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The Prospect from the Silver Hill


The company agent - friendless, single, far from home - passed most days alone in a cabin at Ibela-hoy, the Hill Without a Hat. His work was simple. Equipped with a rudimentary knowledge of mineralogy, neat, laborious handwriting, and a skill with ledgers, he had been posted to the high lands to identify the precious metals, the stones, the ores, that (everybody said) were buried there.


This was his life: awake at dawn, awake all day, awake all night. Phrenetic Insomnia was the term. But there were no friends or doctors to make the diagnosis. The agent simply - like a swift, a shark - dared not sleep. He kept moving. He did not close his eyes. At night, at dawn, in the tall heat of the day, he looked out over the land and, watching the shades and colours of the hill and its valley accelerate and reel, he constructed for himself a family and a life less solitary than the one that he was forced to live. He took pills. He drank what little spirit arrived each month with his provisions. He exhausted himself with long, aimless walks amongst the boulders and dry beds. Sometimes he fell forward at work, his nose flattened amongst the gravels on the table, his papers dampened by saliva, his tongue slack. But he did not sleep or close his eyes, though he was still troubled by chimeras, day-dreams, which broke his concentration and (because he was conscious) seemed more substantial and coherent than sleeping dreams. As the men had already remarked amongst themselves when they saw the sacs of tiredness spreading across his upper cheeks and listened to his conversation, the company agent either had a fever or the devil had swapped sawdust for his brain.


Several times a week one of the survey gangs arrived in a company mobile to deposit drill cores of augered rock and sand, pumice and shale, and provide the company agent with a profile of the world twenty metres below his feet. He sorted clays as milky as nutsap and eggstones as worn and weathered as a saint's bead into sample bags. Each rock, each smudge of soil, was condemned. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. A trace of tin. Nothing.


Once, when he had been at Ibela-hoy for a few weeks only, one of the survey gangs offered to take him down to the lumber station where the woodsmen had established a good still and an understanding with some local women. He sat in the cab of the mobile drilling rig and talked non-stop. That's the loneliest place, he told them, as the mobile descended from the cabin. There aren't even ghosts. He spoke, too, about the wife and children, the companionable life, which he had concocted in his daydreams. How he wished he had a camera at home, he told the men. Then he could have shown them photographs of his family, of his garden in the city, his car, his wedding day.The men indulged him. He was still a stranger, they reasoned, and starved of company, missing home. He would quieten down once he had a glass in his hand. But they had been wrong. He became louder with every sip. He spoke in a voice which sent the women back into their homes, which sent the men early to bed.


The voice said, My sadness is stronger than your drink. Nothing can relieve it. Nothing. A trace of tin. Nothing.


He daydreamed: a lifetime of finding nothing. He dreamed of prospecting the night sky and locating a planet of diamonds or an old, cooled sun of solid gold. But then the company had no need for diamonds or gold. Find us sand, they instructed. Find us brown mud. Send us a palmful of pebbles. He dreamed again, and produced a twist of earth and stone which contained new colours, a seam of creamy nougat in a funnel of tar. His dream delivered the funnel to his company offices. Soon secretaries typed Ibela-hoy for the first time - and a name was coined for the new mineral which he had unearthed. Then his dream transported friends and family to Ibela-hoy. They walked behind him as he set out to map the creamy seam. Together they charted an area the shape of a toadstool. A toadstool of the newest mineral in the world. His daydream provided a telephone and a line of poles. He telephoned the company with the good news. They referred him to the Agency and then to the Ministry. His calls were bounced and routed between switchboards and operators and his story retold a dozen times - but nobody was found with sufficient authority to accept such momentous information or to order his return to home, to sleep.


Send me a dream, he said aloud, in which my wife and my children are brought to the cabin. When I wake, they are there. When I sleep, they are there. We sit at the same table. The two boys tumble on the bed. The baby stands on my thighs with crescent legs and tugs at my nose and hair. My wife and I sit together slicing vegetables at the table. But when he had finished speaking there was no reply from amongst the rocks, no promises. He spoke again, in whispers. Have pity, he said.


Sometimes he wrapped his arms round boulders, warmed by the sun, and embraced them. My wife, he said. He kissed boulders.


