by William Meikle and Graeme Hurry

The Bue Hag, illustrated by Joe Doe

Lucy had decided to tell me how Dad died.
The train was full, so full that although we were travelling first class, we were sharing the compartment with a horde of others – students, squaddies and oilmen, all of them drunk, half drunk or intending to get that way.

“Nobody knows how it happened,” she said. She leaned over the table towards me. “There was a board meeting – dad was submitting proposals for a wholesale modernisation of the farm.”

I was surprised to see tears in my sister’s eyes. I wanted to comfort her but a sudden laugh from the next table caused me to stiffen and hold my peace.

She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief and watched the scenery roll by for long seconds before continuing.

“Nobody knows what happened in there. They were still arguing at ten o’clock that night when the secretary finally gave up and went home. But nobody else did. A cleaner found the bodies the next morning.”

That did make me jump.

“Bodies? You mean it wasn’t just Dad? I thought it must have been a heart attack – he was certainly due one.”

“No,” she said, and the tears were back. “Murder, that’s what it was. No, more than murder. Butchery.”

She sat back and stared out of the window. I knew the signs – conversation was over for a time. I watched her for a while – the thick curve of her neck, the square jaw and the steely eyes. I had to turn away – she looked too much like him.

I certainly didn’t want to press her. Her rages were legendary in the family, almost as bad as the old man’s.

I still didn’t know why I was sitting there. She had phoned me in the Union on Friday morning.

“I’ve got some bad news for you.” You know how it is when those words are said – every possible catastrophe short of nuclear war goes through your mind in less than a second, so when she told me that the old man had died I was almost relieved. Almost. I was sure he’d find a way to harangue me from beyond the grave.

“I want you to come with me and bring his body home.” She said.

I had a sudden mental picture of all three of us in a car, Dad driving, his dead fingers still giving a two-finger salute to any other driver with the gall to get in his way.

“You can come, can’t you? Your holidays start tomorrow, don’t they?” There was a tone in her voice I’d not heard there before. If I didn’t know her better I would have thought she was about to beg.

“I’ve organised the transport and everything.”

“I hope you get the most expensive service available,” I said. “You know what he was like.”

“Oh Geoffrey,” she signed, sounding so disappointed in me and so like my mother that I gave in.

I stared at Newcastle, Edinburgh and Dundee without seeing any of them.

Finally she spoke.

“I’m glad you came,” she said. Then, as if embarrassed by any show of weakness, she went back to studying her reflection in the window.

She didn’t speak again until we were standing on the platform at Aberdeen station, waiting for our connection to Inverurie.

“Dad made me executor of the estate,” she said, as if it was a topic we had just been discussing. “We’ll have the reading of the will after the funeral.”

“I won’t be staying around for that,” I said. “If you think I’m going to sit in that draughty house while some old wrinkly goes through a list of my faults before deigning to give me a fiver then you’re got another think coming.”

And that was that. I got the stony stare all the way to Inverurie – plenty of time to reflect on what life could be like free from the old man.

Dad had made his fortune in livestock, or, should I say, dead stock. At the time of his death he was Chairman of the biggest venison producer in the world. He was a self-made man, rising from farm labourer to pig breeder, abattoir manager to veal exporter and on, ever upwards. Once upon a time he had wanted me to follow in his footsteps.

“Get out and get the blood on your hands,” he said. “It’ll make a man of you.”

And until I reached the age of eight I honestly thought I might. Then I came home early from school one day to find him in the back yard, gutting a pig with the big knife he kept in the kitchen, the entrails still smoking as they hit the ground with a wet thump.

I remember crying, and it was the tears more than my disgust that set him against me – for life. For the rest of that summer he berated me, pacing around me in the living room, hurling abuse at the top of his voice. During his ‘little turns’ I would squeeze my eyes shut until the tears came and he stormed off in disgust.

The very next term Mummy got me a place at boarding school. I would have been happy but for having to go home to face more abuse every month. He never hit me, but I’ll carry the scars until I die.

By the time I was fifteen he’d given up on me completely. He made a new will leaving everything to Lucy, and after my mother died I swore I’d never see him again.

I was woken with a sudden jolt as the train pulled into Inverurie station.

