Jim Mountfield

The February Selected Writer is Jim Mountfield

Please feel free to email Jim at: ijschapelhill@googlemail.com


by Jim Mountfield

The bus drew away, its light shrinking into the darkness like a burning match dropping down a shaft. Neville needed only a few seconds to drag his suitcase from the roadside to the hut-like shelter beside the bus-stop, but by the time he was inside the rain had drenched him. He groped and found a seat and collapsed onto it. 

While the storm mauled the surrounding countryside and raged against the bus-shelter’s roof and walls, Neville pulled out his smartphone and tried calling his sister. Her phone was still switched off. He had no number for his brother and doubted if the dimwit had ever thought of getting a phone. That meant he couldn’t ask them to come and collect him.

If only he’d been able to book a taxi at Edinburgh Airport—he could have traveled all the way to the farm. But his credit cards weren’t working. Instead, he’d used buses to get from there to here, spending the small sum of physical money he had with him on their fares. 

A lack of bars on the phone-screen indicated that he was in an Internet blackspot now. He couldn’t even find the number of a local taxi company to take him the last two miles to the farm, where Annie or Edwin could pay the driver the few pounds it’d cost.

Neville thought longingly of Dubai, where he’d had a chauffeur-driven Audi and getting around just hadn’t been a problem.

The wind entered the shelter and pawed at his wet clothes and hair. Yet it didn’t blow away a smell that was both sickly sweet and dankly rotten. Neville turned on his phone’s flashlight and directed it towards the shelter’s other end, where the smell seemed worst. 

He jumped up and nearly tripped over the suitcase.

It had tendrils and barbs and even eyes. What the fuck was it?

After that moment of panic, Neville realized he was sharing the shelter with a shrine.

During his rare trips home to Scotland in the past quarter-century, Neville had noticed these things becoming common. At a spot on a road where there’d been a fatal accident, the dead person’s relatives and friends would build a temporary shrine to them with flowers and mementoes.

He supposed it was a symptom of his native culture growing more sentimental and touchy-feely. When he’d been a kid, you were supposed to bottle up and hide your grief. Now it was acceptable to put it on public display.

Neville inspected this shrine. It was mostly organic: made of ferns, briars and hawthorn, and garlanded with wildflowers and pieces of fruit. But it’d sat in the shelter for a long time and had wilted and discolored. Withered flower-petals hung like spider-legs. The fruit, which produced the half-fetid, half-sweet stench, had moldered and suppurated till they resembled corrupt baubles on a hellish Christmas tree.

Also attached to the limbs of rotted foliage were… toys? No, Neville realized they hadn’t been designed for children. Among other things he saw was a grotesque doll with clothes, skin and hair fashioned from burlap sacking, and a ceramic hare whose surface was covered in swirling red patterns, and a human hand made of wax.

Neville suddenly understood. He recalled the conversation he’d had with Annie when she’d phoned him in Dubai last week. After she’d told him about their mother’s dire condition, she gave him a rundown on all the local news—not that he cared.

“Och, poor Hazel,” his sister had said.  Her Scottish accent sounded quaint, almost primitive to him. “She wis killed a few months back. Some young lad drivin’ too fast in his car. She wis crossin’ the road tae the bus-stop, so she could catch the service tae Meldonbrig, an’ he smashed intae her.”

“Hazel? Witch Hazel?”

“Neville, please don’t call her that. She wis a kind enough soul. Even if she wis… un-Christian."

The rain was clattering less loudly against the shelter’s roof and he leaned out. Yes, it had eased off, though the wind remained wild. He also saw things penetrating the darkness now: lights from farmsteads on the facing hillsides and a yellowy gleam to the south emanating from the town of Meldonbrig, the bus’s destination.

He located a light halfway between his position and the town. Their farm. He imagined it. With the hapless Edwin running things, the farmstead would be a slovenly, filthy mess. And with mousy, god-fearing Annie in charge of the household, the atmosphere inside would be joyless and dismal. Meanwhile, lying on a bed upstairs would be their mother—wizened, muttering, witless, technically still alive but effectively dead. Maybe Annie was praying at their mother’s bedside and she’d turned her phone off to ensure her prayers weren’t disturbed.

