The ballad of Jack Bojangles

“What is a bojangle?”

“Is it something to do with jazz?”

We shrugged at each other. Craig looked out at the garden. “Why does it have to have a name though?”

“It doesn’t,” I said, “It’s just the sort of thing that’ll end up with a name sooner or later anyway. You didn’t have to give it a face.”

He opened the patio door and the dog raced out, chasing a pigeon not much smaller than he was. “I just hope it keeps those buggers off that grass seed,” said Craig, “otherwise I’ll get the air pistol down from the loft.”

So, Jack Bojangles hung out on the patch of mud that we hoped might sprout and become a lawn. He was made with two bamboo canes tied together like a crucifix, an old shirt, and a sack stuffed with straw for his head. Craig had used thick thread to make a long zig-zag mouth, and two crosses for eyes that stared into the conservatory as he wobbled, sleeves waving in the spring breeze.

The pigeons ignored him, and pecked at the grass seeds under his long shadow.

He was made on the eve of the equinox; we celebrated the first seedlings of the year with barbequed sausages and too much wine. That night Craig took a glass of mead to the bottom of the garden, and offered it to the row of carved gods that lived along the fence. When he came back, pushing his trainers off his feet, he told me he’d given a drop to the scarecrow.

“I can’t say why,” he said, “It just felt like it needed doing.”

He refilled his glass and drank it. “He grabbed my arse too.”

“The scarecrow grabbed your arse?”

“Well. The end of his arm got caught on my shorts. I thought I better give him a little something, wouldn’t want to make him angry. What happens if you piss off a scarecrow?”

“Nothing,” I said, “It’s just an old shirt and some sticks.”

#

The next morning, a late frost hit, and wilted all the seedlings and the blossom on the trees. The peas were dead. The strawberries were dead. The month- long heatwave had ended in another winter.

I tapped the frozen soil with my welly boot. Craig had already left for work, after slamming doors and muttering about wasted time.

“Bad bloody luck,” I said to the pigeon on the fence. It ruffled it’s feathers, and cooed; it was fat enough on grass seed that it didn’t need to care about the cold.

When the ice thawed, the slugs re- grouped, and mounted an attack on what was left, and Jack Bojangles leaned over the cold earth and watched them come.

#

“It’s my dad, he’s in hospital. He fell over.” Craig put his phone back down on the table.

“Fell over what?”

“Nothing, apparently. They’re running tests.”

“Well,” I said, “if he’s there overnight does he need us to bring anything?”

“We can’t. We shouldn’t go up there, we’re both still sick.”

I nodded, and yawned. The garden was still damp and dripping. Maybe George was fine and had just slipped on a wet path or something. My stomach cramped again, and I groaned the miserable groan of someone who can’t be quite sure if they’re going to reach the toilet in time.

Jack Bojangles, leaning so much that one arm was in the air and the other was stabbing at the mud, stared at me with his cross- eyes as I darted out of his sight.

#

Sunday morning was bright and dry, and I padded down the garden path in my socks to see if the tadpoles had hatched. I hadn’t eaten in a couple of days. The light was clear and I blinked and stumbled towards the fence to make an offering of the toast that I couldn’t finish to the birds and the little god- statues.

“For health,” I said, to their wooden glares,  “and better luck.” I left a little scrap of toast on each of their heads, and turned back down the path, brushing past Jack Bojangles, who had been set upright again but was still crooked, as if he was an old man with a dodgy back.

His stick arm nudged my thigh. I thought it was caught on my jeans.

Until I felt his hand.

The cold from his fingers seeped through to my skin. They were more bone than flesh, more stick than man, but they were definitely fingers, curling around my thigh with a pinch like ice.

I  jumped, and slapped my leg as if I’d seen a bug crawling on it, unable to contain a shudder. I ran back into the house, shut the patio doors, and made sure I didn’t look back.

We pulled up the scarecrow that night, and burnt it. The pigeons nibble at the grass seed where he used to stand.

