Lauren Bell: The Land Eater

The sky was the colour of pewter – one continuous spool of grey. The sight of it caused me to shiver. It looked so unloved; perhaps dejected is a better word. Dusk was on the horizon, steadily creeping in and dragging with it a bitter chill. I knew then that I should have waited until morning and viewed my latest project beneath a much fairer aspect; sunflower-gold rays spilling over the crops. Because it was a project – of sorts, but that first night did nothing to fire my imagination.

‘You must be mad son,’ Albert, the landlord of The Pitcher and Barrow said as I sat down to a hearty meal of beef and roast veg. I neglected to point out that I was on the wrong side of forty and instead tucked straight in.

A ruddy-faced pensioner who was balding on top turned around. His voice was weary and cautious, and I could tell that he instantly disliked me.

‘What do you want with Mooney’s land? There’s no money to be made from it if that’s what you’re thinking.’

I shook my head and swallowed down the beef which had since lost its flavour.

‘I’ve been hired by someone to change the aspect of the land.’

I studied the two men. Their faces were complete blanks. Not a single bright idea between them. I sighed.

‘I’m kind of a landscape designer.’

I waited, expecting a snigger or some sarcastic comment, but there wasn’t one.

‘So basically, I go around and spruce up the landscape a bit. I usually get commissioned for what people term “eyesores” on the landscape.’ I scratched quotation marks in the air to emphasise the point. ‘It’s often very rewarding especially when you compare the before with the after. But this project, this is very different to anything I’ve ever done before.’

‘So who got you the job?’ said Albert.

‘Well I’m not really at liberty to say,’ I replied, feeling a sudden rush of colour flooding my cheeks.

‘Course you are. You’re amongst friends here!’

Albert’s eyes glistened like polished sapphires. I took in my environment: a dimly-lit run-of-the-mill public house whose only punters were hairy middle-aged men.

‘No, no,’ I said. ‘I really can’t. Confidential information and all that.’

‘He’s got summat to hide. Look at him, Al. Look at those eyes. He hasn’t been able to sit still since he’s been here. No, he’s a bad sort all right.’

He paused briefly, took a swig of his ginger ale and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. When he turned round to look at me, his face was that of a shell – hard, polished, unreadable.

‘You should stay away from that place – no good will come of it, mark my words. It’s not for the likes of you – outsiders.’

Suddenly the air had become sour, the atmosphere cold and unpleasant like a damp sock left out in the open.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said and stood up. ‘I shouldn’t have come here. It was a mistake.’

The old man snorted into his ginger ale. ‘You can say that again.’

Albert rose and accompanied me outside where I fished out my wallet.

‘How much do I owe you?’ I said.

The landlord considered my question for a short while, his eyes appearing cloudy and glazed. I assumed he was reckoning up the total.

‘You don’t owe me anything. It’s on the house.’

‘I’d feel better if I paid you.’

Albert shook his head and turned his back on me, his hand already on the front door about to head back inside.

‘Albert, I never told you because I don’t know my contractor’s name. He said he wished to remain anonymous.’

*

The following morning I reached the site at 7.30 sharp, and was struck by what greeted me. I was parked in the same spot as the night before except this morning, the house appeared further away and the field longer as though it was on invisible runners. An icy wind blew south practically stealing the breath from my lungs, and I had the oddest sense of déjà vu from the previous evening.

I opened the boot of my car and picked out what I needed. Firstly, I checked the solidity of the land. Pushing a metre length wooden stick into the earth, I was surprised at how easily the soil sucked at it. The soil was moist and sticky as though it has received a lot of water and yet I had been told by Mrs Chilvers, the B&B hostess, that they hadn’t received a drop of rain for three weeks now. Perhaps the late Mooney had a generous neighbour who attended to his land as well as his own? Somehow though this didn’t ring true; Mooney’s cottage was off the beaten track – a recluse’s shelter is what it was.

I bent down and inspected the crops. They looked healthy enough, but when I held the ears between thumb and forefinger, an unpleasant acrid stench emanated from the husks, staining my fingers with their foul scent. The only way I can think to describe it is akin to hot tar; a smell that gets right up your nostrils, coats the back of your throat and lines one’s lungs. In a word – disgusting.

I stood up again and surveyed Mooney’s cottage which seemed even further away than before. I rubbed my eyes vigorously and blinked. What on earth was I seeing? An ever-retreating cottage? Or an ever-lengthening field? The whole idea was insane of course but I had been specially commissioned to carry out this project and damned if I wasn’t going to finish it.

The crops came out easily. I worked methodically, ensuring my latex gloves were nice and tight – I didn’t want that pungent smell on my hands for days to come. Slowly though, I noticed that all my hard work was in vain. Every new row I planted (with artificial replicas), another row would embed itself into the field somewhere since the house continued to retreat into the distance.