Lucy still wasn’t talking to me, and I was left to struggle along the platform with the heaviest cases. True to form, she seemed to have brought everything, including the kitchen sink. At least she’d ordered a cab. I piled the cases in the boot and got in, only to get out less than two minutes later when we reached our hotel.

I’d been expecting something less grand – my impression of Scotland had always been coloured by my father’s description of the run-down area of Glasgow, from which he’d ‘rescued’ my mother ‘from a life of drudgery’. I’m not sure she saw it like that. But she knew better than to answer him back.

The hotel looked like it had stood on the spot for centuries, its grey stone merging almost seamlessly with the soil beneath. The wind was biting and chill. A real log fire blazed in the small bar we were led through on the way to our rooms. It was only as she was entering her room that Lucy spoke, and her tone was terse and cold.

“The farm is about five miles away – out in the sticks.” Her nose actually lifted in the air, as she forgot that our house in Derbyshire, Dad’s folly, was at least six miles from the nearest town. I didn’t get time to enlighten her.

“The police station is out that way as well. We’ll go there tomorrow morning,” she said, closing the door in my face.

I unpacked my bag – it didn’t take long – changed into a clean pair of jeans and a heavy pullover and headed for the bar. I was to be disappointed.

“Sorry sir,” the barman said with no apology in his eyes. “We dinnae open the bar until six o’clock. There’s nae much custom at this time o’ the year.” He waved a hand around the bar, indicating it’s emptiness. “You’ll no’ find much open in the town either – Aberdeen are playing Celtic in the Cup and maist o’ the lads are awa’ doon tae Glesca.”

I walked out onto the drive and looked around, thinking that there must be a lot of football supporters in the town – at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon the place was deserted. Only the occasional old lady wrapped tight in an overcoat suggested it wasn’t a Sunday. I wandered for a while, but the thought of a pint of cold beer had grown large in my mind. I made my way to the taxi rank at the station and collared the nearest driver.

“I’m looking for a pub that’s open,” I said.

The driver looked me up and down.

“Are ye sure ye’re auld enough to be drinking?” he said, but there was a smile on his lips as he said it. “Get in. I ken the feeling when ye’ve got a drooth.”

I didn’t want to ask him what he meant, but it seemed to amuse him greatly.

“Dae ye ken where ye want tae go?” he asked as he started the car.

A name came to mind, a town I’d only ever read about in Lucy’s letters.

“Monymusk,” I said, and the driver laughed again.

“So, the toon’s fame has even spread tae England has it. Aye, I’ll take ye tae Monymusk – but don’t be expectin’ onything fancy.”

He drove like a demon, the needle approaching eighty on long straight stretches of road, only going below fifty on the corners. I watched the scenery and tried to seem nonchalant. I don’t know what I’d been expecting – rugged hills, heather and cliffs I knew from the television, but this corner of Scotland was green and lush, only occasional glimpses of distant mountains reminding me I wasn’t in Derbyshire.

We flashed past a 30 mph sign doing sixty, and I had a vague impression of a row of houses on either side of the road when we suddenly screeched to a halt outside a tiny, whitewashed cottage.

I paid the driver, and he gave me a business card.

“Gie me a call when ye want tae get back,” he said. “It disnae dae ye much guid to be walking these roads in the dark.”

With that he left, the car bulleting off into the distance.

A cold wind whistled around my ankles, blowing a solitary crisp packet along in its wake. This town was even quieter than Inverurie. There was not a single person on the streets, no sign of life – not even a wisp of smoke from a chimney.

Inside the bar things weren’t much better. The place was so quiet that I thought it might be closed – the television was switched off, as were the fruit machines, and there was only a solitary light above the bar. I had already turned and was on my way out when a voice called to me.

“Can ah help ye sir?”

The barman poked his head above the counter.

“Ah is jist stackin’ some bottles. Takin’ advantage o’ the lull in custom as it were.” He threw back his head and laughed, his humour so infectious that I had to join him.

After ordering my drink – an ordeal in itself since Scots don’t recognise ‘Bitter’ – I settled onto a bar seat nursing a pint of ‘Light’ almost as dark as Guinness, and felt my nerves settle as I chatted with the barman.

Around five o’ clock other customers began to arrive and, by six, five pints the better – or worse – I found myself talking to the oldest, most incomprehensible Glaswegian I had ever set eyes on. Even more surprising was the fact that I could understand him.

