Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Three. Bonds of Blood

The story so far:

Humbled and saddened by Sophie’s rejection, Joe learns the truth about his last day with Marian and the reason for her death.  His inherited wealth will mean he can provide for his brother Michael’s care, wresting control from their elder sibling, Ian, who wants to keep them both out of sight, in case they damage his political ambitions.  Michael has absconded, and while  Joe does not fully understand his elder brother’s anxiety about this, he is determined to find Michael for his own reasons.   Joe fears Michael may be involved in Violet Parkin’s killing.  If he is, will he return to the scene of his crime?

Remembering Emma Peterkin’s information that Michael had spent time with villager and reputed witch Margaret Farrier quite often in his growing years, Joe decides to pay Margaret a visit…. 

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

Margaret Farrier raised an eyebrow.  “You’re remarkably direct, I’ll concede that.  Is this the approach you used on poor Janice?  If so, I’m not surprised you frightened her.  Now she is someone who doesn’t like you.”

“She’s changed so much since Teddy died.”

Margaret nodded curtly:  “People do.  The altered state.  We are never prepared.”

Joe felt there was hidden meaning behind those words.  He paused, wondering whether to pursue that particular tack, but decided against it.   “Maybe.  Anyhow, I don’t know any other way to ask.  It seems such an obvious question.”

“Let me see.  You do not believe that Jack Parkin did away with Violet, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“I agree with you.  You do believe her death had something to do with pagan ritual?”  Joe nodded.  “Well, you see there I cannot agree with you.”

A lull.  Margaret Farrier offered no further amplification, though Joe waited expectantly for a number of seconds.  At length he asked:  “Why not?”

“An absence of any evidence, together with the ludicrous notion that this village is infected by the black arts.  The very idea! Absolute balderdash!”  She rose to her feet.  “I think the sun is over the mainmast.  Would you like something to drink?  Whisky, sherry?”

He accepted.  “Miss Farrier, I know Violet Parkin was involved in witchcraft – so why is it such a ridiculous presumption that her death may have been ritual?”

“You know?”  She withdrew a bottle from her sideboard for his whisky, poured her own from a decanter on the shelf, then brought the drinks to him. He stood up.

“Please sit down Joe – may I call you that?  I’m Margaret, by the way; or Margo, if you prefer.  Joe, the people of this village – no, I’ll go further than that – the lonely old women of this village (of which I, by the way, might be said to be one) indulge in the odd herbal remedy now and then;  the occasional spell, if you will.  It is a hand-me-down from generations of folk medicine, and it is a sort of hobby for us, no more than that.  The idea we would stake poor Violet out in a ritual sacrifice is – well – I already used the adjectives:  unthinkable!”  She stood close to Joe as she handed him his drink, challenging his eyes to meet her own.  “Do I look like a black witch to you?”

Joe grinned:  he was beginning to like Margaret Farrier.  “Possibly not.  But then, possibly I wouldn’t know a black witch if I did see one.  I’ve had several versions of the ‘poor harmless herbalists’ argument thrust at me, though, and I don’t entirely believe them.  Dancing naked at solstices, overturned gravestones, and dead animals nailed to people’s doors?  Three pagan rituals and not a hint of sorrel.”

She returned his smile.  “I am a Wiccan priestess, Joe.  There are certain areas of worship that require communion with nature: when it happens it is a joyful thing, but that is just one tiny part of what witchcraft is about, and it’s a long way from that sort of ritual to one entailing human sacrifice.  No such ceremony could be sanctioned by any form of The Craft.  As to the sacrilegious activity and your guardians’ unfortunate experience…”  Margaret shrugged, though her expression was sympathetic.  “Not us.”

“Oh, just as simple as that!  A single brush-stroke:  ‘not us’!”

“Joe, whenever the rumour mill finds a fresh breeze, its sails can be seen turning miles away.  Stories of how poor Violet was found germinate these excesses in every depraved soul who believes he knows how witches behave: and he uses them – to create mischief, to revive old grudges.  As I said:  not us.”

“Nonetheless you admit you do practice witchcraft?”

