1st Prize (2019/20) - On Talan Moor by Alastair Chisholm
On Talan Moor
by Alastair Chisholm
On Talan Moor my brother’s body lies.
I do not know where he is. The ground is soft there, waterlogged and filthy. It grasps at you; the earth sucks your boots, the endless tattered land steals your bearings, and your hope. To go onto Talan Moor at night is to risk disappearing forever, they say; once lost on that misery of a landscape, no one ever returns. To go onto Talan Moor at night is madness.
My brother is not mad, in the way people measure it. He tells me that himself, days before, as we sit in the tavern on a blustery evening.
“Why does no one else understand?” he asks me. “It is about will, that is all. The will to take, to control. Nothing else matters. There’s no God, no matter what that fool Mayhew spouts from his pulpit. God is weakness! People are weak, and they call themselves good.”
He finishes his drink and hails the barmaid. She’s a young girl, short and plump, with cheeks red from the warmth of the tavern, and he gazes at her as she approaches, his lip curled. When he smiles like this the corners of his mouth open slightly, revealing strong yellow teeth.
The girl places our drinks on the table, not meeting his eye.
“Thank you,” he says, grandly. “Here’s something for you,” and he flicks a silver coin into the air. When her eyes follow it, he lunges up and kisses her hard on the lips. Startled, she tries to pull away, but one hand grasps her rump and squeezes, trapping her, before he lets her go.
She stumbles back, blushing, shocked, and he studies her with a sharp, hungry smile.
“Get it, then,” he says. “You’ve earned it, eh?”
Blushing further, she crouches and retrieves the coin, and retreats to the bar. He grins.
“What?” he says, looking at me. I say nothing. He raises an eyebrow.
“Disapproval, is it?”
“Poor Joanna, waiting at home while her husband takes his fun, is that it?”
I glance down at the table, away from his face. He is still grinning, but one hand is clenched in a fist.
“I’ll take what fun I want,” he says. “Understand? It’s mine for taking, and if that bitch in my house doesn’t like it, she should make an effort herself.”
Now his voice becomes sly. “Or perhaps you’d like to be consoling her, eh? Is that it? I see how you watch her … brother.”
“No!” I protest. “I would never—”
He laughs. “No, you would never. You’re too … good.”
My brother is popular in the village; or rather, he is known, and people are careful to welcome him. A large man, with a booming laugh, and dark eyes that stare for too long, and a smile that means nothing. He’s handsome, in a cruel way; rich from father’s estates, fearless, strong. His is the grinding handshake crushing your fingers, the arm around your shoulder like a vice. He controls us all.
He leaves me and joins another table, where men of the village are discussing the beast. It has taken more cattle, two sheep from Morgan’s farm with their throats ripped out. It might be a wolf, they say, perhaps more than one. People are scared. My brother’s voice cuts across their talk.
“If there’s a beast, we catch it,” he says. “Catch it and kill it. We’re men, here, are we not?”
The others are uncertain, but he slaps them on their backs, laughs, stares them down, mocking their fear. They are scared, but more scared of my brother. He holds the lease to many of their farms. His laughter is cruel.
They agree a hunting party for the morning. My brother orders more drinks, and when the girl appears, he leers at her. In the corner, I sit alone at our table and sip my ale, and then another, and another. When I leave, bleary-eyed and throat red from smoke, the night is quiet. From behind the tavern I hear the sound of a woman’s protest, and my brother’s laughter. I wrap my thin coat around me and stumble home, past his house, and Joanna. Beautiful, kind Joanna, who was once so happy and bright, and who now rarely says a word, or even looks up.
I do not look at his house.
In the morning we huddle in the square. Some of us are hungover, but my brother is in fine pink form, in his huge blue overcoat and black boots. His voice echoes against the village buildings. It is a foggy day, and the world is white and cold and uncaring.
We set out to catch the beast.
We have no horses; horses are useless on the moor. I don’t know why we assume the beast will be on the moor. Perhaps Talan Moor is simply a place where things like the beast would dwell. My brother strides while we trudge behind. He splits us into groups, and together we quarter the land.
We search for hours. My brother carries our father’s sword, and his pistols in his belt, though the air is surely too damp for them to fire. I hold a rough wooden cudgel. Others have scythes, or pitchforks, an ancient pike. We talk, but the wind steals our words, cuts them into fluttery weak scraps, and soon we fall silent. Only his voice remains.
The landscape tricks us. Yellow grass conceals rocks, or holes, or springing bushes that tangle our feet. Water glistens in the air. The man next to me, Tanner, wheezes. He is a strong man but unused to walking the moor, and he is limping. The world is still white, and silent save for the gasp and curse of men.
At midday we huddle together and eat, standing, for it is too wet to sit. My brother comes around with a flask of rum and his hard, cheery smile, smirking as if we amuse him.