 

Cottingley confessions

The little people danced. They had such glamour and grace, lighter than shadows, bluebells clinking as their wings brushed against them. One played a folded blade of grass as a long pipe. Another combed her hair with her fingers, and pinned it back with gooseberry thorns.

I pointed the camera down to catch them, and the way they flickered as they spun in the breeze.

I wouldn’t know if it had worked until the film was developed.

I reached out, pulled them off their wires, and tossed the paper fairies into the stream.

Dangerous Tales: black dog folklore in the British Isles

 

This was when I started making stuff up.

Jennie was one of the odder contacts from my local paper days. She sat across from me with a lemonade, in jeans and a tweed jacket, her perm moussed and pinned back, a few wispy curls escaping above her ears. She looked like a headmistress. She looked normal.

“So…” I said, scratching at the stubble on my chin, “It was actually seen in here?”

Brock, the other druid she’d brought, sipped his pint, and wiped the foam from his beard. “It’s been hanging around last few weeks,” he said. “Looks just like a Labrador. Old Uther said he saw it down in the avenue, down at the lay-by.”

“It’s not here,” said Jennie quietly, her eyes closed, her hand hovering over her glass. “It’s been here, recently.”

Great, I thought. That’ll make a great podcast; oh there was a thing, but it left. Don’t miss next week’s episode.

“But it was seen somewhere else?”

Brock shrugged. “‘Down the road there. I’m not really up for the walk, Jennie’ll arrange something for next week if you want.”

“Um. It’s just that next week’s very busy…” I would be spending most of it trying to think of ideas. As much as I wanted to stay in the pub, in the warm, I needed the druids for a little inspiration. I should at least get to see them do their thing if I was going to write about it.

Jennie opened her eyes. “Actually I think we should go down there, try and do it today, even if we just make an offering or something, see what it wants.  It’s been frightening people all month.” She turned to Brock. “Have you got mead in your car?”

He grinned. “I’ve got mead, I’ve got the horn, I’m game if you are. We’ll have to walk slow though, this weather makes me wheezy as all hell.”

He wasn’t joking; the man kept an actual horn in his car boot. It looked like it had been hacked from a mammoth, with wonky knotwork designs burnt into the rim. With the pint he’d smuggled out in one hand, and the horn lifted in the other, he led the way, huffing through his cheeks as he walked, spilling mead over his biker jacket.

As soon as we crossed the road and got onto the path I started to wish we’d stayed in the pub. I should have said something. I stumbled over the uneven ground in a cheap suit that was sucking mud up the trouser legs and prayed it wouldn’t rain.

The clouds were a thick, grey ceiling on the sky. The standing stones reached up from the earth like a row of broken teeth, and my own began to rattle in the cold.

I stopped. There at the bottom of the hill, right where Brock was leading us, two red eyes, unblinking, swerved through the fog. I took a step back. There was a second where I couldn’t breath. It was real. The black dog. It was real, and at the speed those pupils were growing, it must have been charging up the path to meet us.

Jennie stopped, her stilettos sinking in the mud. “Are you alright? Can you sense anything?’

The eyes of the hound came round a corner, and turned into two cyclists, one in front of the other, red reflectors blinking. They passed us without turning into the devil’s own dogs or anything else supernatural, and I tried not to feel disappointed.

“Um. No?” I replied, “should I be?”

She shook her head, so I tried to smile and kept my head down as if I was afraid to trip. We carried on, walking into the dark, following the sound of Brock’s boots and the thin beam of white light from Jennie’s phone.

The standing stones watched us as we passed. I kept looking up and wondering who could be walking out there in the dark, or waiting, still, in the field, and then I’d realise, feeling stupid again, that it was just one more of those ancient rocks.

There was nobody around but the stones and their shadows.

We reached the bottom of the avenue. Brock propped the horn and his empty glass up against the square bulk of a stone. Jennie pointed her phone down at the grass, picking up little twigs and bits of flint and laying them in a rough circle.

