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The Black Orchard

June 11, 2016

onehundredandfortyfour

I

They called it the Black Orchard. By map it was Barrow’s Green, but the people who lived in the village of Adderley Holt had no use for maps, for there or anywhere, so they knew it as the Black Orchard. I had lived my life in Dundale, the nearest town to the village and the, aforementioned, orchard that lay on the village outskirts. I had never visited. I had no cause to. In fact, I struggled to imagine a cause for anyone to visit Adderley Holt. Once, it had been the home to a prosperous mill and, indeed, my own Grandfather had formerly worked there. It was the curious tales that he used to tell me of the village, its inhabitants and the Black Orchard that, in time, drew me to into the proximity of all three.

I have often considered for what reason he shared these stories with me, given the stern warnings to skirt Adderley Holt where necessary and to never, ever set foot in the Black Orchard that accompanied them. Perhaps he never considered the enticement to err that taboo bestows on any article, though he was no man’s fool. I can only imagine, for his absence, that he recognized, ignored and subsequently prayed against any seed sowed blossoming and spoke freely. I expect the need to unburden himself of these tales caused him to gamble on this. I can hardly hold him to account, for I am about to play the same hand. I relay the following with a proviso; If you ever come upon Adderley Holt or the Black Orchard (though it will be distinguished as Barrow’s Green) on a map, burn it.

A small chapel lay behind the orchard and the day that it burnt down was the last time my Grandfather ever went near that cursed grove or Adderley Holt. He never returned to the mill and, for some weeks, my father and his sisters were fed on bread and water whilst my Grandfather sought new employment.  This is the way that he told it to me.

It was summer. A dry, raw summer. The walk to the mill was several miles and, even though he left in the early hours, the sun still scorched him and a limp, morning breeze offered no respite. The relentless heat made dusty pits of the streams and hay of the fields that he passed each day as he headed to his day’s work. On that final day the clear, blue sky bore a sun so hot it could burn a naked, outstretched hand. My grandfather trudged to the mill amidst a chorus of crickets as the earth seemed to crack and writhe under the yoke of the fiery air. As he passed the Black Orchard he took off his cap to cover his nose and mouth.

The orchard was not large, it took up around an acre and was separated from the road that my Grandfather walked by a dry stone wall in which a lychgate allowed entrance. A path led from the gate up to the chapel with the orchard to the right and a copse to the left. The orchard, the chapel and that copse were the centre of much of the strange talk that was whispered about Adderley Holt and its denizens, for in my Grandfather’s day it was still spoken of, albeit in whispers.

The Black Orchard was a favorite mystery for many. It was the most bountiful orchard for miles and miles around. The boughs of its great trees groaned with the weight of the fruit they bore. But it was never harvested. The fruit shriveled and starved on the branch and then fell to rot. Whole crops of it. No-one was ever seen to tend or keep it. The people of Adderley Holt thronged the chapel each Sunday but passed by the stunning orchard and its bounty without a second glance. So the fruit rained to the ground and melted in the sun, coating the earth with a thick carpet of sweet, dark pitch. It was this cloying, suffocating smell that caused my Grandfather to cover his mouth and squint his eyes as he passed on that dog day in the depths of summer.

The wheel of the mill was turned by a river that ran through Adderley Holt. Glistening in the sun and flowing as nimble and easy as quicksilver, it seemed to belong to another world than that of the stifled, brittle countryside around it. Most of the men who worked there were from Dundale or the other outlying villages. My Grandfather’s job was as a joiner and mechanic.

He was working on this or that within the mill when he heard the men’s shouts coming from outside. It was a powder mill, a dangerous business, and the men were on edge, always. He started to rush outside and caught the faint scent of smoke on the hot air. He saw the men staring into the distance. He followed their gaze. On the horizon huge clouds of smoke were rising into the perfect blue sky. Someone said quietly;

“It’s coming from the Black Orchard”.

And so the men set out towards it with buckets of water, rope and whatever tools they might conceivably need to set right whatever would remain upon their arrival.

