A Tale from The Squid and Teapot
The note pinned to the door had no signature, but Rhys Cranham recognised the writing immediately:
“I have it on good authority that today you celebrate ten years as the island’s Night-Soil Man. With best wishes for many more to come. x “
This message was completed with a charming illustration featuring small birds and meadow flowers, neither of which were common on Hopeless.
“Ah, dear Philomena Bucket,” said Rhys to himself. “I had completely forgotten the date. Ten years… it seems like yesterday…”
Rhys pulled off his cap and scratched his head in amazement.
“Shenandoah, what do you make of this?”
Shenandoah Nailsworthy, the Night-Soil Man, scrambled nimbly over the rocks to where his apprentice was standing, then, as if held by some invisible hand, abruptly stopped in his tracks.
“That wasn’t there yesterday,” Rhys said.
“No,” agreed Shenandoah.
As a breed, Night-Soil Men usually tend to eschew unnecessary chatter.
After a pause of almost a minute, Shenandoah added, “Nobody has seen anything like this for years. Certainly not in my lifetime. I’ve got a bad feeling about it.”
Rhys looked thoughtful.
“I’ve heard the tales, same as everybody else,” he said. “Never expected to see it though. It looks smaller than I imagined.”
“Don’t be fooled,” said Shenandoah, a hint of fear in his voice. “There’s more to this than you know.”
The cause of this unbridled garrulousness was a solitary standing stone, slightly taller than a man, which had sprung up, apparently overnight, on the westernmost side of the Gydynap Hills. Its rugged surface was etched with runic symbols that glowed eerily in the pale moonlight.
After they had finished their rounds, Shenandoah invited the young apprentice into his cottage for a late supper – or it could have been an early breakfast. He motioned for Rhys to sit down, then produced a starry-grabby pie and two bottles of ‘Old Colonel’ from his larder.
“Don’t pay too much heed to the tales you’ve heard, because the truth is, nobody knows why that stone just turns up the way it does,” said Shenandoah. “The last time that it appeared was nearly a hundred years ago, so you and I have seen more of it than any other living soul,” he added, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
The two sat in silence for a while.
“Things don’t just appear for no reason, then go again,” observed Rhys. “It makes no sense.”
“You don’t know that it has turned up here for no reason,” said Shenandoah. “Anyway, strange stuff happens on Hopeless all the time, especially around the Gydynaps.”
His apprentice looked thoughtful and took a long swig of his beer.
“You reckon it’s best avoided?”
“Don’t go near it, son,” he said.
Shenandoah sat, lost in deep thought, after Rhys had left the cottage.
He was well aware that his apprentice had no intention of keeping away from the stone. Whatever tales the young man had heard were certainly spurious, and would never serve to save him from the consequences of his own curiosity. Despite what he had told Rhys, the Night-Soil Man had a fair idea why it had appeared at this time. The date was not lost upon him; Midsummer-eve had held a terrifying significance to the Nailsworthy family for almost a thousand years, after his ancestor, the slave Cadman Negelsleag, killed a raven. Because of this insult to Odin, he and his descendants were cursed by a vǫlva – a Norse seeress, a shaman, practised in the old magic. The Nailsworthy family alone knew the terrible fate of Cadman and the secret of the Raven Stone.
Sighing, he dragged on his jacket, and stepped out into the cold air, to find a long, black feather lying on his doorstep. Picking it up, he turned his head slowly, and looked back at the cottage with sadness in his eyes. This was the final clue. There was no cheating fate. It was then that Drury came padding up to him.
“It’s time, Drury.” he said, a tremor in his voice. “Look after him, old fellah.”
There are few things sweeter – at least in the short term – than forbidden fruit. It was inevitable that thoughts of the mysterious stone would prey on Rhys’ mind all through the few hours remaining before first light.
“It could be gone tomorrow, and not back for another century,” he said to himself. “I think I’d like to take a closer look at those markings while there’s the chance; just for a few minutes, no more.”