“I thought I just confirmed that,” She sipped her drink.  “But I’m not the issue, here, am I?”

“No.  I came to ask you about my brother.”

Margaret paused in mid-sip.  Then she said, as if she might have misheard:  “About…?”

“Michael, my brother.”

“Oh, of course!  I remember.  About what concerning your brother, specifically?”

“He joined you, didn’t he?”

“Michael sought initiation, once, it is true.  I gave some teaching, but…”  She paused, choosing her words.  “Michael was in a dark place, I quickly sensed it.  We could not admit him.”

“Margo, have you seen Michael recently?”

Joe was very careful to note the timing, as well as the phrasing, of Miss Farrier’s response.  It was perfect.  “Not for some years, I fear.  He had such burdens, your poor brother – such burdens.”

Still Joe was not fully convinced.  Michael must be nearby, and this house, he felt certain, was one of the first places he would visit.  He continued the conversation, asking questions about witchcraft in a general sense.  Margaret Farrier gave very frank, open answers.

Only when he tried to get her to name specific people or places did she demur with the sweetest but most uncompromising of smiles.

At last he was ready to leave.  As he rose from his chair, a thought occurred and he felt in his jeans pocket, producing the little package Sophie and he had discovered the previous week.

“Would you know what this is?”

It was clear Margaret did know, instantly.  But she delayed long enough to unwrap the parchment and to look upon the photograph within.

“Where did you get this?”

She had displayed perfect honesty: so did he.  “From Violet Parkin’s bedroom.”

Margaret nodded.  “So it was you.  I should have known your curiosity would get the better of you.”

“You know about…?”

“I get to learn, Joe.  I get to learn.  This…”  She waved the components of the package:  “Is very interesting – very interesting indeed.  Tell me, what do you think it is?”

“I thought maybe a love letter, but I couldn’t read the writing.  The man in the picture, is that a younger Jack?  It doesn’t look like my memory of him, but I could be wrong.”

“No – not the younger Jack.  It’s Ned Barker:  taken about twenty years ago, I’d say.  This is a binding spell, Joe.  The sort of spell a woman casts when she wants someone to love her.  The ‘writing’ is in runic symbols – I didn’t think Violet had an appreciation of those – and the spell is bound together with her hair.”  She dangled the thread with faint distaste between her thumb and forefinger.  “Not, you understand, hair from her head?”

As he was leaving, she said:  “I wonder, would you be susceptible to advice?  Be careful Joseph – be very, very careful.  Sometimes in seeking the truth of others we discover the most unwelcome things about ourselves.  I know you have trouble.  I shall try to smooth your path.”

Joe bade the woman goodbye.

In early evening, after tea was concluded and Owen and Julia had departed the kitchen, Joe raided their larder for bread and a little cold meat.  With these and a bottle of fresh water in a carrier bag he slipped from the house by means of the back door and quietly started his car.  He did not quite know why he had to leave so secretly, though maybe there were notions of protection for the old people, whose suffering was undeserved; yet there were others, too, whose attention he would prefer not to attract.  So when he reached the Parkin farm, when he turned into the lane, he cut the engine and free-wheeled the Wolsey as furtively as any thief through the open farmyard gate, only stopping when he reached the cover of the hay barn.  Had he made the journey unseen?  He had reason to hope; the farm was away from the deserted road, and the crime scene tape that until recently made it conspicuous had been withdrawn.

What did he expect to find there?   Joe’s reasoning would have been his need, now he had the means, to do something, anything, to help his brother; to remove him from Ian’s pernicious influence, yet that may not have been entirely truthful.  If he were honest, he might admit that he had to confirm his terrible suspicion that Michael would return to  Hallbury to revisit the scene of his crime.   If it were, where else but this farm should he come?  Joe quitted his car in favour of a stack of hay bales nearer the barn entrance which offered concealment while still commanding a view of the open yard.  Here, braving a constant meal-queue of hungry midges, he settled down to wait.

The hours passed.  An evening sun obscured from his sight set lower in the western sky, casting its rays in a roseate glow across Wednesday Common. He stayed, knees cramped and shivering, as darkness crept, as a pall of solemn sky gathered for rain.  He stayed for a long time.

