Awakening by S.J. Bolton
The darkest hour I’ve ever known began last Thursday, a heartbeat before the sun came up.
It was going to be a beautiful morning, I remember thinking, as I left the house; soft and close, bursting with whispered promises, as only a daybreak in early summer can be. The air was still cool but an iridescence on the horizon warned of baking heat to come. Birds were singing as though every note might be their last and even the insects had risen early. Making the most of the early-morning bounty, swallows dived all around me, close enough to make me blink.
As I approached the drive leading to Matt’s house the fragrance of wild camomile swirled up from the verge. His favourite scent. I stood there for a moment, staring at the gravel track that disappeared around laurel bushes, kicking my feet to stir up the scent and thinking that camomile smelled of ripe apples and of the first hint of wood-smoke on an autumn breeze. And I couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like to walk up the drive, steal into the house and wake the man by rubbing camomile on his pillow.
I carried on walking.
When I reached the top of Carters Lane I saw the door to Violet’s cottage was slightly open; which it shouldn’t have been, not at this hour. I drew closer and stood on the threshold, looking at the peeling paintwork, the darkness of the hall beyond. She was probably an early riser, old people usually are; but at the sight of that open doorway, something began to tense inside me.
The doorstep was damp. Someone with wet shoes had stood here minutes earlier. It didn’t necessarily mean anything; it could easily be coincidence, but none of the reassurances I could summon up seemed to soothe away a growing sense of disquiet. I pushed at the door. It opened a further six inches and hit an obstacle.
‘Violet?’ I called. No reply. The silent house waited to see what I would do next. I pushed the door again. It moved a few more inches, revealing a damp trail on the floor. I squeezed round it and stepped into the hall.
The sack behind the door was hessian, with a string-tie pulling the opening tight. It looked like the sandbags the Environment Agency produces when floods are imminent. But I didn’t think this sack had sand inside. It wasn’t heavy enough, for one thing. Nor did it have the solid, regular shape of a sandbag, especially a damp one. And this one wasn’t damp, it was soaking.
‘Violet,’ I called again. If Violet could hear me she wasn’t letting on.
The door at the end of the hallway was open and I could see the room beyond was empty. There was no sign of Violet’s dog, Bennie.
And that’s the point at which I stepped from anxiety to fear. Because a dog, even one that’s elderly and far from well, won’t normally allow someone to enter its house without a response of some sort. Violet could still be asleep; she might not have heard me call. Bennie would have heard.
Knowing it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, I turned and bent down beside the sack. Wet, solid, but not sand; definitely not sand. I pulled out the small penknife I keep in my pocket, cut through the string and allowed the sack to fall open. Then I took hold of the bottom corners and tipped the damp, dead contents on to the worn linoleum of Violet’s hall floor.
Bennie, looking even smaller than he had in life, lay before me. I didn’t need to touch him to know that he was dead, but I bent and stroked his coarse fur even so. There were a few shallow wounds around his face and neck where he’d injured himself, scrambling to be free as he’d sunk deeper into whatever pond or river he’d been flung. But the sack still wasn’t empty. I moved my fingers and something else fell out. Terribly injured, its body badly mauled and just about torn apart in places, the snake convulsed once before falling still.
For a moment I thought I’d be sick. I sank down on to the cold floor, knowing I had to find Violet, but unable to summon up the courage. And the strangest thought was going through my head.
Because it seemed that something was missing. I was remembering history lessons from school, when we’d studied Ancient Rome and hung on the teacher’s every word as he’d entertained us with stories of Roman justice, torture and executions. One particular mode of death had caught our imagination: the convicted prisoner – who, I think now, must have committed just the worst sort of crime – was tied into a sack with a dog, a snake and something else; was it an ape – or some sort of farmyard animal? And then flung into the river Tiber. Most of the class had laughed. It was all so long ago, after all, and there was a touch of the comic about that particular collection of animals. Even I could see that. But I’d never really thought before what it must be like to be tied up in a sack with an animal – any animal – and flung into water. You would fight – frenziedly, hysterically – there’d be teeth and claws everywhere and water flooding into your lungs. And the pain would be beyond ……………..
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|Epub, azw3||January 26, 2016|
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