Now the men kept their distance. They were polite but no longer generous. There were no more invitations to visit the lumber station - and they became watchful on those occasions when they brought drill cores to the cabin. Does this man know his business, they asked amongst themselves. Can he be trusted to know marl from marble? They waited awkwardly at his door or stood at his window as their plugs of earth were spread and sorted on his bench, the soils washed and sieved, the stones stunned and cracked, the unusual flakes of rocks matched with the specimens in the mineral trays. His fatigue - the second stage- had hardened his concentration. He was engrossed. He lowered his head and smelled the soil. He sucked the roundest pebbles. He rubbed stones on the thighs of his trousers and held them to the light. No, nothing, he told them. But when they sat in their camps and looked up from the valley late at night, a light still burned in the agent's cabin and they could see him holding their stones to his oil flame and talking to their earth in his skinned and weary voice.


At first the sorted, worthless plugs were dumped each day in a rough pile at the side of the cabin. The clays of the valley consorted with the volcanic earths of Ibela-hoy. Flints jostled sandstones, topsoils ran loose amongst clods, the rounded pebbles of the river bed bubbled in the wasteland shales. He was struck how - held and turned in the daylight - each stone was a landscape. Here was a planet, a globe, with the continents grey and peninsular, the seas cold and smooth to the touch. And here a coastline, one face the beach, four faces cliff, and a rivulet of green where the children and donkeys could make their descent. And here, twisted and smoothed by the survey drill, were the muddied banks of rivers and the barks of trees modelled and reduced in deep, toffee earth. But in the dump, their shapes and colours clashed and were indecent. He remembered how, when he was a child, they had buried his father. The grave was open when the body came. There were clays and flints piled on the yellow grass. The bottom of his father's trench had filled with water. The digger's spade had severed stones. They said that, in ancient times when humankind went naked and twigged for termites and ate raw meat, the dead were left where they fell. What the animals did not eat became topsoil, loam. The company agent had wished for that, had dreamed of his father free of his grave and spread out on the unbroken ground as calm and breathless as frost. But he could not look at that open grave, those wounded flints, without tears. He could not look at road works, either. Or a ploughed field. Or a broken wall. And whenever he had stared at that squinting corner of his room where the ceiling plaster had fallen and the broken roof laths stuck through, his chest (what was the phrase?) shivered like a parched pea and he dare not sleep. The ceiling doesn't leak, his mother said. It's you that leaks, not it.


Now he wept when he passed the waste pile, when he was drawn at night to stand before it with a lamp or summoned to salvage one lonely stone for his pocket or his table. Sometimes it seemed that the pile was an open wound or an abattoir of stones. But the longer he stood the more it seemed that a piece of the world had been misplaced and abandoned at his cabin side.

Then he took a spade and dug a pit behind the waste pile. First he gathered the chipped yellow stones which lay on the surface and placed them together in a bucket. And then he removed the thin soil crust and piled it neatly on to a tarpaulin. Each individual layer was dug out and piled separately, until the pit was shoulder deep. The continents and planets, the landscapes and coastlines of the waste dump were shovelled into the pit and one by one, in order, the layers of Ibela-hoy were put back in place. Then he scattered the chipped yellow stones on to the bulging ground.


When the gangs delivered drill cores they noticed that the waste had gone. I buried it, he said. I put it back. He showed them where the swollen ground was settling. Well, they said, that's very neat and tidy. Or, Is that what you're paid to do, fool about with spades? His replies made no sense to them. They continued to talk with him roughly or to humour him with banter. What should we do for him, they asked amongst themselves, to bring him back to earth? Should we write, they wondered, to his wife and children or to the boss? Should we let him be and let the illness pass? Some of the kinder, older men went to talk with him, to offer help, to exchange a word or two about the samples on his bench. Yet he seemed indifferent to them and those funnels of earth and stone which could earn them all a fortune. Was that the yellow of bauxite or the rose of cinnabar or the fire-blue of opal? The company agent did not seem to share their excitement or their interest. But when at last they left him in peace he turned to the samples on his bench and sorted through them with unbroken attention. A stone of apple-green he removed and walked with it into the valley where in a cave there were lichens of the same colour. A fistful of grit he scattered in the grass so that it fell amongst the leaf joints like sleet. A round stone he placed on the river bed with other round stones. A grey landscape in an inch of granite he stood in the shadow of the greyest rock. A chip of pitchblende was reunited with black soil.


