by Liam Hogan
John Arnold’s traps were full; too many rabbits for one man’s needs. He could try selling a few down The Lamb for a fiver or maybe just a pint, though if he did he’d have to suffer the taunts of “gamekeeper turned poacher”.
It wasn’t accurate. It had been his dad, Bob Arnold, who had been the gamekeeper, for the estate that was now lorded over by a know-nothing Yank. Technically, Jack wasn’t poaching either, because Jack was a landowner himself. Only the gamekeeper’s cottage and its postage-stamp kitchen garden, passed down from father to son, having been unexpectedly bequeathed in the previous estate owner’s will. Unexpected, because who knew Old Man Farrington had a heart, let alone a soft spot for a long serving employee?
The local wags said Bob must have known where the bodies were buried, the Old Man’s second wife in particular. But she’d been thirty years her husband’s junior, so maybe she’d grown tired of waiting for him to die, something he always seemed on the cusp of doing, some ghastly wasting disease with an impossible to remember name. Little wonder the Old Man had become obsessed with the occult, or so the rumours said, when more practical remedies eluded him.
Jack stroked the cool, grey fur of the five limp, unresisting bodies, as he contemplated the tiny but startling difference between sleep and death. He dimly remembered Mrs. Farrington, the second wife, from when he was a lad. Crazy to think she must have been the same age he was now. She’d worn those years much better than he did. Her impossibly long black hair, glimpsed from afar, had seemed like a sleek garment; a selkie shawl. Maybe it was Jack’s bachelor perspective that painted her face, framed by those funereal curtains, as tragically unhappy.
She should have been more patient. She’d missed her payout by less than four years, even if it was four years of terminal decay, to both the Old Man and his estate. For a while after her disappearance he’d been rejuvenated, dispensing with the wheelchair for one last Indian summer swansong. But time had caught up with him in the end, pagan rituals or no.
His own father had followed the Old Man to the grave barely three months later. A heart attack, out here alone in the woods, his body found cold and lifeless a decade from drawing a state pension. Hands like claws and a face contorted in pain, in fear, by all accounts. The sparsely attended funeral was the same week Jack finished the university degree he never found any use for. The same week the manor house changed hands, sold to cover inheritance tax and other, accumulated debts.
Jack took up the gamekeeper’s cottage just in time to be rendered redundant by the new owner, who quickly proved he knew jack shit about the acres of land he’d bought. The florid Yank preferred a more comfortable remove between what was on his dinner plate and where it had come from. Headless fish and plucked and gutted fowl, shrink-wrapped and ready seasoned, oven temperatures and cooking times in easy to read print.
As far as Jack’s own dinner plans and limited budget were concerned, the gamekeeper’s cottage had come with perpetual hunting rights on the entire, slowly shrinking Farrington estate. So Jack was no poacher and his rabbits were fair game, even if more plentiful than he needed.
Another echo from the past crept up on him, as he hovered over his haul. His dad had shown him a cunning way of culling far more foxes than the horse and hounds of the disbanded village pack could ever cope with, and it all started with death. Death calls to death, his dad had claimed. And that was the beauty of a stinkpit. The bigger and ranker it grew, the more irresistible to foxes it became.
He’d not seen or heard of it done in, what, twenty years? Never done it himself of course, but the method seemed simple enough, if barbaric. He lifted a plump brace of rabbits over the shoulder of his ancient Barbour and dragged the other three along the grass. The perfect bait, for the perfect spot. A small depression, ringed by blackthorn hedges and off the beaten track, away from hikers and dog walkers. The same spot his dad had used.
J.A, a lanky teenager with a head full of the future, had been bored and infuriated by his dad’s insistence that he watch, that he learned, as if this was some vitally important skill, as though his dad already knew there wouldn’t be chance for a repeat lesson, ignoring the uncomfortable fact his son didn’t much care one way or the other.
He could still picture the scene, the exact location of the pit, still remember the cloying, pungent, sickly-sweet smell that lingered in his memory long after, if not in reality. He definitely recalled his dad telling him something about using five snares. Jack chewed his lip. Perhaps he should have paid more attention after all. Because he couldn’t remember if he was warned to always use five snares, or to never use five snares.
Five or six, what did it matter? Even at the time Jack had been aware that his dad was behaving oddly. On edge, his temper brittle, jumping at the slightest noise. Sitting up late into the night, a tumbler of rough scotch in one hand, and a shotgun–thankfully broken open but otherwise ready for use–across his blanketed knees. Early onset dementia was Jack’s retrospective diagnosis, the heart attack was probably a blessing.
There had even been a heated argument with the Old Man, a few months later, about the time the wheelchair reappeared and shortly before Jack headed to university. Over something his dad refused to do, not again. The details, but not the fury on both sides, had been masked by distance, as Jack leant against a fence post at a polite remove, feigning boredom but feeling nauseous. He’d never seen his dad angry with anyone else before, and had wondered how it might end.
