This short story was originally featured in The Horla magazine around December 2021/January 2022. Unfortunately, the site has now closed after more than a decade of publishing excellent horror/dark fiction. I offer the story again below to save it from disappearing into the depths of time; other works have built upon the themes developed here, so I have no real desire to return to this one and attempt to get it published elsewhere. I’m not entirely pleased with how this story came out, in the end, and am a little taken aback even just a few months down the road by how much I submitted to a certain strain of Celtic romanticism. For all that, there are some good beginnings here. The other inspiration, apart from those mentioned in the text, was Flaubert’s ‘The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier’. The story is derived from a bit of Hampshire folklore concerning a rider’s encounter with a mysterious pipe-playing fairy boy who rewarded his listener’s attempts to see him by disappearing.
The Stray Sod
(For D.A. MacManus)
“Give me your hand! So, keeping close to me,
Shut tight your eyes! Step Forward!
Where are we?”
– James Stephens
He detested the green. He detested the endless, boundless, infinite green, dismal in its magnitude and swept by sore sea-salt wind. He detested the weeping trees and the scents of wet oak and sodden grass that hung to his clothes and his horse’s hair. It was Spring, horrible sneaky Spring, and not Autumn, but the leaves were so heavy with their heavenly burden that they fell from their branches all the same, and covered the road in an inches-thick crinkling carpet that made progress a chore. Life was, however, so freshly and richly abundant at this moment that the trees could shed leaves by the thousand, and the vista before Humphrey would never be any barer or in any more danger of revealing what it so devotedly- so viciously- hid behind the foliage.
The horse was tired. Humphrey could feel its steps faltering and its long, deep breaths starting to rattle between its ribs. Its chest and stomach rose and fell fiercely against his legs. He would have to stop soon. The journey home could no longer go uninterrupted.
Humphrey turned his eyes to the sky, a thin grey-blue sheet touched by the palest of light. The clouds were the clouds of a miserable and disillusioned painter’s weary daydreams, he thought; not the clouds of heaven, as seen in the devotionals, but something more real, less idealistic. These were the clouds of true life, life on earth, a hazy mundane thing that seemed to quench poetry and romance in favour of the long drag of monotony. No fervent-eyed saint could kneel and raise his pleading face to this sky and receive his blessings of fire and gold; he would instead only slink back to his hovel or his draughty monastery questioning his faith and cursing the dampness of his knees.
Humphrey’s hawk was nowhere to be seen. This angered him. Unlike the hounds, he had not given it any signal to race off towards home. He called to it, and made motions extravagant enough to be spotted by it in its long-distant gliding, but the bird continued to scorn him. Humphrey began to wonder whether it would ever return. It had never been well-behaved, seemingly relishing each and every opportunity to create some sort of mischief once its hood had been removed, and this appeared to be its final closing act of petulant rebellion.
Two rabbits, wan and starved things very far from being proud specimens, hung from Humphrey’s saddle, joined by no larger or more glorious prizes. These creatures were the sum total treasure of his hunt, and they formed a mockery of his ambition and skill that surely surpassed even the indignity of returning home entirely empty-handed. He could, on this evidence, make no great claim about the forest being cleared of animal life by some curse or quirk of the weather that had sent all local inhabitants scurrying back to their burrows and dens for a lengthy hibernation; the suggestion was only one of a failure of eyesight, knowledge and physical training on his part.
Humphrey thought of his father and felt his jaw set and an ache roll through his skull. The bastard, the fool, the scourge. Humphrey could see him in his favourite chair before the fire, his weak arms resting on the ornately carved and looping arms, his stomach swollen from his daily exercise in excess.
A long time ago, when Humphrey was a child, his dear cowled tutor had told him tales of old heroes from the years before his family had established itself. He had heard of the great feasts that followed a hard-won victory, but he saw now while thinking on his father, how grotesque those indulgences must have been. He pictured indolent knights, still half-dressed in their armour, collapsed against walls, snoring and wheezing like great sows, while wrapped up in the tapestries that told grand falsehoods about their exploits. There was no romance in such behaviour. No glory. The orgies surely turned strong men into porcine abominations or slumbering dogs, panting as they lost themselves in the winding tower staircases of their lying memories. Useless men. Useless. Fit for nothing now.
