The story so far:
On the tail of an eventful weekend Joe returns from a difficult interview with Janice Regan, one of the ‘coven’ of women so interested in observing him after church. Needing shelter from a thunderstorm he shares the cover of Jack and Violet Parkins’ barn with Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, whose rebellious horse he helps to control. This exigency helps to break down some of the hostility Joe feels for Sophie, and she agrees to go on a date with him. In the meantime, he has found something both sinister and familiar concealed amidst the hay in the barn…
Sophie rode away on Tumbler. Joseph followed her as far as the farmyard gate, watching as she broke the horse into a trot across The Common. She did not look back.
Perhaps he expected she would.
He retrieved the talisman he had found between the hay-bales from his pocket, seeing how, when he had clenched his fist around it, its crudely-carved edges had broken the skin of his palm.
His thoughts tumbled over themselves, making images from memories: Rodney Smith’s dying face, his brother’s quiet threat; Violet Parkin crucified, Janice Regan’s hate, Ben Wortsall’s muttered spells, two ancient pensioners on a ‘bus, Emma’s cry of distress, Marian’s poor, lifeless form in his arms. He had cradled Rodney’s head for those final moments – would he ever, ever tell anyone that? Would he admit to his outburst, his flood of pity for someone he had loathed and feared for so many years?
Of this much Joseph was certain: the little human effigy clasped in his hand must have been placed amongst those bales recently, for the hay was fresh. Was it Michael’s work? Had his brother come back to Hallbury within the last few months?
Something in Joe prompted him to walk the mile which would lead him to Slater’s Copse. Later, he would remember, or seem to remember, retracing his steps along Heather Lane, seeing Janice Regan’s stern eyes upon him from her cottage door, passing the King’s Head with the feeling Dot Barker was behind an upstairs curtain; meeting Hettie Locke on the hill and reeling as she brushed past him.
He would never know with any certainty the point at which reality ceased, and the dream began – for how long had he been walking before the road was no road anymore, but the roughest track. Trees hooding the way, dark avenues dripping a gauntlet from the passing storm, the slip of mud beneath his feet, rime of green moss wherever his hands might reach or touch; a way strewn with rocks and stones, a running stream fed by the rain. This was like another country, another time when no birds sang – there were no sounds at all, and one scent alone, so intense it was almost overpowering, a stench of wild garlic.
And then he was no longer alone.
She stood in a clearing that was suddenly free of all but her figure – she was tall, majestic almost, garbed in some diaphanous thing that might be there or might not: for if he chose to see her without clothes or robed he might, and he knew that he was dreaming now. Around her, upon her, there was light. He stared at her from darkness, heard her yet did not, for the words she gently spoke were in no language he knew. Around her there were gathered other voices, quietly murmuring accusation, pointing at him with long fingers. Their voices in unison, slow like the creak of an ancient door, declared their sentence.
“Fashion his likeness, bind his darkness, clean his blackened soul with fire.” Then, with aspirate vehemence: “Mould him, bind him, burn him, make his guilt his funeral pyre!”
Finding its rhythm, their mantra gathered in volume, priestess at its centre, arms outspread. The light upon her strong, growing stronger until it glared, dazzled, forced him to shield his eyes.
“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”
An eruption, burgeoning, growing in seconds. His hand ripped away and the woman’s face in his, full of fury, and the words: words he would understand and remember – incised like an inscription into his brain:
“Burn, he will – be it so! Die he will!”
“Be it so.”
And the voices all repeating, “Be it so.”
“Be it so.” Fading, like consciousness before the grey mist.
Before the peace.
A shaking, convulsive chill demanded he wake. In sodden clothes, he was lying in wet grass and many hours must have passed, for his befogged vision perceived a sky full of stars. Cold clamped itself around him so acutely he felt that, far from burning, if he did not find warmth somewhere exposure would claim him – he would not survive. Gradually he came to himself, seeing as his vision cleared he was not alone; a shadow, just distinguishable from a lighter sky –loomed over him.
“He’m movin’ now.” He knew the voice.
“How long he been ‘ere?” There was a second figure in the background, and this time a voice he knew very well. Janice Regan was there, somewhere outside his vision.
“’Oo knows, my dear? Could ha’ been hours, I’d say. Look at ‘un!” Hettie Locke, this was. He recognised her now.
“He’m wet, right enough.”
Struggling, Joe managed to get to his knees. Where was he? He had thought himself on Wednesday Common, yet there was no bracken here. The grass was long, lank – an icy wind flayed his skin. He was somewhere high up.
“Lucky you found ‘un, Hettie. All that rain – fit to drown a man, ‘tis. ‘Ear that, mister? Lucky, that’s what you are.”
“Exposure, they calls it.” Hettie said. “Can be deadly, that.”
Joe, still fazed, floundered for a minute, then managed to stand.
“Left ‘ere ‘til morning, ‘oo knows?” Said Janice sagely. “There’s them as ‘as died of it, all right.”
