The Isle of Marbh-Maigheach is a tiny little rock that sits along the Northern coast of Scotland some hundred yards from the beach. It’s a jagged little patch of stone covered in moss and lichen that clings to the side of a sheer face dropping into the sea below. And what a sea it is; that beautiful raging Scottish sea that only belongs to the likes of us. It is grey and never still and so often accompanied by storms and heavy rain. It’s tremendous to watch it strike the little rock of Marbh-Maigheach which remains steadfast against the elements like some slate-bound sentinel. It is a place of age that lays at the end of the world and it is the subject of many myths and fairy-tales.
The name of the Isle itself (meaning something like ‘dead hare’ if I am correct) is derived from an old and strange tale; a legend claiming that the island would spit hares out of the soil to any man who offered the stony rock English blood. They say that the hares, if gifted to an enemy, would drive them mad and render them sick with grotesque pustules and a terrible pox. In turn, if the hare were gifted to a loved one it would guarantee a long and healthy life for all but one of their kin. Through some unknown magic one black sheep would be born and they would bear the brunt of their siblings’ misfortunes. Apparently, this cursed child would be conceived no matter the state of the matriarch in that family (there is one particular tale, written to horrify, which talks of a child birthed by a deceased mother in a most gruesome fashion). Rumours abound of aged births in the villages that surround this Isle; I couldn’t say how true they are. I wonder why anyone would ever accept such a gift given the legend that surrounds it.
Although I suppose it might be from disbelief; I admit that for much of my life I failed to take these things seriously. I had worked the Isle as a groundskeeper for many years without incident, often employed by one of the many owners that have tried to fix up the resident Manor house (I often feel as though I am the only constant resident of this place). That is until one evening blood was spilled when the owner slipped while getting out of the bath and cut his hand against the faucet. At the time I was outside clipping the hedges and suddenly, out of the mulched Earth below, a single hare emerged. It was a ragged thing with glassy eyes and matted mangy fur caked in blood. It appeared dazed and accompanied with a rotting placenta not unlike a new-born child, except that it was also fat and mature and weighed heavy in my arms.
I waited for about fifteen minutes while I held the hare; I could hear the commotion inside—the owner was an aged man and in possession of many carers and they all ran to him while making a great fuss—and it took me some time before I made the connection. It wasn’t easy to make the necessary leap in logic but somehow, staring into those black little eyes, I concluded that the hare was indeed the one from the folktales.
Thankfully I knew that you needn’t actually accept the gift but can actually return the cursed hare to the island. The little thing had sat complacently in my arms in the minutes that led up to my decision, but once I’d gripped its head it began to kick furiously until I finally twisted its grapefruit-sized skull with some force. I was relieved to see that once I had laid it on the spot from where it emerged, the soil curled up and sucked the corpse back into the ground.
After that incident I spent much time wondering about just where the hare came from. Tucked away in the rear corner of the Isle is a small chapel built during the days of Normandy and lying in front of it is a graveyard. I was told by my predecessor that the burial ground itself is far older than either the chapel or the house, and that hundreds have been lain to rest there. At the time I looked around at my feet and there were no more than twelve little stony tablets before me arranged in rows of three. It hardly seemed possible that it held the bones of hundreds but apparently it’s true. It is said that the Isle’s soft mud sucks the bodies down into its centre where they find a home in the realm of the faer-folk. I wondered if it was from that same realm from whence the hare came.
Regardless of the specifics, such thoughts do not necessarily address the fundamental problem that has faced me ever since that day. If the hares are so dangerous, and so real, how on Earth do I stop some bloody Englishman from ever spilling blood here again?
I can do little to stop people residing here for I’m hardly a man of wealth and power, and many owners come and go with great proficiency. I would think that eventually people would just stop trying given the isle’s horrific reputation of cursed hauntings. But whether it’s the great big bloody Manor house that appeals to the ego, or the vaguely romanticised perception of Scottish myths and folklore, there’s never been a shortage of new owners.