Much, much later, after the moonless, overcast night had fallen and the cold had begun to etch itself into his bones, he began to admit to the possibility he was wrong.  Michael had not appeared, and glad he should have been!  Had he really doubted his brother’s innocence?  Had he honestly believed Michael would murder a lonely old woman in such bestial fashion?

Eventually, now in total darkness, Joe, resigned, rose to stretch himself.  The torch he had rested on his lap fell to the ground with a clatter.  Immediately, as if in answer, there was another sound.  Not from the open common but behind him, in the barn.  A stir of birds, or bats, in the rafters maybe?  No, this was different.  He cursed himself for omitting the most obvious check of all.  Someone was already there, hiding among the high-piled bales of hay.

“Michael?”

A flurry of raindrops on the roof, promising more.  No other sound.

“Michael, I brought you some food.”

Still nothing.  Joe edged back to his car and reached through the open window, switching on sidelights that would bathe the barn’s interior in a soothing glow.

“Mikey?”

A confusion of sound and shape half-slithered, half-fell from high in the stacks of hay, and even in that dim light Joe knew this was his brother.  Michael landed with no pretence at stealth, springing cat-like back to his feet and for an alarming moment Joe felt he might attack, but Michael, having corrected his balance, seemed to freeze.  They were face to face, the brothers, no more than a yard between them.  Michael’s eyes were wild, his mouth drooling blood and working at muttering, cursing sounds, crying sounds, sounds of distress.  Biting back fear Joe reached out, his fingers finding sodden clothing, exploring the contours of Michael’s arms, his shoulders, his face.   The flesh he touched was icy, the hair matted with mud.  Pity consumed him and he was moved to close his arms around his brother, until he felt the stickiness, saw the darkness on his fingers – smelled the blood.

“Oh, Mikey, where have you been, old son?  What the hell have you been doing?”

No answer came.  The sounds, the inner writhing, continued unabated.  Michael’s body was rigid; his arms pressed into his sides.   Trembling, Joe sought his hand, and found cramped fingers clasping cold steel.    His heart missed a beat.  He ran his fingers along it, the knife, at first as if he did not believe it; then, believing it, in sheer horror; for it was a long knife, a broad-bladed, heavy affair –  a machete, perhaps.  And Michael’s grip was clamped around its hilt with a furious strength.

“Mikey;” Joe said slowly, trying to control the terror in his voice:  “Give me the knife?”

“NO!”  Michael jumped back, raising the blade in a shaking hand, “No.”  Her repeated, and several times more:  “no, no, no, no…”

For once in his life Joe felt seriously scared of Michael.  But that was no answer:  he could not turn his back, not now.  “Mikey, you must give that up.  It’s a bad thing, old son.  Knives are bad.”

“No.”  Michael was focussed, stepping forward again, stabbing the machete at his brother.  Joe might have fled.  He might have done that, and been justified; for to all appearances Michael was beyond him, a lethal stranger only destined to do him harm.  But then what; the police, Joe supposed:  an armed confrontation in the night – Michael, disturbed, angry – scared?  What could happen then?  Courage came, as it always does, from somewhere when it is needed.  Purposefully Joe reached for his brother and gripped the bladed arm, steadying it.  “Mikey; for me, yeah?  Drop the knife.  It’ll be Okay, Mikey, honestly.  We’ll look after you.  Everything’s going to be alright.”

“Okay Mikey.”  They were the only other words Michael said.

#

“I’ve found him.  He’s with me, in the car.”  Joe banged his head against the glass of the ‘phone box.  “God knows why I’m handing him back to you.  I should have gone straight to the police.”

Ian’s reply was calm.  “Joe, you‘re doing the right thing – no police, alright?  He’s our brother, Joe.  We take care of our own.”

“You haven’t seen the state he’s in.  Ian, his clothes are soaked with blood, and it isn’t his.  There’s blood on his face, around his mouth, for Christ’s sake!  I dare not think….”

