Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Harpies of Haycock County

I don’t know why I continue living in Haycock County. No, that’s a lie. Of course I know why I continue living in Haycock County. Like I ever had a choice, after the first day I arrived there...

How to describe Haycock County? Imagine the typical small towns in old episodes of The Twilight Zone. Then add something from one of the more bizarre episodes from the X Files and perhaps even something from The Land That Time Forgot. Excepting that the Dinosaurs in Haycock County were the fossilised attitudes of the majority of the inhabitants. And you might have some idea about what kind of a place Haycock County is.

I avoid going into what passes for the town of Haycock, the pretty much futile seat of government for the county for as long as I can. I only visit the town when I need to call at the bank to collect money from my Veteran’s pension –You know it, Vietnam, the war nobody cares to remember but that some of us can’t choose to forget? (damn! That sound like a Country Western song title, doesn’t it?) and to collect my supplies from what masquerades as the Haycock Mart. The bank only had one elderly PC and the Haycock Mart was… well, it just was. There was also a school of sorts, where the children of Haycock County were taught whatever crap the feckless teaching staff could be bothered to teach them.

My route into town passes by the Bligh farm. When I was driving back home, I saw the crows wheeling high over the top meadow, the one close to the farmhouse. I noticed the hulking form of Billy-Boy Bligh, outside the farmhouse. I sighed. Whenever I saw Billy-Boy Bligh I knew there would be trouble.

I was driving along the semi-dirt track that passes for the main road into Haycock Town itself, and I swung my truck off the road onto the farm track up to the Bligh place. Bligh Farm –secretly referred to as Blight Farm by most of the inhabitants of Haycock County, and not without good reason- squatted sullenly on a ridge of land above the town.

It was several years since I had last felt it necessary to visit the Bligh place, I had been able to successfully avoid it, but the crows gave me an uneasy, bad feeling. Crows are good people. I guess that’s why they were warning me about Billy-Boy.

Some background information on the Bligh family. They had been part of Haycock County since the very early days. Originally the Blighs had been part of what had been the intelligentsia of Haycock County. From what I could make out that meant a group of self-selected local worthies who had gotten together in various locations in the town, talked and spat on the floor. The “intelligentsia” part had come because they had managed to hit the spittoons and missed the floor, themselves and each other more often than the average Haycockian. Perhaps I am being harsh. Though I doubt it.

Jackson Bligh had been a newly-qualified lawyer back in the first decade of the 18th Century, when he settled down on farmland just outside the recently established town of Haycock. From what I could make out, nothing noteworthy had happened to the Bligh family until Zebulon Bligh came back from a stint in the US Calvary, having fought the Indians. He had been known as a bright young man, full of high ideals. Nobody had been able to figure out why he had joined the US Cavalry. Except that he liked riding and had a youthful enthusiasm for adventure. He had become ill with a fever that lasted many weeks, after he was wounded fighting a tribe somewhere out in the West. The US Cavalry invalided him out as unfit for duty.

When he came back, the people noticed that although he seemed to be the same Zebulon Bligh they had sent off to join the US Cavalry, an important part of him had been left behind.

He developed the notion that he was much better than everyone else and he began to become more and more isolated from the other inhabitants of Haycock County.

Zebulon decided to create “a unique and important experiment in social living.” In short he decided that he and his family would experiment with intermarriage and polygamy. Rumour has it that Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith had heard about the Bligh experiment and had enthusiastically taken it up for his newly established church.

Several others had copied Zebulon’s group marriage experiment and had introduced it to their own flocks. All with varying degrees of disappointment, heartache and humiliation. Preachers were tarred and feathered. And the leader of the Mormon cult, Joe Smith, had reportedly died in a fire fight for asking the wrong married woman to join his flock of wives, so Zebulon’s experiment even caused trouble for people hundreds of miles away from Haycock County.

The Bligh family experiment had been used for a study by a university back in the sixties. It had been called: “Bligh or Blight? A report into the genetically degenerative effects of the Zebulon Bligh ‘unique and important experiment in social living’ and the effects on subsequent generations of the family.”