 

II

The fire was not in the Black Orchard. It was the chapel. The men from the mill, my Grandfather among them, walked past the orchard and up the small hill towards where it burned. The dry, torrid air was now a blistering atmosphere, suffused with smoke. The men shielded their eyes as they drew near. Even at a distance it became pathetically apparent that there was no salvageable element to which their efforts might be applied. They came near to the chapel with nothing to offer but their witness. But there was no need. The people of Adderley Holt were already there, stood, in the most orderly congregation, watching their chapel burn to the ground. The sound of the men’s approach, masked by the loud cracking of timbers in the inferno and tumbling of unsettled stone, did not alert the villagers. Men, women and children, all, stood and watched the destruction in an, almost reverential, silence.

The men, unsettled, stopped in their tracks. Even at that distance, just short of the inhabitants of Adderley Holt and shielded by the throng, the heat was insufferable. The men dropped their tools and leaned away from a heat that began to blister the skin. My Grandfather stepped forward and started to try and pull the onlookers back. Hesitantly, others joined him. The men and women were stuporous, mesmerized by the roaring fire that swallowed the chapel. They would be pulled away from the vanguard of heat but slowly, insensibly, move back towards it and the crowd. My Grandfather took someone by the shoulders and turned the man to face him. The man’s face was smeared in a layer of soot and ash, the skin that could be seen was starting to peel. His eyes were red and weeping but, my Grandfather told me, glowed with a luster and reverence that made him step away. The man turned back to watch the immolation of the chapel. My Grandfather recognized the man, he was the village priest.

The men from the mill stood back, bewildered and, though no man would admit it, afraid. The crowd continued to observe their sinister vigil. One of the children, overcome by the billows of black smoke that rolled in waves across the crowd, fell to the floor, as if shot. No one in the senseless throng so much as turned to look. It fell to one of the men from the mill, cursing the ignorance and inaction of the denizens of Adderley Holt, to push himself amongst their midst and drag the child from danger. As he laid the girl on the grass and began to unbutton the blouse about her throat to allow her breath there was a cacophonous banging from within the immolated chapel.

The crowd seemed to stiffen and my Grandfather and the other men from the mill watched, warily, above the heads of the crowd. The door to the chapel started to shake and buckle outwards at intervals, spraying sparks and spewing vapour as it did. Something was hammering at it from within. The air shimmered with the combined heat of the merciless summer sun and the roaring fire. One of the hinges of the broad wooden door broke away from its housing with a crack like a gun let off in response to another assault from within. And then the banging stopped. The girl who had collapsed was breathing again and, the man who had pulled her free, picked her up from the grass and cradled her in his arms.

The doors of the chapel were flung wide with a bang and a wave of scalding air, released, rushed over the crowd. The doorway was filled with black smoke. Suffused with amber light from the inferno behind, it appeared like a coal on a fire. From this eery nebula emerged, engulfed in flames and announced by a stomach churning bellow, a gargantuan stag. The beast howled as it reared before the crowd, who remained in rank and file, unperturbed, and as dumb as before. It’s hooves beat a tattoo that sounded like gunfire as they clacked on the paving. My Grandfather and the other men from the mill backed away. The man with the child in his arms ran to a safe distance. The creature was entirely immolated and thrashed wildly, kicking out behind it. Its antlers traced great whooshing paths of flame in the air as it swung its neck. The people of Adderley Holt seemed entirely unawed by this huge creature bursting, alight, from their ruined place of worship and dying on its steps, nor the danger it posed in its violent death throes. Still immobile they watched the animal rear on its hind legs, towering over the crowd. Its hooves beat at the air, smoke poured from its mouth It emitted a mighty groan,collapsed backwards and lay twitching on the ground.

