Philip peered at where the Landrover should have been and thought, or possibly imagined, he could just make out its familiar bulk. The fog was dense and completely static, and while there was no doubt that he would be able find the vehicle again – Philip knew every inch of this field intimately – there was still something uncanny about the way the bright, unshifting whiteness obscured it. Veils, he slowly thought to himself. Veils upon veils upon vales. He smiled weakly at his own joke and looked down at Stoker, but the dog remained impassive to his master’s attention.

      Philip bent over and rubbed the back of the black Labrador’s head, his chilled hand only just registering the mist driven dampness held within his coat. Stoker’s eyebrows twitched in recognition of his owner’s touch. He half turned his tapered head and then returned his gaze to the field.

      “What’s up boy?” The hoarseness of his own voice surprised him. Had he been down the Snipe and Shire last night? He couldn’t remember, which probably meant that he had. His throat had that hungover constrictive feel to it that usually meant one too many ales and too much shouting over skittles. He cleared his throat and started to walk across the field with Stoker following uneasily at his heel.

      He could see the dog’s point of view. There was something about the fog that played with the senses; eyes swathed in limitation while ears worked overtime. A blackbird, a cooing wood pigeon, the clicking akk-akk-akk of a magpie. They all sounded as if they were caged in an aviary next to Philip’s head. In truth, the nearest was probably over 100 feet away.

      A cold, damp, seeping feeling crept into the toes of his wellingtons as he strode forward. He’d probably come home four sheets to the wind and left them outside, he reasoned, or perhaps they’d finally worn through? He stopped and looked down. Even in this muted light they both seemed undamaged, despite the rust coloured stain of bog water that was refusing to wash off in the dew. Philip shrugged. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now. He’d properly check them over as soon as he returned to the farmhouse.

      The mist noticeably brightened as soon as he started moving again and, in the blink of an eye, the outlook shifted towards the promise of a glorious spring morning. There was no doubting that the cloud bank surrounding him was still dense, but there was a wonderful luminescence about it now, a level of brightness that made Philip narrow his eyes.

      Soon the sun would crest the ash copse on the hill behind him, and the whole shallow valley would fill with its radiance. The fog wouldn’t stand a chance.

      Philip walked on following the gentle incline down towards the lower end of the field. He had no idea where the herd had gathered and his only option was to follow some kind of systematic search pattern rounding them up as he went.

      Again he paused, this time to wonder if the external haze had somehow leaked into his mind. For a moment everything, even his thoughts and actions, seemed indistinct, vague and at odds with his usual routine. Bloody Mahoney and his passion for shots, no doubt that’s what did for him last night. He rubbed his forehead and looked around.

      As he had predicted the mist was beginning to thin and, even at this lower level, it was already snaking away into the warming air. Visibility was now up to between 20 and 30 feet, and Philip could easily make out the hedgerow running at the bottom of the field. Spider webs were scattered like starbursts across the greening foliage, their threads decked with tiny wet jewels. He began to follow its brambled line, quietly marvelling at how something so ordinary and everyday to him still had the power to make a fresh and poignant impression.

      This time it was Stoker’s turn to call a halt. Philip looked back at the forlorn figure of his dog. His feet were set and his head down as if in preparation for a scolding.

      “Come on. Here now…” Again the broken nature of his voice surprised him. The volume was hardly above a whisper and a dry, flaky feeling ran from his Adam’s apple to his breastbone.

      The dog stood resolute, looking at every point around Philip but never directly at him, his eyes constantly avoiding those of his master.

      “What’s up with you today, eh Stokes? These cows won’t look after themselves you know.” And with that Philip tuned and walked on across the field.

      He’d covered a further 10 yards before he saw the tent. It was a low, green and gaudy orange affair – big enough for one, possibly two – and was pegged with its entrance facing the hedgerow. Yellow guy ropes sagged slightly under the dew, the flysheet crinkling in damp sympathy.
Stupid place to pitch, Philip thought, right down here at the bottom of the field. If it had rained last night they’d have known about it, even with that drainage ditch behind there. He looked to the hedgerow and ran a weary hand through his hair. It came away sticky and moist, just as it had when he’d rubbed Stoker earlier.

      He rubbed the oddly gelatinous residue between his fingers and carried on staring at the tent. A lost rambler perhaps? Or one of those weird survivalist types?

      As Philip pondered what to do next, the slightest of breezes picked up and lifted a swathe of fog clean into the air.

      Suddenly, the herd was standing before him.

      It was almost theatrical the way the three lines of cows were revealed to him. One minute uniform obscurity, the next a phalanx of prime beef and dairy stock all stood… Together… In rows.

      There was something wrong with this tableau and the way it had been presented to him. Something very wrong. The only time cows lined up like this was when they were being milked, and then they were individually penned. This just wasn’t right.