Once a month when his provisions were delivered together with letters from home, the company agent presented his report and sent back to the city any minerals or gemstones which were worthy of note. Once he had found a fragment of platinum in a sample from the plateau beyond the hill. He and the gang waited a month for the company's response. Low quality platinum, they said. No use to us. And once he had identified graphite amongst the native carbons. But, again, the company was un-impressed. Now he wrapped a piece of damp clay and placed it in a sample bag. Its colours were the colours of pomegranate skins. Its odour was potatoes. He sealed the bag and sent it to the company. Urgent, he wrote on the label. Smell this! And, in the second month, he sent them a cube of sandstone and wrote: See the landscape, the beach, the pathway through the rocks. And later they received the palmful of pebbles that they had requested in his dream.


Alarms rang. Secretaries delivered the agent's file to the company bosses. They searched the certificates and testimonials for any criminal past. Was he a radical? Had he been ill? What should they make of clay, sandstone, pebbles? They called his mother to the offices and questioned her. She showed them her son's monthly letters and pointed to those parts where he spoke of insomnia, an abattoir of stones and a family that never was. He misses home, she said. Why would he send worthless soil and cryptic notes in sample bags? She could not say, except that he had always been a good man, quick to tears. If he had only married, found a girl to love, had children perhaps . . . then who can guess what might have been? But worthless soil? Still she could not say.


The bosses sent their man to Ibela-hoy in their air- conditioned jeep to bring the agent home and to discover what went on. The brick and tarmac of the town and villages lasted for a day. The bosses' man passed the night at the Rest House where the valley greens rose to the implacable evening monochromes of the hills. In the morning, early, he drove on to the bouldered track along the valley side. The Hill Without a Hat swung across his windscreen in the distance. On the summit of the ridge the track widened and cairns marked the route down into the valley of Lekadeeb and then up again towards Ibela-hoy. He stood with his binoculars and sought out the company agent's cabin in the hollow of the hill. He saw the company mobile parked at the door and the antics of men who seemed intoxicated with drink or horseplay. A survey team had returned from the far valley bluffs some days ahead of schedule and hurried to the agent's cabin. The men were wild. They had found silver. They had recognised small fragments in their drill cores and had excavated in the area for larger quantities. They placed a half-dozen jagged specimens on the company agent's bench. Tell us it isn't silver, they challenged him. He looked at one piece of silver shaped like a stem of ginger but metallic grey in colour with puddles of milky-white quartz. What he saw was a bare summit of rock in sunshine. But snow in its crevices was too cold to melt.


I'll do some tests, he said.


The men sat outside in their drilling mobile and waited for his confirmation that at last their work had produced minerals of great value. There were bonuses to be claimed, fortunes to be made, celebrations, hugging, turbulent reunions with wives and children to anticipate. The company agent turned the snowy summit in his hand and divined its future. And its past. Once the word Silver was spoken in the company offices, Ibela-hoy could count on chaos; there would be mining engineers, labour camps, a village, roads, bars, drink, soldiers. Bulldozers would push back the soil and roots of silver would be grubbed like truffles from the earth. Dynamite, spoil heaps, scars. And he, the company agent, the man who spilled the beans, would have no time to reconcile the stones, the dreams, the family, the fatigue, the sleeplessness which

now had reached its final stage. The turmoil had begun already. He heard the smooth engine of the company jeep as it laboured over the final rise before the cabin. He saw the bosses' man climb out with his folder and his suit and pause to talk with the men who waited inside the mobile's cab. Arms were waved and fingers pointed towards the bluffs where silver lay in wait.


I'll put it back, he said.


