Oxen

Dark Mountain: Issue 18 – FABULA

This year’s autumn issue, Dark Mountain: Issue 18 – FABULA, is our first book dedicated entirely to uncivilised fiction. In its pages you will find short stories, flash fiction and excerpts from novels and longer pieces, as well as artwork and illustrations specially commissioned for this book.

Over the next few weeks we'll be sharing a selection of stories from its pages. Today, we bring you Cynan Jones' short story 'Oxen', with illustrations by Nick Hayes.

Cynan Jones’ novels and stories have been published in over twenty countries and in many anthologies and magazines including Granta and The New Yorker. His latest book is Stillicide.

A searing wind snapped at their coat collars and hoods, a sound not natural on the moor, clipped and sharp as it was, within such expanse.

‘What is it?’ Iohan asked.

The two men stood at the edge of the pit.

The heavy skulls of cows; the horns – where skulls still had them – seemed made of wood charred black.

Only some of the ribcages remained in shape, strange carnivorous gin traps amongst the fallen bone.

The pelvises, discoloured, looked formed from flint. The spines discarded from some mechanic function.

‘I don’t know,’ answered Mal, the larger brother. ‘I don’t know what it is.’ His eyes watered in the wind, so it seemed he cried to see this charnel.

The wind was of such force the patches of scrub willow and birch looked gripped by an invisible great beast, intent to rip the re-established trees out by their roots.

The brothers, in their heavy coats, appeared weighted to the hill. Leant into the wind.

And yet the boneyard seemed impervious.

‘Dad will know.’
_

The felled turbine had landed on the uneven ground with a hollow pang then bounced, as if it meant to bolt away over the crest, and in doing so flicked away the cap of earth that had grown over the pit.

The cap lay peeled back from the ground now, like some scab that had been lifted off intact.

The cone-point of the nacelle had smashed into a discard of fist-sized stones that seemed – amongst the moss, the wiry grass and the scratching whin and heather – to have no place there. They looked spilled from some tipped-up wheelbarrow. Trundled by giants over the moor.

Each stone was felted with lichen, green, grey-frayed and ochre-patched like the different topographies of an atlas. It made Iohan imagine maps. That the stones showed ways to other worlds.

When they started the cermet-tip saws, to cut the steel mast into sections, the horrifying sound of them drove all thought away.

The spits of bright hot metal died to wet leaves against their coats.

Puffs of dust-smoke went off in the wind, the ochre of the lichen.

The rust smudged like red clay.

The moorland, darkened through the brothers’ visors, seemed somehow to flex. That muscle moved beneath its skin. As if they worked upon the back of some huge animal.

With the ear defenders, Iohan believed he heard his own brain. Could change the squeal of the saw if he changed the shape of his mouth, gaped, like a strange fish, popped his lips.

Where the ground had eroded, the giant turbine bases came through the moor like the broken stumps of back teeth.

The huge molars of the skulls.

They had talked about trying to wrench the metal reinforcements from the concrete but knew they would not. That the bases would stay, the energy companies dissipated into air before they had to rectify their mess.

Had talked of dynamite. The presence of the box that of a treasure chest.

Each stick bagged, seepage salted on the clouded plastic; the cardboard wrappings perished; the license of procurement, for quarrying on the farm, twice renewed, five years each time, long ago expired.

Iohan thought now of the dynamite, of the woodpecker hole he’d drill into the mast; the frayed cotton of the fuse flustered by the breeze, lifting and flicking until it took the flame. Then a soft hiss. An internal thump. Before brief absolute quiet – the darkest point a moment before dawn – before the roar.

‘We should take the blades first,’ Mal said. The turbine now in sections, the weather moving in.
_

The brothers worked with deliberate rhythm, with procedure now automatic after three weeks on the hill.

They rivetted the long tarp to a broad edge of one of the halved sections of the turbine mast, then used the rivet gun to punch holes below the other long edge. Into the holes they fed chains. Then they harnessed the chains to the oxen.

The holes made by the rivet gun seemed to bleed, as if from wounds made by a nail.

The rain hit as they loaded the travois, carrying the sections of blade like planks. The rain was percussive, drove suddenly violently into them, as if it wanted to dislodge the two men from the face of the moor.

