Every year, Robert Stewart and his father Charles, would travel to Newgrange to experience the Winter Solstice first-hand.
Newgrange is a large, ancient mound located in County Meath, eastern Ireland, where the bodies of Neolithic farmers were found. It is considered the most historically significant part of the Brú na Bóinne heritage site, which is an 800 hectare site that includes mounds, tombs, henges, and standing stones. The area is determined by archaeologists to be between 5,000 – 5,500 years old, pre-dating the pyramids of ancient Egypt.
A narrow 19 metre passage leads inside to a stone room, no wider than four metres. The walls are decorated in Neolithic art, such as tri-spirals. The purpose of this mound was to indicate to these farmers when the shortest day of the year had come so they could get ready to plant their crops again. For a six day period, between the 18th and 24th of December; the hazy orange beams from sunrise peak through a tiny hole, and alight the chamber in an astounding, vibrant orange for around 10 minutes.
The annual tradition for father and son of the Stewart family had lasted strongly for the 13th year running, and they hadn’t broken it once. Charles used to work in the Department of Public Works, before switching to Defence, so he and his son were able to get free admission all year round. Despite this, December 21st was always packed with the Irish media, and tourists from around the world, so Robert and Charles preferred to go on a quieter date, usually one before the 21st.
The morning started with waking up at 6 am, getting a light breakfast, and then hitting the road at around 6:30 am. The journey usually took about an hour, perfect for Charles to activate his exhausted head before arrival. They would meet up with Charles’s old colleague, Martha, and walk across a bridge over the river Boyne. They continue along a set path, where a bus picks up groups of people coming to see the solstice, and takes them to the mound.
At about 8:30, around 20 people would enter the chamber with reserved passes, and are led down the 19 metre passage into the chamber. After a brief explanation of some history, the lights are switched off and the chamber is instantly plunged into darkness. The eye usually takes around 5 minutes to adjust to the sudden absence of light, as the people stand in silence and anticipation.
Sunrise occurs at around 8:50 am, give or take a few minutes, and it takes about 10 minutes for the sunshine to rise above a hill in the horizon, and swoop through the darkness of the chamber. Once finished, and having experienced the ancient phenomenon, the Stewarts and their friend who worked at the Brú na Bóinne centre, or who regularly visited the tomb along with them, would gather in the restaurant of the visitor centre for some food.
It was revitalizing from the stresses of life that came with Christmas, whether it’d be upcoming college exams, just finished secondary school exams, or even just having to buy Christmas gifts for friends and family. Charles also sought it as a way to further his already tight bond that he and his son had. They would often joke about and make fun of the American tourists who came on their journey, rather than just sit there quietly with the friction of wheels and the radio being their only sound. This year they had decided to go on the 19th of December. It was a rather brisk, frosty morning, and sitting in the freezing car while exhausted had made Robert feel rather queasy.
Thankfully, the car had warmed up and Robert had adjusted to the temperatures, so he felt better with another half an hour to go. When the conversations and messing about with his father had died off, Robert stared out at the frosty fields of the countryside whizzing by, appreciating their beauty. He thought about the wonderful view of the fields he would have, while crossing the bridge of the river Boyne later that morning.
Charles parked up the car around the crack of dawn, with the navy sky becoming brighter by the minute. Both men got out of the car, and made their way through the half-kilometre long flower archway, which separates the entrance of the visitor centre and the car park. When they arrived, they flashed their passes to the young secretary and made their way downstairs, expecting to meet chubby, middle-aged, yet bubbly Martha waiting for them in the café.
An old man who both Rob and Charles had seen around a few times, but had never actually talked to, smiled and waved at them as they descended the spiral stairs. Robert looked at Charles in slight confusion, who in turn hid his mutual feelings and smiled and waved back.