Reluctantly, he decided to walk to the farm.

He shone his flashlight one last time at Witch Hazel’s shrine. As it decayed, the thing had sunk down the shelter’s wall and spread over the floor like a boneless sea-organism. Emaciated tentacles of vegetation stretched from it. One tentacle extended under the seat and looked as if it’d groped towards Neville’s ankles while he sat there a minute ago.  

He assumed it was safe to leave the suitcase in the shelter. Once he was at the farm, he’d get Edwin to drive here and collect it. Then he stepped out onto the road, weaving the smartphone-beam before him. And immediately he stopped.

He thought he heard something in the shelter behind him, a soft, dragging noise. He listened intently but heard only the keening wind.

He found the junction where the road from their farm joined this main one. At the junction’s corner stood a gate opening into a paddock, which for decades Witch Hazel had rented from a farmer on this side of the valley and where she’d lived in a decrepit caravan. He pointed the torch-beam beyond the gate. The caravan had disappeared and a stack of black plastic-wrapped hay-bales stood in its place. Then his torch shone on the gate itself and revealed one remaining trace of her. Hanging on a chain around a gatepost was a sign. It said:

Traditional remedies, treatments, charms
Meditation sessions
Tarot readings and horoscopes
Nature walks

“You were a busy old girl,” Neville muttered. “An entrepreneur.”

Ever since the 1980s, a stream of people had moved to Meldonbrig from the cities, on the pretext of ‘getting away from it all’, ‘reconnecting with nature’ and ‘leading more spiritual lives.’ Neville’s father had despised them.

“Hippy-dippy arseholes,” he’d spat. “New Age eedjits!” But Witch Hazel had shrewdly recognized them as customers for her hocus-pocus.

Something made him snatch the sign off the gatepost. Then he made his way along the farm-road, feet splashing through pools of fallen rain. 

Memories of her returned. 


The river flowing down the valley meandered through the low, flat fields on their farm and, during wet weather, floodwater welled up from its bends and inundated parts of those fields. Neville’s father swore that this wouldn’t happen if the river was straighter. At one point he hired a JCB and two workmen—a middle-aged man and a youth in his late teens—to reshape the section where the flooding was worse.

When she saw what they were doing, Witch Hazel came to the farmhouse and complained.

“The woman’s a bloody nuisance,” Neville’s father snarled afterwards. “She’s worried about a colony o’ otters livin’ in the riverbanks. Says she disnae want them disturbed. O’ all the daft things tae get upset aboot. Otters? They’re vermin! No better than rats!”

The next morning Neville, then twelve years old, was helping his father and brother round up sheep in a field next to the one where the two men were working. Suddenly the rumble of the JCB’s engine died and they heard screaming. They ran into the adjacent field. The teenager lay behind the JCB and the middle-aged man had scrambled down from its cab and was crouched over him. Apparently, the teenager had been dragging aside some riverside bushes uprooted by the JCB’s shovel when his foot had slipped. It’d gone under a roll of track-chain and suffered the vehicle’s full weight. Now his lower left leg was sticking into the trail the JCB had left imprinted on the muddy ground. Where his left foot should be was something resembling a crumpled red dishrag.

Between his screams, the youth managed to say: “I didn’t slip! It moved! The mud moved!”

“O’course the mud moved,” croaked the other workman. “It moved as ye slipped on it.”

“No, it moved before I slipped! Carried my foot wi’ it!”

“Neville,” his father told him, “run tae the farmhoose an’ get yer maw tae phone 999. We need an ambulance. Now!” 

As Neville ran, he spotted a figure on the road at the field’s far end. Poised in a gap between the bushes was Witch Hazel, gaunt and wild-haired. She stood as motionless as a statue. Her eyes were fixed on them. 

In the darkness 35 years later, Neville became statue-like too. He heard the sobs of the wind and… another sound close by. Something rustling… It couldn’t be hedgerow-branches moving in the wind because this stretch of road was lined with barbed-wire fences, not hedgerows. He turned and probed back with the torch-beam. Its light flitted over a sprawling, shapeless outline several yards away at the base of a fence.   

He decided a fly-tipper had illegally dumped some bags of rubbish at the roadside and he’d walked past the rubbish without noticing. But rather than go back and make sure, Neville resumed walking the other way. He trod more quickly.  

