The Sheepdog Killings


After Elle finished her breakfast, Mortimer began pawing at the door, anxious to leave the house. Elle ignored him. She put on her green rain boots methodically, donned an oilcloth jacket over the ragged brushed sweater that rose to her throat.

The door out the back of the kitchen jammed as Elle pushed at it. Mortimer whined and threw his bulk up on the chipped white paint. The door jammed most days, expanding against its frame in the dry winter air.

Elle pushed the door again. She tried to force it and leaned against the wood. When it burst open, it moved too quickly. She sprawled out of the opening and had to catch herself on a post. Mortimer pounded past her. He ran fast circles and sniffed the ground around Jasper’s grave.

Elle let her eyes follow the dog. She couldn’t help but think the grave looked like it had been pounded down more. She walked part of the way to it, stopping just short of the shadows cast by the looming trees at the wood’s edge. Mortimer had reached the tree line, but he balked away with a whimper.

He ran back to Elle’s side and turned to face the trees.

She put her hand on his haunches and stared at the grave. There was an indentation in the freshly turned soil. It looked like a footprint.

Mortimer barked at the trees.

“Shhh, shush,” she said, petting Mortimer’s haunches and seeing his ears go flat back against his skull as he stared into the trees.

An old maple sagged just beyond the stonewall at the forest’s edge. Its branches swept down to the underbrush, whisking by ferns. The previous night’s rain weighed the boughs down, drawing into darkness everything underneath the tree’s bulk.

But beneath the maple, something moved. Big and slow and rumbling away into the tree line. “Whatcha think that is, Mort? Bear?” Elle kept her voice light, but it hadn’t looked like a bear. It was large, dark, loping into the trees. Elle tried to convince herself it was nothing. She kept imaging Jasper’s bloody carcass halfway into the river, but that had just been the rocks, the falling rocks off the bridge.

Mortimer growled, digging one of his paws into the dirt.

Elle looked back at the trees. She didn’t see anything now, just branches swaying back and forth over the ground. Elle dug her hand into Mortimer’s fur, kneading her fingers. She didn’t let go until he yelped and tugged away.

“Sorry,” she whispered to him. He licked her fingers.

Elle looked to the trees again, searching for something, anything that looked like an animal or a figure. There was nothing.

The wind was picking up. She gazed down the valley: it swept away before her, long and narrow from the farmhouse and along the line of the brook. The trees rose up on all sides beyond the pastures. Over the past century, the copses and forests had advanced little by little, pushing out the peripheral paddocks one after another. The trees had forced a retreat of pastureland and the flock had diminished along with their grazing lands.

Uncle Ernie was a latter-day marcher baron. He owned eight hundred acres here — although now just over fifty were pasture. The whole of the farm was stretched out along the brook that ran a rambling course between wooded fells and sheep’s lands.

The farmhouse where Elle lived with Mortimer and Auntie Louise — before she was at [MJS1] the hospice in Bangor — clutched against the hillside. The barn was two hundred yards away, the tool shed the same distance in the opposite direction. The house was the terminus of the endless driveway that ran about the property, fraying at the edges like rope into the pastureland.

The whole place was a morgue. It had barely functioned as a farm even before they’d taken Uncle Ernie to the hospice. His ledgers had run red with blood, crimson ink filling page after page, for years uncounted.

There were now only a few dozen sheep remaining. They would lose themselves in the sun, wandering away into the far reaches of the pastures until Mortimer or Jasper sought them out and brought them back into the fold. In autumn they stayed in the barn much of the time, and in winter they would seldom leave it.

The barn looked like it would have made a nice postcard a few decades before, down a slight incline from the house and red like an idealized image of New England. Neatly built post-and-beam, doors broad and thick. But it was crumbling now, falling apart, paint chipping away. The gaps between boards whistled with wind now, too far apart to protect the sheep from the cold they knew was coming soon.

Elle moved to pull the bar out of the door’s latch, but found it missing. She’d thought she’d put it in tight the night before, but then, sometimes the wind blew the doors open and threw the wooden bolt to the dirt. Must’ve happened again. Inside, Mortimer barked and Elle pulled the cord that dangled down from the lightbulb that hung from a rafter.