Admittedly, the appeal of the house is that it is rather beautiful. At the centre there stands the faint foundations and stony archways of the once-humble farmhouse upon which the manor was built. Affixed to these foundations are incremental layers of opulent new rooms added by new owners since the times of James VI. The whole space is steeped in a tremendous sense of history. You feel it in your bones; by the time you walk from the front door to the living room your feet have traced almost a thousand years of construction. This is a place of stone foundations carved from the rock itself, and of horse-hair plaster, witches’ signs, and stone walls a metre thick built like the castles of old. Stones, by the way, that were taken from the Isle’s own quarry of slate and rock, for the inaccessibility of this isle marshals self-sufficiency (a quality I have always admired about the Hebrides).
It was only recently that the Isle was even given year-round access. Until then the residents had to make do with crossing the sandy beach when the tide fell away to reveal a passage. Admittedly, such a way of life is not very compliant with modern sensibilities, and even the present road is still prone to flooding at specific times of year. I am thankful that the current owner does not reside here; he strikes me as something of a collector. He appreciates the isle and its history but he has always struck me as reticent to ever stay here for much longer than a day or so. For this reason I think he is wise; I suspect also that he is more familiar with the last owners and their fates than he is inclined to let me know.
The last lost were a pleasant family in many ways but they suffered a great deal because of this place. They were the Williams, and they were all artists who had come to live and express themselves in peace. I could tell they suffered neuroses, the lot of them. The father, an Odel Williams, won the Pulitzer prize and had made a fortune off a best-selling novel about his experiences as a young refugee. As far as I could tell he was a bookish sort who was interested in the isolation of this place. His wife too was of a similar conceit; she liked to paint and she was dedicated in a quiet and patient manner. She wasn’t successful or eminent like her husband but she dedicated herself to her art with a simple purity that a gardener like myself can admire.
When I had first met them I was surprised to see they were of African descent. I think they saw this surprise and while they weathered it quite well, a trait I’m sure many coloured folks must learn in places like this, I felt guilty that they detected any kind of hesitation in my voice. The truth is I was actually somewhat relieved. I’d spent decades dreading another Saxon-born Englishmen and Americans with African heritage struck me as unlikely to qualify by the Island’s standards as ‘curse-worthy’. After all their folk were hardly anywhere near this bloody country when the English gave us hell.
Still, I think that moment’s hesitation did a great deal to put a wedge between us. And sometimes thinking on how to undo social awkwardness only works to make it stronger. There was only ever an awkward peace between us, perhaps made worse by the time I tricked Odel into accidentally catching himself on a rusty nail near the chapel. His wife also caught me going through some of her personal effects which I managed to uncomfortably lie my way through; both incidents were to see if their blood produced a hare. I only wanted to see that neither were at risk from the curse.
During the first few months, when it was just the two of them and the one of me I found an uncomfortable working relationship formed. Odel was belligerent and strangely ignorant of certain custodial traditions. He could never understand why the land didn’t bear much in the way of pretty flowers and he always seemed to blame me. And his wife approached me as one might a dangerous dog. It was one of the few times where I felt the hierarchy of my position reinforced in an uncomfortable and ugly way. I had hoped that this strangeness would dissipate with familiarity and time-honoured trust.
I was wrong. The first step towards catastrophe was the arrival of their daughter. Kyren Williams. She was a stunning creature. A sweet and beautiful child of around seventeen who was on course to study in Oxford. For much of the last year or so she had been left to her devices in a flat in London where she attended a most-prestigious dance school. The Williams thought the world of this girl; I later realised the move across the Pacific was solely so they were never more than a day away from her. But where they were reserved, she was flamboyant. I remembered watching her dance in ballet slippers across the marble floor of the atrium as she waited for her parents’ return on the first day of the Christmas break. Aside from the traditional footwear she was clad in a leather bomber jacket and a pair of denim shorts, all of which were customised with all sorts of badges, patches and stickers. She was like a collective of colours that were bright and kaleidoscopic, and so fluent was her movement that she seemed to leave a streak of coloured light behind her as she arched and tiptoed from tile to tile.