And so, in the grey of a Hopeless dawn, he slipped out of the bunkhouse that was his home, and made his way towards the Gydynap Hills.
Hopeless is famously foggy, but on this particular day the fog seemed to be worse than ever. Rhys did not mind, at first, enjoying the concealment it provided. Soon, however, it became too dense to walk safely without putting one foot gingerly in front of the other and keeping his arms outstretched. It fuddled his brain, making time and distance seem to expand alarmingly.
After what felt like an eternity, the dim bulk of the Gydynap Hills loomed ahead. The fog before him, where the Gydynaps lay, was beginning to thin, though to his sides and rear it was as thick and impenetrable as ever. Thing started to get weirder by the minute; he could not see the stone now. If it was still there, it was surrounded by a small copse which had apparently sprung from nowhere in a very few hours. In addition, a flock of huge, black birds circled above its branches, cawing ominously. Drawn, as if by some force beyond his control, Rhys felt compelled to venture inside.
Shenandoah’s warning still rang in his ears, but it no longer seemed quite as ridiculous as it had in the cottage. Walking cautiously between the twisted and knotted trunks, young Rhys could swear he could make out a gentle, silver glow, somewhere ahead, as if shafts of moonlight were piercing a dappled canopy of foliage, but he knew that this could not be. The moon had long ago set.
Rhys wandered on for a few more minutes, towards the mysterious light, feeling a little surprised that he had not yet reached the far side of the thicket. From the outside it had appeared to be quite small, but there was no sign of the trees thinning any time soon. He felt suddenly nervous. Maybe it was time to turn around… and then he saw him. A dozen or so yards in front, a familiar figure was standing, bound to the rune stone and bathed in a cold, silver light. It was Shenandoah. He seemed to be wearing a cloak of glossy black feathers; but something told Rhys that it was not a cloak – it was a shroud, a living, fluttering, cawing shroud of ravens that gradually smothered the body of the Night-Soil Man, until not an inch of flesh could be seen.
The young apprentice was about to run towards the writhing mass of feathers when a sharp tug on his jacket pulled him up short.
He turned his head awkwardly to see Drury dragging him back.
“Let go Drury,” he yelled, but the dog was insistent, pulling him through the trees with preternatural strength. With arms flailing to keep his balance, Rhys ranted and swore at the dog, cursing him for a useless bag of bones that he’d toss into the sea as soon as he was free. If Drury understood the tirade – which he probably did – he chose to ignore it until he had moved the apprentice safely out of harm’s way.
Rhys rolled over on to the grass with Drury’s final tug, then leapt to his feet, ready to rush back and somehow tear away those infernal birds and rescue Shenandoah. But the trees were gathering in upon themselves, like a spring being wound. Within seconds there was barely enough space to slip a hand between the tightening trunks, which, little by little seemed to merge into each other, until all that was left was solitary hawthorn, gnarled and twisted, which gradually dissolved into the morning mist.
Rhys was stunned. Shenandoah was gone. Gone! Why had he been there? It made no sense. He dropped to his knees, on to the wet earth, and wept. Great sobs racked his body, his sense of loss so deep and wide that it felt as though nothing would ever be the same again. Then, blinded by hot tears, he felt a wet, furry muzzle nuzzling his neck and a long tongue licking his face. Something primitive stirred deep inside him, responding to the comforting touch of another living thing. Turning, there was only Drury to be seen, hairless and tongueless as ever, but wagging his bony tail as if to say, ‘We’ve still got each other, young friend.”
It took a week, or more, before Rhys felt able to move into the House at Poo Corner. He was the Night-Soil Man now; just eighteen, but after a three-year apprenticeship knew that he was ready. When the time came, he lifted the great lidded bucket, with its leather shoulder straps, from the wall, hefted it on to his back and stepped out into the night, alone on shift for the first time. Then an unmistakable, bony shape came rattling down the pathway, barking and panting. No, he will never be quite alone. Good old Drury.