All the sheep but one were in the corner to Elle’s left. They were huddled tightly together, breathing earnestly against each other. A cross hung from the wall just above the sheep. It had been there since Elle had come here to play as a little girl, always there to judge her. The fire-and-brimstone preachers of New England lore were gone — the cross in the barn remained.

The one sheep that wasn’t in the main group danced in a mania, stirring up the sawdust on the earthen floor. He was in the space opposite the flock, the dark far corner of the barn. He was silent.

Mortimer barked. He pushed forward toward the lone sheep and nipped at his haunches. He chased the sheep back to the flock. They looked like they wanted to scatter. The ewes on the periphery began to eye the door, but Mortimer barked at them and ran a semicircle around their flanks. He stayed at the edge of the flock and eyed the far corner where the sheep had danced. His ears were pushed far back and he looked as if he wanted to melt into the waiting crowd of sheep, but couldn’t; he was the guide, the herder, and he could not enter the flock.

Elle followed Mortimer’s gaze. The corner was dark.

“Lily?” Elle called out softly, looked into the mess of sheep to see if the old dog was there, perhaps laying down amongst the white-and-black bodies.

Then Elle looked to Mortimer. She let her eyes follow his gaze — upward. Lily’s head hung from the rafters by a rope, a bloody spinal cord with bits of organ and tissue still hanging from it dangling out beneath. The head was ripped off, not cut, and the rest of the body was nowhere to be seen, except the blood and bits of gore that had spattered the walls and floor. There was a pool beneath her, part water from the rain, part Lily’s blood. It reminded Elle of the end-game of an elk hunt, the antlered head chopped off for a trophy and the body left to hang over a drain as the blood streamed out.

Elle stepped out of the barn and retched.

Emulsions and Negatives

Uncle Ernie kept a rifle above the fireplace, hung like a musket in an old colonial cabin. It was ancient, a bolt-action Winchester fourteen-shot repeater that had three decades’ dust clogging the barrel. Elle doubted it worked but she took it down anyway and wiped grime from the muzzle.

She put the rifle in the hayloft last. Second to last was Mortimer. Elle’s thighs strained when she lifted him through the grain chute. From the loft, she could watch the sheep and feed them. It seemed safer up there, high above the barn floor.

She hated staying in the barn, though. Even after taking a hose to the wall where Lily’s blood had been, the place reeked of death. But she couldn’t leave the sheep — just a few dozen now, since Auntie Louise had sold so many when her husband went into hospice. She couldn’t leave the shivering white balls of wool alone but for themselves in the darkness.

Mortimer would edge to the hayloft’s lip, eyeing the sheep below, sometimes growling if they strayed too far from the center of the flock — even inside the barn, the sheep huddled together. But Mortimer would retreat quickly. He did not like the cusp, just above a fifteen-foot fall to the roughhewn floorboards.

Elle had bolted the barn doors and brought up a picnic basket full of bread, cheese, and water. The red-and-white checkering on the basket’s cloth-clad sides was too joyful for this. It was too happy for the rifle she leaned against it.

The loft was deadened. Half was filed with grain for the sheep. Part was blanketed with hay and squeaked of mice and voles. At the rear of the space — which was perhaps three hundred feet square, if that —were the remnants of Elle’s grandfather’s photography habit. He’d been a farmer who tried to commit acts of art but was no more cut out for that than he was for sheep-rearing. A few heavy cloth walls were torn away from a makeshift darkroom at the very back. A wooden tripod leaned precariously against the sloping roof. Old emulsion canisters were scattered across the floor, negatives and a few lenses strewn about.

The metallic sheen of silver halide and gelatin from the emulsion bottles leaked on the floorboards. A camera with the accordion-like lens in a leather box with a tiny sight at the top sat on a rusted filing cabinet. A few cardboard boxes — soggy from rain seeping through the ceilings for at least a half century — were set in a distant corner.

