Wildfowling: The Spirit of the Marsh

Sometimes there are more dangers on the marsh than mud and tides....

The desolate tide

Evening flight had been a total loss and the bad weather looked to be closing in fast. Jay the Spaniel cut a piteous figure, highlighted as he was in the feeble light from a head torch, just sitting there bedraggled and shivering on the thick tidal mud with a pleading look in his eyes. Late November was always a challenge out on the marsh, as the autumn gales gave way to the often biting frosts and freezing rain while the days ticked by to the winter solstice and the longest night. It was certainly shaping up to be one of those times, and with no more activity in the gloomy twilight sky, our weary fowler decided to pack up and head back to his hut. He planned to spend the next few days out there amongst the wild things, putting his head straight, before heading back to the crushing drudgery that passed for his life and the forced bonhomme of the Christmas period. He had never been able to resolve the conflict within him between the civilised father and husband he had reluctantly become and the primal hunter gatherer he had always been. Out here, even when it was below freezing or in the midst of a tempest, he knew the unbridled joy of real freedom, but it was always tempered with the knowledge that it couldn’t last. He pondered this fact as he trudged wearily back to the sea wall, and the relative comfort of his fowling hut.

There was a little flotilla of huts just below the high water mark at the very edge of the marsh, where the waterlogged terrain rose steeply up to the sea wall and then gave way to rough grazing pasture beyond. They called them huts, but in reality they were garden sheds or portakabins on pontoons, tethered to the ground by blue nylon rope, with makeshift causeways running to and fro between them. Many had been out there for decades, passed on from father to son or inherited by new members of the club from old retired fowlers. His hut had been out there as long as anyone could remember, and had been the temporary home of countless club members and their guests over the years. It wasn’t much, but it provided everything he needed for a few days away, the most important thing being the solitude. As far as he could tell, he was the only gun out there that night, there were no lights to be seen, and as he made his way carefully up to the doorway, the wind picked up and drove the first spots of stinging rain into his face. He fumbled with the padlock in the darkness, eventually driving the key home and with a concerted effort, pushed the stubborn door open.

“To Prepare a Fish” by Andrew Stawarz is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

It was pitch black in the tiny hut, but he knew every inch of the place by touch and smell alone. He reached out for the hanging paraffin lamp above and to his left, and after a short battle with some supposedly waterproof matches, its cheerful yellow glow illuminated the interior, chasing the shadows into the corners. He stowed his bag of decoys in the plastic bin just outside, tightly securing the lid with a twist. He whistled to Jay, who appeared from nowhere, a brown and white apparition in the darkness who threw himself through the doorway. Shutting and bolting the door behind him, he turned his attention to shucking his waders and coat, before hanging them from their hook on the rafters by the stove. Turning his attention to the distinct lack of a mug of tea, he checked the contents of the small kettle, before lighting the stove and beginning the long wait for it to boil. Jay sat on his makeshift bed regarding his master coldly, in turns scratching his ears and then making attempts to clean himself. He was evidently less than impressed by the situation, but all that changed when our fowler produced a strip of beef jerky from his pocket, and took a bite before tossing the remainder to the dog. Order and harmony restored, the kettle was finally starting to stir into life, and before long a steaming brew was sitting in front of him. A glance at his watch showed the time to be a little before eight, so he put his feet up and took a moment to contemplate the universe.

Several minutes had gone by before he was disturbed in his reverie by a sudden movement from Jay. The dog had moments ago been snoring in the corner but was now sat bolt upright, alert and quivering and facing towards the door. His mug, now filled with mere lukewarm dregs nearly capsized from its resting place atop his thigh as he turned to look in the direction of the dogs intense interest. There was nothing to be seen, save for his empty game bag hung from the rusty nail embedded there years ago by some long forgotten fowler. It was swaying lightly from side to side as if stirred by some unchecked breeze, perhaps a crack in the floor, and he resolved to investigate it at a later date. Turning back to the dog, he noticed that Jay was far from happy, and whatever had upset him was still very real, at least where he was concerned. He tried to soothe the animal, but his words had the opposite effect, and elicited a staccato whine that jarred him to the core. A sharp rebuke finally got Jay under control, and he reluctantly returned to a curled up position in the corner. The excitement was far from over however, as he remained alert with his head up and ever watchful of the far end of the hut, as if waiting for some pre determined event to occur.

