The farmer trudges down the lane under the cold full moon. He’s been draining the old year down to its dregs, until his eyes grew sore of the pub’s chatter and searing lights. ‘I’ll jus’ head out fer some air,’ he’d slurred, and tottered towards the door: ‘Be back ’fore midnight.’ Now he gazes eastward out to the sprawling mudflats, the hissing reeds his only audience beneath the moon.
It’s a chilly New Year’s Eve, but he’s warm enough in his thick coat, the beer sinking deep into his belly like glowing coals. His collar itches, he’s too stuffy and swaddled, his tongue dry and his head throbbing. He opens his coat but it isn’t enough: he wants to feel the wind kiss his bare skin. ‘Should auuuld acquaintance beeeee forgot,’ he bawls in a fine bass voice, and smiles at the echo. He squelches through the mud, boots sinking into the ooze as he tastes the briny air with his tongue. Fine night for a dip, he thinks, shedding his coat into the reeds, that’ll perk me up. The wind has died, a cloud crawls across the moon. All is calm. At peace.
His stomach lurches. Stumbling forward he steadies himself, hand on his belly as the queasiness fades. Careful: nearly went over there! Nothing out here but himself and his own foolishness – what a laugh to tell the lads! He smiles, alone amid the whispering reeds.
A twig cracks.
The reeds shiver and grow still, then shiver again, as if recoiling from a touch. The gulls take flight one after another, the last gliding away over the marsh with a wail.
He peers into the darkness, his belly soured with drink and unease. Winter shivers the back of his neck, seeps into his bones. He’s alone and comfortless out in the dark – he gropes about for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and his fingers sink into icy slime. The salt air pricks his skin: nothing, it’s nothing, he tells himself, patting about blindly for his courage.
There it is again! A frantic shiver amid the reeds that cannot be just the wind on the marsh. He squints – is certain he sees – the slow movement of something monstrous, hunched, covered in shaggy fur. Then nothing.
Something catches his eye, a disturbance in the smooth mud. A faint four-clawed pawprint; probably a stray dog running loose overnight. He chuckles, bending low to examine it, reaches out …
… and freezes.
The pawprint swallows his entire hand. Even with fingers splayed wide, his hand – big as a spade, fat gnarled farmer’s fingers – doesn’t even brush the edge.
What the hell is this?
Fear curls its claws through him: there’s something out there, he feels it, implacable, bloodthirsty, born in mud and slime, waiting in the shadows. For him. Deep amid the marsh it slept and now up it’s come at last, prowling through the darkness, eagerly sniffing the air, stalking its prey. Dread clutches his enfeebled heart – he’s been found out, condemned and brought to judgement: oh what a sinful wretch he’s been! He peers out across the marsh, staring into the night.
And the night stares back.
There! Something rustling the reeds and then slinking back into the gloom – yes, a hulking black shape, the gleam of baleful golden eyes. He feels empty, ravaged of all hope, yet his fear has faded away, replaced with a calm acceptance. How strange! Yet justice must be done, after all, and he willingly pleads guilty. A wave of remorse sinks him to his knees, guilt drenching him like seaspray. Be all my sins remembered … the blacksmith’s daughter whom he ogled over his tankard, the boy he’d left groaning in the mud once words had turned to flint, his wife cowering from his wrath whenever he staggered home soused in rum. All along the beast was there, hiding in wait, and at last it’s found him. He bows his head, for Judgement is nigh; all regret but no redemption for him, no mercy, nothing less than he deserves.
Something erupts out of the darkness. He braces himself … and a lanky grey heron flaps clumsily away into the night, croaking its displeasure. Then the wind sways the reeds, pulls back the cloud, and the shy moon smiles down. And there’s his coat, barely five paces away, crumpled amid broken reeds, its brass buttons glinting in the moonlight. He crawls over, knees soaked through as he grasps the sodden wool. The gulls swirl and settle, and he feels a rush of absurd gladness. Laughter echoes from the lane far behind: a gaggle of drunken fellows reeling home to bed. He waves and calls, ‘Here! I’m here!’ And I am, he thinks, here on the marsh he’s loved since childhood, with the reeds sighing in the moonlight and nothing to fear. He lies back among the reeds, giddy with relief. Monstrous – what rot! Just a stupid boy quaking at shadows, stricken with his own childish terrors. Naught out here but worms and crabs, the wind in the rushes! Nothing to fear from the marsh, nothing to repent: only a moment of panic in the dark and his belly sloshing with too much ale. As for New Year’s Resolutions … rubbish! Just old spinsters’ tales to frighten unruly children into pious obedience, become meek Christian lambs – heh! Women should know their place, quit their yammering else they get the fist. Or the stick. The rushes fold him into their fond embrace, his old childhood companions once more. Just a quick nap, he thinks, to see in the New Year.
A crackle of parting reeds behind him. A shaggy clawed paw presses on his chest. Fetid breath washes over his face. He blinks up into dripping jaws and pleads, far too late: Have mercy!
But the night devours him. For the night is merciless. The night is never-ending.
And for him … the night has teeth.
© Tom Burton, 2021
Black Shuck: a demonic black dog that prowls the Fenland marshes, bringing misfortune and death wherever it roams (to good and bad people alike).