The train thrashes west towards Wales. Shell-shocked daylight dusts the silver skies, still fragile after New Year’s fireworks. Greener than envy, the fields are bookmarked with hedgerows and trenches. Sunk in the ditches, flossy winter trees shiver in flocks. The sheep, branded with tangerine spray paint, do no raise their heads to wink at the train.
In the heathered light of late afternoon, I arrive in Skenfrith, an 18-house village knotted into the fringes of southeastern Wales. Instead of numbers, the homes of Skenfrith have names—Orchard Close, Drybridge House, The Old Vicarage, The Brink—names as old as their irregular bricks, which have forgotten true red and retain only a rusted stain of the memory.
Sawtooth gravestones scissor the lawns of the village church, Saint Bridget’s. The ragged stone walls frame windows of honeycombed glass, where hexagonal panes have a wrinkled glint like unfolded foil. Above the nave perches a bell tower of latticed wood. A weathercock roosts on the roof-peak, fanning its tail feathers at nightening England and crowing into the Welsh sunset.
South of the chapel, Skenfrith Castle gnaws shadows. Built by Marcher Lords, the chewed-off keep is ringed by four shrunken watch towers. The walls have the burnt look of singed skin, peeled back to expose raw stone. For centuries the castle has been cannibalized by villagers who enthrone their homes on foundations of Marcher Lord stones. Inside the decapitated towers, the walls are threaded with trace-memories of spiral stairs. The windows bloom with bouquets of waifling weeds, and a bristling tree broods over the courtyard. Across the floor of the central keep, a puddle reflects the glowering sky like a hexed mirror divining the weather. Etched in the cypress and plum of dusk, the fortress is a living illustration of Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake’s fantastical castle whose pen-and-ink denizens are as doleful and volatile as oil-drowned cats. From the gnashed northern tower, a raven composes jelled and hollow rhymes.
In the eastern wall, the kitchen door gapes on the banks of the river Monnow. When the river bucks against the lowest arch of the bridge, Skenfrith barricades its doors with sandbags and buckles down for a flood. This evening Monnow runs tame, harnessed by its banks. Where a medieval jetty once interrupted the river, a slat-sided bridge now arcs across the fickle waters.
Green as ice-plant, the river rasps Vespers in a metallic voice. Birds polish the last high-flung shards of sunlight into glittering Madrigals. On the southern horizon, the moon gouges a steely sliver from the ember-scattered sky.