“english springer spaniel” by gomagoti is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

He didn’t have to wait long, as moments later there was a frantic banging on the door, shaking the whole hut and threatening to break the wood from its decrepit hinges. It was not unusual for other fowlers to stop by, to share some news or a bit of company, but as far as our man was aware, he was all alone out there tonight. Calling out to the unknown visitor, there was no reply, at least none that could be heard over the sudden upsurge in the wind and rain outside. Slightly perturbed, he rose to his feet and drew back the two bolts that were the only thing stopping the door from being flung open. Reaching for the handle, the door was wrenched from his grasp by a freakish blast of wind, and slammed loudly into the wall. He peered out into the night but could see very little through the sheets of rain that were being driven into his face. He called out again, silently praying that this time there would be a reply, but it appeared that there wasn’t a soul alive out there. Puzzled, and with more than a bit of fear beginning to rise from deep within him, he took one last furtive look around, before closing the door with a hurried thud and ushered the bolts home. He returned to his chair, pausing for a moment to check whether he had really heard what sounded like a sigh from just behind him. Turning sharply, there was of course nothing to be seen, so he rebuked himself for allowing this attack of the jitters. Suddenly tired, he turned the lamp down and slouched back in the comfy chair, and putting his feet up once more on the small sideboard, he began to drift off to sleep.

Restful sleep did not come easy to him at the best of times, troubled as he was by the cares of the world, and possessed of a mind that rarely switched off. Propped up there in that hut with the weather outside and a strange atmosphere within, his was a disturbed and fitful sleep, plagued with odd half dreams full of cryptic imagery, such as you might experience during a high fever. Unseen by all except his ever vigilant spaniel, he tossed and turned in the confines of the chair, fully unconscious but totally restless, as if wrestling with some nightmare creature in the land of nod. He awoke with a start, the hairs on the back of his neck standing out and a sickening prickly sensation running down his spine. The paraffin lamp was still burning low, and the long shadows had returned from the periphery of the hut to reclaim what was theirs. He glanced at his watch, the illuminated dial revealing that some two hours had passed since he last checked. He slowly scanned the gloomy interior, in the darkness unable to see his dog trying to bury himself in the wall, terrified beyond comprehension at the apparition standing right behind his master.

“the dark side (cc) [silhouette1 – fire, water, light]” by marfis75 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Now painfully aware that something else besides his faithful dog was in the hut with him, fear threatened to overwhelm his senses. A curious earthy smell hung in the air, which was heavy and cloying, sticking in his throat and nearly causing him to gag. A high pitched sound like badly tuned radio static had become apparent, and resonated around his skull. After a while, the sound began to resolve itself into barely recognisable words, faint and distant but in such a strange distorted voice that he could only make out the occasional word. Knowing that turning to face whatever it was could well destroy what was left of his sanity, he nevertheless felt compelled to do so. Gathering all his remaining courage, he levered himself upright, his eyes screwed tightly shut. Reaching out for the lamp, he clutched at the valve, turning it fully open in the vain hope that the extra light might fortify his resolve. The desire not to see was sadly not as great as the compulsive force that drove him to slowly turn and face the unknown. His eyes still closed, he swallowed back the sickening knot that had been rising in his throat and with one final effort, blinked in the lamplight.

Behind his chair was the dark outline of a person, faintly distinguishable from the deeper darkness beyond. In the dim light of the lamp, there were no obvious features to the shape, save for two glinting voids roughly where its eyes should be. Although it was totally motionless for now, some long dormant sense that had been awoken when the fear started to overwhelm him screamed into his subconscious mind that this terrifying thing could move like lightening if it so desired and was possessed of tremendous power. They stood there facing one another for what seemed like an eternity, the fowler paralysed with a terror so acute that he barely registered the storm raging outside, threatening to shake his little hut to pieces. The voice was becoming more distinct now, still bypassing his ears and going straight to his brain, but he no longer felt able to leave it unanswered .