Below, somewhere, dim specks of light. Behind him trees, rustling and groaning in the wind. Staggering, striving to keep his balance…
Hettie: “You alright, then, mister Joe Palliser?”
Out of nowhere, from beyond his sight or his thought she came at him, the third figure. He had time, but only just time, to see Dot Barker’s coarse features creased in a snarl, smell her foul breath gusting in his face –
“Best be gone, Joe Palliser. It ain’t lucky here, for thee!”
And darkness, dangerous darkness, embraced him once more.
The next Joe knew, there were sheets beneath him, a pillow for his head. A weight of blankets covered his body, and he was in his own bed, dry and warm. He took hold upon that consciousness and laid awake then, for he did not know how long, afraid to sleep until he was assured the nightmare and his fear; yes, fear, would not return. Then and only then would he permit himself to sleep once more, certain that he was back in the world, and eventually dawn must come.
But fear was merely resting, waiting for the dawn.
Aunt Julia’s scream raised Joseph from his bed. It was a deep, primal sound, so stark that at first he thought she must be in pain, and he rushed down the stairs. He found his aunt standing by her open front door, staring at the dead thing impaled upon it, at the black stream of venal blood which issued from it; at the mess of red that dripped slowly to the floor of the porch.
Joe grabbed her shoulders, pulled her away. Owen appeared at that moment to support his wife, who sobbed almost hysterically as he guided her back into their kitchen. The dead creature was Benjy, Julia’s beloved cat. Somehow, in the silence of night he had been executed, nailed to the door so his head pointed downward and his front legs spread in imitation of an inverted cross. Then his throat had been slit so his blood would empty down the door into a pool upon the step.
For minutes together Joe could do nothing. He stared at the poor creature’s mutilated remains, struggling with revulsion and unreasonable anger. Then he turned his back on the sight and joined his former guardians in their kitchen.
Owen was incandescent. “How the hell did they do it without waking us? Who in god’s name would do this?”
“Who indeed? This is a completely new experience for me.” Julia gulped back her sobs, “Joe; is this something you are involved with? Is this something you have brought back with you? I don’t understand, Joe – tell us, for god’s sake! Because I do not understand!”
“I’m afraid it might be.” Joe admitted: “I think Violet Parkin’s death was something to do with her beliefs. This might be a message.”
“Witchcraft!” Julia spat out the word. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? These absurd people with their stupid superstitions…”
Seeing Joe’s perplexed expression, Owen explained. “There’ve been incidents like this before. Broken gravestones in the churchyard, a dead squirrel nailed in that same upside-down cross position on the door of the church: that sort of thing.”
“Against you personally?” Joe asked.
“Never!” Julia said flatly.
“Then this is a warning directed at me,” Joe said. “I’m treading where I shouldn’t tread. Yesterday afternoon I thought I was getting near to something: maybe this confirms it.”
“You stirred a pot,” agreed Owen, “But these people aren’t killers: for the most part, they wouldn’t hurt a fly! They might play at stuff like paganism, but I can’t think they would ever murder somebody over it, especially one of their own. The furthest they ever get is a bit of communal muttering over a few harmless herbs, isn’t it?”
“And crows,” Julia said quietly.
“Aunt Julia?” Joe felt his aunt might be suffering from shock.
“No, I’m alright. I have always wondered if there was some more sinister activity going on. Perhaps you won’t remember, Joe – you were still quite young at the time – the Mattheson child?”
Joe looked blank and Owen shook his head vehemently. “No. No dear.”
“I know you don’t agree, Oz. Joe, a little boy from Fettsham (Christian, I think his name was) came to Petra Sharp’s birthday party in the days when they lived at Church Cottages. The day was fine, so the children all played in the back garden in the afternoon. At some time, no-one could be sure when, Christian disappeared. In broad daylight! Someone snatched him, took him by way of the field at the back of the houses. Anyway, he was never seen again. His clothing was found up on Hallbury Rise a few days after – near Slater’s Copse, you know?”
“The only abduction we ever had around here.” Owen acknowledged, adding: “They arrested a chap from Friscombe, some sort of serial pervert – it had nothing to do with witches, Julia dear.”
Julia did not appear to have heard him. She stared ahead, into the darker corner of the room.
“Aunt: you said ‘crows’?” Joe prompted.
“Yes, yes I did, didn’t I?” Julia came to herself. “The day after the child’s clothing was found, Rob Pardin cut the grass in the churchyard as usual. Ben Wortsall’s grave was covered; completely covered, with headless dead crows. Fifty or more, Rob Pardin said.”
Joseph shot a look at his Uncle.
“All right,” Owen conceded; “Even given Rob’s capacity for exaggeration, I didn’t say the two things were completely unrelated; but I don’t believe the grisly soul who put the crows there had anything to do with the child’s disappearance. It was just some misguided person’s reaction to the whole sorry affair. That was all of seventeen years ago. Whoever did it must be either too old or too far away by now to have any implication in this business.”
Julia shrugged fatalistically. It was time to round off the discussion. “Joseph, kindly be careful, will you? I’m told that someone out there is looking for a chance to even old scores with you. Don’t, please, bring any more of this to our door? Things might get very unpleasant, you see.”
