Horla Fiction (January 2022)

 

THE STRAY SOD

by BILLY STANTON

For D.A. MacManus

 

“Give me your hand! So, keeping close to me,

Shut tight your eyes! Step Forward!

– Where are we?”

 James Stephens

 

He detested the green. He detested the endless, boundless, infinite green, dismal in its magnitude and swept by sea salt-sore wind. He detested the weeping trees and the scents of wet oak and sodden grass that hung to his clothes and his horse’s hair. It was spring, horrible sneaky spring, and not autumn, but the leaves of the forest were so heavy with their heavenly burden that they fell from their branches all the same. However, life was so freshly and richly abundant at this moment that the trees could shed leaves by the thousand, and the vista before Humphrey would never be any barer or in any more danger of revealing what it so devotedly- so viciously- hidden behind the foliage.

His horse was tired. He could feel its steps faltering and its breath beginning to rattle in its ribcage. He could feel its chest and stomach fiercely rising and falling against his legs. He would have to stop soon. The journey home could no longer go uninterrupted.

Humphrey turned his eyes to the sky: a thin grey-blue sheet touched by the palest of light. These were the clouds of a miserable and disillusioned painter’s daydreams, he thought; not the clouds of heaven, as he’d seen in the devotionals, but something more real, less idealistic. They were the clouds of true life, life on earth, a hazy mundane thing that seemed to quench poetry and adventure in favour of monotony. No fervent-eyed saint could kneel and raise his pleading face to this sky and receive blessings of fire and gold; he would instead only slink back to his hovel questioning his faith and cursing the wetness of his knees.

The hawk, Humphrey noted, was still nowhere to be seen. This angered him. Unlike his hounds, he had not given it any signal to race off ahead towards home. He called to it, made motions large enough to be spotted by it in any long-distant glide. But the bird continued to scorn him, and he began to doubt whether it would ever return.

The entire hunt had been a disappointment. Two rabbits, wan and starved things that were as far from proud specimens as possible, hung from his saddle and were joined by nothing larger or more glorious. Indeed, the very presence of these two creatures by his side seemed to be more of a mockery of his ambition and his skill than if he had caught nothing at all. The suggestion cast was that any argument about a current lack of animal life in the forest was but an excuse, a failure of eyesight, knowledge and training. No enchantment had been settled upon the grounds to empty them of their inhabitants or at least send them back to their burrows and dens for an extended winter.

Humphrey thought of his father and felt his jaw set, his teeth grind. The bastard, the fool, the scourge. Humphrey could see him in his favourite chair before the fire, his weak arms resting on the plush cushion, his stomach distended and swollen from his daily exercise in excess. A long time ago, when Humphrey was a child, his tutor had told him tales of old heroes from the years before his family had established itself. He had heard of the great feasts that followed a hard-won victory and he saw now, while thinking on his father, how grotesque the results of those indulgences must have been. He pictured indolent knights, still wearing half their armour, collapsed against walls, snoring and wheezing like pigs, and wrapped up in tapestries that told grand falsehoods about their exploits. There was no romance in such behaviour. No glory. The orgies surely turned strong men into porcine abominations or slumbering dogs, panting as they lost themselves in the winding tower staircases of their lying memories. Useless men. Useless. Fit for nothing now.

What was more, what was worse, was that his father would undoubtedly- undoubtedly- mock him. From his fat lips would tumble the same old stories of the wonderful hunts of his youth, for all that Humphrey was aware that his father had not put on his riding clothes, enquired for a man to carry his banners or fixed a weapon to his side for many a long year now. Whatever Humphrey brought home his father had once brought to the hearth three or four times as much of. The bucks of the old game-keepers had become, somewhere among the retellings, beasts of mythic proportions, with antlers or teeth so large they’d have the sent the devil scurrying back to hell with his tails between his hooves. Hogs had then fed the families of the land- who were gifted Christmas meats in return for their hard work throughout the year in what were supposedly tear-provoking displays of Christian charity- almost from one winter to another. The wolves had slunk from between the hazels and the ashes and been dispatched as easily as if they carried the threat of a house sparrow.

