O N E
Wind & Lightning
Vicious winds surged through the valley that morning.
A downpour of rain late last night had made quagmires in the mud, trapping sheep in the lower field. We could only hear the faintest of bleats as the wind tore through the trees and hedges, slamming into our waterproof coats at breakneck speeds. Our hoods were whipped ferociously, making it nearly impossible to make out the distant cries for help, and tears formed by the relentlessness of the wind obscured our vision. The early morning light was a useless guide, disappearing as each bulging cloud was dragged across the sky.
My wellington boots squelched with each step as they sunk momentarily into the ground, straining to hold onto my foot as I hoisted them free. I could feel my socks absorbing water as thick sludge tried to make its way through a small crack in the bottom of my boot. But there was no time to make the situation any better; there was something more important to deal with than slightly damp socks.
The gate into our main field was slick and covered in a coating of mud and tuffs of sheep fur. Bulbous drops of water fell from the bars as my dad swung it open, grunting in pain as his arthritic hands fought with the lock and key. My wellington boots were already coated in a thick layer of mud and manure, but this didn’t stop further layers being caked on as I waded through the marsh that had formed on either side of the gate. Dad came over and grabbed me by the waist, hauling me up and over the worst of the ground. He’d never hesitated to pick me up when I got stuck in the mud, even now that I was older and a lot heavier.
We had only walked ten yards into the field before we found a dead ewe.
It’d gotten itself trapped in a swampy patch of field, and had managed to drown itself in a small puddle. Its fur was matted with mud, probably made worse as it tried to struggle against the unforgiving ground.
Pickle, our sheep dog, inspected the ewe, gently nudging it with her nose. The ewe’s head rocked back and forth as if free from its neck.
Pickle didn’t understand, but we did.
Flies zipped closely over its body, occasionally settling for a moment before once again launching themselves into the oncoming wind. Its eyes were open, but unbearably vacant, as if they’d never once held life. I stared into the blackness of its pupil, hoping to see them twitch in to life. Pickle continued to push the ewe, expecting it to jump to attention and run away like it usually did.
Nothing was going to make it jump up, now.
‘Pickle, go.’ Dad grumbled angrily; he hated loosing animals.
She followed orders, and backed off.
‘We’ll come back for it, Isabelle. The other sheep need our help, first.’ Dad said firmly.
‘Okay.’ I replied absentmindedly as I watched Pickle run further in to the field.
Other ewes’ had been a lot luckier. They’d huddled together near the back fence of the field; all sheltered under a large gnarled oak tree, yammering in despair. Their legs and fur were covered in mud; they’d probably been fighting against the ground all night just so that they could stay upright.
Dad crept closer towards them, his finger darting swiftly through the air, pinpointing the location of each sheep, muttering silently to himself. They retreated in fear towards the fence, obviously on edge because of the storm.
While dad continued to count, I pushed my hands deep inside my pockets, trying desperately to find a patch that hadn’t been dampened by a fresh onslaught of rain. I watched as each drop of water fell from my hood, surviving for a moment before being thrashed by the wind. Occasionally a drop would survive and make it to my nose, tumbling to the tip like a kid spinning down a hill. I shivered involuntarily, causing a cascade of water to shoot away from my body, as if I’d just become a cloud.
‘It looks like we only lost one ewe, Isabelle.’ Dad called out, his voice strong through the howling wind.
‘Yeah, looks that way.’ I called back, pretending that I’d been counting as well, instead of watching water droplets fall from my hood.
‘Pickle, go.’ Dad yelled with conviction, pointing at the sheep as he did.
In a few graceful movements, she began herding the sheep towards the top field. It was more exposed to the wind, but most of the water had collected in the lower field, so it was safer for them to be there. We could also see them from the house, which stopped my dad from worrying about them; although he would likely sit at the window and watch them all night regardless.
I stuffed my hands deeper into my pockets, knowing full well I wouldn’t feel any warmth in them for the rest of the morning. The sheep were more important than my hands; there was no question of that.
Slowly but surely, each sheep made it’s way into the upper field. Pickle darted around the field with unbelievable precision, keeping low to the ground, skulking back and forth as if the sheep were her prey.
She would never hurt them, though.
She loved them in an animal kind of way.
