Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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The Watcher

by Alan Clark




The creature had no name. It was not aware that it should. This not to say that it lacked self-awareness because it was acutely aware of itself, but being isolated and alone, it had never been named John or Fred or Mary. Innocent of the convention of naming, as it was with all human concepts, it simply lived. It woke when the sun lifted darkness from its forest, and when night fell, retreated to a bivouac it had fashioned out of branches and moss.

The wood it lived in was vast: deciduous at lower latitudes, its higher slopes were the domain of spruce and pine, until these conifers gave way to bare rock and lichen when mountains thrust above the canopy. The creature knew its environment intimately: from the wood’s craggy western escarpment where the first trees buttressed against the prairie, to the winding rivers that plunged and splashed their way through gullies and ravines. The creature travelled all the forest’s trails: each deer track, each badger trail, each fox run, all the way to the boundary of tilled and ploughed fields to the south, and the vast lake to the north.

The rivers were a beauty and wonder to the creature, their inconstant moods drawing it to their banks. One particular waterway, one sweeping bend in its course, one plunging depth, made the flow appear languid and sluggish in the summer, and wild and torrid in autumn and spring. The creature would perch on a high boulder above its waters and ponder its progress. In summer a beach was revealed at that bend: a tumble of rounded boulders that rose towards a green sward of grass and moss that would have been the perfect spot for the forest’s residents to drink the river’s water were it not for the fact that the clearing was reachable on a well-used track from a tarmac road that carved through the forest like a great scar. The track brought humans to the glade and scared the animals away.

Not that this caused the creature any distress. Far from it: the arrival of the metal contraptions that housed the humans fascinated it; the way the people disgorged themselves from the machines enthralled it; their barking calls to each other excited it. These beings were not like the other animals the creature saw in the wood. They were not from the forest for one thing, but arrived from elsewhere, their vehicles giving them free reign to venture wherever they pleased. But what impressed the creature the most, the one thing that screamed so obviously to it, was that these beings would not survive in the woods the way it could: they relied on items they brought with them to provide shelter. Canvass tents, metal stoves, fuel, food and clothing all emerged from their vehicles, were erected and positioned and manipulated and discarded with a frightful abandon. Stranger yet, not all the equipment had utility. Some items beeped and sang with a shrill metallic quality that devoured the people’s attention, while some others involved bats and balls and were tackled with whoops of joy and frustration.

The creature watched. It would slink behind an uprooted stump close to the edge of the clearing and observe the people in silence. It would lie there for hours watching them, only to cower away if they got too close to its hide. It would neglect itself, forget to eat, to drink, even to sleep, until the people disappeared into their tents. It would rise early, resume its observations, and wonder at what the people were about, and then, once their spell in the glade ended, and they packed such materials as they desired back into their vehicle, the creature stepped out into the space they had occupied and listened intently to the engine’s roar as it diminished towards the tarmac.

Those vehicles weren’t the only ones the creature was aware off, either. At other times, it would venture close to the main road and watch as articulated lorries, camper vans, and pick-ups vied with engines laden with timber hauled out of the wood, and the creature mulled over where these beasts of the road were headed with such huge cargo. The creature had followed that road on occasion, travelling to the edge of the forest, to where the road sped on through land enclosed by hedges and moss-slick stone walls. But the creature could not see beyond the first horizon and hesitated to go outside the wood.

Later, when it had retreated to its den for the evening, it had wondered at its own actions, at what fear had prevented it from journeying on to see what lay beyond, and in a bout of revelation it had realised that it had done what it had because it had been scared of the unknown, and it marvelled at itself, as nothing in the wood: not the bears, nor the wolves, nor the reptiles, scared it. Yet the thought of leaving the safety of its forest terrified it. As the light had faded that evening it pulled up its legs to its chest and hugged them, and laughed a peculiar guttural wheeze of a laugh that scared all the other creatures of the wood away and left it to its isolation.

In early autumn, on a day that started warm and muggy, when the leaves on the deciduous trees were only just starting to yellow and dry, and before the rains and storms of the season pounded the land, a van drove into the glade. It was a white van, windowless at its rear, with a dent above its left wheel arch, a feature which meant nothing to the creature. A man removed himself from the driver seat, leaped to the soft earth and stretched luxuriantly. Whistling, the man sauntered to the rear of his van and pulled open doors that separated with a grating squeal that made the creature, watching from behind its stump, shiver involuntarily.