“Ah like a boy that can haud his drink,” was the first thing he said to me, clasping me round the shoulders before buying his first of many whiskies.

By seven he was drunk as a lord, but still a good deal more sober than I. I had heard his life story – the gang wars in the Gorbals in the thirties, the torpedoing of his submarine in the Pacific in the forties, and the years in jail in the fifties – “Ah never did onything really bad – ah jist robbed a Bookies.”

I agreed and bought him another whisky, but it was only when his tale reached the nineties that I really started to pay attention. He was the cleaner – the ‘mucker oot’ – of the deer pens at my father’s farm.

“I’ve heard about the place.” I said. “Wasn’t there something about it on the news recently?”

The old man’s eyes suddenly cleared, and he didn’t look drunk any more.

“Oh aye, it wis on the news right enough. The auld mither looks after her ain.”

At that the barman cleared his throat noisily, and the old man stopped talking, taking a quick, almost guilty, sip of his whisky. My brain was muddled by drink, so it was long seconds before I noticed that the bar had fallen silent.

“Right, Jimmy – I think you’ve had enough,” the barman said.

I expected the Glaswegian to complain, but he merely dropped his head as he got carefully off his stool.

“Ah’m sorry,” he said as he left, but I don’t know whether he was speaking to me or the barman. It was only after the door shut behind him that the conversation in the bar started up once more.

“As for you, wee man,” the barman said, “I think you’d best be getting on hame – you’ve got your faither’s funeral tae arrange.”

It was only when I was out in the fresh air that I realised I hadn’t told anyone who I was.

I was about to go back in when the cold air combined with the alcohol and coherent thought left me.

The next thing I knew was some time later. I was standing by the roadside, heaving up the contents of my stomach, realising, too late, that I had eaten nothing apart from a bacon roll on the train that morning. It was no consolation that my stomach was nearly empty – my system didn’t believe it and kept trying to throw up more until I was convinced that my stomach lining would soon appear in my throat.

I won’t go into detail about the following ten minutes – let’s just say they were unpleasant and messy. I did my best to clean up my face, hoping I had kept my clothes slime-free, and finally stood up straight and looked around me.

I was standing at a cross-roads – an unsigned cross-roads, and along all four branches was only darkness and the soft brushing of the wind in the trees. I was completely lost.

No, it was more than that – if I had been in a city I could have found my way to some recognisable landmark, but here I could see nothing. I looked upwards, searching for the stars, but that was a vain hope – I couldn’t even tell you which was the North Star and which was a planet. Stars were more my Dad’s line.

I was about to head down one of the roads – any road – when there was a sound behind me, just at the limits of my hearing, a rough rasping as of stone against stone.

I turned to see an old woman, no more than three yards away from me, bend over double and lift something from the verge of the roadside and put it into the front of her long skirts, which seemed to glow a faint, luminescent blue. I could see there were deep pockets sewn into her clothes, the contents of which clattered as she moved.

She bent again to pick up something and study it with such intensity that she was as still as a marble statue, then, with a movement so quick I almost didn’t catch it, she transferred whatever it was from her hand to her mouth. She stood upright as I watched, the fine silver wings of her hair wafting in the breeze from under a headscarf so enveloping as to be almost a hood. I was about to call out to her when she turned, and my shout was caught, frozen in my throat.

There was no face. That was my first impression. Just a black void so deep I felt I was falling into it. Then her hand came up and pushed the hood away from her head, and this time I did scream, a scream echoed by the thing in front of me.

Her face wasn’t a face. It was a construction, a mask of bone and hide stitched together with thick twine that glowed white in the dim light. Beneath the mask something moved – a squirming as of a tribe of maggots in dead flesh.

I would have run then, but the eyes held me, the so so blue eyes sunk deep into the mask, eyeing me with cold appraisal.

“So,” a voice said, though the lips of the mask were sewn tight. “Are ye yer faither’s son, or are ye yer ain man? Are ye a herdsman or a butcher? It’s make yer mind up time.” And she cackled, like a crone in a Disney cartoon. She stretched a hand out to me. It seemed to have been stripped of flesh until all that was showing was bone – no, not bone, Antler.

