Horla Fiction (December 2021)

 

HAWTHORN

by MARK HUMPHRIES

 

I sawed through a fledgling nest.

But it was an accident.

I had been hefting the trimmer up and down the hedgerow, and watching the hawthorn transform. Spotting a missed clump, I had adjusted my grip and returned for a second pass.

That was when it happened.

Wetness splattered my cheeks. I felt something gooey pat my lip. I reached up to the glob dripping onto my chin and withdrew a red splotch.

I inspected the hedge. A bloody grey crown was dangling inside and its flimsy twigs were thinner and stringier than their surrounding branches.

Turning from the shattered nest, I noticed something white and speckled stuck to my finger tip. A shell shard.

Frowning, I peered again at the dripping mess in the hawthorn and spied a furry, wet sponge smaller than a ping pong ball. I pincered the item from a sticky leaf. It had a beak and screaming eyes. Then something bounced off my trainers. Looking down, I spotted the fledgling’s torso flicking berries and leaves around my ankles.

That was when I vomited.

Dropping everything, I stumbled back up the hill to my caravan.

This single event would have far-reaching implications – not only for myself – but for everyone in the field.

*

I inhaled, held smoke in my lungs and the familiar warmth eased over my body. Settling into the battered sofa, I took a gulp from my beer and handed the joint to Ron. He lived in the next caravan.

He coughed and shook his shaggy head. “That’s intense, man. So were any fledglings OK?” He exhaled and passed the spliff back to me.

“Don’t think so, mate. I’ve no idea how many there were in the first place but there was nothing when I went back for my stuff.”

I slouched further into the nicotine-stained cushions and glanced through a misted window.

I could see another neighbour, Ernie. He was staring down at the freshly-cut hedge with a screwdriver in his hand. For a moment, I wondered what he was doing.

“Well, I’ll be off dude. Got some shit to do. Cheers for the smoke.” I glanced back at Ron as he shuffled to the door. “Put it out of your head, man.” He grinned, displaying a mouthful of yellow teeth. “It could happen to anyone with a trimmer.” He rattled the handle and shoved. I watched as he plodded back through the long grass towards his own mobile home.

There were four caravans, including mine, in our field. We had all pitched up, one by one over the years and never left. A long hike from the nearest village, and entrenched on a gentle slope, we enjoyed perfect isolation. Intrepid visitors, or lost hikers, could only reach the site via Ernie’s scrawled ‘Trespassers will be shot’ signs.

Nobody possessed a gun.

The residents were Ernie and Esther at the bottom of the hill, Ron, myself, and Gladys. We weren’t sure but Ron reckoned Gladys was Vietnamese. Her caravan was furthest from mine and slumped next to the main gate at the top of our incline.

I saw Ron nod in Ernie’s direction and disappear inside his mossy mobile home. The old man didn’t turn around. He was still staring at the hawthorns. And still holding the screwdriver.

That was the night of the first disappearance.

*

I awoke to thuds on the door. Bleary, I glanced at my old Casio watch. Eleven AM. Another bang.

“OK, OK. I’m coming.” I yanked on some tracksuit bottoms and padded barefoot towards the noise. Ron’s squashed, breath-shrouded face was at the taped-up kitchen window. “Fucking hell, man. Bit much.”

My neighbour stepped back as I opened the door. He held up his palms in a peace gesture as dewy air settled on my toes and paunch. “Sorry dude. Something’s wrong.” Ron was frowning. I realized I had never seen that expression on his brow before.

I rubbed sleep from my eyes and peered back at him. Then I looked beyond him and knuckled my eyeballs again. This time for a different reason. He nodded and pointed over his shoulder.

The distance between Ernie and Ester’s caravan, and the hedge line, was shorter. Much shorter. From where I stood open-mouthed, the hedgerow seemed to be entering the old couple’s home.

I realized I was shivering. “Eh?” tumbled from my lips.

Ron replied, “It was there when I got up. It goes right up to their door.” I peered back at my neighbour before reverting my stare to the ragged green barrier. It formed a long cordon, or barricade, across Ernie and Esther’s entrance.

I fumbled on some trainers and grabbed a woolly jumper. Together, we hurried down the dewy slope.