“Míchael! Howiya keepin’?” Charles asked. Robert stood by his father, while he faded out from the typical small talk you would have with an old colleague. He stared around at the fancy, modern centre, which he still found classy after all these years, and he pondered whether he should go up to the petit museum back upstairs, or stay put with Charles.
“You must be Robbie! Jaysus you got big didn’t ye’?” the old mysterious man boomed, cutting off Robert’s trail of thought. Robert shook his hand and perked a shy smile at Míchael.
“Nice to see you, sir.” Robert said politely. Robert engaged in conversation feeling slightly awkward. He couldn’t shake the feeling of how cold and dirty Míchael’s hand felt. Charles was an avid gardener, and Robert had helped him a few times with it because he had a bad back. Robert helped him to his feet after his hands had been digging through soil for a few hours, and it felt almost exactly like that did. As for the cold part, Robert pondered and thought that it wasn’t exactly his hand that was abnormally cold, but how his bony, wrinkly hands had sent chills up his spine and given him goosebumps all up his left arm.
The three men grabbed a quick cup of tea, before leaving the visitor centre to get the bus to the Newgrange site. Charles walked on ahead, while Míchael walked alongside Robert, much to Robert’s discomfort. Robert stared out at the frosty fields on the banks of the river Boyne, as he had done every year crossing that bridge. Míchael’s steps continued to trudge alongside his, as he did this.
“Come here often?” Míchael asked, breaking the tension.
“Every year since I was 7,” Robert replied with a bit of attempted pep.
“You must really like your history.”
“Ye’, it was my favourite subject in school.”
“Ye’, I’m in College now. Woulda done somethin’ to do with history, but the counsellors said I would never getta job out of it.”
Robert detested having these conversations about his education with older people. Not just because he was doing a course he didn’t particularly like, but because after the 50th person asking, they just got repetitive and boring.
“I see. Do you like coming here?”
“Ye’ I do.”
“Jus’ you and your da’?”
“That’s the way it mostly is. One year my Swedish uncle Pierre came with us.”
“Ye’ ye’ ye’. What do ye’ think of the chamber itself?”
“I uh… ye’ it’s lovely ye’,” Robert replied, slightly baffled by his question.
Míchael straightened out his arms and buried both his hands into the pockets his long, grey coat. This, with his pale complexion, grey fedora, pale pink lips, grey pupils and tired, baggy eyes made him look somewhat like a living statue, Robert thought.
Robert continued talking after a few seconds of cold silence, feeling pressured to continuing on from where they had left off. “But y’know… it can be annoyin’ when the weather is shite and the chamber doesn’t light up, y’know?”
“Ye’, and your left jus’ standin’ around in darkness,” Míchael replied.
“Have ye’ ever heard voices when inside?”
Robert’s face wrinkled while he paused for a second. “N-No, can’t say I have,” he replied, with a ball in his throat.
“They say that after long exposure to silence and darkness in the chamber, ye’ start to hear voices and see shapes.”
Robert knew what he was getting at, for he himself had sometimes suffered from Exploding Head Syndrome, and even Night Terrors. Episodes of these would sometimes have him sleep with the light on, or with low-volume music playing. However, he never had anything like this happen to him while he was in the chamber, and hearing it said in a serious tone by the already mysterious Míchael, had not helped him feel at ease.
“Ye’ I’d imagine so,” Robert replied, trying his best to kill off the conversation. The two of them continued in silence along the path, until they reached the bus stop.
There were three old buses parked on the curb, and Robert hopped on to the first one. He saw Charles sitting at the back, smiled at him and followed him down and sat beside him. Robert stared at the condensation on the window, still as cold on the bus as he was outside.
“Where’s Martha this year?” Robert asked his dad.
“Martha isn’t feelin’ too well today,” Charles replied. “Míchael’s doin’ the guide today.”
“Don’t like ‘im,” Robert said. “Bit creepy.”
“Wouldn’ disagree withcha, but he’s been doin’ this job for years now.”