Jacob Treweny, an old farmer, mutters something.
“What?” asks my brother.
“I said, bugger this,” says Treweny, louder. Perhaps the rum has given him confidence. He faces my brother. “I got sheep to tend at home. I reckon we should call it a day.”
My brother smiles. He takes another mouthful of rum, though his eyes never leave Treweny’s.
“We’ll go a bit further,” he says.
We look at him, and then at Treweny. Treweny swallows.
“Well,” he says at last. “Maybes a bit further.”
My brother shakes his head. As he turns, he lets his face fall into an expression of contempt.
“Move on,” he orders.
We search all afternoon, but find nothing, and I watch my brother’s mood dissolve. Now he is angry. He snaps at the others, takes longer pulls from his flask, stalks ahead and curses us for sluggards. When another man suggests we should stop, he cuffs him around the head and calls him coward.
It grows dark. We light our lamps and I realise that some of us have slipped away, back to the village. In twos and threes, for no one would ever go alone. Now there are only a dozen of us. Now six.
“Brother,” I say at last. “It’s too dark. Let us start again tomorrow.”
He turns and snarls, whipping his sword through the long grass around him. He staggers; he’s more drunk than I thought.
“He’s right,” says Treweny. “Come on, now. Be sensible—”
My brother swings one arm around and smashes his sword hilt into Treweny’s face, knocking him to the ground.
“Cowards,” he hisses. He seizes a lamp and marches away himself. “Weak.”
The fog, and the night, swallow him up. We stare at each other, ashamed. Treweny groans.
“We shouldn’t leave him alone,” says one of them.
They look at me.
My brother is … he is a bad man, I know. But I remember Joanna. A woman needs her husband, surely? And he is my brother. I hesitate.
Then there is a sound, a shout of surprise and anger. My brother’s voice! Without thinking, I rush into the dark after him, ten yards, twenty, fifty. The calls of the others fade away. I make out a tiny flicker of light in the distance and find him with one leg deep in the mud, cursing. He is trapped. I realise, with a shock, that for the first time I remember, he is vulnerable.
And as I realise this, I feel something else around us.
The wind drops and I think I hear a snuffling, snarling sound. A heavy thick stench hangs like copper, like foetid breath. My head pounds.
“Brother!” I hiss. “Brother!”
He turns, raises his lamp and sword. I sense the beast nearby, beyond the lamplight, watching—
He looks at me, and for a moment his face, so unafraid, shifts, and shadows form, and his mouth opens—
And then there is red.
I stagger away. My leg is bleeding, my lamp lost on the ground, in the bog. There is snarling, and a high sound of a wail, and a curse, and then a, a splintering of something oh God oh Jesus Mary Joseph saints help me, a howl…
And now I am running. It is black as all hell, the moor pulls at me, I run blind, terrified. There is something wrong with my left leg. Sounds like sobs leak from my mouth. I run forever, I am exhausted; there is nothing left of me; I cannot take another step. I run, and I sob, and I hear the beast—
Tanner’s face, and the light of a lamp that blinds me. There are others with him, the remains of the hunting party. I collapse to my knees, then to the ground, and someone hauls me out of the wet earth.
“He’s hurt!” they say.
“Are you hurt?”
I stare up. Tanner peers at me.
“Where is your brother?” he shouts.
We stumble back to the village, by the light of our one remaining lamp. There are torches burning and the others are waiting for us, the women, too. In shadows at the back I see Joanna’s face, white and scared.
They make me tell my story again. As I speak, the men cross themselves, surreptitiously, as if not wanting to show their fear.
“And you saw the beast?” asks Tanner.
“I …” I think of the smell of blood. “I smelled it. I saw the blood.” Tanner nods.
“And your brother,” he says. “He’s dead?”
“Yes,” I whisper.
“But you’re sure?” he asks. His voice changes, slightly. “You’re sure he’s really dead?”
Tanner looks at the others. Nobody speaks. Jacob Treweny, his face still bloody, spits on the ground and walks away.
When I look back, Joanna has gone.
At the funeral, Pastor Mayhew describes my brother’s bravery, and his indomitable will. We place a marker stone for him, next to our father’s grave. No one, I realise, has suggested returning to the moor to retrieve his body.
Joanna is there, in black, her face as pale as ever, her lips compressed into a white line. I can still see a faint shadow of bruise on her cheek, a last token from her husband. But the bruise fades; within a week it has gone, and colour begins to return to her. I call on her each day to make sure she is well, that she has wood for winter, that the fences are mended. We talk, though never of him. Sometimes she cries. One time, she glances at me and smiles.
There are no more attacks on sheep. Perhaps, someone suggests, my brother killed the beast with his dying blow? I shrug. My leg hurts, but it is healing. In the mornings I taste the bright winter air when I breathe, and the smoke from wood fires, and each breath seems deeper than before; as if there is more room, and a cleaner sky.
