Music from the Barrows in ‘Distant Percussion’ by Freya Eden Ellis

Releasing your writing into the wild is scary. It’s your precious baby that you’ve nurtured and put your heart and soul into and now you fear it will be ripped to shreds. I was certainly worried about that when I decided to enter the Twisted 50 Vol. 2 short story competition. It had been a while since I’d written anything that I actually intended other people to read, and because of that I was anxious about the reviewing part of the competition. However, this turned out to be the best bit.

It is so useful to have a competition that enables the writer to improve both their story and their wider skills through the process. The community on the Create 50 site is friendly and supportive. All of the comments I received were either useful criticism given in a constructive and honest manner, or encouraging and inspiring comments. It was truly wonderful to engage with other people’s stories and have them engage with mine in return, and I know that their comments helped to make my story better.

Being able to submit another two drafts meant that, actually, it wasn’t as scary when you submit the first time. You know that people are going to say ‘this bit is great!’ or ‘I think you could work on this.’ and then you have the opportunity to do more of what works and fix the bits that need mending. By the time I submitted my third and final draft, I felt more secure in the knowledge that I’d refined and honed the story according to feedback.

The story, Distant Percussion, unravels slowly. It begins with a woman at her father’s funeral, remembering a childhood in which he protected her from an unknown danger with a childlike rhyme. In the wake of his evidently traumatic and mysterious death, she finds herself thinking about the difference between the world in her rural backwater, and the one she left in the city. She feels more in tune with her old life here and recalls how the locals are known as ‘odd-folk’. She starts to remember the odd things that all add up to her father’s death as the road home becomes a haunted walk. The fairies that live in the area and own her land are making sure she understands that she has inherited the deal – and the fear – her father was trying to protect her from for all those years.

The idea was born from my fascination with folklore and local traditions. It is actually a blend of a story that’s local to me in Dorset and the roots of wider British stories about fairies, who were originally imagined as very different to the diminutive, winged tricksters we know today.  Locals here say that you can hear music coming from the Bronze Age barrows that sit on top of a hill above Weymouth and Portland. It’s an idea that captivates me, what must it feel like to be alone in the wide, open fields beside these mammoth graves and hear such unexplained music?

My grandparents have an old bungalow not far from these barrows, with a large garden surrounded by fields and heathland. At the top of their garden is a Bronze Age barrow. It lies just beyond their borderline, over a small fence that, as children, my sister and I would climb over to stroke horses kept in the field. It never troubled either of us; the ancient grave has been empty for a long time. We even climbed it once to fly a kite. My sister and I used to share a bedroom whenever we stayed there, and every single night she claimed to hear a short burst of music coming from the garden. I don’t think she feared it came from the barrow – she was more concerned that it sounded like the music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, more sci-fi than folklore. (Aliens were a big thing when we were kids and she never quite got over her fear of ET.) I never heard the music myself and it wasn’t until years later that I read about the legend of music playing from the other barrows. However, the memory lingered, spookier than the grave itself.

My grandparents’ neighbour has since buried her husband in that field, and for some reason his more recent burial feels more present than the ancient one. He was returned to the landscape here, just like the protagonist’s father in Distant Percussion.

The story that I’ve written is obviously something that comes from a personal place because of this, but I think also reflects our cultural heritage in folklore and in the genuine topography and archaeological record of our rural world, which for many people is as much at odds with the urban one as it ever was. Though hopefully that is changing now, I do hope that we won’t lose our odd folk-ness down here entirely.

I’d like to say thank you to everyone who reviewed my story and helped to make it better from draft to draft. I really appreciate it. Whether it makes the final 50 or not, I am happy to have taken part in the process and feel it has given me something regardless. I will look forward to doing it again.

Link to Distant Percussion:

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