Devon Prize Winner 2021 - The Shuck by Lucy Banks
by Lucy Banks
Sheep were common on the moors beside Maddie’s new house. Whiteface, the locals called the breed; dainty legs, horns like curling croissants around each ear. Pretty enough, she supposed; not like the slack-mouthed chewers back in the fields just outside London.
This one wasn’t pretty, though. Its head had been gnawed nearly clean off its body, and its milked-over eye was fixed to the sky. Blood had drenched the wool, clotted it into sticky lumps. Whatever had attacked it had been large and determined, sharp-toothed too. Dangerous to other creatures, perhaps. A wild thing, and not to be trusted.
Maybe savagery was more usual down here; she hadn’t been here long enough to know. Dartmoor reeked of the untamed; wind-slapped tors jutting from the ground like blades through a wound, endless plains of boggy, treacherous mire. It made sense that the animals should be the same – live wild, die wild.
She felt an abstract pity for the sheep, as one might for a teddy-bear left out in the rain. It was easy to imagine its fear; the solitary bleat in the night, and the knowledge that salvation wasn’t coming; that this really was the end. Some animals were born to be victims, powerless against the cruelty of bigger beasts.
Life wasn’t fair, it really wasn’t.
She should know, she’d had more than enough of the unfairness to last a lifetime. The newspaper reports flashed through her mind in a series of disjointed sentences. The victim, in her fifties. Knife, held at her throat. Increasing instances of violent crime.
Victim. She’d hated their constant use of that word, after it had happened. They’d kept using the same photo too, taken from the CCTV footage. The blurred, rounded form of her coat, her hair scraped into a sensible bun. The attacker, clutching her tightly from behind, hand stretched around to her throat.
A cough broke the quiet. For a second, Maddie thought it was the sheep; that its twisted head would peer up at her and start commiserating, nodding in agreement with her thoughts. Then she turned. An old man stood behind her, legs defiantly apart, a gnarled cane in one hand. His approach had been unsettlingly silent.
'Why are you staring at it?' he asked, blunt to the point of rudeness.
She felt caught off-guard, exposed by his lack of manners. 'I wondered what did it,' she replied.
'What do you think? Have you something to say about it?'
'No, I only wondered.'
'Let’s say it was the shuck, shall we?'
She frowned. 'I don’t know what that is.'
'Course you don’t. Outsiders never do.'
Mr Willard, that was his name, she remembered now. She’d seen him in the village; a retired farmer who spent most the day marching the moors, or draining pints in The Post Inn. The locals seemed to like him well enough; they indulged his eccentric clothes and his sniping comments. She’d been wary, and judging by this encounter, had been right to be.
Before she could answer, he paced off, crossing the narrow stream with ease, his cane rapping a path before him. A moment later, his dog raced after him; red tongue flapping, eyes crazed. Maddie shuddered. She’d never liked dogs, especially muscular, snub-snouted ones like that.
The strange word stuck in her mind, niggling her in the days that followed. Shuck. She looked it up online, though the broadband connection was abysmal. A ghostly black dog, one site claimed. Another proclaimed it a giant apparition from hell. Merciless, monstrous. A killer, through and through.
Willard had been trying to frighten her, perhaps; or else make her feel foolish. Either way, it was clear his intentions had been hostile. He’d established his dislike for her right from the start.
Moving about the narrow corridors of her new home, it was easy to imagine the shuck, stalking silently after her, concealing itself in the shadows of alcoves and doorways when she turned. At night, she could see its claws, knife-sharp, ready to press against helpless flesh. She could feel its tongue against the back of her neck.
She confided in Michael, over dinner one evening. The lamb shanks were overcooked, the meat leaked blood-water into the peas. His fork scraped the plate like a tooth on metal.
'Post-traumatic stress,' he declared, after pondering it for a while. 'Speak to a doctor about it. That’s your problem, love; you never faced up to what happened. It’s bound to come back and haunt you in the end.'
She stuffed a slice of lamb into her mouth and chewed. It was hard to swallow.
That evening, she sat alone in the living room. She forced herself to recollect the feel of the blade under her chin, the sting of sliced skin, the wetness of blood trickling over her collar-bone. She’d tried to understand why it had happened, she really had. Some people needed the money, they were desperate. As for him, he’d been no more than a lad really, wild-eyed and high. It hadn’t been personal; she’d been one of many; it could have happened to anyone.
But it was hard not to take it personally. Even now, with the gift of passing days and great distance, she could remember the warmth of his breath at her ear. The promise that he’d cut her throat if she didn’t hand over her bag. The hardness of his chest against her back, and the knowledge that he’d do it, that he hated her for what she was, and how she lived her life.
The knowledge was something she carried with her, combined with something far darker, deep within herself. That he was right to hate.
Life wasn’t fair, after all.
She heard Willard coming the next time she encountered him; the crack of his cane against the tiled floor of the bakery, the heavy patter of his dog pacing beside him. The woman behind the counter handed her the bread rolls in a paper bag; dead-eyed but wary. The locals still hadn’t taken to her. She wondered if they ever would.
