The write stuff: Silma Hill by Iain Maloney

Iain Maloney. Picture: Contributed
Iain Maloney. Picture: Contributed
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Silma Hill, a historical thriller about witchcraft by Iain Maloney begins in the forbidding manse of Reverend E S Burnett

The Reverend E. S. Burnett, minister for the parish of Abdale, was composing his sermon when his daughter intruded. At her apologetic knock he paused, nib hovering over Romans 15:4: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” He waited his customary ten seconds, pen dripping, before a granite, ‘Come!’ He rubbed the ink from his pale, soft hands, the only marks on them graft from the labour of his mind. His study was wood-panelled and book-lined, a lifetime of accumulated knowledge, theological texts, scientific treatises, drawers of correspondence. The fruits of man’s explorations since the Fall there for him to harvest. Removing his glasses he ran his finger over the groove they had worn in the bridge of his nose. The ploughed furrows in his forehead, the widow’s peak and curl in his once broad shoulders spoke of the hours he spent hunched over a thick book or a blank sheet.

Fiona’s hands, pressed heavy against the door, were those of a woman much older than herself, barnacled with a near-decade of work. Sixteen and already care-worn, she approached the frontier of his citadel. There was no telling what reception she would receive, what choler had aggravated his temper. A storm may be gathering over his desk waiting for a conductor on which to break. The Lord was strong and wrathful. Reverend Burnett, his representative.

‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ she said. ‘Old Man… I mean Mister Sangster is at the kitchen door. He says he has found something. Something in which you may have an interest.’ He considered her with a stern eye, weighing her with the experienced consideration of a judger of men. Her voice was too harsh, the local accent too strong, the vowels too parochial. Steps needed to be taken. The sons of important men would never marry a wench with a mouth so common. The daughter of a respected minister and future member of the Historical Antiquities Society should be beyond reproach.

Burnett stood slowly, stretching his limbs out from the seat, reaching for his hat where it rested on the bust of Calvin. A discovery by Sangster would shift the face of his week but there was no need to rush. Let the old fool wait. Burnett was a man immersed in complex spiritual matters, a man wrestling with the nature of the Lord, the glory of His Creation, saving the damned souls of Abdale. The parishioners couldn’t expect him to respond to every trivial request with haste. Each man had his place in the Lord’s grand scheme, and Sangster’s was at the kitchen door, hat in hand. He waved Fiona away. She retreated to the pantry, alone in the darkness amongst the preserves and grains, the scratching of mice and the musk of old wood. Burnett’s existence moved between the twin poles of his study and the kirk, and while he was secluded she had the manse to herself. When he walked abroad in her world, she tried to become a ghost, unseen, forgotten. It was safer that way.

As he passed through his house he searched for anything out of place. The manse gave him some satisfaction. High ceilings, solid walls, uncluttered, austere, every inch under his control. A man’s home reflected his soul. Upon entering a home of squalor, of fetid stench and decay, of broken furniture and bestrewn floors, he knew there lived the damned. Parishioners concerned for the repose of their eternal soul need only glance around their abodes for an answer. Evidence abounded.

Twenty years before, arriving in Abdale a freshly made minister with a young wife, he had found the manse an abomination. The minister who preceded him, Cullen, was a simpleton, delighting in art and fancy. The manse reflected his tastes. Watercolours, many of them by Cullen himself, offended the walls. Flowers, ornaments, trinkets of such irrelevance that Burnett had wondered if Cullen had been a serious man in any way. Everything that could be burned was burned, the rest dumped. He had given orders. His wife had obeyed.

The manse had remained the same ever since. Fiona maintained it tolerably well. Not with the same surety and efficiency as Moira, may she rest in peace with the Lord, but these things were sent to test mankind. If Burnett could not educate his own child and order his own residence, he had no business educating and ordering his parishioners.

Sangster was waiting at the kitchen door, fingers filthy, back curled. The Sangsters were farmers, but had a hand in much that went on in the village, including the digging and selling of peat. It was in this capacity that the old man’s existence proved valuable for Burnett. Peat bogs were excellent sites of discovery, preserving the treasures of history until ripe for reclamation. Over the years Sangster’s clumsy fingers had unearthed Roman coins, shards of pottery, even a claymore. Finds he dutifully handed over to Burnett, the authority on such things.

Antiquities were Burnett’s passion. He read widely on the subject, his shelves heaving with learned texts. He corresponded with the leading experts of the day, men of knowledge at the universities, the Royal Society and the Historical Antiquaries Society, the missives carefully filed. His finds methodically written up and submitted, copies sent to the relevant authorities. To date all he had received were watery letters thanking him for his contribution, curt notes, displaying vague sentiments. He had been to lectures at the Society, heard papers read, asked apposite questions, engaged in debates, but the doors to its inner sanctum remained sealed. They took him for a country minister. Typical of the city breed, he thought. Self-absorbed, unable to see work of real clarity and insight when it was right in front of them. Too much claret. Too many feasts. One day he would produce work of such high and clear learning they would have no recourse but to make room at their table.

He strode through the kitchen to where Sangster was waiting. ‘Sangster.’

‘Good morning, Mister Burnett.’

‘You have found something?’ He was carrying it wrapped in a fraying grey blanket, delicately held in both hands. It was long, between four and five feet.

Sangster was a man of few words. Brevity was a holy virtue, even in a man as rough as him. Sangster laid the package on the ground and unwrapped it. Inside was a wooden object, a rough statue of human form carved from a single piece of dark wood. Long and thin, with grooves suggesting limbs, an unnaturally extended, narrow neck and an egg-shaped head, a flat slash for a mouth. It had absorbed some damage, chips serrated its edges, and the legs ended at the ankles, the feet long gone. It was female. Full breasts and an over-emphasised reproductive area. The eyes demanded attention. Two round brass pins raised from the head, the coloured metal fierce against the wood. The dirt that clung to the body had seemingly avoided the eyes, ringed them like exhaustion. They shone as though recently polished, a fervent light.

He crouched down beside Sangster. It was a false idol of some sort. Heathen. Before the light of Christianity came to the area it had been under the sway of a number of different barbarian sets. Celts, Romans, Norsemen. Burnett couldn’t immediately tell which but he could conclude one thing: great care had been taken over its creation.

The eyes gave off an uncanny power. The power of graven images. Therein lies the appeal of false idols, why they have power over the imagination of weaker men. It was a mere object, carved by a man. To anyone with any intelligence the trickery was clear.

‘Where did you find it?’

‘North corner of the bog, Mister Burnett.’

The bog was on the far side of Silma Hill, which rose up behind the manse. Sangsters’ beasts roamed the nearside. On the top of the hill stood a small copse and the remains of a stone circle. ‘I’m going to examine it now, but I shall be down later today to sketch the site.’ Burnett wrapped it carefully and carried it protectively inside.

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen and now lives in Japan where he teaches English and writes about travel, literature and music. He studied English at the University of Aberdeen, has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and as a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry has been published in journals and anthologies around the world. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His debut novel, First Time Solo, was shortlisted for the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize.’