This is a piece that I think is a bit... mixed... I wrote a lot of it while fighting through fever shakes and delirium while I had Covid, and it didn't get a particularly good grade (unlike another piece I wrote when I was sick, written in a truly desperate cold sweat fugue state the night before it was due, that happened to get my best grade to date), but there are definitely crumbs of potential in it. I thought it was pretty good when I wrote it, but maybe it's just a little pretentious and self-indulgent now that I look back.
It's about my complicated relationship with my home town, represented by a local legend of a spectral black dog. I adore my local cryptid, and this is actually the second ill-fated creative project I've made about him, the first being a documentary film that was thoroughly canned at the start of the pandemic in 2020. I'm hoping that one day third time will be the charm, and I will be able to do him some kind of justice with my work.
Until that day comes, here is 'Where The Black Shuck Roams.' Comments with constructive criticism are most welcome.
Where The Black Shuck Roams
I had always intended to leave. To flee my humble hometown in pursuit of a life that counted for anything at all. I had the loose, flaky aspirations of a media professional; a strange breed of person sustained on middle-class vagaries and a sneering contempt for all those who dare to value an honest day’s work.
But it had all gone a little bit wrong. I dined on vegan canapes at film festivals and served watery tea at radio stations, desperately trying to hold my own amongst people so full of hot air that I thought they’d take off into the sky like egotistical dirigibles. The lofty heights of creativity are full of such people, I found. I was the elephant in every room. The muddy mutt in a world of prancing poodle pedigrees.
The delirious compulsion to create that had burned like a sun in me for as long as I can remember was eclipsed. I fell back to the cold earth just as Icarus did, wishing that it would open up and consume me in its howling darkness.
My dreams were the delusions of grandeur of someone who didn’t yet know that Black Shuck’s very own country would not leave their heart without a fight.
He is a strange and terrible wonder. Once, long ago, he was a demonic mass-hallucination formed in the minds of terrified peasants in an era of great religious and social upheaval. But now he finds himself defanged; a mascot, not a menace. His ragged, snarling visage graces the faded tourist signs and rusting weathervanes like a pagan idol.
I know his story better than my own; instilled into me by a thousand tellings since before I could crawl. It is a tale that I feel physically, a stirring in my bones like the tension in the air before a storm. His first dreadful appearance on that August morn so many years ago, told in whispered tones by parents and schoolteachers alike. His muscled form cutting through the heat haze to maim parishioners as they prayed in the church they swore was safe. They say he disappeared in a flash of lightning, leaving nothing but claw marks as he went to roam the country paths forever.
I remember tracing those claw marks with my pudgy childhood hands, before being hoisted high on my father’s shoulders to gawk at hanging tapestries. My little pink sandals plodded the same floor that the beast once stalked to put my pocket money pound coin in the donation box.
“Thank you for the lovely story.” I said to nobody in particular in that strange way that small children often do.
Or was I talking to Black Shuck? Did I think he was listening?
I don’t believe in him now, I swear. Or at least, I hope I don’t. The story of the scratches was my dad’s fanciful addition, and the mark I’d touched so reverently was little more than the spot where the doorknob grazed at the wall when the church doors were thrown open too roughly.
He’d had to tell the truth because I’d started having bad dreams. I remember the way he ruffled my hair and told me that I “had something of the old ways about me.” But that’s just a common platitude adults give to terminally miserable little girls instead of taking them to therapy.
There was no Black Shuck, he told me. He was the invention of an armchair eyewitness. A story to bolster tales of fire and brimstone told by a man in his tacky tabloid tracts. Though the deaths were real, an accident in a storm. And real also were the fears of a people who weren’t quite sure if their God had forsaken them, or they had forsaken their God. The demon dog was just an image. An allegory.
Though that doesn’t mean his presence is not there to be felt. A picture is worth a thousand words, and his image is electric. When mist falls on the vast, rolling Lows of Outney Common it’s hard not to imagine him there. I often go out walking, and he watches me like an old, wild god. He prowls the flatlands. The rest of the earth is nowhere to be found and I exist in his grassy, windswept domain.
Time as man knows it holds no power out in the Commons. It is refreshing to escape from clock faces and deadlines and endless crows of “hurry up!” Time moves as he wills it to. Nature progresses on its eternal crawl under the watch of his blood moon eye. It is in the misty winter mornings when he stalks, or the sun-scorched summer afternoons when you swear that you see his shape sheltering in tree shade. In the slow whitening of the bones of the curled-up dead fox, and the sleekening in the feathers of the duckling as she gathers the courage to leave her mother’s side.
But one cannot stay in his domain forever. I always find myself returning to the town soon enough, for one reason or another. My legs start to ache, or I get too much mud on my shoes. Sometimes, when it is sunny, I leave to buy an ice cream and sit in the shade of castle ruins in the park.