She noticed me when I laughed. I had yet to see ballet performed to the Sex Pistols but she made it enchanting nonetheless. I’d no sinister intentions of course but a man like myself will often draw some affection (I’ve been told I’m quite striking). We flirted harmlessly for the first few days, but afterwards a kind of friendship began to emerge. For me, I appreciated her vigour more than anything else. She was funny, and lively. I may clip hedges and plant flowers but nothing really grows on this bloody island and nearly all my work is for nothing. Daffodil bulbs sprout into twisted angry forms that snatch flies out of the air, and daisies somehow manage to come up with thorns instead of petals. I’m constantly fighting sinking mud, grey slate, pale and tough hedges and thistles that whistle angrily with the wind (if you’re not Scottish I’ll clarify that thistles should not scream). And the Williams! First day they appeared in the doorway of this house they wore blazers and petticoats of beige and cream.
I’d almost forgotten what colour and youth looked like and I welcomed her presence. She even enjoyed watching me work and the company was a welcome reprieve from my own silent labour. I was used to Odel watching me, ominously, from the window of his study with nimble gold-trimmed glasses upon his nose, so Kyren’s friendship was much appreciated. She put on few airs and graces and brought the roughness of the city to a house bound in the stuffiness of wealth. I liked that she followed me as I walked and clipped away at hedge, although she spoke almost endlessly of friends and boys and drama and gossip. No, most of it didn’t make sense to me, but God was it a change to the usual droning requests of Odel and his wife about raking leaves, cleaning gutters, or replacing the soil in the hopes of growing some petunias or lilies on the grounds.
He always had the strange conceit that I was responsible for the Isle’s pitiful growth. By the time Christmas passed he and I were not always willing to speak openly without Kyren acting as a go-between. The only thing that I still respected of Odel was his utter devotion to his daughter. His wife chastised him frequently for spoiling her but the girl had once mentioned, in passing, the need to make tribute to a late brother. The man may well have been spoiling Kyren, but like I said, it was clear they had lost another child and he was compensating for this fact. Over time it struck me that all of his activities—writing, composing, playing the piano—were momentary distractions from his singular role as father to a daughter. It was only when he was with her that he actually seemed human.
He did not like her affection for me, which I suppose I can understand. I would never engage a child in such a manner but he’d not known me for long, and there was more than just a bit of antagonism between us. These feelings though, this conflict, it did eventually come to a head one day late in January.
Kyren had followed me around for much of the morning and her voice was like the pitter of rain in the sense that it was comforting, but also an unending drone. I scarcely remember her tapping me on the shoulder and telling me to avoid a particular bush. I knew she was likely to be taking a quick piss (we were a good mile from the house), and I mindlessly took a moment to appreciate the weather during the pause in speech. That day had been one of the few where I’d seen the island bathed in sun, and the Manor looked most noble and regal in the amber light as it rested atop the crest of a hill. It may well have been surrounded by dead trees and soil that struggled to do much other than churn under the rain but in that moment I appreciated the house as a well-made piece of architecture that rightfully drew much praise.
And then I heard a scream. I was hesitant as I knew not whether I was going to turn a corner and catch the poor girl by surprise, knickers down, but by the time one leg had flexed and I had taken a single step the scream abated. It quickly simmered into a high-pitched laugh; one that had hints of confusion and relief.
“My God,” the poor girl cried stumbling around the corner. “I just pissed on some bloody rabbit!”
My face dropped and she noticed this.
“Where did it come from?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said noticing my reticence. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“What did it look like?”
“It was a rabbit,” she quipped with the usual adolescent chill.