The man leaned inside, withdrew a spade, closed the van again, and marched, still whistling, to a spot at the edge of the clearing which was strewn with small twigs, ferns, and the semi-decayed mulch of the previous year’s tree cast-offs. It was a place of fungi and decay, a boundary far enough from the river that the waters never reached it when in spate. The man thrust the spade into that ground. Thrust and thrust and thrust until he had dug a trench wide yet shallow, and when he was satisfied, he stepped out of the hole, smiled at his work, and propped his spade upon the mound of earth he had created.

He returned to his van and re-opened the rear doors, which protested once more. This time he bent deep inside his vehicle, hauled at something. The creature leaned forward too, eager to see what would happen next. No animals of the forest acted this way, after all. None were as strange, nor their motives as opaque as these people, and the creature yearned to discover what the man was about.

There was the sound of something heavy being dragged along the van floor, a succession of thumps and bangs, and the man stopped whistling. Instead, he barked some words, harsh and angry, and the creature noticed the man’s arm rise and fall two times, hard and fast, and the banging stopped. His whistling started again. Such a matter of fact sound, like the chirruping of a tit high up in the branches. The creature wondered if the man was aware of the sound he was making while he busied himself at his task.

When he emerged from the van his hands were laden with an ornate rug rolled upon itself like a cylinder. It was around six feet wide and clearly heavy. The man near dragged it up his arms and propped it against his chest for support. He stepped away from the van, testing the weight of his parcel and his grip on it. The creature heard him grunt, saw him re-jig the rug’s position a little, and then, with some effort, lumber his way over to his trench. There, without hesitating, the man let the mat unfold and its contents drop into the hole.

The creature gasped in surprise. It had watched hunters in the forest many times. Men who had pointed sticks of metal and wood at deer, men who had whooped and hollered after those sticks had cracked fires that had taken the lives of even the largest stags. Those hunters had been excited by what they had done, had approached the stricken animals and waved and smiled and laughed while the light fled from the deers’ eyes. When the hunted died, those men had removed the corpses from the wood, had taken them for whatever purpose the men desired, and the creature, cowering in a shadowy niche assumed the hunters were like wolves with their prey, taking it to the rest of their pack to feast upon. This, the creature understood.

This man was not like that.

Something rolled out of the rug: something with short limbs and blond fur, something pink and lilac and cream. It spun downward, disappeared too rapidly into the hole for the creature to discern what it truly was, and it struck the bottom of the pit with a dull thud. The carpet was tossed on top of it with little care, and the hole filled back in. The man paid attention while he did that. He was fastidious in pulling branches and mulch and stones over the disturbed earth, hiding his work away from the world, and all the time he did this, he whistled. He whistled as he wiped the sweat of his exertions from his brow, whistled as he cleared soil from the blade of his spade, whistled as he tossed the tool into the back of his van and sat again on his driver’s seat and closed the door. He may have continued to whistle as he started up the motor, as he gently wheeled the vehicle around, as he drove casually out of the clearing leaving only birdsong to flit around the glade, but if he did, that tune was lost to the creature, drowned out by the engine as it sped the man away.

And all the while, the creature remained in its hideout, its heart beating wildly, unwilling to emerge in case the man returned, until the sunlight began to fade and it became clear to the creature that the man was not about to return, and that it, the creature, ought to go out and eat and return to its shelter before night hid the world.


*****



The following morning began with a pleasant sun that mollified the air with a temperature that was neither too humid nor too cold. Insects droned, birds tweeted, and somewhere a wolf called to its brethren. The creature emerged from its shelter and turned its face to the sun. It was a hollow pleasure. The creature was troubled. It had not slept, or had slept fitfully. Images of the events in the glade repeated in its dreams, and it could not dismiss them. It was weary and troubled. Unable to do anything else, it had stolen itself back to the clearing, taking the longest route it could in order to get there. It had no desire to return the place, yet it longed to discover what the man had buried, if only to assuage itself that no wrong had been perpetrated.

It edged towards the spot which, despite the man’s efforts, was easily recognised. During the night, some scavenger had clawed away some of the detritus covering the mound, attracted by a scent that was hidden from the creature, exposing the loose and slightly raised soil above the randomly scattered discards. The animal had either gotten bored or scared during its exploration though, and had left without digging into the mound itself.

“Coo…” the creature whimpered to itself. It was not prone to vocalisations, but there was something about that moment, standing at that place, that made it call out. It hunkered down, then knelt, ignoring the dewy grass that wet its knees, and with foreboding, plunged its long, callused fingers into the earth and scooped soil away. Again and again it dug, lifting small pieces of loam out of the pit until its fingers struck the top of the rug. It leaned back then, breathed wearily, knowing it had to clear enough soil before it could lift the mat free. It was reluctant in its task. It stood up, wandered over to the river and knelt to drink.

