Few people were on the streets. Twelve barefoot lads occupied the main thoroughfare, refusing to surrender their youthful exuberance and let it melt in the furnace of the desert heat. They were playing a game, kicking a missile up and down the street. The object was a football made from scraps of uncured goat-hide stitched together in a roughly spherical shape and stuffed with fibrous material. Roaming fowls, as well as the occasional dust devil or dry tangle of tumbling pigweed hampered the players’ efforts.
Without prelude, every dog in the village began to bark. The boys paused in their game, letting the much-buffeted ‘ball’ lumber down a short incline until it came to rest in a pot-hole. Intrigued, they scanned their surroundings but could see nothing amiss. The streets, the low rooves, the spindly windmills on their long legs, the vegetation, showed no evidence of anything untoward. Yet the dogs had been known to raise such alarms before, and a sense of foreboding surged like a fever in the veins of those who heard.
A thunderous roaring arose from the cores of the hills and echoed from the firmament. The houses began to shake. Dry-stone walls that ran along the borders of the cultivated fields undulated like serpents. A deep, smoking crack unseamed itself along the main street, rapidly zig-zagging between the boys as they ran in panic, or stood frozen in their playing positions. The village was abruptly riven in two, marooning the boys on either side of a new-born gulf. The largest of the youths teetered on the crevice’s very brink, off balance, flailing his arms in desperation, staring aghast at a prospect in which he had no future but death.
The village shuddered. There came crashing thuds, as if some gigantic, weighty monster were charging at high speed through some hitherto undiscovered vault under the street. The land trembled. Tiles flew from rooves. People rushed out of their palsied abodes. Babies wailed, onagers brayed, and horses squealed. The boy at the ravine’s edge lost his battle for equipoise and began to fall, just as the crack mercifully, preposterously, snapped shut. Suddenly he was safe, sprawling in the dirt.
Then the shuddering, which had come out of the south, ran away. It passed away north, into the Wight Hills. After the noise galloped over the horizon, the landscape stood still.
Dust billowed. The street smoked as if smouldering in an unseen fire.
- From Chapter 1 of The Iron Tree