I pushed past her and stepped through the branches of a large bush, into the central clearing, to see where she had done her business. Surely enough there lay a hole in the soft earth squarely between the outlines of two fresh shoe-prints.
“Look at that,” she said coming up behind me. “It must have come up right under me. Isn’t that funny?” She jostled me a little, perhaps trying to break my heavy expression of concern.
“Oh God,” I muttered as I run my hands down my face. “Kyren,” I added. “You must tell me where you saw it go.”
She clearly didn’t like the way I spoke to her. Where I had often been informal, almost like a peer, I was now being almost demanding. But I needed that hare back, and I was still set upon by a myriad of confused thoughts. She responded with slumped shoulders and a lip that curled, momentarily, into a snarl.
“Over there,” she pointed. “It ran off dragging something behind it.”
“I need you to go back to the house,” I said. “I… I don’t mean to be a problem but I just—”
“Whatever,” she snapped. “I haven’t been feeling well anyway,” before trudging off in a cold and withdrawn fashion. I’d no time to care that I’d upset her though, for I was left to turn and stare back into the maze of thin branches that swallowed the horizon whole and left nothing to see. There were brambles and thorns and all sorts of strange, ugly, weeds in this part of the garden and they all offered a scared hare perfect cover. I lowered myself onto my hands and feet, ready to crawl into the thicket in pursuit of the rabbit when I heard the crack of thunder and felt the first signs of rain. The isle turned grey once more in a sudden transformation and I sighed heavily before pushing onwards.
I spent six hours looking for that fucking hare. Each time I needed a break I returned to the clearing and, a little off-put by own actions, poked around where the girl had urinated looking for signs of blood or otherwise. Not that finding any would have answered my questions for she was surely Odel’s child—they bore too great a similarity to be anything else—and I knew for a fact he was not Saxon-born.
Eventually I was forced to take a proper break and I quit for the house, but when I entered ready to inquire after Kyren and her health, I was faced with a furious Odel.
“What happened!?” he cried. I looked at him a little perplexed and went to answer but at that moment the ineffable Mrs. Williams descended the stairs holding a small piece of fabric in her hands. She had an expression like a pained Greek statue and leant close to her husband to whisper.
What happened next was an assault. Odel was a small man but he charged me like a bull. I had no intention to fight him and was forced to wrestle with him only to be uncomfortably put over by Mrs. Williams who began to swat me with a nearby book. I’ll admit she hurt me more than her husband, and I eventually fell to the floor where she continued to kick me with surprising vigour. Eventually I managed to unhinge Odel’s arms from around my waist and began to crawl backwards towards the door, like a crab, as the old woman struck me with a book over and over. Growing frustrated and being awfully confused I eventually snapped and tore the book from her hands. With nothing left she went to strike me with her other hand which I also caught by the wrist. Clutched in her hands, I saw the marbled pink and white fabric and seeking answers I wrenched them from her fingers.
They were a young girl’s underwear. It took me a moment to realise why Odel and his wife, staring at me aghast with horror, were so furious. But eventually it dawned on me; their daughter was, as I understood it, upstairs and in pain and, from the looks of things, bleeding from somewhere intimate. It must have looked like a sexual assault.
“What do you think I did,” I snapped as I stood up. “Have you even spoken to her!?”
“You monster!” Odel cried. “She’s barely able to stand, let alone speak!”
“I did nothing!” I screamed throwing the fabric back at them. “Speak to her,” I repeated. “And come speak to me when you’ve gotten the truth.”
I left the island and later learned from a nearby, and talkative, doctor that he treated a young girl for a miscarriage which had led to a fever and infection. I imagined that to the Williams it would have initially appeared as though their young girl spent time with me only to return injured and suffering wounds that, on the surface, resembled rape. I tried to be angry that they would accuse me of such a thing, but really I was more caught up in my concern for Kyren and the realisation that it may well have been the child’s blood that prompted the hare to appear. I remembered she had come from London and was a teenager with little supervision. And, from what I hear, London is overrun with the English.
