Nothing has changed here. Not since I first came. Not since the Brontes themselves walked these streets. Well, of course that’s an exaggeration. Today there are hundreds of tourists pulling themselves up the steep cobblestoned streets. First a tour of the house where they all grew up—three inventive sisters and a brilliant, sickly brother; then the church where the father presided; after that, according to age or disposition, a walk out onto the moors or else a spot of tea in town, a quick look ’round for Yorkshire biscuits or clover honey.
But what a wonder that they have come. This summer, following the Gulf War, tourism is at its all-time low. Air fares, oil prices, the threat of terrorism, who knows? But the British love their authors, whose lives are as real to them as those of Elvis or Marilyn are to us. Here, in the remote West Riding of Yorkshire, time flows backward.
Two miles below, the industrial town of Keighley still belches smoke into the atmosphere. Factory after factory, narrow streets huddled along the trough of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, gray stone row houses struggling up the hillsides until they peter out at the pasture’s edge. After that, a few dilapidated farms and then rough, uncontainable moorland. Up here, the houses defend themselves against the wind. They rise up lonely, lovely in their resilience. The sky widens and descends. Wall and tree, even tufts of grass, make silhouettes against its changing landscape.
Up here, Catherine and Heathcliff meet at Top Withens. They are as real as the cold, stone parsonage, the dark, hard-hearted church. As real as the gravestones laid end to end like paving stones in the churchyard.
It’s a 10-mile hike to Top Withens, over moorland so wild that heather grows tough and wily as the sheep. And when you get there, you’re not quite sure you’ve arrived. Some ruins, yes, but then there are other ruins, and any of them might do. So it’s the getting there that counts because the walk is hard and the imagination untethers itself, raw and ravenous.
So you return to the tiny town, perched on the edge of the century. Outside your window, in liquid light, the local players begin their game of cricket. Busloads of tourists head downhill. Soon you will be left with the faint pock of ball on bat, the curlew’s watery cry, and a scent of smoke that clings to your hair and clothes.
Tomorrow, if you go back the way you came, you will enter the world quickly with a shock of recognition. There will be traffic and news reports and lunch in the pub. But if you head out on the small roads that progress has forgotten, you will wind down the backs of the hills toward Burnley and the motorway. On the way, you will need to stop as cattle lumber down the road, driven by a young man who might, once, have inhabited a novel. They will brush past your car, so close you need to roll up the windows against the flies. They come in a steady stream, part briefly, then flow together again in the rearview mirror. Their faces are slow and placid. They know nothing but this path toward pasture. They carry the sun on their backs. They are bedrock. Going. Gone.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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