Humphrey spat on the ground. Two rabbits. Two rabbits only. He’d be hearing about it for months to come. It would sustain his father better than any slop of ale or wine, any trimming of meat with all the fat left on. He took his sword from his side and flung it into the green. The ground was so thick and spongy that it made no sound as it disappeared within the bunches of ragwort. Humphrey cursed his time. He cursed the green. He cursed his father. He started in a whisper but ended with his voice and throat hoarse. He came close to cursing God loudly enough that He’d be able to hear him. Everything around Humphrey seemed like a bitter twist, a monochromatic mockery, for surely- surely- there had never been another age so dead, so lifeless, so devoid of interest or activity; so possessed of fools, idiotic plotters, men of idle boasts and tiny wisdom, with their eyes shaded by their own mental and physical decrepitude. The great ones (if they were ever truly great) like his father persisted; they kept a bony and unfortunate grasp on life with their skeletal fingers and led the rest of the world into the same inertia that was their comfort in what seemed set to be, sadly and tormentingly, centuries-long retirements.

And it was then that everything around him seemed not just dull, but full of malignancy and malice.

The peasants had pierced snails on the sharpest blades of the thorns and left them there to wither, as was their wont when suffering from some illness or other. The tangled drooping branches of the alder trees formed nooses, suspended above the arrow-straight track, and the mistletoe shrubs and blossoms of meadowsweet, cow parsley and wood anemone sighed hexes and recriminations. He saw this landscape, then, as not his own but as a landscape belonging to the living corpses that were his elders. It was formed and shaped by them, it belonged to them as much as their bodies did, and each spring bought buds that were simply festering boils and blisters upon a stretched and decaying skin.

It was while his mind was turned to such dismal thoughts that Humphrey first heard the music of the other place. The Middle Kingdom, spoken of in hush by his same old tutor, was coming to him on the wind, although he did not yet know it. The tune was weak at first as if formed from dying breaths filtered through the most primitive and least powerful of pipe instruments. But it soon rose in strength and piquancy; the melody became almost too sweet for words, too pregnant with feeling, too suggestive of half-formed childhood images and long-forgotten things to be withstood. It was like no tune he knew; it bore no resemblance to the chesty and drunken roars familiar from his fellow hunters, the pomp and valour of the court musicians, or even the pitiful and wistful warbling of the peasant’s ballads. There was nothing here, either, of the church musics that had once moved him so deeply on his early trips to the cold stone whitewash of the chapel.

Humphrey looked around for the source of this divine air but saw no one and nothing but the wood. The best he could tell was that the sound was trickling down from the top of a yew beside the road. It continued and his face became wet. The tears were not falling hard, but they dribbled so consistently that they began to rest in every slight ravine, every trace of a pockmark, every lightly-formed wrinkle on his face.

Then the tune moved. It came from beside and below the horse. The mysterious musician was now so close that he could hear each breath, each note, ever-so-slightly vibrating the thin wood of the flute. He was about to turn his head when the tune stopped, and a voice spoke from his side. It was a boyish voice but altered in some way, submerged as if coming from the bottom of a stream or the thickest tangle of thorn.

“You should not look. You have other things to see than me. If you try, I’ll be gone.”

The air was struck up again. Humphrey’s pride smarted; who was this little mop to command him? Did he not know who he was? Humphrey may not like his father, but he could still call upon his revered name, wrapped in its legends, to summon half-believed but wholly feared red-skied nightmares of tortures and barbarities; and visions of maggot-ridden wounds left to fester in dark prayer-less solitude.

But as the insult faded, another notion came upon him at last. He had the fear he thought the child should have felt then and knew it in full.

“Are you fay?”

No response. No response but the song continuing with even greater strength, soaring and cresting. Mist descended upon his eyes.

“Are you fay?”

Still no answer. The white fog spread from the corners of his vision to cover all before him. He was reminded of spiders-webs, and he saw himself cocooned on the side of some black elm in the forest, awaiting the giant and godless creature that was the master of this siren-sprite. The fog- the web- turned to gold, red, green. The hunter wanted to dive from his mare. He began singing, below his breath for fear of the other-child turning on him, one of the songs that he’d heard drifting across his father’s fields around harvest’s turn when the men took their ploughs to the dismal earth and prepared their offerings with shaking hands. It was a song designed to fortify, but it did not fulfil its function now.

“Are you fay?”

Humphrey managed to ask the question one last time, although he could not tell why he felt the need. The answer was known already. The child belonged to the hills, the mounds, as truly as his hounds belonged to him.

Then the forest was gone. All he saw was the night and no North Star for guidance. No stars at all.

Then- slowly, slowly, the forest returned to him, but its character, its appearance, had definitively changed. It was wilder than he had ever seen it, darker and thicker and full of brambles that tugged at his clothes or ripped the skin of his mount. The track he always followed was also gone, and so was the child. But the tune lingered like a sad memory.