At least the question of why the hare appeared was answered. Though the creature itself was likely to remain free until caught (which was of great concern to me). I wanted to speak to Odel to see if she was okay, but after about a month had passed it occurred to me that if the mess on their end was cleared up then surely they would have contacted me to ask that I return, or at the very least, to apologise for their conduct? I’m ashamed to admit my pride got the better of me and despite my concern for Kyren I waited to be contacted first and that would not come for nearly six months.
It was a phone call. Mrs. Williams was on the other line sobbing hysterically. She told me Odel had been too proud to find me and apologise but that they were aware that I had done nothing wrong. She said they had struggled to maintain themselves and that other hired help had come and gone with little regard for their well-being. I asked about Kyren and she just began to wail in distress. Eventually I was forced to hush her and state I would return. There was no reply, only the click of the receiver.
When I arrived on the Isle, having driven along the lonely outcrop of road across which ocean spray was thrown across by an evening storm, I discovered that these cursed hares do not need couples to mate. As my headlights rolled around the corner of the lane that ascended the slopes of the isle I saw the light streak through the low-lying hedges and the rear ends of a dozen fat hares ran away into the darkness. Along that lane I saw that there were rat traps of all varieties spaced no more than two feet apart on the low-hanging wall that guided my car towards the house. There must have been at least forty on the approach to the gates alone.
Once I drove through those high-rising iron-cast gates I saw that the situation near the house was even stranger. There must have been nearly a hundred disposed traps, many of which were still in possession of some stringy bit of flesh or fur, and the corpses of an incredible number of dead and rotting hares. I noticed a bloodied axe laying near Odel’s car, and an array of bent and twisted kitchen knives littering the entire lot.
Overall the image was quite upsetting. Clearly something was desperately askew in the residents of this Isle, both man and animal. The damage done to the hares was violent and uncharacteristic of either Mrs or Mr Williams. In particular, there was a long black iron-wrought fence that ran the length of one side of the driveway, separating a nearby lawn from the car-park, and along each spike—spaced apart by no more than six inches—was a severed head from a hare perched savagely like some trophy. There must have been at least forty and their sickly brown eyes glared at me from their long-faces framed by pocked and sickly ears that dangled down.
I parked and left my car, careful not to slip on the carnage. And just as I began to inspect one of the heads Mrs Williams suddenly appeared by my side and said,
“He would turn them away each day.” I turned, a little startled, and saw that she wore a wretched smelling gown that was discoloured from overuse and which could have offered no warmth or cover from the winds. “Yet they would always face the house come morning,” she added.
“Where’s Kyren?” I asked.
“She is in the chapel,” Mrs Williams replied. Something about her was distinctly odd but then again, she had always been a little strange and aloof. “It is the only place he thought her safe,” she added.
She shook her head and answered,
“He’s waiting for her.” She then turned silently and despite the wretched weather began to walk the path that led to the chapel. “This way,” she muttered, and I followed her in the dark as she crunched across the overgrown paths barefoot and without a guiding light. She was like a spectre, pale and with a wounded gait, casting a shadow from the lantern that I carried behind her. It took a while but eventually we broke clear of some low hanging branches and entered into the graveyard.
When my light fell upon the rocky walls of that chapel I cried out unable to contain myself; upon each roof slate sat a hare, such that there appeared to be hundreds of eyes that glowed in the light of torch, glaring at me with great menace. And there was that noise, a dreadful din that arose from the ground. As I lowered my torch I saw that the entire graveyard was sunken beneath a writhing mass of undulating brown fur. The foul movement and sheer mass were frightening on their own, but occasional the scuttle was pierced with a terrible yelp and from some twisted knot of fur there emerged a spurt of blood. It was then that I noticed the hares were rampantly tearing one another apart and so violent was their assault that they had painted the chapel walls red from their blood and viscera. It was like some demented ritual.
