“YOU CUT ME UP YOU LITTLE BASTARD!” I screamed through the screen at a boy racer in a Volkswagen with a giant spoiler and windows full of fire stickers. This new job was a ham fisted gardener tearing the plants from the ground and hastily replanting without any nourishment whatsoever.
All along the black sky journey, past winter husk and huddle, the clock had moved backwards rubbing salt into my wounded career. Being downsized, downgraded then moved to the back of beyond is a mighty kick in the balls for twenty three years of mindless obedience and loyal service.
But this is the new world where managers are more disposable than staff and ascending graphs and returns are the making or breaking of them!
So the little rented white van, filled with my life so far, pulled into the sleepy hamlet of Truckle View where the sat nav drew a blank with unnerving silence.
I tapped it to check it was still working but the dot faded and the voice became static put through an effects loop:
Then eerie silence.
The acoustics inside a tin can are madness inducing as metallic pops of rain bounced around, assaulting my already shredded nerves. The main road into Truckle View slowed histrionic, weaving traffic down to a lonesome rider moseying into town in some Western, being preempted by tumble weed and peering townsfolk.
“If I see one kid sat on a doorstep with a banjo…!” I quipped out loud whilst sitting in the torrent at a flared, red traffic light.
Suddenly, a gulp of air was sucked into my body by a sucker punch of fright.
Shadows of people crossing the road walking through one another, as though they were grey smoke from a dying camp fire, plucked a dissonant chord in my jangling senses.
The strangeness of the scene made my vision blurry until the blast of a horn behind jolted me to the urgency of an impatient green light.
I scoured the lanes until, at last, my apartment block shone through the dappled screen like King Arthur’s sword rising from the lake.
“Finally here and only five hours and twenty two minutes of rain.” I grumbled under my breath, opening the heavy van doors for the first, carefully boxed installment of my life.
The path to the front entrance was cobbled in spiral patterns with nine large white stones either side, five on one and four on the other.
“Strange big things amongst the small ones. They’re smooth and oval with cracks running across the length. They look just like…”
Before I could complete my muttered sentence, a large husky voice through a broad grin greeted me from the doorway.
“New blood to pollute the pool, I guess? Salutations to you, stranger. You must be the manager-to-be of the big store. I am Mrs. Clavell-Clarke, the building owner and Mayoress of our humble little one horse town of Truckle View. Come on inside out of the rain and we’ll get better acquainted, so to speak.”
“I’m Tam Dees, m’am.” I raised the box I was holding a little as a salute to replace a polite handshake.
“Well, hurry and I will show you to your apartment in the gods, with a view above the gloom and out to Sarkle Hill, our landmark and site of the annual pig chase. We release the pig at the top and the runner that catches the swine before the river gets join the circle.”
“The Sarkle circle?” I quipped before receiving a dozen steel daggers fired from ice blue eyes behind horned rimmed spectacles.
“Please don’t mock our traditions beyond these walls, Mr. Dees. You will quickly find it is no laughing matter and your stay will be stymied. Now, here’s your apartment, number twelve. Feel free to come and go as you please and keep the shenanigans to a minimum. Other than that enjoy your stay here and find your true self in this corn dolly world.”
What an odd thing to say!
The double barreled matriarch ushered me through the door and into a clean, well appointed space with pristine white walls, a plain brown linoleum floor and a small, two seat sofa placed curiously in front of the window, facing out.
“Oh and Tam, you must have your first meal with me. One hour from now in apartment three. I won’t take no for an answer.”
Mrs. Clavell-Clarke’s voice was warm and free from the business brusque of earlier and shed my armour climbing the stairs.
I unpacked quickly and sat on the well sprung sofa staring at the hill that was awash with shadows from a cloudscape halo circling a retreating sun.
But something jarred my senses.
The clouds seemed to be chased by darker shadows as though they were playing ring o’ roses around the hill and across the rocks and bronzed grass. The dark shapes had limbs and passed in and out of the outcrops before being blasted by the evening sun, dissolving into the ground amid a rush of startled birds scattering skyward.
