Lambing season arrives with fine rain and the moan of distressed ewes. John has just sat down to dinner when he hears them, the sheep’s cries mingling with the whistle of the kettle. He hasn’t been through the door for an hour and his feet ache. Evening sun catches the dust and makes silhouettes of the shattered window pane. He eats alone with his thoughts and his chipped mug and the scratching of mice in the walls.
When his plate is cleared, he takes it to the sink and runs it under the tap. Brown water catches the worst of the stains. Outside, a crow laughs. Looking up from the sink, he stares out across the back garden to the bird and the plot where his father is buried. It isn’t much, but it means something to him, and it is ritual; the first day of every March he books time off from work, packs an overnight bag, and makes the long drive into the hills to visit his dad.
A wooden cross marks the spot, and another, and another; generations of Shepherds, laid to rest in the earth. Retrieving a dishcloth and an old knife, he wanders outside, crouches by the crosses, and scrapes the worst of the moss from the wood. Cobwebs cling to the crossbars; he brushes them away. He smokes while he works, lips sucking and twitching around his cigarettes when his hands are busy. Across the hills, the ewes continue to bleat.
When the worst of the nettles are stripped back and he runs out of cigarettes, he retires indoors. Lying on the single bed in the room where he grew up as a child, he listens to the house, the groan of the floorboards, the tapping of the rain on the windows, and he waits.
At some point the sun sags, wavers, dips below the rolling mounds. The rain hammers down, then peters out. Eventually he hears the bleating of lambs. The sound draws him from the bedroom, across the dark hills. One a.m. nips at his fingers and the tip of his nose, turning his breath white on the air, and as he leaves the yard he almost slips on the dark stone of the step.
He does not have to walk far before he sees them. Moonlight illuminates the parade as it winds its way through the trees. Where the branches allow it, the light makes silver outlines of pale limbs, bare footprints pressed into the mulch and, held by thin hands, clutched close to sunken breasts, severed heads; the old dead nurturing the new with ageless love and sour milk.
The stiff-legged procession stretches both ways into the trees. They might always have walked here; an endless wake marching solemnly beneath their cowls. He moves silently closer, his approach masked beneath the clicking of bone and wet sucking sounds, which he hopes is feet sunk into mud and not cold mouths hungry at stiff teats. He does not speak, but in his head repeats an old hymn, hoping it might help him, ground him, keep him sane and safe from demons and the dark.
It is many years since any sheep have grazed here. Not since his father passed have livestock of any sort dotted these hills. Idly, he wonders what he is doing here. Not just tonight, but last year, and the year before that, and the one before that. He thinks about his guilt at having abandoned the farm, and his love for his father, and his shame at the generations of slaughter committed in the family name. He can never shrug that shame, but he can pay his respects to the dead. For one night a year, he can manage that.
He is still standing, watching the march, when a piece of deadwood snaps underfoot. The branch is small, the sound weak, but it still cracks like a gunshot in the dark. For the most part, the procession continues heedless, all except one of their number. Closest, it stops in its tracks. The mud at its feet is a mess of cloven tracks. With the inexorable slowness of the ages, it turns its face towards him. A scream fills his mouth.
Night has sapped the colour from the world but he can still make out spring: ghostly lilac blossom, branches heavy with shoots, fat roots, and the bleating of lambs, long since taken to market but revived on this night when life courses renewed through the wet, blood-soaked loam.
~ Thomas Brown
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