Mrs Williams stepped forward and they cleared a path immediately.
“They mean no harm to us,” she muttered before motioning for me to follow. I traced her steps exactly and was horrified to discover that though the hares were willing to move aside, they did not stop their feverous rage. I was sprayed with their blood and though the walk was short, no more than ten foot, by the time I reached the door my hair was slick and my clothes wet.
I noticed, after stepping inside, that I was shaking. I was horrified, but my attention was quickly caught by the colourless image of Kyren laying on an iron table. She was dead and had clearly been so for quite a while.
“Every morning,” Mrs Williams muttered, “Odel would wake and care for her as her body and spirit waned, and every day a hare would be sat upon her chest. When she finally passed Odel went mad and claimed that these things were responsible. Whatever he thought, it was actually his staunch refusal to bury the girl that led to this grotesque situation. There has been nothing we could do.”
“Where is he now?” I asked once more.
“Waiting for her,” she replied, and this time she pointed. She gestured through a window towards the highest point of the house; an old and rickety widow’s walk that faced the ragged sea. “She’s due to come any time now.”
“Màthair nan Cailleach,” she replied in a reverent whisper. At the mention of it, the scuttling outside seemed to diminish only to suddenly return, like the break in rain one hears when driving beneath a bridge.
I’d not a clue what the name meant at the time. I could roughly translate it to mean that it was the mother of Cailleach, who in turn was a figurehead of Gaelic mythology. A watcher of the underworld and the mother of all disease, known also as the veiled one. She was a rough equivalent to the Christian devil though the comparison was far from perfect. At the time I remembered a distinct feeling that madness was gripping the Isle, and that little I would hear or see would make sense.
“I need to go get him,” I declared, concerned that Odel was close to suicide, but as I turned she cried out:
“We only let you in here to do one job.” The scuttling outside intensified. “We cannot just take her.”
I stopped and stared at Mrs Williams; her brown eyes sunken in an emaciated face. It’s an impossible image to describe, for the face of a faer one is at once beautiful and repugnant. I’d heard often of the faer-folk but I never thought I’d actually meet one. They were ancient tricksters and mimics who set upon mortals with rigged bargains and cursed gifts in old fairy-tales. She spoke once more, this time her voice like thunder; deep and affected. “You have one of ours,” she said and paused for emphasis. “We want one of yours. The trade must be equitable.”
“What will you do with her?” I asked.
“Not of your concern,” she answered. “If you do not gift the hare to an enemy, or friend, then we are owed a child. Do you not even remember the deal we made with your King not long ago?”
“No,” I shook my head.
“Not our problem,” she replied. “The hare for the girl.”
“That hardly seems fair,” I stuttered.
“Not our problem,” the imposter repeated. “The hares are a powerful totem of great and ancient magic; it’s not our fault your lot are ignorant of how to use them. Although…” the imposter paused, for just a moment. “The old man seems to have worked out how to put them to use.”
She pointed once more to the widow’s walk. “You will probably not want to let him go through with his ritual. Give us the girl, she will follow us into the soil, and then you may go and stop that stupid man from making his own deal.”
I swear, the authority of that voice was hard to ignore. I’d no clue what Odel was doing but I knew he was mad, grief-stricken no doubt, and I feared that the real Mrs Williams could be elsewhere and in need of help as well. I wanted to move, I wanted to leave, but good Lord the eyes of that woman stared at me in such a way that I feared for my life. And even though I’d not known Kyren for long I still felt a little guilty when I walked over to her and pulled her up onto my shoulder; I knew she was dead but I’d no clue what might happen to her soul once I gave her to Isle. As I lifted her up the imposter then gave an almost imperceptible nod of approval and walked ahead to clear the way. She pushed the door open once more, with little effort, and waited for me to step outside and lay the girl down.