It ended the usual way, which seemed horribly unjust. The sins of the father were visited upon the children, most often by the father. Jack had sworn it was the last beating, that he would stand up for himself in the future. After all, was he not fitter and taller than his dad? Was he not an adult now, his father’s equal, if not his better? And then he’d done everything he could to avoid testing his fragile resolve: not coming home between terms, not even for a weekend visit, claiming he needed to earn money–the only excuse his dad would respect.
After three years away he’d almost forgotten the smell of his father’s tweed, the moment of stillness before he erupted, the curl of his lip when Jack tried to explain what he was going to university to learn.
But the empty armchair, the too quiet cottage, hadn’t allowed him to. Funny how he’d let himself be dragged back by just the opportunity to live rent free. Funny how the only person he could possibly have sold the gamekeeper’s cottage to was the Yank whose lands surrounded and imprisoned it. Funny how he’d slipped into the man-sized hole his father had left behind.
Jack shook his head. What had got into him? He hadn’t thought of any of this for years. All he needed to remember was how his dad had laid out the stinkpit, the snares lying in wait for inquisitive foxes. He surveyed the spot, trying to figure out where they would have to approach from. The wickedly thorned bushes made that easy, made sense of the chosen location. Five snares, evenly spaced around the perimeter of the shallow depression, would fit just fine. Five? Ah, what the hell! Suspicious nonsense, whatever it was, like never neglecting to greet the magpies.
His load lightened to just the two rabbits, he headed back to his cottage via the orchard. The Yank’s apples came encased in plastic, in units of six, dosed in pesticides, from Waitrose. Such an awful goddamn waste of god’s own bounty, to see the fruit lying there, rotting away, wasps and slugs and birds the only beneficiaries.
Jack took a windfall. Just the one, eaten as he walked. He could have picked bagfuls straight from the trees, and no-one would have batted an eyelid. Probably.
But the right to hunt didn’t include scrumping apples did it? At the back of his mind Jack had always been wary of his inherited status. It might have been legal, but was it cast-iron? If the Yank ever decided to throw enough money at pet lawyers, if Jack ever gave him cause to, any transgressions would surely come back to haunt him.
The Yank, when he’d realised that on all his vast estate there was that one parcel he didn’t own, even if it was barely a twentieth of an acre, had thrown a casual but generous offer on the table. Enough to swap the cottage for an identikit new-build the developers were throwing up around the fringes of the hived off estate. Or for Jack to set sail for pastures new and never return. But he had still been in mourning, still uncertain what he was going to do with his life, and still stubbornly contemptuous of the smiling Yank and his easy money.
The odd, informal setup quickly became a talking point. The Yank would stand on his verandah with his dinner guests, look down and across the wide sweep of land and say: “All you see is mine. Except that bit. That bit belongs to John Arnold and the daft bugger won’t sell.”
Two decades later Jack was still chained to the cottage, and to the estate, even though he wasn’t paid for anything other than the casual work he did elsewhere, and even though the estate was now bordered in three directions by soulless housing developments, eating away at his hunting grounds. The old village pub had also held out against the tide of modernity, deliberately neglected for fear of being overrun by newcomers, who would pop their heads into the gloom, dream wistfully of a bright countryside gastropub, and never return.
No pub lunches for Jack From the un-fished trout pools to the plentiful rabbit and hare and partridge, he could dine like a king, any day of the week. A king, without a queen.
It turned out no-one wanted to share his cottage, or his hermit-like lifestyle. Or the temper he’d inherited from his dad, the one that only ever came out in private. Which was a shame, because there was always far more than he could eat alone. And, technically, his licence to hunt didn’t allow him to sell the surplus game that he caught. Or so some armchair lawyer down The Lamb had claimed. Maybe the easy jibe of the regulars wasn’t so far off the mark after all. Or maybe it was just bitterness.
Because the one thing Jack still did for the estate, for his own benefit, was to fend off any actual poachers, rare though they were these days. He did his night-time patrols with his father’s shotgun as often as not, and word got around. And if he found snares that weren’t his, he destroyed them.
It made him no friends.
Nor would the stinkpit. There was no real reason to do it, no burning need to cull foxes. The Yank wasn’t interested in breeding pheasants, or rabbits for that matter. He was probably more than happy to spot a wily fox waltzing boldly across his land, a ball of feathers stuffed in its grinning mouth.
Well, fuck him and his money. And fuck the small minded people in the pub. The ones who claimed Jack was a fake, that he wasn’t half the man his father was. That he didn’t deserve his nice little cottage or his hunting rights, that he was no custodian of the land. They said he was mere unskilled labour, no better than a seasonal migrant who didn’t know English.