Apparently the author of the study came back to Haycock County once too often. The people of the town believed that The Harpies of Haycock County dived down from the sky and had eaten him alive. But I didn’t believe that. Not for one moment. I suspected that if anyone had devoured him, it had been the Bligh family, and that his remains (such as they would have been!) could have been buried somewhere up on the ridge of Bligh Farm. Or even in the private cemetary Old Zebulon Bligh had established in a remote piece of the Bligh farm lands, unregistered, of course...

Oh. You want to know about the Harpies of Haycock County? That's a story that had been used since the early days of the settling of the area. Used to explain all sorts of mysterious events. And to frighten children into being good. And there's something else about the Harpies of Haycock County that I'll tell you about, soon...

When my truck rattled and bumped up the track to the farm, I saw Billy-Boy standing over something on the ground. He was waving a rifle around. He looked like he was drunk. Or maybe it was the inbreeding? Hard to tell.

I felt a twinge of pity for him. He was the product of 200 years of close inbreeding. Fact was it was a miracle that any of the last batches of Bligh kids had survived at all. According to rumour, many of them hadn’t. But -hey? Would you check up on them? I don’t blame Sheriff Harter and his predecessors for steering well clear of the Blighs.

Billy-Boy was a shambling wreck of a man. Every time I thought of his name I felt like laughing. I mean, who in the hell would want to call their child Billy-Boy Bligh? The same idiots who had decided to call his twin sister Billy-Girl Bligh, that’s who… Thank God, the family was dying out. Not as fast as many would have liked, but still, it was something, I suppose. Billy-Boy and Billy-Girl were the last rotten fruits of a poisonous family tree.

Hey. That you, Dixon?”

I got out of my truck slowly and acknowledged that I was, indeed, myself.

How are you Billy-Boy?”

Not too bad. Doing better than sis, mind.”

Oh, really? What’s wrong with sis?” I hoped I sounded sincere enough. I guess I had done, as he had not shot me with the old rifle he was holding. Billy-Boy was very, very protective when it came to the subject of his sister, Billy-Girl.

She’s ill. Got the Little Family Problem, you know?”

The Little Family Problem? I thought. That would be the weird genetic disorder that basically shut down all of the body organs of the Bligh women, organ-by-organ, until they died. I merely nodded in response to Billy-Boy.

But I reckon that I have the problem just about beat.” I did not like the way he said that. This was probably what the crows were telling me about.

How’s that, Billy-Boy?” Speak softly, don’t antagonise him. I remember hearing about what he had done to Delany LeBouf in the Haycock Pub. They never did find poor Delany’s right hand. And Delany has resided in the Sumner County Mental Hospital these past ten years. Nobody had ever figured out what Delany had said or done to upset Billy-Boy like that. My theory is that Delany had, in a fit of drunken stupidity, told Billy-Boy exactly how ugly and misshapen his sister was.

Usually you can see an ugly person and say something like: “Yes, but they have nice eyes.” Or “they have such a nice personality.” There was nothing nice or even faintly redeeming about Billy-Girl. She not only looked ugly, when you looked at her you knew that her ugliness went way beyond soul deep. People in Haycock County think that Billy-Boy is dangerous. Perhaps he is. But I don’t believe he is nearly half as dangerous as his sister, Billy-Girl.

Billy-Boy licked his lips, eyeing me up and down. “You are a man of honour, aren’t you, Dixon? I mean, you served your country and all, over in Vietnam, right?

That wasn’t strictly true –the part about serving my country, but I let it pass. “Yes Billy, I fought in Vietnam. A lot of us did. Many people still seem unwilling to think about it and what it did to us. But you, you are different, somehow. You seem to understand what we went through. And I am grateful for that.” And strangely enough, I was.

Oh, that’s ‘cos I read Zebulon Bligh’s diaries about been in the US Cavalry. He was in the US Cavalry, you know?”

Yeah, I know that Billy-Boy. Fact is, I served with some members of the US Cavalry in Vietnam.”

They don’t have horses now, though.” That was a statement, rather than a question from Billy. I nodded in reply.

Billy-Boy, you said that you could beat Billy-Girl’s problem? How is that?”

He licked his thickened lower lip before speaking, dropping his voice into a conspiratorial whisper. “I am going to make a human sacrifice.”

Oh, shit, no. There’d been reports and whispered rumours that the Bligh family had long, long ago left the Baptist church... but -human sacrifice? That surprised even me. A think trickle of sweat ran the length of my back. No wonder the Crows had been anxious for me to stop by. People misjudge Crows. And they’d know that I’d have to try to put a stop to this.

