November 5, 2014 § 4 Comments
The morning air was almost bitingly cold, Andrew thought as he stepped out of the door of the farmhouse with his three dogs in tow. Out here, veritably in the middle of nowhere, he felt comfortable enough to have them run free instead of keeping them close and controlled by collars and leashes. They were real farm dogs, rough and wiry and strong and totally unlike the pampered city pooches that he had known for most of his life, and he couldn’t even begin to imagine how they’d respond to being leashed or harnessed. Luckily the main road was far off, and his land was criss-crossed only by snaking dirt roads that were hell on cars but good for foot traffic. He knew the dogs enjoyed their morning walks almost more than he did – coming up to winter, the wind was bracing, and physical exertion felt good. He set off at a brisk pace, the dogs lolling and loping around him chaotically, sniffing and marking as they went. He thought of nothing in particular – he had always loved the way that walking cleared his head – and was filled with a vague sense of thankfulness and well-being, glad that in his retirement years he still had the energy and stamina to move like this, with only a few aches and pains to remind him of years passed. He almost walked right past the disturbed ground next to the boundary fence, but the dogs swarmed to it like it was magnetic, and he followed their searching noses right to the single visible print of what looked like a work boot, standing in stark relief in the powdery red earth. His realization of what the curves and lines stamped into the dust in front of him meant came slowly; as they resolved into a solid shape before his eyes, he felt a prickle of discomfort slide down his spine, and he stepped closer and leaned down to examine the print, shouldering the dogs out of his way. That was the only clear mark in the ground; around it, everything was scuffed and indistinct. He wished that he knew more about tracking. Taking a few steps closer to the dirt road, he saw tyre tracks that looked fresher than the others, but he couldn’t be sure. The dogs milled around him, wondering at his strange behaviour, eager to continue their walk.
“Okay guys, come on,” he said, rumpled the ear or two that were in easy reach of his hand, and set off down the road again. It was probably nothing. The tyre tracks didn’t really look all that fresh after all. Probably just his imagination.
Walking back into the yard proper, he was convinced that he could smell the coffee his wife usually brewed while he was away on his morning walk. Back in the city, tea had been their drink of choice, but out here they had developed a taste for coffee – strong coffee, sweetened sinfully with condensed milk instead of sugar and topped up with creamy milk that the neighbours always seemed to be dropping off, insisting that they had too much of. It put a spring in his step and a renewed positivity filled him; he paused to fill the huge water bowl they kept outside for the dogs with a tumble of sparkling water from the outside tap, then he opened the kitchen door and wiped his shoes on the doormat, taking in the familiar sight of Jenny reading her newspaper at the kitchen table.
“How old is that one?” he asked her jokingly as he set about pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“A few days. Lienkie dropped it off when she was here earlier in the week. I miss reading the newspaper in the mornings, you know. It’s a comforting little ritual.” She responded in a dreamy voice without looking up from the paper, and lifted her coffee cup for an absent-minded half a sip.
“Yes, I get it. You can feel a little isolated out here. Any news from the kids?” One of the dogs flopped down under the table as Andrew spoke, and he stretched out a leg to rub its obliging belly.
“Nothing much. Kelly’s busy with the baby, John’s working himself to death at that new firm, the usual. They’re so busy I don’t expect them to chat too often. I’m just glad to know they’re well.” Jenny’s eyes remained on her newspaper.
Andrew spoke cautiously, still busy with the dog. “On our walk this morning I think I might have seen some tracks, perhaps. Close to the boundary fence, by the road that runs past the pond.” He watched as Jenny carefully put down her newspaper and turned to face him across the table.
“What kind of tracks?” Her voice was determinedly casual.
“A shoe print, and maybe tyre tracks. The earth was pretty scuffed, it was hard to tell. The dogs were interested but didn’t seem too concerned.”
They gazed at each other. Jenny lifted up her newspaper again. “Probably nothing. Maybe one of the neighbours, since it was so close to the boundary fence. You should ask over the radio when you have a chance.”
Andrew nodded and sipped at his coffee, the dog motionless against his feet.
“What was that?” Jenny was sitting up next to him in bed, and he could feel the tension in her muscles where her body touched his. Andrew rubbed his eyes blearily, propped himself up on an elbow, and strained his ears as he stared into the darkness of their bedroom. The dogs were silent but awake and he met their watchful eyes when he sat up properly.
“What’d you hear?” he whispered to her, trying to calm his breathing – it sounded so loud in his ears in the absolute stillness of the farm.
