Dangerous tales: the devil at dawn

The fog wasn’t a blanket; It was a solid wall in front of the world, a white tomb that had me trapped. I couldn’t see the path, or Silbury hill, the river, or the road. I only knew where I was going because I’d been there so many times, and because I picked these kinds of mornings on purpose, to avoid other people, and because there’s something about sarsens and grey weather, a sense of folk horror romance that appealed to me; West Kennet long barrow was the perfect place for a ghost story.

The fog encircled the mound as if it was an island in a pale ocean, in some colourless place, far from the sun. I stepped in, put my torch on, went straight to the back, and began to clear away the dead tealights and crumbling dried flowers, the rubbish from a week’s worth of hippies and tourists, so that I could get some decent photographs.

The weather had sucked all sound from the air. The old stones felt as if they were all that was left, as if I could step outside to find the whole world gone. I took a few pictures for the blog, tied up my bag of litter, and tried to leave. As I passed a small dark side chamber, I caught a glimpse in the corner of my eye, a shadow of a thing I couldn’t be sure if I’d actually seen until I looked right at it.

Sitting on the flat sarsen on the chamber floor was the devil. Naked, a stag’s skull for a head, horns spreading wide to touch the chamber roof, his body was covered in thick, curly hair. His feet were the feet of a black goat, with mud-covered hooves, and his bare arms were stained with blood. He sat cross-legged. His eyes were closed. I saw the muscles of his chest rise and fall. I stepped away. Whatever he was up to, it was probably best to leave him to it.

He opened one eye, saw me, and flinched. I jumped, and smacked my shoulder on the stone behind me in a failed attempt to get out.

“Shit,” I muttered, “sorry, um, I didn’t meant to-”

The devil grabbed a rucksack off the floor and covered himself with it.

“No, no, I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t think anyone would be here this early.”

“Oh,” I said, and then, “um.”

He pulled off the stag’s skull, and put it down beside him, revealing a relatively normal, if a little hairy, human face. Great, I thought. Just a local pagan, probably came up here to do some drumming or something. At least the devil might have made a good story. If I’d have thought quick enough I might’ve got a good picture. I wondered if the candle I’d blown out and chucked away had been his.

He pointed at the rubbish bag. “Clearing up?”

“Um. A bit-”

“Bunch of cunts, eh? No respect. They don’t teach history the way they used to, that’s the trouble.”

“Um. Yeah. New-agers-”

“Well. I suppose that’s enough for one morning. I’m off for a bacon sandwich.”

I stepped back, and he brushed past me, and the smell of rotting leaves and ash made me feel slightly sick. I followed him out; the fog was gone, all at once, revealing the fresh green landscape as if it was newly unfolded.  

When I climbed to the top of the mound, he’d disappeared. I looked down the hill, but there was no-one there, no-one on the track, no-one behind me on the back of the mound, no-one in the field. I went down into the chambers again, in case he’d somehow come back around, but they were empty, and cold. I even circled the mound a few times, just to see if he was lying on it somewhere, covered by the whispering wildflowers.

No. He was gone. Even the smell of him was gone. I walked back down the hill towards the car, expecting him to leap out from the wheat, and even as I warmed the engine up and drove away, I wondered if I could see a man-shaped shadow on the mound, the horns on his head reaching for the clouds, but he was gone, if he had ever really been there at all, and I had to curse myself all the way home for not getting his bloody picture.


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