hairs, northerners, southerners, the lot. And most of us don’t care about the lines in the sky, that’s not what we’re here for, not for that at all.

Once the druid was gone, we went back to work, smoothing the ground around the pillar. There was a new spirit among us. With this great pillar standing, we could see the final shape more clearly: our great work, the space that we’d leave for our children, our children’s children, and so on, for dozens and dozens of generations, all linked to this space.

The next day, I think the druids expected us to work, but we thought we deserved a day of rest, a chance to look at what we’d done, maybe to feel good about it, to think about it. And there was something else: the eleven other teams were still working, and we were worried that the druids might try bossing them about or bullying them. We were in the mood to put a stop to any of that, we were that angry, that clear about what we wanted. We’d never accepted any of that lines-in-the-sky stuff. I mean, we all know the seasons are important, but we don’t need a forest of stones in a circle to tell us that, do we? That wasn’t why we were working. So the next day we sat up on the great stone bank that our parents and grand-parents had built, twelve times twelve of us, and looked out over our immense forest of stones, the inner circle inside that, and the great outer ditch, dug deep into the clean white chalk soil. It was almost completed, and it was all our work!

Someone started singing, someone produced some beer, someone shared some ‘shrooms, and you could see what was going to happen. We sang out, with a single voice, all twelve times twelve of us. First the building spell, getting it to echo out in the space we’d built. Then Straight Back led five others to one of those tree trunks we’d used to flatten the soil, and they bashed it down on the ground in time with the singing, adding one mean beat to our tunes.

It didn’t take long before the other eleven teams could see what we were doing. We’d told them about the ‘one hand’s breadth’ complaint, and they were as angry as we were. They came in from the forest, from the river, from along the paths, and listened to us sing; there’d be no further work that day. Soon there were twelve times twelve times twelve of us, and still more people came in. Then One-Arm, from the little hills, said:

‘Let’s do this thing!’

And we all knew what he meant. You know, we’d had plenty of practice in organizing, and now was the time to use that experience. So we got teams of twelve formed: some to get bread, some to gather shrooms, some to go hunting, some to sort out the tree trunks, some to get the wood and bushes that we’d need, some to clean the place. It was time that we got to use this great circle for what it was made for!

And the druids? I think there were a few of them there at sunrise, but they soon disappeared. I’ll say this for them: they know when it’s time to fight, and they know when it’s time to leave. They weren’t looking for a fight on that day!

We got everything ready by the next day. The sun shone, the stones were gleaming and the deep chalk circle was all one beautiful white. Bushes and branches blocked the exits, and six evil-looking boars were tethered in the central circle. Well, I say evil-looking, but I don’t mean to sound insulting. Every animal has its part to play in the great plan, don’t they? I’m not one of those blood-lust crazies, you know. Just kill what you need, and then thank the Great Mother for it, that’s what I say.

But there was something we disagreed about. Who were going to be the hunters? Some of us said that there was no need to choose, as everyone knew who the best hunters were. But then others said it wasn’t so clear. There were people from the low hills, from the forests, from over the river… But then, if we chose champions, would it cause divisions and fights? So we talked and talked, and then sang a bit, and took some shrooms, and finally it was decided that we would choose champions, but they wouldn’t represent clear groups. We chose six yellow-hairs, six visitors from over the river, six one-eyes, six old ones, six who’d lost one finger, and six wild ones. Some were laughing and laughing at these choices, because they weren’t what you’d expect, were they?

To celebrate the moment, we composed a choosing-song, and we all sat down on the great chalk bank surrounding the outer circle, and Straight Back and her group bashed out the rhythm with the tree trunk, and first twelve sang it, then twelve times twelve, then twelve times twelve times twelve, and the sound echoed round those circles and, by the sun’s light, it was tremendous. I mean, when six of you gather round a fire to sing at night, that’s good, but this was better, so much better, that sense of us all being together in the same place, singing together, wanting the same thing, helping each other… That was what the circle was all about, if you ask me, not all that nonsense about following paths in the sky.

Then came the hunts. They were conducted properly: each boar was first blessed—and I mean blessed by all the people sitting round the great circle. Then it was released, and we watched it rush through the circles of stones, dipping and diving, just like it would in the forest. Next the hunters came out, each group of six taking their place, shouting their names at the boar, holding back, helping each other, holding their spears, waiting for the right moment.

That vast crowd loved it and—I’ve got to say—they all joined in with the blessing to the Great Mother at the death of each boar. They showed some respect, you know what I mean? That blessing, intoned by all those people, twelve times twelve times twelve and maybe more, really shook me. This is it, I thought. All this labor has been worth it. We’ve created something that’s going to last, we’ve created something that’s going to be bigger than this little group here, that little group there, we’ve created something that will say what we are, unmistakably, clearly. People, for generations and generations to come, will remember us for our singing, our hunting and our love for the Great Mother.

Sharif Gemie is a retired history professor. His most recent non-fiction work is The Hippy Trail; A History. Since retirement, he has begun to write fiction. This story, Inside the Circle, is part of a longer cycle of stories about music and musicians. It’s based on research concerning the building of the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire (UK), but the story intended as an imaginative evocation of the era rather than as a scientifically accurate reconstruction. Sharif is also working on a satirical novel about British universities.

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