A few summers ago, a feral dog was terrorizing the sheep. It had killed two lambs, and looked as if it wasn’t going to stop until they were all dead. One night, my dad sat outside with a gun and torch, watching over the sheep, waiting for the dog to come back. It was brutally cold, but Pickle stayed next to my dad, waiting just as patiently.
It was close to two in the morning before the dog came out of its hiding place. A rustling far off in the hedge line alerted Pickle to the dog’s presence; my dad wouldn’t have been able to hear something that subtle.
But he did hear the next sound.
Blood-curdling screams echoed through the valley, alerting my dad of the imminent danger the sheep were in. He rose out of his seat, and shot a beam of light towards the sheep, trying feverishly to find the dog within the darkness of the field.
Pickle sprang in to action a split second after the first bleat. She hurtled in to the darkness without trepidation, unencumbered by fear. Dad tried to illuminate the scene with his flashlight, not out of curiosity but of concern for Pickle. She was already in full conflict with the dog, growling and snarling with furious intensity. Their tense standoff culminated in a brutal collision, full of sharp teeth and yelps of pain. But Pickle was too much for the other dog, sending it fleeing in to the forest nearby.
No more lambs died after that.
Eventually, every sheep was in the upper field and accounted for. Dad slammed the gate shut, petted Pickle for a job well done, and then started to make his way back down the field to where we’d found the dead ewe; I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it again.
‘Isabelle, you wait near the ewe while I go and get the car. We need to load it in to the back.’
‘Okay.’ I replied bluntly, not happy with the job I’d been given.
Pickle plopped herself down next to me and looked up, panting and slobbering on my hand as I stroked her chin.
I loved Pickle.
She never asked me questions. She never got angry with me. I never exacerbated her when I was having my bad days. She accepted my flaws without thought. There was something wonderful about the way she looked at me, as if I were the only person that existed.
A few minutes later, I heard the spluttering exhaust of my dad’s 4x4. It had broken down more times than I can remember, but my dad hated loosing cars. He hated loosing anything. So every time it broke down, he would fix it, even if the cost of repairs had totaled more than the price of a new car.
It sliced through the puddles of mud with ease, and then came to an abrupt stop just a few feet away from the ewe. Dad patted the door just like he had done with Pickle, impressed that it hadn’t broken down in the last hour, and then skirted around to the back of the car, throwing the boot open and rummaging through the hoard of stuff he kept there. He produced two pairs of gloves, and then pushed the rest of the stuff to either side of the boot.
‘Put these on.’
‘Do you really want to touch a dead ewe?’
‘No, I guess not.’
I didn’t want to touch the ewe with or without gloves on, but it seemed that I didn’t have a choice in the matter. We needed to load the ewe, and my dad wasn’t going to do it alone.
‘Then put them on.’
We both stood over the ewe, fumbling with our gloves, drawing out the inevitable.
‘You grab the back legs, and I’ll grab the front. Okay?’ he asked, his voice full of regret. He didn’t want to get me involved in this side of farming, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to get the ewe into the car without my help.
‘Okay.’ I answered with a slight smile. I didn’t want him to feel bad.
* * * * *
‘What are you going to do with it?’ I questioned, looking down at the limp body of the ewe, wondering what its life had been for.
We had loaded it in to the back of the car, and then driven it back to the main farm buildings. After unloading it, we half carried, half dragged it over to one of the small outhouses where my dad kept broken down farming equipment. Engines were littered in random spots throughout the outhouse, like discarded limbs. Patches of oil stained the floor, leaking like blood from the engines. I had grabbed an old broom hung up behind the door, and brushed at the floor to make a clear spot for the ewe’s body.
‘There isn’t much I can do. Can’t use it for meat. Can’t use the wool. It’s a real shame.’ he said dejectedly.
He was obviously more distraught about the loss of meat and fur than the loss of the lamb’s life. He’d switched on his farmers brain, looking at the dead ewe with the cold logic of a veteran farmer. It didn’t serve any purpose, so it was now just a nuisance to him.
‘Yeah. It is.’ I replied, trying to be just as calm, but unable to look away from the ewes vacant eye. I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that it was watching me, pleading with me from beyond the grave.
