Climate Change

by Jan Kaneen

That’s what they call it, prattlers as reckon there’s science in nature, but there’s other things shifting than just the weather. Seen it with these very eyes, I have, out in the wilds of the Lincolnshire fens.

Fear or something like it was making me drive too fast that night. I’ve never been a skittish woman, fen-tiger through-and-through that’s me, but I’d been feeling weird since the downpour started—sort of stretched and jangled as my imagination made monsters of the storm. I bucketed the truck round another hairpin bend stopping only inches shy of yet another road-closed sign. Flash flooding’s nowt new in the fens these days, but this felt different, like every detour was steering me deeper in.

Waves of rain churned in the headlights swilling names of childhood monsters into my mind—Black Shuck, Will-o-the-Wakes, Ginny Greenteeth—local terrors said to stalk the lonely roads on nights like these. I checked my phone that’d packed up past Crowland but there was still no signal, so I switched on the radio to settle my nerves, but the distorted crackle only echoed the thrash of rain on the thin window, a white-noise thrash that caught the rhythm of the wipers. Tiddymun, they seemed to breathe, Tiddymun, Tiddymun. I shivered as something long-forgotten resurfaced—my Gramma standing behind the bar of the Ferryboat Inn—crossing herself whenever the fenmen spoke that name. When watter teems these fens agin, they’d tell travellers, in the old way of tattling, beware the Tiddymun wi-out a name—grey heer, grey heed, an’ walkin’ lame, no bigger than a three-year-old bairn. Tiddymun the throat-slitter, Tiddymun the skin-flayer, Tiddymun the scourge o’ strangers as show no respect.

‘You’re fenland bred,’ I told myself out loud, ‘from punt to plough. You’ve nowt to fear in this place,’ and as I said it, my gaze landed on an unmarked track hanging pale above the flooded fields. The decision made itself. I spun the wheel and sheered leftward.

On a clear day you can see forever in the fens—no trees or hills to break the horizon, just mile-after-mile of reclaimed farmland, once wild marshes now forced into man-made furrows that sit below sea level, separated by drains that channel the water, and above, a sky so wide it seems to come from inside your head. Not that night. That night there was no moon or stars, no distant windows casting occasional squares of light. The scattered smallholdings that once sat below the road were long-gone, gobbled up by greedy agricultural conglomerates rich enough to keep the waters at bay. That night I almost fancied I could feel the fens seething their need to revert to nature.

The figure flickered from nowhere. I floored the brakes and felt the impact.

Then blackness.

When I came to, a pale youth was peering through the open door, reed-thin, wearing sodden white cotton that seemed to shine its own light.

‘The road’s a river over beyond,’ he said, dripping a finger into the dark, and as I looked, a sudden gust blew a hole in the cloud—a weak new-moon showing a bank of jagged blackthorn, and in the place his finger should have been, the glint of steel. My head swum into darkness again and the next thing I knew he was holding me easy as you might a child, stooping to place me on a small wicker chair in an earthen room that smelt of yesterday. I was weak and addled, with pain stabbing up my legs. I watched silent as he sat cross-legged on the floor opposite, took up some wood and started to whittle—slow smooth strokes—with the knife he’d carried out on the fen, a thin skinning knife with an old-bone handle.

‘Speak your name,’ he snapped, whittling steady, fixing me with eyes that lit the room.

I shivered speechless for I was cold as winter and couldn’t think beyond the rhythmic bite of that blade as it whittled and peeled and peeled and pared. He nodded toward a grey cloak lying threadbare on the dusty floor. I watched transfixed, hardly breathing as it twitched into life and rose above me, but when it settled over my head and shoulders the pain eased and I felt dry and right.

‘Think it back,’ he drawled, still whittling steady, ‘to the fens afore they was drained—to mires and mists and folks as eked out a living, and not a one of them as didn’t carry a witch’s bottle to ward off the evil.’ A crack of shadow curled his lips into a crooked smile, ‘But there’s no such protections now.’ Then he set the wood aside and rose to his feet and as he stood he seemed to grow, or me to shrink, for he towered above me now. The knife flickered like white fire as he drew it back behind his shoulder then launched it forward into my face. Another hair’s-breadth and it would have spiked my eye, but I didn’t flinch, I didn’t blink. I faced into that gaunt steel and watched as it stopped dead. It hung in mid-air. Frozen. Held by nothing. I stared into that pin-prick tip and it seemed so familiar. My hand reached forward and as I took the bony handle, it all came flooding back…roaring back…raging back.

‘Speak your name,’ cried the Will-o-the-Wakes dropping to his knees before me now, offering up the rough-worked crutch he’d whittled fit for a three-year-old bairn. I hobbled lame to my old-new feet and in a voice that cracked like reeds in a howling wind, I seethed my ancient name.

So call it “climate change” if it makes you feel better, you prattlers as think you know truth from Tuesdays, but this earth’s had a gutful of human truth, and there’s darker things rising than just the watter—darker things than you can ever imagine. 

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