Sean had to change his coat.
|'I'm off out, then, to get my new coat.' Sean zipped up his waterproof, slipped his arms into his rucksack and picked up his walking pole. 'See ya!' It was echoed from the depths of the bathroom where his wife was lolling in bubbles. He splashed off down the back path and out into the field beyond. Barley, its heads long in beard, drooping in the rain that had been persisting down for three days, made a half-hearted effort to ripple in a tiny gust of wind.
He cut along by a sharp-needled blackthorn hedge to a stile. The old wood was slippery with a skim of clay and the upright wobbled under his hand. He was used to it and set off diagonally across the tussocks of Benner's Pasture. The lower gate opened into Washpit Lane, an ancient, sunken way, dropping farther down the hillside towards Sheep Dip Pond. There had been so much rain that a rivelet was carving a wet trough that meandered from side to side. Overhead, dark iron clouds had no silver lining, making the lane even more gloomy and foreboding than ever. He stifled a shiver and splashed on.
Sheep Dip Pond was more of a lake, overflowing into the Drakabrook, changing it from its usual silent swirl to a gushing, turgid torrent that whispered old things that it, alone, knew. The path beside it, where it was not under water, was an impassible mire. Sean regarded it bleakly. He had to find his way to Goaga's Table and he was late already. He fancied he saw, in those tumbling waters, an eye. A scale. An icy claw. Was the Draka free? He shook his head and glanced at the boiling clouds. Time was short.
He slipped, he slid. The mud of the bank sucked at his feet. Stabbing down with his pole kept him from the wet embrace of the rushing flood. He knew the way, so where the path was knee deep under the Draka's belly, he felt his footings. With each step, his feet, his knees, were caught by currents grasping him, seeking to draw him into blackness. Suddenly, the ancient way left the Drakasbrook and sprang up towards a wall. In the old times someone had placed grey slabs of stone to make uneven steps. Legend said they were Goaga's teeth laid by some forgotten hero.
Escaping from Drakasbrook Cut, he squeezed through a vee-shaped gap in the boundary wall. It was marked by a pair of waist high slabs. More of Groaga's teeth? On edge. Beyond, the Heath raised its patchwork covering to where prehistoric people had once constructed a burial chamber. Its bare bones were hidden in low cloud from which rain drove down, into his face, his chest, his legs. Each step was a battle against the keening wind.
Despite being soaked to the skin, Sean was hot. Under his hood, under his beanie hat, his head itched. He scrubbed at it, feeling lumps and bumps through the layers of fabric. His rucksack was rubbing against his spine, he eased one strap off but it made no difference. The soreness was a line of fire up his vertebrae. Only his legs felt strong, pumping, forcing his body along. Peering up, he saw he was nearly there. His back was agony. Dropping his rucksack, he pulled out a plastic shopping bag, and carried it, and its contents to the brow of the hill.
Groaga's Table stood black and stark in the centre of a neatly mown circle. Three wide uprights supported a huge, flat slice of granite, pitted and gnawed by the teeth of time. On a day like this there were no sightseers gawping at the bones of the ancient tomb, its covering of earth gone in the mists of time. No tourists to take selfies and leave their profane litter. Sean was alone, in a strangely still site. He was boiling hot. Stripping off his waterproof, his fleece, his base layer, he stood, bare chested, facing the stones.
Crack! Lightning forked as thunder boomed. Deep grey fog swirled. The noise echoed a summons. An earsplitting explosion shook the ground. Sean stood firm, his hand inside the plastic bag. Lightning scorched after images as it struck the Table. The burst of thunder rolled around and around and around.
There! Atop his table, Goaga stood, arms akimbo, his hooves planted in depressions that had been carved for them. Stag's antlers sprouted from his temples, above a grim face, heavy browed, and, where there should be hair, green leaves fluttered. His torso was heavily gnarled, the skin as coarse as oaken bark. His lower limbs, thick with strength, were a parody of the delicate lines of a deer. He stared at Sean, with eyes that were icy, swirling pools.
'I hunger!' The voice held all the demand and contempt of centuries of loneliness.
'I have what you need.' Sean raised his carrier bag, its contents swinging. He waited. Groaga sprang down and stalked forwards, his mouth twisting into a thick-lipped greeting of recognition.
'Welcome, grandson. Blood of my blood. Seventh son of seventh son of seventh son.' As he smiled, Sean saw that Groaga's teeth were pointed and the colour of fresh blood. 'And what to you bring to feed me?' His greedy eyes fixed on the bare skin of his descendant.
'This!' The bag fell away to reveal a knife, gripped in his fist. Ancient flint, flaked to bitter sharpness, fat, tapering to a wicked point. Sean raised it and slashed down. The blade of the earth sliced through Groaga's chest, opening a chasm. The rough skin curled back, and from the hole, things poured in a wriggling stream of maggots, worms and scaley things with twitching legs. Sean stood firm as Groaga silently watched his innards crawl into the ground and disappear. With no more than a whisper, the empty skin collapsed, a wrinkled, stinking coat. Sean smiled.
Working quickly, he stripped away the remains of his clothing. His beanie caught on his new sprouting antlers, he ripped it away. A tail had slid down the back of his trousers, the spikes on the end made little tears in the fabric. Inside his boots, hooves no longer rested on the soles. Frantically, he picked up the Skin of Groaga. Time was running out. He stepped into it. It moulded to his form. He screamed. He straightened. He howled.
'Hi, honey!' Sean sang out as he let himself in. 'I'm home!'
'You're late!' He wife shouted accusation from the bedroom. 'Your supper's cold.'
'Warm enough for me.' It was difficult to talk around fangs. 'I'm starving.' He made his way upstairs.