Book extract: Of Talons and Teeth by Niall Griffiths
Described as ‘an historical novel set in Wales before the Industrial Revolution, as human love tries to flower amidst squalor and serfdom,’ award-winning novelist Niall Griffiths’ latest work has already been winning plaudits. The Spectator said ‘Everyone is covered in mud or worse in this memorable and highly original novel.’ We are pleased to publish this extract.
Ago and prior to the burning and raking and setting of pitch into trackways and when what trackways there were were traversed only by foot and hoof. At that time. From there to there and far away and at no velocity ever thought in error to break the brain. Right prior to weapons against epidemic and virus yet of a moment when berserkers akin to such things began to sprout and spread in a form recognisable. And also following:
Once there was a liquidity beneath a black and boiling sky threaded with red and jagged shapes and then there was a vast cooling and slow solidification happened and now there is a boy/man or a man/boy picking across a great flank of annealed rock.
Scare-bird scrawny he is in the torn and drifting sheets of mist which rise from the cracks and crannies. So many ghosts of the swallowed dead. Clad in rags this man-like-a-boy is and shod in little more than ripped scrims of stuff; the white of an elbow, the gnarled nub of a begrimed toe.
Tinied by the barn-big boulders that the amassed grey pressure of the scree has pushed into the gullies and between them he bends and plucks and stands and drops over his shoulder into the sack on his back his findings: fungi, flowers, other growths, even just stones that take his fancy. The occasional bone.
The longfingered hand of him with the nails like pale beetles and the wounds both old and sealed and fresh and runny-red. Dirt making runes of the lines and creases in his knuckles and palms.
These are the hands between the sky and earth that once both boiled and that in a million hidden fiddlings and nibbles have funnelled the hills within with empty and echoing webs. These hands that scrape moss off stone with a blade.
Bag it. The keening of a bird above and around; big bird that throws a shadow through the mist and hurkles a cruciform-thought across the swoop of stone.
Bwyd. Seren. Bwyd. Seren. Food cast down and teats from the mountain my mountain mother mountain just what is offered and here I am. Not all I need no not all of it but it is here and here I am and accept it all I will.
Vast shadows flow fluid down the slope like ink spilled from the well of a titanic scribe. Twinned megaliths emerge from the mist’s fringed billows as if in a motion willed within their antique stonehearts and thin and needy the boy-man stops to saw from them lichen, yellowy scraps like the dead skin from a mending flashburn or like the diluted dribbles that circle the moon.
From the deep grass at the roots of those stones poke clustered brown nipples and he squats and plucks and eats. Spits out soil and the stiff worms of hard stalk but mostly swallows, a flop of dotted drool on his chin which he wipes away with the back of a hand. Slime of spittle gritted with dirt and commas of dark mushroom meat. Lids come down across the blue of his eyes.
To suckle like this that is all. Like I once did like we all once did oh mother mountain like the calves and the pigs that the Hibernians do keep. Not enough no but what is offered I will take and here I am now and THERE I want to be and this is why.
Bundles of fleece snagged on thorns and thistles like blown seeds, the clocks of dandelions. Out of which might grow ovines more and many. They gather to their spindly spokes droplets and hold onto them, tiny eggs, and thrash in the lifting wind.
The mountain takes a breath; huffs and exhales pale wraiths from its exits and entrances. Sounfrom these thresholds — clanks and hammerings and the engulfed calls of men.
Grasp this if you can. Wings over it like the birds with their eggs and chicks and food too in the grass or like the suckling pigs or like the wolves that cling singing on in places that cling to them too like they themselves cling because they will not last forever no. Nor this. Nor it all.
Clots of foul froth clumped to the roots at the stream’s banks. Yellow-tinged and flocculent and rancid to the nose. Above these sleeps a baby in a bassinet fashioned from a slat-crate and in the stream stands a woman with skirts bunched up at her thighs, the exposed skin of which is seemingly made of the spume’s same matter.
This way and that she moves her legs on the burnbed as if seeking with her feet. Nearby and downstream a small boy fidgets on the length of planking that spans the stream bank-to-bank and which teeters with the restless weight of him yet steady and sure on it is he, confident of foot as if long accustomed to such uncertainty.
The woman calls: – Help me here now Ianto.
– But I look for fish Mam.
– You know there are no fish.
– Frogs then. Things for us to eat Mam.
– Nor are there frogs. Nothing you know can live in this. And buried beneath the silt my fleece is now. Come and help me retrieve.
The boy Ianto takes a stick from the pocket of his smock and drops it into the river upstream and carefully eyes it as it passes the plank below. Turns to watch it emerge on the other side and go away. Carried by the current towards the far sea. He’s never seen the sea. Yet he’s been told tales.
The woman slips and stumbles and uprights herself and wakes the baby with her yelp.
– Ianto! Look what you’ve done! Making me raise my voice! Go to your sister. It’s hungry she is.
– We’re all hungry Mam.
– Attend to the infant I said!
Ianto bounds towards the bank — the energy in him, leporine — and squats and places the tip of the smallest finger on his right hand between the tiny pale lips which latch on fast and suck. Gurgles and murmurs from the turnip face and the hands grasping tight on the larger wrist.
Ianto observes for a while and then is startled by a HA and turns his head to see his mother bend and reach into the river and drag some dripping bulk out and take it in her arms to the bank held to her breast like a baby and with careful and ginger steps. Sodden heft of the thing pulling a grunt from her as at the bank she lifts and drapes it over a sturdy low limb. Like a sheep hollowed-out it hangs there giving bits of the river back to itself in murky drips.
She blows hair from her face and hooks an oily rope of it behind her ear. From flowing stone to this ear’s shiny nubs and the sheen of old dirt in the recess behind the lobe. She watches the water run from the hanging fleece with her bare feet sunk to the ankle in a suck of mud.
Almost rapt her face is, age untellable from the shadowed features and dark matts of hair that twist and tuft out from beneath the holed scarf knotted across her head, the colour of a sun seen through the haze of a detonation when the air itself barks behind whiffled dust. A rhythm from upriver draws her notice; a steady clockwork thump. Like marching feet of armed men, a double thud-clank unceasing.
– Will there be sun enough to dry it Mam?
Still the baby sucks.
– There’s never enough sun. The woman turns to look at her children and offer them a tiny smile.
– We will take it to the forge.
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