“Joe!  Joe, it’s alright.  I’m sure it’s alright.  Has he said anything?”

“Just three words.  He doesn’t seem able to talk.  He’s calm now, for the moment, and he’s hungry, but he won’t eat; been living rough for days by the smell of him.  ”

A brief silence at the other end of the line – Ian, thinking.  “Right.  This is what we do.  Take him to the lorry park at Calleston – the new one; do you know it?  It’s not well-known yet, so it won’t be too busy.  Find somewhere – a quiet corner; park up and wait.  Some really good people I have connections with will meet you there – they might be about half an hour after you arrive, but not long.  They’ll get him sorted out and he’ll be back in hospital before morning.  Look, Joe, don’t worry.  Michael’ll be fine – a warm bath and some clean clothes can do wonders, yes?  Now what model of car are you driving?”

“Ian!  He had a knife – a big one.  Have you any idea what he may have done?”

“Candidly?  Have you?  You clearly think he’s been up to something: what – murder?  Did you find him standing over a body?  He’s my brother, Joe, as he is yours; I don’t believe Mikey would hurt anybody, even if you do.  Get back to him and take care of him.  I’ll organise things at this end.  And no police – he’s clearly got enough to cope with without them.  So, what was the make of that car?”

Two hours later, Joseph found himself outside Church Cottages without any notion of how he had arrived there, or what instinct had driven him.  The better part of an hour had been spent waiting, with Michael sitting wordless and inert beside him, in a lorry park for the arrival of a very professionally equipped ambulance.  The two nurses who came to take charge of his brother were caring and gentle with Michael, who, his crisis apparently over, allowed himself to be led like an obedient dog.  The nurses were every bit as concerned for Joseph, aware that he was in the grip of delayed shock and worried that he should contemplate driving in so emotional a state.  There was little they could do, however, and upon Joe’s insistence that he would manage they departed.  Michael sat on the stretcher in the rear of the van, staring fixedly out into the night.   He made no response to Joe’s farewell.  As the ambulance took him away, Joe realised he had forgotten to ask where Michael was being taken.

Now he was here, in front of Tom Peterkin’s door, because Tom was his only friend, and there was nowhere else.  To go home in these bloodied clothes would mean running an impossible gauntlet of questions from Julia and Owen, questions which, in his exhausted state, he could not face.  The shock of this night, the horror of his brother, the sad beauty of Marian’s ghost and Sophie’s last words to him all rotated in his brain and he could not, dare not, spend the next few hours alone.  It was cold and the shivering had begun: someone had to listen; someone had to make sense of it all.  If he had not taken their friendship too far towards destruction, if Tom was still ready to understand, he would be that person:  if Tom was no longer his friend, Joe had no idea to whom he might turn.

His knock echoed in the empty street.  It went unanswered.  The blue front door stared blandly back at him.  He had no notion of how late it was; he had no thought of time.  He waited, knocked again.  At last a light, the shuffling of tired feet:  the sound of a key grating in the lock, a latch turning.

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

 

© 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.

Photo Credit:  Steve Halama on Unsplash

 

 

Tomchik’s Ornithology

Tomchik reaches for his bag, which sits between us on the bench.

“I like it here,” he says.  He produces a thermos flask from within the bag’s khaki canvas depths, and proffers it.

I refuse.  I am meant to refuse, he is hoping I will refuse, “Me, too.”  I acknowledge, as he pours himself a shiny metal cup of tea.  “You’ve gone environmental, then?”

“This metal thing?”  He glances at the thermos, shrugs his shoulders; “Is alright, I guess.”

“Is it biodegradable?”

Tomchik turns his grey eyes on me in that analytical manner of his.  “I don’t know,”  He replies.  “I am.”

The wind sweeps down upon our backs, riffling through the heather and chattering my teeth on its way to more important business in the valley below.  “Sooner rather than later if you stay here,” I tell him.  “Or am I the only one who’s freezing to death?”

“Sometimes it is worth a little bit coldness to enjoy,” He waves expansively over the view before us.  “You see whole village from here.  Is worth it, no?”