“What was tha…” I muttered under the bellow from two floors down.
“Tam, tea is on the table. When you’re ready?”
The silence between broken conversations was a glacial reprieve that cooled each mouthful of hot Chilli.
“So, Mrs. Clavell-Clarke…”
“Please, call me Celia. I’m the Mayoress, Council Leader, neighbourhood watch uber-snoop, Chamber of Commerce chair, town planning committee…basically, if it happens here, it goes through me…
It goes through me and stops at my will.”
She smiled a wry slanted half smile betraying a dullness of the eyes. A gloss free dullness that comes with a razure, a relationship so disastrous that she burned it and salted the earth after and placed a curse upon any thought of it after the paperwork had cooled.
Not one to cross this one.
“I see you admired the Nine Griefs as you entered the building, Tam”
Mrs. Clavell-Clarke removed her glasses placing them carefully on the table and stroked her throat just above the top button.
“The nine white stones framing the cobbled swirls, they are the Nine Griefs? Large cobbles found on Sarkle Hill and brought here to pave the entrance to my home. Being the First Lady of Truckle View is a position that comes with unending perks.” She revelled in her piety and clawing sarcasm.
“But cobbles don’t have sutures, do they?” I quipped with a light barb.
“Sutures?” She snapped back with lightening speed.
“Yes, as in the growth lines in the skull. A big white cobble skull…”
The awkward moment was a balloon releasing air, both comedic and mildly threatening.
“Cobble skull poppycock! I think I made a tongue twister?”
We both enjoyed a relieved chuckle.
The scented candle finally smothered the cooking odours which subtlety signaled the end of a charming evening.
“Thank you for a tasty meal, Mrs. Clavell-Clarke. I’ve got a five o’clock rise to get a head start on the business.”
“Thank you, Tam it’s so refreshing to have new conversation as a civil tongue wears down like a dynamite fuse in this little place. Goodnight and sleep well…oh…and take this corn dolly for your door as it offers protection from dream phantoms.”
Wary of offending again, I held off laughter until she winked at me before making my way up the dark stairwell to the clinical apartment.
Opening the door in semi darkness, I noticed lights darting across the hill and hit the sofa clumsily to observe the activity.
The night sky was a shredded blanket pulled carelessly over the stars and beneath this was the distinct shape of Sarkle Hill being circled by a myriad of eerie, glowing wisps. They appeared then disappeared beneath it causing a supernatural strobing effect, reappearing larger as though re energized beneath the soil. Every so often the lights made a human shape and wafted down the hill and across the river towards town. It was when several passed through each other in the river that my mind was cast back to the traffic lights and I shuddered violently.
Sitting forward to take a closer look, a cold draught brushed my shoulder and I turned my head quickly to take in the naked shape of Mrs. Clavell-Clarke sitting next to me. She was drenched in blood with the head of the corn dolly where her own head should be and long spiny fingers covered in ash.
Then its eyes opened and the mouth uttered
“Run little curly tail
run little ham
run from the nine of them
Lest ye be damned!”
I managed a husky yelp when the alarm pierced the bubble and soapsuds residue of the nightmare blew into my face, waking me fully to shadows retreating into the dark corners and under the door.
The shop was a tedious Ma and Pa business that a school leaver could manage comfortably and my boredom etched face gazed longingly beyond the bargain spattered front window and onto the Truckle View high street. The regulars wore a groove to their usual brands and the profits trod water in a tea cup.
I would occasionally be an agent provocateur in local gossip which was my private middle finger to this slow death in the provinces. The spirit flattening dullness that passed for conversation here would might have seen me hanging by my corporate tie had it not been for the sunflower in a landscape of wilted weeds.
That was Shona.
She was the blithe spirit weaving brightly coloured threads between the sorrowful greys. She was the open window in the funeral home, a breath of fresh air with fresh ingredients, fresh flowers and a fresh conversation every time.
