Most of all, I remember the eyes: how they’d ripped them out with a spoon, leaving dull pink holes scarred with blood and gore.
Last September, I think it was, the local press said livestock had been sacrificed on moorland near our home. Well, that was their lurid account: most people thought that was typical journalistic exaggeration, and that the cow in question had died of natural causes, then been savaged by other animals. Or a particularly sick group of kids, drunk, had done it. Either way, no-one really thought it would happen again – until it did.
The next time it happened was near Christmas, six months ago. I have some memory of the weather, how mist cloaked our village, mixing with the smoke and smell of log fires. Those log fires would explain why no one noticed the smell of the fire on the moor. But now I remember, the air that day had a different tang, the reek of heavy tar or something. The truth was I’d been too busy with the Christmas rush in the shop to notice anything much.
I do remember exactly when people found out because I’d shut up my Art Supplies shop early having run out of a lot of pre-Christmas stock and gone home to find my wife raging in tears.
“Those poor sheep, up there on the moor”, she muttered.
“What happened? What is it? What’s wrong?” I touched her face and she turned away, focusing on our son’s supper. Michael, for his part, seemed oblivious to his mother’s distress, the entirety of his attention given over to some lurid cartoon on his DVD player, all primary pinks, yellows and blues and loud noises.
Juliet went to the sink and washed her face, then dried it on a tea-towel.
“They found the bodies of two sheep up on the moor. They think they’d been burned alive.”
“Oh, come on Jules,” I said, wrapping her up in a hug. “How the hell could anyone tell that from an animal’s burnt body? It’s just more muck-raking from the local rag, that’s all.”
Juliet reached into the fridge for Michael’s milk and poured half a plastic beaker full, then handed it to him.
“They tore their tongues and eyes out, then cut out their guts. Then they burned them.”
I looked at her. Hysteria wasn’t going to help us.
Michael’s bright blue eyes focused on his DVD screen, his lips smeared with milk, tongue working methodically through the bowl of pasta in front of him.
Christmas came a few days later. I normally take the whole two weeks off – in the retail business, you’re open all hours before the holiday, then it kicks off again with the sales in January – so I had some time on my hands. Family obligations were all sorted, given that we’d been up to Manchester to see Jules’s parents, then spent a couple of days with my sister and her brood between Christmas and New Year.
Bored one afternoon, I decided to do an Internet search for animal mutilation. Why the hell would anyone want to do that to those poor animals? My search told me that any number of nut-jobs were at this around the world, and had been for millennia. So I narrowed my search to “animal mutilation UK.” This time, the references were almost exclusively to three things – dog fighting, cock fighting and Satanism.
Clicking on the links for satanic animal sacrifices, I remember I found lots of stuff about pentacles and grades of magus. About placing candles and prayers for Satan. And how to invoke Satan through his servants, Astoth, Mephistopholes and the rest. A complex process involving four levels of ritual, each with the sacrifice of a different level of being. “A male child of perfect innocence and high intelligence is the most satisfactory victim”, I learned from something called The Book of The Law. However, only the highest grade of mage, none of whom were thought to exist currently, could undertake this ceremony. And it had to be held at midnight, at the time of balance between the sun and the moon…
I’d read enough. I had a shop to run come the New Year. Whoever was doing this stuff was unlikely to be a Grand Magus. Far more likely it was a bunch of kids pissed up on cider and pills. Or some complete nutter of an adult. Still, better a sheep than someone down a pub one weekend, I supposed.
I closed the computer and nipped down to the shop to mark what was left of my stock up for the January sales. We’d had a brisk Christmas period, thank goodness: crafts and arts were the right thing to pick down here in the South-West. It’s as if people go all hippy when they get west of the M25.