I have to admit our situation is ideal.  We are sitting beside a path which cuts along the side of Carter Fell above the churchyard.  We have an unobstructed view of the squat grey roofs clustered three hundred feet below, of the winding snake of water that needs a few rushing miles yet to become the River Wenly, and the narrow road that follows it.  I can identify my home among the roofs, and I can see Tomchik’s too.  We are neighbours, he and I.  In a small village, everyone is a neighbour.

“How long have you lived here, Tomchik?”

“Why you ask me?  I am immigrant, yes?”  He takes a paper package from his bag and unwraps it thoughtfully, exposing sandwiches.  “Cheeses and pickles; you like?”  Again he makes a token offer and I respond with a token refusal.  “Many years.”  He nods, selecting a sandwich and dunking a corner of it in his tea.  “You think I shouldn’t be here, yes?”

The question surprises me.  I have known him for all of those years.  “No, of course I don’t think that.  Are you sensitive about it?  If we have to look at it like that, you’re one very good reason I approve of immigration!”

“Ah.” Tomchik munches solemnly.  There is silence.

I say:  “I can’t imagine the village without you.”

Tomchik points.   “You see the Harry Tulliver’s house?”

“Plainly.”   The cottage where Harry and Jane Tulliver eke out their fairly meagre existence is easy to identify.  “It’s sad to see the weeds, though.  Harry used to be such a gardener!  He doesn’t seem to do much now; I guess he is getting too old.”

“No, no.  Not too old,” Tomchik corrects me.  “You are right to say sad.  I am right to say tired.  Harry is tired man,   That is why he is sad.”

Sometimes Tomchik’s crooked logic leaves me behind.  “Alright then; why tired?”

He allows himself a tolerant sigh, “Tired two ways.  The bay tree is still prospering, you agree?”

I agree.  The tree in Harry’s garden is his pride and joy.

“One way tired.  The goldfinches, they used to nest in this fine bay tree – now is gone.   Two way tired.  Tell me another way you recognise house of Mr and Mrs Tulliver?”

I do not understand him at first.   Of course I recognise the house!  What is Tomchik driving at?  I decide to stoke things up with a little amusement.  “Well, their roof is a slightly different colour.  White polka dots!”

“Bird droppings, yes?”

“Yes,”

“So!  Two ways!  Sparrows!    Sparrows squabbling, mess all over windows, all over back path.  Sparrow fledglings in a row on the fence, squeaking to be fed.  Sparrows nesting – six nests in the bay tree already.”

“So, why the feeders?”  I wave a hand to indicate the three feeders filled with seed that are distributed about Harry’s blessed plot.  “They wouldn’t come if the spoils weren’t so readily available.”

“Exactly!  Mrs Jane, she tells Harry, put them out!  So Harry puts them out, and sparrows come.  Starlings, they come, seagulls, they come.  They eat everything – seed, Harry’s peas, raspberries, strawberries, everything he plant, they eat.  Every time those feeders empty, his wife she puts out more seed.  Those goldfinches, they leave, the bluetits, the chaffinches, the wagtails…”  Tomchik shakes his head,  “all birds Mrs Jane like, are gone.  She thinks she can feed them all, but she just get more sparrows.  Just sparrows.”

“Harry should tell her.  Harry should put his foot down!”

“This I say to him.  I say to him, Harry, you must take back your garden.  He say no, if he tell her she say without her food all sparrows will starve.  She is responsible, she say.  More and more money she spend on food for the birds.  Tullivers, they are not rich.  Harry’s vegetables he grew were food for them.  Now…”  Tomchik shrugs fatalistically, “No vegetables!  Nothing!”

“I don’t understand Jane…”  I begin.

“No-one!”  Tomchik cuts in,  “No-one understand Jane!”

“Have you asked her about it?”

“I do.  I ask her.  You know what she think?  She think without her these birds, they are dead birds.  She likes the pretty birds.”

Tomchik grasps my arm to gain my full attention.  He stares at me.  “You like the pretty Tomchik?  Chirp, chirp!”

 

© 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Fourteen.      Encounter at Slater’s Copse

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.