It is said that the Grim Reaper comes to pluck the souls of the living; to harvest them with his scythe and to carry them to the afterlife in sheaves of shining gold. And indeed, I know that to be true. But what of the others? What of the failed crops, the poisoned fruit, the souls that rotted on the vine? What of the ones that never lived? What of them? Why, it is the Ploughman who comes for those, with his black draft horse and his iron plough. Together they trample and crush them and break them and cut the ground beneath them and turn them over into the earth. Sometimes the horse misses a clod of earth. Sometimes the plough cuts too deep. Sometimes, before they can bury a soul, its poison seeps out into the world of the living and spreads on the air. They try their best, but even the strongest of hooves can sometimes slip. Nights when the Ploughman does his work, the living air itself is disturbed by the stench of rot and dark soil. The wind is restless. The world is unquiet. It was on such a night that the stranger arrived.
He stepped out of his hire car in front of the only motel in town and clicked his keys. He was tall and broad shouldered, dressed in a tailored black jacket over a sweater of fine black wool. His glasses were black rimmed, his dark hair was neatly slicked. Only his skin was pale, and his eyes; a cold and watery blue. He checked in under the name of Oliver Barnett, architect with an out-of-town firm, here to talk to the project manager of the new development, to go over the punch list and, in two days, to be gone. The receptionist gave him his keys and went home. All the way to her car she felt as if someone was watching her. When she reached her house, she scurried through it closing every window and locking every door. There was a strange, foul, scent on the wind.
The next morning dawned clear and still. Monica Farley, project manager, stepped out of her door and immediately felt uneasy, with the prickling of energy before a storm. Nervous about the meeting with the architect? Hardly. There was no reason why she should be. Still, she drove fast, and arrived at the site early, stepping through a gate in the hoarding and pulling out her phone to call the foreman as she did so. It was strangely quiet. New walls threw sharp shadows on concrete and gravel. A light breeze lifted the edge of a tarpaulin. A pile of dry leaves stirred and then settled again. The phone rang out. She pressed redial. The builders should have been here for an hour by now. She experienced a stab of irritation. Of all the days to slack off. No foreman, no activity, and the site was not secured with so much as a padlock. She swore under her breath.
Monica paced back and forth, calling each number on her list. No reply. And still that strange electricity in the air. Frustration turning to anger, she gave up. Fine, then. She would deal with the architect herself. There was a weird smell on the breeze, something foul like gas or sewage. It had better not be a broken pipe. She strode off into the middle of the building site, an open courtyard with a concrete foundation that should have been poured yesterday. If it had not been done, so help her God, she would … She stopped in the gateway, not sure of what she was seeing. A smooth expanse of new concrete and in the middle, a line of something. Mossy boulders? Sculptures? Heads? They were so lifelike. She ran over and threw herself down on her knees. Four of the builders were buried up to their chests in concrete, one up to his neck. Their eyes were glazed over. They were all dead.
Monica froze in shock, staring at them. A voice came from behind her.
‘Hello, you must be the project manager.’
She stood up and spun around. The architect was in front of her, hand outstretched. She stepped back instinctively.
‘Are you OK?’
‘There’s been a terrible accident.’
He smiled, joyless.
‘I visited the site last night. The project lacked something, so I added some sculptures.’
He stood relaxed in front of her. Monica was acutely aware of the size of his body next to hers, the fragile bones of her neck, the strength of his hands, the reach of his long arms. Instinctively, she avoided his eyes, focusing on the ground. She had been learning this her whole life. Don’t contradict, don’t trigger, don’t make him snap. Show respect, walk don’t run, hold your keys in your fist. She could do this.
‘An interesting architectural feature’, she stammered. ‘Unique.’
‘You don’t think it’s a bit derivative?’
‘I could add you.’
His voice was bored, thoughtful.
‘But the symmetry is perfect’, she sweated.
‘You may be right. Less is more.’
Monica relaxed, just a fraction, and glanced over at the entrance. Could she sweet talk him all the way to her car? The distance stretched into miles. He didn’t seem to be armed, though. If she only made it out of reach, that might be enough. She caught a movement in her peripheral vision and glanced quickly across. The foreman was coming towards them. She could have wept.
