The Cairn

David E Sotheran


We buried the horse in the field where it had fallen. It had been struck by lightning and, ironically, not far from the only tree in the field. Ironic because lightning usually strikes the highest point but, for some reason on this occasion it had decided to strike the horse instead of the tree. We went over there when the storm subsided to see what we could do. When lightning strikes a tree, the heat causes the sap to boil so that it bursts its way through the bark, usually shattering the trunk. The same thing had happened to the horse. All the liquid inside it had evaporated instantaneously and burst through the skin leaving a ragged heap of unidentifiable charred flesh and bones.

It was too heavy to move and there wasn’t anything we could do with it, so we buried it next to where it lay. It took two days. We had to dig a hole deep enough to prevent scavenging foxes digging it up in the night. Using the tree as an anchor point, we set up a pulley system with rope from the garage then used this to drag the corpse into the hole. A lot of stone had come out the excavation so when the horse was covered, we piled that carefully on top of the mound. Just beyond the tree were the remains of an old dry-stone wall, a remnant of the days when the area had been used for sheep farming, so we carted, then placed, all of the stone from there onto the mound. Finally, we barrowed soil from around the site to use as back-fill among the gaps. At the end of the second day, as we stood for while admiring the work, we realised that we had unintentionally erected a cairn for the horse. It would be seen from a distance. We were pleased with it.

The horse hadn’t been of any significance, it was just there. It was like a pet, really. We didn’t ride it; it didn’t do any work, it just contentedly ambled around the field. Alf Grindle had brought it when he came... well, he didn’t actually come to us, he had befriended our mother and she had, foolishly, invited him to stay.  We could never understand why she got involved with him. Our dad had been dead for years by that time but Alf Grindle wasn’t a substitute. Still, we conceded that it was her choice and we never questioned her about the situation. But we hated him. We think that he had been a gypsy before we knew him but he never said anything about his past. He was rough and vulgar and had an unpredictable, violent temper. He also drank to excess. Most days he would bring bottles of spirits home from the village after he’d spent hours in the pub. A lot of the time he was drunk – and, when he was drunk, he became increasingly violent. On occasions like these he regularly beat our mother and us whenever something upset him, which was often. We never knew what he did for a living only that, he now sometimes worked at odd jobs for people in the village. We guessed that he must have a regular income but we finally assumed that he might have been getting some kind of state aid. Whatever his situation he was always around, except, of course, when he was in the pubs or doing a job for someone.  We soon learned to keep a distance from him, particularly when he had been drinking. We sometimes heard our mother and him arguing but we didn’t know what it was about, and every so often, after his raging sessions she might have a black eye or some bruising on her.

This went on for a long time. We were youngsters then and, even though we hated the dreadful situation, there was nothing we could do except live through it. We did that for a long time until he went away. The day when he left was probably the most horrendous day of our young lives. He came into the house after one of his serious drinking bouts and almost immediately started an argument with our mother. This began with him demanding money from her but, when she refused to give him anything, he lost his temper. It was then that we realised where his source of income had come from, at least some of it. We also learned that his financial demands must have been the start of a lot of their previous furious exchanges. This time he completely lost his self-control…

He finally lurched out of the gate, along the road and out of our lives but not before he had inflicted severe injuries on our mother. He had set about her with an extreme brutality that we had not witnessed before. Several punches to her face put her on the floor where he proceeded to kick and stamp on her until her anguished screams turned to bewildered sobs. We jumped on him in a vain attempt to control this savage attack but he took off his belt and thrashed us until we were weak and bloody. When he went, we tried to follow him from the house but were too weak and injured to do anything more than watch him go. Our mother, rolling on the floor sobbing and moaning, was seriously injured beyond any help we could give, and the only thing we could do was call for an ambulance.

After a few days she was brought home from the hospital to convalesce for a week or two in the sitting room staring indifferently at the television set while nursing a badly mangled and broken arm. Fortunately for us, young age was on our side so that we quickly recovered from what were, despite the pain and appearance, superficial injuries. But our mother never did recover fully. She spent the rest of her days pottering about the house feebly doing whatever her injuries allowed her. We made sure that we were there all of the time to help with what she couldn’t do. She didn’t say very much anymore. She spent most of her time rocking backwards and forwards in a chair tapping the fingers of her damaged arm on her knee in time to whatever thoughts were going on in her head.

After the police had explored all possible avenues, they reluctantly gave up their search for him, maintaining that he must have left the area. A good number of years went by before we, regrettably, saw him again. In the ensuing time the horse’s burial mound had gradually changed to become part of the landscape; grasses and gorse had established themselves among the moss and lichen covered stones. It stood in the field like a mysterious ancient structure. Our mother had grown frailer and looked a lot older than she was. We were no longer the defenceless children of long ago, but had now become unforgiving young adults.

We heard the irregular chattering of the car’s engine before we went outside to find out what the unfamiliar noise was. An old, decrepit American car was parked at an angle into the drive with its driver’s door hanging open while none other than Alf Grindle was casually unfastening the gate. We stood at the door while he drove the car into the drive before coming over to the house. He wanted to see our mother, he told us. We told him that he couldn’t and that he wasn’t welcome but to go away. Surprisingly, he didn’t argue. He simply walked back to the car then reversed it into the garage. He told us that he would return later and, without looking back, walked up the road in the direction of the village. We guessed that he must have stayed overnight at one of the pubs. He wouldn’t be known there now because the landlords had changed hands several times over the years and, because he had grown a full beard in the time that he had been away. In fact Grindle was almost unrecognisable except to those, like us, who knew him well enough. We didn’t say anything about his visit to our mother so as not to agitate her fragile state of mind.

As he had said he did come back mid-morning the next day and told us again that he wanted to see our mother. He tried emotional blackmail by telling us that he had been guilt ridden since the day he had left, wanting to make amends and to apologise for his previous actions. We told him again that none of us, especially our mother, wanted him here - to go away and stay away.  But he didn’t go.

Alf Grindle’s old American car is still gathering dust in the garage where he had left it. Before we had whitewashed over the garage windows and secured the door, we had covered the car over with a large canvas sheet to protect it from prying eyes.

Because of its unusual form on the fairly level ground of the field the old cairn, with its regular shape of carefully placed moss-covered stones, creates a lot of interest from passers-by; walkers, cyclists and occasionally an inquisitive motorist. They might stop and ask us what the structure had been; mostly they wrongly guess it to be a Neolithic burial site or something similar. We always assured them, smiling knowingly, that it was nothing as dramatic or sinister as that, but just the place where, too many years ago to remember, we had buried a dead horse.

David E Sotheran