What was worse was that Humphrey’s father would undoubtedly mock him upon his return today. From his fat lips would tumble the same old stories of the wonderful hunts of his youth, despite the long years that had passed since he had last bothered to put on his riding gear or called for a man to carry his banners and fix a weapon to his side. Whatever Humphrey brought home his father had unerringly once bought to the hearth three or four times as much of. The bucks of the old gamekeepers had become, somewhere among the retellings, beasts of mythic proportions, with antlers or teeth so large they’d have sent the devil himself racing back to hell with his tail between his hooves. Hogs had then fed the families to the land- who were gifted Christmas meats in return for their hard slog throughout the year in what were supposedly tear-provoking displays of Christian charity- almost from one winter to the next. Wolves had slunk from between the hazels and the ashes and been dispatched as easily as if they carried no more threat than a house sparrow.
Humphrey spat on the ground. Two rabbits. Only two rabbits. He’d be hearing about this for months to come. It would sustain his father more surely than any barrel of ale or wine, any trimming of meat with the fat left on. He took his sword from his side and flung it into the green. The ground was so thick and spongy that the weapon made no sound as it disappeared within the bunches of ragwort.
Humphrey cursed his time. He cursed the green. He cursed his father. He started in a whisper but ended with his throat hoarse. He came close to cursing God loudly enough for the Lord to hear him. Everything around Humphrey seemed like a bitter twist, a monochromatic mockery, for surely- surely- there had never been another age so dead, so lifeless, so devoid of interest or activity; so possessed of fools, idiotic plotters, men of idle boasts and tiny wisdom with their eyes shaded by their own mental and physical decrepitude. The great ones, never truly great, like his father persisted always; they kept a bony and unfortunate grasp on life with their skeletal fingers and led the rest of the world into the same inertia that was their comfort in what seemed set to be, sadly and tormentingly, centuries-long retirements.
It was then that everything around Humphrey suddenly seemed not just dull, but full of real malignancy and malice. The peasants had pierced snails on the sharpest blades of the thorn and left them there to wither, as was their wont when suffering from some bone-chilled illness or other. The tangled drooping branches of the alder trees formed nooses, suspended above the arrow-straight track, and the mistletoe shrubs and blossoms of meadowsweet, cow parsley, and wood anemone sighed hexes and recriminations. He saw this landscape, with all these symbols of death, not as his birthright, but as something belonging solely to the living corpses that were his elders. It had been formed and shaped entirely by them; it was theirs as truly as their own bodies were, and each spring brought forth buds that were simply festering boils and blisters upon a stretched and decaying skin.
It was while his mind was turned in such a dismal direction that Humphrey first heard the music of the other place. The Middle Kingdom, as also spoken of in whispers by his old tutor, was coming through to him on the wind, although he did not yet know it.
The tune was weak at first, formed from shaky breaths filtered through the most primitive of pipe instruments. But it rose in strength and piquancy; the melody became almost too sweet for words, too pregnant with feeling, too suggestive of half-formed childhood images and long-forgotten things to be withstood. It was like no tune that Humphrey knew; it bore no resemblance to the chesty and drunken roars familiar from the singing of his fellow hunters, the pomp and valour of the court musicians, or even the pitiful and wistful warbling of the peasant ballads. There was nothing either of the church music that had once moved him so deeply on his early trips to the cold stone of the chapel.
Humphrey looked around for the source of this divine air but saw no one and nothing but the wood. The sound seemed to be trickling down from the top of a yew beside the road. It continued and his face became wet. The tears did not fall hard, but they dribbled so insistently that that they began to rest in every slight ravine, every trace of a pockmark, every tender emerging wrinkle on his face.
Then it moved- the tune came from beside and below his horse. The mysterious musician was now so close that Humphrey could hear each reviving breath, each note, ever-so-slightly vibrating the thin wood of the flute. He was about to turn his head to acknowledge his companion when the tune stopped, and a voice spoke from his side. It was a boyish voice but altered in some way, submerged as if coming from the bottom of a stream or the thickest tangle of thorn.
“You should not look. You have other things to see than me. If you try again, I’ll be gone.”
The air began again. Humphrey’s pride smarted; who was this little mop to command him? Did he not know who he was? Humphrey may not admire his father, but he could still surely call on his revered name to summon half-believed but wholly feared red-skied nightmares of torture and barbarity and visions of maggot-ridden wounds left to fester in dark prayer-less solitude.
The sting of the insult faded, and another notion came upon him at last. He had the fear he wanted the child to feel then, and he knew it in full.
“Are you fay?”
No response. No response but the song soaring and cresting. Mist descended upon Humphrey’s eyes.
“Are you fay?”