Its reflection stared back at it from the cool water. It wasn’t like these people that visited its wood. It had no need for clothes: its body was covered in course grey hair that regulated its temperature well enough through the year, and its feet had leathery pads that allowed it to journey without the need of foot-ware. Its eyes were pupil-less, saucer shaped, and as dark as onyx. It had more of a snout than a nose, which glistened constantly with moisture, and its mouth, which grew out from under that, was almost porcine. No, it was nothing like these visitors. In fact, it wasn’t like anything it had ever come across anywhere else in the wood. The creature closed its eyes, as if by hiding from its reflection it could deflect from a thought that was already trampling around its mind: that the creature was totally, unutterably unique, and so very, very alone.

“Coo...” it murmured again, and scooped up water in its hands and drank, over and over, until it knew it could procrastinate no longer, and returned to the pit.

It shifted the remaining soil in minutes, exposing the auburn and gold leaf patterns of the rug. The creature hesitated briefly before clasping its fingers around the edges of the mat, which was sodden and cold. Then, with little effort, the creature tugged the mat up and out of the way, tossing it onto the glade carelessly. The creature’s attention was focused on what remained in the hole. “Coo...” it called, and again, “Coo...”

Tentatively, it reached downward, its fingers twisting around a lock of gold hair that was soft to touch despite being limp and grainy with dirt. “Coo...” The creature’s fingers traced the hair back to its roots, brushed soil away, and gently prodded a shoulder draped in lilac cloth. The shoulder rocked under the creature’s pressure, but the movement was that of an inanimate thing, not a living being. The creature pushed the shoulder again with the same result. “Coo...” it said, and leaned backward.

It had seen dead animals before. Nothing in the forest lived forever, after all, but none were buried in the earth in this way. None had great bruises upon their face, none had cheeks shattered by a blow that exposed bone, none wore garments that had been ripped and shredded, none had blood upon a blouse. This was a human corpse: skin pallid, eyes shrunken and far away.

“Coo…”

The creature rocked back on its heels, uncertain. The misgiving it had entertained before had not dissipated, but strengthened. There was something off with the situation, something ill. Of all the times the creature had witnessed humans entering the forest, none had ever been buried and left. And to the creature’s way of thinking, the event had been done with such haste, with such casual matter-of-fact-ness, that it felt utterly wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. There was no mourning, and everything mourned. A deer would mourn for her foal, a she-wolf for her cub. The creature had seen the social nature of people: how they interacted, how they worked together, how they laughed and joked and played. People should mourn too, shouldn’t they? The wrongness stank.

The creature reached back into the pit and scooped the body out of its grave, cradling the rigid corpse to its chest. Cooing gently, the creature stood and sniffed the air. The day was young enough yet to do what needed done, but if not, then the creature would persevere into the night. Making sure the child’s body was secure in its grasp, the creature set a foot onto the track that headed out of the glade towards the tarmac road, resolute in what it had to do.


*****



It took the creature thirty minutes to reach the main road: a slow pace as it found the poor girl to be cumbersome. Her arms and legs stubbornly refused to bend which made carrying her difficult. The creature spent a large portion of the journey stopping and adjusting one limb or the other, and quickly became weary. It considered abandoning its quest. It paused and stood by the roadside with her corpse limp in its arms. Giving up would have been the simple thing to do: the creature could have turned around and placed the body back in the ground and no one would have been any the wiser. But those dead eyes regarded the creature accusingly and pricked its conscience. It would not give up because the travelling was difficult.

It lumbered onto the tarmac, walking along the painted marks at its centre, marvelled at how smooth the road surface was, and for a brief period, it made good time. That was before the first great vibrations of a juggernaut sent the creature fleeing into the bushes beside the road. The truck was enormous, like some gigantic insect that thundered down the road on enormous wheels, it’s payload of logs shedding scrapings of bark into its back-draft. The earth shook from its passing, and the creature shook, too. It could not walk upon the road safely, it realised, as these vehicles would snuff out its life faster than a sparrow hawk could pin its prey. No, the creature needed to be more alert, more able to duck into the undergrowth whenever something travelled by. That would not be easy. It had followed the road before, after all. There were sections where the creature could take shelter behind a bush or tree, but there were also stretches where the route had been blasted through hard rock. If traffic caught up with the creature at those points, there would be nowhere to hide.