The town is thick with man’s time. My time, and the time of my family for generations. Histories seen and unseen, known and unknown. The house where my father grew up, and the pub where he spent his evenings as a young man. The sweet shop where I would gawk at toys and tourist knick-knacks in the window display, unchanged just as it always was. Times older still; the Buttercross where money and goods have changed hands every Thursday since time began, and beneath it the secret cellar domains of smuggler ghosts and partygoers alike.
I sometimes go to the cemetery, where the graves bear familiar ancestral names. Working men and women who lived much as I live now and died to give their bodies to the soil that I tread beneath my feet. I know them only as echoes. Names and dates. Immortalised in monochrome photographs with calloused hands and spare, austere faces as they posed with their dogs or guns or children.
They were of gamekeeping stock. Living in the rich man’s domain but as servants only just getting by. My last living link to them is my dad and his stories of eating little bits of pheasant and grouse that his mother had been given to take home. The rest is little more than rose-tinted speculation on lives spent working hard and thwarting the efforts of the dastardly poachers who walked by night.
I sometimes imagine some lingering spectral trace of them watching me, and I feel pangs of guilt. There is precious little left of them now, their memories just photographs in dusty boxes and their headstones slowly eaten away by the sickly yellow sprawl of crustose lichen. But their traitorous descendant is forsaking their memory to pursue fanciful dreams of a life beyond their humble means. Was their blood in my veins not a good enough reason to stay?
I had always intended to leave, and I guess it happened eventually. Sort of. Only halfway disheartened by my initial failed foray into “doing what real people do”, I picked myself up off of the ground and toiled away at college until the opportunity arose for me to go to university. I made my choice with a seasoned tactician’s precision; not too far away to feel unreasonably daunting, but not so close as to be stifled by my roots like a pot-bound pansy. I intended to leave, and I have left multiple times, but I am not all that good at staying gone for very long.
I return home every weekend. I think if I didn’t I’d lose myself completely to the hostile territory I now reside in. My roots are not stifling. They never were. They connect me to a narrative of kinship far larger and greater than myself, and I only realised just how important they are when it was a bit too late.
Though in my heart of hearts I cannot deny that the choice I made was the right one. The value of my university experience has been immeasurable. I have grown so much as a writer, thinker, and human being. I continue to grow ever more each day, slowly forging a life for myself that I hope will be a happy one. But part of growing means coming to terms with the fact that the right choice can sometimes be painful.
I had always taken small-town comforts for granted. At home, I can walk a mile and be a mile from anywhere; free to roam dirt tracks and dodge brambles with nothing but my thoughts to trouble me. But when I’m away, I walk a mile to find only more town; no escape from the chokehold of concrete and dust, and no hiding place from the leering, devil-eyed populace who vivisect me with their glances. I could not conceive of how lonely it would be to live somewhere where I was a stranger. To be at my very loneliest while surrounded by vast quantities of people. Perhaps, like the Shuck, I am a sad and solitary beast.
Homesickness at its worst is a physical ache. A terrible, churning tumult in the pit of the stomach. A tension behind the eyes that constantly threatens tears. I wither gradually like a flower in a cut crystal vase; suffering so very far from the soil that bore it but seeming happy in its gilded cage to careless onlooking eyes.
I am often restless late into the night, too wracked by these feelings to sleep in my sterile flat. The vibrant sounds and smells of decadent student excess are all around me: chatter, music, and the distant whiff of drink and smoke. But I want none of those things. I shut my eyes tightly and try my hardest to ignore the abyssal chasm that leaving has torn in my psyche. That is when I finally sleep, so I can dream of home.
In dreams, I breathe my bracing native air and wander free with no demands on my time or body. The land and sky melt together on the horizon, fusing into a tranquil plane of stony cinereous grey. He is there, too. Passant like a heraldic charge with rough fur and bared teeth. My dreams of him do not scare me like they did when I was a child. He is an old acquaintance now. Perhaps even a friend.
Words cannot describe the relief I feel when I return for my weekend visits. The settling in my stomach as the town becomes visible in the distance when my car draws near. The way he greets me from his perching spot on the old weathervane in the beating heart of town. The familiar rattle of the garden gate as I descend the pathway to my lifelong home.
Alas, these visits are short and fleeting. I am too burdened by my studies to wander free in the open fields. No sooner have I arrived when I must plan to depart once more, and I am left feeling like an unwelcome houseguest. It invokes a peculiar liminal angst in me; to be back at the home I no longer fully belong to. Sometimes I fear that I may never truly belong there again, and that feeling of security is forever lost to me.
But I know I have nothing to fret, not really. The roar of traffic outside my window is his faraway howl calling out to me, and he will carry me home no matter how far astray I wander. My soul is in Bungay, on the winding country paths where the Black Shuck roams.