In the first week of February I receive a letter asking me to travel to London to meet with my brother’s former solicitors. They are handling his estate, and I am due to inherit. It will be a long journey, and in the evening I walk to my brother’s house – my house, I consider, suddenly – to tell Joanna I will be gone for a few days.
As soon as I arrive, I know something is wrong. I feel it; a shift in the air, a sour hint of copper. The door opens before the first knock has died away, and Joanna is there.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. Her face is like bone, her eyes black and tiny. There is a drop of blood on her chin, bright and terrified; she has bitten her lip. “Joanna, what is it?”
She opens her mouth to answer, but no words come out. I push the door open, step past her. The house is dark. Something moves. I hear a skittering sound, like bone on stone.
“Who’s there?” I say, foolishly. As if I didn’t know. “Show yourself!”
And a voice from the hall whispers, “Brother…”
I peer into the darkness, and he steps forward.
He is hunched, and seems shrunken inside his overcoat. He wears gloves, and a thick scarf, but I can see his face, and it is him. He is pale, and his face is thinner. But the eyes.
“I am home,” he says. “I am home, brother.”
I say nothing. The air is ripe with wet fur and blood. He smiles.
“It took me some time. I’m weak.”
He is weak. Frail, gaunt, his body wasted. But his eyes … I am still holding the door handle. I haven’t moved any further. Beside me, Joanna trembles almost invisibly, like a violin string.
“You’ve been visiting my wife,” he continues. “Keeping her warm, eh?”
At this I almost protest, but he waves one arm – one thin, ruined arm, lost in the sleeve of his coat – at a pile of wood by the fire in the main room, and chuckles.
“Brother,” I manage at last. “Brother, I…”
“You left me on the moor.” He shrugs. “Well. You thought I was dead, after all.”
“Brother,” I say again. “Thank … Thank god you’re alive.”
He seems to find this amusing.
“Alive. Yes. And hungry, eh? But Joanna is making supper, are you not?” His eyes leave mine at last as he turns to her.
“Yes,” she whispers. She makes to walk past him, but he reaches out and touches her, and she freezes. His hand appears misshapen inside its glove. He strokes her cheek.
“Why are you here, brother?” he murmurs.
I lick my lips. He watches me. “I … I have to go to London,” I say. “Tomorrow. I came … to see if Joanna needed anything.”
He smiles. He has lost so much weight that the bone of his chin moves within his skin.
“She doesn’t,” he says. “She has me.”
“Well,” I say. “Well, then, I’ll … let you rest.”
I half-turn towards the door. Joanna gazes at me over one shoulder, her face a mask. Her fingers are wrapped around each other so tightly I can see the white of her knuckles. Her eyes are pleading.
God forgive me, I flee.
I return home, and sit, and stare at the walls. Then I rise and walk out onto the moor, under the faint moon and scudding clouds, following the path the hunting party took. To go onto Talan Moor at night is to risk disappearing forever, but I continue. I reach the point where my brother strode off, and follow. I find a single tree, curled like a hook against the wind, and walk twenty paces beyond, into a hollow. I remove the shovel from my pack, but I need not have bothered.
The pit where I buried my brother is open.
It gapes like a rupture in the earth, mud and scree spread around it like infection, torn apart. The air reeks of copper and wet fur, and the dirt is covered in claw marks, the prints of a large wolf.
I creep forward, towards the ragged scar. My chest is tight. His body is there, white as the moon, bloated, waterlogged. I see the back of his head, and the smashed, almost flattened skull where I brought my cudgel down on him, again and again and again, even as he lashed at me with his sword, cursed me with his last breath…
His blue coat is gone, and something has chewed at his belly. And his—
I bend and retch and gasp, and then force myself to see.
His face is missing. Something has ripped it carefully from his skull, a jagged rent around the front of his head, leaving only flesh and muscle now pink and pale in the rain.
I stare at the body for a while. Then I walk home, deserting my lamp and my shovel where they lie. I walk oblivious to the dangerous land, in a straight line through bog and over mound. I enter my cold cottage, close the door, sit at the table, and wait.
How could I have believed that death would stop him? He told me himself; there is only will, the will to take, to control. Nothing else matters. I think of his malevolent spirit, reaching from his dead body, finding another to own. I think of a sound of bone skittering on stone, like paws on hallway tiles. Hands covered, a face dislocated from the bones moving it. A hunched, twisted figure, a wolf’s body tormented into the form of and gait of a man…
I wait, and soon I hear him at my path, claws clicking against the flagstones, the snuffling, panting breath. Something scratches at my door.
“Brotherrrr,” hisses a voice.
On Talan Moor my brother’s body lies.
I know where he is.