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Saturday, 9 June 2018

Day 42: Hooves

We awake on the edge of the village, to forests of nettles swaying gently in the breeze. Between the nettles bees bumble around bright flowers and blackbirds peck hungrily at the grass. Clouds slide by overhead, the washing line bobs in the moving air, and we sit on plump tasseled cushions, drinking tea and feeling at peace.

As we're making breakfast the nice lady from next door comes by. She wants to show us the pendant that her son brought back from the Eastern European country in which he was stationed during "the war". The pendant glows preternaturally, and emits a strange humming as we lean in. Fran has reached out her hand towards it, a faraway look on her face, but just as she is about to touch the stone at its centre, the wild-haired bookshop owner raps on the door and we all look up.

"Thought I'd stop by to see how you youngsters were settling in," he says amiably, his kind, olive-green eyes shining in the morning light. "Deidre--" he nods to our neighbour "--I expect you'll need to be getting back to your, ahh, meat stock. Smelled to be burning, as I passed."

Our neighbour smiles sweetly at the bookshop owner, showing a long row of teeth, and retreats beyond the threshold back onto the lane. I notice the pendant has been stowed back inside the folds of her long shawl.

We chat to the bookshop owner, but after a short time he says he must be getting back to his shop. "Can't be too careful, eh?" he says lightly. "Anyway, it's good to see new faces round these parts. The village of late has been... Well, I'm glad to see you, is all."

He leaves, flattening down his wiry hair. I wonder to Fran what brought him out our way. His shop is on the other side of town.

After eating we decide to go for an amble to the surrounding countryside. We can't find any walks online -- reception on our phones is intermittent out here -- but there is an old frayed map Fran comes across in the back of a cupboard upstairs, and inside its yellowed folds what looks to be a route marked in deep red leading into the hills away from the village.

"Must be directions of a walk left by a previous visitor to the cottage," Fran says.

There is an area on the map ringed in the same red, with cursive script beside it, though neither of us can make out the words, or even what language it is written in.

"Hungarian, perhaps?" I say.

Fran nods. "Probably pointing out a good picnic spot."

We pack a rucksack and put on our walking shoes and set off.

The map tells us to follow the road down the hill, past the fish and chip shop with its closed shutters and the pub with its closed shutters and the arcane trinkets store, which, though it appears open from far away, as we reach we find is, also, shuttered.

"Guess they value their lunchbreaks here," I muse.

At the bottom of the hill we cross a stone bridge and then turn down a path overhanging with ivy, and squeeze through a small gate into the woods. It's hard to make out the public footpath signs, or even if they are there at all.

We ascend through the trees, following a bubbling river below us on the left, beyond a clearing with ground that almost looks scorched out, and beyond some discarded rubbish, hospital gowns, grip ties, blades from agricultural equipment, just nondescript stuff, until finally we break free of the tree line and come out into the fields overlooking the village.

The hamlet looks funny from up here, almost like the streets have been designed to allow the houses to point inwards at one another in a shape that resembles... a symbol of some kind, though I can't quite think what.

The earth below us is trembling, there must be diggers nearby, perhaps they're putting up another of those churches -- there seem to be so many churches for such a small place, and obviously they don't have the staff for them, as the doors of each that we've tried have been locked shut with large iron chains.

We are nearly at the place marked on the map. There is a definite vibration in the ground now, and a strange smell, and a weird humming noise, like the one we heard from the pendant, only rounder, more encompassing. One more field, and we'll be there. There is some sort of structure just over the lip of the hill. We can see pillars, a gateway, a chainlink fence.

And then we see what is causing the ground to tremble. We see why we can go no further.

Cows. Hundreds of cows, trotting down into the field to block our path. They flood over the hill, their dark hooves clattering over the hardened soil, their inky eyes staring straight at us.

The animals in the centre of the group carry on approaching, while the outliers fan out to either side. Flanked by old, weathered creatures, I spot the bull. He has a jet-black hide, a tail like anchor rope, bony horns scratching at the sky. Yet his eyes are so full, so expressive. They shine even from that far off, bright and brilliant and olive green.

The mooing starts up. It fills the air. It fills all our senses. Louder, louder, a low guttural moan warning us back.

We turn. We run.

We've spent the rest of the day huddled indoors with the blinds down, the television blaring, trying to connect to the internet on our phones. I can still hear that mooing, I don't know if I will ever get it out of my mind. Send Snapchat pictures. Send Whatsapp memes. Send anything at all. Are you still out there, civilisation? Or is it now only the cows?

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