When they had the sections on the travois, and the heavy solar battery, they moved off with the oxen, the rain mercifully at their back.
_

Where the ground had eroded, the giant turbine bases came through the moor like the broken stumps of back teeth.

‘You would have to count the skulls,’ their father said, ‘to know.’

A glow of embers sat beneath the griddle rested on two stones from the boundary wall that ringed the part-collapsed house. They had moved in for the time it would take to clear the hill.

Pungent steam came from the pot atop the griddle. The same steam came from the bowls in their hands.

‘Many,’ Iohan said.

Their spoons against the bowls made the sound of the oxen chain clinking as they drew the blades across the moor.

‘Foot and Mouth,’ the father said. ‘Some farmers burned their herds.’

The weather snapped at the carbon tarp that spanned a collapsed section of the roof, the snap their coats had made earlier, before the front closed in.

It was as if the day’s sounds had followed the men back into the room.

‘You?’

‘No.’

‘We didn’t know.’

‘I was three.’

A ping came from the section of turbine fashioned as a fireplace. A flu that took the smoke away through the low ceiling.

‘The piles burned for weeks. Hellish. The smell. Worse than the flex casings.’

Iohan watched the fire. A curl of bracken at its edge, as if pushed out, rejected, glowed faintly with heat, arched, like one of the terrible ribcages in miniature.

‘My mother cut my hair the day our neighbours put fire to their herd. I thought it was my cut hair I smelled. Even now I think that.’

‘You don’t have hair now.’

‘Even that did not kill our type of farming.’

The father seemed momentarily to look away, as if there were no walls between him and the outside world.

‘Well, the scrap is easier than sheep.’

Mal suddenly saw his father as far lonelier than he knew. He looked down from him, to his own trouser sleeves, wet and stained berry-purple from pushing through the whin.

‘When did this happen? This burning.’

‘Millennium. Thereabouts.’

They were all quiet for a while.

Mal chewed at the stew. ‘Must have been about the time this rabbit was young.’
_

Mal stamped apart the ceiling boards pulled part-rotted from the more derelict rooms above. They had previously piled all burnable material together. A mantlepiece of heavy oak. Picture frames. Brittle gorse.

As lighting splints, they used the desiccated folds of newspaper found rolled and packed against the window seals. The paper gone sepia, the print, in places, chromatogrammed into tiny flowers they thought at first was mould.

The papers were from before the two brothers were born.

Iohan read the news with wonder. Like it was prophecy. Further treasure maps that people must have followed to this future.

‘Are you going back out?’ the father asked.

‘We’ll wait.’ The ping and crack of the hearth. ‘Until the weather has blown over.’ But the wind had dropped, and the rain set in.

‘The oil should have settled. We’ll need diesel soon,’ to drive the old truck, to take the loads of metal and glass fibre powder to the dealers. ‘I’ll get to making that.’

‘Then I’ll go for the nacelle,’ said Iohan. ‘I don’t mind the rain.’

‘Maybe the oxen do.’

He did not say, Iohan, that he felt drawn back by the bones. That he needed to look again at them, now he knew why they were there.
_

Illustration by Nick Hayes

The wet air brought the chimney smoke down in a cloak about the outbuildings. They appeared shrouded in mist.

Dismantled sections of the turbines lay organised about the place. The mast sections a stack of strange timber; the blunt nacelles gathered like the product of some quarry.

Mal went across the yard. He braced against a wind no longer present; took some seconds to recognise there was now no chaotic orchestration to the skyborne sounds. Just the structured mathematical patter of the rain.

He went into the smaller outbuilding. They had drained the lubricating oil and coolant from the nacelles, as if collecting wealth from some strange giant fruit, and he checked now to see the impurities had settled from it. Held the container up to the white oblong of the open doorway.

A band of sediment lay gathered in the base of the container, faint clouds stirring from it with his movement.

The oil at the top of the containers was clear. He could turn this into diesel.

Mal bundled the stripped-off flex casing and cable sheath into the base of the high-heat chamber and lit it with one of the newspaper splints, recoiling from the acrid flare and closing the grate.

_

The spines and ribs and smaller cast-about bones lay in a mayhem correlant to the procedure that had set them there; but there was a patience to the solid skulls Iohan could not settle with. An accusation they seemed prepared to wait the resolution of.