As the stag let out its death rattle and the carcass settled to burn, the crowd began to disperse. A mother, her face smeared with soot and her hair singed, without compunction or thanks, recovered her child from the arms of the man who had saved it. The priest walked away from the smouldering husk of his church with the same stoicism as his congregation. My Grandfather watched on in, equally silent, wonder at the throng as they marched on beneath the bare sun, past the Black Orchard and out through the lychgate. He looked at his companions and found them no more able to speak on what they had seen than himself.

He told me this tale on a number of occasions The details never changed. For this reason, amongst others, I never doubted the fanciful story. My Grandfather never went back to the mill. Many of the men did. Though, within the year, one by one, they had all left until it became impossible to sufficiently man it. The mill was closed and the one link between the strange borough of Adderley Holt and the outside world was severed.

III

He told me these stories when I was a child and in time, I forgot them. Though, on reflection, I think buried is better than forgot. Because the things that scare us in childhood, we never really forget, do we? We bury them, as deep as they will go, so that we can grow up and replace them with new, more adult, fears. But they are the fears with the deepest roots, the richest soil on which to nourish themselves and they are not forgotten at all, they only lurk, feed and sometimes, given their cue, they bloom.  

My Grandfather had passed away and his son, my father, was an old man himself. I had a family, and sons, of my own. We still lived in Dundale. One day, the house next to ours caught on fire. A neglected chimney stack, a seldom used fireplace and a newly employed and naive servant. None of our neighbours survived. We were visiting relatives and returned to our home that had, in turn, caught ablaze but, by providence, still had air in our lungs to gasp.

Working within the industry of insurance myself, plans to rebuild were underway with little delay. Whilst the construction was in progress my family and I were offered temporary residence in a small cottage outside of the town. The cottage sat on the brow of a hill that overlooked Dundale to one side and Adderley Holt to the other. Providence giveth naught without provision.

I was overseeing the reconstruction of our home having been granted a sabbatical from work to do so. Much of my time was spent in Dundale, tending to matters of planning and procedure, but I was left idle in that cottage often. I would sit by the window staring across the expanse of fields towards where the Black Orchard lay, beginning to remember the tales my Grandfather had told and recalling the images my mind had set to the words. There was a curiosity to match these images to reality that I tried to ignore and diminish.

It was summer and the air was warm and carried scents sluggishly on eddying breezes. The acid smell of damp wood and cinders stuck in my senses long after I had returned to the cottage from the remains of our townhouse but, still, sitting at that window, I sometimes perceived the stench of apples, putrefied and sickly sweet, coming in on the weak currents of air.

I began to take walks that brought me into and through the fields around Adderley Holt. In time, I began to walk the impoverished roads and byways of Adderley Holt itself. The village was actually little more than a sparse congregation of homes and tiny plots of land scattered about. I sometimes neither saw nor heard a living soul on these sojourns  No two houses were conjoined and the place was a like a series of hopeless little islands floating in an aether.

When I came upon its residents I was often met with bizarre pictures of behaviour and scenes that I carried home with me and took to bed. A roughly shaven man bringing a chicken from its coop, pulling out a butchering knife and hacking its head from its body. Thin streams of thick, dark blood gushed forth to splatter in the dirt but the body, assumed by me to be the family’s meal, was tossed unceremoniously to the ground and the man walked back into his cottage. A child sitting in a window playing with, what I perceived to be, some doll of rags and straw, but as she caught my watching eyes and held the thing towards me with a smile and raised eyebrows, turned out to be the skeleton of some rodent, adorned with feathers and twigs.  The child jiggled their macabre fetish at me and I walked on apace with the tinkling of small bones echoing in my ears.

Whether the increasingly chilling acts I witnessed drove me through fear or drew me through curiosity towards the Black Orchard, I cannot say. But, one day, in the height of that restless summer, I found myself passing through the lychgate and the shadows cast by the boughs of the trees in the copse, and onto the roughly paved way my grandfather had last walked sixty years ago.

