What Rough Beast
by Tracy Fahey
It’s flat. I touch the tyre with a cold, wet finger and squint through the snowflakes. Definitely flat. Thick flurries of white whirl in the headlights. For the last few miles I’ve been driving off-grid through the half-remembered criss-cross roads of my childhood. Inside, the satnav screen glows, showing a tiny car marooned on a stretch of unnamed white ground. I depress the lever and the boot pops open with a sharp ping. I push the shopping bags to one side, and pull out the emergency tyre. My mouth opens in a silent swear. It’s soft. I hold it to my ear and hear the steady, malicious hiss of a slow puncture.
I need to get home. I stand, snow carpeting my shoulders, flecking my face. My phone was the first thing I checked, but no. No signal. I’m hungry. I’m tired. And somewhere at the back of my mind, an insistent refrain – Did I take my medication?
The snow ebbs, halts mid-flurry. That’s when I see it, a constellation of lights ahead, red and white. My breath releases in a grateful ssshh. Lights. A house. A phone. I weigh it up. Stay in the car with no phone coverage. Walk the short distance to the lights. No contest. I need to get home.
My feet crunch the powder-light snow into hard prints. I switch on the torch app on my phone and let the wavering beam find the road. My hand smarts, cold and tingling. I screw my eyes up against the swirling whiteness and focus on the blinking lights ahead. Lights. A house. A phone. And if I’m lucky, I’ll have a steaming mahogany tea in my hand as the AA car rumbles into view, headlights spilling bright in the snowstorm. I think of chilled fingers curled around a painfully hot mug, and I stumble faster, phone beam spinning the snowflakes in a dervish whirl.
It can’t be much further. It can’t. My heart races. I need to get home. The lights are nearer now. I trip against a stone, figures loom large and dark in front of me. My heart hammers. No house. It’s the old roadside grotto, half-remembered from childhood. Larger than life-size carvings of Mary and Joseph bookend it, a manger full of snow glows red under the lights. I stand close to Joseph for shelter, the worn planes of his face in sharp silhouette, his scarred wooden hands filled with mistletoe. I remember him from endless car journeys as a child, long days waiting for the miracle of Christmas when the baby would miraculously appear in the manger. The snow beats down, harder now. What do I do? I need to get home, I think, but the thought itself feels woolly, blurred. Snowflakes crust my eyelashes. Mary stands opposite me, dark and grave, the traditional holly twined around her head; a crown of thorns.
I’m confused. Did I take my medication? I see the foil pack, days of the week lettered neatly underneath each blister.
Something strange. The manger isn’t empty. I push the snow aside with one frozen hand. There’s the tiny, stiff body of a robin underneath. I touch it gently, a wave of tears warm behind my eyes. Poor little thing. I cradle it in my palms. So small and so dead.
There’s a movement at the very edge of my vision. Mary’s holly wreath lies on the ground, berries crimson-vivid against the snow. I cup my fingers around the robin, snow freckling my face and eyes. In the distance I see the hazard flashers on my car blink red and urgent.
It can’t be. Beneath my numb fingers, a tickle, a pulse, a wriggle. There’s a sharp pain, a peck. I part my hands and the robin thrums shockingly to life, flying hard and fast and strong, straight up and away. A bead of blood blooms on my thumb.
I reach out to lean on Joseph, but stumble forward. He’s moved. His face has turned to mine, the red lights overhead throwing his harsh face into stark relief. I need to get home. For an instant I have an image of our old house, now still and frozen and empty in the bleak landscape.
It’s cold. So cold. The hazard lights still blink, a few hundred yards away, a lifetime away. I am blurred, untethered.
I know now.
I know I forgot to take my medication.
My vision fades at the edges. I look at Mary. Her chipped wooden hand points to the manger. As I look at it, it blurs, darkens. There’s a shape growing inside it; large and black and dense.
I need to get home.
The shape is growing now, bigger, blacker.
I need to get home, but I can’t remember why.
And as I look deep into the dark mass, a mouth opens. Huge and wet and red as blood.