‘Come on, we still have a lot to do.’
I broke myself away from the ewe’s cold stare; it was going to be a long and grueling day.
By the time we got back to the house, my fingers were practically blue. I was forever underestimating how cold the wind would be.
I threw myself down onto the rug nearest to the radiator, and sent my hands hurtling towards it. My grip tightened as the feeling rushed back into my fingers. I could almost feel them cooking as the heat surged back, reigniting each fingertip. And then the tingling sensation spread through them, popping and fizzling like a log on a fire.
In the background, I could hear the weather forecast coming from the TV in the kitchen.
‘Now it’s over to the weather where you are–
Hello and good morning. For most of the UK it’s been extremely blustery this morning, combined with outbreaks of heavy rain. We’ll be getting a short break from this as it’ll be mostly sunny and dry for the next day or two, but then we’ll be seeing another weather system moving in that will bring heavy rain and even some thundery showers. People in these affected areas are warned to stay off the roads, as flooding could be in an issue in low-lying areas. These showers will stick around for the rest of the week, before finally lifting at the weekend. Now back to the news.
Thank you, Karen. The Prime Minister is expected to speak over allegations of...’
Summer was definitely over.
I pulled my hands away from the radiator, realising that if they had been steaks, they would have been medium rare by now.
‘Isabelle, you’re dripping on the carpet! Go and take your wet clothes off.’
I went to the wet room and pulled at my waterproofs, which seemed intent on staying stuck to my body. As I pulled them off, my nostrils were filled with the familiar smell of damp that came with working on a farm. I hadn’t washed them since the last storm, and so they were covered with blotches of dried mud where the rain hadn’t reached. Small patches fell off like parched skin, dropping to the floor and soaking up small drips of water. They turned from a light beige to a deep dark brown, like the colour of my hair. My socks were soaked through, heavy with rainwater. I pulled them off and threw them into the corner of the room where they fell with a damp thud, like two slugs falling from a tree.
My t-shirt had been saved by the waterproofs, so I went over to the dryer and stuck my hand in to find a pair of trousers. It was like a lucky dip; I never quite knew what I was going to produce from it. A pair of trousers came out first, followed by one of my dad’s old jumpers. They were too small for him now, so I had stolen them from him.
I popped my arms through the sleeves, and then partially dragged it over my head. I stopped and took a deep breath, smelling the freshness of the fabric, enjoying the murky darkness created by the jumper over my eyes. I would do it a lot when I was little, especially when mum got sick. I’d sit in the laundry room with the jumper over my head, and make up stories; I was always in far off places. It felt like I was inside my own private tent; a safe place that was only for me.
But as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t stay in there. I pulled the jumper down over my head, and made my way to the kitchen. Dad was hunched over the sink, fumbling with a potato peeler. He couldn’t grasp it tightly, and so instead of peeling, he was attacking it, hoping that junks of skin would come off.
‘What’s for dinner?’
‘Lamb and potatoes.’
It was pretty much the same every night. Ever since my mum passed away, there hadn’t been a lot of variety in my diet. Our meals were mostly meat and two veg.
‘Need any help?’
He begrudgingly passed over the potato and peeler, knowing full well that his arthritic hands were making a mess of it.
‘I’ll get the lamb started.’
* * * * *
An hour later, dad plonked a plate down in front of me, the meat glistening in the glow of the kitchen light. I looked down at my dinner, for the first time wondering which ewe this had been cut from. And then I realised something. I realised that it felt new and strange, as if I were looking at it with fresh eyes, like it was the first time I’d ever seen meat.
I’d always found it to be quite a natural way of life. I’d care for and feed the animals that came on to the farm, and then watch as each one of them was slaughtered for meat. It was a life full of repetition.
Feed the animals.
Care for the animals.
Kill the animals.
Feed the animals.
Care for the animals.
Kill the animals.
Feed the animals.
Care for the animals.
Kill the animals.
As far as I was concerned, it was the circle of life.
At least that’s what I had thought.
I felt different now.
And then I heard it.
It was far off, but the sound of a screeching was suddenly audible in the kitchen. Whatever it was, it sounded like it was in pain, like the times of the feral dog attacks. A few seconds of silence succeeded, ushering in an ominous feeling.
