I keep my revolver in a locked mahogany box in the top draw of the desk in my study. From the study window I can see out across my estate. A view that will be changed for me forever.
I bought the revolver as protection when walking in the woods. The boars around here are very territorial. They can also charge from standing. I have only killed one, the noise of a shot is usually enough to drive them away.
Never did I think I would use the weapon in fear for my sanity before my physical health.
It was the morning of the fourth of November when the Wallards moved in across the valley. The air was clear and fresh; not a cloud in the sky. I had taken my spy glass outside to look over the estate.
Standing where the lawn dives away I can, with one turn of my body, take in everything from the edge of the flywheel round to the abandoned farmhouse to the west.
The flywheel stands taller than the house. On this morning it was still running off the last of it's momentum from the night before; I could see flashes of brown scrub between the giant spokes as they passed. The land is mostly dead in the east; two miles out from the edge of my estate.
Turning at the waist made my view change. Between the edge of the fly wheel and the first trees of the wood the boundary wall is visible. A few more stones had fallen since the previous week; I am no mason so strung wire mesh over the gap to keep the boars in.
I panned the glass over the trees of the wood. A breeze was making the top branches sway. They made up the bottom part of my view and the whole landscape rolled like waves. I had to take the glass down and regain my balance. I raised it again to the west as far as I could stretch. The old farmhouse looked much as it always had. The farm was dead around it; no one left to work it. The war had taken all the able bodied men and boys.
Panning east, my view crossed the road and I saw the Wallards' large carriage. I had received a letter a week before informing me that I would be getting new neighbours. They had applied to charge their batteries from my fly wheel.
I pride myself in being a good neighbour so, with a few days for comfort, I mounted my horse and made my way over to greet the new arrivals. It was a little after lunch and the house was quiet, I knocked with the end of my riding crop. A noise from the upper floors of the house startled me. It sounded like two large dogs scuffling.
Mrs Wallard, was a fine woman. Handsome in a way I had not seen before. Her hair rested on her shoulders; she wore a well-fitted felt jacket and a long tweed skirt. I introduced myself as Mr Gerald Faultner of Five Trees Manor; pointing across the valley. She knew my name and bent one knee as she introduced herself as Martha.
We had tea and shortbread in her kitchen.
Martha lived with her brother, Bernard; Mr Wallard was away on business most days. I am ashamed to say I was pleased to hear that she was not married. I have been alone myself for ten years after my wife was taken by the black cough. She made no mention of the dogs I had heard earlier.
I made ready to leave at four o'clock and was at the door when Martha asked me if we had mice at Five Trees. Although abrupt, it didn't seem like a strange question. In the nearby village there is often talk of the best way to be rid of these creatures. I replied that we did and that they kept our cat well fed. The next thing she said, however, was rather strange. At the time, it felt like a reasonable request from a helpful neighbour.
Martha asked me to wait a moment, after I had made my horse ready and disappeared back into her house. I was mounted when she returned with a bag. She explained that inside were live traps for mice. I had never heard of such things. All the traps I knew of were intended to kill stone dead. I laughed and said as much to her.
“Oh no!” she replied. “Dead won't do at all.”
She continued to explain how the traps worked and I agreed to lay them out and return them to her when they were full.
Back at Five Trees, I set my horse to charge for the night and took the bag of traps into my study. There weren't any batteries needed for tomorrow, so I didn't need to set the flywheel. The turbines on the roof would take care of my needs for now.
The traps were curious devices. Square metal tubes with a spring closing door. Ingenious in their own way. I inserted dried fruit as instructed and left them around the kitchen before retiring for the night.
After the first night, the traps lay empty. The cat, however, had caught a mouse and left it half dead near the back door. This I dispatched with the heel of my boot and threw into the bushes.
The next night I locked the cat in my study. Sure enough, in the morning one of Martha's traps had been sprung. I could hear a rodent rattling around inside.
After the third night the other two traps had been sprung. I carefully wrapped these in a sheet; their dirty contents could be carrying all manor of sickness with them. The sheet could easily be burnt later. I collected my horse and made the short journey across the valley.
Martha was very grateful. At the door, she took the traps and thanked me very politely; disappearing inside without inviting me in. Standing outside I heard her boots on the stairs, a door being opened and the sound of the dogs again.
A thought occurred to me and I knocked on the door again. After a couple of minutes Martha opened it looking flustered and pale. I offered to exercise her dogs in the woods. I thought the poor animals could do with a good run being shut up in the house all day.
“Dogs?” Martha replied, she looked confused. “We haven't got any dogs?”
“Gerald, if you don't mind me asking, would you be able to set the traps for me again?” Her voice was steady and reasonable. I agreed and some colour returned to her face. I asked how come she was so clear of mice herself.
“I set traps myself, also.” she said. “Shall I put the kettle on?”
We repeated the exchange of traps every week, it became a regular reason to meet through the winter. We shared tea and light conversation. Not being a good judge myself I wouldn't like to suggest that we were becoming very fond of each other. But our conversation became more personal and she asked me if I was married. In the most positive way, she looked hopeful when I said that my wife had been taken.
I only met Bernard once through the winter. He struck me as an intelligent but roughly mannered man. Martha was very reserved around him, speaking only to agree with him when asked.
When March came around Bernard appeared more frequently and sometimes shared tea with Martha and myself. He was not the kind of person with whom I would have chosen to associate should Martha have not been there. I had to forgive him as it was his house but we was quick to anger and a deeply selfish man. If Martha said something he didn't like, he would glare at her and she would retract and be silent for the rest of the conversation. On the occasions where Martha and I took tea alone together she was a picture of sweetness and interesting conversation; avoiding any attempts on my part to talk about her brother.
