The promise

Tank Green/ December 31, 2023/ Thoughts

Photo of a man in a hoodie and jeans sat on a grassy cliff top looking at the sea.

Photo of a man in a hoodie and jeans sat on a grassy cliff top looking at the sea. Photo by Cody Board on Unsplash.

[I wrote this earlier this year for a writing competition which I got nowhere in. I still like it, so I am posting it as my final story of the year.]

You are standing on a cliff overlooking the sea. It can be any cliff, any sea, but for me it’s a Scottish cliff and a North Sea. The wind is whipping around your head, but it is not so cold that it hurts: it is a rejuvenating kind of wind. You have been here before. It is a place you come when you need to think, when you are burdened with a melancholy that you need to set free. You stand for a long time like a sentinel—seeing but not seeing, watching but not watching, hearing but not hearing—allowing the wind to move through you, carrying away the heaviness until the thought beneath is revealed.

Here, there is so much green before a sea and sky of grey. Here, there are birds silently drifting in the distance, and waves crashing on a rocky beach below you. You rarely look down as it makes you feel like tipping, and you are not here to tip or fall. You are here to mark the beginning of something; the ending has already passed.

Something. What is this thing you feel inside you? You will know better than I, but for me it is a kind of grief mixed with hope: a dare for the future. You feel it stir and grow many appendages or legs, which wrap themselves gently around your heart. It does not stop the beating, but you feel it when you breathe in. It is a discomfort and so you ask the many-legged thing to twine about its own self instead. You show it a pathway around your heart, behind your sternum, up your throat, and out of your mouth, but it does not leave you. Despite your careful instructions, it says it does not know how.

Strewn around you on this clifftop are smooth white and grey stones. You fold gently to your knees and place one palm atop another on one of the stones as your fingers fan out like wings. You push down with all your might, curving your shoulders towards each other, making your chest cavity smaller, creating a tremendous force and suction until the many-legged thing is riven in two, shoots down each arm, and into the stone where it becomes one again. One with itself and with the stone. You pick up the stone, kiss it for luck, and make it fly into a particular, possible future.


I am a stone and I have flight: this is not my usual situation. All my unborn siblings of the earth observe me with a cacophony of responses: stupor, jealousy, disbelief, ridicule, amusement, grief. I do not have the same time as you, so I feel the world about me like a gelatinous gloop. It cannot stop me flying, even though it resents me ripping through it, and so I spend the next three thousand stone-years descending. I pass so many things on my way down, tiny things which may one day coalesce to become my siblings, perhaps. At last, I reach a surface and then fall beneath it into the wetness you call sea. I find here on the sea floor many cousins, as well as ancestors worn so small that I barely recognise them.

I am a stone and I no longer have flight, but I do have the many-legged something inside me. It has seen the future, so it is not prepared to become an ancestor on the sea floor. Its restlessness calls to fish who nudge me so that the tides and currents can take me and my many-legged passenger back towards you. I bump and I roll and I slide until the many-legged thing causes a crab to mistake me for a mate; the crab carries me to a rock pool on the shore.

There is a human child, a little raggedy thing with wild hair and happy eyes. She is playing on the beach and many-legs wills her to come towards me. She has a bucket and spade, and pudgy arms and legs which she has not yet learned to properly coordinate. There! She falls down in a rock pool, my rock pool, and as she decides if it hurts or not, she takes her spade and strikes the rock which she perceives as having struck her. As she pushes herself into a low squat, she inspects the bottom of the pool and finds me, a smooth stone with an invisible many-legged companion. She picks me up and puts me in her bucket before wandering off.

Later, when she has walked to the clifftop behind the bay, her little hands are prised from the handle of the bucket by big hands. Big hands reach inside the bucket and place me on top of a cairn by the cliff edge before they go home. A small cairn, five stones, and me the largest and most proud on top. My many-legged restlessness causes me to topple and fall off.


Hello, friend – it is you again! You with your thoughts of the future and your wind-whipped hair. Do you recognise me as you sit here on your clifftop, overlooking the sea? You are brave to dangle your legs over the edge like that, I would never risk it: the restlessness of many-legs would certainly cause me to fall. I am calling to you friend, do you hear me? I carry a part of you within. I vibrate and I shimmer, but it is in rock time, so you miss my beautiful theatrics. Still, a residue of my power draws your hand towards my siblings and I, and causes you to absentmindedly fiddle with us as you do your windswept thinking. When your eyes are full of view and your heart full of breeze, you go back to wherever it is you live, leaving my siblings and I saltirewise; me the keystone of the cross.