A dig at Jack’s university education. What the fuck had he been thinking? Three years doing English Literature? Little wonder he’d barely scraped a degree. Not that Jack was stupid, or that a third was all he was capable of, but because the effort of doing any better was more than such an up its own arse subject was worth.
He’d seen straight, eventually. It was twenty years since he’d last picked up a book. But he knew this land as well as his father, even if he didn’t have the fancy job title. It was time to prove what he’d learnt, time to see what stumbled into his new laid trap.
The first day was a disappointment. The trio of rabbit bodies went undisturbed, the five snares lay empty. But it hardly lived up to its name yet, did it? Stinkpit. There weren’t even that many flies buzzing around the rabbits’ sightless eyes. He wondered if this was such a good spot after all. The quiet lay heavy and ominous, as though other animals were avoiding it, as if aware of the slaughter he had planned. Jack shrugged the feeling off. You had to be patient, with snares and traps.
On Wednesday there was a single, scraggly fox as reward, already dead, neck caught in the wire loop. When his dad ran his stinkpit, the tails of the foxes were the only bit he removed, before adding the fox bodies to the pit. It had turned Jack’s stomach. Not the death so much, not even the offensive smell, but the sense of waste, the sad trophies.
Those brushes, hanging in the outhouse for nearly three months, uncommented on when the local constabulary searched every corner of the estate for the missing second wife, had been turned in at the start of the grouse season, a bounty paid on each of them. That the owners of those tails had been dead for twelve weeks didn’t, apparently, matter.
He unclipped his pocket knife and set to. It was surprisingly tough work, the dead fox didn’t seem to want to part with his tail, and carrying it back to his cottage Jack felt a little repulsed by the tattered thing, hardly the luxurious brushes he remembered his father collecting.
By the end of the week it had been joined by two more. As a spell of fine autumnal weather brought back summer temperatures, the toll mounted and the smell from the stinkpit ripened, stirring distant memories before edging over into something that had him panting through his mouth, short, shallow breaths that left him dizzy and wet eyed, a sledgehammer reek that doubled him up and made him postpone breakfast until after the morning’s task was done. There was a new brush to cut and hang almost every day.
Friday arrived, and Jack was nursing a pint in the close confines of The Lamb, not sure why he bothered. They never cleaned their pipes; his beer was tainted by a whiff of sour decay. He was startled to be approached by a man he half recognised. Most times, people left him alone, or heckled him from afar. Most times, he only came into The Lamb to look for casual work when funds ran low, or the cottage needed a bigger repair than he could manage or scrounge materials for. The man held two pints, one in each hand, which rendered him at least relatively harmless, big though he was.
“You the one behind the stinkpit?”
“Yes?” Jack said, feeling himself tense.
The man nodded and put down one of the pints. “My thanks.”
“Chicken farmer, are you? If you want any of the brushes, you let me know,” Jack called to the retreating back as the man rejoined his mates.
He eyed the still settling pint with faint nausea. Should have eaten before he came out. Still, a pint unasked for was a rare thing, a thank-you even rarer. Most of all though he felt annoyance. He’d have to close the stinkpit, now. It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise it had been discovered; even less that it had been tracked back to him. But word would spread, and before long, before very long at all, some animal lover would kick up an almighty fuss, and the local paper might even splash a picture, and sure as eggs is eggs he’d cop the heat. He almost wished he had the balls to brazen it out, as no doubt his dad would have done, hiding behind the Old Man’s authority. But Jack suspected the Yank would be none too pleased when the stinkpit was discovered on his land.
Tomorrow. He’d fill it in tomorrow.
It’d be a job and a half, and a fragrant one at that. He couldn’t quite remember how long ago he’d caught those rabbits, but there were eleven fox brushes hanging in his shed, eleven copper haired carcasses rotting in the pit. And that wasn’t all. Someone else had been adding dead animals to the pile, maybe the chicken farmer, damn him. There were roadkill pheasants and the odd squirrel mixed into the bloated, decaying mess. There was even a cat in there, the mangled body devoid of any identifying collar that Jack could see from the perimeter, and that was as close as he’d been willing to get. Ignorance was bliss, for both him and the pet owner; at least he’d not had to deliver the bad news, explain where the ragged moggy was found.
By now the pit was, if not full, then at least a layer of dead animals thick, those in the centre a putrefying, rotten mass, those nearer the edge still looking like they might stir whenever he approached. Brambles and nettles grew thick around the hollow, as if revelling in the bloodshed, but even the grass had been buried at its sick heart, so that you couldn’t tell how deep the pit of death was. Never mind the cat, he could have hidden anything beneath that layer, and who would be brave enough to wade in and dig it out?
He slept uneasy. Hungover dreams haunted by pets that yowled at his door, turning with their decayed, half-exposed skulls and absent eyes to follow him whenever he tried to escape.
