The herd lit up like bulbs, illuminating the dark mountainside – beast by beast picked out by the colossal sun burning through the morning fog. Close up, the metal ring through the little bull’s nose glinted. A stunted oak, hung with galls, stooped a few metres from his thick shoulder, ancient amongst the new vastness of grasses, gorse, heather, fern, and bramble. Plumes of mist rolled across the elevated plateau. The trees shifted relentlessly up and down the mountain, speaking time in circles. Fire ran across the gorse, scattering birds and snakes who practised their frantic infinite s away from the scorching. Boar ripped turf off the surface, rootling. There was no still life. The weather came in big from the west. The shaman, high in his karst cave, threaded curved beaks and teeth onto dried wild grape vines, waiting for his lover to return. But the man walked the peaks still, his dogs – a mastiff and a mongrel – ranging nearby. In the time of snow, the man and his dogs could go anywhere and seek out the tracks of the mountain hare. Only four or five mares remained this high up, scratching through the ice and snow for the meagre forage underneath. This summer, he would find their bones packed into a ravine.
The first jalopies arrived in early spring with mares and cows kicking and stumbling inside. Some mountain folk still trudged up behind a nameless mare and her foal from the cradle of the valley, shouting ‘take, take, go up, go up.’ The old ways were well-trodden and had been for much more than a thousand years. Soon, the man and his dogs must look for the paths only they used, empty except for them, the bear, and the wolf, even in spring and summer. Other mastiffs prowled the mountain near the herds, a ferocious white bitch wearing a collar studded with spikes, educating her two huge pups. The herds crowded the jalopy ways and public routes, and cows lowered their horns and dashed at the man and his dogs if they passed between them and their calves. The farmers stuttered and thundered up and down to the high pastures to stand in groups discussing the herds, with binoculars around their necks to look for wolves. Helicopters lurked in the skies heaving great bellies of water. The floating shuttle spewed out small groups of visitors who zoomed their way to the tops, taking photos and shitting in bushes. The mountain was littered with tiny white mounds of brown-stained bog paper. Coming down off Wolf Peak, the mastiff pushing ahead through the camomile, the mongrel at his feet, the man spotted a woman defecating a hundred metres down, her white ass a sunlit globe, thinking she had found privacy off the main track, her own glorious restroom. Human visitors were afraid of loose animals who did dangerous things. But their right to shit and forget about the destiny of human shit was primal. Meat foals, unsteady on their feet, soon learnt to race at their mothers’ hind legs, fattened up with summer grass. Stallions turned their backsides to anyone except the farmers who cooed to them with calm voices and fed them yesterday’s bread. The little bull was tired, bowing his head to the man and his dogs as they passed. There were eyes everywhere.
The man fought his way out of the overgrown cañada, his uncut hair caught in hawthorn, dogs up ahead and gone. Turning a corner, he saw both dogs with their tails high and tense, circling a merle sheepdog with blue speckled eyes. The new dog’s hackles were high, and the guarded greeting soon turned to snarling and dust.
‘Get back you two,’ he shouted as he grabbed the mastiff, who sank, massive, to the ground.
The little dog kept up the scrap, and a farmer laconically appeared, saying, ‘Let them fight; I relish a good dog fight.’
The man ignored him. ‘Here, little rat,’ he said, and grabbed the tiny mongrel by the harness and attached him to the lead. ‘Now be quiet.’
The little dog squirmed and barked savagely. The farmer raised his stick, and the sheepdog cowered. ‘Back off,’ the farmer growled, and then, ‘Good day to you, boy! Your dogs have got evil in them, they need educating.’ He leant on his stick.
‘Great day,’ replied the man.
The sound of the farmer’s voice came from far away, lodged in the dirt of the man’s ears. ‘My grandfather used to clean this old path in his day, but nobody does anymore. I have no time, too much to do, even though I am retired, and you’ll never guess how much my pension is.’
‘It’s a beautiful old way,’ answered the man. ‘Good to keep using it, me and the livestock and the wild beasts and my dogs.’
The farmer shook his head and shouted, ‘Two thousand a month, the biggest pension on the mountain. Back when I worked at the central dairy, those were the days, a hundred head of cattle, and that was just my father.’
‘I saw one of your cows with a limp,’ said the man.
‘Not mine, lad, mine are strong – tough, like me, and anyway, I’ll sell them next year, there’s no money in it, and the mountain’s ruined, covered in shit all summer. I go to the city in the winter, I bought a new flat there, you know the new-builds? Expensive. Everything new, nothing to worry about, neither mice nor flies, no need to go for wood, no ice crashing off the roof. I come in the summer, and we have a few barbecues, grow potato or pepper. The country is for weekends – for my daughter and her husband and the grandkids. The city has things we all need.’