I set up the camera on my phone and aimed it at the circle, figuring I could always Photoshop something more interesting in later,  maybe a vague dog- shape behind the stone or something. I took out my pencil and notepad. It would have been easier in the dark to type the notes on my phone, but I pretended to write anyway; I wanted to look like a real journalist, in case something happened.

Brock poured mead on the ground around the circle, and stood opposite the stone.

“Right,” he said. “We invite all spirits of land, sea and sky, to join us in the cleansing of this place.” He raised the horn above his head.

Behind him, on the line where the night was closing in on the blackened hill, I saw a Labrador.

Big, crouched against the earth as if it was hunting, it’s edges smudged with fog, it came closer. The breath in my lungs chilled.

“We invite the ancestors and the spirits of this place,” Brock went on,  “We invite the great mother and the green-”

“Brock-”

Jennie waved her hand at him. I didn’t know if she could see the thing. I watched it creep behind a hedge and disappear.

Brock grumbled back, “What?”

Her eyes were closed again, the white torch-light reflecting off her eyelids, making her face look old and pale.

“It’s the stone. It’s angry about something, unhappy, it doesn’t want us to be here. Honestly, I really feel like we should go.”

He lowered the horn and puffed his cheeks. “Oh. Oh well. Explains why I feel like shit warmed up then.”

I tried to follow what was happening and watch the line of the hedge at the same time, trying to see if the dog had an owner, or if it had joined another path somewhere along the hill. I tapped my phone against my thigh, checked again for some kind of signal, switched the torch on to try and help. The druids were hastily kicking their stick-and-stone circle apart, trying to turn it back into harmless rubbish.

“I’ll do an offering to it and then we’ll bugger off.” Brock coughed, lifted the horn again, and stiffened. His eyes were wide and red and fixed on the hill. Something about the way his arm shook made my own hands tremble.

The horn hit the grass with a thump, and mead bled into the mud.

Jennie rushed over and shook his collapsed body as it lay at the foot of the stone like a speared pig, but I could see his open and staring eyes from where I stood.

No amount of shaking was going to do any good.

I thought I saw it again, as I drove home, thought I saw it lurking behind the ambulance parked in the lay-by, a dog-like shape blurred in the wheeling blue lights, but I couldn’t be sure.

They said it was a heart attack.  When I wrote it up, I claimed that the black dog had been a bad omen.

That was my first story.

 

Stories

The ocean has more stories than salt.

I don’t know if selkies sung and pulled me in, or if the ringing of bells from long- drowned towers had drawn me too close, or if I’d been dragged down and spat out by some great kraken.

It’s morning, there’s sand in my mouth, my clothes are soaked. Behind me the ocean is hissing. I’m not just late for work, I’m in the wrong county.

I climb out from the reach of the waves, still drunk, salt drying on my skin; I don’t know how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Acts of love and pleasure

Wicca pentagram

“The blessings of Aradia and Cernunnos be upon this creature of salt.”

There’s an itch on my arse. I try to wriggle, rub it without being obvious, but my hands are bound too tightly to my chest.

The smell of sandalwood and cinnamon warms the room, and the radiators click and creak. The heat only makes the itch worse.

What if it’s a spot? I should have checked.

I should have skipped that pasta yesterday too. I must have the biggest belly here.

Under the blindfold, I can see the pebbles they used to lay out the circle, and prod one of them with my big toe.

Should I have painted my nails? Would that have looked a bit shallow?

Dave finishes his speech, and the room is silent, except for the scuffle of naked feet on the carpet, and the occasional small cough.

Stop it. You’re not supposed to be self-conscious, it’s meant to be spiritual.

There’s a clink, and a shuffle, another short speech, and it’s ready.

The circle is open.

