12 May 2008

Owl Service by Garner, 1968

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 7:18 am

[After I read Dominic’s observations about Alan Garner’s Red Shift I went looking for it at the library but came up empty. I did find The Owl Service though, in the children’s section. The first two paragraphs of Dominic’s post capture well the mythos, the eternal return of the repressed, that haunts this Welsh valley. Here are some excerpts, beginning as usual at the very beginning of the book.]

* * *

“How’s the bellyache then?

Gwyn stuck his head around the door. Alison sat in the iron bed with brass knobs. Porcelain columns showed the Infant Bacchus and there was a lump of slate under one leg because the floor dipped.

“A bore,” said Alison. “And I’m too hot.”

* * *

At first he thought that Huw must have finished with the coke, but when he came to the yard he saw Huw leaning on his shovel, and something about him made Gwyn stop.

Huw stood with two fingers lodged in his vest pocket, his head cocked sideways, and although his body seemed to strain he did not move. He was talking to himself, but Gwyn could not hear what he said, and he was dazzled by the glare of the sun when he tried to find what Huw was looking at. It was the whole sky.

There were no clouds, and the sky was drained white toward the sun. The air throbbed, flashed like blue lightning, sometimes dark, sometimes pale, and the pulse of the throbbing grew, and now the shades followed one another so quickly that Gwyn could see no more than a trembling which became a play of light on the sheen of a wing, but when he looked about him he felt that the trees and the rocks had never held such depth, and the line of the mountain made his heart shake.

“That’s daft,” said Gwyn.

He went up to Huw Halfbacon. Huw had not moved, and now Gwyn could hear what he was saying. It was almost a chant.

“Come, apple-sweet murmurer; come, harp of my gladness; come, summer, come.”


“Come, apple-sweet murmurer; come, harp of my gladness; come, summer, come.”


“Come, apple-sweet murmurer; come, harp of my gladness; come, summer, come.”

Huw looked at Gwyn, and looked through him. “She’s coming,” he said. “She won’t be long now.”

* * *

When she heard the shouting Alison rolled off her bed and went to the window. It was Roger’s voice. She opened the fanlight. Gwyn appeared below the window, wheeling a barrow toward the stables.

The sun had warmed the ledge. Alison leaned her head against the glass. Some distance away the long stone fish tank by the lawn sparkled where the inlet broke from the ferns, and she saw herself mirrored among halos that the sun made on the water. The brightness destroyed the image of the house, so that all she saw was her face.

I’m up here and I’m down there, thought Alison. Which is me? Am I the reflection in the window of me down there?

Gwyn came back from the stables. He was walking with his shoulders hunched, and he kicked at every pebble. He sat on the edge of the tank, right next to the Alison in the water; he seemed to be watching her.

Now am I here, and you there? Or are we together? If I’m the reflection here then we’ll be able to talk to each other. “Hello, Gwyn.”

Gwyn said nothing. He reached out to touch her hair, and she was at once gold and whiteness over the water, and Alison was back in the window and the metal frame was hurting her cheek. And Gwyn looked up.

Alison was in the window. She did not move. The stillness he had tried to enter was now all around him, and Gwyn sat, and watched. But the gong sounded for lunch, and Alison hurried downstairs, while Gwyn went to drain the potatoes and put them in their dish on the serving hatch.

* * *

“There, Ben. Lass. Good, Lass. There. There. There.” The dogs changed direction at a whistle. He looked for the men, but they were not on the mountain. “Bob, there, Bob, Lass, good, Lass, there.”

The dogs came on and the sheep bunched together. The dogs were in a bent line, the horns of the line pointing up the mountain. The dogs reached the sheep. “There there there there. Ben. Lass. Ben. There. Bob, Bob, Bob.” The whistles followed sharp and urgent. The dogs swept past the sheep, the horns of the line drew in, pointed to the Ravenstone.

“There, Ben. There, Ben. Good, Lass.”

He looked behind him. There were no sheep on the top.

“Bob, stay, Bob. There, Ben, there. Lass, there, Lass.”

The dogs came for the Ravenstone. Their tongues rolled with the climb, but they came, and when they were near they dropped their bellies low, and crept. They moved in short spurts, eyes fixed.

He could not watch all of them at the same time.

They moved past the Ravenstone, turned, and lay between their haunches, and then ran at him, low quick darts from all sides. When he faced a dog it stopped, and two others closed nearer, and lay still when he looked, and the first came on.

“Get out!”

He waved his arms.

“Ben. Good, Ben. There, Ben.”

A wall-eyed dog reached him first, in with a nip to the ankle and away. He ran to kick it, but other teeth pinched his calf.”

“Lass, Lass, Lass, there, Lass.”

“Call your flaming dogs off!”

But his voice went into cloud, and the wind spread it over the peat moss.


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