The mastiff shifted at the man’s feet and the trees leant towards them, listening. Far off, the man heard singing on the peaks. He began to speak, but the farmer cut him off.
‘You get cold in winter; you nearly die of the cold. My grandfather and father did not work their fingers to the bone so I would freeze up here with the mountain oak. No, boy, the best life is to shuttle your way between comforts, and follow the sun. It is true, now the fields are mostly empty, and the sun is mostly bigger, nobody comes out or in, or hardly anybody. You see in my jalopy’ – and he pointed to his sleek steed waiting roadside – ‘I roll over it all like a tank, but that’s me. Paid for that in paper.’
As if caught frozen by the cold, the man, the mastiff, and the mongrel formed a triptych at the centre of the moving path, shapes that shrank against the barrage of words. A wind rushed in.
‘They say a disease is coming to the mountain. You know you have it if your fingers tingle or sting, then blood from the eyes.’ The farmer laughed. ‘It won’t get me. Come dog–’ the farmer hit the sheepdog with his stick and was gone.
The figures of the man and his dogs became smaller and smaller until a tiny seed pod, with a gust, disappeared.
The mastiff was a nomad to the gum of his bones. In his sleep, his mastiff ancestors told him gruff tales of the peaks, wolf-night after wolf-night when the witch and her sisters circled the round stone cabins into which the shepherds pushed the lambs at twilight. Then, they were six or seven dogs, each wearing a leather clasp around their necks studded with nails pointing outwards. Every generation, there was one dog less, but this was before the machines and jalopies appeared, before the sun grew. For miles in summer, the mastiffs would follow the herd across the flat tops, down gullies, and through sparkling woods, up dusty drovers’ paths lined with limestone which opened out into terrific expanses of green. Then each would take up position, some stretched flat in patches of shade, others on lookout. A mastiff can sense a thing from a mile off, hear a thing when there is no sound, and see a thing when the view is bosky.
‘Be gentle,’ his ancestors would tell him, ‘but fierce.’ And so he was. He would stare down at the man and the little dog from a hanging rock, completely impassive and alert, or lie flat out on the cold plastic the man used to cover the beds in winter and fall back to sleep.
‘In the autumn,’ his ancestors would tell him, ‘we would wind our way down with the flocks, proud if not one animal had gone to the wolves. One of those wolf-nights in high summer, we remember it – how could we forget? – the wolves had come at them in force, and one of our pack, a great white bitch mastiff, rose on her hind legs and grappled with a snarling wolf. Soon, blood and flesh were flying, and the shepherds shouted and held up wands of fire. The bitch mastiff snarled into the night, leapt out o’ the circle of lights, and there was an illustrious sound of the stars rushing to meet the earth, and she was no more, gone to the wolves. Another time, before that, we suppose, that same white bitch mastiff disappeared into the mountain, and when her time came, birthed eight wild pups with wolf in their eyes and muzzle. The shepherds took them and drowned them that same day.’
The mastiff woke and stretched, jumped on four legs, and barked.
The man called down to him in the field, ‘Hey dog, that is a prolific sound, what goes there?’
But there was only a trio of ghost cats balancing along a fallen wall half a mile away. The mastiff settled back into his trance. The shaman came to him in skins and left him red deer bones. Soon, he would join him on the cave walls, spidery, with tail curled, in his ochre works of art. This was before the great herds wound their way to the peaks in the summer, before the sun glowered like an angry eye. Before the end, when the paths became impassable again, and time limped on crutches across the sky.
Each year, the man tried to open back up the old country paths, and each year the weekend folk blocked them back up with the refuse and detritus from their summers – neon-pink prawn shells, half-wrapped parcels of baby shit, cloned faux-charcoal, great clumps of unwanted plant life doused in toxins, or empty bottles of alcohol. Each year, the man dug trenches around his garden and down into the valley to carry the soaps, petrol, oils, urine, and shit that the summer folk excreted and poured from their windows. Livestock wandered down from the peaks, and the farmers nudged them back up with their jalopies.
The mastiff rose in a furious torrent of noise, suddenly, as another ghost cat made its careful way across the roof of the broken-down cabin nearby. The shaman sang his wavering songs high in the karst system, and pleaded for his lover and his dogs to return to the dark skull of the cave.
Andrew F. Giles
Andrew F. Giles (he/him) writes poetry and (non)fiction. He has recent or forthcoming work in Unpsychology, Fruit, Dark Mountain Project, Abridged, Boats Against the Current, Feral and Queer Life, Queer Love (Muswell Press, 2021). He was a Spelt Magazine columnist for 2022–23. He lives and works at Greyhame Farm, a sustainability project, creative residency, and safe space for queer folk and their allies.