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By Steve Toase
Opening the field gate, Malcolm sensed something born wrong sheltered in the old cattle shed. The sickly sweet smell of decay spread across the hillside. Round his feet, half-blind, featherless jackdaws cawed. Malcolm hesitated, not wanting to cross the grass, to make those final steps on this late-night call out. Bill Hoden had already started over the field. He lifted up his left hand and beckoned Malcolm on, holding a damp cigarette between two remaining fingers.
“Never seen owt like it, Veterinary. Not in fifty years of farming. Knew something wasn’t right when it hit the cobbles. Birth waters scorched the floor stone-white clean.” He coughed and spat a mouthful of phlegm into the mud.
“How was the mother?”
“Cooked from the inside out. Like she’d been in one of those microwave ovens.”
Malcolm pulled his coat tighter.
Bill undid the padlock on the double doors. The broken boards scraped on the floor. Malcolm waited for Bill to go first, but the old hill farmer just stood there.
“Aren’t you going to show me the animal, Bill?”
Shaking his head, Bill stayed exactly where he was.
“Seen it once. Don’t need to see that again.”
Malcolm noticed an old leather-bound book under Bill’s arm, ‘King James’ in faded gold on the cover.
Reaching into a pocket for his torch, Malcolm stepped into the shed. The smell was worse now. As a country vet, he was used to rot. Hoof infections, orf, or abscesses, his work year was filled with the scent of decaying flesh. This was something else. Like bathing in abattoir waste.
Inside, the temperature rose, first to a pleasant glow, then more furnace-intense as he walked deeper inside. His eyes stung and his throat gagged.
Hilary had taken the phone call, scribbling the details on the Welcome To Yorkshire writing pad and shouting up the stairs. Malcolm had come down, wrapped in a towel, roughly drying his hair. Squinting to decipher her writing, he read the note, making out Bill’s name and the farm, Crop Hill, underlined three times.
“You haven’t written down what the problem is,” he said, walking to the living room door.
Turning the sound down on the TV, Hilary turned round on the sofa.
“Bill never told me. Before you say anything, I did ask. He just said for me to get Veterinary up to the farm fast.”
Malcolm sighed, already getting cold, and went upstairs to find some warm clothes.
Using an old cloth handkerchief, Malcolm covered his face and walked deeper into the barn. The remains of the mother slumped in the corner, steaming in the cold, limbs half-gnawed.
None of his training had prepared him for this. None of his training had prepared him for being a rural vet full stop. He’d learnt how to recognize ringworm and deliver a calf. Learnt about anatomy. But his studies never covered how to translate Swaledale dialect and how it differed from Wharfedale, or how to keep your fingers working at three in the morning in a fierce moor wind. No, you picked that up as you went along. He wiped his forehead and turned the torch on. The light caught on the air. The bulb faded until the flimsy filament glow was the only thing visible and he remembered not picking up the newly charged batteries before he’d left the house.
He wiped his forehead and turned the torch on. The light caught on the air. The bulb faded until the flimsy filament glow was the only thing visible and he remembered not picking up the newly charged batteries before he’d left the house.
He could hear the creature breathing, creaking out each broken lungful of air.
Malcolm creased his ammonia-burnt eyes. The beast’s hide was sticky with amniotic fluid, membrane caught between yellow teeth. Fur tar-black, apart from the ears, stained clot-red.
Malcolm started breathing again – shallow, though. He knew what waited in the corner. Not from Stickland’s book on anatomy or Cunningham’s Veterinary Physiology, but tales told over pints of sour beer, in polished wood taprooms.
Only a handful of days had passed from arriving in the Dales for him to hear the first tales of bargests, the red-eared, shape-changing hell hounds that skulked the stones of Troller’s Gill and the streets of Thirsk. There were stories of them hunting travellers across High Moss and carrying trusting cattle herds into tannin-stained water. Of course, they were just one of a cast of thousands, alongside boggarts, giants, cursed chairs, all used to scare children to bed and incomers from the fields. He’d paid these folk stories little attention. His countryside was one of dirt tracks and distemper, not hell hounds and hauntings.
Malcolm could do nothing here apart from become food. He kept the creature in line of sight and backed up to the door, reached behind him and pushed. The thick planks gave then held.
“The door seems to be stuck, Bill,” he said.
“Not stuck, Veterinary. Locked.”
“Well, unlock it, then.”
“Can’t do that, Veterinary.”
“What do you mean, you can’t do that? Open the door, Bill,” Malcolm said, trying to keep his voice even.
“Got family to think of. Yon beast needs feeding,” the farmer said, pausing. Through the boards, Malcolm could smell tobacco burn as Bill sucked on a hand-rolled cigarette.
“Stop messing about, Bill. I’ve got family, too. Open this door,” Malcolm said. The creature’s eyes started to open.
“Not my problem,” Bill said.
