This is Part Two of an three-part folk horror short story for Easter. Part One is available below. Part Three will be published on Easter Sunday.
It took her longer than she had expected to find the village. The roads had barely been wide enough for her car, and they wound around tight bends so she could only travel at low speed. Once, she passed another sign which said that Evercreech was still 2 miles away and she cursed the ridiculous road system that meant you could be driving for 10 minutes and be no closer to where you were going than you were before. But eventually the road widened, and she saw the lights of houses up ahead. The village was tiny; a few small cottages nestled around a green, and a pub. Although it was undoubtedly picturesque, Abi had hoped for a few more signs of life around; she was shaken from the earlier events and had been looking forward to some normal company to restore her confidence. Nonetheless, she was here now. It wouldn’t take long to find the address, pick up the bag and be on her way. She slowed to a crawl and drove up to the first cottage which was set back from the road, with a worn iron gate marking the entrance via a short path. A slate hung from the gate with the name ‘Aconite’ scrawled on it. Abi edged the car on to the next cottage. This one, similarly gated was named ‘Artemisia’. She moved on again, around the green, slowing to read the name on each: ‘Hyssop’; ‘Catnip’; ‘Sage’. Quaint. But no ‘Spring Cottage’. Had this been a waste of time? Irritation chewed at her insides. It was almost completely dark by now and the sky had metamorphosed to an inky black. It must be near here somewhere. She would just have to ask in the pub, the last stop on her short tour around the green. The lights in the pub windows glowed warmly but the last thing Abi wanted to do was go in. It had turned into a long day; she had the three-hour journey back still to face and the cramps were starting to bite into her womb.
She was not surprised, therefore, to find that there was no car park at the pub. It was another irritation in a shitty day. She had to leave the Mini on the side of the road and walk up to the entrance, across a small, grassed area with two benches, to find the door. It looked old. Beams of gnarled brown wood were barely held together by large black iron hinges. Voices hummed low behind it. She would have to come back with some friends, she thought. They would love it round here. But in the daylight. In the dark it was somehow less inviting. She placed her hand on the weathered latch, pressed it down and pushed. The old door shuddered open.
‘…the scene was lit by a pink-tinged moon. Had she seen it, burning silent and cold in the witch-black night sky, then she would have remarked on its preternatural size, or perhaps on the unsettling strangeness of the light that settled over everything.’
As she entered, the clouds shifted, and the scene was lit by a pink-tinged moon. Had she seen it, burning silent and cold in the witch-black night sky, then she would have remarked on its preternatural size, or perhaps on the unsettling strangeness of the light that settled over everything, a light which created shadows, long and deep, which twisted and danced under the moon’s cruel eye.
But she did not see it. In fact, she remained totally unaware of its looming presence over everything that transpired that night.
Abi immediately recognised the scent of sandalwood. It was her favourite fragrance for the many scented candles she burned at home. Sandalwood was her ‘front room’ fragrance. Here, though, the air was heavy with it, the leather and burnt wood aroma strong enough for her to briefly step back to acclimatise. Low beams supported the white ceiling and she thought about ducking despite her relatively short height. In front of her, a thick, dark oak bar was festooned with dried hops and small decorations of twisted grass and twigs. There were tables scattered around the small room, and a large open fireplace against one wall in which logs burned. This seemed to Abi to be slightly ridiculous; it had been a very warm day and the pub was stiflingly hot. Nevertheless, an elderly couple were sat at the table directly in front of the flames. In fact, now that she looked, everyone in here was elderly, at least 70 years old. The women all had long, white hair which they wore bunched up on their heads, held in place with large wooden clips or hairpins. They sat in couples, some with men, some not, each pair facing one another across dark and heavy wooden tables. Each had a pint of amber-coloured ale in front of them, and, Abi noted with a slight chill, each glass stood precisely half-full. They spoke to one another in hushed tones and, if it weren’t for the strangeness of the scene, and the oppressive heat, the atmosphere might have been described as ‘warm’ or ‘convivial’.
There was one woman sat alone at the bar. She was younger than the rest of the clientele and much shorter, shorter, Abi estimated than her; her hair was not yet white, but chestnut-brown and piled up on her head in thick tresses which caught the soft light in the room in such a way as to make it appear to Abi that it moved, each tress of hair sliding smoothly over the other. It was hypnotic. The woman turned as soon as Abi entered, a wide, welcoming smile already on her face if not yet in her eyes. It was a professional welcome, Abi thought. They must have lots of day trippers come through here. That was a relief.
‘Hi,’ Abi said, presuming that the woman was the landlady. ‘I wonder if you could…’
‘Help you? Of course we can!’ the woman replied, cutting Abi off mid-sentence. Her voice was pleasant, slightly accented with the Somerset burr. ‘If you’ll just sit yourself down here,’ she said, indicating the bar stool beside her, ‘and we’ll see what we can do.’
Abi was too canny for this old trick. She didn’t want to end up buying half the pub a drink. It might work with naïve old buggers out for a Sunday drive…
‘Let us get you fed and watered first though, eh? You look tired. Bet you’ve got yourself lost on these roads. It’s easy to do round here.’ The woman waited expectantly, still indicating towards the empty bar stool.