      The instantly recognisable and elongated ‘zip’ of a tent being opened should have dragged Philip’s attention away form the herd, but the fresh revelation that they were all looking directly at him kept him riveted. Approximately 200 eyes locked with his, the same doleful, plaintive, trusting look frozen on every large and mottled face.

      He felt, rather than saw, Stoker move close to his left leg, felt rather than saw the bemused backpacker emerge from his tent. Then the sun crested the hill behind him and everything began to unravel.

      He remembered…

      … The slaughtermen in their disposable white overalls stained and smeared with blood, the man from The Ministry trying to be sympathetic while getting him to sign form after form after form. Then there were the reporters.

      His was one of the first herds to be diagnosed with BSE, so the media were still hungry for a spectacle and legion in number. He’d even agreed to a few numb interviews, but refused any more as it became clear that all they really wanted was for him to break down.

      He remembered…

      He remembered the stench of the pyres and how it had lingered – even the passing showers couldn’t wash the air clean. And how the cloying smell of beef fat had followed him everywhere – the aroma of old roasting tray mixed with a tinge of unclean oven. He had retched continually for days after the cremation.

      With a tremendous effort Philip wrenched his gaze from the cows and looked to the stretching oblongs of stunted grass that ran in front of each line. Barren earth once, fresh muddy scars that didn’t heal in the aftermath of the cull. At least the ground cover was slowly fighting back. Nature doing her best to redress the abomination she had spawned.

      Another unwanted memory bloomed, this time of yellow diggers laden with carcasses loading the mass graves with the herd. His herd. Then the petroleum. Then the flames.

      By now the backpacker had closed the distance between them to a couple of yards. Philip turned and registered the confusion spreading across the freckled complexion, the one raised eyebrow posted above the rim of the man’s oval glasses. He was looking to Philip for some kind of explanation, a friendly assurance that all was right with the world. But, in that instant, Philip knew that all he could offer was further disturbance to this poor fellow’s sense of equilibrium.

      The sun inched above the trees, its visor of light finally engulfing the field, and suddenly the herd burst into a sea of tortuous fire. Crimson, dancing orange, retina searing yellow licking against the charring hides, the thick layers bursting asunder as fat trapped beneath reached boiling point.

      The backpacker raised a hand up to his trembling lips and took a step backwards, oblivious of the one black flipflop that now lay discarded in the grass. He shot a look at Philip, a fresh layer of horror manifesting itself across his already tormented face.

      A movement to Philip’s left drew his attention away from the retreating interloper, and he looked down to see Stoker nestling close to his leg. He felt an immediate and desperate pang of guilt as the sun laid the harsh reality bare before his eyes. Again he remembered.

      Dressed in his shoot best he had come to Stoker as he dozed – one floppy ear hanging over the chewed rim of his basket, his eyes half-heartedly swivelling to acknowledge Philip’s presence in the dark kitchen. He methodically loaded his father’s shotgun with two low bore cartridges and brought the muzzle to bear on the back of Stoker’s skull. Ever trusting, the dog didn’t move at all.

      The effect of the blast was devastating, both to the dog’s head and Philip’s unprotected ears, but the sight of the still twitching corpse only served to strengthen his resolve. He paused, took one look at the work surfaces – everything as clean as it could be, considering, everything tidied away – and then he tasted the warm, tart combination of propellant and steel. For the first time in months, he found he could no longer smell overcooked beef.

      Now, in the increasing warmth of the field, he registered Stoker’s shattered, hollow skull and wondered at the strange, ethereal overlay of the dog’s original features. It was like looking at something bright on a summer’s day and yet seeing the afterimage once you had closed your eyes all at the same time.

      But, if this was what Stoker looked like… Philip raised a hand and again felt the sticky residue clinging to his hair. There was something else, jagged and sharp at the back of his head that he immediately tried not to think about.

      The sound of scrambling feet behind made him turn from the herd and he watched, fascinated, as the backpacker fled towards the visible edge of the field. Both heels were bare now, kicking and skidding on the still damp grass, scrambling towards the dry stone wall where, of course, no Landrover was parked.

      Once more the sun shifted higher, the intensity of the bright but cold flames making obscured smudges of the herd. As one they opened their collective mouths and filled the still morning with one unified and anguished low.

      I have become just like that bloody virus, Philip thought, lying dormant in the earth somewhere, trapped in time, waiting for the right conditions to come about. A misty morning, an anniversary perhaps? Maybe some unsuspecting witness… I wonder. He looked down lovingly at a fading Stoker, I wonder if…

      And then the last tendrils of mist finally curled away into the ever brightening heavens.

— THE END —
(Copyright © 2006 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)