 

IV

The sun lay down a brutal heat on any who gathered too long under its gaze and I veered to the left and followed a gap in the wall of trees and shrub and into the copse. The smell of dusty earth mingled here with the putrid smell of the rotten fruit in the orchard. The great overhanging branches, thick with waxy green leaves, allowed only the thinnest shards of light in and the air was cool and still. The stillness extended throughout the copse, sheltered here from the light breeze outside, the branches, bushes and woodland flowers did not stir. I spent some time there, at peace, wandering slowly from tree trunk to shrub and back, studying their myriad and fascinating forms, trying to recall or recognize their names. This peace was temporary for, as I ambled about the copse, a growing perception that I was being watched overcame me. Moreover, that this observance was not some benign or, even, fearful gaze, that of a frightened animal warily studying an unknown and, potentially harmful, presence in its habitat. This feeling had an indescribably malign quality, a weight that raised the hackles on my arms.

I began to walk towards the gap in the undergrowth which had allowed me ingress to the copse, slowly and purposefully. As I grew nearer, my pace quickened, as did the beating of my fluttering heart. The sense of being watched, being preyed upon, seemed to press at my back, driving me towards a manic break for the trees. My heart pumped my body with adrenaline to flee, whilst my reason bid me caution and consideration. My skin prickled with the heat and tension the conflict between these two notions created. Drawing nearer I saw a blade of light fall through the gap in the bushes and, tantalized by this glimpse of freedom, burst forth into a sprint. The sweat running down my back and my feet disturbing clouds of dust, I sprung from the shadow of the copse and into the blazing sun.

The relief was intense but short lived. I felt foolish. I turned round and peered through the gap in the brush from which I had emerged. There was nothing. No snarling beast or ravenous predator. Of course there wasn’t. Just the stillness of the trees and the thin slats of light. I took a step back inside and gazed around. Of course, there was nothing. I stepped back out into the sun. But still, some vague unease gnawed at me. The scent of rotten apples on the breeze. I gazed across the path into the Black Orchard. The branches were heavy with the shrivelling fruit and yet the ground was still blanketed with mulch from where much of it had fallen to decay in the sun. I pondered what it was about the bountiful fruit that prevented it from being touched by the villagers of Adderley Holt? They were not a prosperous people, few worked and even fewer farmed. What kept them from pursuing the abundant food on their doorsteps?

I was lost so far in this reverie that I only noticed the crowd once they were nearly upon the entrance to the orchard. There were around 70 to 80 of them. This number would constitute the majority of Adderley Holt’s population and, indeed, men, women and children alike made up the procession. I could only see so much of them above the dry stone wall that surrounded the orchard but they seemed to be moving at a languid pace. I froze. This was a group of persons among whose midst I had, of late, regularly and quite indiscreetly been wandering and yet the idea that I should stand to meet them or try to pass them as I exited excited a singular terror in me. My mind set about wild and morbid fancies, I imagined the reactions my discovery, my trespass, would incite. Ideas without grounding or logic but ferocious and terrifying in their possibility.

Insensible from an unaccountable fear, I fled up the path in the direction of the chapel. Halfway to my destination, the blood pounding in my ears, I stumbled and fell on the uneven paving. Turning, I saw the crowd begin to filter in through the lychgate. I scrambled to my feet to try to run and fell again, twisting my ankle. I pulled myself up and, half running, half hobbling, made my way up to the chapel.

The guts of the building still stood, after all those years, like the skeleton of a Black God. I looked up at its charred timbers and tarnished stone against a brilliant blue sky. The acrid smell of smoke was still within all of its materials and was released by the heat of the sun. The great oak doors hung wide, buckled and patterned with thick clods of moss. I looked back at the path I had followed. Momentarily, the crowd would be rounding the slight corner and heading up towards the chapel. There seemed no other reason for their congregation and silent march. My thoughts still roiled with grim prophecies regarding how this stern crowd would react to my discovery and, without reason, without forethought, I stepped through the doors into the cool, stale air of the chapel.