“Would you be happier if I left, Aunt Julia?”
Joe’s aunt considered this. “No. It’s up to you, of course, Joe dear, but I’m sure our delightful neighbours, having committed their little outrage, will rest content, now. Just as I am sure you’ll keep your quarrel with the Smith brother contained. However, perhaps it would be wiser to let well alone, where poor Violet is concerned.”
Owen pulled his pipe from his jacket. “You may recall what I said concerning enemies, Joe. Up to a point, having a few can be an advantage, but don’t make too many: these are simple people. They tend to tar whole families with the same brush. We respect your concern for Jack Parkin, but not at a cost to ourselves: you do see that?”
Joseph thanked him and said that he did. “I’ll clean up,” he volunteered, gathering bucket and mop from the kitchen cupboard.
He removed Benjy’s remains and worked methodically, shutting his mind to all the questions that queued up, waiting to be asked. Owen joined him. “Young man, I might not have succeeded as a father to you, but I hope I taught you courage to stand up for those who need your support. Don’t shrink from this.”
“But Aunt Julia…”
“Your aunt is stronger than she looks. When she gets over the loss of her blessed cat she will say the same. Those old harridans out there, they’re a trifle on the ghoulish side, but they’d stop short of burning us down. You’ve got a roof here for as long as you need.” He wrapped the carcass in his Financial Times. “I’d better bury this.” Then, changing the subject abruptly; “Where were you last night, Joe?”
Joseph stared at him.
“You didn’t come home – at least until after midnight, because that was when we went to bed. There were towels on the floor in the bathroom this morning; wet towels with mud on them. Where were you?”
“I met some friends; we went into Braunston, had a few drinks.” It was a white lie, Joe tod himself; he had given his relatives trouble enough for one day; he would not disturb them with tales of his dreams, if dreams they were: “Got back late, cut across the Common, and you know what the weather was like. I got soaked. Sorry if I was untidy, I’m afraid I may have been a little drunk. Oh, and there was no sign of Benjy when I came in – I wasn’t as drunk as that!”
Joe dressed to go out, needing air, space to satisfy some of those questions, and something tangible to justify his relatives’ faith in him. Before all else, he had to understand what had happened to him in the night, and with that in mind, he decided to take a fresh look at Slater’s Copse.
His way would take him past the church. He did not have the lane to himself. Abbey Walker and Bess Andrews, the Masefield’s’ immediate neighbours, bustled ahead of him, engrossed in earnest discourse. At St. Andrews’ Church, these two ladies joined a small, intense group of respectable village matrons who whispered and huddled at the junction of the roads beside the churchyard wall. It was not hard to distinguish the focus of their attention.
In all, the village churchyard covered a little more than a third of an acre, falling gently away from the Church itself towards trees bordering Manor Farm on its western side. For all the conspiratorial overtones Joe had detected on the previous day it was a placid, peaceful place, dedicated as it was to the contemplation of final rest.
That rest had been brutally disturbed. Much of the quiet meadow of graves had been desecrated: several headstones laid flat, several others broken: one grave actually looked as if it had been opened, with the slab cast aside and jammed, corner first, into the adjacent earth. The church door hung open. On the flagstones before it, and upon the timbers of the door, pentangles, the five-pointed star symbol of the Wicca had been painted – in a fluid that appeared to be blood.
Immediately, Joe recalled his aunt’s description; saw her horror reflected on the faces of the assembled women, their suspicion, anger too, perhaps. Few met his eye; those who did looked away quickly, defensively, as though afraid.
Did he need further evidence for the veracity of his experience the previous night? Abandoning his intent to visit Slater’s Copse, Joseph turned away: after all, there was nothing he could do. As he walked back down the lane PC Hallet was arriving in his panda car, the little blue light on the top flashing gamely, though its siren was turned off. Later, much later that day he would learn why Dot Barker was not among those who had gathered to witness the satanic chaos, but for now Joe had other plans. He decided it was time to pay his brother Michael another visit.
“Who is calling, please?” The voice at the other end of the ‘phone was dispassionate, distant.
“Michael Palliser’s brother Joseph.” Joe could not understand why his initial enquiry had evoked a hasty ‘hold on, please’ followed by a lengthy wait. “Look, I only want to confirm that Michael will be there this afternoon. I want to come and see him.”
“What is the purpose of your visit, Mr Palliser?”
“Purpose? Does there have to be a purpose? I’m family.”
There was a pause; then a different voice, a calm, authoritative voice. “I’m sorry Mr Palliser that will not be possible.”
Beginning to experience the frustration of one who knows he is being stonewalled, Joseph asked coldly: “Why?”
“Michael is no longer with us. He has been removed.”
“Removed? When? Where to, for god’s sake?”
“Michael left us this morning. I’m sorry Mr Palliser, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to disclose any further information.”
“On whose authority, then?”
“Same answer, I can’t disclose that information.”
The line went dead.
© Frederick Anderson 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.