Still no answer. The white fog spread from the corners of Humphrey’s vision to cover all before him. He was reminded of spider webs, and he imagined himself cocooned on the side of a black elm deep in the forest, awaiting the giant and godless creature that was possibly the master of this siren-sprite. The fog- the web- turned to gold, red, green. The hunter wanted to dive from his mare. He began singing, below his breath for worry of the other-child turning on him, one of the songs that he’d heard drifting across his father’s fields around harvest’s turn when the men took their ploughs to the dismal earth and prepared their offerings with trembling hands. It was a song designed to fortify, but it did not fulfill its one function now.
“Are you fay?”
Humphrey managed to ask the question for a final time, although he could not understand why he still felt the need. The answer was known already. The child belonged to the hills, the mounds, as completely as his hounds belonged to him.
Then the forest was gone. All he saw was the night and no North Star for guidance. No stars at all.
Slowly- slowly- the environs returned to him, but their character, their appearance, had definitively altered with their disappearance. The forest was wilder than he had ever seen it- darker and thicker and full of brambles that tugged at his clothes and ripped the skin of his horse. The track he always followed was gone, and so was the child, but the tune lingered like a sad memory.
Flashes of movement amongst the trees caught Humphrey’s attention and he wished he had not been so childish as to throw his sword away. He took his bow in hand and fingered an arrow in his quiver. Alas, what he saw next frightened him so that his hand dropped back to his side, the projectile no longer seeming like weapon enough for such swift-footed and mysterious demons.
Beside the road, nestled in flattened beds of grass and shrub, were stone heads. Their faces were cold and impassive, suggestive to him of the sober and terrible judgement of heathen Gods. Some of the heads had eyes crudely carved in, or holes filled with glowing miniature white stones; while others had only tiny puncture holes where eyes would be; in any case, the effect was the same, redolent of a blind sight that was more powerful and far beyond the range of his own. The heads seemed to possess their own strange wisdom, and he found it too all-consuming to stand. These were the idols, the icons of a something and a somewhere else, but a somewhere else that hung on the edges of his recognition. He had always felt it- he knew, somehow- faintly there, present and ready to come to him when he had stalked the forest in its more familiar state as a child.
Then other faces appeared between the tree trunks: human faces, but so dirty and tinged with dye that they barely seemed so. These faces also gazed at him, and he gazed back. There was little movement on either side other than the slow ambling forwards of Humphrey’s horse, which had barely seemed to notice the change in surroundings or the injuries it was sustaining as a result. He could not tell if these people were preparing an attack or appearing simply as a welcome, providing him with a form of company for his lonely procession. He knew- instinctually- that what he was travelling through belonged to these beings; indeed, he felt the ownership of his father and his kind receding further with each step. Below the ground, he could sense the presence of these people’s dead, and further, he knew that should he ever doubt any of this, then their mouldering remains were ready to rise to the surface to claim final possession of the greenwood.
Then the spider-web returned, followed by the colours and finally the blackness.
When his sight was again restored, Humphrey dearly wished that it had not been. He was afeared now, more truly than he had been at any moment since the fay had first taken up its plaintive piping.
The forest, the green, had been entirely removed. In its place was an expanse so bleak, so cold and so hard that he felt like weeping again.
All was brown and grey, stretching as far to the horizon as the eye could turn. The clouds above had thickened so substantially that there was no longer any blue to be seen between them, and this change only strengthened the miserable aspect of the scene, the wind-freeze of desolation, the starkness of the pure anonymity.
Humphrey feared that this was the world after a scourge. It seemed like his God- or those Gods represented in the stone icons- had cast a final judgement, or something close to it, and removed from creation all splendour. Left in the wake of the former treasures was only a limbo that nourished and supported none of the unfortunates left to wander the maze as damned and stupefied wraiths.
Facing Humphrey was row after row of almost identical somber and squat squares, shaped like child’s tombs, but with bricks the colour of the dullest clays. From their shadowed sloping roofs, smokeless chimneys, black windows, and panelled decoration, he could tell that these were dwellings. Something like lanterns sat atop long greasy grey poles, but no one was around to benefit from the intense luminescence of these captured stars, or to take shelter in their pools of unholy gold.
Long, dark things, gleaming slightly in the false light as if covered by serpent scale, slumbered before the doors of each dwelling, sometimes in multiple, but never awake. They had strange wheels, but it was hard to imagine a man or oxen that could find the courage to pull them. They appeared instead as a sort of half-alive night guard, blind wardens, ensuring that whoever was unlucky enough to live within these clay blocks never ventured out, and never tasted the air that was cloying and suffocating.