Who you going to use, Billy-Boy?”

Come and see. I got the little feller out back.”

I followed Billy-Boy round the side of the large, tumbledown house. In the back yard I saw a small, begrimed figure. It was staked out on a long rope. “Hey. Dixon, meet the boy. He is going to help me save my sister.”

At that moment I heard the mooing, bawling noise that passed for the voice of Billy-Girl emanating from somewhere within the house. Billy-Boy turned to me and said: “Don’t you even think about taking the boy with you, Dixon, if you got ideas of saving him. Because I know where you live. And I could sacrifice you, just as well as the boy.”

He shambled off, quickly, towards the house.

I looked down at the boy. His eyes were dulled with fear. He said in a resigned tone of voice: “You aren’t going to be able to help me, are you?”

I carefully replied: “Don’t be too certain, son. How in the hell did you come to be here?”

My folks were driving along the State Highway just North of Haycock County when a rotten tree fell on the automobile. Mom, Dad and my little Sister were all killed outright, I escaped with a few bruises. Trouble is I have no other family and the old Judge living in the town signed adoption papers giving me to Billy-Boy and his sister.” He began to cry.

Shit. Now I knew what had happened. Judge Bannerman, that would have been. Some people believe he had been born senile. There was certainly no way that he should have signed those papers. And Billy-Boy had almost certainly known that. Though there was no reason for the boy to have known.

What’s you name, son?”

Peter Hewlett. You?”

David Dixon. I am going to get you out of here, somehow.”

You’d better hurry! Billy-Boy is the Harpy Master! He told me that! He’s going to stake me out and leave me out for the Harpies of Haycock County to come and kill me!” He was becoming hysterical.

Stop that! Stop that right this minute! No Harpy is going to come anywhere near you.” I was going to say more, but held back, as Billy-Boy was returning.

Peter here tells me you are going to leave him out for the Harpies. Sounds like a good plan, to me. How you going to get them to come down, Billy-Boy?”

He glared at Peter before turning his gaze on me. “I am going to keep his staked out and then, I am gonna cut his throat! The smell of blood will attract the Harpies and they’ll come and eat him.”

I sucked my teeth, feigning doubt. “You sure about that, Billy-Boy? I’d heard how the Harpies don’t like carrion. Now Crows, on the other hand, they do like carrion. But Harpies? They are different. They have to have their meat so fresh it, that it's still alive. You never heard that?” I made the last part of that statement puzzled, as if I was shocked that nobody had thought to tell him.

He shook his head. “No. I never hear that. What should I do, then?” Good. He thinks I am conspiring with him. Think, Dixon! You used to be good at that! Think!

You need to leave him out in the open. The field halfway up your farm track should be OK, I’d guess. Just stake down him with that long piece of rope you got him on, but give him plenty of room to move. The Harpies like a bit of sport from what I have heard. They prefer a living, moving target.”

Billy-Boy was interested in this idea. “Sure. But how do the Harpies know where to go, if they don’t smell blood?”

Don’t worry, Billy-Boy. The Harpies will know where to go. They always know where to go.” He was clearly howling mad. For some reason I thought about poor Sheriff Harter, probably sat in his office in town or more likely in the coffee shop across the street, blissfully unaware of what was happening.

Well, Billy-Boy I guess I’d better be going. Got to put the groceries away.”

He nodded, lost in his thoughts, wandering back to the house.

I whispered: “Peter, listen to me. I’ll bring help for you. Just stay as calm as you can. And try not to be frightened, no matter what you hear tonight, OK? And say nothing to Billy-Boy.”

He whispered in reply: “You are coming back for me?” I nodded and returned to my truck.

Later that evening soon after dark I returned to the Bligh place. Thank God! I found Peter, safe, where I had told Bligh to put him. He was trembling like a leaf as I untied him.

There were screams from the farm. I heard terrible, horrible screams from Billy Boy and that… that thing of a sister of his. It was her idea to sacrifice me! What has happened?!” He was a little out of it. But there was no wonder to that.

