Glenhead by Samuel Best

The old farmhouse sat in the crux of a glen deep in the lowlands, watched on either side by two great bramble-covered hills. To the north sat Bentudor, and to the south, Dungarry. The night was clear and bright and still, and the farmhouse slept well in the comfort of the valley. It was a large three-storey building made from grey stone quarried nearby and built by men long since dead. As you approached on the long, rough gravel track from the east, the house had its back to you – a quirk often remarked upon by visitors – and it wasn’t until you had passed over the cattle grid and turned in the driveway, that you met the front. To the north of the house was a long, thin garden which fell gently downhill to meet the wide burn running through the glen. The garden was well-kept and carefully tended near the house but grew more wild as it fell closer to the burn. There grew bushes with sharp thorns and jagged thistles, and Emma, who at this point in the night was beginning to stir from her sleep, had been warned many times by her grandmother to avoid that place.

Emma’s grandmother was a powerhouse of a woman, idolised by the young girl, and well-liked in the nearby town. She was something of a local historian, and her strong will combined with her love of folklore had led her to many years of detailed research on her community. Emma had that very night spent the evening listening to her grandmother regale her with stories of the Rerrick Poltergiest – said to have haunted a farm just a few miles down the road – and the cannibals who would lure travellers across acrid mudflats before carving fillets from their drowned bodies. It was not the fault of nightmares which woke Emma, though. Instead, it was a low call blowing through the glen on the wind. Emma fancied that she had been aware of it even as she slept, so soft was the cry, but that it had been insistent and troubling enough that it had eventually brought her back to waking.

Emma was a girl imbued with a strong sense of right and wrong and a deep love of animals. Her grandmother had nurtured this whenever Emma returned to the farmhouse from boarding school, by encouraging her to take up small jobs at other, still-working farmhouses nearby. As Emma rose from her bedsheets, it was these memories of which she thought. She believed the cry to be an animal – something large, like a bull, perhaps – in distress. Emma lighted a candle and took it over to the window. Like many dotted around the house, it sat in a small brass dish, and Emma balanced this on the dresser as she pulled the curtain aside. The fields were still, the road empty. Emma looked as far left and right as she could, catching just the feet of Bentudor and Dungarry in the moonlight, but there was no movement at all.

Emma considered going back to bed, thinking perhaps she had perceived the sound wrongly in her sleep, but as she picked up the candle she heard the call once more. She turned back to the window and lifted the catch. The frame was stiff and heavy, close to being painted shut, but Emma managed to raise it an inch or two, allowing the cold autumn air to seep into the room. She crouched, her ear level with the gap in the window, and listened.

Convinced more than ever that there was an animal in need of help, Emma pulled on her boots and wrapped her dressing gown over her nightdress. She walked quickly and softly to her bedroom door and tried the handle. It opened with a stiff, grating motion, and Emma tiptoed out onto the top floor landing. The farmhouse always looked so different in candlelight, Emma had often thought, and this night it was no different. By day, it had a wholesome, warm charm which mirrored the personality of her grandmother; but by night the house seemed to lurk with something unsettling, as if everything in it were displaced by a fraction of an inch, just enough to upset one’s natural memory of the place.

Emma stepped along the landing, her eyes fixed on her grandmother’s door. Although she knew very well the trouble in which she would find herself upon waking her grandmother, Emma weighed this against the morality of leaving an animal in clear distress. She decided her grandmother would at the very least understand the reasoning behind her rule-breaking, and would potentially soften her punishment with a degree of sympathy. Her grandmother’s door fell more and more into the candlelight as Emma grew closer, and when she stopped outside she listened for a moment. There had been nights, long ago now, when Emma had snuck out to explore the farmhouse – usually after a long stretch at her school and upon returning finding the property only like a distantly familiar face – and had found herself listening at this very door to her grandmother singing gently to herself, or listening to the gramophone. This night, however, the entire farmhouse was still, and Emma could hear nothing more than the faint cry coming from outside across the fields.

Emma raised her hand and knocked gently. She waited, but heard no reply.

‘Grandmother?’ she called, her voice breaking from a whisper halfway through the word.