In making sense of this brown, brown, brown wasteland, Humphrey began to see, clearly and mournfully, that this was no work of God. No supernatural force had wiped away the forest. Everything that stood before him was the work of human hands. The understanding hit him with the force of a spear. The hard grey ground sent his horses’ steps echoing through this valley of Death. He saw himself akin to one making the final lonesome trudge into the maw of the afterlife, forced to hear each footfall closer sound with a perfect ringing clarity that served as an ironic reminder of a life well-wasted at each of its stages.
Here, the dominance of men like Humphrey’s father, once read in the detail of his known forest, was ever more inescapable and seemed so much more like a vengeful act against an indentured people held in contempt. Nothing was permitted to remain that hinted at a life force, a reason for being, that could not be contained, seized upon, or controlled by a powerful man. The wild forest was gone precisely because it had been wild; because cultivation might have made some impact upon the rhythms of its seasonal lives, but would always fail to overwhelm the fullness of its remote power, the force of its tyrannical concentration upon its own continuation and its own flourishing. Where once it had been needed, or so thought, to provide a home for sport, the point of such meagre entertainment had been found wanting when the entire world, and all it contained, could be a plaything.
The structures before Humphrey were dead objects. They had not been built by the people who used them but were constructed and destroyed according to another’s whim, and when they were disposed of, they were not permitted to return unless the guiding hand decided to put them back from a sense of cold-hearted generosity. Their continuance was the decision of their Lord; the people stayed inside them, in darkness, because if they left, or made their presence felt too strongly, then the guiding hand might not be stayed. No provocation could be risked. The false lanterns would shine through the night. Men were never sent to chop down their poles and extinguish their suns, because while they stood the people could never forget that someone else had made all this, that someone else had given it to them, and they were allowed to exist within it purely because of largesse or obscure temporary need, and it could all be removed if so desired. They were forever living in and at mercy.
Humphrey escaped from his thoughts- guided, he felt, by some invisible teacher- and heard again the fairy boy’s tune. He clung to it with the fervour of a zealot, the maddest of all pilgrims. He breathed great lungfuls of the sticky air, hoping he could ingest the song, let it fill his body with its magic, its power, its promise of another world, another kingdom, freer than this one and possessed of gentler, fairer rules and rites. Somewhere in the distance, beyond the music, a low roar and the sound of mocking angel’s horns never abated.
He began to wish himself back amongst the dyed savages of the forest he had seen earlier; he longed to be a part of their world, a participant in their submission to the vagaries of nature, not to the worthless words and fabricated doings of old men. To be a part of that distant age seemed at that moment the only way out of his own, without the means of entry to the fay world. Humphrey imagined himself liberating those forced to exist within the time he currently saw around him. Casting further out, he imagined himself battling for the lost forest at the moment of its razing, eradicating any potentiality of the future birth of this place. He saw himself immortalised in stained-glass memorials, thanked by the blessed and saved people who contemplated his image. He screwed his eyes shut with the wanting. Blot it all out. Let it all go. Strike it through with the sword, then let it bleed out and swing the carcasses of the cursed worlds across the saddle alongside the rabbits. He mimed the motions. He screamed.
Light hit him, penetrated him. He opened his eyes. The forest had returned. The forest he knew. The horse continued on the old familiar track. The boy was again at his side. The tune was clearer than ever, and it had struck upon a new timbre, more lilting and hopeful. He turned to look at the child. A branch of ash knocked his hat down over his eyes. He lifted it, pulling himself out of the temporary night. The boy was gone as if he had sunk or dove into the very earth beneath their feet. The tune, however, remained. It was trying to tell him something. He heard that something.
Magic would remain. The tune had been there at all times, past, present and future. It was still here with him now. No matter what happened, no matter what the old men did to the world, they could never silence it. It was the one thing they couldn’t reach, the one thing they could not strip the life from, the one thing which they could never control. As long as it could be summoned by someone- or arrive of its own accord, to fulfill its secret purpose, as it had today- there was hope, a beautiful, divine promise of a blessed something else that may one day open up and envelop all before it. The wound of the world had a bandage. There would always be a Middle Kingdom, waiting behind it all. One just had to push-
Rain fell from the perfectly blue and unspoilt sky. The rain was gold-tinted. He rose his face to it. The hawk flew above.
When Humphrey looked down, he again saw the horrible sight before him: the grey, the brown, the inhumanity, the harshness. But the clouds had broken here too. A window across the way from him was alive with a burning glint; he knew the magic was in this gleam of brilliant sunlight, the last from an orb that set through the coldness of the evening and the softness of the rain. He knew it. He breathed it, as he couldn’t before. Bells rang to him from the distance of his own time, and he sang the tune with them and against them. He thought of his father. Laughter mingled with his song. All was as close to a new Heaven as it was an old Hell.
“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
– W. B. Yeats