The Barrow Bovidae
Dawn stood on the street corner, wearing her usual faded work jeans smeared with soil. Typical archaeologist’s wardrobe. She looked up as I approached, tucked her plum-coloured fringe behind her ear and smiled.
“You’re early for a change,” I said.
“Did you remember all the stuff?”
I flipped my satchel open to show her the notepad, graph paper, measuring tape, pencil, eraser and torch.
“It’s so good to be out of that stuffy office for a change,” I said.
“I know, today’s gorgeous,” she said, smiling. “Where’re we off to anyway?”
“Seaforde. Apparently there’s some nice one’s at the back of the graveyard.”
My study of Mausoleums had taken me practically all over the county during June. Most of the tombs I had surveyed held the skeletons of couples who had owned considerable wealth during their lifetimes. How romantic. Or maybe ironic, considering I was now climbing inside the ancient coffins to take measurements with my ex-girlfriend in tow.
Dawn was a clingy sort of person. She had offered herself up as a volunteer to take notes for me, as I shouted out numbers in semi-darkness. Not too many girls would do such a task. Or maybe it was because of the perks to the job – like the fact that we had a casual thing going. My volunteer in more ways than one. In any case, she was happy with the arrangement, no strings attached and all that. Nothing a man could complain about, really.
The artistic study was coming along well. I would plot a scale version of the Mausoleum, then sketch in the intricate stonework of the facade later. I had covered a nice range of mausoleums in my study – from the more elaborate nineteenth century style crypts, to the simple, weatherworn tombs of the seventeenth century.
We went by bus. The journey took about forty minutes and was uneventful. We passed the house that I vowed I would one day own. I wondered how long it took to build it and what the perimeter measured. Dawn complained about her hay-fever. Once we got off, I navigated with my beat-up map and we found the forgotten graveyard down a stony lane.
My eyes scanned the scattered gravestones that were like small rain-worn hillocks dotted around the site.
“I don’t see any Mausoleums here,” I said, squinting against the afternoon light. “Do you?”
Dawn shook her head. “Looks like there could be a barrow up there, though.” She pointed towards what looked like a miniature, grass-covered, Ayers rock on top of the hill. It was partly hidden behind a clump of trees, but appeared to be no more than about fifteen feet long and about six feet high. The grassy hillock certainly did look like a long barrow. I jerked my bag up my shoulder and climbed the weed jungle of the hill with Dawn at my side.
As I approached, I noticed a metre-wide stone slab above two crudely hewn rectangular entrance posts, each no more than a foot thick. The passageway was blocked with soil and grass. Dawn and I worked to pull away the turf, until the entrance was clear.
“Weird,” I said, scratching my ear. I bent down and entered through the narrow doorway. “Wonder why it isn’t marked on the map?”
Dawn shrugged. “Might be an old map. They didn’t bother with details on the older versions. No topography, nothing.”
“Still, wouldn’t they bother to put an obvious feature like this on a map? These little villages could do with the tourism.”
“Maybe they didn’t realise what it was. Could easily be an old bunker from the war, or a well-disguised public toilet.”
“Probably been used as both of those at some point,” I said, with a cautious sniff.
Dawn followed me inside. The light was dim, but I could make out what looked like two small chambers inside. Above, the low stone ceiling was covered with moss and the air reeked of earth. My foot crunched over rubble on the ground. Looking down, I could make out disarticulated bones.
Dawn bent down and picked up a fragment. She turned the piece over in her hand, observing it with wide eyes in the poor light. “It’s got cut marks on it. Probably de-fleshed.”
I nodded, noting the array of large and small scattered remains. “Adult and child.”
“There’s another chamber across there, did you see?” she asked.
Still ducking, we entered the second small enclosure. More scattered bones. Some appeared to have been burnt.
“It seems odd that all this is just lying here so open and none of it has been recorded,” I said, more careful than I had been in the first chamber to step around the bones.
I spun around looking for Dawn and couldn’t see her. The line of light from the almost obscured doorway now provided an eerie glow inside the barrow.
“Did you know that in old times people used to think chambered tombs were supernatural, otherworldly places?” Dawn’s voice had a ghostly resonance as it reached me from the other chamber.
“Aren’t they?” I said, touching the walls of the tomb. “They’re burial places after all.”
“I meant evil,” she said. “You know that poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’? Well the Knight supposedly lived in, how does it go, a ‘rounded mound on the side of a slope that was overgrown with grass and quite hollow inside’. And apparently there was a long barrow in Beowulf too. Some sort of Dragon lived in it. That was its lair.”
Her voice seemed amplified in the narrow space and assaulted my ears. I winced as the onset of a headache swept over me. My hand reached for my forehead in the gloom and felt it to be clammy.
“Gareth, get back here, I think there’s something else.”
My feet led me out of the right anterior chamber and shuffled across the uneven ground as if they were detached from my body, much like the assortment of bones all around me. I could make out Dawn’s form at the back of the enclosure. My eyeballs shook for a moment as I struggled to focus on her in the gloom. I rubbed them with my thumb and forefinger, blinked long and hard and walked towards her.