And then it came again, louder this time. It sounded helpless, as if it feared for its life.
‘Can you hear that?’ I whispered, my voice harsh in the calmness of the kitchen.
‘Hear what?’ my dad questioned in a confused tone, having been engrossed in his dinner.
‘There! That! Can’t you hear it! It sounds like the sheep screaming!’ I yelled as the sound reached an excruciating level.
‘You can hear the sheep?
Barely a second had passed before he jumped up from his seat. It was like watching a fireman who’d just smelt smoke.
‘Stay here, I’ll go and check up on them.’
He rushed outside as quickly as he could, making sure to grab his gun that was kept near the back door. A few minutes later, he lumbered back in to the kitchen, dragging the gun behind him. There was a concerned look painted across his face, which only seemed to grow worse as he looked over at me as I frantically looked around, trying to find the source of the sheep’s scream.
‘Isabelle, the sheep are fine. They’re all out there, safe and sound.’
‘Oh... Maybe something spooked them?’ I questioned, hoping to seem less crazy than I looked.
‘Maybe... Get eating, you don’t want your food to go cold.’
Minutes passed in an eerie silence, broken up only by the sound of wind rattling the back door. I started to relax, passing off the sounds as a hallucination brought on by exhaustion. It had been a long and emotional day, especially because of the death of the ewe.
But then the noises started again. They were even louder and shriller than they had been before. They grew with a swelling persistence, peaking in a cacophony of sounds.
‘There it is again!’
‘Isabelle, what are you talking about?’ he asked sternly, thinking that I was trying to pull a prank on him.
‘Don’t you hear that?’
The room fell silent as my dad strained to hear the noise that had reverberated in my ears. A few raindrops pinged off of the window, and the leaky tap in the kitchen sang along to its usual tune. All of a sudden I felt silly for thinking I’d heard something, and shifted my focus back on my dinner.
‘No, Isabelle. I don’t hear anything. Now, stop playing games and eat your dinner.’
A few more awkward minutes drifted by before I heard noises again. They were faint, but I knew they were there. I didn’t want to worry my dad anymore than he had been, so decided to keep it a secret.
‘Dad, may I be excused?’
‘Of course you can. Are you feeling okay?’
‘Yes. I’m just a little tired.’
‘Okay. It’s probably for the best. You were up early. Go get a good night’s sleep. We have some more work to do tomorrow before you get to school.’
‘Okay. Goodnight, dad.’
I crawled upstairs, my legs weary from a day of chasing sheep around and fixing broken fences. I found my way to the bathroom through the darkness of the upstairs hallway, and flicked the light on. Condensation had collected on the window, forming small droplets of water that made their way hurriedly down the glass and onto the windowsill. There was a calmness found in watching them race each other, but sadness at the fact that one would inevitably lose or be absorbed into another drop.
I grabbed a hand towel from the edge of the bath, and walked over to the window. It wasn’t as if I was going to see anything out in the pitch-black darkness of the farm fields, but I just liked the clearness of a freshly wiped window. It was like creating a clear canvas, unburdened with heavy splashes of paint or accidental smears.
I got to work, wiping at the edges of the window first, and then working my way inwards. As I wiped away the final patch of water, a flash of something caught my eye. I leapt backward, steadying myself against the sink. The form was only visible for an instant, but I could have sworn it was the head of a sheep; it’s eyes just as dead and vacant as the ewe we had found in the field.
My hands shook as I reached out to grab my toothbrush, and my breathing was just as unsteady. I kept my eyes fixed on the sink, unwilling to look back at the window or even the mirror in front of me. I tried to shake off what I saw, breathing as deeply and as evenly as I could.
After spitting and rinsing, I poured myself a long glass of cold water; it was the only way I could take my tablets.
It was the most hated part of my bedtime routine.
I opened up my bedside table drawer, and rummaged around for my pill dispenser. There was usually a small rattling that would accompany my finding it, but it didn’t happen this time around.
I looked on in despair as I discovered I’d taken my last pill the day before. Each section of the plastic container was empty, all the way from Monday through to Sunday. My hand lunged for the bottom draw, dragging it open as it hinges squealed out in rebellion. Every time I finished a box of medication, I’d throw it in that bottom draw, including the plastic that had held the tablets. I don’t know why I did it. It was just a compulsion. I liked keeping them in my bottom drawer, kind of like having a collection of pennies. They weren’t worth anything, and never would be, but they were worth something to me.