Juliet and I had decided on a career change after we left London three years ago. She fell pregnant with Michael, and we agreed she was going to jack in the law, and I my job in advertising, for a simpler life. We flogged our two-bedroom flat in Crouch End for a mint and bought a tiny terraced house in a village half way between Exeter and Mousehole. So far so good: we had savings on the side, I was able to feed us from what we made out of my art supplies shop, and Jules was proving a wonderful mother to our little boy. You could definitely say we were happy – and not in that forced, I’m-missing-London-really way you hear so many yuppies deflate into when they retire to the Provinces at some point in their thirties.
Spring came in that very English way – late, after too long a winter, and at first with only the length of days to tell it apart from the previous season. Gradually it got warmer until we were able to take Michael out to the park and watch as he clambered ambitiously over the swings, roundabouts and frames meant for much older kids.
We were down the village park one Saturday in early April and Michael was doing his thing, swinging, jumping, playing and honking with delight. I was reading a book about the occult: I usually managed to read about one book a year in between the family and my job. So this year, it was Satanism, thanks to my Internet research. Quite a change from Monet or media buying in some ways, though I’d met enough characters in advertising who definitely had a whiff of the night about them.
Juliet sat next to me at the side of the sand-pit, shivering a little in a bright red dress and a slightly optimistic pair of shades. She jabbed me in the ribs with an elbow and leaned in to speak.
“Don’t say anything”, she muttered under her breath. “Look at him – over there. The fat bloke with the camera. I don’t like the look of him.”
I followed the nod of her head to an unremarkable, paunchy man in his late forties or early fifties. Curly hair and sunglasses straight out of a bad seventies rock band. A white shirt and unseasonable khaki shorts. And he was fat all right: belly straining his shirt buttons. He’d slung a couple of cameras, one with what I think was a telephoto lens, round his neck. These cameras were now perched on his paunch like birds of prey.
He was snapping pictures of two little girls dressed in gaudy party dresses as they flew up and down the bigger of the two slides in the playground.
“Ah, come on Jules,” I remonstrated. “He’s just a Daddy taking photos of his kids.”
“No he’s not. He’s dodgy. I can feel it. I don’t trust him.”
Our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of our little boy, who leapt into his mother’s arms and asked for some milk. Fair enough after his exertions on the swings. The three of us leaned in for a kiss and a cuddle and as I did so I smelt the usual fresh perfume of his skin suffused with the unmistakable odor of a used nappy.
Juliet looked at me with a sigh. “I’ll go and change him. Wait here.”
So I did as I was told. I sat on the bench and glanced through my book, mildly astonished at the crap these Satanists appeared to believe: “Worship of Satan is often linked to frustration and bitterness at one’s place in the world. Some people [not me, I thought] may be familiar with the Devil’s promise to Jesus during the last temptation in the desert: “Only follow and worship me, and all power and glory in the world shall be yours.” – scholars believe that Satanism’s emphasis on physical symbols such as ritual and sacrifice is rooted in the typical adherent’s material frustration…”
I looked up from my book. The fat man with the cameras was leading the two little girls towards an ice-cream van. They were squealing with delight at their impending treat and calling him Daddy.
I knew Jules was being overly suspicious, and told her so as soon as she got back from changing Michael, his mood brightened by having been properly cleaned and refreshed by his mother.
The next time it was a horse. And this time there was no doubt: they’d found the corpse with the genitals removed and the eyes poked out in the middle of a five-pointed star. The horses’ head had been cut off and placed on the third point of the star. Whoever had done this must have been disturbed at their work, since the horses’ body had been doused in petrol but not set alight.
Now that I’d done my background reading, I checked the cheesy calendar Jules’s mother always gave us at Christmas. Scenes of the Wirrall to match the seasons. For some reason best known to themselves, the calendar’s publishers had seen fit to include the phases of the moon in each month. Handy, I supposed, if you were a farmer, astronomer or somnambulist. Or a practicing Satanist.
As I’d suspected, the horse had been mutilated on the night of the first full moon after the Spring solstice. And it had happened (I would guess) at midnight. Of course, the police were saying nothing beyond the usual platitudes, and the local press were having a field day: FARMERS SOCKED BY CROCKED LIVESTOCK, and all the rest.