*

The hedge height was the same – about two metres – but the whole line had bent inwards from the field corners, forming a huge smile. Or grin. Foliage and twigs pressed along the caravan, blocking out windows and the door. The old couple had chosen to face outwards, away from other residents, so we could approach their curtained windows on the exposed side.

Ron and I glanced at each other, shrugged and I knocked on the panes. We waited. No answer. I rapped a bit louder this time. “You in, Ernie? Esther? Are you OK, love?” No reply. I added, “There’s something wrong with the hedge.”

Silence. Ron pressed his nose up against the glass but spotted nothing through the curtain. He turned back to me. “I think we’ll need to break in, man.”

I nodded and trampled back up the field to retrieve the hedge trimmer.

*

Hawthorn debris kicked and shoved aside, Ron wedged a crowbar into the scraped door jam and popped it open. I flinched as it occurred to me, I knew next to nothing about my neighbour’s past.

I stepped into the dark interior and crunched on a ragged mat of twigs, wet leaves and soil. Crushed berries riddled the sofa and coffee table. I squinted into the gloom. More red splotches and branches dotted the kitchen worktop. A gnarled troll-like clump poked its head from behind a ceiling lamp. Thick hedge clusters led through the caravan to the rear bedroom.

We followed the nature trail.

This time I didn’t knock. Instead, I took a deep breath and pushed. The door scraped open an inch. I glanced at Ron before peeking through the gap.

A mouldy, mulchy scent assaulted my nostrils. A dense thicket met my bulging eyes. Murky foliage and branches pressed outward from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Together, we shouldered the door wider. Berries splattered, leaves slipped and branches snapped. A limb flicked back and whipped my cheek. A leaf stuck to my forehead. I couldn’t see the bed through the dense copse. I called Ernie and Esther’s names but received no response.

As I stepped back, Ron tapped my shoulder. “What’s that, dude?” He pointed a shaking finger at a dull glint on the floor. I squatted and peered through the gap.

It was Ernie’s screwdriver.

*

Gladys stood in her dressing gown and slippers, with hands on hips, and stared down the hill. “So, what now?”

This was the obvious question. Ron and myself flanked her and were also watching the hedgerow. We couldn’t actually see it moving but, while we had searched the surrounding pastures (and hedges) for Ernie and Esther, the hawthorn grin had grown wider. It had shifted around to the side of the old couple’s caravan that faced us.

I mumbled, “What time is it, Mr Wolf?” Ron and Gladys looked at me. “Sorry, did I just say that? Popped into my head.”

The woman beside me glowered. “Let’s hope it’s not dinner time for the hedge then.” Neither Ron nor I had exchanged anything other than cursory ‘hello’s with Gladys since her arrival at our site. And even those had dried up following several blank responses. Ron claimed her parents had fought for the Viet Cong. I just thought she was a moody cow.

Ron offered, “Call the cops?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Cops? This isn’t LA, dude. And tell them what? The hedge has kidnapped or eaten an elderly couple in our field?” I gestured towards my caravan. “I’ve got my crop back there anyway. They’ll blame it on the wacky.” I had another thought. “And they’d probably nick my stash.” I shook my head. “Not worth it, mate.”

Gladys shook her head in disapproval but Ron nodded. “Fair point, man.”

We didn’t have phones anyway.

From nowhere a wind gust buffeted our backs and rushed downhill. The hawthorn appeared to rear up like a furious stag in retaliation. I farted and grabbed Gladys. She didn’t budge. Then the hedgerow seemed to settle once more. She huffed, muttered something under her breath and shrugged me off.

A simple idea entered my head. But I reasoned that sometimes the most basic ones are the best. “Let’s cut the fucker down.”

Gladys shook her head but Ron nodded.

*

That night, we shared a couple of joints in my caravan and discussed the hawthorn attack. Ron thought it might be something to do with the Russians, or North Koreans, but his theory crumbled with two unanswerable questions, “Why us? And why now?”

Ron leaned back, scratched his shaggy mane and stubbed out the reefer. “I’m wiped out, man.” We would have preferred to stay at Gladys’s place, further upfield and away from the now decimated hedge, but one stoney glare at my suggestion had ended that one. So my caravan was the next best alternative.

Every muscle ached and cuts zigzagged our arms and faces. Ron with a saw, myself with the trimmer and Gladys with an axe, had spent the remaining day, hacking and chopping at the hawthorn. We had cut away and dug up the roots as much as possible along the entire hedge line, linking the bottom field corners. In its place, there was a ragged U-shaped ditch reaching up and around Ernie and Esther’s caravan.