Malcolm undid his jacket and reached into his pocket for his mobile phone from under old receipts. Tissues fluttered to the floor like anemic, torn butterflies. With his right hand steadying the left, he turned the phone on, the small screen pulsing faint light. The stack of lines in the top corner refused to appear. No signal. He waited, staring, not wanting to look round, giving the phone screen all of his attention. It stayed blank, no service provider name or ‘Emergency Calls Only’ appearing like a hidden portal to transport him out of this place. His fingers went numb. The phone clattered, back popping off, spitting the battery across the dirt.
He collected the phone up and dropped the shattered plastic into his pocket, then banged on the door.
“Bill? Are you still there?” he asked.
“I am, veterinary. I’m not going anywhere,” the old farmer said. Malcolm could picture him leaning against the wall, cap pulled down low against the ice that laced the air up here, no matter what the time of year.
“I know you’re not going to let me out, but can you do me a favor? Can you get my vet’s bag out of my car? The door’s open,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady.
“Don’t think I can. I know what you carry in that black bag. Surgical tools, syringes, tranquilizers. Get that for you, and you’ll try and stop the beast. You’re too good a bloke. I don’t want you suffering, thinking you can get out. Just go over there. Let the creature do its thing. All nice and quick-like.”
Malcolm checked his pockets for bubble packs of ketamine, finding two, both empty.
Crouching low, he looked round the shed. The walls looked ramshackle, but the planks were thick and soaked with a hundred years of creosote. There was no way he was going to break out by hand. Squinting, he scanned the walls for tools. A muck crome or a silage knife, anything he could use to prize his way out.
“You still there, Veterinary?” Bill said.
For a moment Malcolm thought about not answering.
“Yes,” he said, still scanning round for tool racks.
Slipping on the cobbles, Malcolm walked to a side wall and got his fingers behind one of the planks. The wood stayed where it was, pushing a splinter the length of a scalpel into his palm, blood pooling. He wiped his hand on his jacket and sat down, back against the wall. The bargest was in no rush to move, its eyes not leaving him once. Damp from the floor seeped through Malcolm’s trousers, turning his skin to ice.
Try as he might, he couldn’t rationalize this. Here was just another creature. Shaped by story and drunken bragging but a creature of flesh and bone, nonetheless. Even so, the cunning burning in the newborn, thousand-year-old creature’s eyes charred his marrow with fear.
It was hopeless. He was stuck in here with this animal. Animals were his work. His life. He’d spent the last ten years tending them, keeping them alive, even when he knew most of them were destined for the slaughterhouse. He pulled out his wallet, hand shaking as he undid the clasp. His hand spasmed, tipping coins and credit cards around him in a fan. Reaching down, he picked up a photo, now coated with half-rotten straw. He tried to clean the dirt off, so he could see Hilary and Tamsin properly, but they just became more obscured under a fine brown film of decay.
The photo was of Tamsin’s graduation. The proudest day of his life, watching his daughter follow in his footsteps. He stared at their faces. Every few moments, he closed his eyes to try and recall them, but they stayed out of sight, reluctant shadows of a past cut off by these wooden walls. After a while, he kept his eyes shut and sobbed his throat raw.
Outside, he could hear Bill mumbling to himself. He sounded as scared as Malcolm felt.
The beast acted like it had all the time in the world, sitting on its haunches. There was no need to rush. Malcolm was going nowhere.
A drunken memory surfaced through the panic and under his breath, Malcolm thanked Old Marley. Cut hand cradled in his lap, he pushed himself up from the floor, cramp bringing him tumbling down more than once. Crouching, he let his fingers drift across the floor like dangled puppets. Straw stuck to the cobbles in patches, layered and thick. It came away in strips, each laminate clouding the air with the stench of animal waste. Using small movements, Malcolm worked his way across the barn, pulling up decades of trampled bedding and dung, piling the fragments in stacks behind him. All the time, the creature watched, steam condensing against Malcolm’s skin.
Not many listened to Marley. Not many understood the creased shepherd, anyway, much less when he was on the outside of half a bottle of scotch, but Malcolm took the time and paid for the drinks. Marley cared for his animals more than anyone Malcolm had met. Get past the slurring and he could tell a good story, for the price of a single malt, of course.
Marley was the first to mention the bargest to Malcolm, first to describe the red ears and the culling stare. He didn’t know if Marley’s story of being pursued over the moors was true. He didn’t know if the whispered story of keeping one side of Moor Gill, the beast the other, was an embellishment. At the moment, he had little to lose and little left to try.
Outside, he could hear Bill stumble his way through the Lord’s Prayer. If it weren’t so serious, it would be funny. Dale gossip whispered the only time Bill saw the inside of church was to dip the collection plate.
Shifting along the ground, Malcolm carried on pulling fragments of dirt from the floor, slowly revealing the channel. Only shallow, the drain carried water along the barn to a stone slab trough at the other end. Now out of sight of the creature, Malcolm reached under the wall and pulled away 50 years of mud, the dirt pushing nails away from his fingers.
