Nod Ghosh – Bluestone Beetles
I’ve been coming to the festival for years. I first came here with Ellen Ryder when we were fifteen. Ellen blended in with the hippies, druids and nutters who congregate at Stone Henge, whilst I stood out like an aching tooth, awkward and fidgety, wearing the wrong jeans, saying the wrong things.
“Can’t you just chill a bit, Bethany?” Ellen would say. Then she’d disappear off into someone’s tent, and I wouldn’t see anymore of her until the morning.
Ellen came here for years, but she doesn’t anymore. Not since she had the baby. Ellen’s hair has darkened to a muddy brick colour, whilst mine has softened to a honey blonde.
I’ve come to the festival every summer solstice since then. I kept coming until I developed a sense of belonging. Sometimes I think I see a guy with the same sharp features as Ellen’s kid, and I think about going up to him and saying something. But what would I say?
I blend in with the misfits now. I am one of the misfits now. It goes with the life I come from now, the life I go back to.
I’ve hitched here with an old hippie who reeks of patchouli and is missing a front tooth. But since he shared his food with me, and let me sleep in the back of his truck, none of that matters. He has a good soul.
We’ve been here for a day and a half.
There’s a buzz in the air.
Everyone’s waiting for solstice sunrise.
I walk away from the tents, vans and benders in the cool crystalline morning, with my pack slung over a shoulder. There are more people than I can count streaming across the plain like rivulets of water running down a drain; rivers of people in the pink-grey light of dawn. I take my jacket off and tie it to my pack. The strap of my tie-dye dress slips off my shoulder from time to time.
Last night, I indulged more than I should have. The remains of the night’s excesses wash over my eyes like tissue paper. Sunlight breaks into a series of interlinked hexagons, until I blink it away. I can’t have slept for more than four hours. My brain is swimming.
I arrive just in time for the sunrise ceremony, and manage to position myself within the crowds, so I can see the heel stone pierce the rising sun through a window of pillars. A collective gasp goes through the crowd. There’s dancing and chanting. I feel a connection with my ancestors. I swing to a hidden rhythm that infects us all.
We hold hands in a looping chain through the crowd. This is what it means to be young. This is what it means to be alive. I think about Ellen in her council flat, worrying about bills and the cost of nappies. How easily this can all disappear. I hold onto the good feeling, because I know it’s like gold. And it is also like ice. It can melt. It may not be here forever.
I look around for the old hippie, but he woke long before I did. He’s likely at the front of the heaving throng.
Afterwards, I sit and chant with a man dressed in a long robe. He drops something on my tongue, and closes my mouth with a kiss. I could drown in the scent of him. But then a woman with ice-blue eyes and a baby in a sling takes his hand, and he is gone.
I am left with a sense of longing.
An aura of loss overwhelms me. The same sun we worshiped an hour earlier burns into my skin like a threat. There is a cheesecloth shawl at the bottom of my pack. I ease it out from under my sleeping bag and clothes, and throw it over my shoulders. The swimming in my head is less intense than it was.
A few stragglers step around the stones. Most have headed back to the camp. Guitars and synthesiser chords waft over the plains, and I think about following the sound to the stage.
I come across a woman in a kurta and jeans, and stop where I am. She’s peering into a hole in one of the bluestones. She looks like she’s about to lick it, one bare foot raised onto the toes, the other against the pillar. I can’t see her face, only her dark hair pulled into a ponytail, which bobs up and down as she moves her head. When she turns around I realise I’m standing close enough to touch her.
“Can you see them?” she whispers, and strokes the stone with the palm of her hand.
“What?” My voice is quiet in concert with hers. We both know we can’t speak loudly, though I have no idea why.
“Millions of beetles,” she says. “So small, they’re the colour of stone. Tiny. See them crawling?”
I’m almost leaning on her shoulder, the muscles in my face tense in concentration. Then I see them. I look again and they’re gone. It’s just stone. I lick my finger, and press it onto the mottled surface. No, she’s right. Something gives under my finger. I pull it away, and examine the miniscule grains under my fingernail. They’re moving, vibrant yellows and blues, the green carapaces of living beetles. Then they turn into dust. I put my fingertip on my tongue, and taste the gritty wholesomeness of life.
“Do you see?” the woman asks. And I do. I really do. There are thousands, if not millions, no billions of greyish speckled creatures moving over the surface of the stones, and crawling over each other. It’s captivating. And it’s repulsive. And somehow it’s also one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life.
“All over them. Man!” I am in awe, but part of my brain questions what I see. “Who knows about this?”
“No one. Just us. They’re not just on the surface,” the woman says. Her tone is earnest, her eyes moist. “They’re tunnelling through each other.” She speaks like a teacher, talking to a curious child. “The stones are made of beetles.”
I don’t know if I believe her. Their holographic transcendence, their wholeness, the fragmented un-wholeness of them. It’s too much. There is a flicker of doubt. But then the woman takes my hand and points again and I am lost in the serene wonder of what I’m seeing. It’s almost holy. And it’s almost obscene.
