“It’s just a hill with some bones in it, Mom.”
I remember the rest of the conversation from my childhood in West Wales as if it were yesterday. My mother started kneading the dough for the Saturday evening’s apple pie more forcefully as she replied.
“Old Fern Hill is not just a hill, Danny, and they’re not just bones. They say that tumulus on the top is five thousand years old, and was a Druid burial ground.”
“Oh come on, Mom! Those legends about the tumulus and the Druids’ curse are old wives’ tales,” I said, not quite believing that statement myself, but it was a thing for a teenage boy to say to his parents at that time.
“Well, all I know is that in your great grandmother’s day some boys went camping there overnight and were never seen again.”
She almost sung those words with her lilting Welsh accent.
“Where’s the proof? That’s just hearsay passed down the generations.”
“Whatever it is I don’t want you playing up there.”
I was thirteen and was at a rebellious stage. The older generations and their superstitions could be discarded like my elementary school’s short pants. Hence, that very afternoon found me with my classmates Rick and Ted, sitting at the base of the grass-covered tumulus on the top of Old Fern Hill.
Not old enough to purchase alcohol we had to content ourselves with bottles of Coca Cola. Ted had also managed to get us a pack of cigarettes from his older brother. We looked down over the fields that led back to the terraced-house estate where we lived, like lords surveying their domain. Our cigarettes made us feel tough and grown up.
“Well I’m off to find a place to pee,” I said. After an hour the Coca Cola had gone to my bladder.
“Go in the ferns at the bottom of the hill. No one will see you there,” said Ted. “That’s what I did when I was last here with the boys,” he made a point of adding, to show that he had braved Old Fern Hill before.
I had a sudden urge to assert my own courage in front of my fellow lords of the land.
“I think I’ll go behind the tumulus. Nobody will see me from that side of the hill.”
“No ‘body’ maybe but watch out for the ghosts,” said Rick. He was making a joke of it but I could feel the respect in his eyes as I strode off. Local legends still meant something in those days.
The other side of the tumulus was in shadow and looked over a couple of fields which ended at the periphery of the ancient woods.
“This landscape must have been similar thousands of years ago,” I thought to myself.
I imagined the Old Fern Hill in prehistoric times emerging from the forest that would have then surrounded it like a green sea. My imagination conjured up Druids walking up to the top to perform their ceremonies. And the tumulus itself? Who or what lay buried beneath?
“I’m just watering the turf like the falling rain,” I muttered as I did my sacrilegious act. Suddenly I became a frightened boy again and rushed back.
“Got another ciggy, Ted?” I asked, trying not to sound like I needed one.
I struck a match and then without warning a wind swept across the hill from the wood side and blew it out. It was a chill wind quite out of character for the warm late August afternoon. For what seemed like a minute we shivered in our t-shirts as if in a trance, and then the warmth returned but it was growing dusk. Surely it hadn’t been this late in the afternoon? We were all too confused to work things out.
Ted’s response was instinctive and he spoke for all of us.
“What the hell was that? I’m out of here.”
We ran down the hill leaving our Coca Cola bottles and cigarette ends to litter the hill. We didn’t stop until we had reached the road leading into the estate. We parted with muted goodbyes, shaken yet safe!
But then the world fell apart. First there was the explosion and immediately after it the column of flame shooting into the sky then vanishing.
“There’s no connection between the two events, Danny. You have to get that out of your head my boy.”
Thus began my conversation with a Mr. Geraint Jones, the child psychiatrist assigned to the orphanages in West Wales of which the Maen Gwyn Charity School was one. The one I had been in for four years. Well, three and a half years in fact. Before entering its Victorian gates I had spent six months in a psychiatric ward in Cardiff unable to speak.
“I just know my family would still be alive today if I hadn’t urinated on that tumulus,” I said.
“Look, Danny. You’ve really settled down in the last couple of years, but I can’t possibly sign the papers to allow you to receive a student loan until I’m quite sure you are mentally sound.”
“I’m quite mentally sound, sir. That place is haunted. It’s evil and whatever lies within that tumulus was disturbed that afternoon and killed my family.”
“That gas main on the street had been leaking for months the investigation found and when your mother lit the oven to bake the apple pie the pipeline exploded. It was going to happen sooner or later.”
“Well how do you explain what happened to Ted and Rick?”
“What do I need to explain?”
“Ted died of a heroin overdose when he was fifteen and Rick died last year after contracting leukemia soon after that terrible day.”
“Those are unrelated coincidences too. Danny, I like you and I want to help you. You are a clever boy who has applied himself to his studies in the face of a tragedy.”
“I know you want to help me, Mr. Jones.”