Still she saw me as thing of neglect gathering dust at the back of the shelf and gave me polite attention with a pang of hope drizzled into every “see you soon” cast backwards when exiting the shop.
Four months fled from my calendar and Shona caught the pig in the Sarkle race and moved up in the world, taking me from out of date to mouldy then decayed.
Each night, upon returning home, I’d have a tall glass of chilled beer and watch the Sarkle lights, wondering what was really up there?
Why the nine Griefs?
Why the lights?
Why the protection dolls and why the race?
This was getting into Wicker Man country.
So I decided to catch the pig and get into the inner sanctum of this town.
The evening before the race and Mrs. Clavell-Clarke invited me for a meal and to catch up on new events in the burg.
“I’ve made a lasagne with Chianti and Orkadian cheese. It will be fuel for the chase tomorrow.”
We ate and laughed at some of the crotchety characters that frequented the store and doused the dullness with a little alcoholic lustre.
“You’ve been here a good few months now, Tam and you’ve not met anyone special, have you? Excuse me for prying but I feel almost responsible being that it’s my town that’s kept you that way.”
She stared whilst cooing in a sympathetic dulcet tone.
“I’ve never had much luck with anyone really, Mrs. C…”
“Please, Tam, call me Celia”
“Thank you, Celia. I’ve been a silent observer my whole life and the more time has gone the more derelict my confidence became. Your self esteem evaporates and leaves you dried and crusty, unappealing even to the dating site dregs. And then one day you wake up and life is everything else but love.”
Celia leaned across the table and kissed my forehead gently.
“At least your heart is intact.”
My razure instinct was dead right.
“Thank you so much for dinner, Celia. I will have to invite you to mine for a bite to eat and we can watch the lights on Sarkle hill afterwards.” I smiled believing she was, as a long time resident, aware of the phenomenon.
“Lights, Tam? Lights on Sarkle Hill?
What lights are these?”
“The strange glow that roams around the hill at dusk and the shadow figures during the day when the sun is cloud covered. Surely you’ve seen them?”
“Indeed I have not. I must see these for myself. We must go to the hill tomorrow night and see them. I’m a huge paranormal enthusiast. I’m so excited. Come and get me at sun down tomorrow and we will take a walk over there. Thank you, Tam”
I trudged wearily up the stairs to my apartment and opened the door to complete darkness. The lights were gone and the sofa was facing into the room and towards the bedroom. I slowly turned from this sight to the doorway of my bedroom and froze.
There, inside my room, were lights in human form swirling round and round at great speed to create a zoetrope effect using my doorway as the aperture. I saw bodies dragged away, bodies screaming to be released and nine shadowy figures walking in procession carrying a huge corn doll upside down. Their heads were bone white and their feet were cloven. Slowly, I reached for the light switch and before the nine entered the main living space from the bedroom, I illuminated the scene causing the illusion to burst in my imagination like a distress flare at sea.
“Dear Lord, protect me!” I muttered glancing at the door where my corn doll gift from Celia was upside down with blood running down the frame. The blood tapered to a smear then beneath it nine oval shapes.
“I need to fly this cuckoo’s nest as soon as I can.” I thought, quickly remembering the last words of the HR director ringing in my ears.
“Make this a success, Tam or I’ll retire your shirt and you’ll be back to the apron and hair net.”
I must have checked underneath and inside everywhere twice before falling into bed exhausted.
My last thought before a dreamless sleep was “I must catch the pig.”
I missed the alarm and awoke to a pounding at my door, which startled me and I rolled out of bed onto the hard wooden floor. The pounding continued until I scrabbled to the door and opened it whilst trying to focus.
“What the hell’s all this?” Boomed Stavinsky, my trusted assistant who had come to wish me luck for the Sarkle chase that was due to take place in one hours’ time.
I spun round and choked with shock at the sight of a floor filled with headless corn dolls and on the sofa, piled in a tower, were nine shining white pig skulls with their teeth removed and dirt stuffed into their sockets.
“What kind of weird shit?”
