the black snow extract
It was the beginning of darkness when Matthew Peoples saw it first. The thick shape of him upright in the field halfturning to scratch a nick at his shoulder. He stood there stripped to his grey vest unwashed and puzzled quietly upon what he saw — a thin cat’s tail curling grey into the sky, some kind of smoke that mingled easy with the cloud’s pewter. Evening was pressing down gentle and in the way the light fell he could have missed it, a yellowing that shook upon the fading day and cast the fields of Carnarvan in a flaxen glow. Three human shapes in that field and a triplicate of shadows winnowing long beside them. The bay horse for a moment easy.
Hardly a word was Matthew Peoples’ style until the work was done and maybe then he’d say a few words, a suck on his pipe and he would lean back and crack a joke quietly. He cleared his voice now and when he spoke he found himself unheard. He bent again to the work, the hair on his hands white to match the white shadow of his jaw, and he bore old-man eyes that sat deep in his skull, marked him out as older than he was. His hands red and spading at rocks that had sat for who knows how long in compact tight with the earth, lay orphaned now by the side of the field.
Matthew Peoples was following behind the horse. Eight years old she was and there was something unsettled about her. He had led her out from the stable that morning but she balked in the yard, tried to back up away from him, snouting the air with intransigence. Hold it easy there you. He thought he could smell an anxiety, something quavery beneath the skin, and he stared at her and took in the dark glass of her eye and saw in her the lengthening warp of himself. She blinked heavy a few times, turned her gaze towards the ground like she was in reverie about something and he watched her then lift a knee as if he had dreamed the disagreement. He was no expert with horses but he’d told Barnabas Kane about it and the man’s mouth made for a smile that did not reach the smiling place of his eyes.
When she’s not right she’ll as good as tell you, he said.
Well maybe she did.
Matthew pulled from the earth a stone shaped strange and he stopped and rubbed at its muck. A quality to it he saw and he spat on it and wiped it on his trousers. The stone was discoidshaped like some neolithic tool he had once seen pulled out of a field, and he wondered if it was — the item smooth and flat and moulded by ancient hands he guessed as near a perfect thing. He looked towards Barnabas’s son Billy and held it up for him to see but the boy stood staring into his own thoughts. He was beside the horse, cradling his hand in his shirt, having scratched it earlier off a snarl of old bottle sticking out of the earth. He turned from the boy and pocketed the stone. The blue rope he used as a belt had come soft and he redid the knot and bent again to the work. A feeling then began to worry at him, like some strange tongue that came from a place felt but unformed, and he looked up the field towards Barnabas who had stopped to adjust the horse’s hitching. A gleam of power in the way Barnabas stood, squat and coiled under the muck-stained shirt. The stance of a man who was generally agitated. A man prone to thoughts of deeper things but awkward to mention it. The growing lank of Billy beside him, fourteen years old with a pussing face.
In the kitchen she found the stove ticking. Must of turf and the savour of cooking stew. Lavender on the air lightly. A storm of crumbs as usual about the place where Matthew Peoples had sat down to eat, big slow hands reaching for the black bread and pulling at it. She wiped the deal table and saw they were near out of loaf. Time soon enough to light the lamps. Around the room the gloaming bore its shadows that stretched like a circus of dark animals waking.
The field was an uneven hummocked thing long unused, lay like a withered leg alongside wider pasture made separate by trees. It was of no use other than as a dumping ground. At the start of February Barnabas had stood knuckling his cheek and said he was sick of looking at the place. A funny few days of warm weather. We’ll plough it up and get the rocks out of it and manure it to fuck and let’s see. They stood looking over it. Swathes of the field nettle-fleshed that roiled when the wind rose up a wild sea. Halfhid amidst them was the wreck of an old grubber spored with rust. They had to drag it out using the horse and left the old implement tensed and gnarled in a hollow by the trees. The field cornered with bunching blackthorns and Matthew Peoples went at them flashing smiles with a billhook.
The horse was giving Barnabas trouble and Billy stepped in to lead it by the harness. Barnabas looked at the boy and walked over to him, took his hand in his own. Go back to the house would you and get that tended to by your mother. He let go the boy’s wrist and pinched him softly in the ribs and Billy shrank away from him. Leave off will you. He stood there looping the end of his shirt around his hand ignoring the instruction.
Barnabas sighed. You’ll ruin that shirt.
Shirt’s old as fuck anyhow so it is. I can fix the horse.
The horse doesn’t need no help.
Billy leaned in to examine her. A coin-sized patch of hair missing just behind the harness and he walked around and saw the same on the off side.
She’s going raw so she is.
I doubt that.
Maybe we should rest her.
Barnabas laughed. That horse’s been on her holidays, lying in field and stable all week. Billy soothed the horse’s muzzle, looked into the dark of her eyes as if he could transmit some feeling or intention into her.
Matthew Peoples stretched his back and he heard then the distant sound of the byred cattle. Lowing like a sour wind. What in the hell’s up with them? The damned rope-belt had come loose again and he fixed it tight and felt some queer thought nicking at him and he turned and caught sight then of the smoke, saw how the curling cat’s tail had thickened into a spiral of dark slate. He watched how it folded upon itself and in an instant seemed to increase twofold and he looked across to the others, felt something flutter inside him. His voice in his throat tight and his mind seized upon words and made them concrete.
Hey boys, he said.
Billy’s mongrel, Cyclop, had appeared in the field beside him, stood watching fierce-gazed with his orange eye unblinking. The dog with a mind of his own, a lordly indifference to the call of anybody and he turned and woofed toward the trees. Barnabas stood wondering. Maybe the horse was getting old or maybe there was something wrong with her like Matthew Peoples said but he couldn’t see what it was. Never a bother before. And that boy needs to get that hand of his sorted. His face was hot and he was itching under his shirt and he waved at a fly buzzing by the horse’s withers. He turned to his son.
Would ye go and get that hand seen to. You’ll get it infected so you will.
The boy looked down at the hand and the blood on the shirt and he addressed the ground as he spoke.
I’m all right so I am.
Go on and get the rod for the horse then.
Barnabas bent and grabbed a rock shaped like the tooth of some old animal that had fallen there to die under the wheel of an ancient sun, and perhaps that may have been, but as he tossed it lazy towards the ditch Matthew Peoples took a step forward and cleared his throat again. Jesus Christ, boys. They took no notice of him or perhaps they didn’t hear, for later in their memories what each of them heard was the dull sound of Matthew Peoples’ boots thudding up the field. Not a word from the man and something comic about the way he moved with his limbs all thickly, like he was set to stumble and hit the ground at the knees, fall without his hands into the dirt face-forward, break apart into his constituent elements. But they’d never seen him move quicker, his hands balled like stones and the whites of ankles winking at them through the rise and fall of his slacks. And if Matthew Peoples had known what he was running towards he might have stopped right there, turned instead for the road gated at the far side of the field. Barnabas wondering what was up with the man when he heard him bellow belatedly, a single word that came backwards over the man like a lobbed stone. Had to hear it twice in his mind till his eyes travelled to a place above the trees where he saw the swirl blackly, a shimmy of smoke that seemed to do a bow just for him.