I was backing away – a reaction that brought more cackling – when the crone’s face was lit by car headlights. She blinked, and I blinked, and when I looked back she was off and away over the hedgerow. She’d leapt so high it beggared belief. Her skirts rose up, exposing ankles ending in a pair of thick, cloven hooves. She turned and pointed her hand at me and I saw five long, serrated bones reflecting the faint moonlight. The glinting edges looked perfect for slicing meat.

The car whose headlights had broken the spell pulled up beside me.

“Alan at the bar phoned me and telt me ye were oot on the road. Get in and I’ll take ye hame.”

It took long seconds to sink in, and even longer for me to recognise the cab driver.

“Come on son. Ah havnae got all night.”

I got in and the driver took off, going if anything even faster than before. I didn’t speak, I couldn’t, my mind was still full of the sight of those fingers and hooves. Those, and the words the crone had spoken.

The driver didn’t speak until we reached the hotel.

“I would stay in for the rest of the night if ah were you,” he said. “It’s a night for the mither. Ye dinnae want tae meet her twice.”

He screeched away, leaving me on the gravel path.

Still dazed, I stood for a long time looking across the night sky and wondering until the chill brought me to my senses and sent me scuttling for warmth.

You would have thought I’d had enough to drink for one night, but I felt stone cold sober and in more need of a drink than ever. There was a comforting murmur of conversation coming from the bar so I pushed open the door… And stopped all talk dead in its tracks.

There were only three people in the room, and they were all looking at me. The silence lasted just two seconds before the woman with her back to me turned and shouted at the top of her voice. “Where the hell have you been, you little shit?”

I hadn’t recognised my sister until that point. Her perfect facade had been severely dented – her hair hung in limp strands, tangled as if clawed with a trembling hand. Her makeup was a faded memory, streaked and running around her eyes. The effect stripped the years off her, making her look like the vulnerable child I dimly remembered.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, touching her shoulder. I was amazed when she collapsed sobbing onto my shoulder.

“They won’t let me take him home,” she sobbed. “They won’t even let me see him.”

I looked at the nearest policeman, who gave an embarrassed nod.

I petted Lucy’s hair awkwardly – it wasn’t something I had any experience in. “It’s okay”, I said. “We’ll probably have to wait until after the post-mortem.” I looked at the policeman for confirmation, but he was looking even more uncomfortable.

“What’s the problem? I asked.

He sighed and, before replying, looked at his partner. “As I told your sister, we cannot release the bodies until…” he paused, as if struggling for words – “until we’ve decided which parts belong to which victim.”

Lucy began to howl, a high-pitched keening like a bird in pain. I gently sat her in an armchair and turned back to the policemen.

“Tell me,” I said, then, when they showed signs of prevarication. “Please, tell me.”

The younger of the two looked pale and ill, but it was he who spoke first.

“Have you ever seen a butcher strip a carcass, so efficient that everything is packaged into parts?”

He gulped, suddenly having difficulty swallowing. “Well, that’s how it was. Five men and one woman to start with, around four hundred kilos of meat after. I don’t think you need to know more.”

I sat down hard, feeling dizzy.

He was still speaking, but I’d missed something.

“…Keep this information confidential until we find the killer?” He looked at me and I nodded, hoping this was the right response. Then the meaning of his words sank in.

“You mean you haven’t caught him yet?”

“That’s why we need your help – you, and your sister’s. We need access to company records, and I believe you two are the new owners. I’d like you to come down to the factory with us.”

“Now?” I asked, and received a double nod in reply.

“The sooner the better, Sir.”

“No,” Lucy moaned, “I can’t. Not into that place. Not where…” she broke down again, her sobbing so quiet as to be almost inaudible.

“Give me a minute,” I said to the police, and led Lucy out of the bar and up to her room.

“I’ll deal with the police,” I said. She nodded, but something was gone from her eyes, something that made her Lucy. She fished in her handbag and produced a bundle of keys that she handed to me as if she never wanted contact with them again.

“They’ll find what they want in this lot.” I had already turned when a soft word drew me back.

“Jeff,” she said, and she was definitely not the same woman I had left in the hotel earlier. The diminutive of my name had always been prohibited within the family, whether I liked it or not.

“Please be careful. I can’t lose you as well.” There were tears in her eyes as I hugged her close to me.

