The young man awoke, still alive, and sighed slowly. He had dreamt the same dream again. Glass walls. Slowly rising water. Banging weakly against an unmoving reflection of himself that stared at him, eyes longing, and head cocked slightly to the side. Through the glass, a line of people holding hands. He never saw their faces, always calling out, but never loudly enough, like he was shouting through thick honey. This dream, like so many others before, ended before he could make himself seen, or heard, to the people on the other side.
He lay still for a while, staring at the roof of the tent, pale yellow and speckled with droplets of rain. A bird, perhaps a turtle dove he thought, released a solemn call. It hung in the air, muffled by distance. To the man, it sounded somehow untruthful. A broken, make-believe murmur in a land without song.
He unzipped the tent with a slow hand. Cool, damp air rushed into his lungs, as he looked out into the fog. He smelt earth and rot.
Bare hawthorn protruded through the haze like fan coral. A patchwork of scrawny hedges meandered over the hills, stretching towards the horizon. A lamb, perhaps a few weeks old, lay sprawled and still at the edge of the field, the white and red of its body in grim contrast with the muted greens of the grass. Its mother stood patiently over the body, dipping her head and stepping back when the man emerged from the tent. Their eyes locked from across the field. The sheep let out a tired cry.
She held the man in her gaze, her eyes probing yet dull, then lowered her head and sniffed at the lamb. The man began dismantling the tent, folding the groundsheet and placing it neatly into a grey rucksack.
The sheep lingered, standing unperturbed and strong over her child as the man disappeared over the brow of the hill. He had left nothing behind. Another mournful bleating rippled out from the sheep as she began pacing slowly, her coat heavy and damp. Her hooves sunk slightly into the ground, which was soft and musky from the rain.
She laid down next to the lamb, gazing at it. It didn’t move. Flies marched hurriedly across the remaining eye, and busied themselves in the mottling of exposed bone and strands of muscle on the lamb’s face and neck. The entire lower jaw was missing.
The sheep remained with the corpse, her head resting on her forelegs. She turned sharply at the sound of something behind her, an indistinct noise, somewhat mellowed, perhaps footsteps, perhaps not. She saw nothing through the fog, which was thickening and encroaching slowly down the hillslope like an infection.
Again, the noise came, louder this time. The sheep turned and stood, backing away cautiously at the sight of a faint silhouette emerging. The young man edged forward. The sheep edged back. They held each other’s stares, eyes cold and sad, and so tired. The man squatted, perhaps twenty metres from the sheep, and held out his hand revealing a shiny red apple. He waited.
The sheep watched with new scrutiny, and after what seemed like an hour to the man, she stepped towards his outstretched arm. Her hefty shoulders rose and fell in alternation, and with each anxious step, she drew closer to the apple, and the unmoving hand of the man. Ten metres. Five metres. Her eyes always fixed on the polished surface of the fruit.
She extended her neck and tentatively smelt the apple. The man, still squatting, raised the left side of his mouth into a smile, his eyes vacant. She took another step.
The apple fell to the ground and the sheep kicked. Her bleating weak and fragmented through the strong hand that now gripped her muzzle. Then an arm around her neck. A knee against her side as she toppled. The weight of the man pressed on her neck and ribs. She kicked again desperately, her legs thudding hard against soil, her cries throaty and panicked. The grip around her face tightened. Her back legs thrashed furiously, and her squeals became human.
A sharp twist, a dull crackling of joints. Bone popped and jolted. Hooves convulsed. The sheep slumped awkwardly over the knee of the man, heavy and still. Her eyes were now without shine, and no longer stared.
The man kneeled, placing a hand on the belly of the sheep. It was warm, like the empty side of a bed, but the heat quickly dissipated.
Well done, Jacob, you prick. Nice and quiet. His thoughts seemed scattered like bats, and nipped at him. Hope they didn’t hear that. They’ll be after you with pitchforks and torches. He tried to quell the thoughts, eyes closed and inhaling carefully. The air tasted like unwashed hands. They’ll get ya. He winced. They’ll stamp your ******* teeth in.
Jacob opened his eyes and saw that he was alone. The morning dew had seeped through his jeans, and his knees were damp. Brilliant. He shifted onto one knee, the other squelched into the earth as he reached for his waist. He almost lost balance, grabbing his rucksack strap sharply with the other hand, and steadying himself. From a sheath of stiff brown leather on his belt, Jacob drew a small hunting knife. The dark oak handle was smooth and cool in his grip, and the sinuous, 3-inch blade glowed with a grim eagerness.
He felt along the shoulder of the sheep, pressing his fingertips into the wool. He worked his hand along, feeling. Upon finding the joint at the top of the front leg, Jacob separated the wool with two fingers, exposing the dull pink of flesh through a mesh of wiry threads. He placed the knife between his fingers and pushed. With a jolt and a glide, it pierced the skin.
Jacob felt his stomach gargle softly, and tighten. Nice, he thought. One day without food and this is what does it for me. He arched his body up over the animal, and with jagged movements, he began to slice.
The knife carved with a cold indifference. The skin opened untidily, and the surrounding wool became stained with a dull shade of cherry, and matted with gelatinous clumps of blood. His stomach seized again. Hunger pangs bubbled up from deep inside.
Tonight Sir, braised leg of lamb – the knife squelched – served on a bed of fresh, autumn vegetables. Jacob was sweating now. The deeper flesh sliced with a grainy texture, the occasional tendon weakly resisting the blade like a rubber band, an extra little push snapping it. Leg of lamb. A chuckle escaped from him. You really are going mad, boy. ******* nuts–
Jacob stopped, lowered his head, and groaned, throaty and guttural. “Of course,” he muttered. Something glistened in the sheep’s ear, something pale yellow and sticky like tree sap, trickled from within. “Of course.” Then it oozed from the nose.
In the base of Jacob’s throat, a spasm of rage reared its wicked head. He tried to swallow it. Wasted time, he thought. Wasted knife, gotta leave that. He thought of the zip lighter in the front pocket of his rucksack. Perhaps he could craft a fire, sterilise the blade? Don’t fancy taking that chance. Jacob slumped and pondered, his shoulders turned in. “Nothing’s easy, is it?” he whispered, scratching the back of his head with calloused fingers.
His lower back was moist and hot where the bulky rucksack pressed against him. A dull ache had nested comfortably beneath his shoulder blades. His faded navy sweater clung to the skin. He shifted impatiently, and sighed. Time for some shopping then.
Jacob stood, damp knees, tired eyes, facing into the gentle wind. Overhead, murky clouds gathered. With heavy feet he trod the sloping edge of the field, toward the flaked, iron-red gate in the south-eastern corner.
The long fingers of grass tickled his shins.
When the worn tarmac road beyond the gate came into view, reluctance tugged at him like a lost child. Down the winding lane, in the midday dark, his hometown waited.