To be fair, Grammy warned me. Father called it spinning yarn. Mother accused her of inducing nightmares, and I delighted in her grim tales of old. They were dark, and often violent.
My mother must have grown weary of her superstitions, because one day the stories stopped. Despite my pleading, Grammy refused to utter another word on the subject. With time, and many years beyond her passing, I forgot them. A distant memory of a crazy grandmother with deep roots into the old Scottish ways.
In this moment, I need Grammy’s guidance. Her stories held the lost answers. The bits I don’t recall are replaced by internet conspiracy theories from unknown contributors. My best chance of success rely on my vague memory and this bucket of rainwater.
I’m screwed, right?
It started with my wheat crops. Aphids were to blame. They nestled in the stalks, sucking the life from the wheat. I drained my bank account on seed treatments, cursing my luck and desperate to save my livelihood. Respite did not come.
Next, my neighbor’s potato crops failed. In his eyes, I was at fault. Two men tested my field and attributed the potato sickness to a virus carried by the aphids. I spent a terrifying afternoon at the wrong end of my neighbor’s gun barrel. In the end, buckshot peppered the roof of my barn rather than my corpse.
His shaky accusations keep me company during the sleepless nights. Which is most nights anymore. Only the rhythmic pattern of rain can lull me into slumber.
In hindsight, I wish I’d reported his actions to the police. Instead, I spent the afternoon staring at the holes in my rooftop and blaming myself for our mutual failure. My crops fell first. I missed the signs of infection. Because of my guilt, I told no one of my neighbor’s violent actions. A penance to my act of neglect.
The police visited my neighbor’s farm three days later. They found him at the end of a rope. Debt would have drowned him, so he chose a slipknot.
The day those letters flashed across my television screen, my heart stopped. Did I cause the crop failure in our region of the county? Was I the reason farmers were forced to sell their property to the fracking company?
I know better now. Proximity alone ensured I was the poor bastard affected first. If my neighbor was alive, he’d understand I wasn’t to blame. But I can’t undo the past. I should feel remorse for the family he left behind, but I don’t. I guess I’m a selfish asshole in that way. At the very least, it makes me a shitty neighbor.
That’s why I saw the monster. I’m not social. I don’t pay my neighbors' attention, and I’m satisfied they return the favor. Solitude is my favorite companion, but it invites vulnerability in other areas. I am alone. No one can corroborate my story. But I’m not crazy.
The dark rider is real.
That first night I swore it was a trespasser in the remnant of my dead crops. Initially, I chalked it up to local teenagers cutting through the field. I was well into a fifth of gin, barely minding the shadow stalking through the darkness. But the neigh of a horse caught my attention. As any farmer might do, I yelled at him to get off my property.
He ignored me.
Drunk on liquor, I stumbled down the steps of the back porch yelling at the ambling black silhouette. At first, the scene seemed normal; a man on a horse. But as it approached, I realized the rider’s torso was situated near the head of the horse, as though the horse was a malformed centaur. Long, slender legs hung down past the horse’s abdomen. A tall fellow. Or so I thought. Upon the riders approach, I realized they weren’t legs, but deformed arms.
Panic kicked in, and I hid behind a tree. The seconds like hours as the slow procession drew near. The air stunk of vulture vomit—shit and rotting flesh—as it seeped into my throat. I could taste it. It took all I could muster not to retch. If only the odor had stopped me from peering around the tree.
Until that moment, the darkness hid the rider’s disturbing features. It was the light from my barn that truly exposed the monster. The murky yellow haze bounced off the slick and veiny skin of the horse. In the nights since, I’ve discovered the horse’s skin is so thin it appears near translucent. Veins pulse and twist in a grotesque rhythm. The exposed muscles remind me of a time Grammy skinned a rabbit and hung it over a fire to cook - I’ve never eaten rabbit since.
As I’d imagined from a distance, a torso protrudes from the horses back, the horse’s muscle and veins feeding into the rider’s eyeless face and gaping mouth. In contrast to the black abyss of the rider’s eye sockets, the horse’s burgundy orbs penetrate its surroundings like two taillights.
I’ll admit, I wrestled with my sanity. The first night I swore it was the trick of gin and twilight. I would have accepted any sound answer to rationalize what I’d seen. Only when dark faded to light did I remember Grammy. With the morning sun came sobriety and a lost memory. Grammy spoke of a dark rider.
Bless the internet.
The search didn’t take long. Enough commonalties to what I’d seen, and other accounts matched up quickly. The Nuckelavee. The word on the screen rattled the cages of my mind like an angry animal trying to escape.
Grammy’s tall-tale came back in patches. A legless demon protruding from the back of a horse. It comes from the sea, venturing from its salty dwellings when enraged.
At first, I had no theory why it infected my lands. What had I done to a sea dwelling monster? I’ve since concluded I’m collateral damage. Not the victim, but a bystander.
It’s been two weeks since the first sighting. Last night I followed it. I decided something had to be done after the news reported cattle and horses falling ill. Our town was in ruins, and the neighboring cities were crumbling. I needed to see where it went.
Unfortunately, I’m not just an unsociable asshole, I’m also a coward.