The policemen were waiting in the hall when I got downstairs. I tried to put them off till morning – it was already past midnight – but they used a line I had thought only applied in the movies.

“This is a murder investigation, sir.” Then he added, “the crime scene boys are nearly finished. We need to get you into the office now, Sir. You might see something we missed.” A minute later we were barrelling along dark country roads.

Sitting in the back of the car I felt like a criminal, and the silence from the men in front only reinforced my isolation.

“So have you any clues?” I asked, trying to keep my anxiety out of my voice.

“No,” the younger man said. “It’ll probably be some o’ them loonie lefties.” Now we were away from the bar his accent had began to re-assert itself. “We’re hoping that there’ll be something in yer auld man’s files – threatening letters or some such nonsense.”

Nothing more was said until we drove through Monymusk and pulled up in the drive of a modern, two storey timber building.

There was another policeman standing by the main door, and the remains of several cigarettes at his feet.

“Nothing to report, Sir,” he said to the elder of the two with me. Over the next couple of hours they went through every desk and filing cabinet in the office. They drew a blank. I sat in the largest chair in the boardroom and tried to ignore the fading bloodstains on the walls.

I was beginning to nod off when the officer came in.

“This has your name on it,” he said, handing me an envelope. “Is that your father’s writing?”

“Yes, it’s his.”

“Would you mind reading it now and telling us if there’s anything there that would help?”

He left me alone, and I sat for a while turning the envelope over and over in my hands. I wasn’t sure the old man had anything to say that I wanted to read. But he surprised me.

I’m leaving this in the hope you never read it.
There is something in this place. It’s old and
vile and it hates me. I don’t know why. It has
been coming in my dreams, and it is getting
stronger. Maybe you can deal with it better than I.
That is why I’m leaving the farm to you.
Now don’t get too excited. Lucy gets everything else.
It’s just that I hope this will soften your feelings towards me.
Believe me, I only ever did what was best for you.

I sat stunned. It was typical, no apologies, no remorse, in its own way the coldest letter I had ever read. But there were still tears in my eyes as I put it back into its envelope.

I sat for a while longer, just staring at the table. It was several seconds before I realised that I was staring at a brown manila folder. I opened it and found that I was looking at my father’s last piece of business, a proposal for the upgrading and mechanisation of the farm. There were drawings for fleshing machines, blades gleaming cleanly on the page, and huge industrial mincers, designed, I discovered, to scrunch and mangle bits not thought fit to eat – minced remains that were to be fed straight back to the animals. There was more about intensive farming practice, yield maximisation and other euphemisms for the proposed slaughter. My father hadn’t been concerned with a few hundred deer, he’d been planning for thousands – tens of thousands.

I needed some air. I left the office and headed outside, giving only a cursory nod to the policeman at the door. The road stretched away blackly on either side of me, but I had no intention of walking such paths again – not in the dark, anyway.

I turned the corner of the office block – and found a greater darkness ahead. I actually stepped backwards before I realised it was only a shed.

No, not just a shed. This was the biggest farm building I had ever seen, some forty feet high and twice as wide. I couldn’t gauge its length, but I knew it stretched some distance into the darkness.

As I got closer I noticed the smell, a not unpleasant mustiness. I realised that I was creeping, almost furtive. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that all this now belonged to me. I straightened up and, with a bravado I didn’t really feel, strode up to the shed.

The door was slightly open, and the sound it made when I pushed the sliding doors echoed loudly in the night. It also seemed to wake the shed’s occupants. There was a shuffling and a sudden lowing, and at first I was sure that the shed was full not of deer, but of cattle. I stepped forward and all sound ceased.

Several hundred pairs of dead eyes turned and stared at me.

I felt a hitch deep in my throat at the sight before me. They were in six rows, packed so tight that flank and rear touched rear, rears stained and packed hard in brown, vile muck. The stag nearest me lowed pitifully, a deep, mournful sound, soon taken up by every animal there.

The noise affected me somewhere deep in my soul and brought sudden, hot tears to my eyes.

I saw again the designs for the machinery in my father’s report, and could see in my mind these animals, their numbers multiplied ten fold, all falling into the metal’s embrace, all still crying that same piteous wail.