“Anywhere on soil,” she said as I stepped carefully through the hares whose manic crawling had ceased. They had all turned and were glaring at me with their blood-matted fur and pale-brown eyes like a reverent choir. As soon as my feet touched Earth I laid her down and felt only a little bit of surprise when I saw the soil begin to shudder and pull her down below. The faer-folk beside me walked past and nodded once more before slipping into the darkness.
I was alone, and I returned a little weary and confused to the car park in front of the house. There was a period of silence as the hares seemed to dissipate into the foliage and stop their lunacy. But the air around the house was slowly filling with the sound of distant waves and shouting, and it compelled me to hurry up and enter the Manor. What I found inside was… distressing. Mrs Williams has been put on display I couldn’t say what it was like for her to die like that but I took the time to find a nearby sheet and pull it over her. She was quite far gone in terms of decay, and it was maddening to think how long this insanity had been allowed to play out for. Both Kyren and her mother had been left to rot and the house was in a state of total disarray.
Filth caked the walls and blood, brown and rusted with age, was spattered along most surfaces. Mirrors were shattered and not a painting remained on the walls. All of them had been removed, and slashed canvases cluttered many of the doorways on the ground floor. I ignored it all and quickly ascended the first flight of stairs, before proceeding to wind my way through the numerous rooms. I quickly found the corner bedroom whose attic had pull-down stairs that offered entrance to the widow walk. But when I reached them they were already lowered, and on each step was a hare’s head with the scalp removed and the skull bevelled clean so that it may hold a single lit candle. This ritualistic display continued up into the darkness and beckoned me.
I had presumed that with Kyren’s burial things were now safe, but something in the air crackled as I clamoured up into the darkness and found the door to the highest point flapping furiously in the storm’s wind. I steadied it with my hand and approached the exit. I knew the widow’s walk was typically off limits for it was simply too old to bother with now, but that clearly hadn’t stopped Odel who was stood out in the rain. He was a lithe and starved black figure, topless and clutching a fat and unnaturally large hare. His noble face, upon which there were still those gold-rimmed glasses, though now one lens was cracked, peered hopelessly into the distant sea. I looked out and saw the waters foaming at the mouth below and the waves far off towards the horizon, rolling and shuddering. Blue, black and grey; it was an abyss watched over by the darkest clouds I’d ever seen.
“Did you see it?” he asked, effortlessly aware of my presence. “It masqueraded as my wife for weeks; slept in my bed even… coupled with me. I never knew which was which and when I finally snapped… I got it wrong. I got the wrong one. It tricked me,” he snarled.
“Odel,” I muttered. “We need to leave this place.”
“No. There’s something coming,” he said. “You should have told me, by the way.” He turned to me and narrowed his eyes with just a hint of accusation. “About the myths that surround this place. Maybe I could have told you a little bit, as well. Hare’s are powerful symbols; in one myth, one my mother told me when I was young, a great hero used one to barter with the gods.” Odel smiled weakly as he turned back to the sea.
I thought of the faer-folk’s mutterings,
“Màthair nan Cailleach?” I asked, and Odel nodded.
“She spoke to me the day I beat my wife to death. She’s been sleeping out there,” he raised his finger and pointed out into the raging sea, “she’s open to a trade.”
“What was the deal?” I asked.
“I could have asked for them back,” he said. “She could have done that for me, but it wasn’t what I asked for.”
“What did you ask for?”
“I was just so angry,” he replied, and when he snapped around I saw that the calm and regal face of Odel had become quite twisted by grief. “I asked for it all to be burned, wherever those fucking things are from. I wanted that world gone. She asked only for the hare—the original hare—in return. Can you believe, after all the fuss you made looking for it, it was the same one that sat upon Kyren’s chest each day. Look at it,” he jiggled the hare in his arms. “Just waiting to be put to use; ready for its calling. Now I just have to wait for her to come collect it, in person.”
