She wakes with a sharp aching of limb and unfolds herself, heron-like, as though having waited too long and still for prey. On her box bed under the window, she is half between waking and sleeping, still trying to catch at the mist of her dream even as it looses from her mind’s grip. She had been on the moor, her fingers pushed into moss as she scrambled over stones, her whole body vital and moving as one mechanical bellows, propelled along by her thought. It was glorious and a taunt. She was her lungs and her legs working in tandem, a furiously strong bodied being; breathing the landscape as much as she walked it. Her long strides cut up the moorland and carved it. The muscle memory of those moors was strong, as though their contours were alive under her skin; that dip in the heather there, her sinewed bone. The fizz and crackle of the wind on the moors was in her like the whistle in a pipe or the glamour on water. Essential, but it’s fume was murder.
Even now, her fingertips have the dream-memory of the green, wet tickle of starry sphagnum – soft as tongues. But there is something else waking from sleep within her, bringing with it steel bands and the stale smells of sweat and the sickbed which won’t be repressed. As the wallpaper comes into focus, she feels the dream dull and slip awfully out of reach and she flinches as bands of pain tighten about her chest.
There is a stillness muffling the house. She shifts and is surprised – as always on waking now – to feel the lancing of pain and a confinement of being. Her body – once the vehicle to her liberty outdoors – is tightly wound as if by springs. Steel wires run to red-hot brands in her throat and there is a growing choke. As she cramps inward, a book, forgotten, slides off her lap and, puppeted by her pain, she shakes out of torpor with wracking coughs. Downstairs a chair leg scrapes across stone flags and she is frozen for a moment, holding her breath with effort, her eyes on the stairs like a hunted animal.
She lists to the side, trying to trick the beast within, the mass of her chintz skirts folding like paper. The hem of her dress has been raised over the years to allow for lengthening strides and give her greater liberty across the moors. Now her feet are cold in her stockings. But as she trembles a hand down her skirts, her legs misgive, and she sinks down with a curse, a floorboard giving her away. “Emily?” – from below. The word is a pinched frown. Charlotte. Not now! As the beast in her chest claws to get out, she thrusts her fingers into the wall for support and touches the graven impressions they had made as children there. Her brother had written his name over and over – he had always wanted to see his own name. That had been his trouble. Feeling it under her fingertips – where so recently she had dreamed the feel of moss – renews the sense of loss, sharpening its edge from beyond the window; from beyond his nearby grave. She traces the letters in the plaster on a gasp and the beast’s bands cinch tighter.
As though her brother’s ghost has got into her, the clawing of the beast renews its savagery, and her body – once so reliable and sure over rough moorland – betrays her and falls. Darkness rushes up to meet her; she hears little feet slapping on the stairs and the beating of skirts like the flapping of crows’ wings. And even as unconsciousness takes her, she resents those busy little feet and their easy movement. That has always been her trouble.
This was a walk that happened to us with all the merciless bluntness of a Yorkshire hossing. I had wanted it, though; had angled and wheedled for it using all the guile of the youngest of the family because it is into their country. And it was my turn to choose. I wanted it with a desperation born of wishing to feel close to those women and the flame of their genius. To walk quite literally in their footsteps along paths of the Dean valley which had daily carried them and shaped their words and imaginations, as though by walking the same paths I could awaken – and somehow claim – their memory. I did not articulate it to myself then, but I hoped that a creative magic still lingered in the soil of this Yorkshire valley, like firefly trails of wonder that I might pick up and weave about myself. But, in counterpoint to my sentimental notions, a ragged inclemency prevails and what we will get from this walk is mudded, bone-cold and land-lashed by a haily squall that will beset us halfway through. This seems, in hindsight, comeuppance for an ambition to enshrine and attempt to memorialise this landscape; for being consumed by others’ histories and not walking my own present.
Even though, in the annals of our walks together, it will be remembered with shudders and grimaces, it is almost as if it never really happened: dream-like and insubstantial, but for the storm which drenched us. And this because I walked it stepping between worlds – between a past never mine, and a present I was (if only temporarily) denying. I will shiver, when eventually we get home, for at least an hour as someone seems to cross my grave, yet I am the trespasser over graves and disturber of ghosts: my intention to walk as a means of conjuring, however imperfectly. Yet the way will remain silent; keeping its own counsel; and untrusting of the non-native.
Latterly, my feet may be able to recall the path through Goose-Eye, along and across the valley and up to Newsholme Dean, but at the time our steps riddle with uncertainty and we continually lose our way. It is a landscape that resists any attempt to know it. Doubt is the predominant theme. My mind has wrapped these memories into a few unstable impressions, like volatile elements ready to disperse at the effort to fix and grasp them.