I went through each box, carefully opening each one and removing the plastic cases that had once held my medication. Bits of foil still clung to the plastic, exposing empty little holes, none of which held any tablets.
After turning a few bits of plastic over in my hands, staring vacantly at their emptiness, I placed each box back in my drawer, trying my best to stay calm.
I’d shown symptoms early on in my life, much earlier than is normal. Up until I was a teenager, my dad had been there every night to watch me take my pills. He wanted to make I got better. But after I grew up, dad had trusted me to keep track of my pills, and I’d failed.
I didn’t want him to get angry, and I didn’t want him to start watching me like a hawk, so I decided not to tell him.
It was for the best.
I would just have to wait until I went to the doctors again and refilled my prescription. I’d probably be fine until then; it was only another week or so until my next appointment. And it usually took three or four days for the withdrawal side effects to take hold.
I just had to hope that the bleating of the sheep didn’t come back.
But it was easier said than done.
As I laid there that night trying desperately to fall asleep, I could hear echoes far, far off, deep, deep down, trying their best to re-surface. And they wouldn’t stop until they were the only things I could hear.
T W O
There was a frigid bite in the air on the morning of my first day of school.
Dew had spread across the fields, barely visible in the early light. The sound of livestock was the only indication of life being present in the valley, but it was distant, and felt alien to hear that early in the morning, as if it were a pre-recorded message being played through tinny speakers far off in the distance.
I made my way to the edge of the field, clambered up onto the fence, and looked out at the early morning. A cloud of white drifted past my cheeks each time I exhaled, rising above my head like a tiny cloud. My nose tingled as the freezing air bit at it with a frosty indifference, and my hands were already beginning to feel cold and stiff. It was like I had dipped them in cement, and it was slowly drying until my hands were as immovable as stone.
Fog had spread itself along the lower part of the valley, wrapping itself around trees, suffocating the ground it covered. Sheep drifted in and out of view, swallowed up by the ever-encroaching fog. There was something so ethereal about fog, as if it had come out of another world for a short time, only to disappear after the sunrise.
I began to notice more of the faint and gentle sounds of the valley, as if my ears were acclimatizing to my surroundings. Soft bird songs drifted from the trees that encircled our fields, gradually growing in number and strength as the sun continued to rise. I closed my eyes and focused, noting each song from each bird, wanting more than anything to give every one my undivided attention. As I focused my ears, other senses were heightened, forcing me to realize just how freezing it was.
It was cold, but it was beautiful.
This is how my morning usually began; it definitely didn’t start the same way as the other students. I would go around the farm with my dad, helping him to feed and check up on the animals. I performed each task surrounded by a sleepy haze, occasionally loosing almost all sense of reality. A few other students probably had a paper round, but it was nowhere near close to the physical labour I had to go through every morning. Dad would always say that it helped build character and a good work ethic; I think it helped grow blisters on my hands and feet.
The sun had finally risen by the time we finished, bathing the valley in a golden light that caused colours to erupt from every plant and blade of grass. The only good part about the routine was the fact I could have a warm shower after it was all over. It was my only chance to reignite warmth in my body before going back out in to the cold.
Icy water would shoot from the showerhead before the temperature would reach near boiling point. The chill quickly vacated my bones, rising above me once again like a passing fog. Sometimes I’d sit down and let the water beat down on my shoulders like a mini waterfall. The bathroom would slowly fill with steam, as if it was transforming into a jungle. I’d close my eyes and zone out, only to be dragged back to reality by my dad banging on the door.
‘Hurry up, Isabelle. You’re going to be late.’
He used running late as an excuse, but it was actually because he hated me using up all the hot water.
I was lying.
My shower ritual was far from over.
After I’d finished showering, I liked sitting on the floor with the towel wrapped tightly around me, watching the swirls of steam in the bathroom light. Miniscule droplets of water would drift through the air in shifting patterns, settling on the window and mirror. Watching it that morning, my mind drifted back to watching the fog creeping through the valley.