Willard cleared his throat; a wolfish, guttural sound, then leaned on his cane. His boots had flaked mud on the floor, a procession of filth brought straight from the moors.
'Have you recovered from your fright?' he asked.
Maddie pressed a hand to her throat, feeling the scar beneath her fingers. “What do you mean?”
'The dead sheep. You couldn’t stop staring at it, could you?'
'You mean the one that had been attacked?'
He snorted. 'Of course I do, what else? Have you got something to say about it? If you have, speak now.'
She closed her mouth, aware that she herself must look sheep-like; marble-eyed, somewhat gormless. His dog barked, just the once. A low warning, calling on her to remember her place. She glared at it, then looked away.
Willard’s gaze travelled over the length of her, and found her wanting. The sneer on his lips was unmistakable.
'I looked up what a shuck was,' she said defensively.
His grey-white eyebrows rose in confusion, then he nodded, remembering. “The shuck, yes.”
'A monstrous dog with burning red eyes.'
'You’ve done your research, well done.' The sarcasm was unmistakable. 'The shuck only comes very rarely to these parts,' he added, winking at the woman behind the counter. 'Some say it brings death with it.'
'It certainly did for the sheep.'
'That’s just a dumb creature that doesn’t matter. No-one cares about it.'
Maddie bristled. 'The sheep might have a different opinion.'
'You don’t understand how things are. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.' He laughed loudly. The girl behind the counter joined in, an accompanying high-hyena cackle to his barking notes.
Maddie left the shop, cheeks burning. She disagreed. There were dogs in the world, Willard was right. But not everyone was like that. Not everyone was so full of hate, like him.
She should let the matter go; stop letting him get under her skin. Still, it was hard not to think dark thoughts, as she walked away. Not to think of things she could do, to make him realise she wasn’t as helpless as she looked.
That night, she sat by the bedroom window and stared out at the moors. When they’d first viewed the house, it had been summer. The village had thronged with ice-cream-eating children, middle-aged couples with matching hiking boots, heading out to explore the surrounding hills. She’d believed that they could be happy here. There were no tube stations. No strangers, or at least only those that would become neighbours over time. No knife-crime. No us and them.
That had been then. Now, things felt very different. The warmth of the summer sun had long since gone. Now, wind battered the glass panes, and the distant trees, turned to silhouettes by the setting sun, jerked and twisted under its force. Although none had yet fallen, she could sense snow in the air; a tingling electricity of coldness and brutality still to come.
She felt sorry for all the sheep, left out in the open. It was easy to presume they led a charmed existence; free to wander and munch on grass, to sit and rest, to soak up the sun, to let their lambs leap and turn around them. But they had no natural defences. They were soft and stupid, all of them.
Her gaze fell on a dark shape, high up on the hill. Though it was twilight, she could see details; a muscular haunch, a long, strong muzzle. Black fur, thick, heavy legs. Something on the prowl, looking for an easy kill.
The shuck, she thought, remembering Willard’s biting laughter. Maybe it’s real.
'Michael, look,' she said, as her husband entered the room. 'What do you think that is?'
He squinted over her shoulder, nudging his glasses up his nose. 'Not sure. A wild pony, perhaps?'
'It’s too squat, don’t you think? Like a wolf.'
'No, I’d say it’s a pony.' He squeezed her arm, a reassuring, concerned gesture. 'Poor little beggar, it’s probably freezing to death out there. Mind you, they’re used to it, aren’t they? Not like outsiders like us who need protecting from the cold.'
He chuckled, then shambled away. She remained by the window; palm pressed to the glass.
She bumped into Willard again the next day, in the corner shop. It seemed that she couldn’t get away from him; that he was embedded in every part of the village like the moors themselves; a constant, suffocating presence.
He was purchasing a bag of tobacco and papers, his dog at his heels as usual. She cursed her bad luck, and lingered by the shelves at the back, hoping to not be seen. He turned, and raised an eyebrow in her direction. A cough emerged from his lips, or a low sound of mirth. It was difficult to tell which, though she knew which was more likely.
'Look at you, cowering in the corner,' he said loudly. 'What are you doing? Don’t tell me I make you afraid? Come now, get on with your shopping; not that there’s much in here that you’d like. This isn’t a fancy city deli, is it? You won’t get your vintage wines or sourdough breads here.'
The boy behind the counter laughed too loudly, then slunk into the back room. Maddie forced herself to stand straighter, and to meet the old man’s eye.
'I’m buying milk and cheese,' she said. 'That’s all.'
'Why were you hiding by the tinned tomatoes, then? You’re a strange one, you are.'
'I’m very normal. Please, can you let me past?'
With slow deliberation, he stood aside, bending slightly at the waist to indicate a bow. 'There you go, my lady.'