I looked at him. How to tell him? The truth. Same way as I had heard it, all those years ago. “Peter I knew the Harpies would not come to kill you. I also knew that Billy-Boy was not the Harpy Master. Not, as you’d think, because Harpies are mythical creatures, that don't exist. Rather, it was because I am the Harpy Master. When I told the Harpies what Billy-Boy had planned for you, they were very, very angry. We knew that Billy-Boy would be a continuing danger to you, so we knew that they, the Harpies, had to kill him and his sister.”

I called one of the Harpies over. She flew to us. It was Leliali. Peter looked at her and gasped: “But... she is so beautiful! Billy-Boy told me they were ugly, but he was lying! They are so beautiful!” I knew from the way she held her head that Leliali was also rather taken with Peter, so that was part of the battle over.

In the truck driving back to my place I told Peter my story. In a way, it was not totally dissimilar to his. “I am not even an American, Peter. I am English, though I have lived most of my life in America. My father was working for a large British firm; he was the director of their US operation, based in LA. I was of the age that, if I stayed any longer, I knew I would be eligible for the draft into the US Army and sent off to fight in Vietnam.

It wasn’t my country and it certainly wasn’t my war, so I wanted to fly back to England to stay with friends. But my father would not let me. My mother was weak and my father kept prevaricating and delaying, until one day in the morning post, I got my draft papers. I was scared shitless, let me tell you. But I worked out a plan of escape. I managed to get together enough cash to buy a ticket to Canada. But my father found out about my plans and he told the Military Police about it.”

What happened?”

The MPs were very good to me, when they came. I remember that one of them, especially, was absolutely furious with my father. He said to him: “Why the hell didn’t you let your son go to Canada, you Limey jackass?” My father mumbled something about military service making a man out of me. The MP muttered something under his breath about better to be a boy in Canada, alive, than coming back as a man in an aluminium box, but I am not sure my father heard him. He made no outward sign of it.

I was taken for my induction and basic training and then, a shockingly short time later, or so it seemed, I found myself in Vietnam. I was there for nine months until I received a wound that sent me back to the US and I recovered in a military hospital. I went to visit my parents but found out that soon after I had been drafted, they’d gone back to England, without leaving a forwarding address. I never saw them again. Never tried to contact them. Didn't care to.

I signed up for a twenty year stint in the army, that was finished nineteen years in, when I received a medical discharge due to a helicopter crash. I was lucky. Only three of us survived out of 15.”

How did you end up here?

I was driving through, just going from place-to-place, drifting along on my military pension, when I found an old man, lying at the side of the road. I stopped my car and I took him to his home, which was a couple of miles outside of town. His name was Brewster Haycock, the last member of the family that had founded the county and the town two hundred years previously. I nursed him back to health. But there was always something that seemed to niggle at him, something that he wasn’t telling me.

Eventually, he told me that he was the Harpy Master. He introduced me to Leliali, and the rest of the Harpies. He trained me to become the Harpy Master. And that’s what I am going to do for you, Peter. Train you to be the Harpy Master.”

He said nothing, his eyes still fixed on Leliali. I knew he’d do it, accept the training, I mean. Then he’d take over from me and continue the tradition of Harpy Master of Haycock County.

Later that night, while Peter slept soundly in his new bed, I set fire to Bligh Farm. I didn’t want any questions. After all, Harpies do make a hell of a mess when they feed…


AlexisAR said...

I like the crows as a warning tool. I like any story that incorporates the religious practices of my LDs relatives' unsavory polygamous cousins. I was afraid of the Harpies at first. It caught be by surprise that the protagonist was the Harpy Master.
Billy Girl Bligh is the stuff of which great horror movies are made 9ugly beneath her soul; not THAT is ugly.)The whole thing for some reason makes me think of Boo Radley (who ended up being a good guy), one of my all-time favorite literary characters, and not just because "Harpy" sounds like Harper Lee. (Do Brits read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?)
Think about writing a screenplay or giving someone else the rights to do so.

Matt said...

Thanks for your comments, Alexis.

This story caught ME by surprise when it came to me!

The idea was sparked off by a short story I read in which the vampires -a married couple- (who felt guilty about being vampires) were the good guys.

Screenplay? Now, if I lived in Hollywood and knew a producer?

Actually, one of my work colleagues is an aspiring writer. I might show him the story and ask him for advice on who to approach.

Thanks for giving me something to think about, there.