‘No, honestly, it’s fine, I just…’
‘Need some help. Of course, and we can help you. I just wish you’d eat something first before you go out there again. It’s a long way to get anywhere else from here; you won’t regret it.’
Abi felt another jab of annoyance, this time with the woman’s habit of finishing her sentences. But, in all honesty, she was suddenly aware of a strong hunger. Maybe just a sandwich. Wouldn’t cost her much to…
‘On the house?’ The woman looked at her most insistently, and her tone was almost pleading.
‘I don’t mind…’
‘Paying? No of course you don’t, but we insist. I won’t have anyone going back to their lives with anything but good words about us.’
The woman’s choice of words was strange. What could she mean ‘going back to their lives’? Going back from what? ‘Are you…’
‘Quite sure, love. It’s not a problem. C’mon, sit down and we’ll get you sorted.’
A young man had appeared behind the bar. Abi was sure he hadn’t been there when she came in and so she assumed he had been around the back, cleaning glasses or whatever bar staff did these days. He was strikingly handsome. His wavy blond hair was long enough to tuck behind his ears, and he had crystalline blue eyes which were a striking contrast to the russet tones of the rest of the room. He looked over to Abi and smiled, revealing a set of perfectly white teeth. Once again, Abi wished she could have posted something on Facebook.
‘Vegetable soup okay?’ the woman asked. Abi nodded. ‘And a pint…’
‘No, thanks, I don’t…’
‘Course you do. It’s tradition here. You don’t have to drink it all.’
‘But I have to drive…’
Her protests fell on deaf ears. The barman gripped the pump on the bar and yanked it; each time she heard a loud gush of liquid squirt into the pint glass he held beneath it. There was something primal and lusty about the action, as though the beer was milk teased from the udders of a cow. She watched as he filled the glass. When it was full, he lifted it so that Abi could see the frothing head of the beer continue to expand until it spilt over the sides of the glass and ran over the man’s slender hands. He held it there, waiting for the beer to settle, then placed it on the bar. ‘There we go,’ he said. He did not ask for payment.
‘On the house.’ It was the woman again, still smiling. ‘Come on. Sit down, have a drink and we’ll get you on your way.’
Abi felt that she was losing control of the situation but felt powerless to do anything about it. It wasn’t as though she couldn’t just walk out. She could, any time she liked. But it was pleasant enough in here. And she was tired. She felt a familiar tugging in her womb again, and wanted nothing more than to sit down, eat something and rest. The package could wait. Gavin could wait. It was still early evening. There was plenty of time.
‘Come on!’ The woman was becoming more forceful in her entreaties, still pleasant but more urgent. ‘Sit down, sit down.’ She held her arm out as though to guide Abi to the stool. ‘I won’t bite.’
Abi smiled. It was hard to resist the woman, even if she was being a royal pain in the arse. She supposed that it must be difficult, living amongst all of these old buggers with no-one even close to your age to talk to. It would be enough to drive her round the bend. Abi thought of her own mother, of the endless weekends trying to keep her entertained. Her mother liked to talk about the other residents of her street, even though she knew few of them well enough to really know what was going on. She had names for them all: ‘the fella with the cap’, ‘the lady in the bungalow,’ or ‘that couple that moved in last year,’ and Abi would listen and share opinions about them. For hours and hours. The only break she got from the endless chatter was when she made a cup of tea. Abi drank a lot of tea with her mother.
If it was bad for her, then God knows what it must be like for this poor woman! Abi squeezed herself into the space between the bar and the stool and placed herself on the seat. As she did, the woman sniffed the air. It was a small gesture, hardly noticeable, but Abi saw it. It was more like the movement of a rodent than an attractive middle-aged woman, excitable and urgent. She wondered which of her perfumes she had sprayed on that morning. ‘It’s Tom Ford,’ she said.
The woman looked confused. For a moment, the smile disappeared.
‘Tom Ford. The perfume?’
The veil lifted; the woman was beaming again. ‘Ah, yes! Lovely stench…’
Abi laughed at the choice of word. ‘That it is,’ she said amicably, and they both enjoyed the joke. To be honest, Abi was surprised the woman could smell anything over her own heavy scent, which added to the sandalwood was actually quite nauseating. And now she was closer, Abi noticed that the woman was heavily made-up, and not with any great care. Thick black smudges of eyeliner ran around the large green eyes; cherry red lipstick ran a little past the corners of the wide mouth. Abi supposed there was skin beneath the slabs of foundation the woman had applied to her face, but she could have no possible insight into what shade it might be. Despite all of this, Abi found her to be quite beautiful. She wondered why someone with such excellent bone structure and striking green eyes would want to hide behind so much make-up. It made her look cheap and tawdry. Ten minutes with her, Abi thought, and I could make her look like a movie star.
‘Call me Nan,’ she said. ‘Everyone else does.’
‘Nan. Okay… I’m Abi.’
