It was an in-between sort of creature. If nothing else, they could agree on that. And as they waited for the others in the last light of the frozen hills, Flanagan was beginning to wish they hadn’t caught it. When he’d first glimpsed it writhing in the snare, he’d mistaken it for a child; it was only after Miller had seen it too that he’d accepted it as real and not a fiction of his senses. They’d been staring at the snow-sealed landscape for so long now that no one trusted their eyes. The sea of white was hypnotic, with a lurid, febrile quality that the hunger played with in unsettling ways.
Tugging on the rope, Flanagan heard a stumbling of hooves and the same whimper he’d first mistaken for an infant’s.
‘You think they’ll be wanting one of them photographs?’ he asked, trying to keep the tremor from his voice. ‘The papers I mean. You think pr’haps someone’ll know what it is?’
‘What it is?’ Miller replied, spitting into the snow. ‘I reckon what is, is supper. There ain’t nothin’ to think about.’
‘Sure, that’s yer belly talkin’.’ Flanagan watched his companion from the corner of his eye. ‘Listen, I seen this travellin’ show one time. They had this wee boy in a cage with hair all down his body. Never seen the likes of it. Said he was part dog on account of wolves attackin’ his ma while she was still wit’ child. But folks was linin’ up to see that boy and payin’ good money for it.’
‘Only this ain’t no boy,’ Miller griped. His guts were cramping so badly he could barely stand straight, and he was in no mood for an argument.
‘Boy or no, folks’ll pay to see it.’
Someone hallooed from the dark past the nearest clump of pines, and they watched, shivering against the ringing cold, as three scarecrow figures with rifles trudged through the snow towards them. They were a few feet away when the leader called out.
‘Aye,’ Miller replied. ‘From the snares.’
‘An’ god only knows what kind of something it is.’
‘So long as we can eat it,’ The newcomer replied. ‘That’s all we need to know.’
‘See now, Mr Powell, there’s the thing…’ Flanagan began before a hiss from Miller cut him short.
Captain Jacob Powell approached in a plume of breath and motion and slapped Miller heartily on the shoulder. He was a tall man, still imposing despite his advancing years, with the hard, squinting eyes of someone who’d made a living from the rifle sight.
‘What in blazes is it?’ He demanded, peering into the snowy twilight. ‘Some kinda goat?’
‘Sure, it’s an in-between sort o’thing,’ Flanagan replied.
‘Goat enough I reckon.’ And with that Powell set off through the frozen waste in the direction of the wagons, his fur-lined cape dragging in his wake.
The camp was nestled like a tick against the leeward slope of the mountain. Even from a distance, it was a pitiful affair, consisting of covered wagons and hide covered tents around a stunted, seething fire that produced more of smoke than of flame. Scattered between the wagons, various cooking fires added their own tributaries to the smoke as it rose into the hoary night sky. Hurrying between the fires, several dozen men, women and children, all wrapped in layers of fur, hide, and wool, did their best to stay warm and distract themselves from the hunger that had been their constant companion since morning. Their faces were sickly and gaunt, with a sunken desperation they did their best to conceal as they watched the hunting party approach from the slopes.
Arriving at the camp, Miller and Flanagan came to a halt at the outskirts of the firelight. Shortening the rope, Flanagan drew the creature towards himself and it approached with a slushy patter of hooves that made him shudder. In the dancing light of the fire, it was even more disconcerting, and there was no question of leading it straight into the camp. Quiet now, it shivered in the dark behind a wagon and neither man cared to study it more closely.
At last Miller managed to call over Captain Powell.
‘Gentlemen!’ He began with a strained attempt at bonhomie. ‘Why the delay? Come and warm yourselves. After all, you are the heroes of the feast.’
‘Mr Powell, about that,’ Flanagan replied, and Powell’s grin faltered.
‘Speak up son, what is it?’
‘Sir, no disrespect meant to you, but you better take a good look at this thing.’
Powell’s mask gave way to stern impatience as he stepped up to the wagon.
‘Shoulda let me shoot it,’ Miller murmured as Flanagan hauled on the rope.
As the creature trotted out from the shadow of the wagon, Powell started back, clutching a hand to his hat. ‘Lord Almighty! It’s been walking on its hind legs the whole time?’
Flanagan nodded gravely.
‘Looks like someone sewed a goat and a monkey together.’
‘I ain’t never seen no monkey,’ Miller replied pragmatically.
‘Sure is a skinny critter. I believe I can see its ribs.’
Miller cleared his nose and spat. ‘What you want us to do with it?’
