One late October day, just over a century ago, the farmers of the Endlands went to gather their sheep from the moors as they did every autumn. Only this year, while the shepherds were pulling a pair of wayward lambs from a peat bog, the Devil killed one of the ewes and tore off her fleece to hide himself among the flock.
Down in the farmlands, he flitted from one house to the next, too crafty to be caught, only manifest in what he infected. He was the maggot in the eye of the good dog, the cancer that rotted the ram’s gonads, the blood in the baby’s milk.
The stories began to reach the ears of the villagers in Underclough further up the valley, and while they were not surprised or sorry to hear that the heathen folk of the Endlands were being persecuted by the Owd Feller, they petitioned their minister to do something for their own sake. But he was frail and elderly and, unwilling to tackle the Devil on his own, he asked the bishop for an assistant, by which he meant a substitute.
The priest who arrived with his crucifix and aspergillum was a young man sceptical of his summons; he would think of himself as a missionary, he decided, a bringer of light to this dark valley. These people were no better than the gullible savages of the colonies who found spirits in everything from the clouds to the dirt. They deserved his pity.
But when he saw the animals decaying before his eyes and the blood dribbling from the wet-nurse’s teat, his nerve faltered and the Devil brought a blizzard to the valley that lasted for days. Th e cottages in the village choked under drifts that grew to the windows and stores of wood and peat that should have lasted all winter were quickly gone. Across the bridge, the church was lightless and cowed and in the graveyard the dead were buried a second time as a bigger swell of snow blew down the valley and across the farmlands. Man and beast were forced to share the same warmth. Piglets and gun dogs slept on the hearth rugs. The tup steamed in the kitchen.“This year, while the shepherds were pulling a pair of wayward lambs from a peat bog, the Devil killed one of the ewes and tore off her fleece to hide himself among the flock. Down in the farmlands, he flitted from one house to the next, too crafty to be caught, only manifest in what he infected.”
Days were late to lighten and quick to end and people began to die. The older folk first, coughing up their lungs in shreds like tomato skins, and then the children, burning with fever.
But the worst of it, the very worst of it, they said, was that it was impossible to know who the Devil would visit next. He left no footprints in the snow, there was no knock at the door. It was as if, they said, he was the air itself. The stuff they breathed.
The villagers of Underclough blamed the farmers of the Endlands and the farmers began to wonder if they’d brought it upon themselves; if there had been some sign that they’d missed and left to fester like an open wound. Hadn’t a jackdaw flown into the Curwens’ house one evening in the summer and clubbed itself to death on the walls? Hadn’t the Dyers’ children seen a hare digging up bones in the graveyard? Then there was that warm Saturday in September when Joe Pentecost, drunk on port and pride, dropped his glass as he made the toast at his daughter’s wedding breakfast. They’d all laughed at him, forgiven him his moment of clumsiness and thought nothing of it. Yet now, they argued over the ritual that would have sponged away the bad luck with the spilled wine. But no one could remember what to do; only fragments of old, cautionary stories came to mind, that made them throw their cats out into the snow and sprinkle their doorsteps with salt.
Whatever they did made little difference in the end. Thirteen people from the farms and the village died that autumn. Their bodies were wrapped in blankets and left in outhouses and back yards until they could be taken to ground soft enough to bury them.
No, tell me a different story, says Adam. I know that one.
All stories in the valley have to begin with the Devil, I say.
But there must be ones I haven’t heard before, he says. You know hundreds.
These last few years, I’ve acquired a reputation for telling stories just like the Gaffer, my grandfather. Though there are some that Adam wouldn’t want to hear. Some that I’d be better off keeping to myself.
Come on, he says. Tell me one from when you were my age.
Later, I say. We came here to shoot snipe, didn’t we?
He nods in that funny way of his and strokes Jenny’s back with one hand, keeping the other firmly locked in mine.
You’ll have to let go, Adam, I say. Otherwise we can’t do anything.
He relaxes his grip but still stands close to me, within smelling distance, angling his head so that he can hear the lapping of the marsh water.
It’s a cold spring evening and the last of the daylight is starting to leave the Moss, slipping out of the valley and on to the moors, receding westwards to the sea. Dusk has already taken the colour from the fells and made the sound of water loud in Fiendsdale Clough. Somewhere in the gloom, the river moves against the banks it cut in the storms we had early last month and winds away to the black mass of Sullom Wood. The air feels skinned. But Adam’s been a good lad and not said a word about it. Like all boys of his age, he prides himself on his toughness. The ability to endure without tears is a badge all sons want to wear for their fathers. Still, I know that he’s asking for stories because he wants distractions. I know that he’s trying his best not to show that he’s scared of being so close to the water.
Remember what I told you to do? I say, dropping one cartridge and then the other into the Browning that Dadda passed on to me. The over-and-under with the walnut stock.
Now? says Adam.
I’ll tell you when.
