The barn door stood open like a gaping maw. Although it was still August, the evenings had begun to draw in and there was a nip in the air and a chill in the wind that hadn't been there before. Whilst children still clung to the last dregs of freedom before the school bell summoned them, older hands recognised the portents. Autumn colours started to pepper the landscape in burnt sorrel, red berries on the bramble and hawthorn and hips on the rose. The babies had begun to resist sleep. Milk filled tummies no longer lulled them to sleep and their eyes filled with tears like clockwork at dusk. The only salve was to walk with them bound against me in several yards of cloth til their lids grew heavy and the grizzling faded to whimpers then silence. The uneven tracks suited them best, footsteps on the bumps and hollows mimicking the dip and sway of the womb. But you couldn't stop. The creeping darkness was to be feared less than the screech of a baby prematurely woken from slumber. Their cries stretched ahead, down the dim track, through the hedgerows into the fields beyond, making strange ears prick up and unblinking eyes turn.
No wild animal that threatened woman roamed these parts any more, but it was all to easy to imagine spindly creatures, tumbling out of their subterranean abodes at dusk. And of course there were the more likely predators who took human form closer to home. I pushed such thoughts from my head.
The sunlit walk of day time was now laced in inky black, peripheral vision a leafy etching of hedgerows against a milky grey sky. Elder and bramble, bowed heavy with Old Man's Beard, had begun to spill their burden across the path, tendrils brushing my face unexpectedly as I passed. Flitting bats swooped across the daytime domain of skylarks and swifts. The cottages of the village quickly dwindled, til the only obvious mark of humans was just the stone track and the looming barn ahead. Once used for storage, the barn was now abandoned. In previous years the farm labourers had gathered of an evening with hockey sticks to pound the rats which teamed over the shifting grain in such numbers that they appeared as if one pulsing, giant entity. Mopped brows produced ruddy sleeves and at dawn the men emerged, their grimacing faces spattered with blood and counting the tally of their kills in the dozens. It was still possible in this light to make out the skeletal remains of ivy climbing up the lichen shingled walls and the undulating roof tiles covered in moss, but where the giant door stood was now a black void swallowing any last light as the sun had finally dipped below the horizon. Approaching the blank face seemed as folly as walking into a lair.
The still air was in some way more terrifying than howling wind. Each sound stretched wide, making it impossible to distinguish the distance of the source. It could have come echoing down the hill or be just over my shoulder. The snuffling and surprisingly loud breathing of the babies was reassuring, but masked my perceptions further.
If I turned back now, would the babies be in deep enough sleep on my return? I was too weary to contemplate another round of nursing, settling and shushing. But continuing would mean the lane disappearing into the night and feathery and furry limbs of the imagination being able to touch my face and grab at my ankles without warning.
A deep sleepy sigh came from one babe. The barn was so close now that I would have to stretch my neck to see the top of it. Time to turn back. Just then came a dot of light from deep within the recesses of the barn. No brighter than the twinkle of the first star now emerging above the overhanging roof. I blinked it back but it remained. Not a trick of the light or the eye . An involuntary prickle stroked the back of my neck. There couldn't be anyone in there. I strained to hear but a whooshing of blood filled my ears with their own pulse. A reflection maybe? But even as I thought this the light grew stronger so as not to be mistaken. My ears hummed louder. I turned abruptly and quickened my pace, stumbling slightly on the uneven stones underfoot. One of the babies grunted. Cold oil ran down my spine. The fear of not seeing in the dark was now instead replaced by the fear of being seen, illuminated by the unknown source. I was too heavily laden to provide any sport. I put one arm around each of the babes lest they be dislodged by the rapid movement, so cloaked in shadow now I could barely distinguish them. The urge to look behind me came like a pressure at the back of my head, but I resisted and pressed on. The village an indistinguishable smudge on the horizon seemed too distant to provide sanctuary. Still the survival instinct propelled me forward faster, even as the sickening glow grew brighter. Bright enough now for me to cast a shadow, despite the distance I'd already placed between us and the barn. The grunting babe now began to thrash his head against me, as if hunting for the nipple. Hush! Tripping slightly in anticipation of a mewling throat I stretched myself forward, pressing him to my chest. The light was as bright as that of a roaring fire now, but completely still. Ahead a grotesque shadow of my lumbering form fell on the path, growing longer and longer still. My eyes fixated on the ground, knowing that any pursuers would appear here long before their physical form laid hands on us. Above the thrumming in my ears came a new sound. Straining I struggled to hear. It seemed oh so familiar, but at the same time out of place. The thrashing babe would not settle, despite my arm around his back. Reaching down, I made to kiss his head, but where my lips should have encountered downy hair was instead what felt like the sparse and coarse hair of a pig. Recoiling confused I went instead to touch his hand, the almost imperceptible sound behind me growing more persistent. No chubby fingers, but a slick spindly claw greeted me as a guttural clattering emanated from the form strapped to my chest. Snapping teeth came chomping towards me. The sound behind now grew clear coming from the far off barn. A baby crying. My baby.
The light went out.