#

I met Dave and Yolanda at work. They seemed a lot more exotic than your average phone monkeys, Yolanda with her dangling pentagrams and loose long hair, and Dave, who wore a rune carved from an antler around his neck, and made awkward Lovecraft jokes on Facebook. They reminded me of some of my mum’s friends, who all had perms and read tarot and tea leaves, and told people their grandmothers had taught them how.

Dave and Yolanda introduced me to their group; Dave and Yolanda introduced me to the clearing in the woods, where you could sit on a moss- cloaked sarsen and watch the red kites glide in wheels overhead, and get that strange feeling of ease, the feeling that ordinary things might have more magic than I knew.

#

Dave takes my shoulder and I flinch. Shit. Pay attention, they’re going to think you’re a right idiot.

The cold point of a knife is pressed against my forehead. I can see his feet now, wide, with dry skin cracking on the joints, and a couple of grey hairs on each toe. He touches the knife to my throat, and down to my chest.  Then my belly button. Then another spot, the place just above my bits, where the hair starts. He bends down to lay it on my feet, and I catch a glimpse of the top of his head.

He asks me the password.

“Perfect love and perfect trust.”

It’s cheesy as hell, and my voice cracks like a teenager made to read something out in a classroom.

He puts his hand on the rope and pulls me in.

#

The first time I realised they weren’t just hippies, born out of their time, was in the office, when I heard one of the managers complaining that they’d taken time off.

“I mean I’m here late every day,” he said, leaning into the supervisor’s cubicle behind mine, “But I can’t just make up some shit about being a jedi or a witch or whatever and get a long weekend, head office’d laugh me out of the building. But it’s alright for them, just ‘cos they’ve got away with it every year.”

“Careful though,’ the supervisor chuckled. ‘She’’ll put a curse on you.”

“Someone already has. That’s why I still work here.”

That was the first day I  googled ‘Paganism.’

Not because I wanted to learn how to curse people, or a spell for a less pointless job, not because I wanted to dedicate my life to new- found deities or the powers of nature.

I just really needed a day off.

#

He uses another length of rope to attach my wrists to the cord around my neck. I am taken around the circle, slowly, like a goat on a lead. I worry I might trip and so keep my eyes down, focusing on the carpet, and the new set of feet I’m brought to at each quarter point, as Dave continues in a sing-song voice-

“Take heed, watchtowers of the east”

-that must be Julie, no-one else would own nail polish that pink. I bet her boobs are still amazing even without a bra.

I’m tugged around three times, enough to feel lost when we stop. He says something else, but my head is spinning, and I can’t  remember from the training which bit this is.

Gently, barely touching my skin at all, he  brushes my forehead with his lips.

Oh. It’s this bit. Just stand still. He’s the high priest. It’s meant to be spiritual.

The kisses follow the same points as the knife, lower, lower towards my feet but not without a quick stop at the more intimate places first don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh.  

When he reaches my ankles he ties them together. He taps my shoulder and I remember I’m supposed to kneel. Dave turns to the side slightly so that I don’t end up with a face full of unmentionables, and pushes my head down until it meets the carpet.

If there was anything I didn’t want them to see, it’s too late now.

Less light sneaks under the blindfold and I feel strange, dizzy, a bit cold, wondering whose idea this was, waiting with my arse in the air like a child getting a spank.

Which is pretty much what’s happening.

“Are you,” Dave proclaims, “Willing to be purified?”

#

I’d had enough, one lunchtime. An elderly woman had been confused on the phone, and my supervisor had told me to press ahead with the sale anyway, despite it being pretty bloody obvious that the silly old woman didn’t even know what she was buying.  There would be a decent commission on that one, but it didn’t feel good.

There was a park behind the estate, where retired people walked dogs, and office workers came to eat sandwiches on the old concrete seats. I left the path, and trampled between the trees, trying not to care about the mud rising up my trouser legs.

I stopped at a friendly – looking beech, took out my little plastic tub stuffed with salad, and looked around, making sure that nobody could see as I shuffled about half the salad down onto a root. I kept checking that no-one was there, feeling watched, exposed, as if any minute now somebody normal was going to walk around the corner and find me giving half my lunch to a tree.

