Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
“Another pint should put just the right color on the day,” I half-whispered to myself as I rationalized ordering another creation of Arthur Guinness’s brilliance. As the pub’s barman slid my libation past the ashtrays and napkins, a sniveling, and seemingly inebriated, derelict skulked past my stool and leaned his filthy frame over the bar rail.
After a few moments the man placed his order, and to my amazement his voice was crisp and precise. I had expected to hear a number of words that ended with the ‘ish’ sound that drunkards make, but his English was fine.
After a few deep draws on his ale, his bloodshot eyes turned to mine. I tried to look away, but it was too late. He knew that I had been looking at him.
“You’re not from around these parts, are you?” he demanded, more than merely asking.
“No,” I replied, “just here on business.”
“What kind of business?” he wanted to know.
At that point I was ruing having ordered the last pint, but what the hell, I figured, so I gave him a patronizing answer as I unconsciously stroked my smooth new fleece scarf. “I guess like a lot of people that come to this part of Gloucestershire, I am in the American woolen industry and I’m here shopping for Strouds wool – the finest in the world, you know.”
The man made a “Hmmph” sound to himself and shook his head almost in disgust. “So, you’re just another mindless sot here to castrate a ram, eh?”
This was getting ridiculous. “Now see here…” I began.
“Save it,” he interrupted me. “You can make as many wethers as you want, I don’t care anymore. And nobody should. It doesn’t matter. Nothing does anymore, and nobody’s going to lift a finger to stop it.”
I knew that I was being pulled into a cockeyed conversation with a crazy old fool, but there was something just peculiar enough about him and his lamentations that caught my attention. Or, maybe I was just officially drunk.
“We’re all walking dead men now,” he went on as his gaze drifted away from my eyes. “All dead.”
Okay, now I just had to hear some more of this nonsense. “Go on,” I said.
“How about fancying a pint then, me old mucker?”
A ghost story for an ale. It was my last day in the Town of Stroud, and I figured this would make for some great story-telling while cruising on the lighter-than-air airship back to the States. “Go on,” I said again as I signaled the barman for a drink for my smelly new best friend.
When the drink arrived he caressed its glass the way a newlywed would passionately stroke his blushing bride. After a few moments of silence interrupted only by large gulps and parallel belches, he looked back hard into my eyes once again and began…
“Burial at our cemetery grounds is not just for the right honorable local politicians and the MPs, you know. Or the business gentlemen who made their fortunes literally off the backs of the ewes and tups that graze tranquilly on the grassy hectares of lush pastures until their wool has matured. Or even the surgeons and solicitors and other such scholars who rest now in the hallowed church yard. There are workhouse paupers buried there as well – the poor wretches whose only relief in life was a handshake with death itself.”
“It’s right out that door and just down the road on Cotswold, and it’s been there for all my life now. It’s divided into three sectors and you’re buried where it seems the best fit for you. The Church of England takes up a lot of the grass, the Nonconformists have their share, and then there be the paupers’ graves.”
“They usually wait until they’ve stacked up nine or ten of them poor folk in the shed before they dig a long and shallow hole to toss the bodies into. With all them fine folks in there, isn’t it interesting that the first body to go into the ground in 1856 was a man of no means, and now seventeen years later we don’t have any clue where he is or whose decaying corpses are buried with the other paupers, or where they first started digging those graves. They never even bothered to keep track where the poor people went to their eternities, so nobody knows where they be.”
“Now, I am not political any more, and I don’t care who the worms eat first, but let me tell you that death and politics go knuckle in knuckle in Stroud and its graveyard. Things in this part of England have always been rough and tumble, and it goes back way before the days of the Industrial Revolution, or the Liberal Party or the Conservatives. It goes back even before the days of the kings and knights, stories that your pappy would tell you while putting you to bed at night. There has always been bad blood between this one and that, or this party and the other, or this baron and that squire, and usually over land. And when there’s bad blood among men there’s red blood on the ground and butchered bodies in the graves.”
“I’ve never been a superstitious man, and I believe that most of the tales and folklore that have swirled through our county like the ghosts that moan at night in the Old Town Hall are nothing but hooey. But, this I have seen over the past few weeks, American, and you best be believing me. Politics and bad blood have crashed dead-on in Stroud, and every living soul is about to pay the terrible price for the greed and avarice of one man.”
“I was not always the wreck that you see before you today, American; I held a good and respectable post in this town. There was even a time not so long ago when I was a member of the county constituency and rubbed elbows with the men who went on to represent us in the House of Commons. Not that I had enough money to affect anyone’s opinions, still many people, from grave diggers to factory bosses would come to me for advice and for common sense ideas. Not that there’s anything common about common sense.”
