The devil dog of the Fens.
|It is a matter of balance. The Fens of East Anglia are mostly drained now and the monasteries are ruins, crumbling and brown, rotting teeth in green gums. When the monks came, seeking silence, solitude and lands, they settled on low islands, raised above misty waters and whispering reeds. It is known as the Holy Land of England. Where there is light, there is darkness.
The darkness of the Fens is Black Shuck, the devil dog. Black as the fenland mud he is, as huge as a cow, with eyes of fire. He runs as silent as the moon on great paws that make no imprint. He glides beside the lodes*, at dusk, his great head swinging from side to side. Then disappears into the feathery reeds with nary a rustle. If you are doubly unlucky, you might see him weaving among the gravestones of an ancient church. He brings death on his tail.
All nonsense, of course. Black Shuck, or Galleytrot, is nobbut a shadow, a spectre of the mind. A tale told by the eel catchers as they laid their traps for the wriggling bounty. 'Don't 'ee go there, me boy. That ol' Black Dog bin seen there.' In other words, it is a good spot and I don't want you stealing my eels. But now the last eel catcher has retired, the eels are a protected species and only pockets of the old landscape remain.
Quinn considered himself to be a bloke with both booted feet planted firmly in reality. So, when he took it in his head to hike the Fen Rivers Way, from Cambridge to King's Lynn on the coast, he was only concerned the practicalities. The plan was to, illegally, wild camp in his bivvy bag and spend his limited cash in pubs along the way. He left Cambridge on a hot, sticky morning and made good time beside the River Cam. This section was all tarmac path; rowers and their bicycle-riding coaches and sweating joggers. By the time he arrived at the Bridge pub at Clayhithe, he was ready for a pie and a pint of Abbot Ale. The landlord eyed Quinn's backpack and asked him where he was headed.
'Watch out for Ol' Shock!' He topped foam off the beer and, with rolling eyes and a stage whisper told his customer about a white, headless devil dog that patrolled along the old Roman roads. Quinn grinned into his pint, Ol' Shock had 'gert glowing eyes like saucers'. On a headless ghost dog. Yeah. Right. He took his lunch out into the garden beside the river, watching a family of swans, a cob and hen with five cygnets in a line, sweep gracefully downstream. The Cam looked peaceful but there was a wicked undercurrent.
The day became hotter, stickier with that heaviness that promised a loud and wet night. Now he was in open country, flat fields, with golden, waving wheat, or cows chewing the cud under lonely willow trees. Tucked in pockets were fens, filled with tall, Norfolk reeds, their feathery tops whispering age-old secrets. By the time he reached Upware, he was ready for fish and chips and a pint of IPA in the wonderfully named Five Miles From Anywhere No Hurry Inn.
'Have you ever heard of Ol' Shock?' It was a way of opening a conversation with the pretty barmaid.
'You mean the Black Shuck?' She threw imaginary salt over her left shoulder. 'I ain't superstitious, like, but that devil dog, he's real.' She wiped a spillage off the bar. 'My mum's friend were followed by him one dark night. She could hear him panting but when she turned there weren't nothing there. She said it were as cold as ice and something ran past her.' Another spillage was mopped up. 'Daft as a brush, she were.'
There were dark clouds threatening as Quinn finished his sticky toffee pudding. He was tempted to see if the inn had a room for the night, but he was on the limit of the day's budget already. He decided on a final pint and a stroll beside the river, keeping an eye open for a likely spot to spend the night. By the time Fodderfen Drove* was under his boots, he had enough.
The drove was used by the farmer and was deeply double rutted where the tractor had sunk in mud. Now it was bone dry and the drought had baked the ground into ankle-turning gorges. It ran between hawthorn hedges, once cattle-proof but now just about passable. If you paid the toll of blood drawn by wicked thorns. Quinn squirmed through a narrow gap, dragging his backpack after, cursing as it was trapped by the grasping fingers of the hedge.