Stuff this, I thought and threw down the unplanted stalks which fanned out in a vivid display of harvested sunshine.

*

I walked and walked for what seemed like hours, the sky changing as though it was a kaleidoscope: baby blue to turquoise to honey to apricot to indigo. I had spent nearly all day trying to reach my destination – Mooney’s house, and failed. The fields were never-ending; the stretch of land before me like an endless carpet. I thrashed about, flinging my arms wide and kicking at the bleached stalks. There had to be an answer, some explanation as to why I couldn’t reach Mooney’s house.

Perhaps Albert was right and the land was cursed by some ancient deity? Or maybe it was a hoax from the community towards an unsuspecting (and unwelcome) newcomer to the area? Or was it simply an optical illusion and I was imagining the house to be miles away?

I felt the weight of my eyelids hanging heavy like suspended bricks and soon my eyes were two crescent moons, gradually closing on me. From beneath my lids, I glimpsed the star-speckled sky which looked comforting and kind. I smiled sleepily and let the night consume me.

*

I woke to a sky cross-hatched with straight powder-white lines as though a tic-tac-toe grid had been drawn in chalk above Mooney’s land. Never before had I seen such a pattern drawn quite so expertly; I’m not afraid to admit this but the precision of it all scared me. I pushed it to the back of my mind as I considered my itinerary for the day.

The morning passed fairly quickly and by midday I had retired to my car to enjoy a sandwich and a cup of coffee. No sooner had I poured my drink when I noticed something out the corner of my eye. I turned and looked out of the window at Mooney’s field which now had two plough lines running along the entire length of it. I dropped my sandwich, the filling like a multi-coloured explosion staining my lap. I brushed it haphazardly away and got out of my car, my eyes focused solely on the recent and unexplained development.

‘This is too weird,’ I muttered aloud. ‘Too damn weird.’

‘You got that right.’

I hadn’t noticed Albert beside me. I jumped.

‘How long have you been there?’

‘Twenty seconds or so. You’ve seen those tractor lines then?’

I nodded. My chest had suddenly grown iron tight, my lungs unable to inflate, my throat blood-red raw.

‘Where did they come from?’

Albert shrugged and sighed deeply.

‘Truth be told, I don’t think anyone knows. That’s why us locals tend to give it a wide berth. Fields that start making strange patterns are best left well alone. Wouldn’t you agree?’

I noticed how clammy my palms were, fine slivers of perspiration beading my skin.

‘Does George know too?’

Albert winced as though I had just caused him inexplicable pain.

‘Don’t let George ever hear you say anything about Mooney’s land. He gets very tetchy at the smallest of things but he’s something else entirely where this is concerned.’ He gestured at the earth before us; it looked harmless enough but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that some supernatural force was at play.

‘Why? What’s Mooney’s land to him?’

Albert fell silent for a while then. I wondered whether or not he had heard me. I was about to repeat myself when he spoke.

‘Considering the circumstances he’s got every right to be tetchy.’

He paused, evidently weighing up what bits he should tell an outsider like me.

‘George is Pete’s, Mooney to you and I, cousin. Mooney never married nor had any children. He had a sister but she died some seven years back. Fell victim to the Big C. So George is Mooney’s only heir. Except because of all this nonsense, he can’t get anywhere near the bleedin’ house!’

He sighed heavily again and looked at his shoes.

‘Some folk think its Mooney’s ghost who haunts the land. They say it’s because of some bad blood between him and George which never got settled before Mooney died. I don’t know how much truth there is in that; I’m just repeating what I’ve been told. That’s why George gets tetchy with anyone who mentions it. He sees it as his business only – no-one else’s and yet everyone has their own theory about it.’

He turned to look at me.

‘And that’s why I’m telling you to keep your theories to yourself.’

*

The following morning I arrived at Mooney’s land at the same time and simply stood there for a solid ten minutes staring at the landscape. The artificial trees looked right at home eclipsing the periphery of the field, although the same powder-white lines from yesterday disfigured the otherwise unspoilt azure sweep of sky.

I went to the boot of my car, grabbed my paintbrush and palette and was about to fetch the ladders when I heard a loud rumble behind me. I quickly looked behind and witnessed the sky bulge; actually bulge as though an invisible pressure was steadily building in the space I couldn’t see. My skin quickly turned to gooseflesh. Around me, the world was quiet, too quiet, the house further away than ever before. I told myself that if I worked hard today, I could possibly finish the project by tomorrow and have done with this godforsaken place.