“I’m not sure. Just something strange,” she replied. “But the dogs don’t seem concerned.”
Andrew slid out of bed, careful to avoid the old mattress creaking or groaning, and tried to ignore the icy floor on his bare feet as he padded over to the window and peeked through the crack between the curtain and the wall. The yard was dark – the dim outside lights and the moon combined still couldn’t do much to penetrate the deep wild blackness outside. He didn’t see anything or anyone moving, but he wished for a brief moment that he actually owned a gun, despite his lifelong dislike of the things. It might be a nice feeling to have something so violent and dangerous at one’s fingertips and in one’s control.
Jenny’s voice broke his train of thought as she whispered emphatically, “well?” and he turned around with a shrug of his shoulders.
“I don’t see anything,” he apologised.
Then an otherworldly scream seemed to fill the room, and the dogs went ballistic as they leapt up and raced to the door, barking madly. Jenny jumped out of bed faster than Andrew had ever seen her move before, and they both flung the bedroom door open and ran for the kitchen, Jenny snatching up the farm radio on the way though they both knew what had to have made that sound: one of their chickens. They picked their way through the frosted grass on tentative feet, surrounded by an honour guard of yapping dogs that sniffed busily and investigated every inch of the garden around them, and when they came to the chicken coop the scene that greeted them was positively nightmarish. Blood and feathers and bits of flesh were smeared across the outside walls of the structure, and the wire that covered the door was mangled and forced inwards as if by something particularly powerful. Andrew and Jenny looked at each other in horror, and he carefully opened the door, watching the dogs as they moved. They were alert, but not afraid. Tails held high and wagging, ears perked up. He stepped up into the little building and felt himself gag at the decimated, disembowelled feathery bodies spread out over the floor. Retreating hastily, he bumped into Jenny who was standing almost right up against him, and they both stumbled backwards.
“Don’t go in there,” he told her, trying to steady his voice.
“Are they…?” She didn’t finish her question.
“They’re all dead. Some kind of animal must’ve gotten in there. Look, we can deal with it tomorrow. It’s freezing out here and I can’t do this right now.” Andrew took her hand and turned towards the house.
“But…all of them? What animal would kill all of them?” Jenny whispered as they walked.
“We can figure it out tomorrow. What else could it be?” Andrew glanced back at the chicken coop, implacable in the sparse moonlight, and quickened his pace.
It was quiet the next morning. Andrew spent a little while cleaning the chicken coop, wiping down the walls and floor before Jenny was likely to come outside and encounter the gruesome scene in the stark daylight. He examined the hole in the wire of the door, noting the sharp edges that almost sliced into one of his fingers as he picked at them. They were clean and devoid of blood or fur, so whatever had gotten into the coop had been rather lucky. He couldn’t tell how it had slipped out again without being scraped, and the mess of blood on the floor left no tracks that he could see. A quick once-over of the ground surrounding the building revealed even less – between the scuffs of enthusiastic dog paws and his own footprints, the earth was silent on what had attacked his chickens the night before.
Once he had things looking less shocking, he whistled for the hounds and they set off on their morning walk, his senses rather more alert than usual and his steps quick and solid. He couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched – the space between his shoulder blades burned under the wool of his jersey despite the chill in the air, and the back of his neck felt glaring and exposed. Even the dogs were subdued, trotting close on his heels with their tails low and doing little exploring. He lifted his eyes from the vista in front of him and glanced around nervously, catching a flicker of movement off to one side and slightly behind him. One of the dogs bumped against his leg; another whined, ears hanging down uncertainly. He stopped walking and turned his body to face where he had seen the movement, squinting into the distance, watching the long grass sway in the slight breeze and noting how silent it suddenly seemed around him. He felt a pressure on his eardrums. The points of grass in the field in front of him were a uniform sea of spikes that scraped the blue sky, and the clouds drifting slowly over the sun made his vision lighten and darken, changing every aspect of the landscape and throwing shadows at his feet. He blinked, looked away, then turned his head back to the field and settled his vision on a patch that seemed to remain consistently dark despite the varying colours and textures revealed by the transitory light. Something moved independently of the grass; the flick of an ear. The black shape suddenly resolved itself, like an optical illusion – he traced the line of two sharply pointed ears, a large distance apart…a muzzle obscured by golden grass…the long and bony spine that receded into the background. Andrew took an involuntary step backwards and leapt at the dog’s yelp of pain as he trod on its paw. Swearing, he jerked his head back to the field and tried to catch the shape that he had just seen, but there was only the luminous sky and the scratching of grass on grass. When he became aware of the sound of birdsong filling the air again, he didn’t slow his panicked jog back towards the house at all. He was certain that, out of the corner of his eye, he could see a dark streak keeping pace with him as he moved.