I believe I staggered, and would have turned and run then had it not been for the hand on my shoulder.

“Hello again,” a Scots voice said behind me, and I turned to face old Jimmy, the Glaswegian I had met in the bar earlier. He was no longer drunk, but didn’t look entirely sober either.

“Ah hate the early shift,” he said. “Ye hardly get time tae get over the nicht afore.”

“I suppose you knew who I was all the time?”

At least he managed to look embarrassed. “Aye – your auld man had a picture o’ you and yer sister in his office. He had maist o’ us in there tae get chewed oot at wan time or anither.”

The deer behind me had fallen quiet.

“They ken when it’s feeding time,” Jimmy said, and was about to turn away from me when I saw his attention caught by something over my shoulder. The colour drained from his face, leaving him pale and wide-eyed. But not for long. His pupils rolled up and he fell backwards in a dead faint.

I was almost afraid to turn, but I only had two options – run or stand. If there was one thing the last twenty-four hours had taught me it was that running never got you far enough away. My heartbeat was up and my palms were sweating, but I turned anyway.

Once more I was face to face with the hag. Her eyes looked at me from behind the mask, and there was a ferocity in them, a blue fire that seemed to blaze with a terrible heat. She spoke, the same thing she had said to me earlier, but this time it was barked, like an order.

“Are ye yer faither’s son, or are ye yer ain man? Are ye a butcher…” she said, and those razor sharp fingers waved in front of me once more, clacking together like diabolical scissors. I realised what had happened to my father, but I had no time to reflect on it as she continued.

“…Or are ye a herdsman? Mak yer mind up.”

Suddenly I was angry.

“My father didn’t deserve what you did to him!”

The hag didn’t reply. With a wave of her arms she indicated the animals in the pens.

I got her point. The deer didn’t deserve their fate either, and had done less harm than my father.

“Are ye a herdsman or a butcher?” the voice asked again, and once more the knives that were her fingers clacked together. Those blue eyes transfixed me, rooting me to a spot where there were decisions to be made, responsibilities to be taken.

I thought once more of my father’s planned future, seeing in my mind the stainless steel blades and the red life flowing, and realised that sometime in the last hour I had made my choice.

There was a groan from my feet. Old Jimmy was stirring, and when I looked up the hag had gone.

I pulled Jimmy upright.

“It wis her,” he whispered. “It wis the auld mither.”

“Yes,” I said. “And this time we’re going to do what she wants. It’s time to be herdsmen.”

Jimmy helped me open the pens. Many of the animals seemed unable to move, but with a bit of coaxing we got them into the field where they stood blinking in the first light of dawn.

“What noo?” Jimmy asked. “Those animals cannae fend for themselves – they’ve nae mind o’ their ain.”

I didn’t know. I had just done what felt like the right thing to do.

There was a sound behind us, and I turned to face the old mother one last time. I felt Jimmy creep behind me, keeping me between him and the hag as I stood transfixed.

A skeletal hand reached out, taking hold of my left arm and bringing it towards her mask.

I pulled back, aware at the same time that I had drawn the palm of my hand against one of the edges. I felt hot blood flow there, but I could not take my eyes away from hers.

I fell into that stare and, this time, as she leaned towards me, I didn’t back away, even as her mouth touched mine in a soft, almost loving kiss.

She tasted of musk. That and grass and heather and the wild smell of a cold wind on the hills. It made me want to run with her until there were no more machines, no more knives.

I brought up my fingers to touch her cheek and they touched rough hide, hide which came away in my hand at the same time as the cloak fell away, joined a second later by the skeletal hands. I looked down at the mask in my hand, then up into the clear eyes of a tall, muscular doe.

She lowered her head and bowed to me, twice, before trotting off across the field. The herd followed her, and the last we saw of them was as they headed over the brow of the hill beyond, their forms outlined in black against the red sky of a new day.

The Blue Hag, illustrated by Joe Doe

Copyright © 2010 by William Meikle and Graeme Hurry
Illustration © 2010 by Joe Doe
Originally published in Something Wicked Issue 10

William Meikle is a Scottish writer with nine novels and over a hundred short stories published in the genre press.

Graeme Hurry lives in Preston and edited the successful UK magazine Kimota for many years as well as the highly praised Northern Chills.

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