Humphrey looked around him. There were flashes of movement amongst the trees, and he wished he had not been so childish as to throw his sword from him in anger. He took his bow in hand and fingered an arrow. Alas, what he saw next frightened him so that his hand dropped to his side in fear, the projectile no longer seeming like weapon enough for these swift-footed demons.

Beside the road, nestled in flattered beds of grass and shrub, were stone heads. Their faces were cold and impassive, suggestive to him of the sober and terrible judgement of heathen Gods. Some had eyes carved in crudely, while others had but tiny puncture holes where the eyes would be; in either case, the effect was the same, redolent of a blind sight that was far more powerful and beyond the range of his own. The heads possessed their own strange wisdom, and he found it too alien and consuming to stand. They were the idols, the icons, of something and somewhere else, but a somewhere else that hung on the edges of his recognition. He had always felt it- somehow- faintly there, present and ready to come to him when he had stalked the forest in its more familiar state.

Then other faces appeared between the trunks; human faces, but so dirty and tinged with dye that they barely seemed so. These faces also gazed at him, and he gazed back. There was little movement on either side other than the slow ambling forwards of Humphrey’s horse, which had barely seemed to notice the change in surroundings or the injuries it was sustaining as a result. He could not tell if these people were preparing an attack or appearing simply as a welcome, and to provide him with company in his lonely procession. He then knew- instinctually- that what he was travelling through belonged more to these beings than to him; indeed, he felt the ownership of his father and his kind recede further with each step. He could feel the presence of these people’s dead below the ground, and, further, knew that should he ever doubt this, their mouldering remains were ready to rise to the surface to act as final proof of a claim upon the greenwood.

Providence whispered to him that this was a sight of a time many ages before his.

Then the spider-web returned, then the colours and finally the blackness.

When his sight was restored to him, Humphrey dearly wished that it had not been. He was afeared now, more truly than he had been at any moment since the fay has first taken up its piping.

The forest, the green, was gone. Instead, there was a vista so bleak, so cold, and so hard that he felt like weeping again. All was brown and grey, as far to the horizon as his weary eye would turn. The clouds had thickened so substantially that was there no longer any blue to be seen between them, and this change only strengthened the miserable aspect of the scene; the wind-chill of desolation, the starkness of pure anonymity.

He feared this was the world after a scourge. It seemed that his God- or those other Gods represented in the stone icons- had cast a final judgement, or something close to it, and removed from their creation all colour, all life and all activity. Left in their place was a limbo that nourished and supported none of the unfortunates left to wander the mazes as damned and stupefied wraiths.

Facing Humphrey was row after row of sombre and squat squares, shaped like child’s tombs, but with bricks the colour of the dullest clays and almost all identical. He could tell these were dwellings as they had sloping roofs atop, with smokeless and shadowy chimneys, and they were cut with black windows and decorated with wood panels.

Something like lanterns sat upon long greasy grey poles, but no one was around to benefit from the intense luminescence of these captured stars, or to take shelter in their pools of unholy gold. Long, dark things, gleaming slightly in the false-light as if covered by serpent scale, slumbered before the doors of each dwelling, sometimes in multiple, but never awake. They had strange wheels, but it was hard to imagine a man or horse that would find the courage to pull them. He thought of them instead as half-living night-guards, blind wardens, ensuring that whoever was unlucky enough to live within these clay blocks never ventured out and would no longer taste the air that was thick, cloying and suffocating.

In making sense of this brown, brown, brown wasteland, he began to see, clearly and mournfully, that this was no work of God. No supernatural force had wiped away the forest. Everything that now stood was the work of human hands. The understanding hit him like a spear. The hard grey ground sent his horses steps echoing through the valley of Death. He was akin to one making the final lonesome trudge into the maw of the afterlife, forced to hear each movement closer with a perfect ringing clarity that served as an ironic reminder of a life well-wasted at each of its stages. 

Here, the dominance of men like his father, which Humphrey had once read in the detail of his known forest, was inescapable and seemed so much more like a vengeful act against an indentured people held in contempt. Nothing was permitted to remain that hinted at a life force, a reason for being, that could not be contained, seized upon or controlled by a powerful man. The wild forest was gone precisely because it was wild; because moderate cultivation might make some impact upon the rhythms and details of its seasonal lives but would always fail to overwhelm its remote power, its tyrannical concentration upon its own continuation, its own flourishing. So it had been razed entirely. Once it had been needed or so thought, to provide a home to sport, but what was the point of such meagre entertainments when the entire world, and all it contained, could be a complete and total plaything?