Elle picked up a negative. It was dark in the barn and only a few streams of flight flowed through gaps in the ceiling. The golden light on the ground floor barely shone up the ladder and grain chute to the loft.

She held the negative up to a crack in the ceiling. It was a picture of her father and Uncle Ernie as young boys. Elle’s father was gripping an ewe around her neck and hind legs while Uncle Ernie sheared her. They couldn’t have been more than ten and twelve. She put the strip of plastic down on the filing cabinet.

Elle rubbed Mortimer behind his ears in that place where dogs’ fur is softest. She knew the barn was stained. Lily’s blood was barely sprayed away by her efforts with the hose that afternoon. She hadn’t dared go near the forest edge. She tried and tried to force herself to believe the blackened shape had been a buck, a moose, a bear, anything. It wasn’t any of those, though. She knew that. So she couldn’t go to the forest edge and instead dug Lily’s grave down the slope, in the open pastureland below the house. Another trash bag was wrapped around what was left of the body, mostly just spine and battered head.

Mortimer had set a watch behind her. He whimpered but did not bark or cry out. He hadn’t tried to sleep at the grave as he had with Jasper; instead, he lingered for a moment when Elle called him inside, then loped quickly to join her at the door.

She fed Mortimer dinner an hour early and packed the rest of his kibble in the picnic basket she found in the pantry. Everything else she would need for a day above the flock — food, a blanket, the half-broken satellite phone that was the only thing that received service on the farm — she threw pell-mell into the basket.

Elle picked up another negative from the grimed floor and held it up to the light shining through a gap in the ceiling. A dark copse between paddocks with a handful of sheep in the middle distance. She dropped it and tried another. An ancient woman in a rocking chair Elle vaguely recognized as a long-dead great aunt. She tossed that one aside, too.

Handful after handful of negatives slipped through Elle’s fingers, each held up for a moment to the light — then discarded. It wasn’t as if she had anything better to do, after all. Each of the pictures was of the farm: there was one of Elle herself as a toddler with a hand in Belvedere’s scruffy fur (he was Lily’s sire); there were old pictures of sheep and of dogs and of relatives now gone.

And they were dark, blackened images that even as negatives looked grim and sad. Elle shuffled through almost all the photos spread out on the floor and along the cabinets’ tops before she came to it. Just one picture, darker than most, a photo of the old bridge where she’d found Jasper. It looked like the photo had been taken in a rain or mist, perhaps just before dusk when the sun was slipping but not quite gone. The bridge rose up some way in the distance, the gap in the middle like a newspaper torn down the middle. The trees bent across the gap, swaying down from above and whisking across the brook’s banks.

The photo was grainy, blurred at the edges as if the hand taking it had shaken just as the button was pressed. The picture itself was so totally unremarkable Elle nearly threw it aside. But in the corner of the photo was a dark splotch. It caught Elle’s attention, not for itself but because it was unlike her grandfather. Most of his photos were unblemished, without any blackening even after many years. But it wasn't blackened from age, she saw after a moment. It was a figure, a shape at the edge of the frame, standing up above the bridge just where the rocks had fallen to hit Jasper.

She couldn’t tell what it was. It just looked like a blur; that was likely down to the camera. It seemed to have jostled in her grandfather’s hand. She squinted at it, tried to find some level of normalcy. The figure looked bizarre, disfigured in darkness. Elle shuddered.

The rocks above Jasper. Elle had thought they’d just fallen. Rocks fall in the countryside as bits of construction material fall in the city, and Jasper’s death had seemed an accident at first. Then she’d found Lily. Then she’d found the photograph, the watcher above the bridge just where the rocks had been.

Elle looked over at Mortimer. He was a few feet back from the cusp of the loft, just able to see the sheep but not close enough to the edge to feel threatened. He looked peaceful until she saw his eyes: bright, alert, scanning the darkness from left to right, up and down. She put the photo down, then, after a moment, threw it into the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. Elle picked up the last few negatives but didn’t see anything else odd; she’d only picked them up to try to find another from that same day with the shape, but there was nothing. The last photo was of her aunt and uncle being married at the Church of All Souls down the street. Her father was best man, smiling his crooked smile at the camera. The cross, just above his head on the church’s wall, was broken in half, the top dangling off the shingles.