There is, for example, the memory of the tang of saltpeter on the air as of spent fireworks. Grey and unremarkable, the sky is dirty pale, not romantic – not moody or atmospheric – just sullen. The trees look flat against it, their moss sleeves lending only a little colour. Branches bib and spook, black against white. And we have made a false start, the first of many mis-pathings. We make our way down a field which has been sculpted into steps by the passage of sheep over several years’ grazing: latitudinal bands slicing through the grass ready to trip the steps of the unwary walker. At the base of the field’s sharp decline, the stream in spate, over which we are bidden to find our way “at rough stepping stones (tricky after rain)” warns that this is to be no ordinary walk. The stepping stones about which the walking guide makes its parenthetical warning are submerged under a swollen torrent and the banks, mud-slicked and steep, make an optimistic jump foolhardy but necessary. We stand for a while surveying with townie reluctance. By a mixture of bravura and the stream’s alchemy, we each make land safely on the opposite bank. This is the first pact we make with the path: you may try to throw us off into the wet, but we will not be leaving anyone behind.
We enter woodland shushing with leaves, all its clothing at our feet, its branches revealing the secrets of their nests like clotted arteries. In spring the wooded slopes of the valley are primrosed and the nap of new tender grasses flushed around the bases of the trees. This is that in reverse, everything turning its face away from the year that has been and pulling on decay and fall with the familiarity of widow’s weeds. The leaves that remain – mainly beech and oak – are delicate and crimped as funerary crepe, fragilely hanging onto the year with a tenacity that belies its end.
It is a colourless November shuffling affair through dripping woods and again we lose our way up a steep incline where the mud is thick and oozing, purchase-shy, daring us to try for footholds. I am finding it difficult to interpret direction in the valley. My feet are not reading the path correctly while my mind is as doggedly alive as a tuning fork for any residual ghost of their presence. Senses stretched wide as dowsing rods to detect the patter of their words, I attempt footholds like well-worn verbs. Yet too often our feet are turned aside.
More by accident than luck, we make the sleepy hamlet of Goose Eye with its old mill chimneys like sheared-off bobbins. The mill windows are eyes marshalled to watch our stop-start progress with unfriendly aspect. We stitch our footsteps through the cotton village, following the mill race over its sill of stone to where it falls into a still pool. The surface throws us back at ourselves, its depths an absolute mystery of black. Everything here keeps its secrets with a back-end-of-the-year complicity with the coming winter.
We follow the river – sluggish, occasional glinter – out and through, and the smothering quiet forces quiet and smallness upon us too. Funneling into walled and flagged ways, deeply mossed, we pick up the threads of the path and try to mend the broken or missing parts by rehearsing it with our feet. That way there? No (consult guide), back again; other way. There is no rhythm to this walking: it is constant broken delays, opposite of their walking, whose feet and memory stepped in tune with the way.
No bees heard, and very few birds. All creatures mummified by cold with half-hearted shuffling above us as we go. The crowns of bare trees hold up the tenting sky with their black, as if vital sap has gone to ground in them. They are tomb-quiet in a windless pass, their mossy furs moth-eaten and no match for this hard-as-bone season of the soul. Clusters of them over-root and huddle together through accidental seedings. Crowded and growing in surprise at the closeness of one another. Everything suspicious of its neighbour.
It is a freezing day, a nithering day. And with the often-losing of our way, there is not much joy between our company. None of the wonder I had foreshadowed in my hopes for a walk with their familiars. We continue, but there’s effort in it, as though grasses and heathers are hands about the ankles, drawing us down into treacherous footholds at the catchings between rock and ground. Punch-sudden, we’re down at the utter neon-green bottom of the valley, the grass lit up with phosphorescence as often happens before a storm vamps the sky. While we look up at the scramble we must make on the opposite side, rain starts to fall in cheek-cold jets. There is no poetry in the valley for me. Instead it seems to ache of absence and blank melancholy.
We throw dubious looks at the stone bridge at the valley’s base, shaped like a henge lying flat – big stone balanced on big stone and somehow holding the path together over air, space and river. It carries the way and knits the two sides of walk, and valley, together.
With desultory strides, we walk the great distance up the valley’s other side – in fact not very far, but effort, unreliable scree-stones and earth made molten by successive rainfalls make it seem so. A gill winds its way down the hill in tear tracks: the aspect sad and numbing. All notions of finding their spirits out here are washed clean of sentimentality and I look for them only incidentally, as one might spot a darkly coloured feather – and think of the bird that left it – as its reminder. We reduce to mere fumbling onwardness, picking carefully the best route to the top and a guiding view of the way we must follow. A little way off, a pheasant’s cry splinters the air.