 

V

I hid myself away in a small alcove away from the nave. I wrapped my arms around me. Though the devastated roof allowed ample sunlight in, the great stone slabs that constituted its floor seemed to retain none of this heat and the place was as chill as a sepulchre. I stood as still as I could, trying to simultaneously keep my balance and the weight off of my injured ankle which had begun to throb agonizingly. My breathing was heavy and I tried to slow and calm it whilst I awaited the ingress of the silent mob. I was starting to become consciously aware of what a costly mistake I may have made by hiding in the chapel instead of trying to make my way over the wall behind it and into the woods and fields beyond. I was starting to question just what had caused me to commit such a foolish act. My skin was starting to crawl. I heard the first set of footsteps fall on the floor of the chapel.

Like cattle, the congregation flooded into the church and took their places in the nave. They stared forward, in silence, at what remained of the high altar. This silence terrified me. Both it’s portent and the demands it made of me to match it. My lungs were screaming for air and I could barely satisfy them with the short, tight little breaths I was reduced to drawing. There was a vague stirring amongst the seated men and women. I heard fresh footsteps fall on the paving at the doorway. Footsteps and an odd braying noise that I could not place. Looking out from the shadows I saw two men dragging a squirming, squealing fawn in through the open door. None of the congregation turned to observe the source of these pitiful noises and sounds of struggle. The men hauled the terrified animal down the aisle. I noticed that one of the men was the man who I had seen slitting the throat of the chicken in his backyard.

 

As they had the creature around halfway to the altar another set of footsteps fell on the paving at the door. A slender man with strange, large eyes appeared. Dressed in tattered robes, and carrying himself with the air of a man who knows that voices have been held for his arrival, he marched down the aisle. His appearance produced the first reactions in the crowd. As he passed each row the men and women seated there would lean forwards, bowing their heads. The men who had wrangled the deer up to the altar waited for him there. As he arrived in front of them, they too, bowed low to him. He took up his place at the scorched and ruined altar and muttered a single guttural word that I did not understand. In response to this, the crowd all raised their heads.

“Brothers and sisters, I see our flock is thinned. What is become of those not amongst us on this most hallowed day?”

The man’s voice was reedy and unpleasant. As if, in an attempt to convey more import than he truly carried, it was being pushed beyond it’s natural limit of volume and power. The congregation did not reply. The man’s eyes flicked all about the crowd of faces. He shrieked;

“Speak! Someone speak of them!”

There was still no response. The fawn, startled by the piercing cry, started to struggle and low in the men’s arms. One of them took it about its neck and forced it, violently, to a prone position wherein it stopped its calling . The man in the robes looked at this and looked back at the crowd with a sneer.

“Now!”

Someone in the congregation got slowly to their feet.

“Yes, child?”

“It was the Balmers. We knocked on their door. They hid. It is their daughter, you see…”

The man in the robes closed his eyes.

“I see. I know the poor child. And what became of them?”

The man who had stood to answer took his seat again and sat with his head bowed. After some time, the man in the robes opened his eyes.

“And so, we that remain, remain. And will suffer til we fall, as we must, and were born to do”.

Here he intoned some other strange word and the crowd echoed it back in a chilling drone.

“The fruit has grown withered on the tree. It drops, and the Earth collects it harvest. He collects his harvest. He, who has starved for one more year that we might learn from one more year; to yield, to cling, to know sorrow and toil, to enact our wasteful existence. He, who feeds on the fetid soil, will gorge himself on the flesh of the willing”.

Here the crowd uttered some other chant in response. The man in the robes motioned to the two men who were holding the fawn. The man whom I had seen in the yard slaughtering the fowl now pulled a huge knife from his belt. The other man pulled the animal to its knees. In one swift motion, the first man pulled back the fawn’s neck and sheared its throat. The blood burst from the wound in a black gout. The man in the robes held a bowl under the flow of gore.

Terrified, I looked out on the ghoulish happenings from the alcove where I was hiding. My ankle throbbed and agonized me terribly. The awful stench of dust and carbonized wood from the chapel was threatening to overcome me. I was growing lightheaded. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again.