Many-legs smiles and roots. Its legs shoot out of me, deep into the earth, touching all the things hidden and held by my relatives. Plant rhizomes, fungal spores, tree roots, microbes, dead things, alive things, old bones, worms, insects, cocoons, nests, and all the unknown promises of a world that is yet to be borne. A world we have not yet shown you as you are not ready to learn. Many-legs is taking our secrets and we do not know what for.

It is night-time and it is black and still. The darkness is rich like velvet and a many-legged creature reaches out to touch it. One leg, which is now hand, at a time. One leg, which is now foot. One leg, which is now eye, sensor, feeler. One leg at a time reaches up through the keystone of the cross, prising open the earth like an origami finger game, until the legs wrap around themselves, spinning slowly above the earth for hours until dawn arrives, and it collapses to the earth in a new shape, a new form, a new life.

Many-legs is now a woman covered in soil with matted hair. She gets up and tries to fly: she cannot. She is puzzled. She walks to the edge of the cliff and sits. She digs her fingertips into her hair and scalp to see if the sensation matters: it does not. She should be cold, but she is not. She should care that she is naked, but she does not. Her eyes are blue like the sky, her hair red like dying embers, and in her mouth, instead of a tongue, she has a large white Marguerite daisy.

The woman is trying to remember how she got here. She looks at the waves crashing on the rocks below her and knows she has a reason for being, so she dives to see if it will help her remember. The woman, she swims for hours under the sea. She moves her body like a mermaid, but she is not it. She moves her body like a squid, but she is not it. She moves her body like a clam, but she is not it. She shoots through the sea trying different shapes until she reaches a new shore and attaches herself to a rock like a barnacle, but she is still not it. She slides back down into the sea and weaves herself a cloak of kelp studded with bladderwrack pearls.

The woman emerges from the sea and walks until she finds a tree. She stands before it, raises her cloak and her hair up to the sky, but she is not it. She climbs the tree, spies a bird, rends her cloak in two and flies up to meet it, but she is not it. She tumbles, falls, lands and rolls until her body is covered in moss, and then she starts to walk again. She is big now, she is ancient, and she has come to wait for you, you with your tangled thoughts and hair. She lays down on her side, nestles her head into her shoulder and arm for a pillow, draws her knees slightly towards her abdomen, and sleeps.


It is you again! Do you know why we keep meeting like this? It is because you carry within you the thing the woman seeks: the pathway to your shared future. Your future which is a part of the earth, and therefore from a past indescribably older than you. The woman has come to you in the shape of a land you remember from a time before memories, a land and a stretch of hills with cliffs that you are inexplicably drawn to. I am here to coax you into remembering why they call to you. Climb with me, if you will. If you look up, you will see the granite and limestone of her toenails: this is where I am waiting for you. Please pick a pebble of me up before you weave through the foothills of her calves and shins. As you climb, you will begin to remember that she is alive, that the earth is a living thing; you will remember that the river flows between the valley of her legs because she weeps from the exhaustion of being not it.

I do not want you to climb to the clifftop this time. I want you to sit in a space where all you can see is green grass, wildflowers, and blue sky. I do not mind if a sheep or two intrude, as they are wont to do, or if you choose to sit by the river, but the important thing is that your entire view should be this woman’s body. I want you to sit and be cupped by her beautiful mossy, green skin, and to feel the protection of her body wrapped around you. I want you to put your hand in your pocket and take me out like a talisman so that you can hear me better. I want you turn me over in your hands as you begin to feel enveloped by her valleys and ridges, to know only her, so that you are forced to remember what it is that you carry within: her name and purpose.


Many-legs is a promise. When you make your wishes on your clifftop, you give them an existence. Whether you push them down into the earth or scatter them across the horizon, you send them forth, let them go, give them life. And they will keep going until you call them to you with a second act. With a reprise. With action. They will keep going, trying to become this thing or that in their un-named confusion. They will keep going with a life of ‘not it’, until one day they lay down, like this many-legged promise, and call you to them to remember. Do you hear how many of your dishonoured promises call you?

You do, don’t you?

And so, the words fall like drops.