‘Truly, I have never seen anything like it. But in my untutored opinion, it is goat enough for our purposes.’
‘With all due respect, Mr Powell, what we have here is a business opportunity.’
Powell regarded Flanagan with disdain. ‘You’re one of Hook’s men aren’t you?’
‘That I am, sir.’
‘Then may I suggest you withhold any further opinions until you are in the company of your employer.’
Flanagan’s gaze turned sour and his hand tightened on the rope. He was about to speak up when his expression abruptly lifted. ‘Why, isn’t it your man right here? Mr Hook, sir!’
Powell fixed him with a look of malice and turned to regard the man now approaching from between the wagons, his spidery frame lost in layers of fur and hide. He was a man of knees and elbows, with a black bowler hat and a neatly trimmed beard and moustache that he tended to each morning in a cracked shaving mirror.
‘Good evening, sirs.’ Hook began, rubbing his hands together in their fingercut gloves. ‘Won’t you join us? We are waiting to see what bounty the Good Lord has provided.’
‘If this is the Lord’s bounty,’ Powell intoned, stepping to one side so that Hook could see the creature. ‘Then he has a most ungentlemanly sense o’ humour.’
Solomon Hook started back in shock, clasped a hand to his mouth and began kneading his cheeks with thumb and forefinger. He remained that way for some time, staring with a look of deep intent as Powell watched him with a faintly mocking smile. Down in the shadow of the wagon, whether from fear or the cold, the creature was shivering, pulling its hairy, childlike arms into its body.
‘This here,’ Hook began, wagging a finger in the air. ‘Is no ordinary beast of the Earth. That much is clear.’
‘Nevertheless,’ Powell replied, lifting his pistol from its holster. ‘Needs must.’
‘Jacob, stay your hand!’
Powell snarled as Solomon stepped between him and the creature.
‘Out of the way, Sol. This isn’t a theological debate.’
‘Oh but I beg to differ. A life is at stake. And to my thinking perhaps even more than that.’
‘Tell you what, when you go hunting, you can make the decisions about what we do with the catch.’
‘Jacob. I must insist.’
Powell clenched his teeth and gave Solomon a flinty look. ‘How about you agree to that barter we talked about?’
Hook sighed and shook his head in reproach. ‘If that is what it takes.’
‘Then we have a deal.’ Powell grinned and let the pistol go slack in his hand.
‘Excellent,’ Hook continued as cheerily as he could manage. ‘Now, I suggest we discuss this like Christian men a little closer to the fireplace. Mr Flanagan, bring the err… creature if you would.’
‘You want me to take it into camp? With the wains an’ all? Sure, it’ll be giving ’em nightmares.’
‘At least tie it up near the fire. Or this cold will do a bullet’s work.’
‘Whatever you say, Mr Hook.’
As they approached the campfire, the creature drew a ripple of shocked exclamations, and it wasn’t long before most of the camp, barring those laid up with fever or injury, had come out to stare at the thing, which was swiftly tethered to a pine tree on the wavering fringes of the light as the onlookers gathered in a half-circle around it like a crowd at a sideshow.
Perched on an upturned log, Powell watched the scene with an expression of wry amusement. ‘Sol, I believe we should charge admission.’
Refusing the bait, Solomon regarded him with sober grey eyes. Powell was an impious man, he knew that already; and impious men would only ever see what they wanted to see, even in the face of the miraculous.
‘It amazes me, Jacob. We are sent this most uncanny of messengers, and all you see is meat.’
‘That there an animal. Why else would it be creeping around the freezing woods at night?’
‘Its environs are of no significance. Or do you think the Almighty works only in brothels and saloons?’
‘Sol, with what I have seen of this world, I doubt the Almighty concerns himself much with any part of it. This here is a mishap of nature, not a sign from God.’
Staring gravely into the fire, Solomon stroked his well-kempt beard as he waited for the chatter around the fire to subside. ‘It is my conclusion that this here is a test our faith,’ he said at last.
Powell threw his head back in a mocking laugh intended as much for those now listening as for Solomon. ‘If that is the case then the good Lord must be an ornery old coot.’
‘Look how he tested Job. It is in our direst circumstances that our faith must prove itself to be true.’
Solomon’s wife, Eliza, standing now at her husband’s side, nodded emphatically. ‘That there it is not rightly an animal. On this matter, there is no doubt in my mind. Why, Captain Powell, you look in those eyes and tell me you see an ordinary animal.’
On the edge of the clearing, downwind of the fire smoke, the creature was huddled in the dirt, flinching as three children took turns poking it with a stick.