Why me? she wanted to ask, as he hobbled towards the door, still laughing. What is it about me that you loathe so much?
She knew the truth of it without needing to ask, though. He hated what she represented; the easy money, the city lifestyle, the fancy things in life. He was of the earth, the trees, the swaying bog-grasses and stone. In his eyes, she was everything he distrusted. Dainty teacups and crustless sandwiches. Wine-bars and jazz music. Dinner parties in open-plan kitchens with skylights and gleaming units.
But there was more to her than that. He needed to know that; they all did. She wasn’t what he presumed, and she hated him for thinking it.
Dog-eat-dog, she thought, turning back to see the old man pacing along the cobbled pavement. That was what he’d said, when he’d accused her of not understanding the world.
Dog-eat-dog. Maybe it was time that Willard learnt what that phrase really meant.
Willard’s farmstead was a wreck of a building, nestled between two steep hills, with only a narrow road beside it. Ivy clutched the stone walls in a smothering blanket, and the black-slate roof was missing more than a few tiles. It was as solid and hostile as the man who lived inside it, and she loathed it on sight.
An old oak towered to the side, gnarled and misshapen; standing guard against anyone who dared to approach. She paused, standing a little distance away, where she knew she couldn’t be seen. It wouldn’t do for him to detect her; not now, not so near. It would spoil everything.
The window at the front glared with light from a cheap bulb. The curtains were nicotine-stained and tattered. After a while, Willard appeared, shuffling close to the panes. He turned on the tap, then scrubbed his hands under the flow of water. She could see his lips moving; muttering to himself about something or other.
The shuck brings death, she thought, remembering everything she’d read. Its eyes burn in the dark.
A series of barks broke the silence, grating and gravelly, but without any real intention behind them. His dog was outside, then, and had probably been startled by a bird. It hadn’t detected her though, which was the most important thing. She was safe here, watching silently. Waiting for the right moment.
This must have been how her attacker had felt, as he’d stalked her in the tube station. The perfect victim, distracted and feeble, unable to put up a fight. An easy target, a quick result. Dog-eat-dog. She patted her pocket, and felt the reassuring wetness of the raw meat in the plastic bag within. The knife was in her other pocket. She didn’t want to touch that; or at least, not yet. Not until it was needed.
After that night, Willard closeted himself up in his farm. He refused to visit the shops, the pub, even the moors themselves. Maddie knew this from the whisperings of the locals, and their ceaseless, hive-like gossip. The village had been brought to life with the news.
Such a shock. What a thing to happen.
In this village, too? Who would do such a thing?
'Life just isn’t fair, is it?' she’d eventually said, overhearing the bakery woman chattering with the landlady from the pub. 'Poor Mr Willard, to be the victim of such a crime.'
They eyed her suspiciously, studied her expression, then nodded. The woman handed her the usual six bread rolls without being asked, then accepted her money with a curt nod.
Maddie smiled as she left. They were starting to accept her. Maybe she’d been wrong with what she’d thought in the past. Maybe she could fit in here after all.
She next saw Willard out on the moors, several weeks later. His back was hunched; he appeared turned in on himself, wary of the world and everything in it. She noticed that his hair was whiter, more transparent than before; tossed and blown by the icy wind.
'No dead sheep today,' she said loudly, striding closer to him.
He grunted, and kept his eyes trained to the horizon.
'Do you think the shuck’s gone away?'
'We both know it’s a story. Only that, and nothing more.'
She stopped beside him, noticing how short he was, how little space he took up, now he wasn’t standing in his characteristic sprawl-legged stance. It was strange, she remembered him being far bigger before.
'Sorry about your dog,' she said slowly, taking time over each word.
He turned to her. Studied her carefully, and again, found her wanting. 'You’re not sorry. People like you never are.'
She shrugged. 'It’s a dog-eat-dog world; isn’t that what you told me?'
'She was a good pet, she was. Twelve years old, and as faithful a friend as I’ve ever known. She didn’t deserve what happened.'
'Does any victim?'
He spat on the ground, turned with greater speed than she was prepared for. 'You’re no victim, woman. You look at things from the shining gleam of your own bubble; don’t see things how they really are. That’s why I favour dogs over people; they give their friendship and kindness to all, with no judgement.'
'What about the sheep that your dog ripped apart?' She glances at him, then looks away. 'Where was the kindness there?'
He scoffed; cane slamming hard onto the stone beneath his feet. 'It’s life, isn’t it? The natural way of things.'
Without waiting for a reply, he marched away, fired into motion by the force of his words. Either that or he was keen to escape her, and everything that she represented.
His moving legs seemed bare somehow, without his dog trotting beside him. But she didn’t want to think about that now; not here, out in the moors. His moors, his place and the essence of who he was. She had no place here, not really.
She took a deep, shaking breath. Examined the wilderness around her, endless, timeless, witness to bad deeds and good; indifferent to both. Fair and unfair; it was all the same in the end.
'I should go back home,' she muttered to herself, then turned away.