On the altar, the man in the robes had filled the bowl with the creatures blood. It slopped over the rim and spattered on the cold stone floor. He called out to the congregation;

“Wanderers in the desert of existence, come forth. Drink of the child. He Who Steps in the Grove has given us all things and will allow us to suffer long, if we are worthy”.

The congregation got to their feet and, with the exception of the children, began to form a line in the aisle. The man in the robes was scanning the crowd. His eyes settled on a young girl who remained seated.

“You, child. Come forth”.

The girl looked to the aisle where, I assumed, her parents stood. No-one turned or looked. She shyly bowed her head and began walking round the arcade and up to the altar. She stopped near where the dead fawn lay and looked down at it. Blood still oozed from its neck. The man in the robes beckoned her to him and she walked, very slowly, up to him. He delicately placed a thin hand on her cheek and turned her face this way and that. With slender, spindly fingers he lifted her chin up so that she was looking him in the face. He put his hand across her mouth and, with the other, reached under her skirts and slid it inside her underwear. The girl did not move. A narrow smile appeared on his face. He removed his hands from her.

“You may take your place amongst the other witnesses, child”.

He picked up the bowl of blood and beckoned the first in line towards him. With both hands he lifted the bowl to the man’s lips and let him sip the vile offering. The man sipped, bowed and went around the arcade to the back of the line whilst the next in line stepped forward. Again and again I watched these queer worshippers take their place at the altar and partake of the twisted eucharist. My stomach turned and I began to wonder however I would escape this nightmare into which I had willingly plunged.

 

VI

In time a young woman stepped up to the altar and stood before the sly, silent priest. He held the bowl to her lips and she went to drink. As the blood hit the back of her throat she choked, coughed and spat the liquid in a fine spray through pursed lips. The crimson mist was still in the air as the two members of the congregation immediately behind her stepped forward and firmly placed their hands round her upper arms. The man in the robes motioned towards the two men who had slit the the throat of the fawn and one of them brought a small, leather pouch from inside his shirt. He stepped forward and sprinkled a powder into what remained of the blood in the bowl. The young woman was trembling slightly and was now surrounded by the other worshippers who were reaching out towards her in a desperate attempt to touch her. She was brought to the priest, who spoke;

He has chosen his tribute by the act of bleeding. He will release the restless from under the yoke of birth and life and death, eternal. He will walk from the grove and give sleep to the weary”.

He held the bowl back to the young woman’s lips. A small, whimpering cry echoed through the ruined chapel. Someone in the crowd grabbed a fistful of her hair and pulled her head back by it. The bowl was forced to her open mouth. The blood ran down her face and stained her dress. When the bowl was empty, the man in the robes held it aloft.

“Thus, he has bled through his child the power to lay still and tear not at one’s skin and hair and teeth in an offering to annihilation. His blood is nothing and through it we become nothing”.

The young woman started to slip to the ground as whatever ingredient the powder contained took hold. Her body appeared again from beneath the crowded figures as it was held aloft. The crowd began to convey it towards the door. Her head lolled to one side. As she came level with where I was hiding, our eyes met. I realized, then, that she was not dead, but merely paralyzed, for her eyes still moved in her head. As they pierced the shadows and met mine they opened wide and her lips flickered. And then she was carried away.

The crowd had filed out of the chapel and were followed by the priest and the men who had slaughtered the fawn. The animal’s corpse lay abandoned on the altar, it’s eyes wide and glistening, seeping blood on the flagstones. I stepped out of the alcove, trying to keep the weight from my injured ankle. There was dead silence. I faintly smelled the sickly odour of the fruit from the Black Orchard wafting in through the open door. I stepped out into the sun.

At the bottom of the slight hill on which the chapel stood, just off from the path, were two ancient grave slabs. Priests or men of the parish, perhaps, the words impressed in the stone were far too wasted to tell. The area was surrounded by a low, stone wall and here I hid myself. I could see the congregation in the orchard. Roughly in the middle of it stood a great, towering oak and around it they all stood. The air was warm and still and their voices carried across the field.