‘Zander!’ she cried loudly, forced jollity in her voice, hoping against hope that he would hear the warning.
‘I was just going to come and look for you. This is Oliver. Shall we start at the entrance?’
As she spoke, she moved carefully away from the architect, as if to lead him. Zander had not noticed anything. Perhaps he would distract Oliver and they could both run. But they were face to face, now, and Zander still hadn’t spoken. Don’t look over there, she willed him. Don’t look, don’t see, just get us out of here.
She met his eyes. They were a filmy blue. He smiled at her.
‘You’ve seen the sculpture, then.’
‘We had fun. It’s going to be a theme. I was thinking we could hang you in the atrium. Oliver, would that work visually?’
She ran then. For a second, she thought she had got away, but she was wrong. Oliver caught her effortlessly, barely raising a sweat. Zander looked on with a smug smile as she panted, Oliver’s arm around her neck, his wool sweater hot on her back.
‘You can’t go yet. We need to string you up.’
‘Please. Please let me go. You don’t need me. I can turn and leave, and I won’t tell anyone, I promise, I’ll disappear, I’ll never bother you again, I’ll do anything.’
But that was never going to work. Think, Monica, think, she told herself.
‘I have a fiancé. He’ll be looking for me.’
‘I’ll ring him, look, and then you’ll see.’
Oliver released his grip by an inch or two. She reached slowly into her pocket. Be there, James, be there, pick up.
‘Hi James, can you please come and get me? It’s urgent. There’s been an … issue. I’m at the building site. Do you know where that is?’
‘Sure, are you OK?’
She glanced at Zander, his filmy eyes and wide grin.
‘Yes. Just – take care, alright?’
‘OK, sure. Love you.’
And he rang off. Oliver released his grip but did not move away. He was relaxed again now. There was no chance of her escaping. Zander moved closer.
‘Come with us to the atrium and see the boys.’
She marched in front of them as if tied by an invisible lead, their breath hot on her neck. At the entrance to the atruim, three more builders sat slumped as if shot. But before she could feel the horror of their deaths, they stood and came towards her. A second of relief melted into despair. Even before she looked into their eyes, she knew they would be a filmy, watery, blue. The men surrounded her, discussing the merits of rope vs wire, which fittings would be strongest, whether to kill her first and hoist her up as a dead weight, or whether she would be easier to position while still alive. Monica’s eyes darted back and forth, back and forth, searching for an escape route, a distraction, anything. She strained her ears to hear James’ car. At first, she imagined it and then she wished it and then, she was sure. He was there. She had never been so glad to hear him beep his horn. The men looked up at the sound and she took her chance. She ran like she had never run before. Back across the courtyard, frantic footfalls echoing, flinging herself around walls and through empty doors, not stopping to listen for pursuit. Not stopping until she had run into James’ arms, her frantic body slamming into his firm chest, her breath ragged, her eyes full of tears.
‘Run!’ She gasped. ‘Get in the car, let’s go’
‘Oh I don’t think so’ he drawled, relaxed. ‘Didn’t you want to see the sculpture?’
She froze, rigid, in his arms and raised her face slowly to his. He was smiling. His eyes were a filmy blue. She was overcome with love, with the nearness of him. Perhaps he was right. He was fading out of focus, growing soft around the edges of her vision. He looked like a Monet painting, all color and light. How decorative he would be. Perhaps just his head, hung from a high ceiling. Or his magnificent chest, framed on a wall.
She stood back, transfixed, as the sky grew dark and the thunder growled, as the longed-for storm burst into being and drenched them with rain. There was a moment – just a moment – when the cold reminded her of something and she blinked and then there was a thundering of hooves and flash of light glancing off huge glistening flanks and someone plucked her up from the earth and she was riding, fleeing, dashing away at the speed of light, clinging on with all she had as the huge beast moved beneath her.
Sometimes the Ploughman and I miss a clod of earth. Sometimes the plough cuts too deep. Sometimes, before we can bury a soul, its poison seeps out into the world of the living and spreads on the air. We try our best, he and I, but even the strongest of hooves can sometimes slip. But sometimes, also, we can break through. Sometimes we can save. She clung to me as I galloped through the clean wind. Her eyes brightened again like stars in the dark. She did not fall.