‘Children!’ Eliza shouted. ‘Get away from there. Isaac, William, Charlotte, for shame!’
Free of the children’s attentions, the creature returned its gaze to the fire, which danced eerily in its large yellow eyes, its pupils floating like drops of ink.
One of the older women nodded sagely. ‘Ain’t no ordinary thing, that’s for sure.’
Various others who’d finished their gawping and taken a place at the fireside murmured in agreement.
‘Could be some heathen magic,’ one of the wagon hands chimed in, and people raised their voices in outraged agreement.
‘I’ve eaten worse,’ Miller snarled. ‘But I’ll tell you this. I ain’t never eaten less.’
‘Aye!’ Another chorus, quieter this time.
‘Mr Miller, there is more at work here,’ Solomon chided. ‘Than your capacity for digestion. Man shall not live by bread alone.’
‘Reckon it’s easy enough for you to say, Mr Hook, given as you have porridge in your wagon.’
‘Mr Miller,’ Eliza rejoined, unable to hide her contempt. ‘We are hungry just like everyone else. What little we have, we have because we rationed our supplies. But it is not enough to feed our children. If you had any of your own, you would know what it’s like to have them look at you with hungry eyes.’
Miller sniffed and spat contemptuously into the fire.
‘We cannot ignore a sign from God simply because it is expedient to do so,’ Solomon replied loudly. ‘I say, this is no ordinary animal. It is beyond doubt.’
The chorus from the fireside was emphatic now. Baring his teeth in disgust, Powell took out his tobacco and began packing the bowl of his pipe. He’d always despised men like Hook, whose comfort and piety depended on the compromises of others. Such cossetted men would never understand the brutality of the world over which proclaimed themselves masters. Lighting his pipe with a twig from the fire, he scowled through the smoke in the direction of the creature.
Sat on a tree root on the other side of the fire, Flanagan was similarly deep in thought. He detested Powell but felt it unwise to contradict such a man in front of the camp. He’d not survived in such an unforgiving land by making enemies of dangerous men. The creature too was making him more and more uneasy, and he had the creeping sense that whatever it was, it was there for them. Money be damned, he thought. Having to look at it each day, having it there in the camp with them as they slept, made his skin crawl. Neither was he desperate enough to eat it. He’d lived with hunger ever since he was a boy when his poor Ma had fed them soup made from rotten cabbage and nettles. It wasn’t that he’d become accustomed to it – he didn’t think it was possible to grow accustomed to hunger – but he’d learned not to make rash decisions because of it.
Distracted by the fire sparks, his gaze began to wander. A layer of cloud had settled like a stone seal across the tops of the mountains, closing off the sky. In the past few weeks, the land had grown more oppressive with each passing day. Hunger woke them in the morning as reliably as a rooster, and at night, they lay awake with its bitter lullaby groaning in their guts. It was scarcely any better when he slept. Inevitably, he would dream of a sumptuous banquet that vanished as soon as he tried to take a bite.
Returning from his distraction, Flanagan glanced at the creature and immediately started back in fright so that he had to steady himself with a hand against the frozen dirt. Squeezing his eyes with thumb and forefinger, he looked again, but the creature was back staring blandly into the fire. He took a long, uneasy breath and tried to clear his head. Likely it was delirium or a trick of the firelight, but he thought he’d seen the creature peer at him from under its overgrown brows, its strangely sensitive lips curled in the flicker of a mocking smile.
Flanagan frowned into the fire. There was no question of the creature coming with them. Not anymore.
Back on the other side, Captain Powell removed the pipe from his lips. ‘Solomon, in the final analysis, I believe you are correct, and I am willing to accept that I may have been overly hasty in my judgement of this beast. Truly, it is no ordinary animal.’
Caught off guard, Hook did his best to assume a more magnanimous expression. ‘Jacob, I am dearly glad to hear it.’
‘There is something at work here.’
Eliza murmured her approval. ‘I judged you for an intransigent man. May the Lord forgive my error, Mr Powell.’
‘Rest assured, I am an intransigent man,’ Powell replied, smiling wryly through the smoke. ‘There is nothing to forgive.’
‘Truly, the Lord has given us a sign,’ Hook intoned. ‘But it requires all our faith and wisdom if we are to perceive his will.’
Powell studied him carefully, waiting for the moment when his words would have most impact. ‘What makes you so certain,’ he began, pausing for effect. ‘That this here’s the work of the Good Lord?’
Flanagan leaned into the fire. ‘Beggin’ your pardon, Mr Powell. If it’s not the work of the Lord then it’s no business of ours. We oughta let it go on its way.’