“There was a man, a good man who stood up for our tiny little community in Parliament. His name was Henry Summerton and he was as smart as a whip. I knew him from the day he was born, and I watched him grow from a playful, silly boy to a strong and confident man. Clinging tightly to his bachelorhood, he had the time and resources to go out and became a barrister in 1856 before he was bitten by the bug for politics. But as I knew, he was good at it and the county prospered for it. But not everyone was satisfied.”
“There was a younger man, John Loring, who came from a good and decent family that owned a modest slaughter mill. He also suffered from the same bite as did Henry, but there was nowhere to go politically for him since Summerton had such a firm grip on the partisan political machine in Stroud. And as I said, politics and bad blood were about to crash dead-on.”
“The debates started to become more heated and the rhetoric was taking a nasty turn. Where there had been relative civility for years with Summerton, Loring was challenging him at every turn and on every issue, especially the treatment of the sheep. Summerton maintained that their wool was at the cornerstone of Stroud’s long-term economy, and that everything humanly possible should be done to protect and nurture the sheep. While Loring agreed in principle, he took a more short-term view that some of the animals should be slaughtered and put on the world market as a meat commodity.”
“There could be no reconciliation between the two, and thanks to slipping more than enough cash into the pockets of those with the biggest tongues in Stroud, the community eventually sided with Loring. Summerton quickly became a pariah in the town he loved – men would spit on him and the women simply ignored him. Eventually, something had to break, and it was Summerton’s heart for his beloved township. The man died with nobody by his side to provide even a few last moments of mortal comfort.”
“It was all a very murky death, though. The coroner issued an extremely vague death report while the mortician would not tolerate a public service or viewing. While some speculated over scotch that he was murdered, it is true that he did die a somewhat suspicious death; what’s more, nobody in authority seemed to care about him or his final arrangements. It was as if he just disappeared from the planet!”
“You have to understand, Loring had been installed immediately into office in a by-election, which happens when someone dies while serving Parliament. With such power, Loring could make certain things just ‘happen,’ and he lost no time in doing so. I still had contacts with the grave diggers, and they told me a terrifying tale over far too much mead one night. Being threatened with losing their jobs if they disobeyed, they said that Loring saw to it that Summerton’s corpse was stacked in the paupers’ shed and was buried along with the unwashed of the county. And like all the other buried poor, nobody can say for sure where he truly lies.”
“They also gave me a hand-written note from Summerton that they found in his jacket pocket as they were loading his rotting carcass onto the weather beaten pull-wagon to take the bodies to their resting place. The funeral director hadn’t even bothered to change the man’s clothes or apply any death makeup. To be honest, the grave workers were looking for money, but what they found was much more enlightening.”
“The note said simply that Summerton feared that Loring was having him slowly poisoned. And when he had confronted Loring with his suspicions, Loring only laughed and said, Why not get all your sheep friends to help you!”
Closing his eyes and shaking his head slowly, the man’s voice came out more softly than I would have imagined. “And that’s the truth, American. I swear to it on my grave.”
The distressing words from the filthy beggar’s mouth had pretty much sobered me up, and I was more than mildly pissed about that. Yet, as I had thought earlier, his peculiar thoughts and words had really caught my attention. And then as the fog continued to lift from my brain, a cold finger of anxiety found its way to the small of my back.
“Ummm. What did you mean exactly just now by saying, ‘I swear to it on my grave’?”
The filthy vagrant’s eyes remained closed shut as he spoke in a newly deep and intimidating tone, “You need to leave this town and this country right now, American. Get on your dirigible and leave.”
“How do you know that I have an airship?” I asked incredulously.
With that, his eyes sprung open wide and his face contorted into what I imagine a gargoyle might look like up-close.
“You know, American, nobody can tell where the rotting corpses of the paupers are buried. Not even the sheep.”
“What the hell does that mean, are the sheep…”
“Leave now American. And give me that scarf you wear around your neck,” he demanded, as if a demon was channeling through his voice.
It was then that I recognized that what I had mistaken for mud and filth was actually dried blood that topped his face. And with that, all that I could get out of my bone-dry throat was, “Oh, dear God.”
His face continued to contort in a hideous manner as he spat out his next few words. “Do you see that man wearing a dark turtleneck wool pullover at the table below the dartboard?”
I nodded the affirmative.
“Watch him closely as he goes.” And with that, the man in the sweater jumped to his feet clutching his chest and crossing his violently shaking legs. He began screaming, but quickly ran out of air as his ribcage crushed into his lungs. His bulging legs had burst through his trousers as his neck and face doubled in size. Seconds later, his eyeballs blew out of their sockets and his blood was squirting out of every possible orifice.