Several hawthorn trees later, we pass farm houses and newer, boxy homes, prosaic and shunning the past as if to mock me in my search for the landscape’s hidden memory. Doves sit in a cherry tree, ungainly and plump on ruby branches. Farm machinery with articulated limbs lines the way and litters the yards. All wet and rusting as the rain increases. On barbed wire fences are snagged bits and pieces of plastic sacking – witches’ knickers hanging still as furniture and belying the humour of their folklore. The rain hardens into kelching hail. We double down against the harsh sting to our faces and hustle, blattering through the puddles that imbue the path with mischief.
The sky pitches all its misery down on us and I borrow its mood for a while. Our clothing hangs about us as second skins, close and sagging. I am slow to go on; knees knackered and hands knuckle-frozen. Cold numbs the toes. The cheeks are rimed with rain. I do not feel my nose. Boots release haltingly from the oozes of unwanted mud-kisses. Thoughts of them are pressed out of mind by a dozen discomforts. We are rank and file up to Newsholme Dean, circumventing a field’s livestock by keeping to the edges; minds on nothing but getting done with the walk and getting on home.
Newsholme Dean – our landmark and our end – hits us on the approach with how commonplace it seems. A bucket under a little beck running down through a hedge is collecting water for dog-walkers. No remainders of them to be seen. This is Brontë country, and my mind has clutched at thoughts of them walking these rough moorland heights. How important these capillary footpaths must have been then – the lifeblood of a community for whom a few miles’ walking was a daily ritual, entered into not with romance but real necessity.
I feel foolish, bone-weary and cold, exhausted in mind and body by the dis-jointings of this walk: by its refusal to form a rhythm, by the words that I had expected to come but do not, and by my own morbidity. I am a latter-day Heathcliff disturbing graves – or Jane, fugitive from pain across the moors. I have tried to hold the ghosts of those women inside me as companion wayfarers, but instead feel the deep silence from beyond the grave. I join my sister and father on the path homewards, flat and empty and silent about the fissure of self-doubt and alienation within me.
Emily nods by the crack and sizzle of the kitchen fire, her breathing a thin rattling thread onto which her sisters cling. Anne’s hand is holding tight to hers with the desperate knowledge that it will not be long now, but Emily is beyond their reach in dream-memory again…
She bustled by her eldest sister to the back door and felt her disapproval follow her. “I’m going out”. A tut from Charlotte. “There’s darning still – father’s stockings -” Reading her sister’s frown as easily as one of their father’s books, she went in spite of her disapproval, eager as a fish to water. Anne saw her off with a sneaked apple and a smile, and her heart was a little soothed by this kindness. She would stride gullies and valleys, moors and erratics; let her mind loose to grub down among the damp ground – anywhere but the church and graveyard, the strongholds of the safe and the familiar. Her strides took her along ways she mapped easily with her feet – up Balcony Lane and farther onto Pennistone Hill; to the gully, the gill and her particular rock. Her skirts bellied out in the wind and bore her up like a sail upon the seas of heather as she put miles between herself and the confinement of home with its unutterable dullness, until all her frustration retreated and the words came to her. Here on the moors was wildness and wuthering so gusting and strong as to get inside of you, to whimple your hair, make your eyes cross with tears, and buffett you out of your plain, dreary self. This place held all her love, even in the darkest seasons.
Emily rouses from memory, fevered and still under the confusion of her dreams. Charlotte’s face swims above her, frowning still and holding fast to her hand as if it might fade away before her. Emily recoils from the sight and whines to be let go, never seeing the sudden hurt in her sister’s eye.
Later in the evening, as Charlotte keeps vigil beside her, Emily’s voice rises from her sickbed in an awful whisper, “She’s a coughin’ girl, a coughin’ girl, a coughin’ girl now; dead to the world, dead to the world, away she goes now.” The words send a chill through the air, and Charlotte pricks her finger on her needle. “Dearest?” Emily’s look shivers right through her with sudden consciousness. She knew her sister had caught her death when they buried their brother, but she had ruthlessly pressed the painful knowledge down, doing everything she could for her sister’s comfort. But now, in the dead of night, her tiny frame vibrates with anger and fear at another sibling being taken from her. Emily senses this between deliriums and clings to her. Charlotte reminds her of an agitated bird, all a flutter of feather and her heart softens a little towards her.
Her sister’s hands are clenched into fists now and she is as vulnerable as Emily has ever seen her. “Don’t go from me, Emily. You are the other half of myself.” The words cost Charlotte a choked sob and she bites down hard on her fist. Emily can speak only gaspingly, her chest labouring for breath. “H-have to. You’ll m-mend.” It is not heartless; she says it with the conviction of truth. Charlotte bends in pain over her sister’s hand. The tears start in her eyes but will not fall, and a few angry swipes dash them away. Fixing her in her fevered gaze, the beast clawing up her throat, Emily starts with a shudder and tries to smile but the beast snatches it from her. Her eyes start wide and with a last clasp from her strong-boned hand, she passes beyond her sister’s grasp.