Toby Sharpe is a writer and editor from London, England. He has two degrees in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh, and he is the co-founder of Project Myopia, a website dedicated to broadening and diversifying educational curricula. You can find his creative writing at One Sentence Poems, the Glasgow Review of Books, the Selkie, and Adjacent Pineapple, as well as in other publications. He is currently working on his first novel, and he writes poetry as often as possible.
At the old oak, they made a pact. The sunshine had been bright only a few hours earlier. As they had headed east, following the paths they had always known, night had fallen groggily onto the land, and with it, a chill breeze. Indeed, the shadows crept heavier now down the crossroads, the hedgerow turning into walls, keeping something out. They’d brought the dog. The sound of the sea was gone here, though they were near the beach enough to smell salt amid the pollen and the corn.
The dog’s blood was the key. It would open the door. With chalk taken from their younger sister’s art-box, they drew a circle on the deserted road, their hands shaking only when the dog moaned, wails which grew to become slow, occasional whines. The blood, the chalk and the salt seemed suitably mythic, and the tree did as well: a witch was hanged here, though too recently for it to be a charming piece of village folklore, part of the townsfolk’s tales. They banned duckings and burnings, but there wasn’t much in the way of law round here, even now.
They’d never liked the dog. Small, yappy, aggressive, it reminded them too much of themselves, the way it grabbed at distant scraps of attention and affection. A runt. Its frail body lay in the rough ring they had drawn, a bloody centrepiece: an offering.
Regardless of its size, it still functioned, opening the gate. There was a rush of wind. The oak’s bark seemed to tremble, as if the tree was about to take breath. As the sun finally dwindled, and the whimpering ceased, the brackish odour intensified. Blackbirds soared from the shrubbery, a cloud of evacuees, carpeting the sky momentarily in black. For a second, the boys imagined them as bats. The dog’s blood was being drunk up by the path, sinking into the earth’s parched depths. The voice spoke quickly, and without the bone-chilling tone they had expected. It sounded bored.
“What do you desire?”
They remembered their fifth birthday still, so clearly. It was etched onto their brains for good. The cake was orange, an unnatural colour, and he had forced them to eat it, slice by slice, even when they cried, wet with snot, that they had feasted enough, that their stomachs ached. He called them ungrateful. They spent the night retching, hunched over the bathtub. It was still their best birthday to date. At least there had been candles. Perhaps they should have brought candles with them now. Dark was settling over the fields, blinding them to each other’s faces.
“We want our father dead. We are too small to do it ourselves.”
They had pushed him once, hard, down the stairs. It was a temporary solution for a problem that would not end. They had watched his legs twitch, heard his groans. He had glowered from his armchair for weeks.
The voice did not speak again. Had it spoken in the first place? They were immediately all too aware of their situation: lonely at a crossroads, standing over a bloody mess. Flies were beginning to settle on the corpse. Their bladders felt tight. The world was uglier. And now they had no reply.
After a few minutes, they decided to walk home, half-heartedly rubbing the circle gone with their spit. They kicked the dog to the hedge, leaving its body half-slumped in the earth, smothered by the encroaching night. It would be all too obvious to anyone passing in the morning light, the dull smear of its blood across the dirtied path. They did not care. The walk back to town seemed doomed enough: another day of life seemed impossible. This had, for all its confusion, been their last hope. Home promised years of further torment, of chilly, frozen air, and sudden snaps of storm. There would be more broken plates, and spilled milk. The dog would be replaced by another whimpering thing.
Before they left the tree, they promised to the air that if the bargain was upheld, they would never forget. For years, they would return, as the old villagers had. This was how the village kept its young. They were kept in these lands by blood, sometimes their own. And then they became old.
The front door was ajar. Their sister’s tricycle remained halfway down the garden path, gathering rust, as it had done for the last year. Dandelions pockmarked the front garden’s maw. Stepping inside the house, each boy felt the tightening of back muscles, the shallow kiss of fear on their haunches, rifling across nerve endings and through intestines. Their father had not been slumped in the yard, a mouth full of grass, eyes wet with red. Inside, the armchair was empty. There was no body at the foot of the stairs. The kitchen lights were on.
He was decorating cakes. Orange gunk swamped the formica, and dripped in woozy stalactites from the table to the floor, where their sister, awake far past bedtime, sat placidly, licking handfuls of the stuff. It was as if a bomb had gone off. The man standing at the counter looked just like their father. He did not appear to be dead. As he turned to them, they felt their insides writhe, knowing truly for the first time that their dream had been absurd. He was alive and well.
Yet his pupils had an odd sheen to them, and his gaze was lopsided as he grinned at them, half of his jaw slack. He showed them cake after cake, doggishly keen for approval.
He never sat in his chair again. Instead, he furiously populated the house with activity: he painted with their sister, cooked meals, scrubbed away at the stains on the walls. None of it was quite right. The food was salty, often wet, as if dowsed in the ocean between oven and table. His attempts to weed the front garden left desolate holes in the earth, as he pulled out anything living, anything green. Their sister thought at first a game was being played, one whose rules she had not been taught. He grimaced at her as she described her days at school, tongue lolling clumsily as he helped her get to bed. He would sit calmly only when the birds poured from the shrubbery at dusk.
They knew a mistake had been made; it was as if one light in his head had switched on, while others faded to grey. They had killed something in him, but not enough. He posed no threat, these days. This man would never hurt them intentionally, though they feared his erratic movements, the way he careened like a bullish marionette through the house. He was increasingly afraid of the outdoors, whimpering softly under his breath whenever he had to head into the village.
This was not what they had wanted: they had pictured blood and guts, the stopping of clocks, a conclusive end to the cruelties of their youth. Instead, reminders of the past lingered. They would pass him on the landing, and see on his hands how their throats had bruised, how their arms had grown welts.
This would not be enough. Perhaps their offering had been too meagre. Walking in the fields, late at night, they now sometimes joked about how their sister should have been the sacrifice. It was a joke. It was half a joke. Their next-door neighbour’s cat might not be missed, were it to suddenly vanish. They might try that first.