The woman didn’t appear to be interested in her name, in fact she almost spoke over Abi as she said: ‘Go on. Have a drink, then.’ The woman was leaning forward and fidgeting with her long fingers, clicking her fingernails which bent like a bird’s talons. They were heavily enamelled, in a dark plum colour. She licked her lips when she spoke. ‘Go on…’
Abi gave in to the pressure. She would take a sip, say how much she liked it, thank you very much, and then she would quietly nurse the drink until it was time to go. She drank. As she did, a fiddle started playing. The sound came from the shadowy corner of the room. Her view was blocked by couples sat at tables, but she could make out the elbow of the player skipping back and forth; it made her think of an insect she had seen on a pond at a country house she had visited on one of the many days out she and Gavin had taken her mother on to kill some time on a Sunday. A Pond Skater. That was it. There was something about the way the elbow was bent, and the way it flickered back and forth that appeared insectile to her.
And then, a male voice began singing, accompanied by a guitar. It was tuneful but way too folky for Abi’s taste. The woman beside her swayed to the music, but kept her eyes on Abi, smiling all the time. In fact, everyone in the pub had turned towards the music and they were swaying too as the voice sang words of a lusty man and a chaste woman. There was a refrain that Abi began to pick up on:
‘And he said ‘Bide, lady, bide, There’s nowhere you can hide, For the lusty smith will be your love, And he will lay your pride.’
Absent-mindedly, she sipped again at the pint before her, and the woman smiled, and the people swayed, and the singer sang his song of conquest, and she felt her insides tug and pull but she did not care. The room seemed brighter now for the music, and the people were younger than she had at first thought, and the woman, she seemed more beautiful, and the deep chestnut glow of her hair seemed more lustrous than before. The singing too, became more intense.
‘So the lady she turned into a hare, And she ran across the plain; But he became a greyhound dog, And he ran her down again.’
Abi had drunk half of the ale now, without knowing that she had. Her head began to swim. Somewhere deep below the warmth of the moment, the joy in the singing, the kindness and comfort of the company, she knew that she should stop, that this wasn’t right… She tried to speak: ‘What have you…’
‘Just the ale, lovely, just the ale. Relax. You deserve to relax…’ said the woman, who by now looked radiant. Had her hair always been down, flowing over her shoulders like that? Abi had a faint memory that it hadn’t been. But she must have been wrong… she didn’t know anymore. It really didn’t matter. She wanted to dance and she slipped down from her stool.
‘…it was all one, the music, the smells, the old women and old men who danced with her, and she thought she saw a beast amongst them, a beast with yellow eyes and curling horns, but it didn’t matter, not now, nothing did, not any more…’
‘Yes, yes, that’s right, go on dear, go on,’ the woman was hissing and Abi thought that the woman’s voice was in her ear. She felt eyes on her, many eyes, and hands, hands upon her, tugging her this way and then that, and she wanted to dance, she wanted to move her feet, to move, faster and faster, and the music seemed to grow louder and faster with her movement until it was all one, the music, the smells, the old women and old men who danced with her, and she thought she saw a beast amongst them, a beast with yellow eyes and curling horns, but it didn’t matter, not now, nothing did, not any more…
‘And when she woke he held her so, And still he bade her bide; And the lusty smith became her love, For all her mighty pride.’
Abi danced and spun and forgot about her irritation, the bag, the journey home, her mother, Gavin. Outside, pink and full, the moon glared down on the pub on the green.
The moon is full and pink as a rosebud. By its light, she sees the earth all aglow, the furrows deep in shadow. She feels its pull deep inside, knows its touch. Her scent will fill the air, there to dance with the night’s fainter aroma, of apple-blossom, and jasmine and the fresh coolness of the river that runs nearby. Her ears twitch as she responds to the soft song of the water running over rocks and the cry of the owl from the woods. The soil still carries moisture; she can feel that through her paws, and she can feel the roots of the apple trees and oak trees that border the field writhe and churn in the earth, deep, deep down, inside the earth. Inside her. She shudders.
And there is another scent, a strong, heady, thick scent. There is another beast coming. It will find her smell, it will want her. Her nose sniffs the air, ascertains the direction of the threat and then she starts to move, skipping fast across the field, her powerful hind legs pushing clouds of dirt behind her as she weaves and, already, she can hear the beast breathing hard, heavy paws galloping on the same soil, she can smell the rich, hot stench of it as it pounds the ground between her and it.
Her black eyes fix upon the hedgerow, where she will be safe, amongst the brambles there, that will rip and tear at the dog’s nose as it pokes stupidly in, she will be safe there, safe…
But the chase is already up and the dog has her, its maw widening to grip her throat and hold her down, quivering, and she feels his weight on her.
She sinks her teeth into the dog’s neck, once, twice. A yelp, and she is free. And she stands on her strong hind legs, stands erect so that she looks down on the beast’s thick grey fur, its startled eyes, its claws, which now hold nothing but the earth. A swift kick to the beast’s stomach, and it whimpers, scrabbling backwards and she feels her power now, and her desire.
When it is over, and dog and hare lie entwined, the moon, pink and glorious, has grown large enough to fill the sky…
Part Three, the conclusion of ‘Pink Moon’, will be uploaded on Easter Sunday. Be sure to subscribe using the button below to ensure you don’t miss it!