As a result of this “outrage”, the police “committed to conduct regular patrols of moorland and farm areas.” There could be (they said) no further disruptions to people’s lives and to those who earned their living from agriculture in the area.
Life went on, and the prospect of patrolling the moorland presumably grew less and less appealing as summer crept in, the days grew long and everyone from drunk teenagers, young lovers and young drunk teenage lovers invaded the heath, leaving tyre-treads, used condoms, crushed beer cans and other detritus in their wake. Who was going to risk committing the ritual sacrifice of animals (the local paper mused in an editorial about litter on the moor) when they had to wade through yards of gorse and prophylactic latex to find enough space to do it?
I’d been up in London seeing suppliers when it happened. You know how these things are: I had one too many over afternoon drinks with a bloke from a German oil paints company (his treat as usual) and got the last train back. It was a nice evening, late June I think, so I decided to walk home.
When I got back to our little two-up, two down I saw the police cars outside with their lights still going. I walked up to the door to be met by a policewoman in a flak jacket with the words INCIDENT SUPPORT UNIT on it. Clearly, they were taking no chances.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “I’m the homeowner.”
“I’m sorry – your son. He’s missing.”
I pushed past the person and walked through the door straight into the arms of another policewoman. Behind her, in the kitchen, I could see Juliet sobbing, her chest and shoulders flushed, her face the colour of boiled meat.
“Let me through. I need to speak to my wife” –
Rachel looked up and saw me. “Tom! Tom! It wasn’t my fault! I was five minutes late getting him from nursery – they don’t know where he’s gone! They were at the play-park. Mrs Novotna said she’d lined them all up, which is when she noticed he was missing…”
Then another paroxysm of tears hit her. I pushed past the arms of the policewoman and went to hold my wife. As I held her in my arms, snot running from her face on to my shoulder mixed with tears and perspiration, I saw the calendar on the wall.
The first full moon after the solstice was in one hour’s time. “At midnight, equal time between sun and moon…”
I kissed Juliet and sat her down. Two policewomen cooed and fussed over her, making reassuring noises and offering more tea. I turned and walked out of the house without a word. I had to find him – and I knew where to look…
At first, when I approached the clearing, I couldn’t see anything. I don’t know what I expected: fires, maybe, or chanting, or a load of nude art students dancing around a pole or something. But there was nothing. Clouds were scudding about the sky, cutting the scanty moonlight from time to time, the whole scene like a faulty light bulb in heaven.
As I walked across the clearing in the gorse, I saw the lines of the pentangle they had drawn. Again, not what I’d expected. I thought I’d see some kind of markings on the earth, or burnt grass – but they’d done it with a can of red spray paint, slicking the grass brown once the red paint mixed with it.
And that was when I saw the bundle on the fourth point of the pentangle. Some kind of greasy rag covering a shape. I walked over to it and threw up violently after a couple of steps, the stink of that afternoon’s beer covering my trousers and shoes. I dropped to my knees and kept moving as if some force had compelled me to crawl. And then I pulled off the cover.
They keep me here. “Under Observation”, they say. I know they think I did it. Those were the eyes that were his soul. Deep blue and shining, singing in their holes like the sea. O let not near the dog that’s friend to men. Juliet told them it wasn’t me, couldn’t be me, wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. Please, please, please. Life’s light extinguished.
Above all, I remember the eyes: how they’d ripped them out with a spoon, leaving dull pink holes scarred with dried blood and gore.
James Wood’s short fiction has appeared in the US, Canada and the UK – in The Bookends Review (US), The Old Verandah Swing (Canada) and in The Scotsman, where he was a prizewinner in the 2008 Scotsman/ORION Books Short Story competition. He is also the author of a pseudonymous thriller which was a bestseller in Scotland, and selected for the Rome Film Festival 2011.