Skipping breakfast, he belatedly remembered he’d skipped dinner the evening before as well, staggering home after last orders. Hollow bellied and with a dull ache between his eyes, he headed out as the sun broke through the morning mist, carrying a shovel and a bottle of water. It was going to be another warm day; best get it done before the sun reached full strength.
He caught the smell of the pit while he was still some way off, the reek intensifying with every step, and realised he’d been carrying it around with him the past few days, the corruption clinging to his clothes. Ending this was well overdue.
On the wooded fringes something blotted out the sun, and Jack flinched as, with a sharp hand-clap, black wings soared above. A magpie, or a crow, or maybe a raven. He hoped the scavenger had had its fill, because shortly the pit would only be food for worms.
He tapped the knife at his belt, grimacing as his stomach gave another spasm. Despite it all, he fancied bagging a twelfth brush. Twelve would elevate the haul to something of legend status. Twelve–or was it thirteen?–had been his father’s tally. Twelve would make Jack his equal, at least as far as stinkpits were concerned.
He grinned as he came up on the first snare, despite the sourness of his stomach. That twelfth brush greeted him like a white-tipped arrow. And then, as he lifted his head to view the rest of the scene, he could hardly believe it. The same, to the left and right of him. Twice more, across the far side. Five foxes, one per snare, all facing the heart of the pit as if they’d converged from different directions. Probably they had.
Who knew the Yank’s estate held so many vermin? Or was the vile smell of the stinkpit pulling them in from miles around? He was shaking his disbelieving head, hands on hips, when something moved. Something in the pit. Among the dead animals. A dog? A cat? Or another fox, saved from the plight of his companions because the snares were already full, and too busy feeding to pay heed to J.A?
No: whatever it was was too smooth, too long… it was an arm. Christ, a human arm! Someone, some damned fool, had blundered into the middle of the stinkpit and come a cropper. Overwhelmed by the evil miasma, fainting away. An idiot local reporter or photographer, trying for the best shot and twisting an ankle in sudden panic.
Without pausing Jack plunged past the lifeless, attendant foxes and into the pit, his heavy boots crunching through rotted corpses, a cloud of flies bursting forth on a wave of fetid odour that momentarily threw him back, his hand raised to protect his face.
It was a woman’s arm. He could see that now, as it fluttered above the blood and guts, thankfully alive, but struggling. Too slender to be a man, even a young one. Toned; not like the arm of a woman in the first flush of youth, the easy curves of those who have never had to do much with them. Someone more mature, though not yet old. Someone around Jack’s age.
Leaning forward, stance unsteady, his feet sunk almost to his knees, he seized the hand as it flapped, opening and closing in the buzzing air. It was cold and slippery, but he gripped firmly and pulled.
A second wall of fat flies, denser than the first, filled his mouth and nose and eyes. He coughed and spluttered them away. As the bedraggled animal bodies shifted beneath him, white, squirming maggots were pushed into the light, wriggling with impotent fury. The more he pulled, the more arm was exposed, then a bare, bony shoulder. What the hell was anybody doing buried like that? And why were they not wearing any clothes?
From the edges of the pit, from the five points of a jagged star, a crude pentagram, the soulless eyes of the dead foxes watched, and disdained to answer his unspoken questions.
He continued to heave, the woman’s hand tightly gripping his, the slender neck coming up, and then finally the head, hidden by a curtain of long, black hair, tangled and smeared with blood and viscera, hanging at an uncomfortable, impossible angle, as though there was no strength left to hold it upright, on the brink of total exhaustion.
The woman’s other arm wrapped around his shoulder, limply at first, and then, as her back was exposed, she clung to him like an awkward dancer, throwing him off balance. He tried to take a step, but he couldn’t shift his feet, sunken in the mire, any more than he could free hers. It was like they were both stuck in quicksand, and slowly, horribly, Jack realised that with every pull, every strain of his muscles, he was sinking further.
The head lolled upright, and he was staring into the ichor-smeared face of the missing second wife of his father’s long dead employer. Her eyes fluttered open and flashed white amid the gore, as she wrapped skeletal limbs around him in tight embrace. He opened his mouth to yell, just as she locked her thin lips on his, and he sucked down a charnel stench fouler than anything he had suffered so far.
John Arnold’s gagging scream caught in his throat, swallowed greedily by the woman, swallowed by the grave, reverberating in his skull for all eternity as the putrid carcases closed rank above their heads, as he was dragged ever deeper beneath the fathomless stinkpit.
About the Author
Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Cast of Wonders, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London.
About the Narrator
Ant is based in Manchester in the UK with his husband Neil. He is a screen and voice performer as well as a digital content creator, editor and very occasional writer. In short; he is a control freak who wants to do ALL the creative jobs. When he isn’t cursing at editing software, he can be found walking his miniature schnauzer Hugo or immersing in obscure indie horror films.