All posts by disphoria

About disphoria

Illustrator of Welcome to Black Mountain and web designer for this site

The Cat Lady

By Mike Stuart

The Cat Lady - by Mike Stuart

A battered grey ferryboat coasted in from the open sea towards the dock. As the low throb of the engines rose to a roar, it reared up against the backwash, then chugged gently alongside the jetty, finally nuzzling against the bare concrete quay with a clattering shriek of winches and chains. A row of waiting men with hard, pinched faces and greasy overalls threw away their cigarettes and busied themselves securing the metal gantry so the line of waiting cars could drive onto land.

The line of sea-weary travellers trod onto the shore, blinking into the silvery afternoon sunlight, grimacing at the sharp salty wind that whipped about their faces. The acrid tang of stale fish and diesel made their eyes water, and the quarrelling gulls deafened them as they queued up to leave the boat.

Two short girls in big muddy trekking boots stood out from the crowd:
A petite girl with perfectly styled dreadlocks, whose deep brown eyes flashed behind unnaturally full lashes, with piercings glinting on the pouting lips and sculpted brows of her delicate face. Floral tattoos circled her skinny suntanned waist, flaunted between a tight cropped vest and rainbow leggings.
Her companion had pink-streaked sandy hair hiding a wide, friendly, freckled face, with a single piercing on her lower lip. Her more homely shape hidden beneath a baggy rainbow jumper and harem pants.

The pair struggled bravely to haul their unfeasibly bulky rucksacks across the docks, trying their hardest to look cool to the pair of smiling young men flanking them, who in turn, were busy trying very hard to look interesting but disinterested…

As they reached the main road, all four of them instinctively reached for their phones to find their respective destinations:

“Got any reception Sarah? My phone can’t get anything”

Sarah shook her head as she pivoted her phone at different angles: “nuh… nothin’ Sabrina… stupid bloody phone…”

The taller and more confident of the lads took his chance to be their knight in shining armour, and with a roguish flick of his long brown locks, stepped closer to the brunette: “I’ve got like a bit of signal… where do you want to get to?”

Sabrina simpered faintly under the steady smiling gaze of their dashing new friend and attempted to smoulder as she replied: “We’re trying to find Alabaster Heights, just a small BnB… on the edge of town… er.. perhaps we could hang out there one night?”

“We’d love to, but we’re only staying in town tonight, before we get the morning bus to The Sanctuary festival… aren’t you going? It’s going to be so fuckin cool there! Proper banging party tunes, DJ Fiya’s gonna rinse it! And there’s this real spiritual vibe going on around the sacred lake, you know? It’s gonna be like Burning Man!”

Sabrina faked recognition: “Yeah! Of course we’re here for the party! We can’t wait for the banging tunes mate! Really like up for it you know? Love that spiritual thing, Eh Sarah?”

Sarah looked perplexed… “But what about our coastal walk?” she asked, but was silenced by a chilling glare from her friend.

The quieter of the two lads gazed at the pub sign above their heads and interrupted: “Don’t know about you lot, but I could murder a pint after getting bounced about on that bloody tin can all day… come on… let’s try out the Ship Inn. It looks proper cosy inside” and with relief, lugging their heavy bags, they trooped inside.

Settling over their pints, Sarah looked at the dusty and dated décor, and couldn’t help noticing a gloomy mood that seemed to hang over the other punters, at odds with the cheery summer bunting that fluttered gaily in the streets outside. The others in their group seemed oblivious to the flinty sideways looks that their flirtatious laughter provoked…

Sabrina leaned close across the table to ask their new friends’ names:

“I’m Seth and this here’s Horace, but we call him Hori”, Horace’s pale face blushed pink beneath his sandy hair: “Alright?” he murmured, then went back to sipping his pint and checking his phone, muttering about the lousy signal.

Seth flicked his thick mane of hair again as he laughed: “Always the life and soul eh, Hori?”, then brought his confident gaze to bear upon Sabrina: “you know – you’ve got a beautiful aura… I could see it as soon as I saw you. You look like a deeply spiritual sort of person. Have you ever done tantric massage? Perhaps I could realign your chakras one day?” he suggested, arching one eyebrow.

Sabrina giggled at the flattery: “Yeah… I’m like really into spiritual stuff and that! Like when I was at a retreat in Koh Phangan, the yoga teacher said I had a really strong aura too”

Seth perked up: “You were in Koh Phang? Oh my god – I so loved that place! The full moon parties on the beach… the exotic temples… the culture… they’re like so in touch with their spiritual side… don’t you agree Sarah? You must’ve been?”

Sarah shook her head awkwardly: “No, I’ve been looking after my mum – she’s sort of – um – unwell and…”

Sabrina sneered humorously: “Oh god Sarah… always the boring old sensible one, eh?”

“Yeah Sarah! Where’s your spirit of adventure?” teased Seth waving his hands theatrically: “Imagine – the sun setting like a big ball of fire over the swaying palms on a tropical beach, as beautiful naked people with flowers in their hair dance in the warm sea, making love to the sound of Gamelan… feasting on exotic fruit… with not a care in the world… truly at one with nature”

“Until some scally nicks your wallet, and you gotta sponge off your mate for a month, eh Seth?” muttered Horace cynically.

“God Hori – you’re such a materialist sometimes! You gotta go with the flow man… follow your soul… live your dreams!” beamed Seth, catching the sparkle in Sabrina’s eyes…

For a split-second Horace and Sarah’s eyes met, a glance of mutual recognition that their friends were acting like dicks, but Horace flushed a deep pink and looked away at the darkening clouds through the leaded glass of the pub windows: “We’d better get to our BnB Seth. We’re supposed to check in by five”.

Seth rolled his eyes conspiratorially at Sabrina: “Ok man… always the downer! Hey Sabrina – I’ll add you on FB so’s we can meetup at the festival – I’d love to hang out”

“Yeah, that’d be cool…” Sabrina frowned at her phone: “still no signal… I’ll see if they’ve got wi-fi at our place.”

“C’mon Sabrina, let’s get some cans…” Suggested Seth, “we need to get warmed up… tomorrow we paaarty!”

Sabrina and Seth went to the bar to find takeouts, leaving Hori and Sarah in an awkward silence… Sarah stared at the hunched old man perched on a bar stool in flat cap and muddy boots, who winced visibly every time her friends laughed.

Hori glanced at Sarah: “You know, there’s something different about you…”

Sarah cringed visibly: “Oh Purrlease… don’t try Seth’s chat up lines on me.. I might look little but I’m not an idiot”

Hori blushed dark pink and spluttered apologetically: “No! not like that… I mean… Has anyone ever told you, you’re an old soul?”

Sarah’s turned to stare at him with a stony face: “what? What are you trying to say? You think I look old??”

Hori was blurting out explanations when Seth and Sabrina came laughing back from the bar. “Come on you lovebirds… Time to check in, or we’ll be spending the night outdoors!”

Sabrina laughed conspiratorially with Seth: “C’mon Sarah… you’ll get even fatter sitting around all day!” and flounced off to the door holding Seth’s arm.

“What a bitch…” muttered Hori: “why do you put up with her?”

“She’s alright really… she’s only like that when she’s flirting” explained Sarah apologetically: “We go right back… we even got matching tattoos… at least I have…” Sarah sagged slightly: “She needed the money for her travels but she promised she’d get hers done as soon as we finish doing the Islands”.

A low grumble of distant thunder signalled time to leave, so they drained their pints, grabbed their bags and lurched out of the door into the rain.

After they had shared farewell hugs and gone in search of a taxi, Sarah felt a tug on her sleeve and turned to see a fraught-looking woman in her forties frantically clutching her arm whilst waving a photograph of a pretty blonde girl in her face:

“Have you seen my daughter? Keira Rayne? she’d be about your age… please!”

Sarah stepped back defensively as the woman held firmly to her arm: “sorry miss, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about”

“You’re lying! You’ve seen her haven’t you!” spat the woman, then turning to Sabrina, jabbed an accusing finger: “YOU! You’ve seen her, haven’t you? Tell me where she’s gone! I’m begging you! Please!”

“Listen nutjob” sneered Sabrina, “I’ve no fucking idea what you’re on about – get a fucking life will you?”

A man appeared by the woman’s side, gently trying to prise her fingers from Sarah’s arm: “Come on Muriel. They obviously don’t know her… come along dear… we’ll keep looking”, he turned from his sobbing companion to the girls: “I’m so sorry – my wife isn’t herself – we’re so worried”

Sabrina waved at a passing taxi and took the opportunity to drag Sarah away from them. As they settled into the tatty seats and the taxi pulled away, Sarah glanced through the back window at the woman who buried her face in her husband’s shoulder, his face creased with pain and concern.

Sabrina snorted sarcastically: “Sarah – you’re such a sucker – you’ve got to tell these people where to get off or they’ll have your purse before you know it – if you’d been to Bali you’d know that by now – Jeez – you’re so bloody innocent sometimes!”

It became apparent from the driver’s gruff monosyllabic replies that he wasn’t interested in conversation, so they settled down in the back of the taxi, gazing morosely through the drizzle as they climbed up through the edge of town, then bumped along a road full of puddles and potholes that wound up into the hills.

