Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy in Northern California but sometimes I miss the . . . old stuff that surrounded me in Scotland. The mediaeval streets, the fortified castles, the Roman walls, and of course the really old stuff: the standing stones.
I’ve got an ambivalent attitude to standing stones, actually. I sort of love them but they also sort of terrify me. One of the scariest things I’ve ever read in a novel is when Gideon in The Testament of Gideon Mack (James Robertson) goes out for a run in the woods and sees an ancient, mossy, lichened standing stone . . . that wasn’t there the day before. Brrrr!
So it’s no surprise that the standing stone that rolled onto the pages of my latest book, The Child Garden, is somewhat creepy. It’s a rocking stone: a stone that sits so loosely in a cup in the earth that you can make it move by touching it. They’re very rare, because usually they’ve been pushed too hard and have tumbled out of their cup to rock no more. Where they exist and still rock, inevitably folklore has risen up around them – good luck, bad luck and as night follows day, tales of the devil.
I don’t want to say any more than that but I will say that if I were a native, rather than a transplant, in California – where historic buildings are sometimes not even two hundred years old – this story would probably never have occurred to me.
The first year I moved here, I didn’t actually know what it was I was missing. I revelled in the endless clear days of sunshine, the endless clear nights where you could watch the moon wax and wane, the endless white sand of Carmel Beach . . . and yet, and yet.
It wasn’t until I went to the pictures to watch The King’s Speech that it hit me. Helena Bonham Carter walked across that creaky floor in that scruffy basement and I thought: “Ah! Old stuff!”
Then about a week later, as if the gods were smiling on me, I found some. I visited the Indian Grinding Rock State Park, at a place called Chaw’se where the Miwok people used to gather in the autumn to grind acorns into flour, where they built a hun’ge (or roundhouse) for ceremonies, and where they still – in a new roundhouse – have Big Time several days a year.
Finally! I thought. Proper old stuff. Really old stuff.
The holes and petroglyphs in that rock are thousands of years old. I visited Chaw’se quite a few times as I adjusted to California life. One time I’m not proud of I stood weeping at the rock, berating the Miwok people for not leaving anything behind them. For actually making a point of burning a person’s possession as part of their funeral. “I know you were here!” I said. “Would it have killed you to put up a stone building or two? I’m lonely.” As if the Miwok didn’t have better things to do and then, so horrifically, worse troubles.
The happiest visit happened the day before Big Time. I wouldn’t have been allowed in on the day itself – it’s always rude to crash a party – but as people gathered and set up they were very welcoming. They let me go into the hun’ge, teaching me how to walk in the footsteps already made in the freshly spread dust, how to back out again and give honour at the door before walking away.
It all felt very familiar. Doing something ancient, because your people always have, taking it seriously with a light heart, knowing it matters but it’s not solemn – that sums up how it felt to live in Scotland in a lot of ways. From first footing at Hogmanay, to the dew of the Beltane, to the high jinks of the Samhain, the year was made up of a lot of days quite like Big Time.
But even the Miwok people would probably raise their eyebrows at the Burry Man!
Catriona McPherson writes the Agatha and Macavity winning Dandy Gilver detective series, set in her native Scotland in the 1920s. The latest, A DEADLY MEASURE OF BRIMSTONE, won a third consecutive Left Coast Crime award this year. In 2013 she started a strand of darker (that’s not difficult) standalones. The first, AS SHE LEFT IT, won an Anthony award and THE DAY SHE DIED was shortlisted for an Edgar. THE CHILD GARDEN comes out on the 8th of September.
Catriona immigrated to America in 2010, and lives in northern California with a black cat and a scientist. She is proud to be the 2015 president of Sisters in Crime. You can learn more about Catriona and her novels at her website. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.