It didn’t seem to notice. It whispered it’s silver-green leaves, unconcerned to find itself the centre of attention.

Should I say something? What if someone heard? If they can talk to god I can talk to a tree, right?

I stood there for a minute, failing to remember the various phrases I’d seen online, overblown poetry from rituals I didn’t have the equipment for. Instead I just stared at the tree, hoping it would know what to do.

A line of ants climbed between patches of moss, tracing their route around the trunk. Up in the branches a pigeon rustled and began to warble. The sun was on my face, and my mood dissolved into the spring air, as if weeds could inhale bad thoughts and puff them out clean.

On the way back I clung tightly to that feeling, that little green peace, and when I got to my desk I noticed for the first time that I had a view; I could see the tops of the beeches from the office window.

#

Ow, fuck-

Dave slaps me across the back again with the leather scourge, not half as gently as I expected. Isn’t the ordeal bit supposed to be metaphorical? This isn’t bloody metaphorical.

Another slap, closer to my buttocks this time.

Do I really want this? I just wanted to learn more.

I should have just bought a book.

My skin is getting sore, and I’m losing count. I’ve no idea if he’s still sticking to the forty slaps in the plan or if he’s just going for it.

Is he enjoying this? Is this the sort of thing they get up to on their own?

My back starts to tingle. After each hit, he strokes the scourge’s tips softly across it, and the heat in my skin and the dark of the blindfold and the feel of my weight on my elbows and knees all make me feel bolder, like I’ve had one glass of wine too many. My hips begin to rock in time with the beating of the scourge on my back.

It’s over almost as soon as I start to enjoy it.

Dave stops, comes back to stand in front of me, and speaks my new name, the one I’m supposed to keep secret.

The blindfold is removed. Yolanda pounds on a bongo drum, and Dave, Julie, Gareth, and Paige are all there, inside the circle of tea lights and beach pebbles, swaying to the simple beat, not a scrap of clothing in sight.

Dave holds up his horn and offers it to the gods before passing it round. I drink more than I mean to; sipping from a giant horn is harder than it looks, and I have to gulp it down to stop it ending up all over my chin.

A few more passes of the wine, and I’m pulled from side to side by the rhythm as it speeds up. My skin is still flushed. On the table are small brass statues of the horned god, his erection poking out towards the circle, and Aradia, a tacky moon-shaped mirror stuck to the back of her head like a halo.

They watch me as I dance as if the dance itself could be something to offer.

I celebrate.

I don’t question if my dancing is good or bad or if the others think I look stupid. I’m celebrating, I don’t need their approval, I am nature, newly- named, dancing in honour of itself.

I worry about tripping on the candles and burning down Dave’s house.

Just keep going until everyone else stops. It’s meant to be spiritual.

#

In the week after my initiation I leave the office.

I walk out with a file full of numbers for clients, customers, people I know have been overcharged or talked into buying some shit they’ll never need.

It isn’t much of a resistance; no walls are being torn down, no fires lit. Nobody will lose their jobs except for me, it’s a small thing, but it’s my thing, bigger than salad, bigger than dance.

It’s not just about getting out. It’s a big move. It’s meant to be spiritual.

Wild hunt

Wild hunt

The clouds rest their heads and their black swollen bellies against the land. Rain falls without rhythm; it drops to the grass in one long rush. You can’t see through it until the wind comes, throws it around, and rolls the clouds over onto their backs. The tips of the trees bend and wave in greeting.

The flapping canvas on a shed roof sounds like horses charging, drumming their hooves on the chalk.

Shadows pass over the ground, and between layers of cloud. The trees shudder and the dogs run loose. Not the old farm dogs; These are hunting hounds, clawing over the low hills towards men chosen by Woden.

You might be one of them.