As dusk settled, I drowned in anxiety as Grammy’s old clock kept time. The seconds a slow and steady march to the firing block. What horrors was this creature was capable? Was it a real demon?
The gin supply had vanished, so the whiskey cap hit the floor. My hands shook, and I hardly registered the spicy liquid as I ingested it. I don’t like whiskey, but it was the remaining bottle in the cupboard.
I was drunk when the dark rider passed through my property, meandering closer than the preceding nights. I waited on my porch, fear dampened by the bottle in my hand.
The rider wandered towards the road and I stumbled behind, sticking to the tall grass which wilted before my eyes. Every time the rider stopped, my heart stampeded.
Did it hear me?
The horse’s veiny ears would perk up, followed by its head. Then the rider would change course, guiding the horse in a new direction. The duo stuck to the shadows, but I caught glimpses of the rider’s jagged mouth as it sucked breath.
We reached town.
With the comfort of the town lights and the promise of nearby persons, my confidence increased. So I drew closer, the odor of rotting flesh assaulting my nostrils. Together we crept towards the heart of my sleepy community, the confident rider, and me, its unstable shadow.
However, the streets were devoid of residents. What time was it? Concern crept in. Any cries for help would go unnoticed.
My mistake registered before I made it. A slow-motion movie reel of my impending screw-up, then, cut to reality. I was focused on the rider rather than the corner I rounded.
With horror, I watched the metal trash can tip into the road, nearly empty, as the lid shot off one direction and the can clattered against the uneven setts. Glass bottles rolled into the street, their hollow echo bounding off the brick buildings. Thinking to run, I spun and tripped. My palms burned as I hit the cold sidewalk. But I didn’t care about the cuts on my palms; my concern was the rider.
It stared. Right at me.
The sickly flesh pulsating in the rider’s empty eye sockets, compounded by the intense blood-red eyes of the horse.
Silence followed. Me clutching my bottle, the rider a towering nightmare.
The street lights flickered out.
I’ve read midnight is the darkest hour between sunrise and sunset. If true, this was the void into which all light faded. I thought I died. Or perhaps the sky received its fill, because the lights flicked back to life, the glow blinding.
Frantic, I found my footing and bolted. The safety of my home calling me as I sprinted across the road. Mid-stride, I glanced back towards the dark rider and stopped.
I blinked a few times before peering down the street, expecting to see it walking towards its destination.
The bottle felt heavy in my hand. I took another drink. Should I look for it?
“Hold it right there!”
The bottle fell from my hand and crashed into the pavement, shattering.
I obeyed, finding myself faced with an anxious deputy brandishing his gun.
He was a younger kid, with dark hair and large eyes. I fumbled for his name.
“Oh, for shits sake…” The kid holstered his weapon. “Yer the farmer off twenty-nine.”
I looked over my shoulder, then back at the deputy. With a nod, I tried to formulate my thoughts. Was the rider watching us?
“What you doin’ out here?”
I pointed towards town. “I-”
The deputy’s eyes fell to the smashed bottle at my feet. “Yer sloshed.”
Impatient, I tried to warn him about the rider who haunted the darkness. I pointed to the street again.
“There’s a curfew. Everything is closed, including the bar.” The deputy sighed. “Don’t you watch the telly?”
The deputy needed to understand. “I wasn’t…” Then I stopped myself. “There’s a curfew?”
His eyes narrowed. “The protests against fracking?”
I shook my head.
“The cause of the crop failure and disease?” The deputy seemed to grow impatient.
I debated telling him this sweeping illness was the fault of the dark rider.
“It turned violent a few days ago. Employees have gone missing.” The deputy eyed me with suspicion. “I’ll ask again, what are you doing out here during a ban?”
What else could I do? I lied.
“Bottle got low.” I pointed to the shattered glass.
The deputy stared at my feet again, disgust clear in the downward curl of his mouth. “I’ll drive you home.”
That was last night.
I read the news this morning. Farmers who hadn’t sold their property protested the destruction of their crops. Animal rights activists screamed their mantra as reporters soaked up every detail and broadcasted it to the world. Employees of the fracking company were disappearing, feared dead by their families.
To me, the message was loud and clear. The dark rider came for them. It comes for those who anger it.
Evidence of the effects of the fracking exist. The news is certain it’s polluting the water in this area. You might say I’m a drunk - lately it’s true - but you can’t say I’m crazy. Poisoned water did not destroy my farm. Aphids did. Water didn’t lead to the failure of my neighbor’s crops. A mutated virus was the cause. What about the pestilence with the animals?
No, I’ve seen the cause.
The dark rider is to blame. Humans may have incurred its wrath, but its rage has nothing to do with me.
Grammy said the dark rider comes from the salt of the sea. I remember her stories now. It fears the freshwater brought on by rain. I can’t control the weather, but I can try to drive it home.
They’ll say I’m crazy, or they’ll say one farm is not worth protecting. I don’t want to save the world, just my piece of it. So I sit here alone, bottle in hand and bucket of fresh water at my side, waiting.
If you liked this short story, check out my debut novel RISE OF THE SONS.