Everyone in the pub was frozen with horror as the man literally imploded as his wool sweater grew smaller and smaller until the man’s torso was the size of a pencil and his insides were all outside.
“And thus Mr. Loring has performed his final official public act,” the merciless monster standing before me hissed through a clenched-teeth smile.
Somehow through my nausea, it slowly came to me. “Henry Summerton?” I asked fearfully.
“May I please have your scarf now, American?”
As I immediately handed him my neckwear, all I could say is, “Why?”
“You know why,” he responded with a twisted smile.
“All right,” I heard myself saying, “then how?”
At that exact instant, scores of bleating sheep burst into the tavern, as if they had been trained to watch over particular tables and block the exits.
“The sheep have been grazing for decades in the fields and hills throughout the county, usually only guarded by dogs. Dogs that have no idea where the cemetery begins or ends, or that the blood from the poor wretches buried in shallow nameless graves has seeped into the grasses the sheep chewed.”
I had slipped into a state of near-unconsciousness as Summerton, or what was left of him finished his story.
“All the sheep needed was a good leader and my blood was as rich as any. A specially haunted few sheep used cloven hooves to free me from my blackened tomb, and our work began. As the sheep were shorn over the next few days, their blood-tainted wool was at my and my master’s command to ship around the world.”
“The mills made quick work of the wool, having made apparel for years for every man and woman in the pub and in this town; they never knew that their sweaters, socks, diapers, ties, dresses, underwear, shirts, and all of it were enriched with the precious blood of the ones they ignored and threw away. And now it is time to raise a little hell for all of them!”
At that moment, one of the sheep with large cloven hooves, blood-red eyes, and prodigious horns made a low growling sound, and with that every soul in the pub and in the town was doomed. The screams lasted only seconds as their lungs were crushed, and within moments the pub was festooned with blood, brains, intestines, bones, and who could know what other human effluence. My scarf had shrunk to almost nothing; if it had been around my neck I’d be dead for sure. But why was I being spared the bloodbath?
And then the feasting began as thousands of sheep with pronounced razor-sharp teeth crashed into the pub, and into houses and stores and garages and hospitals and schools and restaurants, enthusiastically chewing their fill of the humanly remains.
I turned to Summerton to beg him to stop, but he too had been crushed and was being eaten by the sheep with the large cloven hooves. A revengeful covenant apparently had been consummated. So, that answered the ‘why.’ I was left alive to tell the story of how a good man was broken after he had made a wicked Faustian bargain with the Fallen Angel.
I screamed and kicked away the Plutonian sheep, and wrapped what I could of Summerton’s gory leftovers into my burlap samples bag.
As I signed his name into the cemetery’s official registration log after burying his remains in an appropriate sector, I prayed for the souls of those taken, for Summerton, and for the protection of those who remained alive. And then I ran like hell to my airship to dump all of my high-class wool purchases deep into the ocean, a few hundred miles off shore on my way back to America.
Hours later, with the accursed wool safely jettisoned, I loosened my lifejacket a bit, yawned extensively, and finally convinced my eyelids to close as the trip went on, until a violent lurch of the zeppelin threw me out of my seat. The cabin doors blew open and the windows cracked from the vicious force of an explosion. All I could do was sit on the floor, and then on the ceiling, and then on the back of a chair as the blazing dirigible had become a whirling missile racing straight toward the deep black ocean. While I should have been screaming, all I could do with what I thought might be my final mortal breath was to let out a small, pathetic moan.
You see, in my panicked rush I had completely forgotten how handsome the new wool scarves looked around the necks of the pilots as they came on board the airship many hours earlier. So much for me being the one chosen to tell the stor…
“Let him rest now, Nurse Williams,” the obviously skeptical doctor mumbled as he finished writing his observation notes after hearing the survivor’s phantasmagorical story. “He thinks he’s been through enough.”
“Yes, Doctor,” the mousy little nurse replied as she pulled the recently delivered Strouds wool blanket neat and trim around her slumbering patient. While finishing her routine task, she sensed a weird prickling in her fingers and her wrists after moving the blanket. Her knees started to wobble as the room began to spin around her. She felt sick to her stomach, but she didn’t want to tell the doctor for fear of being reported unfit for duty. And then for no reason at all, she let out a low growl.
“Better have that cough taken care of, Abby,” the doctor muttered unsympathetically as the door to the hospital room closed behind him.
“Right away, sir,” she replied caustically, as her eyes began turning blood-red and a small bead of drool trickled down from the left side of her mouth.
Credit To – Douglas Parker