Squiggles. Zigzagging shapes danced before my eyes on the walls of the tomb, delving into the shadows of the crypt. “Dawn, I need fresh air.”
“I think it’s a Cist Gareth. There’s a skeleton, mostly intact, no hands and feet though.”
“I feel a bit sick-”
“Shut up, just a bit longer. What do you reckon this is? There’s something on the skull.”
I felt her hand in the semi-darkness guide mine towards the skull which was set in a shallow pit. Two small objects were lodged up the nasal cavity of the skull.
Swirling shapes, like snail shells flittered before my heavy-lidded eyes. “I dunno, maybe finger bones. They probably shoved the person’s hands in their nose to prop the head up.” My own head rolled on my shoulders. “Can we go? I think I have altitude sickness.”
I could sense Dawn’s face turned towards me in the dark. “Altitude sickness? It’s only a small hill. What’s wrong with you? Are you scared of ghosts or what?”
I heard the rustle of her clothes as she turned back towards the skull. “You’re right I think. They’re small bones, very fragmented. Phalanges, but I don’t think they’re human. I wish there was more light in here. Gimme your torch.”
I fumbled in my satchel and closed my fingers around the plastic handle. My hand shook as I lifted it out and it slipped out of my grip. The clatter of the torch rolling across the floor was a firecracker going off in my ears.
“Oh Gareth, you lost it,” Dawn whined. I heard her sigh. “Never mind. This is really exciting.”
She hummed as she examined the bones. “There’s part of a jaw in this pit. I think it’s a sheep. But why was the person buried with a sheep? More to the point, why did they have its toes shoved up their nose?”
Which way was out? Which direction was I pointing in? We were in the posterior chamber, there was a Cist. I needed to steady myself.
I stretched my arms wide, but felt no walls. I reached up and felt the rough stone ceiling, strewn with hard protrusions. The objects were wide at the base, tapering off towards the end. I knew they weren’t stone, but wasn’t sure what they were. They felt like the dried pig’s ears my parents’ dog liked to chew.
“What’s this?” said Dawn’s voice. It seemed she had found the strange stalactites. I heard a crunching sound in the hollow space. “Tastes like, I don’t know what. Fat.”
“Fat?” I grabbed her arm, my fingers feeling along it towards her mouth. “What the hell are you eating them for? They could be anything! Parts of human corpses, for all we know.”
“Ooh, evaporated fat. Maybe they cremated the body in here and the solids floated up and formed this lovely layer.”
My heavy breath clouded the air around me with diamond-shaped patterns. Was I hearing her right? “Dawn, we need to get outside. I think I’m not in my right mind.”
“Or maybe both were buried together,” she said, “because both died together.” Another crunch.
I realised my fingers were still linked around her wrist, the tips of each cold. I yanked on Dawn’s arm and led her towards the light.
“We need to get more stuff and come back to survey this place properly,” she said. “Mmm, you should try these. They’re really tasty.”
The crisp sound of munching met my ears. I shook her by the wrist and she let go of her grisly snack, sending the morsel flying.
“Those stories are right – this place is making us mad!” I said, leading her outside.
As I came outside and straightened up to my full height, I noticed that my hand, still holding onto Dawn behind me, was dragging me down. I looked back. I was no longer holding onto Dawn, but rather, a small brown hairy sheep, standing on its rear legs because of my grip on its hoof. Its long legs and shaggy coat gave it a somewhat wild appearance and as it looked up at me, it tipped its curly head.
“Dawn!” I said, letting go with a jolt. “What the-?!”
“Ga-a-a-reth,” she said, in a bleating voice. “It’s that food I ate. It was fu-u-u-nny.”
I ran both hands through my hair and stared at the animal. “What happened to you – you’re a primitive sheep!”
“I don’t know what happened.”
Magic. It had to be. Druid magic, or whatever else. Those geometric shapes I’d seen. The tales of supernatural events.
“Did you eat one of the sheep bones?”
“No-o-o,” she said in a quaver. “Only the stuff on the ceiling.”
“But you must’ve said something. I dunno, think. An incantation. Something to seal the spell.”
“Last thing I said was ‘both died together’ about the human and sheep bones.”
“Both died together, both died…” I said, thinking. “That’s it! I’ve got it! Bovidae! That must be it! You said the magic words while eating part of the human-sheep conglomeration.”
“So now what?”
I shrugged. “Guess you’re stuck as a sheep.”
Dawn always did follow me around as one, so this would be no different. Sort of.
“Well, at the very least, could we find out what kind of sheep I am?”
I nodded. “We have the harder job first, of getting you home.”
My fears were confirmed. The bus driver wouldn’t let me take Dawn onboard, even when I put my sunglasses on and pretended she was my guide-sheep. We managed to hitch a ride in the back of a truck for part of the way, and then walked the rest.
“Don’t drop turds on the footpath,” I said. “You’ll embarrass me. If you need to go, find a bush.”
Dawn responded with an assortment of pebble-sized black balls of different sizes.
“I couldn’t help it,” she said, with a cry. “This body is hard to control. I haven’t got the hang of it yet.”
