Sprake has returned!
I fear what it portends.
Lower Wirklesworth is one of those villages that nowadays must share its vicar with three or four others in his parish. When he gave Charteris access to the church, it was on the understanding that we would not intrude on the days when services – which rotate between the villages – were being held there. Today is such a day. There is a wedding, I gather, though it is difficult to imagine any of his shambling parishioners seeking a religious blessing upon their unseemly propagation.
Finding it hard to concentrate on my work while the others began to stir, I happened to glance out of the window, and there, in the mist that shrouded the orchard this morning, I saw him. Sprake.
Naked, apart from a cape he seemed to have fashioned by reversing one of those hospital gowns that do not fasten up the back, he eagerly stroked at his tumescent manhood.
I rose, stunned, and the others followed my gaze.
Sprake spilled his seed onto the bark of a stunted apple tree, and danced away out of sight.
‘Bacchus and Priapus,’ Charteris laboriously quipped, ‘we should not be surprised to find him playing Pan, now should we?’
The other morning, when Charteris had sent us to our tasks, found a shovel and a supply of bin bags, collected and disposed of the animal debris ringing the cottage, even found a hose somewhere to wash away the blood and feathers and fragments of bone, I found myself for the first time ever beginning to admire him. He did it quietly, fastidiously, without any fuss, neither commenting on it nor expecting our gratitude. But today, as he mocked Sprake and seemed disinclined to aid him, any hint of approbation and esteem I might have felt died.
‘He’s out there, in this weather with no clothes,’ I said. ‘He’ll die of exposure if we don’t do something.’
Charteris stared at me, puzzled, as if seeing something for the first time, then ordered us to quarter the orchard for any trace of the poor bewildered man.
After a fruitless hour, we regrouped at the cottage. The mist was turning to fog, and we had still not breakfasted. Shortly after Dyson left for the farm to collect our supplies, a car pulled up. It was Dr Raymond, as sallow as ever. He had come to tell us of Sprake’s escape, and to see if he had returned here. ‘I didn’t inform the police yet, as I thought it might be resolved without any fuss,’ he explained. ‘You keep searching, I’ll drive out of the valley and call the rescue services once I can get some reception on this damn phone.’
Ten minutes later Dyson’s cries for help reached us through the thick and sodden air, ringing like a gong. The fog had become so thick he could not find his way back. Charteris and I went to make tea, while MacReady stood outside, calling at regular intervals to guide Dyson back.
He stumbled into the kitchen, empty-handed and clearly shaken.
‘I can’t find the farm,’ he explained.
I am the only one who never goes to there – I dread finding myself alone with any of the locals, whose unfocused physiognomies and hobbling brute forms I confess disturb me deeply – but I understand the path to it is straight and unbroken, with no junctures or offshoots that might mislead one, and Dyson has a level-head and steady nerve. I cannot make sense of his perturbation. He says he did not stray from the path, that it seemed to shift beneath him, like some inhuman sentience drawing him into its bosky tentacular embrace, sprouting ligneous ungulae to catch in his hair and clothes.
The farm, he insists, is no longer there.
The fog is growing heavier, killing the light. I can no longer see the trees, though I sense them drawing closer – the spawn, perhaps, that Sprake returned to grubbily fertilise?