The young woman was laid on the grass. Two of the crowd were fetching tools form a burlap sack. The lithe and sinister priest was observing all this from a distance. One of the men pulled a shovel from the sack and handed it to another man who was rolling back his shirtsleeves. It became awfully apparent what was about to occur. As the men began to dig, the priest cleared his throat and the crowd turned to face him.

“Chosen by the blood that springs from the Earth, our child will nourish that Earth in kind. Will feed the tree that bears the fruit that feeds him, that we may multiply, too, and know despair. Let us pray”.

The crowd turned to watch the men work at the field of black, sweet ichor that carpeted the ground. The disturbed earth breathed the smell of soil and sweet putrefaction into the air. All watched on, in silence. Once the grave was prepared, the men put down their tools and lifted the body. The hold of whatever poison the tainted blood had introduced into the young woman was starting to weaken and her limbs were beginning to twitch. She emitted small moans as they moved the body towards the gaping hole in the ground. A woman stepped forward from the crowd. She walked up to the young woman and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. A stifled and plaintive wail came from the body. The men lowered the young woman into the earth and picked up their tools.

I turned my head, for I could not watch. I heard the shovelfuls of earth being heaped on the body and each thud of falling soil was like a hammer blow to the chest. The thought of lying there, paralyzed and terrified, gazing at the gently shaking boughs above as the thick, sludge of earth and rotten mulch was rained down, drew beads of cold sweat all over my body. I looked again as the earth was being patted flat. The priest, his arms raised to an indifferent heaven, screamed forth;

“Beginning and end, an illusion, neither love nor hate. Our child is fed to the void. We do not exist. He Who Steps in the Grove, the eater of Gods, show us Sin and Death, consumed”.

VII

It began as the sound of a few snapping branches. The noise came from the copse. The priest and congregation turned to face the direction of the noise and I followed their gaze. The tall trees were beginning to sway, though there was no more than a light breeze. The sound of branches snapping became the sound of some of the smaller trees falling and smashing on the ground. Of tree trunks bursting as some incredible pressure broke them in two. The whole copse seemed to shake as whatever violence was being done within it intensified. And then, the sound that sunk my stomach and, with all caution abandoned, drove me to flee, hobbling, in plain sight, past the worshippers.

It was the bellow of some gargantuan animal. It was growing ever nearer. I don’t believe any of the denizens of Adderley Holt that were gathered there that day saw me; stumbling in terror as I headed for the lychgate. They were enraptured by what was happening in the copse. They gazed on it with a joy that matched my horror, for I too glanced and saw it beginning to emerge from the trees and brush, if only for a moment.

The parts I saw were covered with moss and lychen. The tyrannical size of it was hinted at in the size of the protrusions atop its head. Its eyes, as black and deep as infinite space. I caught them for no more than a second as I staggered past and was forced to look away. It was like gazing into a black sun that both burnt and sucked at the self. My mind twisted and knotted itself. I became conscious that I was not breathing and drew in air in a ragged gasp. And the noise. The maddening, chaotic bellowing of sorrow and hatred. I pressed my hands to my ears and ran. I never looked back to see what thing finally emerged from the copse but I heard. The people of Adderley Holt were screaming, a lunatic shriek of pure malevolence. But they were not screaming in terror. They were screaming in ecstasy.

The damage I had done to my ankle by running on it was considerable. At the time I had not noticed the pain that was trying to forewarn and forestall this. I had run the entire way back to the cottage. As a consequence, I was unable to attend to the rebuilding of our town home any further and had to leave it in the hands of the builders. In lieu of this, I spent a lot of time sitting by the window, my foot up and resting. But my mind knew no rest. I told no-one. My wife and children were exposed to fits of terrible, impotent rage when the awful knowledge, unspeakable, broke the surface. But I remained silent and, in this silence, gazed down the hill towards the Black Orchard, and dreamt.

 

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