He turned back to the sea and continued to squint. I don’t know if it was the ordeal of bizarre events, or the unsettling nature of his speech, but when I turned and looked out I swear to God I saw something. It could have been a ship for all I know. An oil tanker, perhaps? Though it was huge, that much I know. Something about it set me in place and filled with fear and when I glanced at that hare, that fat pulpy hare that was the size of a dog and cuddled in Odel’s arms, I decided that I could not allow that wretched thing to continue living. As soon as I began to walk towards it, it kicked and drew Odel’s attention.
I reached out to grab it but Odel, swiftly and with a confidence I would not have usually ascribed to him, twisted and drove a small pen knife into my forearm. It hurt a great deal, but it didn’t stop me wrapping my hands around one of the hare’s legs and pulling with all my strength. It was enough to pull something out of place, or possibly even break it, for the hare screamed in pain and became so hysterical that Odel was forced to drop it as it scrambled around. Now his attention was on me and on that rain soaked walkway, with the clouds behind him, he was genuinely frightening; he looked insane. He leapt forward and I fell backwards, through the doorway into the house, where I kept my grip on the hare dragging it like a rucksack. I swung it around and quickly subdued it hoping to snap its neck before Odel appeared but I was too late. A shadow was cast across me as he appeared in the doorway.
He went to speak, but suddenly, like a feather sucked through a straw, he was pulled away.
I don’t know what happened. I still don’t. Even the hare seemed to stop its fussing; an opportunity I quickly took to wrench its skull around until I heard its neck break. I then rose, and breathing heavily—able to hear only my pounding heart—I carefully approached the door and looked outside onto the walkway. There was nothing; just the sea and clouds that now appeared to roll away from the house, and not towards. The only trace of Odel were his gold-trimmed glasses that lay upon the rotting floor.
I stood there for some time, struggling to grasp the experience, but proceeded to move forwards with my rightful duties as custodian. That meant some unpleasant arrangements had to be made; three people had to be accounted for. Thankfully, the Williams were in possession of a boat that faced the wayward storm. It took a few days’ work but I made it look convincing. Eventually the fuss of the disappearances, which might I add are a regular occurrence for this place, passed away and Crossroads Manor and the isle of Marbh-Maigheach were, once again, up for sale. Though like I said the current owner has made no effort to live here, thankfully.
I could find no further reference to Màthair nan Cailleach in any written legend or tale, though there are some passing references to the primordial forces, left over from some old world, that gave rise to the race of supernatural beings known as the faer-folk. I wondered if it were these forces that been had whatever it was that Odel made his deal with. Regardless of its true nature, the effect of this Màthair nan Cailleach was long reaching; it had twisted the words that Odel wrote in his study until they were raving nonsense. And it warped the paintings of Mrs Williams into a hysteria-inducing gallery. Of all her remaining works I kept only one canvas from the series she had painted in her study.
The first few paintings were almost abstract. They were a series of intersecting circles, lines and curves with bisecting textures reminiscent of fur or maybe scales. The next few showed the form that began to coalesce around those textures and shapes; a form that was distinctly organic for you could see the straining muscles and bulging flesh. Her technique had clearly improved for she imparted a tremendous sense of motion on those still images with her use of colour and lines with a skill that had previously eluded her.
But that final painting… it is locked in the basement along with an unwashed gown that I found in the graveyard, and the gold trimmed glasses that belonged to Odel. It faces the wall. Jesus… I still think back to the shape I thought I saw rising in the distance, caught between the sea and the clouds, and I think of that painting with its twisted muddle of flesh and bone and antlers. I am sure that if it was Màthair nan Cailleach that Mrs Williams painted then such a thing was stricken from all legends for a reason. It was like some shuddering mountain rising from the sea below and it belched forth all sorts of wretched things from its gaping cunt.It was not of scales, or fur, or feathers or chitin. We don’t have words for what’s in that painting, and when I think of what might have plucked Odel from that walkway I shudder and realise just why, in old Celtic legends, the faer-folk eventually went into hiding.
Written by ChristianWallis