From Bernard himself, I discovered that his business was genetic science. He worked with various companies splicing and adapting plants to improve crop yield. I mentioned jokingly once, that someone should try this with chickens. Being myself very fond of leg meat.
“The animal sequence is not a project I can find funding for. Unless you are offering to support me in such work?” Bernard said without a trace of good humour or grace.
I didn't reply.
“So then sir, the topic is closed unless you open your famously well stocked wallet.”
At the beginning of April both Martha and Bernard were called away on family business. The last time I saw them they were distracted, but not impolite.
From across the valley, with my spy glass, I watched them go. I was angered that Bernard took an overly strong hand with Martha, forcefully pushing her into their carriage. I resolved to offer her a life at the Manor with me when they returned.
They would be gone for three weeks.
Spring brings many items of work across my desk; batteries for farm machinery were stacking up in almost every corner. At this time of year I usually run the flywheel constantly day and night.
As the flowers come out and the woods wake up I also make a tour of the estate on foot. Securing my revolver in it's holster I set out to walk the length of the woods.
The boar were unusually quiet. I saw a couple investigating the hole in the wall. The wire was keeping them in for now. There were three more a third of the way into the woods. These were startled and ran; making a long circle to run past me at a distance. Not away from me, as I would have expected.
At the three quarter mark I was aware I hadn't seen boars for a good fifteen minutes. This part of the woods was usually the most dangerous because of the high population of swine. There was an eerie quiet; so still it made me hold my breath.
Then there was the noise. A choked warble; atonal and alien to my ears.
It stopped and I let a breath out into the silent wood.
The noise came a second time. My hands unclipped the fastener on my revolver in an automatic motion.
I tracked the noise to the edge of the wood, not deeper in. To my surprise I had come right to the rear of the Wallards' house.
The noise came again.
I was sure it was coming from within the house. I didn't recognise the noise, but it was definitely animal. Some beast must have got inside the house and become trapped. I thought it neighbourly to clear this prisoner out. Martha, I was sure, would forgive my trespassing in such a case.
The back door to the house had a simple latch; this I was able to lift with the blade of my penknife slipped between the door and the frame. Once inside I stepped quietly, so as not to alarm the trapped animal.
Downstairs was clear. Everything was in its rightful place.
The stairs were mostly in shadow, I crept as softly up the bare wooden boards. At the top was a landing with three doors. One stood open; letting in light from the front of the house. The second was at the back; and was likely to be a bathroom. The third door had a draft excluder at the bottom and a key on the outside.
The noise came again, just as I was about to turn the handle on the bathroom. I heard it clear and distinct. It had come from the locked room.
It could not be a trapped animal, unless the animal could use a key. The hairs on the back of my neck made themselves known and gave me a chill. The situation proved that my original idea was wrong, there was no animal from the woods trapped in the house. I should have left at that point and respected the boundaries of privacy but none of this went through my mind as I stood outside the locked room: The noise I had heard been sorrowful, almost lonely. I had to know what was in there.
As I turned the key, I heard the same scampering sound I had heard on the first day. I pushed my way in to the room. I my hand was on the grip of my revolver, a natural reaction while wearing the weapon. A reaction of safety in the woods.
The curtains were closed and the light was dim. My boots crunched something brittle underfoot. I looked down, the small amount of light let in from the landing showed me the floor was scattered with tiny bones. I lifted my head and let my eyes adjust to the darkness.
In the corner of the room I saw what looked like a teenage boy. He was covering his head with his naked arms and his knees were pulled up to his chest.
“You there.” I said. My voice betrayed my state of mind and was overly loud and the boy flinched. As his weight shifted I could see he was naked and hiding another child behind him, a second set of arms and legs curled up. I took a step closer.
From under a chest of draws to my right a mouse appeared. The motion drew my gaze, and the boys. The little creature scurried towards me and the door.
The boy uncurled sprang.
My mind would not accept what I saw and I became dizzy with the horror. The creature was in two parts, a double child beast. Eight limbs made contact with the wooden boards as it pounced on the mouse. It pushed the rodent into its crooked mouth, letting the bones fall to the floor as it chewed. The hideous creature then turned it's eyes on me. Hollow and soulless eyes that watched me as I stood; frozen.
My next actions were pure reaction. The creature had moved towards me and my body protected itself without instruction from my head. My revolver was out, and two rounds spent as I stepped back out of the room and ran down the stairs. I didn't know my own mind again and didn't stop running until I was back at Five trees.
When I had hold of my breath and my senses. I took the revolver and locked it in its box. I took this up into the attic and put it on a high shelf. I was disgusted with myself. I don't know if I had hit the poor imprisoned abomination.
Sitting at my desk I poured a large brandy, my shaking hands spilling a great deal. I looked at the shiny puddle on the surface of the desk and thought of when poor Martha would return. Would there be blood for her to find? A corpse, or a wounded beast?
I was on my second glass and better hold of my nerves when the pieces of the story drifted together in my mind: It was her brother, Bernard.
That vile man must be responsible. There are so few of us now; the black cough and the wars taking people from every walk of life. He must experimenting with the most sacred of processes, with his own flesh and blood. Turning a pure act of reproduction into an experiment. Mocking the sorry state of our world.
But why did Martha care for the child so? Why was it kept at their house instead of in some secure laboratory? It must be her child.
My heart sank into my stomach and I was filled with a sickness and a rage.
I looked down at the attic key next to my glass.