“And I know you want to study history at Cardiff University so as a historian surely you are interested in facts and real causes and effects, not superstitious interpretations of events?”
Mr. Jones’ rationalism irritated me. My study of history had revealed that many events have not been explained and that conventional history describes the mere surface of things. There are depths below. I had also taken time to learn Welsh as a subject at the orphanage so I could delve into the little researched local history of my area.
“I looked into the parish records, Mr. Jones. Did you know that Old Fern Hill is a name the Welsh landowners used to attract English tenants in the area in the seventeenth century?”
“No, but so what?”
“They changed the Welsh “Uffern” to “Old Fern” which sounds similar but is pastoral and homely. “Uffern” means “Hell” in Welsh, so since time immemorial that hill had been known to the locals as Hell Hill.”
“It’s just part of the old tumulus superstition that’s all. Look, Danny, you really have to convince me you are over this thing. I have a suggestion.”
It was a forty-minute drive in Mr. Jones’ car from the orphanage to the road at the base of the hill and a ten-minute walk across the fields up to the tumulus. So here I was again in late August, just below the tumulus at the top of Old Fern Hill. Mr. Jones had promised that he would classify me “mentally sound” if I accompanied him back to the hill without breaking down. This was the test that would determine my future.
“Come on, let’s go to the other side,” said Mr. Jones.
He seemed proud of himself as a man of reason, a mentor to the young. However, to me he was no role-model but someone I needed to humor to move on to independence. He would have been annoyed to find out that I had bought a small crucifix prior to the trip. I clasped it in my pocket as we walked to the other side of the tumulus, the side facing the ancient woods where I had done what I had done on that fateful day. I was not a practicing Christian but I thought I needed all the protection I could get.
“Deliver me from evil,” I had silently prayed as we had ascended the hill to drown deeper echoing thoughts of “Old Fern Hill, Uffern Hill, Hell Hill, Hell, Hell!” Mr. Jones I assumed was an atheist and would have no doubt dismissed religion as superstition. Praying together at the tumulus was out of the question.
We stood looking up at the grassy side of the tumulus that rose ten feet or so above our heads.
“You see, there’s nothing to be afraid of. There are no evil ghosts or demons here just bones of a primitive pagan tribe somewhere within.”
“Yes, sir. You’re right,” I said but my pale face revealed my fear. Mr. Jones felt he needed to prove his point and, I sensed, his manhood, just as I had done years before. He suddenly strode up the side of the tumulus and stood at the top. He proceeded to conduct a mock exorcism.
“In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost I consign thee to eternal darkness all evil spirits herein!”
He jogged down the side and patted me on the back, job done.
“OK. Time to go home, my boy.”
We walked to the other side of the tumulus. And then the wind came again. The chilly blast from the woodland side caught the back of our necks and made us shiver on this late summer afternoon. Again, after recovering from our disorientation, the time seemed much later than it should have been and the evening twilight was appearing in the fields below. Mr. Jones was visibly shaken as we walked down the hill. I held my crucifix tight in my pocket and hoped my respectful attitude to “Hell Hill” would prevent any personal retribution this time round.
Mr. Jones recovered himself as he drove back to the orphanage. He didn’t mention the wind and had obviously consigned it to a freak weather event, a harbinger of the evening coolness and the autumn.
“Right, Danny. I’ll see you tomorrow morning for our final interview. I am satisfied that you are of sound mind so my job is completed.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jones. I appreciate all your help,” I said as I got out of the car and went through the Victorian gates.
The next morning I went to the Counseling Room next to the Director’s office. I sat in one of the chairs outside and waited. The appointment was at 9:00 am but no one had arrived by 9:20. I could hear the Director on the phone in his office. Then his door opened and he stepped out.
“Um, Danny. I’m afraid Mr. Jones won’t be here today. He has had an accident.”
“An accident, sir?”
“Yes. He fell down the stairs at his home this morning. He broke his neck. He died instantly.”
“Oh, my God!”
The following week I was interviewed by another counselor and I played my part as a sane, rational human being. I made it to the university.
Now, forty years later I am a lecturer in History at Cardiff University. I study the surface of things. It’s what people want. Or rather it’s what people can handle. I have my own family now, and they are happy. I have never mentioned Old Fern Hill to anyone since that afternoon with Mr. Jones and never will. From the outside I am a happy middle-aged man.
Yet when I go to sleep amidst the bosom of my family in the suburbs of the city my mind will often drift back to the wooded side of the tumulus on Old Fern Hill. And it is cold there.
Bio: I am originally from South Wales. I studied English Literature at Oxford University many years ago. I live in Taiwan with my family and am a high school teacher here. I have also been a freelance writer for over 10 years and write articles for Taiwanese educational textbooks.