It considered its options, slowed, then slipped off the tarmac. It would travel the wood beside the road. Doing so would lengthen the journey, but the creature had no desire to expose itself to danger. Resigned to its task, it trudged off, its arms trembling from constantly carrying its load. As it went, it made sure the highway was never too far from its right-hand side and it did not stop walking until the light dimmed and it struggled to place one foot safely in front of another. Then, it rested its companion against the trunk of a beech tree, tugged a couple of branches until they snapped free, and covered them both so they were hidden from nocturnal predators. Then, exhausted, it fell asleep, snoring lightly into the night air.

It set off again before the sun rose, and the forest was purple and muted. Its spirit had not lifted with the morning and the corpse had started to give off strange gaseous noises that disturbed it. The body had begun to stink, too. Nevertheless, the creature persevered, and by noon arrived at the boundary of the wood. The land fell away through a series of rocky plateaus that were slippery with run-off from forest rills, and the creature slipped and skidded its way down them, shuffling on its bottom at times when it thought that was the simplest descent.

At the base of the rock the land opened up into a broad plain. This was cultivated land, populated by people like the child, and like the one who had killed her, too. The creature was afraid. It had never approached a person before, never even let them catch sight of it, and it did not know how its presence would be received. But to do what it set out to do, the creature had to cross this open land and find the place where the people lived. It must continue to follow the road. Yet, it hesitated. It looked out at the wide expanse of land that stretched flat to the horizon, and was dizzy with the scale of it. Only on the high peaks could such a vista be seen, but there everything had a different perspective. Here, the farmland was immediate and intimidating, and the creature balked at the thought of crossing it.

Eventually, knowing it had little option to do anything other than forge ahead, it ground its teeth, bowed its head, and set off.

An hour later it arrived at the place it had been seeking: a settlement of people. It was no more than a township built on a crossroads and when the creature first stepped across its boundary it appeared deserted. The creature gaped and gaped. There were vehicles similar to the ones he’d seen travelling through the forest: vans and pickups, four-by-fours. There was a tractor, a couple of motorcycles, an empty livestock trailer. One of the cars was hitched to a horse box, and on either side of the road there were buildings: one story or two stories high, with verandas overlooking the street and wooden slatted facades that were painted in amber and teal and mauve. Some might have been houses, some shops. The creature had no point of reference, no way of knowing.

It walked on passed a white van that had a dent over its left wheel arch, and did not recognise it. There was mud splattered on the vehicles sides as if it had been off-road.

But the creature did not stop walking. Not until the screams started. The first was a shrill cry of shock and horror whose caller repeated the sound over and over. The creature looked to see who was making the sound, spinning around in a way that made the girl’s long hair dance, but the creature failed to see the source of that cry. Or the issuer of the second, which was a much deeper call, but still had a panicked edge. A third shout went up, a fourth, a fifth. The creature rotated to find the callers, and failed to. A dog began to bark. A door banged. And another.

There was movement, finally. A shadow behind the curtain of the house next to it. A barked command snapped through the air. The creature did not, could not, understand what was said. It replied simply with a soft “Coo...” which was ignored. Another harsh demand from somewhere. The barrel of a riffle poked out from the window above, pointed towards where the creature stood.

“Coo,” it said.

Now, there were people on the street, walking cautiously towards the creature from the direction it had come, and from where it had not yet been. They must have spilled out of the buildings: ants disturbed from a nest.

“Coo?” The creature raised up its arms, offering the child to them, willing them to take her, to treat her with the respect she deserved, to bury her with reverence. The creature wished they would hurry for her. Once she was out of its hands it could retreat back to the forest, return to observing and not participating in the world.

One of the deeper voices barked again, its issuer pointing angrily at the creature, at the corpse, at the ground. The creature thought it understood. It bent slowly, placed the child upon the road, and stepped away. “Coo...” it said.

All the people had guns. All of them. The creature felt its throat burn dry, suddenly reminded of the stag in the forest when the hunters came, the way those people raised their rifles so their eyes followed the sights down their targets to where the beast stood. These people were doing the same thing right now.

There was a loud, echoing bang.



THE END


2019 Alan Clark

Bio: Alan Clark writes from a nook in south-west Scotland. He’s written since he was tiny but hasn’t had any short stories published to date other than through his local writing group. Or, if you are reading this, then this is the first short story he has had published. He has a bio at https://wordpress.com/view/alanclarkwriting.wordpress.com and a blog at https://clarkofwords.wordpress.com/.

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