“Last year two teenagers drowned in this river.”
It had, of course, made the news. But the campsite hadn’t closed down. Everyone had assumed that the teenagers were drunk. And after a few days and a little grief, the news agenda had moved on, leaving only a few people to invisibly grieve. The dead teenagers may as well have been invisible for all the world cared. All that was left was a gaudy yellow and black sign on the riverbank warning people not to swim there.
The wind that evening was like a messenger, as if a reminder of grief. There was something about the river, especially at dusk, which made people think of stories. Maybe it was the rush of the current, a flow which seemed to speak of a flow of words. Or the bulrushes, long since having split open with their gentle inner-life seeds to a cold reception.
Ezra and Jeremy were work colleagues on a fishing holiday. Both were middle aged.
“I hate this time of the day,” said Ezra.
It was getting harder to see the orange fishing float as the light faded. They had pulled up that morning in a huge campervan owned by Jeremy. Work had been kind to them both. They were prospering and it seemed right to take a break from their latest office success.
“It always reminds me of those stupid ghost stories I would hear as a child. And I hate stories.”
Jeremy was not immune to being spiteful. In fact the two men’s entire relationship seemed to be based on a kind of teasing banter devoid of any expression of outward concern.
“You arse. Why don’t I tell you a quick story and then we’ll pack up?”
“No. I don’t want to hear it.”
“So, I’ve just got to think of a name for my hero…” Jeremy looked around in the dying light, from the dark voice of the river to the black silhouette of the trees.
And a whisper in the ear.
“’Huckleberry’. Yes, that’s right. Like Huckleberry Finn. I like that. That’ll do. It just came to me. Anyway…”
“Please shut up. I hate stories.”
“I know you love them really Ezra. Anyway, Huckleberry, our hero, found himself hunted by a werewolf.”
Ezra sighed, “Is that a spoiler? Was he in London? Isn’t there a film about that?”
“Shut up. Huckleberry owned a massive campervan. Not as big as mine, but okay for a civil servant’s wage… Sure, he’s a civil servant, that’s right… In fact Huckleberry’s campervan was so large that it caused huge problems in terms of parking until Huckleberry secured some rental land for the van to be parked on. He decided to go on holiday to Cornwall. That’s where certain kinds of Londoner will always holiday. He had booked a spot on a caravan site in Cornwall near the sea. There were woods nearby, huge pine trees and a forest. And a monkey-puzzle tree, because they say that the devil sits in them…”
“Are there many pines in Cornwall, I thought that was just Devon?”
“Shut up. Huckleberry found himself surrounded by pine trees on a camp site in Cornwall and he enjoyed his holiday until the last day. He had got into bed in the massive campervan and he heard some strange noise at the window. All of the curtains were drawn and there seemed to be a tapping noise or a scratching at one of the windows. Annoyed by the sound, Huckleberry got out of bed and went to the window, pulling open the curtains. Guess what he saw…”
“Your pretension personified?”
“Nothing. There was nothing at the window. Except for this clawing in his heart and soul. It was like hypnosis, it was like a fever, it was like the smell from some strange flower or like the song from a siren…. Do you like that bit Ezra? That was really clever… Suddenly he felt an overpowering inclination to leave the campervan and walk into the woods. So he closed the door behind him, absent-mindedly locking it. Perhaps to prevent any werewolf from getting into his bed and pretending to be his granny…”
Jeremy stopped there because he remembered that Ezra had just lost his grandmother who had lived to a respectable 103. It was a little like verbally falling into a river and getting a foot stuck in the muddy silt on the river bed and not pulling the foot loose and climbing out. The river sucked him deeper and he should have struggled but he didn’t struggle and didn’t climb out for a moment or two.
“Anyway, storyteller-hater, it was to stop any intruder. And Huckleberry turned towards the woods and there was a deep darkness. The cover from the pines seemed to make the woods so dark. Pine needles carpeted the floor. A little prickly, a little threadbare, but a carpet of a kind. And Huckleberry was drawn into these woods. He had walked for a hundred or so metres when he turned back and could only just see a light or two from the caravan site. And he turned back up ahead and he saw something moving in the woods and the calling, the pull of whatever it was still clawed at his soul and he felt a hunger deep within him. It was a madness and yet it was like a beautiful aroma which kept drawing him on…. Oh, that’s a clever bit too, I like that…
Anyway, he pushed through the harsh, sharp pine branches and continued into the woods. All around him there were noises, a strange snuffling noise. He though he saw a boar and he remembered tales he had once heard back in London of how the devil had once turned into a black pig and the people of the city had seen the black pig and that those who had seen it had soon died. But he continued on and he saw something ahead. He realized that it was the full moon and that he could see its light because there was a clearing up ahead. And he stepped out of the woods into the strange circular clearing which was surrounded on every side by thick woods. And up in the sky was the full moon which seemed to laugh at him. Did you like that bit too Ezra? And look at the moon tonight…” Jeremy pointed into the darkening sky.
“There’s no moon, it’s hidden behind the clouds and my moon phase app says that it is fourteen percent waxing, so it’s not even full. You’re deeply depressing me.”
But Jeremy was getting engrossed in his story and hardly noticed the interruption.