Another couple of years and I should have been teaching him to shoot on the Moss. I was shooting at twelve. Woodcock and pigeons and pheasants. Things we could eat. Adam will never fire a gun, of course, but that doesn’t mean to say he can’t make himself useful. He can still raise the birds from their hiding places, he can be my beater.
The butt against my shoulder, I put some space between us and when he hears my voice further away than he expects it to be, further away than he would like, he says, Daddy, and holds out his hand for me to take.
I’m still here, I tell him. You’re all right. You’re nowhere near the water. Do what I told you to do. Go on.“Like all boys of his age, he prides himself on his toughness. The ability to endure without tears is a badge all sons want to wear for their fathers. Still, I know that he’s asking for stories because he wants distractions. I know that he’s trying his best not to show that he’s scared of being so close to the water.”
He keeps his face in my direction for a moment longer and then starts to clap his hands.
A quirk of acoustics makes it sound as if the noise is coming from the fells and drives the birds out of the coverts towards us. It’s a trick Dadda taught me and one that was handed down to him by the Gaffer, who learned it from his old man, who’d learned it from his and so on, back and back. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if fathers and sons have been coming here for centuries to hide in the dusk and shoot their supper out of the clatter of wings.
Louder, I say and Adam nods and now the echoes start to lift the teal and oystercatchers from the shallows, sending them weeping over our heads. A heron climbs, unhurried, and then the snipe burst out of the rushes and undulate low over the marsh, their reflections blurred on the water into little brown scythes. I put the barrels slightly ahead of them, losing one when it blends into the deepening shadows and taking the other on the second shot as it gives itself away against the white of the rowan trees near the gate. Adam’s shoulders jolt at the crack of the shotgun and the snipe startles in mid-flight and arcs to the ground somewhere in the field we’ve left fallow this year.
Keep hold of her, I tell him, and he grips Jenny’s collar tighter before she can dart off to pick up the bird. She needs to unlearn her worst instincts.
Make her sit, Adam, I say, as I break the shotgun and shake out the empty casings. Let her know who’s in charge.
He runs his hand down her spine and pushes her backside to the ground. The light drops again, and a stronger gust of wind bends the reeds. The Moss ruffles. Jenny blinks and waits.
Send her then, I say, and Adam makes the noise I taught him, a kiss of the teeth, and lets Jenny go. She sets off, wriggles under the field gate, giddy with the scent, and brings the bird back in rags.
Adam can hear her and smell her and she presses her forehead to his palm.
Drop it, he tells her, touching the bird in her mouth. When she won’t, he tries to work his fingers between her teeth.
No, I tell him. Across the nose.
He touches the side of her face with one hand and with the other gives her a hesitant tap that only makes her growl.
Harder, I say. Otherwise she won’t learn a thing.
A downward belt on the snout and she does as she’s told. She’ll remember the pain next time. She’ll anticipate it in his raised hand and open her mouth as soon as he tells her to. She’s a bright girl. Gentle and good-natured on the whole. It’s enthusiasm rather than malice that’s decapitated the snipe.
Leave it for the jackdaws, Adam, I say. We’ve enough.
Hand in hand and muddy to the knees, we go slowly back along the lane to the farmhouse, as Jenny runs ahead and waits and runs again, torn between obedience to me and sniffing out the frame of her territory. Adam carries Dadda’s old leather game bag over his shoulder and can’t help putting his fingers inside and touching the mallards I shot earlier. The smell of their blood and the smell of the water is still on their feathers. When we get back to the farm, we’ll pick out the pellets and let them hang in the scullery until the morning. And then I’ve promised Adam I’ll teach him how to draw them and get them ready for the oven.
Is it dark now? he says. It feels colder.
Nearly, I say. Mam’s put the lights on.
Are there any stars out yet? he says.
A few, I say. Orion. The Plough.
He knows their shapes. I’ve held his hand and traced them with his finger.
Is the moon fat or thin? he says.
Fat, I say. Full fat.
A bloated, astonished face, like a dead man under water.
Where is it? he asks.
Behind us, I say. It’s rising over the Three Sisters. It’s making our shadows long.
A different night and he’d have asked a dozen more questions, but he’s tired and every step through the gravel is awkward, purposefully so. He won’t admit it, but he wants me to carry him. At least until we get to the tarmac.
Here, I say, and to keep him occupied give him the shotgun to hold.
He hooks it broken over his arm, as heavy to him as a couple of lead pipes and turns his face to my voice and grins. Despite everything, he’s in no doubt that this is all he wants. As soon as he was born, the farm was his; just as it was mine when Mam gave birth to me. He feels his grandfathers at his back and imagines his sons walking before him. I’d been exactly the same at his age. But then I lost my way.
Tell me a story then, he says. Tell me one about the Gaffer, not the Devil. We’ve got time for one now, haven’t we?
The problem is that in the Endlands one story begs the telling of another and another and in all of them the Devil plays his part.
From Devil’s Day. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2018 by Andrew Hurley.