Walking home as dusk fell, I saw a distant silhouette on the hillside pass. Tree, bush, beast or something less pleasant? I’d heard all the tales neighbours told of what they’d seen on the moor but I was in too much of a hurry to get back to the village and a warm fireside to think for long about such things.
Their stories are just stories. As I approached the pass, a beautiful woman, with golden hair tumbling over her shoulders, stood in my path. She fixed her grey eyes upon me then upon the firewood I carried in my arms. “Light my fire,” she said.
Her spell was upon me even then. I went into her cottage, no more than a square bulge in the dry-stone wall, and placed beside her stove every log I’d gathered that afternoon. An empty grate awaited my family that evening, no warmth to sooth my mother’s arthritis or my baby brother’s hacking cough.
I was an innocent boy, untouched, yet, as the glowing embers reddened my naked thighs, she made me a man. For two long years I’d courted Providence, the blacksmith’s daughter. In my dreams, I’d unfasten the stiff white ruff around her neck and kiss her sweet neck under the Christmas mistletoe, conveniently forgetting that she and her Presbyterian father refused to celebrate the Saviour’s birth day at all.
I went back to the moorside cottage every afternoon after work was done, supposedly collecting more firewood. On my return, my mother would stand up and greet me with her warm expectant smile, but, on seeing — again — my empty bundle she’d look away, the sparkle of hope snuffed out. “I’ll have firewood tomorrow, Ma,” I’d say. Unable to bear the sight of the cold black grate, I’d retire early and supper-less.
My darling and I, our love burned on. I told her we could have our own place in the village and now I fantasised about coming home to the sound of my love’s gravelly voice singing our children to sleep. I felt nothing when Providence became betrothed to the squire’s coachman. I even congratulated her in church on Sunday.
Her eyes narrowed as she replied, “I know what she is, that woman you see on the moor.”
“No,” I said, my mind filling with white hot anger even though I was within the Lord’s house. “No.”
Yesterday afternoon, there was talk of unseasonal snow. With the gale bending stout tree trunks as if they were wisps of grass, neighbours said they heard witches howling on the moor. Icy blasts cut through my ragged jacket as I raced up the hillside and banged upon her door. “It’s me,” I cried. “Come back to the village.”
Silence. I listened for her footsteps, but heard nothing except the relentless wind, which seemed to cry, in her voice, “Go. Go, I beseech you.”
I knocked again. “Come on. I cannot leave you here in the cold.”
“Go, my beautiful boy. Go and never return.”
Shoving down the wooden latch, I barged inside. It took a moment for my eyes to accustom themselves to the murky gloom, but all too soon they took in her loosened shawl and unfastened bodice. Then I saw the horned beast that suckled her once girlish breast, marbled with blue veins and swollen with milk, its sharp talons digging into her white flesh.
Nausea rose up inside me, pumping sour bile on to my tongue. I opened my mouth to shout, “Get off. Get out,” but the foulest air I’ve ever known, like the stink of a thousand privies, caught my throat.
I tried to push the beast off but it kicked away my outstretched hands with its cloven feet. Still it clung fast to her red teat, dragging and pulling.
She turned to me, her once lovely grey eyes rheumy and cloudy. “You cannot send my master away.” She sighed a sigh as loud as the wind outside.
My bruised knuckles throbbing, I reached out to the beast again. I touched its slimy shoulder and felt the grease under its rough scales, but, overwhelmed by the stench, I fell to the floor in a faint.
When I came to, my love sat in her usual chair, her bodice refastened and her eyes as clear as the spring that gurgled down the hillside.
The beast had gone.
Scrambling to my feet, but clutching at the wall, for my legs were unsteady still, I cried, “My darling — ”
“I would’ve given anything for you, my sweet innocent boy, not to have seen him. Even my soul, except I have none to give.”
“I don’t understand — ”
“You never shall. We won’t speak of it again.” She shivered.
“But — ”
Turning away, she hummed tuneless notes.
“I’ll… I’ll… do the fire,” I said, moving towards the stove.
I studied the yellow flames as they took hold, illuminating the bare room. With lead in my heart, I scanned the few commonplace household objects within it, dreading seeing a broom or a cauldron.
She peered into my eyes, reaching past them for the thoughts raging around my brain.
I looked away.
We made love in front of the roaring flames. When, at last, I fell back, sated, the hard stone floor as soft to me as a feather bed, she stroked my eyelids shut. “Sleep, my beautiful boy,” she murmured, “sleep.”
I never awoke.
Today I stand again by the cottage doorway. She is weeping but I can only watch.
Raking grey embers in the stove, she clasps her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. She glances up when I tap on the door, but her gaze passes through my ghostly presence to the hawthorn bush behind me. Its white buds will unfurl in spring sunshine, but I’ll never feel warm again.
She had to do what she did, although I would never have betrayed her. I love her still and I’m sure she loves me.
Charlie Britten writes in Suffolk, UK.
This story is sponsored by
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