“And Huckleberry wondered why it should laugh and why he should imagine that it laughed. And there in the clearing were other dark forms. There was a stone circle. In ages past, the ancestors had built a stone circle in the middle of these woods, woods very much like those surrounding us now, for a reason long forgotten. And Huckleberry wanted so much to stand in the middle of the circle and yet he didn’t know why. But he obeyed this strange compulsion, a compulsion which overrode even his most basic instinct for survival (and for Huckleberry, that was no mean feat). So, he stood there, in the night, under the laughing moon, in the middle of the dark woods and he suddenly came to his senses. It was as if a spell had broken and suddenly its hypnotic effect had no power. But there were now things moving on the periphery of the woods. Strange shapes. Inhuman shapes. Forms which were not quite human…”
“Did you clone yourself again? Or was it Cthulhu?”
“…and then he realized what the forms were because they came out from the woods and approached the stones. And he could see them clearly now in the light of the laughing moon. They were werewolves. And their faces were long, like the faces of wolves and their torsos were covered in fur and the claws, the claws, can you imagine the claws?”
At this, in the latter dusk, Jeremy pressed the flashlight function on his phone, shone it against a tree and set his hand far away from it but brought it down closer to the torch light so that the shadow looked like it was a huge claw coming towards Ezra. The shadow of a claw at least. The kind of trick which could be played on a three year old.
Ezra was unimpressed.
“I’m only listening to this crap because I have to work with you.”
“The claws Ezra, the claws…” he switched off the torch. “The claws were huge, like serrated knives, like scimitars. Longer than any claws he had thought werewolves (if he had believed in such things in sophisticated London) could ever have had. And they approached. Now Huckleberry knew that there was only one thing he could do. Well, there were a number of options, he could surrender his life to those werewolves and those claws or else he could run. But someone like our hero Huckleberry knows how to keep his head in a crisis situation. So what he did was the action of a man who uses his brain. He used the adrenaline in his body to climb one of the tall stones and then he crouched at the top of the stone he had climbed…”
“Wait a minute, how did he climb the stone again?”
“He had good quality trainers and the stone had a rough surface allowing him to climb.”
“Then why didn’t the werewolves climb too?”
“Their claws Ezra, their claws. The instruments which made them such successful and merciless killers also prevented them from climbing. So, they circled the stone on which Huckleberry crouched. From on top of the stone Huckleberry could see that there were ten werewolves, and there were ten stones and there was some kind of sacrificial stone in the centre, but he was on top of one of the outer stones. And beneath him the werewolves howled in hunger and frustration and he could see their hunger and he could see in their eyes their hatred of what they themselves were but their powerlessness to change that.”
“You stole that line from that writer Angela Carter. That’s plagiarism.”
“How would you know? You don’t like stories. They simply did what they did naturally, but part of them seemed to hate that, like the community of the damned might. And Huckleberry’s legs hurt from his crouching but he was afraid to let them hang down the stone so that the werewolves might tear at his feet with those claws, so instead he had to sit cross-legged on the stone like a gnome. And that was all he could do. He had nothing to throw at them. He would have to wait until either help came or else morning came. But he took to screaming in the hope that someone from the campsite would hear him. The people on the campsite did hear the screams and the howls but they were too afraid to explore the woods.”
“I don’t think Huckleberry would have gone into the woods in the first place. Did you steal that idea too?”
“He was under a kind of enchantment from the werewolves, Ezra, which they use to take their prey. So he sat on top of the stone and waiting for morning. Soon his throat was hoarse from screaming and no-one came to save him. But the morning was coming and he felt in his heart and in his knowledge or folklore that the werewolves would retreat back to the woods to their lairs or else revert to human form. So he waited. He was clever, so he simply waited, as if he was patient and kept his calm he knew he could survive this as he had survived everything else life had thrown at him… that’s character building Ezra, did you like that?”
“You really are a pretentious anus.”
“It took such a long time and the werewolves prowled around the stones continually. But Huckleberry was patient and he simply waited and concentrated on breathing techniques to keep himself calm and keep himself from the strange enchantment which still clawed at his soul and made him wild and willing to sacrifice himself so that it would all be over. In for seven, out for eleven. In for seven, out for eleven. You should remember that, it’s useful. Breath with me Ezra…”
“He resisted this delusion, this imp of the perverse (look that phrase up online Ezra), and he resisted the werewolves and after a long, long time the dawn arrived. And it was cold now and he shivered. One werewolf tried one last time to reach him and failed. So the werewolves slunk back into the woods.
Soon Huckleberry was alone in the clearing on top of the stone and the sun rose in the aching sky. His legs had locked and were painful. And when he jumped to the ground they gave way from being in the same position, because the night had been a physical torture as well as a psychological and spiritual one. But it was day now and he lay on the ground breathing gasps of joy at being saved and being alive. He was about to get to his feet and make his way back to civilisation when he saw something once again on the edge of the woods. It was the werewolves. They came boldly. No one had told them that they had to return to their lairs and they were clever. So they raced towards their food, our hero Huckleberry and tore into him with their claws. Huckleberry’s guts spilled onto the grass and he was still alive to see himself split in half by one of the claws on the central stone. He died screaming. Poor chap. Such is the fate of civil servants.”
“Is that it?”
“This is why I hate stories. And stupid abrupt endings which resolve nothing. It’s dark, I’m going back.”
And the river kept his secret that year.