Still she was met with silence, and so Emma went to try the door handle. This, she knew, was another action likely to lead her into trouble. Her grandmother was as strict about leaving one’s room beyond bedtime as she was about entering a closed room without permission – most specifically, entering her bedroom without permission. Emma had made that mistake only once, the first summer she spent at Glenhead, and had run into her grandmother’s room just before bedtime to find the old woman pouring a large measure of spirits from a crystal decanter. She hadn’t been able to sit down without wincing for days thereafter. Emma hesitated, the sting of the memory still fresh enough, before determinedly turning the handle and pushing the door open.
Inside, her grandmother’s bedroom was austere – a contrast to some of the other rooms in the house; the study, and kitchen, for example. Directly in front of Emma sat a small bed, neatly made with a single pillow at the head, and to the left a small chest of drawers and a dressing table. Upon the dressing table was a single wooden box and a bone hairclip. Emma moved to the bed and held the candle closer. The bed had not been slept in. She wondered the time, guessing that it must be well into those secret hours after midnight in which she had been told warlocks and devils walk. Emma felt a knot of worry tighten in her stomach.

‘Grandmother?’ she called again, but there was no reply.

Emma walked to the window and held open the curtains. Her grandmother’s bedroom, facing north, had a wider view of the garden and beyond, the foot of Bentudor. The far stretch of the garden was perhaps the one place in the glen impenetrable by moonlight. The branches grew too wildly there, knitting together to form a kind of foliage grotto near the streaming burn. Emma found that her eyes were drawn to the shadowy place, and opened her grandmother’s window to get a better impression. The animal call sounded louder as Emma lifted the catch, and once more Emma crouched to fall level with the opening in the window. A slight breeze blew up and Emma smelled the cold scent of fresh, night-time air. It brought with it the troubling cry, and Emma’s eyes were still unable to pick out the very end of the garden with any detail. It seemed to her, though, that this was where the sound was originating from. The cry was louder in this room than in her own, and even her child’s logic dictated that as this was the only part of the glen she was unable to see, it must be home to the source of the noise. Emma decided to step out into the night and investigate further.

She walked downstairs, no longer putting such effort into being stealthy since her grandmother was absent, and when she reached the ground floor she skirted the house, checking occasionally lest her grandmother be found in some other room, before unlocking the back door. Emma drew her dressing gown tighter around herself before moving along the garden path, shielding the candle flame from the breeze with her hand. The moonlight was holding strong, which helped her pick her way through the rose bushes, the rhododendrons, the honeysuckle.

She felt the ground begin to slope downwards as she moved into her grandmother’s small vegetable garden – the furthest point she was allowed to tread in the entire grounds of the house. Still the breeze brought with it the terrible lowing sound, and Emma became more emboldened as she grew closer to the bottom of the garden. The sound was clearly issuing from the darkness there and she tried to imagine what she would do once she arrived. Her grandmother was nowhere to be found, she realised, which meant she would be alone in dealing with whatever it was down at the burn. When she had worked the farms during previous summers there had always been someone around to ask for help if required. She had brought John to the birthing ewe, and told Daniel about the break in the fence down at the Hass riverbank. Emma suddenly felt very much like a young girl; an immaturity she had not been conscious of to this degree before. The worlds of children and adults began to feel incredibly different to her then, as her imagination took hold and created fanciful scenarios of exactly what she would find at the bottom of the garden.

The single thing she had not expected to find, however, was what she did, ultimately. A tiny part of her had even imagined that she would find her grandmother bellowing down there in the shadows, but that was not the case. Instead, Emma had found her grandmother standing knee-deep in the freezing burn, her nightdress washing around her legs like seaweed, as silent as Dungarry.

Emma had placed her candle on a large stone jutting out from the bank, and reached for her grandmother’s hand. The distance was too great, and ultimately Emma was forced to walk a few steps into the water in order to reach her. The leather of her boots did nothing to stop the water from touching her skin and Emma had led out a little cry when the cold first bit. Her voice was like a glass breaking compared to the silence around them, and it was only then that her grandmother seemed to acknowledge her presence.

Emma followed her grandmother’s gaze and looked at her own hand, clasped tightly around the old woman’s. She started as she saw an oily slick of blood staining the skin. Emma felt her stomach turn, much as it had when John had asked her to stay and help with the lambing. She remembered his forearms shining greasy with viscera and began to feel incredibly faint. The darkness around the two of them seemed to swell then, and as it did the lowing started up again. Emma’s grandmother turned them both to face the source, her face still blank and dazed as a soldier’s, one wizened, crimson finger stretching out to point. The cry was deep and loud and sorrowful, and sang through the glen in harmony with Emma’s own high scream, the two sounds twining closely until the young girl fainted mutely in the darkness.

***

Samuel Best's short fiction has been published in magazines in Britain, North America, and Scandinavia. His début novel 'Shop Front' has been described as 'A howl and a sigh from Generation Austerity' and he founded literary magazine Octavius. You can find more of his writing at samuelbest.weebly.com.

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