They had almost nodded off in the damp warmth of the spluttering heater when the taxi abruptly stopped by a rusty gate set in a crumbling dry-stone wall, surmounted by a row of hawthorn bushes, where a line of tattered damp rags flapped dismally in the wind.

“Are we there?” asked Sarah politely.

The taxi driver mumbled over his shoulder: “Don’t go further than yur, miss. Five pounds fifty”.

“Hang on!” argued Sabrina, “it’s chucking down with rain – why can’t you take us to the door?”

Turning to face them, the taxi driver’s eyes were unmistakably wide and fearful, but he spoke with a gruff composure:  “Like I said miss, we only goes as far as here. You’ll have to walk. S’not far, just over the rise, past the quarry, and you’ll find it.”

Too tired to argue, the girls paid their fare, grabbed their heavy bags and squinted through the drizzle in search of their accommodation. The taxi wheeled around then bounced and splashed away down the lane, leaving them in silence, save for the patter and hiss of rain.

Sabrina tried to light a rollup, but gave up when it drooped damply from her wet fingers. She threw it angrily onto the track.

“Why the fuck did you choose this godforsaken place Sarah?” she snarled.

“The website said it has spectacular views” Sarah replied, squinting into the dingy mist and rain that shrouded the landscape.

Sabrina scowled: “I’ll choose next time – we could’ve been in town with those boys!”

The sky grew steadily darker, and they had almost given up hope, starting to wonder if they had been tricked and dumped in the middle of nowhere, when they approached a rusty sign advertising ‘Black Mountain Gypsum Co’ over a drooping barbed wire fence bearing placards that warned: ‘Danger – Quarry’.

Feeling more hopeful, they trudged up the path through sheets of rain until they could make out the dark grey silhouette of a large farmhouse on the ridge above them… finally they approached a large stone gate with the faintly discernible words ‘Alabaster Heights’ carved into the lichen-speckled limestone.

Sarah stopped. She could hear something odd above the whine of the wind. A faint plaintive mewing sound carried on the breeze from a pile of stones beneath the wall. Curiosity drew her on, until she crouched over the source of the sound. Pulling back some brambles she discovered a nest of tiny kittens looking miserable and forlorn, their sodden fur dripping in the rain.

Sarah felt as if her heart had melted: “Oh! The darlings!” she exclaimed, reaching down to pet the tiny creatures, ignoring Sabrina’s complaints. A low throaty growl made her pull back as a large and vicious-looking black cat wriggled through the brambles, curling protectively around its brood, then flattening its ears and hissing a warning at her.

“Hello mum!” cooed Sarah, “what beautiful kittens you have!”, but the mother cat just glowered at her, its feral eyes cold with anger, its body tensed to spring. Sarah stepped back and followed Sabrina back to the path leading to the door of the large house.

“Oh Sabrina – the most beautiful little kittens!”

“For fuck’s sake Sarah! I’m getting soaked here – come on!”

The house was stolid and heavy, built for the harsh winter storms, with small mean windows set deeply into thick stone walls, topped by low sloping slate roof that dripped rainwater dismally. Over the squat portico of the front door, a weather-beaten cartwheel hung on the thinly whitewashed wall. The place looked forbiddingly dark and uninhabited as they approached the door, but Sabrina knocked impatiently on the cat-shaped brass knocker. Waiting for an answer, Sarah felt an odd sensation of being watched, and turning slowly, realised that many pairs of eyes were observing her. Under the bushes, sitting on the stones and gazing through the window were dozens of cats, staring at the newcomers with interest. She was just about to mention this to Sabrina, when they heard approaching footsteps and an old lady’s tremulous voice calling out: “Hello? Hold on a moment!”, followed by the scraping of bolts and the door slowly opening.

They looked down to see a frail elderly woman dressed in a shawl, cardigan and plain tartan skirt, with the kindliest of faces beaming at them, her eyes twinkling above half-moon spectacles: “Halloo my dears! You’ll be here for the room? Come in! you’ll catch your death out there in this dreadful weather!” and as she beckoned them in, a rush of cats of all sizes surged past them into the warmth inside: “Ohh hoo hoo! Ye wee scamps.. come one, come all now!”.

Inside was all aglow from the bright fire in the hearth as they entered a large stone-flagged kitchen, filled with mewing, purring and meowing cats. The smell of cat urine made their eyes water, but they were thankful for the warmth of the stove after their long journey and they peeled off their damp outer layers while their host fussed about them, urging them to sit by the fire whilst she set about putting the kettle on the range, as droves of cats swarmed around her ankles. She gently chided and called to them by name as she made the tea: “Tinker – you little rascal – leave young Bethany alone now you hear? Would you leave off your scratchin’ Mabel, and show some manners to our lovely guests… Felix – will you get off the table directly!”

Sabrina sat shivering, looking unimpressed, but Sarah was utterly charmed and tickled one of the cats under the chin as it twirled about her feet.

“Ah” said their host, her eyes twinkling: “That’s McCavity… he’s always one for the ladies, so he is! He’ll be keeping you warm in bed if you’re not careful, now… hee hee!”

As she turned to prepare the tea, Sarah whispered delightedly: “isn’t she just so sweet? I wish I had a gran like that”.
But Sabrina wrinkled her dainty nose and hissed: “She’s fuckin nuts! And she smells of piss… ugh… old people!”

The clamour of cats mewing for food was almost maddening, as the old lady spooned clumps of chicken from a large steaming pan into cracked bowls, passing them down into the bobbing sea of furry heads that thronged about her. Her kindly face scanned her brood, seemingly counting each cat. Her face clouded for a moment, and she walked about the kitchen, glancing fearfully out at the storm that lashed and buffeted the windows.

“Now where is that poor wee Sheba?” She fretted, clutching her hands together in worry. “You wouldn’t have seen a great wild-looking black cat about the yard, Girls?”

Sarah started up: “Ooh yes! I saw a beautiful black lady cat under the wall guarding her kittens!”

“Aah! Why now, you should’ve said!” Smiled the old lady, her face instantly transformed and now beaming with joy: ”Ahh… Kittens! Sheba, She’s the sly one! I should’ve known… she’s been out of the house this whole fortnight now…  aaah… kittens… we are blessed! We must get them inside before they catch their death outside… would you young ladies help me? Sheba’s a bit on the feisty side and is liable to get a wee bit difficult if I try to fetch her young into the house…”

Sarah glowed breathlessly with excitement: “Ooh – I’d so love to help! Those little darlings! Coming, Sabrina?”

Sabrina shrugged indifferently as she gazed balefully at her unresponsive phone: “Nah – I’m good… Enjoy”

Sabrina glanced up indifferently from her cider, as the old lady and Sarah struggled back into the kitchen, carefully bearing a large cardboard box. A squall of wind and rain gusted past them until the door was jammed shut and peace was restored.

The old lady fussed around Sarah: “I’m terribly sorry about your hand, dear. I’m sure it will stop bleeding soon. I should’ve warned you that Sheba is a wee bit bitey… but I’m so grateful for your help. You’re a kind girl. It’s quite the job to rescue kittens on such a night… and I’m not getting any younger, dear!”

They spent the next hour, checking over the kittens, making them a nest of towels in a box by the stove and feeding Sheba, although from a cautious distance, since the wild eyed cat was obviously uncomfortable within the confines of the kitchen and her tail swished furiously if anyone came too close.

Before she realised it, Sarah had been busy helping for hours. They’d cleaned the litter trays, swept the flagstones, cleaned the food bowls, given eye drops, tablets and syringes of medicine to the cats that needed treatment, let cats out and let others in, served up more bowls of chicken, then finally relaxed.

The old lady stopped her tasks and turned to peer over her spectacles at Sarah: “Ah, but you’re a good wee lass. I do believe you have an old soul”.

Sarah looked hurt: “Sorry… What?”

“I only mean to say that you have wise eyes… I can see that you have a good soul, my dear” said Nantie, her kindly eyes twinkling with affection.

Sarah politely smiled to thank her, then picked up a purring cat and walked back to Sabrina who was slumped by the fire, looking bored and drinking her third tin of cider.

Sarah’s eyes were sparkling: “Oh god, I love it here… I feel like this has been the happiest afternoon of my life… I could stay here forever!”

Sabrina rolled her eyes: “you gotta be kidding, right? This place is a dump…”

The sound of a car skidding to a halt outside woke the pair from their reverie by the warmth of the fireside. A car door slammed, and footsteps approached the front door. The elderly lady turned and clasped her hands with glee, her eyes twinkling with joy: “Ah! That’ll be my Leonora, come to sort your moneys out. She’s a good lass”, and the door opened with a rush of chilly air that made the fire gutter and spit, as a tall and elegant woman in heels and pinstripe skirt, bustled into the room. Cats swarmed affectionately about her, dancing and twirling around her ankles.

“Hi Nantie!” She called with a curiously musical voice, then turned and smiled down at the guests. “Don’t worry about Nantie, she’s a bit forgetful these days, so I’ll be taking care of the fees and paperwork…” she opened her briefcase on the kitchen table, and rummaged through a sheaf of papers, then held out a form for the girls to sign, absent-mindedly tickling one of the more persistent cats under its chin.

Sarah felt strangely in awe of Leonora’s graceful presence, which almost seemed to physically brighten the room… There was something indefinable about her that made Sarah gaze at in wonder at her face, as if trying to understand an impossible puzzle. Her long dark hair danced as she smiled and nodded, framing a finely featured face with a rich caramel complexion, with wide cheekbones and luxuriant lashes revealing deep amber eyes, whilst her warm and faintly musky scent made Sarah feel slightly giddy. She felt something almost like envy, wishing she achieve such effortless natural beauty, complicated with a strange regret that this strong warm woman could have been her mother or sister in a better world. She tried to look away, but felt entranced by the figure whose voice spoke with such a soft, welcoming tone: “I have to get back to work, but I’ll try to pop by later to check you’re ok. You’ll find your room at the top of the stairs, with towels and soap by the sink. Nantie will look after you as best she can…”

Sabrina looked up from studying her phone: “what’s the wi-fi? password”

Leonora’s eyes twinkled as she chuckled: “Wi-fi? You’ll be lucky to find much wi-fi so far from the mainland!” Sabrina looked crushed. “But if you stand on the little hill just outside the back door, you can pick up a good mobile signal if you’re lucky!”

Flashing a bright smile, Leonora snapped her briefcase shut, twirled about, then trotted briskly back out of the front door in a gust of wind and rain, as Nantie and a dozen cats turned to gaze forlornly at her departure.

Sarah’s eyes followed Leonora through the door, then she glanced at Sabrina and caught her friend studying her with a quizzical expression that was almost furious in intensity.

Sarah stared into the darkness… something had woken her up. Despite bolting the bedroom door, she was sure that a cat had entered the darkened room. She lay motionless, listening out for signs of movement, but all she could hear was Sabrina’s deep breathing as she lay snuffling beside her.

The bare bedroom had a chilly unused feeling about it, so they had opted to pile all the thin covers onto one of the beds, too tired after the long day’s travel to stay up late. However, Sabrina’s restless limbs and drunken snores were making Sarah regret sharing.

Her mind rambling in the dark, Sarah remembered something her gran had once told her, in happier times when she was little. Something about never leaving cats alone with babies, because they would sit on their chests and steal their breath. She remembered how scared she was hearing that story and shuddered.

Sarah gazed at the dark ceiling, made only faintly visible by the moonlight outside, and wished she could sleep. Her hearing became exaggerated by the darkness, and she could hear the faint repetitive thud and roar of the sea far below them, the sporadic lonely call of a seagull echoing across the hills, then the sudden rising shriek of a cat fight somewhere in the yard outside… she was starting to lose herself in the sounds… almost dozing… when she caught the faintest whisper of a rhythm over the wind. It was a stamping beat of bells and bangles, a distant flute playing a melody that veered from frantic to melancholic. The sound was so faint that she wasn’t sure if she was imagining it at first… but after a moment she heard it again, carried on the sea breeze.

Sabrina mumbled muffled complaints in her sleep, as Sarah climbed out of bed and tiptoed barefoot across the cold floorboards to the narrow window, pulling the threadbare lace curtains apart to peer into the night in search of the source of the music. The moon was obscured by flocks of dark purple clouds that scudded across the sky, casting barely enough light to make out the glint of the distant sea and the dark hump of a nearby hillock,  ringed by a circle of trees that thrashed relentlessly in the breeze.

Bored by trying to sleep and wanting to stretch her legs, Sarah rummaged for her phone, pulled her jumper over her shoulders, and resolved to take a stroll up the hill in search of some mobile reception.

Stumbling across the darkened room with her arms stretched out to find the door, she felt something furry brush against her bare foot as she stepped out into the unlit hallway. Her heart jumped in her throat for a moment till she realised that it must be a cat. Not wanting to wake her host who could be heard snoring fretfully behind a bedroom door, she tiptoed carefully along the hall and down the stairs, treading lightly to avoid making the old wooden boards creak, lit by her phone’s thin blue glow.

The sharp cold of flagstones under her toes told her that she had reached the kitchen, so she fumbled around for the switch, and light flooded the bare room.

Where are all the cats? She wondered, for the kitchen looked strangely cold and empty without its many inhabitants. As her eyes accustomed to the glaring light, she noticed a rich, warm scent that hung like a cloud in the room… something in that smell made her head spin and butterflies of anticipation flutter in her stomach… there were stories in that smell, of perfumed hair, dancing and sweat glittering upon a bare shoulder, of breast milk, wood smoke, and strange liquors… sacred oils and unguents poured onto glowing coals… damp fur and puppy paws, rivers, herbs and grasses all danced in that heady fragrance… and then she recognised the aroma with a tingle of butterflies in her stomach… Leonora… she must have come back. Looking around the room, she noticed Leonora’s briefcase placed on the kitchen table. Then Sarah noticed something perplexing: Leonora’s clothes appeared to be neatly folded on a chair by the back door, with her shoes laid out below on the stone floor.

Unsure what this could mean, Sarah shrugged, then opened the latch of the back door and pushed against the soft breeze to step barefoot into the dry mud of the yard outside.

The heather was sharp against her bare feet, so Sarah trod the path carefully, peering hard into the gloom to make out the black zigzag she was following. Despite the hard gusts of wind, it was surprisingly warm outside, and the moon now shone through the gaps in the billowing clouds to reveal the island’s craggy coast silhouetted against the darkly glistening ocean that whispered faintly below.

Sarah felt exhilarated by the view before her, feeling light-hearted and dreamy in the warm breeze and moonlight. She smiled contentedly to herself as she stepped carefully towards the dark hump of the hilltop.

Despite the balmy breezes that whistled faintly through the heather, the distant crash of waves and far calls of sea birds, everything felt very quiet and still outside. A soft gust of wind brought a faint suggestion of music to her ears, and she stopped to listen. Straining to hear, she was sure that there was a band playing music near the hill. Again, the wind changed and the sound was lost on the breeze, making her wonder if she had really heard it at all.

But as she stepped towards the hill, again, the wind bore the music towards her, louder and more distinct now, she could hear a stamping beat of bells and drums, with an eerie floating whistling melody that filled her heart with a sad yearning.

As the path rounded a gnarled old tree, stunted and twisted by the sea air, Sarah stepped back into the shadows. On the hillock above her she could see the silhouette of a naked woman twirling and dancing under the stars.

The clouds above shifted and the moon burst through in glorious silvery light, illuminating the landscape in dramatic contrast, lighting up the white rocks that were strewn across the slope like snow, glinting off the bare limbs of the dancer, as she spun faster and faster, drumming and twirling a tambourine, her feet stamping out a rhythm with anklets of tinkling bells.

From her hidden vantagepoint, Sarah felt like she was intruding on something private and special, but she couldn’t help gazing, mesmerised by the sensuous gyrations of the dancer against the deep star-peppered cobalt of the sky.

Now the music seemed to be all around her, but she couldn’t see its source. The hypnotic beats lulled her and she found herself swaying involuntarily to the insistent rhythms.

The music grew steadily more frantic, the whistling of the pipes became almost deafening, and the whirling drumming of tambourine and bells made Sarah feel dizzy and intoxicated. The figure above her whirled around the tumulus in a blur of golden chains, bells and hair, sweat glistening on her limbs as she twisted into impossible geometric shapes, her body throbbing and arching in delight at the crescendo of sound… then stopping for a long moment, perfectly poised on one delicate foot, just as Sarah’s phone caught a signal and rang out with a faint ‘Ting!’…. and the shadowed head turned in her direction, seeming to peer through the gloom directly at Sarah, who felt her heart jump in fear at detection as she shrank behind the shelter of a hawthorn bush… unable to be certain if that direct gaze could see her… the light from the kitchen window far behind her caught the eyes of the dancer for a moment and they lit up in pale amber fire… then the woman shook her hair and threw her head back in a laugh, twirling on one foot, hair and jewellery spiralling around her flowing body as the music took one last manic surge and clattered to a halt, echoing away across the hills. Sarah caught a waft of an intoxicating fragrance upon the breeze and suddenly realised that it was Leonora who had danced so strangely before her.

Leonora poised silently, her arms held out, her hips tilted, her head leaning to one side, her hair cascading across a bosom swathed with golden chains and bells glittering in the moonlight. Her shoulders slowly rolled back and she called out softly: “Psst… Psst… Psst!” Instantly the heather surrounding the circular hilltop writhed into life, as cats rose from the shadows and swarmed towards the beckoning figure.

Sarah observed cats passing her bearing the bodies of mice and birds in their mouths, with strangely determined dead expressions in their eyes.

Sarah edged backwards towards the safety of the house, hoping to get back undetected. She glanced back and saw Leonora on her hands and knees, surrounded by a throng of cats that circled her, depositing a ring of rodent and bird corpses in tribute… Leonora’s head tilted upwards and she emitted a low throaty croon that rose into a rising wailing howl… and the cats surrounding echoed her call in an eery tuneless yowling chorus that made Sarah’s heart thump in her chest in fear as she crept back to the kitchen door.

A sudden silence made her halt and peer fearfully into the dark. The heather around her seemed to whisper strange words as a squall hissed across the hillside. Something big, black, sleek and strong glided soundlessly through the darkened heather… something heavy and fast and… something that shouldn’t be there… something that made her feel like a small animal trapped by a predator… Sarah’s limbs felt frozen by a deep primal terror for endless moments… and then she was careering back across the yard, not daring to look back until she burst through the kitchen door, slamming it behind her and gasping for breath until her panic subsided.

She looked down and noticed that Leonora’s clothes were no longer neatly laid on the chair by the door. She gazed around the kitchen and could see cats contentedly sleeping on every surface. Sarah started to wonder if she was imagining what had just happened. It made no sense at all.

Feeling confused by the perplexing sights of the night, she quietly tiptoed back upstairs towards the safety of bed.

As she rounded the top of the stairs and passed Nantie’s room, she paused and strained her ears. Behind the door came the sounds of sobbing.

“but I miss my mummy… I want to go home!”

A second deeper voice spoke calmingly: “Now then Nantie… don’t you love me anymore?”

The sobbing continued and the voices became quiet and muffled. Sarah carefully trod her way back through the dark corridor towards her room, but stopped dead as a floorboard squeaked sharply beneath her bare feet. Footsteps quickly crossed the room and Leonora appeared in the soft light of Nantie’s doorway, smiling down benignly at Sarah’s fearful face.

Sarah stepped backwards towards her room, but Leonora moved closer, until her earthy scent made Sarah feel dizzy. Pressed with her back to the door, Sarah smiled awkwardly at Leonora’s intense gaze.

“I saw you watching. Did you like to watch me dance?”

Sarah felt a strange fluttering of anticipation in her stomach as her eyes glanced down to watch a single bead of sweat travel slowly down Leonora’s throat, resting a moment on her breast bone, before it trailed gradually down into the nest of her cleavage, disappearing into the opening of her blouse. She stared at the heaving bosom that pinned her to the door, lost in the promise of warm, milky, fragrant skin within. She inhaled, and it was like eating a delicious feast. She found herself perplexed by her fascination with the fine dark hairs edging Leonora’s temples and neckline. Her head leant forward until her lips hovered above Leonora’s arched neck. Her heart thudded in her ears as her mouth faintly grazed the flesh before her, feeling drunk and abandoned by a scent that maddened her senses.

Leonora took Sarah’s face in her hands, holding her gently but firmly. Her pouting lips brushed her mouth teasingly….

“Do you want to be mine?” Leonora whispered into her mouth, and Sarah tasted the sweetness of her breath in her mouth as she nodded, unable to refuse.

“Then dance for me” Leonora urged softly: “Tomorrow is the harvest moon, and you shall dance for me”.

Releasing Sarah with a glowing smile, Leonora turned and stepped lightly down the stairs into the dark.

Sarah’s head spun and she clutched the open door behind her, staggering into the bedroom in confusion, to find Sabrina sat up in bed, staring at her in fury and disgust.

“Fuckin’ lezzer!” she hissed: “I can’t believe I’ve been sharing a bed with you… Ugh!” She turned and rolled over to face the wall muttering to herself: “wait until I tell the lads back home… they’re gonna love this!”

Feeling ashamed and sick in the aftermath of confusing desire, Sarah lay miserably in the cold, staring up into the dark, until silvery feathers of dawn faintly lit the pitted plasterwork of the ceiling, and sleep finally released her.

Sarah awoke with a jolt, her head full of fleeing dreams. Impressions of trees thrashing in the dark, then visions of fur, tongues, teeth and claws flashed through her mind, before evaporating as she remembered where she was. The bedroom was still chilly and damp, but a wan morning light filtered through the threadbare lace curtains.

Her bedclothes were drenched with sweat, and she felt exhausted. Memories of the night before began to surface… and she felt a cold lump of dread settle in the pit of her stomach. In the thin grey daylight, it was hard to believe such vividly strange things had really happened… had she dreamed it all?

Remembering the piercing shame of Sabrina’s icy stare, she felt slightly nauseous and glanced across the bed. But Sabrina was gone. Sarah guessed she must have gotten up before her. A long time before her. Where were her clothes and bags?


The kitchen was quiet apart from the occasional crackle of embers from the stove, and Sabrina was nowhere to be seen. The house felt empty, apart from the silent cats sitting on every surface, turning their heads in unison to follow her as she searched the room.

She looked at her reflection in the tiny fly-blown mirror that hung above the sink, wondering if the experiences of last night had changed her. She felt that something had been released inside herself. She had grown in some indefinable but irreversible way. She stared at herself in the glass, trying to see signs of her change written on her face. There was a new maturity in the eyes that gazed back at her, a new look in her face that she didn’t recognise. She almost felt like a grown up now.

Sarah noticed a row of unusual alabaster figurines on the windowsill. She picked one up and turned it over and around, admiring the intricate sculpting and sensuous forms of a stretching cat. As she turned it, a lid came away to reveal that she was holding a very delicate perfume bottle. The scent inside the empty vessel was faint yet familiar… something stirred in her memories… but something beyond the window caught her eye, and Sarah gasped with horror as she peered outside.

Nantie was hunched in a motionless bundle on the muddy floor of the yard. crashing through the kitchen door, Sarah raced to her aid. She stooped down to help, but what she saw made her recoil in confusion: Nantie was lapping water from a puddle, her face set in concentration.

“Nantie! Are you alright?” Sarah begged, tugging at the old lady’s sleeve.

“Ooh! Bless you my child… Nantie’s just having a wee drink…”

“But…” Sarah spluttered perplexed “why are you drinking a puddle?”

“Well my dear” said Nantie, sitting up and perching on her knees, straightening her mud-stained apron: “This modern tap water is safe enough and all… but when you’re really thirsty, it just isn’t the same as outdoors water… this water has… history…”

Nantie continued: “I’ve learned all there is to learn about life from my cats… You see, you can taste all sorts in outdoors water… “

Sarah gawped dumbfounded as the old lady scooped water into her palm and tasted it, with a contented faraway look in her eyes.

“Hmmm… let’s see now… Sheba carried her wee kittens past here yesterday morning… a fox ran by in a fearful hurry two days ago… something big and black came through the yard and gazed up at the windows just here late last night… and…” Nantie’s face suddenly furrowed in concern: “and a man and women stood here crying just two days ago… they were looking for someone very dear to them… and… oh dear… I do feel awfully queer… could you help me up my love?”

Sarah carefully helped the old lady to her feet and tried to steady her as she straightened her dishevelled clothing. Nantie’s face looked ashen and worn.

“Are you ok Nantie?” asked Sarah with concern as Nantie started to tremble.

“I do feel a wee bit off colour, my dear… would you mind helping me to my room? I think I need a wee rest…”


Sarah yawned and put down her guidebook. The kitchen had started to grow cold and dark. She looked around the room and realised that stove was starting to go out, but she had no idea how to keep it going.

She’d spent the day listlessly passing time until the old lady woke from her nap, but now she was thoroughly bored, even with the cats for company. Their enquiring expressions were starting to unnerve her as she mooched about followed by their eyes, but she realised that they must be hungry by now. She ought to try to rouse Nantie so she could deal with the cats.

Climbing the dingy staircase carefully, she called out Nantie’s name, so as not to startle the old lady. At the top of the steps, a row of feline faces looked down on her serenely.

“Excuse me, ladies” laughed Sarah, as she stepped through them onto the landing.

Nantie’s door was ajar and cats were coming and going from her room, pausing to lick their paws, cleaning their faces contentedly. Sarah smiled down at them and they blinked back affectionately.

A strangely familiar, overly sweet smell made Sarah feel slightly repelled as she peered around Nantie’s door: “Hello! Nantie? Are you awake?”

The room was dark in the evening light, but Sarah could make out the hunched form of the old lady on her bed, surrounded by cats. As she approached the bed, the chorus of purring almost made the air throb.

She gently shook the old lady’s shoulder: “Nantie?”

Sarah peered into the gloom, and saw a small lamp on the bedside table. Fumbling in the dark, she found the switch and a cosy glow transformed the room.

Sarah smiled down at the old lady… until her eyes registered what was before her… and once she had looked… she couldn’t stop looking…

The cats were purring in happy abandon, as they feasted on Nantie’s ruined body. A kitten playfully batted at a bloodied torn ear, whilst a muscular tom squatted by her head to bite at her eyeball, wrestling it from the old lady’s face.

From the neck down, Nantie had become a bloodied mess of organs, splayed across the lace coverlet. A circle of cats industriously pulled and chewed their way through the old lady’s innards, purring ferociously, glancing up at Sarah’s stricken face with mild disinterest. Throughout the room, cats hunkered down to feast on the bloody prizes they had torn from the cold body.

A portly old tabby cat rubbed her ankles affectionately, gazing up with big innocent eyes, expectantly waiting to be petted… Sarah staggered backwards as her heart pounded and her head swam… then bent double and retched until her stomach burned…

A rush of inquisitive cats ran to her vomit and licked at it experimentally… and Sarah ran.

Sarah shivered in the evening gloom and stared numbly at the sea, far below the hill. She wasn’t sure how many hours had passed… her mind felt empty and blank… any thought of action only brought a deep shudder of fear to her body. Occasionally she would shake, the tremors gradually building until her hands jolted before her… then a deep cold would settle in her chest, and a deathly calm would hold her.

The ‘TingTingTing!’ of her phone made her robotically reach into her pocket and swipe it open. Sarah gazed indifferently at the texts from Sabrina that she’d been waiting for all day:

“hope you enjoy your new life with the mad cat lady you fckin loser”

“got bored and went 2 Sanctuary fest with Seth. Get your boring ass on the next bus and come along – bring cider!”

“OMFG it’s fckng insane here! Miss u hun xx”

Sarah smiled to herself emptily… Sabrina…

The sky was a dark, deep velvet blue, by the time Leonora’s car drew up outside the house. Sarah stared into the blackness of the distant ocean, oblivious to anything going on around her… trying not to think for fear of the shaking. Her hands were icy and the bitter sea wind played mercilessly around her thin clothing.

After an endless pause, the back door of the house opened and a figure stepped out of the light of the kitchen, peering intently into the darkness, then strode toward Sarah on the hillock above.

“So-o-o horrible…so… so horrible… I can’t… I can’t…” sobbed Sarah into Leonora’s shoulder as her body and mind thawed out in the warmth of the jacket she had wrapped about her shoulders.

Sarah heaved and sobbed until her nose streamed strings of snot and her throat burned, burying her face in the warmth and comfort of Leonora’s neck, until she slumped lifelessly against her.

“I’m so sorry” Whimpered Sarah apologetically: “You’ve lost your nan… it’s selfish of me to be so upset… but… the cats they… the cats they… the…”

“Sarah” Leonora’s warm voice spoke soothingly as she stroked her hair: “You needn’t be upset. It’s nature’s way. The cats were just being practical. They needed to be fed. You can’t blame a cat for being a cat”

Sarah sat up, perplexed: “But you’ve lost your nan… “

Leonora smiled sympathetically: “I think it’s what Nantie would have wanted. Don’t you?”

Sarah stared questioningly into Leonora’s amber eyes, but could see only the cool calm stare of an animal returning her gaze. It was unnerving.

“Come” said Leonora insistently as she stood up, gently but firmly lifting Sarah to her feet. She took Sarah’s trembling hand and led her, numbly acquiescent into the night.

As they threaded their way up through the whispering heather towards the hill, Sarah’s stinging eyes adjusted to the dark, until she could see a rich blue glow outlining the horizon.

A bright silver line peeked over the sea, slowly growing to show the cusp of the moon, crowning a shimmering path of azure waves. Swirls of sooty clouds, in shifting iridescent shades of turquoise, jade, cobalt, and ochre, flitted lazily across the pearly disk as it rose over the ocean. The landscape became sharply defined in silvery shapes around them, as a fragrant balmy breeze softened the air.

A chorus of crickets rose around them, as moonlight drenched the hillside with uncanny brightness. The tinkling of the brittle heather in the soft breeze sounded like myriads of tiny bells jangling. Sarah’s lolling head started to nod involuntarily to the faint, distant sound of drums and bells on the wind, as she was led in a daze to the hilltop.

As they gained the small summit, Leonora turned to face her and spoke gently but firmly: “Dance for me”.

Sarah staggered slightly as she was released, then swayed gently to the rhythm she could hear pulsing in the wind.

“Not like that” whispered Leonora softly: “Let the moon kiss your skin”

Sarah turned away, embarrassed but unable to refuse, then carefully removed her clothing, letting it fall to her bare feet. Holding her arms across her chest awkwardly, she turned to face Leonora’s steadfast gaze.

“Dance for me” she repeated, and Sarah felt her limbs tingle with urgency as her ears filled with a throbbing beat. Her back began to arch involuntarily in response to a yearning sensation in her chest, as her arms stretched up towards the swathes of stars, glittering in arcs above them. Then she was spiralling in twists that left glittering trails of sensation hanging in the sky. She stooped to scoop the thickening air into her hands then spun nimbly round, feeling her hair tickle her back with sparks of static. Her heightened sensations were almost painful, yet irresistible. Her feet stamped a furious staccato on the damp turf. She could feel the beat pound deep down in her belly, and she rocked then jumped, pirouetted and crouched… then up and around again… with each spin she grew more intoxicated by the flow of her own wild energy… by the fiery tingles coursing through her veins… her body grew sweaty and glittered in the glow of the moon… sparkles trailed her leaping feet… bucking and writhing in faster and tighter circles. The music grew deafening and relentless. Pipes and whistles screeched unknown notes and dissonances, and voices wailed in forgotten tongues, telling of battles lost in a time before memories.

As she whirled dizzily, the wordless songs painted vivid pictures in her mind… she watched as a nation of naked dark skinned people raced across the sun-bleached sands and jagged rocks of a dead kingdom, their hatred and determination all they possessed after the most terrible of journeys that had left their loved ones buried in the cruel sands behind them. An ocean of bodies, thronging around a huge panther that led them with flashing amber eyes and thrashing tail, careering through the desert toward the glinting glare of a vast moving wall of golden shields and brazen helmets: an unbeaten enemy that stretched from the waters of the sacred river to the horizon, an army so vast that their marching shook the sand from the cliffs.

The beast that led the lost people onwards, raced ahead and tore into the ranks of armoured men like a scythe through barley, tossing limbs and heads into the air as it cut into the horde… their war cries turning to screams… and the lost nation poured into the invaders’ ranks and took their revenge…

The song rose into insane ululations and shrieks as it told of the flowing of blood that stained the vast river deep red on that day… how the palms wept with shame and the storks fell silent before that terrible spectacle. How glorious was their beast as she sat in state upon a hill of severed heads, bedecked with their jewels and circled by the golden spoils of war… a bloodied priest in chains knelt to offer their saviour a golden bowl filled with the bejewelled severed hands of the royal court. Sword and spear and helmet piled in heaps about her flashed in the light of the fire as her people danced madly about the burning ruins of the slain… teeth and eyes flashing with crimson flame… victors… avengers… survivors…

Now the melody took on the plaintive tones of a love song, spoken low, in a strange guttural tongue, in long forgotten words…

oh my love,
thy gore-soaked hair hath twisted into a crown of serpents,
how divine thine eyes that glint in the fire of a thousand burning temples,
How delicious thy lips that drip wet with crimson,
thy teeth as white and pure as the marble pillars that stand in the vermillion  lake poured from the bleeding bodies of our enemies,
the blood runneth down thy chin and courses down thine breasts,
lactating rubies that tumble and roll down thine ripened belly,
fecund and swollen with the flesh of the slain,
like red deer fleeing down the obsidian cliffs of our sacred mountain.

The glint of bejewelled and gilded chain,
torn from the slit throats of mutely sobbing priests,
drips like honey round your hips,
tears of burning amber from a weeping sun,
that coil hungrily about your supple loins,
oh my love, my prayer, my adored one,
I am sick with love,
I proffer you my still-beating heart,
I am yours…

The drums grew low… till they throbbed with a dark passionate heartbeat… and Sarah swayed to the deep pulse of rhythm as her body trembled with a ferocious burning shiver…

Leonora stepped forth from the darkness into a shaft of silvery moonlight, naked and swathed in chains of gold, that shimmered and tinkled as they swirled and swished about her languid limbs. Her deep amber eyes glittered with intensity, as she smiled invitingly. Her body moved with the lithe measured step of a predator as she approached the girl’s bare, sweaty, trembling body… and Sarah was enveloped in Leonora’s intoxicating fragrance that swirled in mists about her… an irresistible sensation of warm deliciousness rose deep in her belly, making her sway slowly, shivering in anticipation as lips grazed her mouth… tasting the intimate aroma of her breath….

“Will you be mine?” whispered Leonora into Sarah’s mouth… and Sarah nodded, unable to refuse.

“Give yourself to me” Leonora urged. Sarah nodded dumbly

“Tell me” sighed Leonora, moving closer until their bodies almost touched…

“I… I am yours…” stammered the deliciously vanquished Sarah.

Leonora smiled the darkest of smiles… and then her lips were upon hers… a kiss that took her breath away…

Sarah awoke at dawn, cold and alone under a blustery slate grey sky. Her naked body felt bruised and scratched. Summoning all her energy, she staggered and crawled towards the house, shivering and alone.

Inside, the house was chilly and silent, apart from the mewing of hungry cats, who thronged about her, nudging and nuzzling her frozen bare limbs.

Feeling dazed and numb, she searched the house for her clothes, but all her things had disappeared. Finally, she entered Nantie’s room. Cats lay around the room, contentedly digesting their banquet. She absentmindedly tickled McCavity behind the ear as she searched for clothing. The body had almost gone now, leaving a bloodied mess of bedsheets behind.

Tsk Tsk.. I must do the laundry, she thought, as she rummaged through Nantie’s cupboards looking for something to cover her nakedness.

Finding a plaid skirt, lace blouse and pink cardigan, she was surprised how well they fitted, almost as if the clothes were made for her. Once she was dressed, she sat at the dresser for a moment, tidying her wispy grey hair. Peering with bleary eyes at the tarnished mirror, she had trouble recognising the unfamiliar reflection. She looked terrible. She felt an unfamiliar weariness that made her limbs unresponsive and heavy, her mind sluggish and her vision dim. She felt so old… but she had tasks to do… her cats needed feeding and cleaning and the house needed a bit of a tidy after the last visitors… No rest for the wicked!  She thought, and chuckled to herself…

It was a dreary grey afternoon. A storm half-heartedly whipped and flapped at a row of tattered rags that fluttered from a line of thorn bushes flanking a crumbling drystone wall.

Blinking into the drizzle, a stooped young man hauling a large rucksack tramped across the moorland, looking for a gate. Stopping in the gateway to peer at the view, he caught sight of a squat whitewashed farmhouse in the distance. Looking heartened, he straightened himself, then marched towards the house.

The house looked deserted as he approached. The narrow deeply sunk windows looked dark and unoccupied, but he knocked loudly and waited.

“Hang on my dear! I’m not as young as I used to be!” called out a tremulous voice approaching the door. The latch turned and the door inched open to reveal the sweetest of old ladies, her eyes twinkling over half-moon spectacles, the soft features of her smiling face framed by a cloud of silvery hair.

The youngster looked down to see a throng of cats surging past his ankles into the house, as the old lady clasped her hands in glee: “Ah! Come one, come all! Hee Hee! McCavity! You old rascal – what have you been about now? And Keira! You little madam… I have some special chicken for you!”

The old lady turned to the young man, straightening her faded apron and looked him up and down approvingly: “Well now… You look like a very nice young man to be so far out in the wilds in this dreadful weather… may I be of help to you?”

The young man’s pale face blushed deep pink at the old lady’s approving gaze and he gulped before explaining: “I’m looking for my friend – Sarah? She was staying here with her friend Sabrina?”

The old lady stared into space for some moments… almost as if listening to an invisible voice… then her face crinkled into a smile: “Ooh yes! The wee girls. They were such dears, bless them”

The young man’s gloomy face brightened: “You’ve seen her? Is she still here?”

“Ooh no dear… I’m most terribly sorry… she left several days ago. She was such a sweet wee lass too… very fond of the cats she was…”

The young man looked defeated and slumped down, gazing at his feet as a large black cat slunk around his ankles, purring and butting his shins with its head.

The old lady crossed her arms and held her chin in one hand: “Well now! I’ve never seen the like! Sheba’s a fussy one. She’s not one to make friends easily… she’s really taken a shine to you!”

The young man smiled and leaned down to tickle the affectionate black cat’s chin.

“Ooh now… I wouldn’t do that!” warned the old lady: “Sheba’s likely to…”

The old lady stooped to avert disaster but the young man had jumped back just in time – Sheba had flattened her ears, bared her fangs and swiped a viscous claw at his hand… a tiny bead of blood grew on his knuckle. Sheba hissed and glowered… her eyes focussed in cold feral hate… then she was gone in a blur of black fur.

The young man sucked at his stinging knuckle thoughtfully, then asked: “Could you give me any idea where she might be? Her friend was starting to get a bit worried about her and I’d really like to see if she’s ok”

Horace tried to peer over her shoulder into the kitchen, but could only see cats draped across every surface.

The old lady paused in thought: “Well now… she did say something about the coastal walk…  doing the coastal walk, she called it… I dare say she’ll be stopping at the monastery up the coast bye and bye. They have a hostel there you know…”

The young man looked dejected but resolute as he gazed down the hill towards the cliffs. “Thanks. I’ll see if I can find her there…” he bit his lip awkwardly: “If you see her… you know… if she comes back this way… could you tell her that Horace was here looking for her?”

“Oh, of course I shall my dear… specially for such a nice handsome young man as yourself…”

Horace glanced down blushing awkwardly, then noticed that the old lady had a curious tattoo on her wrist. Two capital letters: S and S intertwined, with the words ‘4EVA’ written in a scroll beneath. Perplexed and wondering why an old lady should be wearing such a tattoo, he looked up, but the old lady crossed her arms and smiled benignly at him.

“Horace” he repeated: “You won’t forget, will you? You will tell her if you see her?”

“I never forget a name, isn’t that right Mr Tibbles? I wouldn’t forget your name now, would I? Hee hee!” said the old lady… turning her attention to the forest of cats that circled her adoringly.

“So… erm.. I’ll be on my way then” said Horace as he turned to go: “Thanks!”

The old lady waved goodbye as Horace retreated back to the gate: “Safe journey now Hori, my dear!”

“Such a nice, handsome young man…” she told her audience of cats as she returned to her duties in the kitchen:” I do so hope he comes back one day… it’s nice to have a bit of company up here. But I’ll always have you as my family… Nantie loves you all she does! I do so love it here…”

Evening was drawing in, as Horace skirted the quarry fence and picked his way along a path that threaded through dark patches of heather across windswept moorland that sloped down to the cliffs and coastal walk.

Even though the festival was miles across the other side of the island, he was sure he could hear snatches of dance music borne on stray gusts of wind, an almost imperceptible throb of deep bass that seemed dissonant and strange in this timeless ancient landscape.

As he reached the brow of a hill, his phone sounded out with a bright ‘Ting’. He stopped to put down his heavy bag, catch his breath and check his phone. A text had finally arrived from Seth. He frowned as he read it:


Great   he thought… Seth had really annoyed him by hooking up with Sabrina, leaving him to hang out by himself at the festival for a day and night, before he got so bored of being alone, surrounded by increasingly crazed partygoers, that he had left in search of Sarah. Seth was now obviously off his head on something and sending cryptic messages… he pictured them laughing together at some in-joke that he wasn’t a part of.

Horace had the gnawing and unsettling sensation of being watched. He stopped to put down his heavy bag and scan the barren landscape around him. He peered into the purples and greys of twilight, but seeing only the inky shapes of gorse bushes and the craggy hills, he shrugged, turned, picked up his rucksack and continued his way.

In the gloom behind Horace, a pair of dark amber eyes studied him intently. A large, black, powerful and sleek shape rose, then silently, carefully, keeping low to the ground, it padded down the path following his scent… hanging back in the shadows until night descended…

Mike Stuart 2017

Leonora by Mike Stuart


Where Did Wendy Go?

By Mike Stuart

where-did-wendy-go1A man was running through the dark forest. His shoes thumped on the damp black earth as he crashed, stumbled and tore his way through the undergrowth in a desperate panic, too scared to glance over his shoulder for fear of tripping and letting his pursuer catch him. In his head the words ‘Oh God, Oh God, Oh God’ repeated, as the vision of that hideous face urged him on and on, fighting the burning breath in his throat and lungs and forcing his aching legs to carry him away from the snarling and tearing sounds that were gaining on him.

The storm-lashed leaves smacked into his face and a river of sweat and rain water ran down his back. His eyes stared blindly into the dark, desperately looking for path through the tangle of roots and briars that hindered his escape.

Suddenly he saw a glimpse of light. Twin beams moved through gaps in the trees. A glimmer of hope entered his feverish mind and he turned and ran recklessly down the muddy slope to the road that was suddenly revealed by headlights beneath him.

He yelped as thorns tore into his legs, tumbling downwards to land in a painful heap on the flooded tarmac forcing the vehicle to skid to a halt just in front of him. With one last gasp of effort he raised his hands for help, as icy claws grasped his ankles, dragging him away from the road. He roared a primal shriek as he turned to see yellowed ragged teeth sinking into his ankle bone…

Then a flash… the world lit up… a mechanical screech deafened him… and all was black.

He awoke from pleasant dreams of peaceful slumber to a monotonous thumping sound. For a moment he was disorientated and confused… then he realised that noise that had awakened him was his own head bouncing on the wet tarmac. He was being dragged unceremoniously by his ankles towards the open door of an off road vehicle. Before he could call out, strong hands lifted him by the shoulders, threw him inside and slammed the door behind him. The driver jumped in to the seat in front of him, the idling motor roared into gear and he was bouncing along at high speed through the forest. He had time to utter a faint thank you before he fainted again, this time feeling that he was finally safe.

When he regained consciousness he took stock of his surroundings… the vehicle was lurching and skidding along at an alarming speed through endless woods that reared into view as the headlights burned their way through the dark. He was lying on piles of tarpaulin, covering boxes of heavy equipment and ropes that glinted in the dark. An acrid animal smell mixed with the tang of stale sweat and old clothing turned his stomach. Following the sound of panting he could make out an enormous dog sat calmly in the seat directly in front of him, and to his left he could see the broad leather-clad back of the driver, hunched in concentration over the wheel as the vehicle skidded and scrambled along a dirt track.

“Thank You!” he called in relief “You saved me!”

But his thanks were greeted in silence as the driver continued to push the vehicle onwards, so he relaxed back into his makeshift seat, adrenaline giving way to aches and pains as he took stock of the cuts and bruises that covered his body. He started to shiver with cold and his mind became numb with that strange pragmatism of survival.

He was drifting into sleep when the vehicle skidded to a halt. He driver flicked switches and a powerful beam of light swept the area, revealing a narrow clearing with a large concrete slab.

In a moment the driver was out, opening his door and dragging him out. Supporting his shoulder the driver steered him towards the concrete slab. A trap door was kicked open and he was lowered down a short ladder into the welcoming light, warmth and safety within.

A sharp whistle brought the dog bounding down after him, followed by the booted feet of the driver lugging a large box, who slammed the door shut above their heads.

“Thank You sir! I thought I was going to die!” he gushed… only to be surprised as the broad back above him turned to reveal the hard features of a middle aged woman. “er.. thank you ma’am!”

The figure stopped and the face before him glared with flinty eyes… studying him in the most uncomfortable way.

“Don’t call me ma’am” she snarled… “You’re an American? What the hell are you doing here?”

“Canadian actually! But don’t worry… you people are always mistaking my accent… Jeb McCloud” he said cheerily offering his hand, which was left dangling untaken. Unperturbed, he continued: “ I’m a reporter! Working for the Paraphysical Times actually, doing a report of the supernatural sightings here! I’ve been placing sensors and cameras around the forest in the hope of catching evidence of these creatures!”

Throwing the box to the ground, the driver pointed to its contents.

“So these are yours?” she spat.

“My equipment!” he shouted “What… why have you got it? I spent days placing these sensors! This is some very expensive kit… why have you got them? With all due respect, Ma’am you have no right to touch my property”

“You have no idea what you’re doing… if you knew what lived in these woods you wouldn’t be here… idiots…” she snarled kicking the box, turning her back and stomping across the tiny concrete bunker to study a desk strewn with battered electronic equipment. Making notes in a small pocket-book she tapped dials and studied readings.

“Oh my god! I know this stuff!” exclaimed Jeb as he limped painfully over to peer over her shoulder. “This is a bio-static psychic-field analyser… I’ve heard of them but never actually seen one… this is SO cool! How did you…?” but before he could finish she whirled round and pushed him back against the hard concrete wall.

“Keep your eyes to yourself… this is NOT cool”

“But my readers would love to know about this stuff! It’s dynamite!”

She stood motionless for a moment, her hard eyes boring into his, as if searching for something… then she shrugged and stepped back.

“You don’t actually believe any of this stuff do you? If you did, you wouldn’t be so obsessed about proving it. If you knew… you wouldn’t be here.”

“That’s simply not true! Supernatural phenomena is my life! The Paraphysical Times is a highly respected journal. They’ve paid me good money to come out here to investigate the sightings. People need to know!”

“I know the Paraphysical Times… I like to keep track of these things. It’s a rag – a comic. If it wasn’t so badly written it would be classed as entertainment. The creatures that live here don’t need horror tourists… people like you cause more trouble than you realise.”

“So there ARE creatures here!” he cried triumphantly. He surveyed the narrow confines of the bunker, suddenly noticing the weapons, hunting paraphernalia, nets, ropes, camouflaged clothing and electronic equipment that was stacked on every wall… “Are you actually a creature hunter?”

She shrugged her burly shoulders indifferently “In a way yes… you could say that. But not exactly. It really is none of your business”.

Jeb beamed with satisfaction… “Wow” he began, but a sudden wave of nausea caught him and he started trembling… his childlike enthusiasm gave way to a deep chill as he realised just how bruised and injured he was. The woman’s harsh features softened imperceptibly as she realised that he was going into shock.

She glanced at her watch and seemed to make a decision: “It’s almost dawn. We’d better check you over for injuries and as soon as the rain lets up we should get going”

Gratefully Jeb sank back into a folding metal chair as the woman poured water and salt from plastic containers into a bowl and began bathing the scratches and cuts on his face and hands. Jeb felt lulled into a numb semi sleep as the wounds throbbed and stung…

“What’s this?” she gasped, noticing the deep circle of teeth marks on his ankle beneath the torn jeans “have you been bitten?”

Suddenly Jeb recalled that terrible face… those terrible teeth… and his body started shaking uncontrollably. Sliding slowly off the chair he began retching. The woman grabbed a nearby box just in time as he emptied his stomach in sobbing heaving gasps, then he was curled up on the cold concrete floor, shivering and drifting into the welcome relief of sleep.


The forest was dark and dripping leaves thrashed in the storm. He could hear a girl’s piteous cries carried on the wind, drawing him on despite his fear. A moaning, keening, high-pitched wailing that pulled at his heart, driving him onward desperately. Finally he saw the figure in the gloom, her back hunched over on the forest floor, sobbing quietly…

“Hello? Miss, are you OK?”

The sobbing quietened for a moment, and he approached her gently… “Miss?”

A gap in the clouds revealed moonlight just as the kneeling figure turned… and Jeb gasped in terror at the hideous face that glowered with unfathomable malice, sunken eyes that gloated with animal hunger, shrivelled lips curled around jagged yellow stumps of teeth, pinched and withered skin drawn tightly over an inhuman bony face… his heart pounded in horror and yet his limbs would not move.. Spellbound by the sickening terror of that face… those teeth…


He awoke with a jolt… his heart pounding in panic for several moments. Then the aching and stinging of his injuries brought him back to the present. His shoulders and hips ached from the cold concrete beneath him. A musty blanket had been placed over him, but he shivered deeply. The bunker was dark apart from a faint grey glow of dawn coming through a tiny window in the roof. His eyes followed the faint sound of snuffling coming from the dog curled around the feet of the woman, who dozed fitfully on the folding chair, her calloused hands curled around a long hunting knife. He listened and could hear her murmuring in her sleep… “where… where’d.. Wendy go?” she mumbled… then her words lapsed into snoring.

Jeb pulled himself up painfully, and suddenly the dog’s head rose protectively. The movement woke the woman who was awake in an instant, poised for danger… then relaxed slightly as she glanced at her watch.

“OK. It should be safe to leave now. You need medicine and food. I’ll take you up to the house”.

At the mention of food, Jeb’s stomach growled audibly and he realised that he was ravenously hungry. “Thank you ma’am! I could eat a horse!”

She studied him critically for a moment, then rose and busied herself, collecting equipment from the shelves and placing them into a brown metal crate, finally taking a hand gun and pushing it into the back pocket of her heavy combat trousers.

Walking to the ladder, she pulled down a periscope and peered into the lens, turning a handle.

“Right. Listen carefully. I will leave first, then my dog Spud. When I call you, and ONLY then, come out quickly and go straight into the Landrover, which is parked directly to the left of the entrance. Do NOT stop to look at anything – is that clear?”

Jeb stood up painfully “Yes ma’am”

She winced and her eyes narrowed… “And you can stop calling me ma’am”

Jeb nodded apologetically.


As he scrambled out into the silvery dawn, his eyes streamed tears in the glare and the cold. The Landrover waited with its motor idling. As his eyes adjusted, he noticed the cages over the windows, the bank of fog lights over the windscreen, the bull bars and the metal boxes riveted to the sides.

“Move! Come on!” the driver ordered and she roughly pushed him inside, slammed the door, ran over to fasten the trap door of the bunker and jumped into the driver’s seat.

The motor roared into life and the Landrover was suddenly bouncing along the dirt track, a deep mechanical drone filling the cab, making conversation impossible. Jeb sat in the passenger seat with Spud nestled at his feet, staring in a numb daze at the monotonous landscape of dark green fir trees as they jolted through the woods.

Finally the Landrover emerged from the depths of the forest onto tarmac and they climbed smoothly up a twisting road, coming to a halt outside a dilapidated cottage, nestling beneath a craggy cliff lined with dark pines.

Jeb winced as he limped across the driveway to the cottage door and gratefully sank into a large comfortable armchair next to the kitchen range. The woman busied herself bringing in equipment as Spud scampered happily around her. He glanced around the room, taking stock of his new environment. The windows were barred, but the atmosphere of the kitchen was bare yet comfortable in a rough rural way. A frayed carpet on the stone flag stones gave a homely quality, and bunches of flowers and herbs stood in jars on shelves.

A collection of framed photographs hung from the wall over the stone sink. He could see the driver looking younger and happier, her arms across the shoulders of a younger pretty girl in several photos. He realised that the photo of a woman in army uniform must be the woman who saved him, but with a cheery optimism in her features which was no longer visible in the hard face that was clenched in concentration as she stoked up the fire in the stove, bringing a soothing warmth to the damp kitchen.

“Is that girl in the photos Wendy?” he asked, hoping to strike up conversation. Her back tightened visibly as she let the pots she was holding clatter into the sink. For several silent moments she stayed turned away from him, eventually turning to reveal a face that was etched with barely concealed sorrow. Regaining control of her emotions she glowered at him, then turned back to her task.

He dozed as she clanked about, lulled by the heat and the relief that safety brought.


The most delicious smell of cooking awoke him… and his stomach clawed at his insides, begging for food. He studied the woman as she busied herself over the stove. She had taken off her battered leather jacket, revealing broad shoulders beneath a threadbare navy jumper, sleeves rolled up showing strong tattooed forearms, above scarred and stained hands. Fine lines covered a care worn but determined face, with a thin lipped resolute mouth and hard jaw, topped with jagged carelessly-cut dusty grey hair. There was a restless, ferocious energy about her that made it hard to guess her age. A glance from those steely pale eyes was enough to make him lower his gaze awkwardly, as she placed a large bowl of steaming stew in front of him. The delicious aroma making him salivate with anticipation.

He ate with a relish that surprised him, as she sat studying him quizzically.

“Thank you so much!” he gasped between mouthfuls “what is this? It is so delicious! Aren’t you eating?”

“I’ve eaten already. You go ahead. You need to build up your strength”

“You’re so kind… I don’t know how to thank you” he said as she ladled out another serving.

Her eyes burned into him impassively: “I’m not kind. It is just necessary. Get some sleep and we’ll take a look at your wound when you have rested” she said, gesturing to the cot that lay in the side room. Gratefully, he finished his second helping and laid down on the cot, drawing a tattered tartan blanket over his shoulders, before drifting into a fitful sleep, peppered with disturbing dreams.


When he awoke the light through the dirty barred windows was fading into evening. He must have slept all day. That gnawing hunger was almost burning his insides now and all he could think about was that delicious stew. The house was quiet and growing dark. He raised himself from the cot and let out an involuntary groan as his injured ankle took his weight. Looking down at the source of the pain he could see a ring of teeth marks that were turning purple and black. He noticed the yellowing circle of a puncture mark on his arm as if someone had taken his blood. Still feeling dazed he tried to rise. He needed hospital… but first he needed food. Before he realised, he had limped back to the kitchen and had helped himself to the stew that still stood warming on the stove, and was gorging his ravening hunger when the door flew open.

Spud scampered up to him, then hung back with his ears low, growling quietly. The woman marched in carrying a large basket of herbs which she flung onto the table in front of him. Taking a long knife she started chopping up the herbs roughly and flinging them into a large pewter pan.

“What the hell is that stuff?” gasped Jeb as a searing stench flooded his nostrils.

“Sage. It can protect the house from intruders. Certain creatures find it repellent. It also serves as an anti-inflammatory agent when applied as a poultice”

She hauled the heavy pan onto the stove and began stirring it rapidly. A wave of nausea caught Jeb as the smell of cooking sage filled the room… “I’m really sorry ma’am – I just can’t stand the smell”.

She stopped, turned and examined him. “It will help to heal your wound”

Jeb couldn’t understand it, but the overwhelming urge to run away from the aroma was almost unbearable… “I really can’t stand it… please” he muttered, but she ignored his plea and busied herself grinding the mixture in a pestle and mortar, eventually placing the pulp into a gauze pad.

Bending over his injured ankle she carefully placed the steaming poultice on the deep wound. Jeb clenched his teeth and gripped the chair, beads of sweat forming on his brow, until he could stand it no more.

“It BURNS!” he yelped and tore the bandage from his leg, howling in agony and jumping away to the corner of the room. Suddenly he was out of the door throwing up into the yard, heaving until his stomach was empty, then lying there, abject and exhausted.

She stood over him, arms folded, thinking.


Jeb lost all sense of time as his life seemed to revolve around eating, sleeping, being woken by terrible dreams and then eating again. His hunger seemed to take on a life of its own, dictating his movements… he was almost scared to leave the pot of stew that seemed to be endlessly replenished and simmering on the stove. His saviour mostly ignored him, busy hauling in boxes from the yard, fixing equipment on the kitchen table, oiling weapons, typing up notes on her laptop, relentlessly busy with an endless list of tasks that he could only wonder about. Occasionally, she would stop, look at him, then take a small notebook from her pocket and jot some notes down before returning to her tasks. He found the bustle of her energy strangely reassuring and his fears calmed when she was busy around him. Spud became increasingly anxious around him, sitting as far as possible in the corner, growling faintly if he approached. But mostly, Jeb ate and slept, feeling feverish and disorientated.


He was awakened one night by the door slamming and the rising whine of the Landrover driving away. He lay in the cot for a while watching the light fade to dusk until that familiar gnawing hunger forced him out of bed. He made his painful way to the stove and saw with horror that the large pewter pot was empty. He had to eat!

A quick tour of the kitchen cupboards revealed nothing that could satisfy him, mostly herbs and roots drying in baskets and pots. Clawing at his stomach he scoured every box and basket until he was assured that there was no food to be found.

Strangely though, he could smell food outside. His hunger was so acute that his senses appeared unnaturally heightened. Yes, something delicious outside was calling him, urging him. His belly rumbled and griped, telling him that he needed food more than anything.

He stumbled to the main door and found it locked, but after rummaging around the shelves he found a bunch of keys in an old earthenware pot. Trying the keys eventually he found one that fitted the lock and with a click the door swung open.

He peered into the gloom outside fearfully. The cottage was ringed by a dark wall of pine trees that rustled ominously. Alone for the first time in days with the dark forest, his imagination ran rampant… he was sure he could see things moving in the shadows, feet scurrying in the undergrowth. He slammed the door and pressed his back against it, breathing heavily until his heart stopped racing.

But the hunger was too much… he could smell the most delicious food wafting from outside the door… an unfamiliar and slightly sickening aroma but it was maddening him, making him almost giddy in anticipation. He realised that he was drooling, and wiping his mouth glanced at his hands and flinched to see how different they suddenly looked. The yellowing skin hung loosely across bony fingers, with nails that protruded like jagged splinters. He had been too ill to notice until now, but his whole body felt strange to him… he was wasting away. He really needed to eat.

Before he had time to think he had lurched outside following the delicious scent of food that drew him onward, across the courtyard toward the dim blue light inside the garage. Stumbling up to the locked door he found himself scratching at the wood for several maddening moments, until he remembered the bunch of keys on his pocket. Fumbling frantically he tried the keys one by one until finally finding a fit. The door was stiff, but he nudged it with his shoulder and was inside.

In the garage the remains of farm implements, wheels, tyres and metal crates were piled high around the walls, but what grabbed his attention was the tall freezer humming gently in the corner, that seemed to ooze the most irresistible odour, summoning him onward. His stomach gnawed angrily as he staggered forwards, grasped the handle and opened the freezer door.

What he saw inside made him shriek then retch and heave… piled inside were arms, legs and feet… pieces of human limbs, chopped up and laid in rows by some evil act of butchery. Filled with repulsion he left the freezer door swinging open and threw himself outside, where he vainly tried to vomit the contents of his empty stomach repeatedly until he lay curled up on the mud trembling and in shock, unaware of the Landrover returning, until with a squeal of brakes, it skidded to a halt in front of him.

Strong hands lifted him to his feet, and the driver stared into his terrified face, glancing at the open door of the freezer within the garage in comprehension. Without a word, she hauled him back into the garage and through a door in the back wall, dragging him down steep concrete steps into a brightly lit basement. Groggy from terror he heard the jangle of keys and then felt himself roughly thrown to the stone floor, where he lay stunned for several moments until he realised that he had been locked inside.

He lay for a long time, stunned and shocked… unable to register what he had seen… until the gnawing in his belly brought him back to consciousness. He looked around the room. He was in some sort of cage, with another cage next to him. In the far corner of which he could see what looked like a bundle of rags, but looking closer the bundle appeared to be moving. Then he heard it… sobbing… a high pitched keening sob that broke his heart. What horrible fate had happened to this poor girl in the next cage?

“Miss? Are you ok Miss?” he called, surprised to hear the unfamiliar guttural tones in his voice after so many days of silence. “Hello Miss, please talk to me” he cried…

The bundle shifted and turned to face him. A mass of shaggy hair parted to reveal the most hideous face… snarling blackened lips pulled taught across sharp yellow teeth, dark hollows around beady eyes. The icy gloating stare of the predator caught him in a pitiless gaze… then the creature leaped at the bars of the cage, snarling and howling with fury, shaking and clawing the metal to reach him.

In his ears a second terrible wailing deafened him… high pitched and animal sounds… and he realised with horror that the sound was coming from himself… he cupped his wretched face in his hands and sobbed and wailed… moaned and shuddered until an empty hungry peace fell upon him and he curled up in the corner, longing for release… for hour upon hour upon hour.


Eventually he heard footsteps approaching outside. The door was unlocked and the familiar heavy tread announced the return of the driver, carrying a large bucket.

She stood for several moments observing him then turned and whispered to the creature in the next cage, who sidled up to the bars fearfully.

The driver then did something that made no sense to Jeb. She stroked the creature’s head and crooned gently to her, before reaching into the bucket and throwing a human leg into the cage and watched sadly as the creature leapt upon it devouring it with violent relish.

“What have you done to me?!” Jeb rasped… “Why?”

The driver stood regarding Jeb with curiosity. She took out her notebook and wrote something. Then she took out her phone and pointed it at Jeb. The flash made him jump backwards. She beckoned him over as she turned the phone to reveal the photo… what he saw made him feel sick to his stomach… it was him… but instead of the jolly, fresh-faced and eager youth was a sallow, sunken and desperate visage… with lips bared to reveal jagged yellow teeth… and dark sunken eyes.

“What have you done?!” he screamed… but his voice was no longer his voice… issuing from his mouth was a high wailing garbled series of grunts and squeals… no longer words… no longer human.

With a sad smile, the driver reached into the bucket and threw a human arm into Jeb’s cage, turned and walked out, locking the door behind her.

Jeb scrambled away from the horrifying object, repulsed and disgusted, sick to the core of his being at the sight of the human meat.

He lay curled in the corner, abject, alone, disgusted… but then came the hunger… it gnawed at his insides relentlessly…

Finally he could bear it no more. And he dived upon the human arm, sank his teeth deeply into the flesh and ate… and ate … and ate…

It tasted so good.


Mike Stuart 2016