The Cliff Falls

'It will soon be the only dwelling left on the island, if the sea has its way.' New novelist Alice McIlroy takes us to the edge of a mythic territory where the hares are dying,  a scientist is counting, a woman is waiting: a house is about to collapse. A short cautionary tale for an age of consequences.
has taught English in schools in London and Milan and completed Faber Academy’s novel-writing programme in 2018. Her writing has been long-listed for the Stylist Prize for Feminist Fiction and Grindstone International Novel Prize. Her debut novel, The Glass Woman, will be published in January 2024.
The house has been adrift for days. The booming cliffs, a ravenous tide. She recalls days of thunder. A fault line bellowing from the deep. Sea spray a gauze of mist distorting space and time. But the night before had been soundless. Still, she woke, rabbit-hearted, doe-eyed. Sleep wavering above her, out of reach; sleeplessness laying its sheen over everything. She looks on as day rises above a sheltering sea, hoping the tides will be calm enough for her granddaughter to come, the storm gone. She cannot see it yet, but the sea has claimed new places, land withdraws. Waves devour the lower part of the dunes, clawing out a deep cavity – there is just a ledge above, a precariously inverted steeple, and then the house. Her house, with its castellated edges that is nicknamed The Castle. Built by her ancestors, left to her in their will. Her land. She will not leave it. She watches the waves, their deep sigh, inching closer each day. Counts their steps. A remorseless grandmother’s footsteps they play at night. No warning, no noise. No insurance to cover it.

A creak as though the helm of a ship were turning, water scurrying to get in. But she is a little hard of hearing. Sleep reaches her. Below her the roots of the house move.


In the half-light a hare sits up in fright in the meadow beyond the house. Downy-haired, amber-eyed, it bounds away, across the riven roots of a yew, up an overgrown boreen leading inland, across coppice and bracken, out into open grassland, nimbly traversing mossy stones and disappearing beneath a stone-capped table, beside a whitethorn tree. Wind rushes through the whitethorn branches, leaves bristling, shaking off raindrops – the last remnants of the storm. Around it, in raised concentric circles of moss and stone, 70-metre-wide mounds of earth are frozen in orbit. A portal tomb seated at their centre, the island’s pinnacle, where the hare has slipped into shadow.

This is the place the farmer fears, council planning reveres as sacred, the place that echoes with an age-old silence and the law of the land: don’t trespass here. Those who do unleash bad luck, a fairy’s wrath.

It will soon be the only dwelling left on the island, if the sea has its way.

The archaeologist plans to seize his moment, before dawn rises, before the sea eats it too. He oversleeps. The storm has bellowed for days, leaving him immune to noise, but something about the depth of the crash, the quality of it, wakes him immediately. He leaves the bungalow on the cliffs and rushes to the site, only arriving when the sun hovers low, already risen, clouds streaked red and auburn.

He steps across the first stone of the fairy fort and taking his trowel, kneels at the centre and begins to scrape away at thin layers of soil. He knows the reason why locals leave it alone, of course. He has heard the stories. He crosses himself.

A murmuration of starlings rises, rippling and folding across the sky.


At that exact moment, a man stumbles onto the beach below the cliffs, waves growing in size.

The hares are dying. He does not know why, he only sees the signs. He has been collecting their carcasses from across the island for months.

Something woke him before dawn, it may have been a sound but it felt more like a premonition. Something called him to the site, half a mile inland from his coastal bungalow. He watched the sun steepled in the sky against a crimson warning. He is a superstitious man, a contradiction in terms a scientist and a spiritualist. It is nearing summer solstice. He knelt by a pile of stones and prayed to old gods. When he re-opened his eyes, he saw something pale and glistening. A white-boned carcass laid out beneath the whitethorn tree, pale sunlight straining from above. He found more of them – a husk of hares reduced to nothing more than bones. He knows it means something. In this place, this time. It is an omen. He is a retired conservationist and has been studying the hare population since he arrived on the island.

A husk of hares reduced to nothing more than bones. He knows it means something. In this place, this time.

It strikes him for a moment, the significance of them coming here to die, to the fairy fort, drawn to their land as he is. He knows, too, the mystical significance of hares. He does not mean to meddle, he believes in the divine essence of nature, respects its order, but it gives him little pleasure to leave them unburied. He carries their tiny bodies to the beach wrapped in his jumper. Lays out their bones into the shape of three interlocking spirals – an ancient Druid symbol, the triskele. There are hundreds of them –some thin and sharp, some knotted with the knuckle of a joint, brittle as coral. They become sluiced with water as the tide darts in and then retreats, silvery spray pulling back like an indrawn breath. The sea seems strangely calmer now. He looks up at the cliffs, the houses, the ridge of the island spined with forest, then looks away. Surrounding driftwood he sets into a circle. Then he begins to shift the sand, burying the bones.


The sun inches higher in the sky. A child and her mother collect pebbles on the beach, when the cliff falls.

They have just arrived on the island, visiting her grandmother, and it is the first time she has seen the sea. She has talked about it all journey, how big the sea is, where the water comes from. Everything is a wonder, the size of the waves, the boat slicing through water. When the ferry drew in, she dragged her mother straight down to the beach, insistent.

The mother tells her child this is her grandmother’s land as they plant a flag in the sand on top of their castle. The child is proud of its crenelated edges carved with her spade. Then laughs with delight as the sea reclaims it, rivulets running up the beach. She looks up at the house her mother has pointed to that belongs to her grandmother with its castellated walls. ‘Is this piece of sand Grandma’s?’ She asks, holding up a grain of brilliant dusty yellow.

She digs with her spade and unearths something pale and sharp, when her mother snatches her hand away.

‘What is it? What does it mean?’ The child peers to get a better look and the mother draws her back, trying to distract her by pointing to the ridge of the island, the sparse line of bungalows and then the castle.

That is when the cliff falls. Noiselessly at first, they watch, as the untethered bridge of sand collides with the beach. The child’s first response is to clap, as though this were a theatrical display of divine proportion put on just for her. Then she notices the building sliding too. The brevity of time and then the wreckage of it, half of its side shorn off, rooms exposed on the clifftop, naked and indecent. A sitting room, a bedroom. It looks like a doll’s house from so far below.

The child cries out, too late, shocked by something beyond her grasp – the fragility of it all; her reality shifting. She clasps the grain of sand in her palm and looks again through new eyes at the slow slide of her grandparents’ land crumbling, waves rushing upwards, ready to meet it, closing over it. Nature reclaiming it.

Soon there will be nothing left at all.

As thin light breaks through the shrouded sky, her mother scans the dunes for signs of life.


IMAGE: The Berkeley Pit by Jon Jost
Photo collage
The Berkeley Pit, in Butte, Montana, is the largest Superfund clean-up site in the United States. I began photographing it in 2012, and by playing with my images and creating collages with them, I realised I was extracting a kind of beauty from the devastation left behind from Butte’s extensive copper mining. The resulting images conjure cave art, the early markings of humans on the landscape, yet these markings are not expressions of beauty or forms of communication, they are the remnants of our extractive mindset. These images show what the human hand is capable of when it severs its connection to the planet and gives itself the task of taking, rather than creating. (from Dark Mountain: Issue 20 – ABYSS)


Alice McIlroy’s debut novel, The Glass Woman, will be published in January 2024. A psychological thriller inspired by new research into memory and AI, it asks how far is too far for surveillance technology in an exploration of relationships, loss, trust, AI, science, privacy and autonomy. It can be pre-ordered here.


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