I walked on, letting her trail behind. “Well, if you do it in my flat, you can clean it yourself.”
Once we got to my place, I dumped my bag by the front door and grabbed one of the reference books off my shelf. Leafing through the section on animal domestication, I found what I suspected.
“You’re a mouflon. The ancestor of the domestic sheep,” I said, snapping the book closed.
Dawn looked up at me, sheepishly. “Oh well. Can I stay with you until we figure this all out?”
I rolled my eyes. “You practically live here anyway,” I said. “Only you can’t stay in my bed anymore. I’m many things, but not a sheep-shagger. And you’ll need to pay your way. Do you provide milk or something?”
The sheep let its mouth fall open, showing a fine diastema. “The cheek! Animal husbandry and you aren’t even my husband. Fine! Then you certainly can’t milk me!” She stomped out of the room. “I’m going to use the toilet!”
“Well, do it in the bowl, not on the floor.”
“I am house-trained, you know! This body might be awkward and clumsy for me but my memory’s still intact.”
I put my head in my hands. What was I going to do?
Then I remembered – Uncle Roger. He was a sheep farmer in Bury St. Bellwether. He would know what to do. Maybe not how to change her back to human form, but at least how to manage her.
“I’m going out to see someone,” I yelled towards the bathroom. “I’ll be back in a while. Don’t put hoof prints all over the pâté while I’m gone!”
I swung the door shut behind me to a chorus of protests from Dawn. Dawn the human liked pâté – but would she still like it as a sheep? Sheep were herbivores of course, but then, Dawn wasn’t a normal one. What did sheep even eat? Uncle Roger would sort it all out for me.
The walk to his farm took a good half an hour along tree lined lanes and gravelly paths that turned among the hedgerows. The farmhouse was set close to the road. I pushed the huge metal gate open and let it fall closed behind me. Then I approached the front door and knocked.
“Aunt Patty,” I said, panting from my walk. “Is Uncle Roger busy?”
“No, come on in love,” she said, kissing my cheek. She turned, looking up the stairs. “The lad’s here to see you!”
“Gareth!” She said, then turned back to me. “He’ll be down in a minute. You come on through.”
I sat down in their cosy sitting room. Now that I was there, what would I say? I couldn’t admit that my ex-lover was a mouflon or it would raise all sorts of ugly questions. Better to start with the basics.
“Uh, hello Uncle.”
Uncle Roger sat down, filling most of the chair with his bulk. “Gaz, it’s good to see ya. Still doing that course at college?”
“Eh, yeah, nearly finished. Actually, I came here to ask you something about sheep.”
Uncle Roger laughed, phlegm rattling around in his chest. “Sheep? I doubt that’s for your course, is it?”
“Well, kind of. No, it isn’t. Just curiosity. I’m minding a pet sheep for a friend and wondered how to take care of it, that’s all.”
Uncle Roger stood up as quickly as he had sat down. “Are you staying for dinner then? This could take a while.”
I rubbed my hands together, thinking of Dawn back in my flat. “Uh, yeah. Yeah why not.”
“Well your visits are so few and far between, I’d better cook up a feast. You catch up with your aunt there and I won’t be two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
Aunt Patty and I got caught up over several cups of tea while Uncle Roger busied himself out back. “He’s probably getting one fresh for you,” she said.
“Didn’t know he slaughtered them too?”
“He does most stuff himself,” she said, grinning.
Soon, the delicious smell of cooking lamb enticed us into the kitchen. I could see in the pan, three good-sized steaks sizzling away.
“Look’s a treat,” I said, my mouth watering. “I can’t wait to tuck in.”
Aunt Patty and I helped set the table and we ate a proper meal in the dining room. The meat was fresh and tender and nicely herbed.
“You’ll have to show me how to cook lamb,” I said. “Your sheep really are the best quality.”
Uncle Roger shoved a fork-load into his mouth. “Oh this one wasn’t mine. I ran her over when I was going up the hill to get one of my lot to cook for your tea. She wasn’t marked, but I can’t be sure she wasn’t from one of the neighbouring farms, so I thought I’d get rid of the carcass, you know how it goes with fresh road-kill.” He winked. “Must’ve got in through the front gate. You left it open on your way in. Sometimes I think you were born in a barn, lad!”
I swallowed my food as Uncle Roger laughed, and felt my stomach sink with the weight of his words.
“Was she a small ewe, kind of brownish with long legs?” I said, in a choked voice.
“That’s right. Did you see it?”
My throat felt tight. My mouth opened wide and I clutched my neck with both hands as I tried to dislodge the chunk of Dawn that sat behind my tonsils. I saw Aunt Patty reach across the table and Uncle Roger race around the edge towards me. The room was closing in. Spirals, diamonds and pyramids of hardened tissue hung like stalactites before my eyes. Zigzagging shapes danced before my eyes, leading me towards the barrow. And behind the barrow at the top of the hill, a thin line of light welcomed me towards it.
Rodney Ramos works in IT by profession, but is a writer by passion. He lives in London with his wife and owns a labradoodle called Cheeko.