You might see him, riding, the host and the hounds behind him, hear the hooves on the wind, and the whip crack in the thunder, and the howl of the wild hunt.

You might try to run.

It might work for a while, or seem to, until the night comes, and in a snap of lightning you see their silhouettes against the sky, and know that it’s you they’re taking, this time, down into their own land, down into the damp and the mould and the mist, where the halls are roofed with snakes and the high beams drip with venom.

But for now, it’s just the rain.

It leaves puddles in the fields but they don’t flood. The clouds are lounging, heavy, but they don’t sink, and the air is cooler, and fresher, as if something dead has been cleared away.

Wayland’s tale

 

Wayland's smithy

Listen.

This is a tale from the time of our ancestors, when kings had luck, princes had valour, and blacksmiths were magic.

The most famous of these was Wayland, who forged his treasures deep in the old spaces beneath the ground, built here by tribes long dead.

The skill of Wayland was well known; you wanted a magic ring of invisibility, you came to him. A sword that never needs sharpening? A box that remains locked, unless the right words are spoken? Bright jewels that hide as pebbles in the wrong light? Wayland’s your guy.

King Nithad heard of these treasures and wanted them for himself. He came to the smithy, riding up from the valley with a few of his best thugs, and dragged Wayland out from his home.

The king stole his sword, and wore it for himself. He stole the ring intended for Wayland’s only love, and let the princess wear it, though no trinket existed that could improve the sight of her face. The tendons in his legs were sliced apart, and he was thrown into the dungeon, and forced for many years to forge his wonders for the jealous king.

Nithad’s reign was prosperous, and he became renowned for his generous gifts. One day his two sons came to Wayland’s cell to ask if he would craft them weapons of their own.

‘Of course, my lords,’ he said, ‘But I am starting to get old; it is hard for me to work, a lonely cripple, down here in the darkness. Perhaps if you moved my seat a little closer to the light?’

The princes agreed, unlocked the iron door, and entered. They bent, either side of him, to lift his seat.

Wayland gave a cry. ‘Vengeance! Vengeance is mine!’

He beat the young princes with his hammer until their brains were squished from their ears.

Once they were dead, he began to work. He tugged their bloody scalps away from the bones and with their broken skulls he fashioned the finest cups. You couldn’t tell that they were anything but the purest white porcelain. These he wrapped and sent to the king.

Then he gouged the eyes from their sockets, and shaped them into glimmering grey-blue jewels that winked if you stared into them for too long. These he wrapped and sent to the queen.

He wrenched the teeth from their dripping mouths, set them in silver, and created the world’s creepiest brooch. This he wrapped and sent to the princess.

Then he gathered up every scrap of metal, every cog and chain, every leftover gemstone or splinter of ivory, and made a pair of wings to fit his back. He was about to leave his cell and escape when he heard footsteps.

‘Mr. Smith?’

Wayland peered closer at his visitor, and realised that it was not, as it first appeared, some kind of goat/ human hybrid, or a product of the cruelest witchcraft, but simply an ordinary, rather ugly, young woman.

‘Princess!’ he said. ‘I knew it was you. Your beauty is famed across the land. What can I do for you?’

She took off his ring, his wife’s ring, the ring her father had stolen.

‘Could you fix this?’ she said. ‘I’m terribly careless with it, and it’s got a bit scratched.’

Now perhaps poor Wayland should not be blamed for what he did next; he had spent a long time in a dungeon on his own, and that sort of thing can get a man down. It’s possible he was suffering from post traumatic stress. Let’s face it, making a brooch from somebody else’s teeth is a good sign that he may have been a little unwell.

He nodded, smiled sweetly, and took the ring, slipping it into his pocket. Then he nodded, smiled sweetly, took the princess, and raped her.

When it was done he left the cell, his sunless cage for so long, and launched himself into the sky towards home.

Wayland went on to make many more things, and had many more adventures, and many of those tales are lost; but one thing we can be sure of- nobody ever fucked with Wayland the smith again.

The end.