“NOT ME, OKAY!” I yelled at him before he could finish his sarcastic sentence.
“I need to get over to the race and get that pig. I know if I do, this strange stuff will stop and I’ll get to see the big secret on the hill. I’ll change into my running gear and we’ll go in five, ok?”
Stavinsky was already taking snaps on his little camera he kept round his neck at all times.
The climb up Sarkle Hill, on a warm spring morning, was a blow torch to the lungs. All the competitors gathered in an irritable scrum at the top behind a tatty scarlet ribbon and the pig, a glistening black saddleback with a thick pink hoop around its neck, shrieked in terror.
It was then I noticed Shona, Mrs. Clavell-Clarke and a small group of people dressed in long flowing gowns all carrying corn dolls except Celia, who was carrying a large gong and striker.
“To the fiercest spirit that will capture the hog before the river flow shall be welcomed to the great hill’s heart and all at once shall be in the bosom of the fold!”
Then she struck the gong with a grunt and the crowd pelted down the hill behind the petrified swine. I edged forward thanks to twilight training sessions and bounced over a large tuft of grass above a cluster of rocks. Behind me folks were falling and screaming in agony, broken by jagged stone and deep trenches and I eagerly scanned the path ahead for pitfalls. It was then the pig stumbled and rolled and I seized the opportunity to be victorious. Leaping as a big cat would do, I landed on the large black belly and roared. The pig shrieked in agony as razor sharp shards of stone sliced through its hind quarters and it spat out bloody mucus with a guttural retch.
“I caught the pig, I caught the pig!”
I yelled back up the hill strewn with writhing losers and decorated atop with golden overlords.
The pig thrashed its back legs and caught my temple and it was lights out.
Then eerie silence.”
The sat nav in my van repeated what I had heard entering Truckle View as I roused from the forced slumber. My head was throbbing like the PA at a rock concert and my bleariness sharpened. I was inside a huge cavern lit sparsely by brass lanterns catching painted walls with figures and all manner of creatures that resembled a Brueghel hell depiction. The space was filled with a huge stone circle embracing nine seats at the centre. Under my feet, a channel in the rock fed to the centre. My first thought was blood sacrifice and my stomach churned with fear, sending reflux to flick the gag reflex.
“I’m going to die in this place. I’m going to become another shadow dancing across the hill.”
My mind was racing, as the urgency of loosening the bonds heightened with the sound of voices.
“Unto this place the nine shall appear!” Roared the familiar voice of Celia Clavell-Clarke, Mayoress of Truckle View and now, apparently, high priestess of the hill.
The whole circle began to tremble as the stone seats sank below view, rising again with huge hooded figures clutching corn dolls.
They were in my nightmare!
“Tam, wake up! Wake up and get out of bed, now!” I screamed but the dream was reality and, beneath the hill, the victorious catcher was about to be welcomed to the big secret.
“Behold the nine Griefs of Sarkle. All be thankful for their mercies and be as worms before their might.”
Celia’s voice filled the cavern as she and the other robed figures laid down on their stomachs to greet the supernatural beings, now standing over eight feet tall.
The hoods were gently removed by long talons coated in ash revealing the nine white stones that adorned the path to the apartment building, except these had runic symbols on the foreheads, large bulging eyes that once sat in the sockets of lizards, long teeth filed to razor points and the silent language of evil.
I looked around again and jumped, startled, as right in front of me was Celia Clavell-Clarke, straight out of my dream on the sofa, naked with the head of a corn dolly and long ashen fingers. Running them across my chest in neat ovals, she whispered a rhyme in an unintelligible language.
“Hello Tam. The pig saved me a job by knocking you out. You are the victorious catcher and deemed worthy to be a conduit of power. Your life force is strong but your life is singular and fruitless so won’t be mourned. I am the Clocker, the enticer of people. I bring them to these hallowed lands to be energy for the nine Griefs. They, in turn, govern the fruits of the land as their forebears did before the cross and the eagle turned bounty to scarcity with their strangle hold religion. The Nine Griefs have shown us the natural order, the yield and the sacrifice to weigh the scale. Your life force shall invigorate the Griefs and the cycle shall continue unbroken.”