He had effectively walked out of the rain, as it moved to set in over the higher ground, and the land throbbed with tones after its saturation.

The uncovered earth-ash of the pit was a dark sludge like some stuff of primal reformation.

When Iohan turned from the pit, he saw the oxen were gazing into the eye sockets of the skulls.

It unnerved him such that he felt his heartbeat in his head; and the claustrophobia of the open space; as if the oxen would turn on him.

But then, a far-off rhythm thumping in the air. A sub-sound suggesting some turbine had restored itself and started spinning. That Iohan felt through his body. An insane conviction that such a turbine would approach over the horizon with intent to call him into judgement for his work.

Then the helicopter breached the hill. Battling. The metal box it carried, like some strange outsized prey, swinging dangerously in the wind.

The oxen bridled. The rotors of the helicopter. The sense they came to reclaim the severed blades in family retribution. Thuddered over them. Swallowed and swaying in the wind. Its sound doubling off the moor. Shipping container penduline as the bizarre thing chopped through the sky, away over the bluff.

As Iohan left with the nacelle loaded on the travois, one of the standing turbines span just once, a graunching cry, as if in lament for its dereliction. Or that it called out plaintive for the helicopter to return.
_

The next day an actual mist sat loose and shifting thickly on the moor, so it was not possible to go out to the turbines.

Instead, the brothers cut the blades up in the shallow they had excavated for this purpose, some fifty metres square. They had scalped out the shallow with the ox-drawn scraper.

With the air still and thickened, a faint smell of fish reached them from the protein lake beyond the distant ridge.

The oxen steamed as they circled, appearing to clear a ring amongst the mist, their hooves sucking in the churned ground as they drew water from the tarn into the sprayers and the spray went out to dampen down the dust.

Even with this spray, the cut glass fibre lifted in motes about the brothers. Fell into pastes about the cut blades, slathered and hurried to take new form. Settled upon the peat.

The pieces of the blades fell into parts like bits of bone, and neither brother talked of it.

‘That krill stinks,’ Mal complained.
_

During the afternoon the air cleared, and the weather moved away. Three helicopters came, two with containers and one with some immense machine.

‘Perhaps they’ll take the metal,’ Mal suggested. ‘If they’re going back and forth.’

The scale of the moor, after the mist, seemed to have grown. The ridge beyond which the helicopters had gone more distant than before.

‘Where are they coming from?’ Iohan asked.

‘They’ll be houses,’ said their father. ‘Relocators.’

‘Before they flood the valley?’

‘I do not think those people would live in a group. They are farmers, mostly. They wouldn’t want to live in a group.’

They looked up and out across the hill.

‘They’ll be from somewhere on the coast.’

_

When he stabled the oxen that night, their slap and snort, the rough rasp of their breath, Iohan, he was certain, heard laughter and the sound of work coming softened – made spectral in some way – across the dark moor.

Every now and then came the strange whirring call of nightjars.

He took the hand-crank torch and a bottle of fir spirit and walked the distance to the ridge.

The night was deeply clear.

The flank of the facing hillside was busy with fireflies of light. Blinking points even brighter than the pools of solarflood in which they sat. With the magnesium-bright flash of welding torches; a distant sing of plasma cutters.

The smell of krill was thick again, in the night air. An otherworldly glow, the plankton phosphorescent, a thin steam upon the heated lake below.

Iohan could see the containers being manoeuvred into place. Stacked and windows cut into them. The colours stony in the clean white light.

He thought of the bones in the pit, and the broken teeth of the turbine bases, and of moving on again. The nightjars, whirr. Of the quiet, patient dynamite.

Behind him, the night pooled in the dip of the moor, like some great body of dark water.

‘Father is right,’ he thought. ‘There are people coming here to live.’

 

‘Oxen’ was originally drafted during work for the BBC Radio 4 commission Stillicide (Granta Books, 2019)

Illustrations: Nick Hayes

Nick Hayes is a graphic novelist, illustrator and author of The Book of Trespass, out now.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 18 – FABULA

The Autumn 2020 issue is dedicated entirely to fiction, featuring short stories, illustrations and colour artwork
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