The structures he saw before him were dead objects. They had not been built by the people who used them but were constructed and destroyed according to another’s whim, and when they were disposed of, they were not permitted to return unless the guiding hand had decided to put them back from cold-hearted generosity. Their continuance was the decision of their lord; the people stayed inside them, in darkness, because if they left, or made their presence too strongly felt, then the guiding hand may not be stayed. No provocation could be risked.

The false-lanterns stayed lit at all hours. Men were never sent to chop down the poles and extinguish these products of neither sun nor candle because while all could be seen the people could never forget that someone else had made all this. That someone else had given it to them, and that they were allowed to exist within it purely because of largesse or obscure temporary need, and that the same someone could remove it all if they so desired. The warning, the threat, was written into the very materials of the place. It could be read in every angle of every building. It was reflected from the lightless panes of glass. There was no forest or field to turn to for sustenance. The people were forever living in and at mercy.

Humphrey escaped from his thoughts- guided, he felt, by some invisible teacher- and heard again the fairy boy’s tune. He clung to it with the fever of a zealot, the maddest of pilgrims. He breathed great lungfuls of the sticky air, hoping he could ingest the song, let it fill his body with its magic, its power, its promise of another world, another kingdom, one freer than this and possessed of more gentle and fairer sets of rules and rites. But no salvation came. The tune continued, but the world would not or could not change. Somewhere in the distance, a low roar and the sound of mocking angel’s horns never abated.

He began to wish himself amongst the dyed savages of the forest he had seen earlier; he longed to be part of their world, a participant in their submission to the vagaries of nature, not that of old men of worthless words and fabricated doings. To be a part of that distant age seemed at that moment the only realistic way out of his own, as he was denied entry to the Fairy world. He thought of himself liberating those forced to exist within the time he now saw around him, or even his own, through the process of eradicating any potentiality of their future births. It seemed a Christian act to him, the most Christian of all. He imagined himself immortalised in stained-glass memorials that would never be fully comprehended by the blessed and saved people who contemplated them.

His eyes screwed shut with the force of the wanting. Blot it all out. Let it all go. Strike it through with the sword, then let it bleed out and swing the carcasses of the cursed worlds across the saddle. He mimed the motions. He screamed.

Light hit him. He opened his eyes. The forest was there again. The forest he knew. The horse continued on the old familiar track. The boy was at his side again. Humphrey could hear the tune clearer than ever. It had struck upon a new timbre, more lilting and more hopeful. He turned to look at the child. A branch of an ash knocked his hat down over his eyes. He lifted it, pulling himself out of the darkness. The boy was gone as if he had sunk or dove into the very earth beneath their feet. The tune, however, remained. It was trying to tell him something. He heard that something.

Magic would remain. The tune had been there at all times, past, present and future. It was still here with him now. No matter what happened, no matter what the old men did to the world, they could never silence it. It was the one thing they couldn’t reach, the one thing they could not strip the life from, the one thing they could never control. As long as it could be summoned by someone- or arrive of its own accord, to fulfil its secret purpose, like today- there was hope, a beautiful, divine promise of a blessed something else that may one day open up and envelop all before it. The wound of the world had a bandage. There would always be a Middle Kingdom, waiting behind it all.

Rain fell from the perfectly blue and un-blotted sky. The rain was gold-tinted. He rose his face to it. The hawk flew above.

When he down looked again, he saw the horrible sight of before: the grey, the brown, the inhumanity, the harshness. But the clouds had now broken. A window across the way from him was alive with a burning glint of gold; he knew the magic was in this gleam of brilliant sunlight, the last from an orb that set through the coldness of evening and the softness of the rain. He knew it. He breathed it, as he couldn’t before. Church bells rang to him from the distance of his own time, and he sang the tune with them and against them. He thought of his father. Laughter mingled with his song. All was as close to a new Heaven as it was to an old Hell.

 

“Come away, O human child!

  To the waters and the wild

         With a faery, hand in hand,

         For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

                                                                                                                                                                               W.B. Yeats

Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books), an anthology of new writing about post-war urban and suburban planning in Britain. His short poetic-documentary ‘On an Island, Between Two Rivers’, a response to Dennis Potter’s memoirs of the Forest of Dean and a contemporary contemplation of Portsmouth, is set to feature in Birkbeck’s Essay Film Festival next year. His work draws on a uniquely British history of writing that straddles the line between the mystic and the realist.

Title photo credit – Carl Jorgensen via Unsplash

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