Elle put her hand on the rifle. It was getting dark outside now. She didn’t want to leave the sheep there but… what could she do if whatever killed Lily came back, anyway? Elle looked at the empty picnic basket, the last breadcrumbs in the bottom.

The hunger decided the matter. She’d spent the day staring at old negatives but already she wanted a huge dinner, even after the hearty lunch she’d packed. Mortimer looked as if he could use food, too.

Elle lowered the dog down the grain chute, then dropped down with his kibble bag, the basket, the rifle. She bolted the barn doors tight and tied off the crossbar with a length of cable she’d found inside. She threw her weight at it and it held firm.

“C’mon, Mortimer,” she said.

The Awful Grace of God

Elle made mac’n’cheese that night. It was thick, the homemade kind that little children learn is better than the store-bought kind at just about the same time they start eating far less mac’n’cheese. She’d needed it, the empty calories and deep, comforting wash of cheddar and parmesan over the white noodles, sprinkled with breadcrumbs on top. Elle had never been much of a cook, but she could do this, and do it well.

Mortimer got a few pieces of chicken and ground beef with his kibble. She’d wanted to put in a half a steak, chopped, but there was none. Elle thought he deserved the treat. They’d curled up together on the couch — just the two of them, a book Elle had been struggling with, and the rifle. She’d tried to fire it into a shrub on the way back to the house. It hadn’t worked. She wasn’t surprised. It still felt good to have it with her, her hand heating up the metal on the barrel as she held it.

Mortimer got up suddenly and walked to the back door. He barked once, then twice. Elle set her book on the end table and took the rifle up in both hands like a club. The door was one of those old things with a top that could open independent of its bottom, white-painted and with a lip along the edge to rest cooling pies.

There was nothing. Elle stared into the blackness for a long time. She didn’t even feel the hairs on her neck standing up. There was, really, nothing. She began to feel almost safe; it was a strange sense, but there was the noise of the sheep bleating in the night, peaceful sounds from the barn. Mortimer curled at her feet. Nothing.

“Wanna go to bed, bud?”

Mortimer looked up at her. “Yeah?” She asked him again, reaching down to stroke the top of his head. “Good boy.”

She took the stairs slowly, listening to the creaking steps as she made her way up the stairs. The walls along the staircase were covered in old photos. Elle even recognized a few: the results of the negatives she’d seen in the barn. The photo of the figure above the old bridge was nowhere to be seen.

Elle changed quickly, slipping out of her clothes and into makeshift pajamas. She knelt by the bedside, reciting a few prayers she had said each night for as long as she could remember.

She opened her eyes and made to get up.

Mortimer barked.

The dog ran to the door. It closed from the outside but he threw his feet up onto it, pushed at it for all he was worth. The house was old and the doors secured by latches, wrought iron pieces that were mainly bent and barely fit into their slots anymore. The door opened under Mortimer’s weight, flying back.

The dog ran toward the stairs in a fit of growling and barking. Elle followed him, calling out. She forgot the rifle. She was out the door and at the top of the staircase. Mortimer was halfway down the stairs, barking furiously. The first floor was burning. The fire was ashen, dark, leaping up from coals that had been flung across the floor. It was already creeping up the stairs, up the walls.

“Mortimer!” Elle called him; he did not move until the fire was almost at him, lapping his paws.

The hallway was heating quickly and through the doorways Elle could see some of the rooms on the second floor already burning. There was no other staircase. She ran to the end of the hall, dragging Mortimer by his collar. Her own bedroom was burning now, too, ashes scattered across its floor.

The only window free of flames was at the end of the corridor. It was an old window with squares of glass that threatened to fall out with each gust of wind. Elle threw it open. She lifted Mortimer to the sill, and as she was about to hurl him down she saw the dark figure again, standing and staring up at the window. She hesitated, the heat thrusting up behind her.

She tossed the dog — then jumped after him.