“You mean I’m a bloody socket and they plug into me for power and the lights and shadows are pig catchers of past ages who are drained to grey spirits and left to wander Truckle View like smoke zombies?”
“Very perceptive, Tam and now the Griefs shall feast. Two shall feed upon the left arm, two upon the right
Two upon the left leg, two upon the right and the ninth grief shall drink in the elixir that cradles the brain.”
With an insidious grin, she struck the gong summoning the Griefs to feed upon me. They sank their fangs into my arms and legs and the ninth into the top of my head and the rush was exhilarating. I felt at peace as though I was high upon the hill on a summers day watching the blue and the green weave rainbows into my eyes. And all at once I was lifted on a breeze and swirled around the hill and under the rocks, into the cavern and rolled across the painted scenes of gods and men. The creatures they made and the monsters we imagined fighting for supremacy in the minds of men.
All at once I felt a huge jolt as if thrown through a windscreen after a high speed collision.
“Open your eyes, Tam!”
It was Shona.
She was standing in front of me in her flowing gown sprayed with fresh blood. All around the council members were lying face down with their throats torn out. At my feet were nine shattered skulls and disintegrating cowls and my bonds were severed.
“I lived, Tam and I beat them all!”
“My van! Quick, Shona we must leave. This cavern isn’t stable, we must go now.” I was so overwhelmed with the joy of freedom that I had no time to address the hope of love pounding in my chest at the sight of Shona. We made our way through the tunnel that lead to a narrow ridge and down to a path by the river. As we crossed, the earth trembled and, looking back only once, we saw the grand hill implode, folding inwards and burying the great secret of Truckle View forever.
“Tam, we must leave here right now and never look back, not once. Please Tam, right now!” Shona’s eyes were glistening with emotion and I wiped away a stray tear sliding towards her jaw.
“My van is over there. I’ll run upstairs and get my keys and we can be off”
“Please hurry, Tam. Please!”
I sprinted up the flights of stairs two and three at a time until I reached the open door of my apartment. Bursting in I found Stavinsky lying on the floor, his mouth and eyes wide open with sheer terror. All the corn dolls were gone from the floor as were the pile of skulls on the sofa and I rushed to the bedside table to get the keys. Grabbing them at lightening speed, I sprinted down the stairs as if chasing the pig and reached the lobby then stopped.
Silent and still in a moment of pure horror, I choked on a dry throated cough.
My van was surrounded by eight figures in dark robes and through the dirty windscreen I could see Shona in exquisite agony with the ninth figure sinking its long sharp teeth into her skull, spraying blood across the glass to obscure my view.
At that moment she fell forward onto the horn which blared out and, for a split second Shona became Celia Clavell-Clarke, releasing the figures into the ether, dropping their robes into a crumpled pile.
I stared in slack jawed horror at the van, at the screen and the bloody tufts of matted hair pressed into the dash board.
“My Shona, my beautiful Shona. Why? Why let us go only to do this?
She was my whole life ahead, you twisted bastards. I just want to get out of this hole in the earth and back to the world, no matter where I end up. Lord, help me.”
Out on the rain spotted road, the robes were moving, writhing as though a nest of vipers lay beneath. They moved together and merged then started to rise and unfold. There, in a light rain, was a figure with a corn doll head, long ashen talons and in one open palm, a gold ring. She breathed a heavy sigh and stepped forward until she was directly in front of me and I reached to remove the corn doll head.
“Shona!” I gasped.
“I was always Shona. The Celia you knew was their glamour. The illusion was created by the Griefs to bring them their power. You have returned to me, Tam. You came back to me. You moved away, escaped when I became theirs under the hill. But you’re here and they are now gone. Let us rebuild our lives.”
Dropping the ring into my palm, my ring that I left when I escaped, she smiled a broad grin.
“I’ll be upstairs making our meal.
Lasagne with Chianti?”