By the time the bosses' man had walked into the cabin with a string of false and reassuring greetings on his lips, the company agent had pocketed the half-dozen pieces of silver and had slipped away into the rocks behind the cabin. He climbed as high as was possible without breaking cover and crouched in a gulley. He toyed with the stones on the ground, turning them in his palms, and waited for night. He watched as the bosses' man ran from the cabin and the survey gang jumped from their mobile and searched the landscape for the agent. He watched as they showed the bosses' man where he had buried the waste heap, the world misplaced. He watched as the gang brought picks and shovels, and (insensitive to topsoils and chipped yellow stones) dug into the abattoir. He watched the bosses' man crouch and shake his head as he sorted through the debris for the gold, the agate, the topaz which the men promised had been buried, hidden, there. It was, they said, a matter for the madhouse or the militia. They'd watched the agent for a month or two. He had hugged boulders. He had hidden gemstones, their gemstones, company gemstones, throughout the valley. They'd seen him walking, crouching, placing gemstones in the shade of rocks, in the mouth of caves, under leaves.


A bare summit of rock in sunshine was the location of his dream. There were crevices of unbroken snow and pats of spongy moss. He was naked. There were no clothes. He squatted on his haunches and chipped at flints. Someone had caught a hare - but nobody yet knew how to make fire, so its meat was ripped apart and eaten raw. They washed it down with snow. The carcass was left where it fell. The two boys played with twigs. The baby stood on crescent legs and tugged at grass. He and the woman delved in the softer earth for roots to eat and found silver, a plaything for the boys. He conjured in his dream a world where the rocks were hot and moving, where quakes and volcanoes turned shales to schists, granite to gneiss, limestone to marble, sandstone to quartz, where continents sank and rose like kelp on the tide.


When it was light, he unwrapped himself from the embrace of the boulder where he had passed the night and began to traverse the valley towards the high ground and the rocks where snow survived the sun. His aimless walks had made his legs strong and his mind was soaring with a fever of sleeplessness. He walked and talked, his tongue guiding his feet over the rocks, naming what passed beneath. Molten silicates, he said, as his feet cast bouncing shadows over salt and pepper rocks. Pumice, he said to the hollows. Grass.


In two hours the company agent had reached the ridge where the winds seemed to dip and dive and hug the earth. He turned to the south and, looking down into the valley, he saw the men and the trucks at his cabin and the twist of smoke as breakfast was prepared. Bring my wife and children, he said. And one man, standing at the hut with a hot drink resting on the bonnet of the air-conditioned jeep, saw him calling there and waved his arms. Come down, he said. Come back.


But the company agent walked on until he found that the earth had become slippery with ice and the air white like paper. He looked now for grey rocks, metallic grey, and found them at the summit of his walk, his rendezvous. There was no easy path; the boulders there were shoulder height and he was forced to squeeze and climb. But his hands were taking hold of crevices fossilised with snow and soon, at last, he stood upon the landscape that he had sought, glistening, winking grey with puddles of milky-white quartz. He took the six jagged specimens from his pocket. I am standing here, he said, pointing at an ounce of silver. He took the pieces and placed them in a streak of snow where their colours matched the rock and where, two paces distant, they disappeared for good.


In the afternoon he watched the first helicopter as it beat about the hills, its body bulbous-ended like a floating bone. And then, close by, he heard the grinding motors of the jeep as it found a route between the rocks and stalled. He heard voices and then someone calling him by his first name. Was it his son? He walked to the edge of his grey platform and looked down on the heads of the bosses' man, a soldier and two of the survey gang. Climb down, they said. We're going to take you home. A holiday. I have my job to do, he said. Yes, they said, we all have jobs to do. We understand. But it's cold up here and you must be tired and hungry. Climb down and we'll drive you back to the city. No problems. No awkward questions. Your mother's waiting. Just show us what is hidden and you can be with your family.


Bring my family here, he said. Bring my wife and children here. The men looked at each other and then one of the survey gang spoke. You have no wife and children, he said. You lied. The company agent picked up the largest stone and flung it at the men. It landed on the bonnet of the jeep and its echo was as metallic, as full of silver, as the grey hill.


Leave him there, they said. Let hunger bring him down.


It was cold that night above Ibela-hoy. But there was encircled their children, their breath directed inwards, their backs turned against the moon. And in the morning when the sun came up and the colours of the hill and its valley accelerated from grey and brown, to red and green to white, the company agent gathered stones for his family and they breakfasted on snow.


Read More... The Prospect from the Silver Hill - Analysis

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