When he got back home, he found Jenny sitting at the kitchen table with the radio in front of her, a cooling cup of coffee next to it. She glanced up nervously when the door opened, and when she saw that it was him, she turned her eyes back to the radio.
“The people next door were attacked last night. They just announced it.”
Andrew sighed and sank down into a chair. “Really? Are they okay? What happened?”
“The details are sketchy, but the husband’s dead and the rest of the family’s in hospital. They were tortured, I believe. Huge gang of men.” Jenny ran a finger along the radio. “Did you see anything out there today? Anything strange, I mean?”
“I think, maybe, some kind of animal in the field while I was walking. The dogs were nervous. I couldn’t make out what it was, though. The grass is awfully long down there and it made it difficult to see,” Andrew said. He was beginning to question his own reaction already, actually. What he thought he had seen had been far too large for just about any animal he knew of. Perhaps the nerves from the night’s incident had tainted his vision – it might’ve been a little jackal for all that he knew.
“Nothing human?” Jenny prodded at him.
“No, nothing,” he stated honestly. It certainly hadn’t been human.
They spent the rest of the day engaged in solitary pursuits; Jenny curled up on the couch with a new novel, and Andrew gardened, trying to get the flowerbeds sorted out while he had the time and inclination to do so. He liked the neatly-arranged rows of plants; they made him feel like he had constructed a little patch of civilisation in the wilderness of the African bush. The dogs snuffed at the weeds that he pulled, and lazed in the shade – the noon sun still managed a fair level of heat even this close to winter.
As the setting sun began to bathe the yard in soft pink light, Andrew and Jenny called the dogs inside and fixed a simple dinner together. She checked the locked door twice as she moved about the kitchen, an unconscious nervous tick that she had developed when they moved out to the farm, though the dogs were peacefully sprawled out in various parts of the room.
When they got into bed, Jenny called in on the radio that they were safely locked up in their home, and switched her lamp off; Andrew did the same, feeling absolutely exhausted despite the relatively peaceful day, and was soon fast asleep.
Andrew jerked awake to the sound of something falling outside the house. He could feel Jenny’s watchful wakefulness next to him, and the dogs all had their heads up and their ears pricked. He slipped silently out of bed and turned just in time to catch the silhouette of a person slide past the bedroom window, backlit by the moon and the outside lights enough to give a solid shape. He froze at the sight; what was the right course of action? His limbs felt light and trembling; there was a fluttering in the pit of his stomach. There was a bang from the direction of the kitchen – loud, unabashed, shattering – and the dogs sprang up, barking madly as he vaguely made out Jenny connecting on the radio and calling for help in a frantic voice. With what seemed like incredible effort, he reached into the corner next to the bed and grabbed his old cricket bat, then raced to the bedroom door and checked that it was locked. Satisfied, he turned to Jenny with the intention of reassuring her that help would soon arrive, but as the dogs quietened, a much louder sound took over. Screams and cries tore through the air outside the bedroom door, and a fleshy wrenching sound punctuated the commotion. Andrew sprang back from the door at the noise, dodging the whining and whimpering dogs that cowered behind him. The door shook with impacts and a metallic smell seeped into Andrew’s nostrils while Jenny flattened herself against the bed’s headboard, clutching the radio with a white-knuckled hand. After what felt like hours, Andrew realised that the sounds had finally ended, and the night was silent again, the bedroom door looming in front of him. Something dark was leaking under its rough surface and into the bedroom. He stepped towards it slowly, numb with terror and uncertainty, turned the key in the lock, and slowly pushed the handle down. He had to know. The door swung open to reveal total carnage running the length of the passageway, and Andrew could just distinguish the occasional human body part amongst the blood and flesh. There was a gun lying almost directly in front of the door, with a hand still attached, and a special kind of glint in the gore gradually resolved into the shapes of other guns. Andrew paused while he took in the scene, then slammed the door shut and locked it again hurriedly.
He turned back to his wife, whose vision was fixed on the window. The dogs followed her stare. Slowly, he moved to the window. Even more slowly, he pulled the curtain aside. In the darkness at the edge of the garden, he could just trace the outline of a huge muzzle, wide-set pointed ears, and a long and bony spine. He gazed at the creature. The creature gazed back at him.