The woman runs her hands over the face of the rock. I do the same. The surface is cool. It surprises me. I expected all these creatures to generate more heat.
“It’s my responsibility to dismiss them at the end of the festival,” she says.
“When it’s time, I’ll I clap my hands, and they’ll all crawl off into the plain.” She turns to look at me. “No more stones.”
I’m blown away by what she says. How could I not have known about this? “But I thought − ”
“I’ll get them back next year,” she says. “Are you coming?”
“I think so.” The sun disappears behind a cloud, and I pull my shawl tighter around me.
“I’m going to have to come every year for the rest of my life.” I can’t make out whether the woman looks sad, or just weary. I want to hug her, but I don’t dare touch her. “Otherwise,” she carries on, “there’ll be no more stones, and there can be no festival.” She takes a pack of cigs from her bag and offers me one. “Anyway, I’m Sandra.”
Sandra pulls away from the rock. Her eyes have a hollow look about them. I’m not sure if she’s totally off her face, or the most sober, wise being I’ve ever met. She pulls out an emerald-coloured lighter and touches it to our cigarettes.
“You been coming here long?” She drags hard on her cig, like she can’t let any of the fumes escape from it.
“A few years, yeah.” Something flashes through my mind about the solidity and permanence of the stones, how they’ve been there for thousands of years. I think about saying something. I want to ask her who summoned the beetles before she did. But before the words make their way from my lips, I realise the absurdity of what I was about to say. Instead, we strike up a conversation about the bands that played on the main stage the night before.
I touch the blue stone, and it’s a stone again. Just a stone.
“You know what you said, you know, about the − ”
“Yeah?” She’s smiling, and I don’t know if the whole thing has been a big wind-up, or if Sandra really believes in the beetles.
We stub our cigarettes, and leave the filters at the foot of the bluestone. I grind them into the dirt with the heel of my shoe.
“Well, see you around, Bethany,” Sandra says, and goes to inspect the next stone.
“See you,” I call to her retreating form, and then head back to the camp.
It’s the old hippie. He looks different. He’s pulled a comb through his hair, and it looks smooth down to the point where a tangled rattail trails down his back. He still reeks of patchouli. The gap in his teeth is less of a mystery now; adds depth to his character. Back in his van, he brews tea on a gas stove; orange, pungent and earthy. He offers me a cup. It tastes green, and it tastes like needles on my tongue. I can’t finish it.
“Do you know about the stones?” I ask.
“Really? Is it true then?”
“About the devil bringing them from Ireland?”
“I mean about the − about − ” but the sentence melts away in my mouth before I can finish it. “I think I’ll go listen to the bands for a bit. Can I leave my pack in your van?”
“I’m not going anywhere. Just might take a look at the stones again later,” he says, “see if I can find any signs of the devil. He smiles and the gap in his teeth changes again to something ominous.
I can’t get the taste of that tea off my palate as I wander towards the stage. It’s still quite early, but there’s a sense of something ending. A large crowd has gathered around the stage. A band member is shouting abuse at a heckler. A guitar clangs and the music starts up again. Two girls with flowers in their hair swing in each other’s arms.
At the edge of the crowd, I spot the guy with the long robe. It hangs off his back like a pair of black wings. There is no sign of the woman with the ice-blue eyes. No sign of their baby. He sees me push my way toward him, and the smile that dances on his lips tells me what’s going to happen next. I try not to think of Ellen Ryder. I try not to think of dingy council flats. When he takes my hand and leads me away from the crowd, I accept my fate.
Later, I lie in the long grass and look up at the clouds. They swirl into chrysanthemum shapes and honeycombs and mushrooms. I look away from the mushrooms, because I can’t gauge their significance. I realise I don’t know the man’s name, but I ask if he knows about the stones anyway.
“What about them?”
“Is it true they − they’re made from − ”
He misreads my hesitation and swallows my words in a kiss.
I rub the remnants of Sandra’s beetles away from my eyes, sink into the grass, and blend in with the lush green blades.
I blend in with the misfits now.
I am one of the misfits now.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Is there such a thing as a common aesthetic for the whole of humanity?
Academia speaks of lines of beauty. Evolutionary anthropology suggests why we perceive beings as better or worse, and what dictates whether we are drawn or repelled. It tells us how attractive features relate to selective advantage.
I know very little about these things. I can only comment on what takes me to another place, a better place.
The way colours combine, textures of light, the depth of an infinite sky, or the blue-black gaze of a newborn child’s eyes. All these lift consciousness to a different level. How words ignite a page, the physiological response to a mother’s touch, the magic of a lover’s kiss.
Beauty can embrace its twin: ugliness. I have touched on the fascination we have for repulsive objects in ‘Bluestone Beetles’.
Beauty cannot be packaged. It cannot be transferred. It is born, and it dies, yet endures beyond the boundaries and constraints we place on it.