But that was where the routine changed. I’d usual wipe down the bathroom, clearing the condensation off of the window to create a clear canvas. But I stopped myself. The memory of that sheep’s head was still there in my minds eye, staring on with blank, lifeless eyes. I wiped everything else down, keeping my eyes fixed on what I was doing, and then left the bathroom as soon as I was done.
Dad was already waiting downstairs with his keys in hand; ready to shuffle me off to school. He didn’t show it, but I could tell he was worried.
My school experience had never been easy on him, especially in a village where everybody knew everybody else. It made for some awkward encounters in the pub with other dads. Most of their kids were ‘normal’, and so they had no idea how to talk to the dad of the ‘weird’ girl.
It ended in quite a few scuffs.
‘You ready for another school year?’ he asked, his voice uneven and gravelly, probably remembering the fights and arguments he’d had over the past few years.
‘As ready as I’ll ever be.’ I replied in a quavering voice, having felt like I’d been unable to breath properly all morning.
Dad’s 4x4 burst into life, sending birds everywhere into a frightful frenzy. The exhaust pipe rattled and sputtered, further disturbing what was at first a serene morning. Pickle sat in the back, her head darting from side to side, unsure of what to focus her attention on.
We sat there for a minute; gently vibrating as the engine continued it’s fight to stay alive. Dad was staring blankly ahead, his hands wrapped tightly around the cracked and tarnished steering wheel. They would tense as if he were about to start driving, and then would relax, as if he were suddenly full of trepidation.
‘Dad? Aren’t we going?’ I questioned, trying my best to draw a response or any kind of life out of him.
His head shook as if he’d just been released from a spell, and turned towards me, a slight sadness occupying his face.
‘Yeah. But before we go, I just wanted to say something.’
‘It isn’t going to be the same this year, Isabelle. I’m not going to let the other students bully you, or let the teachers get away with half ass measures. You’re going to have a good year, okay?’
‘Okay.’ He said in a less than convincing voice ‘Let’s get going, then.’
‘Yeah, let’s go.’
* * * * *
My school was in the middle of the nearby village, a short drive through rolling hills and patchwork farms. Rows of hedges and long lines of flint wall would flash past the car window, merging together into a dark moss green colour. Tractors in the distance looked like little tin toys, being pushed purely by the wind. Morning cyclists would zip past in the next lane, shooting like rockets down the little paved roads, their helmets sharp like a Formula 1 car. Occasionally, a small songbird would shoot across the road just in front of the car, and for a heart stopping second, it looked as if we’d hit it. But luckily we never did. Other animals weren’t always so lucky. It was very rare to have a day where road kill didn’t garnish the roadside.
I never liked seeing road kill.
But the gory scenes would soon pass, revealing the tranquil nature of our little village. Rolling fields were swapped with squat stone buildings, originally housing miners, but now housed by new families to the area. As much as the village had tried to catch up, it still had that quaint feeling of a town stuck in time. As much as I enjoyed the drive to school, it was a shame that the drive was infinitely better than the actual experience.
The school building loomed into view, a blemish on an otherwise calming view. It had originally been a catholic school for girls, but had seen sense and become a secondary school for both sexes.
Dad’s 4x4 came to a violent and juddering stop around ten metres away from the main gate, as if it knew that I didn’t want to go.
‘Damn thing.’ He said aggressively as he beat at the steering wheel ‘I’ll have to look at it when I get home.’
‘I’m sure you’ll be able to fix it, you always do.’
‘Fingers crossed. Have a good day today, okay.’
‘Fingers crossed.’ I responded unevenly, knowing that the chances of having a good day were extremely small.
‘You will have a good day. Just remember what I said. If the other kids give you any problems, you tell me.’
I didn’t know whether I would actually tell him if something went wrong, but it would make him feel better, so I told a little white lie.
I scratched Pickle behind the ear and kissed her on the forehead, and then jumped out of the car, slamming the door behind me much more aggressively than I’d meant to. The sound reverberated around the playground, alerting a few students like skittish animals around a watering hole. It wasn’t exactly the entrance I had wanted to make.
I walked sheepishly across the playground, keeping as low a profile as I could. Although, it was difficult to do with my big wax farmers’ jacket on, which only added to my freakish persona.