The engine on the freezing, condensated bus chugged for five minutes while it filled up, and took its usual time of 10 minutes to reach the Newgrange site. Robert and Charles trudged up the steep hill, feet crunching the crispy frost, almost slipping once or twice. Ahead of them, visitors listened to some of the guides give a history of the Brú na Bóinne site, while taking photos and exploring all around the monument.
After standing around in the freezing dawn air for a few minutes, the first bit of sunlight peaked over the hill in the horizon. That indicated that the chamber would be alight in around 15 minutes, so Míchael gathered the group designated to enter the chamber, and gave the usual announcement of no flash photography, switch all mobile devices off, and to watch out for low ceilings. Robert and Charles followed him and the rest of the group into the monument, down the narrow 19 metre passage, and into the crowded chamber.
Robert’s feet crunched on the tiny, sand-like pebbles inside the mound, just like they had on the frost outside. Of the tourists who hadn’t been here before, they touched the Neolithic designs on the grey, stone walls and traced the tri-spirals with their fingers. Míchael explained to the group the meaning behind some of these symbols, wearing down the time until sunlight would light up the chamber.
“Okay, everyone gather around in a semi-circle, tall people at the back, we’re going to turn off the lights now,” Míchael announced to the group.
All twenty of them shuffled around as Robert prepared his eyes for the drastic light change. The lights dimmed quickly, and in a few seconds all Robert could see was black. Míchael urged the group to remain as quiet as they could be, claiming that it will enhance the experience.
Míchael’s deep whisper bounced inside Robert’s ears, reminding him of what he had told him earlier. He began to become frightened, moving his eyes quickly through the dark, to avoid seeing any shapes developing. His anxiety skyrocketed out of control in such a short manner of time, he had forgotten that there were others around, and hadn’t realised he was tapping his foot violently on the ground.
He ceased his movement immediately, but continued to move his vision in circles through the total darkness. He began thinking of unpleasant thoughts regarding the mound. Why were the Neoliths buried here? Why the unnecessarily huge shrine? What else could the Neoliths have done here? The eerie quiet killed him. Voices of nonsensical dialogue faded in quickly. There was no light to flick on here, or song to play to relinquish the tormenting voices which blared through his head. All Robert could do was stand still, keep shut, shift his vision, and try his best to ignore them all and not take it in.
“Does anyone else hear that?” an American accent from somewhere in the room queried.
“Yeah, sounds like people talking or something. Is it coming from outside?” another American tourist responds.
Silence invades the room once more, but the voices which Robert thought were raging inside his own head, are now not only heard by others, but are also becoming louder. Frozen, his shifting eyes are beginning to make out barely visible shapes. The sunlight doesn’t concern him in the slightest anymore; he needs to get the fuck out of there, and now.
The shapes form holes that act as faces, and the roaring of aggressive tones and their slithering tongues synchronize to their awkward movement. The sounds of feet tapping, that Robert had created earlier on, becomes loud, sudden, and numerous. Míchael’s tone can be heard through it all, as he produces a deep, gurgled, horrifying giggle. One of the American tourists begins to weep quietly.
Robert sprints, and the shapes pulse the edges of their holes towards his swift moving body. He can’t see a thing, but he’s been here enough times to know where the exit is. In his panic though, he forgets about the low frame at each end of the tunnel. He smacks his head off the wooden frame and falls dizzily to the gravelly floor.
His visions swirls, and the shapes rush towards him assaultingly. The tremendous roaring ensues, and Míchael’s bellowing laugh accompanies the screams and running of all the unsuspecting people inside. Each shape hurdling towards Robert, like a vehicle speeding down an empty motorway, make him feel weaker, and he can hear Míchael spout out in that echoing, gurgled voice “They should never have been disturbed.”
The last thing Robert feels, are the bony, cold hands breaching the gravel; the cold and dirty hands with skin like old leather caressing the flesh of Robert’s neck.
Written by CrashingCymbal
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