Only a trickle came at first, water the color of port. He wiped his face, leaving a stain across his forehead, scrabbled back and banged against the door. The creature looked up at the noise, spit dripping onto the floor.
“Don’t be struggling, Veterinary. If it were me, I’d be scooting across that barn. Get it over and done with,” Bill said, his voice close as if he were trying to peer through the gaps.
“Well, I’m not you, Bill,” Malcolm said, his teeth grinding as he tried to keep from shivering.
“Ay, you’re right at that, Veterinary. I’m outside; you’re stuck in there.”
“Might get out, yet.”
“Might be pigs fly. I’d rather bet on that than you making through the night,” Bill said.
Malcolm listened to him pause as he took another drag of his cigarette.
“Don’t drag it out. I know it’s not fair on you, but I don’t want you to suffer more than you have to, Veterinary. I’m not a cruel man.”
Malcolm ignored him.
He knew time was running low. His movements had been slow, trying to disturb the fetid air as little as possible. The creature might be less than twelve-hours-old, but the thing that clung inside was older than the hills themselves. The bargest blistered with cunning.
Cold mud coated Malcolm’s hands up to the knuckles, all feeling gone. He pressed on, scooping up handfuls of muck, throwing them over his shoulder, getting careless. Outside, Bill stopped stumbling his way through scripture and listened to the dirt slip down the walls.
The folk tales never came with specifics, or volume tables. Never said how much liquid needed to flow. Whether a river or a stutter. Malcolm kept digging the channel free.
The water was sticky, more sludge or soup, but it flowed, nonetheless. He watched it creep across the floor, rivulets spilling between the cobbles until the stone submerged below the neonatal stream.
An expression passed across the creature’s face, one Malcolm had never seen on an animal: confusion. Not the dislocated confusion of pain. Genuine wonderment at the lack of its own comprehension of the situation. Then anger.
Malcolm watched the creature’s skin dragged in through its mouth, now turned to a raw wound. Ribs and muscles glistened on the outside of its torso, like offal on a butcher’s slab. Malcolm’s brain protested, breaking down in the face of this. In that moment, he knew that if it couldn’t kill him to feast, the bargest would kill him with fear.
Somewhere deep inside, in the place that cocooned stories, he realized he must turn his back. If he didn’t, and soon, his heart would turn itself inside out of his chest in sympathy.
With effort, he pivoted each footstep. Outside, Bill started on the Psalms, sung in a discordant tenor to no tune a congregation would recognize.
Eyes closed, Malcolm faced the wall, whispering childhood stories to himself. The bargest’s breath scorched his jacket, wax running from charred cotton and dripping on the floor. Every nerve was telling him to turn. He stayed the other way, elective blind.
The whispers started. Fears and memories dragged from childhood. Voices of dead people Malcolm had buried deep squirmed their way out. His back was soaked with sweat, now. Then the promises of wealth and debauchery started. The offers of gold and power, if only he would turn. If only he would look just once. He didn’t even need to open his eyes, just peek. Just peek enough to step over the little, tiny stream bisecting the barn.
His throat was full of sand. He couldn’t speak, even though every inch of skin wanted to let the air burn his lungs and turn it against the walls, like Joshua against the walls of Jericho. He wanted to scream till his teeth powdered and tongue rotted at the root. He wanted to open his eyes and see the sun stream through the oak tree, outside his childhood bedroom, to sacrifice every minute of his adult life just to wake up from this stained and bitter nightmare in the cocoon of his childhood.
Malcolm stayed silent because he knew, deep down, even when the lies delivered in Hilary’s voice were at their most persuasive, that to survive the next few moments, he must not turn around.
Even when something brushed his cheek or took his hand. Even when he could no longer feel the cobbles beneath his feet or know if he were asleep or awake, he still did not turn round.
Malcolm never knew how long he stood facing that wall before his legs gave out, crumpling to the floor, head catching the straw and bringing a dreamless sleep.
Daytime had arrived when he came to, a dull, gray light visible through his sore eyes. He looked over the trickle of stream. The back wall of the shed had gone, broken planks littering the hill beyond, tufts of thick, black hair caught on the rusted nails. Still, he didn’t cross the water, instead smashing his shoulder again and again into the padlocked door until the wood gave, spreading a bruise across the top of his arm.
He half-expected to find Bill slumped on the grass outside, or mauled beyond recognition, but the field was empty apart from a pile of half-smoked cigarettes, a ripped-up copy of the King James Bible, and a flock of half-blind, featherless jackdaws cawing in the mist.
His work has appeared in publications such as Jabberwocky Magazine, Sein und Werden, Cafe Irreal, streetcake magazine, Weaponizer and nthPosition. His favourite time of the year is Autumn, because it is beautiful with a hidden darkness.