As a final precaution, Ron had suggested burning the uprooted hedgerow. I had agreed and headed back to my caravan for petrol. Gladys had maintained her taciturn silence throughout, what Ron named, ‘Operation Hedgekill’. Later, we watched the bonfire blaze while our neighbour stalked back uphill to her home next to the gate. Ron wanted to say a few words for Ernie and Esther but we didn’t know for sure they were dead. And we knew nothing more than their names.

By the main gate, Gladys performed her bedtime ritual as she had every night since the accident. She kissed her daughter’s bedside photo and blew out the candle. There was one notable addition. Her axe lay beside her on the sheets.

Further downslope, I stumbled into bed, and Ron passed out where he was sitting on my sofa. I think we both assumed that was the end of it.

We were wrong.

*

Feathers tickle my ear. The sensation soothes. A small beak nibbles my nose. I giggle. The thing is warm and soft. Tiny claws should scratch but they stroke. There is a gentle tap tap tapping. I open my eyes and see it bouncing up my chest. A fledgling head. Red droplets trail behind. Each little leap leaves more spots and, every time it lands, there is a squishy pat and smudge left in its wake.

To my left, the fledgling’s joyful torso sprays feathers and blood jets as it dances up and down my arm. I think I hear merry-go-round music.

That was the moment a thorny twig jabbed inside my ear and I screamed out of sleep.

Instinctive, I wrenched and snapped the limb. I scrunched up and scrambled backwards to my headboard, but I couldn’t move my right leg. In the gloom, sinewy branches scraped and wrapped around my ankle, scratching towards my thigh. I yanked hard and tore at the barbs. My bedroom was dense with hawthorn. Tiny berries dotted the space like blisters in the dark. Wet leaves and dense thickets clogged the area leading to my bed.

I yelled, snapped more branches and snatched my leg free. Desperate, I lunged for the window along my bedroom wall but landed in the hedge. Drowning in terror, I felt its sour breath on my cheek. I twisted and wriggled, but thorns cut deeper.

Then there was a mighty smash and glass showered onto my scalp and back. I heard a shout, “Hold still!” Something whooshed past my head. Splinters, berries and leaves peppered my face. Another swish and I spied a metallic object. Then I was free and dashing through the window frame.

I thudded onto the muddy grass and rolled over.

Above me, teetering on a plastic stool in a nightie, Gladys was swinging her axe back and forth through the gap.

I scrambled to my feet as she stepped down. Hair stuck to her face, hands on hips, she bent over to regain her breath and dropped the weapon.

In the freezing night, I asked one question, “Ron?”

Lifting her head, she replied with one word, “Gone.”

*

These events occurred over seven months ago. I think I have written them down for myself – to make sense of the madness. Or maybe for Ron, Ernie and Esther’s loved ones – if they ever venture here and need answers.

We still live in the field and Gladys’s caravan is still next to the main gate. After that terrible night, I stayed with her for a brief time. Gladys allowed me to sleep on her floor but we took shifts sitting by the window. We reasoned that both attacks had happened while people were asleep so, if one of us stayed awake to guard the hedge, we might be OK. We kept watch for over a week and the hawthorn only moved during the day, and only by a little, when neither of us were observing.

We cut the hedgerow back if we feel it has advanced too close during the day time. On the whole, our system works. As long as we stick to our rota, and one of us monitors at night, we’re safe. Needless to say, I have knocked the smoking on the head. It’s not conducive to alertness if you know what I mean.

I am back in my own caravan but I have moved it closer to Gladys’s. It took a whole day to clear the rotting hawthorn from my home but, together we managed. There was no sign of Ron inside.

The hedgerow also ploughed through his place on its way to mine that night. We removed the wood, leaves and berries from his old caravan too. Maybe, that’s all the memorial he needs.

I will put down my pen and paper now, and prepare a strong coffee. It is Gladys’s turn to sleep.

The trimmer lies at my feet.

 

 


***

Mark Humphries has a BA Honours degree in English from the University of Sheffield, England, and lives in Leeds, where he teaches ESOL. He has also written a speculative novel.

Title photo credit –  Jill Dimond on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction