Between one thing and another at the moment, I’m not getting a lot of what I term ‘my’ writing done. That is, writing that’s not blog writing or work writing. And while I still enjoy my blog writing and work writing, it’s all rather closely related to real life, which is not an area that I like to spend too much time in. In case it’s, you, know, catching or something.
But a lovely online friend who writes some wonderfully nasty flash fiction suggested to me that trying something similar might be a good way to feel I was still doing ‘my’ writing, in bite-size chunks. Which seemed like a wonderful idea, although I’m fully aware that my last attempt at writing a short story under 1000 words (let alone 100) resulted in an almost 6000 word monster. So I didn’t expect it to be short.
I didn’t expect it to be this long, though, either.
But it was most certainly fun, so thank you so much Jimmie for the nudge to jump back into my short stories!
For those of you that have been around a while, you may remember Glenda, who had some rather unexpected visitors (one of whom gave her cat fleas). If not, you may want to jump over and read Glenda & the Horsemen of the Apocalypse before you start. Otherwise, read on and enjoy!
Death is Always Sure
A Glenda & the Horsemen Short Story
The sky was low and heavy, fat with thunderous clouds and the sort of determined rain that makes umbrellas futile. The road that trailed across the face of the hills between the post and wire fences was awash with muddy water, and the few sheep standing morosely in the fields looked thoroughly put out. It was heading on for midnight, and was, in fact, a very dark and stormy night indeed.
Flickers of lightning lit the angry underbellies of the clouds, and thunder rumbled like cosmic indigestion, threatening something more explosive at any moment. Col pulled his hat down more firmly over his ears, for all the good it did. He was soaked through.
“Jess!” he bawled into the teeth of the wind that was skirling threateningly around him and flinging rain in his face. “Seek! Seek, girl!”
The bedraggled mongrel trailing at his heels gave him a pleading look, and he waved vaguely at the field, his quad bike abandoned on the farm track behind him. The fields were rapidly becoming swamps, and he had no intention of getting stuck out here.
“Get away back!” he yelled at the dog, and she heaved an enormous sigh and launched herself across the slick grass, squinting against the rain and casting about for a scent. Damn lambing season. Why did they always lamb in the middle of the night, during a storm? It was like clockwork. He’d brought most of the ewes into a field closer to the house this evening, but of course there was always one he couldn’t find, and of course she’d be out here, and he was too bloody soft to just leave her, out in the cold with the roar of the sea pummelling the shore at the bottom of the cliffs fighting with the steadily increasing howl of the wind, and … Wait. He frowned. Was that engines? Who the hell would be out here, in this? And they sounded like motorbikes, as well.
Col stood there with the rain running down his face and back and through the holes in his jacket, and listened to the sound of the engines increase, a doubtful look on his face. He couldn’t see any lights on the road, and the sound seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. He jumped as a wet, anxious nose shoved into his hand, and looked down at the dog. She nipped his sleeve and tugged anxiously.
“What?” he said, more sharply than he intended. He could feel the engines rumbling in his chest now, shaking the bones of his legs as if the very land were reverberating beneath him.
Jess whined, darted away, circled back to snap at him, then darted off again.
Could he hear … could he hear voices? In this?
Jess gave a short, sharp bark, growled, and nipped at his boots. He waved her off ineffectually, feeling exposed despite the rain and darkness, still looking for the machines that those massive engines were driving so recklessly into the heart of the storm, his heart pounding in some terrible double-time in his chest, sure now that there were voices, snatches of conversation riding in on the wind.
“… any left?”
“… don’t be …”
“… but he had …”
“Honestly, I just …”
Jess was barking hysterically, her ears flat to her head and the whites of her eyes showing, the sound continuous and harsh and all but lost under the roar of those dreadful, inhuman engines. Thunder smashed over the hills, so close that Col let out an involuntary little scream and stumbled backward, tripping over the dog and sprawling into the mud and sheep dung.
There was a moment of startling silence, then a woman’s voice said very clearly, “Are we here for him?”
“Hmm. No,” another voice said, deep and musical.
Col blinked as a woman’s head appeared above him. She had softly curled white hair and was wearing a pearl necklace over her pale blue cardigan. He felt suddenly and inexplicably guilty for leaving it so long since calling his gran.
“Are you sure?” she said. “He doesn’t look well.”
“Death is always sure,” the deep voice said, and a new face, all shadowed eyes and dark skin pulled tight over high, sharp cheekbones looked down at him. It was joined by two others, one round and flushed, the other grinning like a toothpaste model.
“I thought you were going to give that a rest, D,” the toothpaste model said.
“I cannot change who I am,” D said, straightening up and looking across the fields. “Why are we here?”
“Not so sure, then,” the model said, grinning even more broadly, and the woman frowned at him.
“Behave yourself, Pest,” she said. “Don’t think I didn’t see you drop chicken pox in that town we came through.”
The young man rolled his eyes and said, “You never want me to have any fun.”
“Your sort of fun tends to end in diseases of the unmentionables,” the woman said, and put a grease paper packet on Col’s chest as the round-faced man staggered off laughing, Pest following him with an aggrieved look on his face. “There you go, dear. You’ll feel alright again once we’ve gone.”
Col made a squawking sound that set Jess barking again, although she kept her distance.
“They’re good boys, really,” the woman said. “Well, as long as they’re not here for you. And I don’t think anyone knows why we’re here, so you’re safe.” She patted his shoulder reassuringly, then walked off.
Col spluttered as the rain started falling again. It had stopped while the strange little group had been crowded around him, the wind falling to nothing, but suddenly it was howling in his ears again and sending tight bands of cold around his head. He sat up and watched the strangers trailing across the field. The toothpaste model – Pest – had taken the woman’s arm to help her across the uneven ground, which made sense, because she appeared to be wearing those little slip-on house shoes older women seem to like so much. The tall man called D was standing with his hands on his hips, staring around in the perplexed way of someone looking for a new doctor’s office, the round-faced man standing next to him with his hands folded over his ample belly, rocking on his heels.
And Col could see them. It wasn’t bright as day, but it wasn’t moonlight, either. The field was washed in a cold pale light, like a night scene in a black and white movie, and if that wasn’t the most ridiculous thing he’d ever imagined, then he didn’t know what was. Col investigated his head carefully, looking for broken bits. Everything seemed to be where it should be, so he got up and trailed after the strangers, unwrapping the grease paper packet as he went. It smelled of mushrooms and blue cheese, and Jess whiffled hopefully after him.
“D, seriously, why are we here?” Pest asked. They’d drawn into a little huddle around the tall man in his skinny jeans and Panama hat.
“It’s not clear yet,” Death admitted. “But this is where we were drawn.”
“Is this New Zealand?” Glenda asked. “It seems like it could be New Zealand.”
“It is,” War said. “I remember it. There were some great warriors down here. Wonderful.”
“I thought it’d be sunnier. It’s very muddy.”
“We’re in the middle of a storm,” Pest pointed out.
“Still.” Glenda peered across the hillside. It just looked grey, and there was gorse ranging along the fenceline. “It looks like Scotland.”
“Ooh, don’t tell them that,” War said. “There’ll be trouble!” He sounded gleeful, and Glenda frowned at him. She still hadn’t quite adjusted to how much pleasure the horsemen took in their jobs. Although … she’d given that poor man a pasty, hadn’t she? It had just seemed like the right thing to do. A bit of food always helps you get over a shock. She looked around, wondering if he’d recovered yet, and saw him squatting on the the grass trying to look inconspicuous, sharing the pasty with his dog and watching them with an expression that was somewhere between disbelief and terror. She gave him a little wave, and he ducked like she’d thrown something at him. Poor thing. He seemed like quite a nice young man.
“Over there,” Death said, and strode off through the stubbly grass, surprisingly graceful with his long scarecrow limbs.
“Come along,” War said, offering Glenda his arm.
She scowled. “You don’t have to treat me like your gran. I’m your colleague.”
“I don’t have a gran,” War said. “But suit yourself.” He strode off after Death, leaving Glenda to flounder along behind them, cursing her house shoes and wishing she’d had the foresight to die in her hiking boots. She was sure there must be a way to change your outfit, but she hadn’t figured it out yet. She certainly hoped there was – she was already quite sick of her blue cardigan.
“Plenty, love,” Pest said, appearing next to her. “You still have such an endearing human trait of thinking you’re actually walking on the ground.”
“Glenda or Mrs Holt,” Glenda said sharply. “I don’t need an extra name.”
“It lacks a certain ring,” Pest said, pursing his perfect lips. “But as you wish, Glenda. Now let’s go.”
And just like that, the mud and rabbit holes and sheep dung were gone, and it was rather like walking barefoot in a deep and luxurious carpet, like the one that had been in that hotel she and the late Mr Holt had stayed in on one of their rare weekends away. She’d always wanted a carpet like that. It had been like walking on air.
“I do need how to learn to do that,” she said.
“You do,” Pest agreed, releasing her elbow as they stopped next to Death and War. “I’ll start thinking you’re pretending you can’t just so I’ll hold your hand.” He winked at her, and she gave him an exasperated look, then turned her attention to the others.
There was a long pause, while the sea and the sky raged against the land outside the little bubble of stillness that encased them, and the darkness beat itself against their pool of light. Glenda could smell crushed grass and seaweed and the wild electrical smell of the storm, and somewhere she thought she heard a gull crying.
“Um, D?” War said eventually.
“Yes?” Death’s attention was on the figure in the grass in front of them. It was struggling weakly, still clinging to life, but there was too much blood, and the scent of something final in the still air.
“That’s …” War hesitated, glancing at Pest and Glenda.
“It’s a sheep,” Glenda said. “We came all the way to New Zealand, in a storm, for a sheep?”
“It would appear so,” Death said, sounding mildly interested.
“Are you sure?” Pest said.
Death didn’t look away from the sheep. “Death is always—”
“Always sure, yeah, I know, but a sheep?”
“So it would seem.”
War grunted, folded his arms, unfolded them, then blurted, “First Glenda – no offence, Glenda, but you’re not exactly a Horseman – now a sheep? Doesn’t it just seem … I mean … well … I just …” He faltered to a stop as Death finally looked away from the sheep. “Guys? Back me up here?”
“I’m very good at my job,” Glenda said, offended. “I got that whole sugar-free raw cooking class eating Dunkin Donuts last week.”
“But a sheep!”
No one said anything for a moment, and Death watched War until the round man put his hands behind his back and hung his head like a scolded toddler. Then he admitted, “It is odd. But remember the butterfly that can start the hurricane. Or Twitter, if you want a more modern example. That’s one you’re quite fond of, War.”
“Well, yes,” War said. “It’s very handy. You can whisper in a lot of ears, all at once.”
“Then may I do my job and reap this sheep?” Death asked, his voice mild.
“It just seems a little … beneath us,” War mumbled.
“This is too weird,” Pest said. “Since when have you reaped animals?”
“Animals are never beneath you, Pestilence. They’re your weapon of choice.”
“I— but that’s different. You’re Death.”
“Oh, honestly,” Glenda snapped. “The poor creature is suffering. Someone do something!” The Horsemen gave her a startled look. “What? My feet are wet, and I want a cup of tea.”
“You can’t have wet feet, Glenda,” Death said. “Horsemen don’t get wet feet.”
“This one does.”
“You see?” War said. “Everything’s gone weird since Famine quit.”
“Don’t you be trying to put the blame on me, young man—”
“I’m not! I just said he quit!”
“Famine was such a bore, anyway,” Pest said. “And he never had Jammie Dodgers.”
“Do you have any Jammie Dodgers?” Death asked. “I’d quite like one. To keep the chill off.”
“Excuse me?” a small voice said.
“Of course I have Jammie Dodgers,” Glenda snapped. “But we need to work first. Honestly, how have you boys ever managed to get anything done? You can’t have your tea before you’ve finished the job!”
“Excuse me?” the small voice said again.
“Surely we could have one Jammie Dodger. For sustenance.”
Glenda had her mouth open to point out, yet again, that you had to do the work before you got a treat, and War was still mumbling about things not being right, when the rather alarmed voice finally registered with her. She turned and looked at the farmer, his dog shivering behind his legs, the grease proof paper still clutched to his chest.
“Oh – hello, dear,” she said, and nodded in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. “Can we help you?”
“That’s … that’s my sheep,” the man said. “What are you doing with my sheep?”
“I’m going to reap it,” Death said.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” the man said. “She’s a great mum. Always get good lambs from her. Good wool, too.”
“I think she’s nearly gone already, dear,” Glenda said gently.
“She’s not. The lamb’s stuck. He’s probably gone, but I reckon she’ll be just fine if I can get to her.”
“I’m quite sure I’m meant to reap her,” Death said, not sounding very sure at all.
“Well, can I get the lamb out first? Then we can see.”
“Er. Well. Yes?”
“Right then.” The man skirted the little group warily and went to his knees in the mud and muck next to the sheep, the dog watching anxiously from a few metres away as he pulled his jacket off and pushed his sleeves up. “There go, girl,” he said. “Let’s get you sorted, shall we?”
There was a collective “Ew!” from the the watchers as the man rather unceremoniously stuck his fingers into the bloody mess hanging from the sheep’s hindquarters, and War turned a strange colour but couldn’t seem to look away. The man kept chatting away to the sheep, his voice low and crooning, and a moment later he pulled two sharp little hooves into sight, eliciting an “oooh” from everyone except War, who gagged.
“Legs were folded back,” the man explained, still digging. “Pretty common.” He tugged at something, and a moment later a small nose edged into view, followed rapidly by the rest of a lamb, spilling motionless and bloody onto his lap.
“Poor thing,” Pest mumbled, and War retched onto a thistle.
The farmer wiped the muck off the lamb’s nose and blew on its face while the ewe raised her head wearily, giving a faint bleat. “I’m trying,” he told her, and picked the lamb up by the hind legs, shaking it gently.
Glenda had both hands pressed over her chest, and when the lamb twitched she gave a little scream that made War stagger away from her in fright. “Famine wouldn’t have screamed,” he mumbled, but no one paid him any attention. They were all watching the lamb intently.
“Come on,” the farmer said. “Come on, come on.” He blew on its nose one more time, and it wriggled, gave a choking cry, then started to struggle weakly against the man’s grip.
Glenda, Death and Pestilence cheered. War rolled his eyes and tried not to look at the blood, and the farmer placed the lamb next to the ewe’s teats. She bleated weakly as the lamb latched on and started to feed, little tail beginning to work.
The man rocked back onto his heels and wiped his hands on the grass, not looking at the Horsemen. “You really going to reap her?”
Death squatted down next to the sheep, petting the lamb’s little head with skinny fingers while it ignored him. “No,” he said. “It seems it wasn’t the sheep after all.”
“What, then?” the man asked, then looked suddenly alarmed. “Jess! Jess, get in behind!” The dog ran to him, and he grabbed her collar. “What do you want?”
“It’s done,” Death said, still petting the lamb. “Glenda, feel how soft it is!”
“It’s so gross,” War said. “It’s all sticky and gross.”
“It’s adorable,” Glenda said, crouching down next to Death. The sheep didn’t seem bothered by them. “Pest, don’t you dare go near it!”
“I’m not, I’m not,” he said, sighing. “It’s so unfair, though. I want to pat the lamb!”
“Don’t touch the lamb,” Death said severely.
“What’s done?” the man demanded. “What did you do?”
Death pointed without looking up. “There.”
There was a pause while everyone looked at the small body on the ground.
“A rabbit?” War said finally. “All this way for a rabbit?”
“It would seem so,” Death said, giving the lamb a final scratch behind the ears and standing up.
“That’s stretching, D.”
“No more so than a butterfly.” Death helped Glenda to her feet. “Now may we have tea?”
“I wish we could take him with us,” she said with a sigh. “But yes – now we can have tea.”
“And Jammie Dodgers,” Pest said, falling in step on Glenda’s other side.
“Is no one going to mention that we came all this way for a rabbit?” War demanded, not moving. “Apparently?”
“I may even have scones,” Glenda said.
“Scones? With cream? Not that I’m forgetting this, but – clotted cream?” War hurried to catch up with them, and they walked together across the sodden grass without touching it, the three Horsemen and one Horsewoman of the Apocalypse.
Col watched them go, his heart pounding in his ears, wondering what the hell he’d been thinking. Why hadn’t he run? The sheep shifted next to him, rolling into a more comfortable position as the lamb drank its fill, and he heard those vast engines start up again as the rain began to fall around him, and the wind dragged wild fingers across his drenched clothes. He waited where he was, wondering what sort of terrible horses the riders had, for them to make a sound like that. He was still watching when they passed him, Glenda waving cheerfully, both there and not there as the storm raged around her sky blue Vespa, while Death led the way with a tea in one hand and a Jammie Dodger in the other, his own Vespa white and gleaming, and Pestilence followed on a black one that sparkled with chrome, and only War still rode something huge and red and monstrous that could have been a horse from some nightmare realm. The effect was spoilt somewhat by the scone he was spreading carefully with clotted cream as he rode past in a thunder of too many hooves.
Col waited for a moment, but they didn’t come back. Then he crouched to tuck the lamb into his jacket and to pick the sheep up, staggering under the weight of her sodden wool. He stumbled up the hill to his quad bike, Jess following close enough to his heels to almost trip him more than once. He didn’t mind. He was going to go home, put the sheep and the lamb in the garage with the wood burner on, and make himself a fry-up. He deserved it after a night like this.
Besides, he was starving.
Apologies for any inaccuracies in sheep midwifery – it’s been a long time since I delivered a lamb (and I only did it once or twice, but it was so cool! No wonder Death couldn’t bring himself to reap them…).
Of course, if you want all the short stories, you could also head to your favourite retailer and grab your very own copy of Oddly Enough, which, along with other tales, contains one that might make you wonder if they really should have spared the sheep …
Are you a reader or writer of flash fiction? Let me know some of your favourites below – or yours, if you write them! I’d love to read more, and still hope that one day I may write something under 1000 words. I’m not aiming any lower than that for the moment 😉