Powell turned a malevolent eye on him. ‘And what if its business, is with us?’
Eliza looked suddenly very grave. ‘Whatever do you mean, Mr Powell?’
‘We have established, have we not, that this is no ordinary creature?’ Raising his voice, he got to his feet and gestured dramatically with his pipe. ‘We can all agree on that. So let me ask you this. Can you all say with certainty that the Good Lord is the only force acting unseen upon this earth?’
The others fell quiet as they gazed up at the captain, whose solemn features, lit from below, seemed to flicker with terrible portent.
‘Be sober, be vigilant,’ Eliza quoted, first to herself, then raising her voice for the others to hear. ‘Because your adversary the Devil walks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.’
Murmurs of troubled agreement rippled from the others.
‘Things been gettin’ worse ever since we traded with them heathen some ways back.’
‘They ain’t no god-fearin’ people,’ Another came back quickly.
‘But they was kind to us!’
‘Who knows what them savages work at under cover of kindness?’
‘Friends!’ Solomon cut in. ‘Let’s not condemn others for their ignorance. This land is in darkness only because it is yet to see the light. “Declare his glory among the heathen; his marvelous works among all nations”. We must bring the light of our Lord Jesus Christ to the land. It is our solemn duty. And this here is a sign of the work to come!’
‘Sol,’ Jacob replied sternly. ‘I believe you are correct when you declare this a test of our faith. But I say the test is this…’ His gaze traveled around everyone in turn, addressing them each with a look of stern intent. ‘Do you recognise the works of the Devil?’ He pointed at one then another of those assembled. ‘Do you, ma’am? Do you, sir?’
Turning dramatically from the crowd, he dragged the creature up by a skinny arm and it released such a shrill cry that all those at the fire shrank back in shock. It sounded like the mingled shriek of an adult and child at once, but with the terrible hoarseness of an animal.
‘Answer me truly, is this a holy thing?’
‘It’s a blasphemy!’
Flanagan watched as the creature struggled in Powell’s grip. Its piercing yellow gaze moved frantically between the onlookers and a livid, roving tongue curled from between its lips, almost as it were about to speak. As repulsed as he was by it, Flanagan felt sorry for this wretched creature, writhing now in the grip of a brute. But when its eyes settled on him, it took all his equanimity not to imagine a look of sly intent.
Solomon clambered to his feet in consternation. The hypocrisy of this man, he thought; reaching for piety on a whim, like a rough tool to fit his purpose.
‘Jacob, look at what you hold in your hands. This is no less than a marvel of creation!’
Powell sneered. ‘A marvel?’
‘Why shouldn’t it be a marvel?’ he said, beseeching the onlookers. ‘Think of all those who’ll come to see it. Think on it! Our flock will grow, and we will flourish. Our good works will surely multiply!’
Powell couldn’t resist a triumphant grin. ‘At what price, Solomon? At what price?’
Dragging the creature, which screamed as he tugged on its lean forearm, Powell shouted into the crowd and they drew instinctively closer, drawn by his fervour and the incitement to action, their hands and mouths restless, clenching.
‘This is our test!’ Powell cried. ‘And we must not flinch!’
The wind sifted snow from the mountaintops, and the canine tips of the pines bowed to the dark as the night drew in and a deep cold settled over the camp. What little dreams visited the inhabitants were filled with hunger, together with something much harder to decipher, a dark and abstract terror that tracked and hunted them through the wilds, from the candles of civilization far out into the needling cold. For Flanagan, sleep would not come at all. The wind howled in his guts and creaked in the branches of his limbs.
The night covered the camp with an ash-like snow, and they awoke to a blanket of time itself, the past buried beneath a white that seemed to forgive all with its lack of blemish. They trudged out from their tents and wagons bleary eyed and poorly rested. Their dreams were still imminent, bleeding into reality so that it was easy dismiss whatever they wished as the excesses of the nocturnal mind. They avoided looking at each other as they broke camp, moving swiftly and silently and without discussion, avoiding the fireplace as if it were cursed. That is all but Flanagan, who gazed with eyes like empty bowls at the fireplace where an assortment of picked-clean bones lay dusted by the early morning snow.
Tom is a writer and human rights professional whose work has appeared in White Wall Review, Thomson Reuters and the Independent. Originally from Merseyside, he now lives in London where he works as a communications specialist for a leading humanitarian organisation. He holds an MA in Human Rights from UCL and a BSc in Basic Medical Sciences from the University of London.
A keen traveller and amateur photographer, Tom’s interests include world mythology, folklore and ancient history. He tweets at: @ScribblerTom