“Why are you here”? He croaked, each syllable catching in his parched throat.

This place belongs to me, and I belong to this place. I would ask you the same question”. The voice had a echoing quality, but was no longer in his head. The words hung in the air long after they were spoken, reverberating around the small hut and chilling him to the bone.

“I… I mean we… come here to hunt the fowl that roost out on the tide…” Every word was an effort for him now, his brain shutting down all non-essential functions to try and preserve what was left of his rapidly disintegrating psyche.

Yes… I have observed the others. Perhaps in time I will come for them too. But you are the one who lingers here, for days sometimes. This place is not for your kind, it belongs to me, to the wild things. Why do you stay here, separated from your kin”? The question had an accusatory tone, as if the interregator already knew the answer.

He thought about the answer for a long time, his eyes fixed on the empty voids just inches from his own face. When he finally realised what to say, the revelation washed over him like a tidal wave. “I suppose I only feel alive when I am out here”.

“I know you now. A man out of time, out of place. Alive but not living. Tell me, what do you want from life?” There was a faint glow from the eye-voids, like the dying embers of a fire.

“I don’t understand”. He replied. “I’ve never really thought about it”.

“Why do you lie? I know what you want. You have long thought about it. Tell me”. The glow intensified, now two burning points of cold white light.

“I sometimes wish I could stay here all the time, and just turn my back on the world”. He felt so callous saying that, and an instant pang of regret stung him as the image of his wife and children flashed through his mind. “But life isn’t like that, I know I have to go back, I always have to go back”. He spoke the last part of that sentence through gritted teeth.

“I have long felt the conflict within you. It gave me form and sentience. I waited for you to return, each time becoming a little more… real. Even now I draw strength from it. I like this feeling… of being alive. Long have I waited here for you to come on a night such as this. Even as it spoke, he could see its form solidifying, taking on a distinctly human visage. A familiar face staring wickedly back at him.

The fowler suddenly felt weak and exhausted. The colour had drained from his face, leaving him looking grey and drawn. He no longer had the strength to stand, so he staggered to the chair and collapsed heavily into it, his ragged breathing becoming shallower by the second. As he sat there, the life slipping from his helpless body, the malevolent entity looked on with disinterest as it began to explore its new physical form. Although it resembled the fowler perfectly in every detail, inside beat a heart of pure spite, controlled by a mind of cold, calculated evil. Yes, this new body was well worth waiting for, and all it had needed was someone willing to trade places with it. The pathetic husk sitting in front of it had nearly gone now, fading to nothingness leaving only the whisper of its former consciousness that would be scattered to the four winds and spend the rest of eternity alone out there on the marsh. The storm had now subsided, the rain no longer battered the old hut and the sky was clearing to reveal a crisp blanket of stars. Seen only by the watery moon, the hut door swung open, and a dark and shady form slipped quietly along the causeway before disappearing into the night.

“Brue — Outer Hebrides 2015” by Ben Coulson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A few days later, one of the club members was out for a walk and found a stray dog roaming the tide line, which he thought looked familiar. After some effort, he persuaded the obviously exhausted and terrified spaniel to come close enough that he could slip a lead over its head, and it seemed to resign itself to following him. After some impromptu rations in the form of a leftover cheese sandwich, the animal perked up enough to elicit a small wag of its filthy tail. He decided to take it home, where he bathed it as best he could, before finally taking it to the vets, in the hope that it had a readable microchip. Jay the spaniel looked so forlorn, sitting in the cage at the surgery, waiting for his master to come and collect him. The vet left several messages with the contact number and eventually a sad and weary looking woman with two sullen children arrived to collect him. When questioned about the circumstances regarding the loss of the dog, the woman gave no answers, merely stating that Jay belonged to her husband, and they were glad to have him back, although she didn’t seem very sincere. Jay still waits patiently for the return of his master, and on wild and stormy nights, when the weather blows in from the coast, he will often stare at the door, his head tilted to one side listening intently, as if hearing some faint voice on the wind.

© Columba Palumbus 2021