He found himself in a darkening field. The setting sun had found a gap between iron grey clouds and dirty violet horizon. Red light flooded the pasture, tipping thistles with blood, congealing in maroon shadows, concealing small things that scuttled. Quinn worked as quickly as he could. The midges were out in force. They dizzy danced around his head. They burrowed in his hair. They got down his throat. They went up his nose. They started crawling out if his ears. A guest of wind tossed them aside.
He needed his headtorch on to finish setting up his bivvy. The gusts became a steady blow and away, in the distance, there was a flash. Long heartbeats later, the rumble faded by. Quinn slithered into his sleeping bag, leaving it unzipped. It was hot and close. The mouth of his bivvy bag had a hoop and, beneath it, a mesh window. When the rain came, he would zip up the outer flap and be totally enclosed in suffocating dryness.
The wind stopped. A pregnant air muffled distant thunder and amplified the creaks and crashes as things stumbled through tussocks of grass and rushes. A deer barked. It was answered by a fox. An echo filled screech warned that a night predator flew. As the storm beat closer, the night calls ceased. Quinn zipped up his bag against a sudden chill.
He was counting the seconds between lightning flashes and the first crash of thunder. It was drawing closer. He could see individual bolts, flickering. Sheet lightning cut through roiling clouds. In between the violent clashes there was only a waiting silence. A flash. A movement. There was something out there. Another flash. No. He was mistaken. He was alone.
Another flickering illumination of his field revealed a large, four-legged shape, crossing from left to right. He muttered a curse. He had cows for company. With luck the storm would not spook them and they would stay down the other end. Once the storm was done, he was going to pack up and move on. Crack! The storm was getting closer. Was that the patter of the first drops of rain? It would warm up once the downpour started. He shivered.
A bolt seared down so close that there was no pause before the thunderclap exploded. His ears rang. His dazzled eyes stared out, over the pasture. Glowing balls, after images, swayed, shoulder height, by the far hedge. They moved in tandem. He blinked, slowly. With his eyes closed, they were gone. With his eyes open, he could see they were closer. Actinic light outlined a huge, black shape, long legged, with a small head. The glowing orbs were where it's eyes should have been.
Quinn wanted to zip up the bivvy's flap. If I can't see you, then you can't see me. His hand refused to move. Forcing it to grip the zip tag, he gritted his teeth and with a convulsive jerk, swept it round. It was the wrong zip. And the wrong way. The mesh window opened and he was left unprotected. The creature had heard the noise. Its head swung round. It sniffed. It raised its muzzle.
A long, wavering howl snaked into the sky. It sang of loss and loneliness. It exhaled darkness and desperation. It let slip fears, tears and grief. In the silence of its ending there was only the rasping panic of Quinn's breath.
Then he was struggling to be free. His warm cocoon sleeping bag had become a tight wound shroud. His bivvy bag was a fabric coffin, pinning him to the cold earth. Thrashing. Squirming. Suddenly he was out and up and running. Barefoot across thistles, blundering through nettles. Away from those lantern eyes looking to eat his soul. Where was the hedge? Where was the drove?
Where was Black Shuck?
Lightning sheeted overhead. There! In stark silhouette. The hedge. No more than twenty strides away. If he could gain the drove he would be safe. He could not stop his wild flight.
Black Shuck stood between him and the road to life.
Screaming, he tumbled on, windmilling his arms. Incoherent with fear and rage. The Shuck stood its ground watching with green eyes that flickered red flames. Its muzzle was pulled back, a flash of storm burst revealed teeth that listened. Out of his control, Quinn's legs pumped him on. Closer to the Shuck. He could smell its fetid breath. Hear the reed-swish of its tail. Two more paces and he was upon the beast.
Bitter cold. Colder than the February blast that cuts across the Fens. It penetrated his bones. It froze his blood. It stiffened his sinews.
It passed. There was nothing there. A wisp of foulness shredded by a vagrant gust.
There was no warning. Between one heartbeat and the next the clouds let go of their burden of moisture. Rain burst out of the storm, a drenching torrent, battering everything flat. Quinn stood stock still, face uplifted in the downpour. It sluiced away his fear. It cleansed him of practicalities. It washed away his life.
*a lode is an old drainage channel or canal.
*a drove is an old, raised trackway through marshy land.