I ploughed myself into the task, painting over the cross-hatched lines with brusque strokes and planting artificial trees on the periphery of the land. I sewed new crops into the soil, replacing two dozen rows before I felt the earth buckle beneath me. I jumped quickly to my feet and ran to the edge of Mooney’s land. From in the distance, the house appeared to ripple, the surface quivering from the force of an invisible stone in water. I swallowed hard. Surely I was seeing things?

I ran to my car, opened the boot and screamed. The handle was molten lava in my palm. I squeezed my hand and tried to contain the spears of pain currently shooting up the length of my arm and watched as once again, the earth rippled sending me sprawling to the ground. What the hell was happening?

Overhead, the powder white stripes tore through the azure paint I had recently added to the sky like ancient scars refusing to be forgotten.

‘Who are you? Why are you doing this to me?’

The land continued to bubble like a steaming broth while the trees were ripped from the ground by some unseen force and the crops became cinders.

I turned around fast, scouring the neighbourhood for passers-by.

‘Help me! Please, someone help me!’

My exclamations were in vain – there was no-one about and The Pitcher and Barrow was a mile or so away. I jumped into my car, keyed the engine and got the hell out of there.

*

‘He’s a bloody loon, if you ask me!’

Old ruddy-faced George sat at the bar and spoke to Albert in a not-so discreet way.

‘Ramblin’ on about supernatural events like that. He needs his head testin’.’

Albert didn’t reply and kept his head dipped, his eyes lowered to the floor, methodically cleaning glass after glass after glass.

George leaned in over the counter, his chin like a perfect triangle ending in a single point and said, ‘Did you hear what I said?’

Albert stopped cleaning and put his glass down.

‘I think everyone did.’

He glanced over in my direction, an apologetic look in his eyes.

George sneered.

‘Some friend you are taking his side over mine.’

He indicated to where I sat with one gnarled finger.

‘A bloody outsider starts shouting his mouth off about strange happenings down at Mooney’s and everyone’s gossiping about his ghost again. I thought that was dead and buried. Do you honestly think that if there was anything supernatural going on down there, I’d still visit it?’

Albert didn’t meet George’s eyes.

‘We all know why you go there –’

‘And can you blame me? That’s my land, my house, and I can’t even reach the damn thing! It’s like a hex has been placed on it.’

‘Aren’t hexes supernatural?’ I asked.

George snapped his head around, his eyes like onyx splinters in a pinched and weathered face.

‘Who the hell asked you? You know, I don’t care much for your sort coming in here like you own the bloody place, thinking you can touch what isn’t yours. I don’t like you messing with that land – it’s mine. I don’t need you interfering, messing up everything. In fact…I’ve a good idea to go over there now and take a look at all of this hocus-pocus nonsense you’re coming out with.’

‘Now then George, take it easy. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.’ Albert flushed considerably as he said this.

‘Sod the lottaya. I’ll show you that there’s nothing ghostly about it. And you call yourselves men? Ha!’

We watched him leave, the silence left in his wake incredibly palpable like a cold wet rag left on a washing line to freeze.

*

An hour later we found ourselves in the bitter outside, a frigid wind cutting our flesh with its iciness. Albert led the way with me following close behind.

I don’t really know what I expected to find but it certainly wasn’t this.

Scorch marks in myriad shapes branded certain areas of the land reminding me of a cult meeting gone horribly wrong. The sky itself looked as though the jaws of Hell had torn it asunder, an apricot sky bleeding the deepest indigo so that it spilled onto the fields consuming what was once a healthy honey-coloured harvest.

‘What the hell?’ Albert gasped. His face had become visibly drawn and pale in a matter of seconds. ‘Where’s George?’

I scoured the stygian wilderness, clutching my collar tight around my neck, but couldn’t see anything.

‘He might have gone home,’ I said lamely.

‘And pigs can fly!’ he replied bitterly.

Albert quickly turned on his heels and made for the house; he looked like a man on a mission. I hurried after and nearly collided with the back of him. He stood, frozen to the spot, a flesh-made statue, before falling to his knees as though all the wind had been knocked from him.

‘No, it can’t be. This can’t be him. Not George. No.’

I stood behind and looked over his shoulder at the desiccated remains of what was undoubtedly George. I gasped and stumbled backwards. His face was contorted in a permanent grimace, his eyes huge with shock, his mouth a shrivelled O. Whatever had happened had caught him by surprise. The rest of his body had been swallowed by the ground.

Albert looked solemnly up at me.

‘He couldn’t have known that this would happen.’

I put a hand on his shoulder in reply and that’s when he broke down, sobbing into his hands – the act of a frightened child.

I looked out across the desecrated field and stared at the cluster of signs branded on the earth. Now that I properly looked at them I realised they weren’t shapes at all but letters. There were a couple of O’s, an E, N, Y and something which could have been an M.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out who the land eater was.

black tree

Photo by Steve Armitage.

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