When he reached the bridge where the farm-road crossed the river, he stopped and turned back again. The torch-beam found nothing. Then he remembered he was carrying Witch Hazel’s sign and he flung it into the seething, rain-swollen river below him. It pleased him to imagine the torrent sweeping away this final trace of her. Maybe one of her beloved otters would chew on it and choke.

Past the bridge, the road was closed in by two tall hedgerows. He recalled how his father had fought a long battle with the local council over whose responsibility it was to trim those hedgerows. The council claimed that the farm-road didn’t qualify as a road. It looked like one, admittedly, but it ended at the farmstead and was therefore a private lane. Cutting the hedgerows was the landowner’s duty, not theirs. 

While they argued, Witch Hazel walked along the road and picked herbs and berries from the hedgerows. Sometimes people paid money to walk with her and she lectured them on the plants and animals whose homes were in the foliage.

Neville’s father eventually gave up arguing. He borrowed a big hydraulic hedge-trimmer from a neighbor, fixed it behind a tractor and drove along the road, attacking the hedgerows. The road became carpeted with severed branches and shredded leaves and the mowed bushes looked like broken umbrella frames. 

Then, as it tore through one bush, the trimmer made a screeching noise and his father looked around from the tractor-seat. An empty beer-can, which had been lodged amid the bush’s branches, shot out from the blades and struck him in the face. The edges of the mangled can slashed his left cheek and punctured his left eye.

Neville had acquired three cans of beer a week before the accident. Being just fifteen years old, he’d sneaked away and furtively drunk them in a field behind one of the hedgerows.  Then, slightly pissed, he’d chucked the empty cans into the bushes. He couldn’t understand how one can had managed to move from the hedgerow’s field-side to its road-side, how it’d burrowed through the mesh of branches into the trimmer’s path.

He never mentioned it to his parents.


The road climbed, twisted and started running parallel to the contours of the hill. Water oozed across the tarmac and vanished beneath the hedgerow that overlooked the valley floor. The wind died, just as the rain had, and in the still air he noticed a familiar, sweet-yet-putrid smell.

He turned towards where it seemed to originate. The smartphone-beam swooped along a knotted wall of hedgerow-branches and leaves. Fleetingly, it showed other branches, brown and shriveled. He glimpsed a round fleshy lump attached to one branch—an apple?—so rotted it looked like a face eaten away by leprosy. On another branch, he glimpsed a doll whose human torso was topped by the skull of a bird—      

He thought about Witch Hazel. He started running.

A minute later, Neville skidded and fell and the seepage from the hillside splashed around him. Yet its coldness seemed to calm him. When he picked himself up again, he thought more rationally. Decayed branches? Unquestionably those of a dead bush in the hedgerow. A rotten apple? A doll? Probably litter and trash that people walking or driving along here had thrown into the roadside. A doll with a bird-skull head? No doubt a trick of the torchlight.

He wasn’t being followed. Witch Hazel’s spirit wasn’t animating that thing in the bus-shelter— no more than, when she’d been alive, she’d animated the mud that’d cost the youth his foot or the can that’d disfigured his father.

Moonlight filtered through the clouded night-sky. The valley-side hedgerow was lower here and over its top he saw the moon shimmer on the river’s surface, which seemed abnormally wide because it’d overflowed its banks again. He thought he heard the river too, but then realized the noise came from the road in front. There was a culvert ahead, channeling a stream from a field above the road down into a field below.

Neville laughed. In Dubai a few days ago, while he faced bankruptcy and ruin, he’d been thrown a lifeline. An associate had introduced him to a contact in a firm claiming to be ‘one of Britain’s biggest home-building companies’. They had an enthusiastic discussion. Meldonbrig? Oh yes, the firm had heard of Meldonbrig. A burgeoning commuter town nowadays. Land was needed there for the construction of new housing estates.

And if land was available on a valley floor extending to the edge of the existing town—as the fields belonging to Neville’s family did—it might be very valuable. Obviously, not all the land could be built on if parts of it were prone to flooding, but much of it surely could.

Soon, his mother would join his father in the graveyard and he’d share ownership of the farm with Annie and Edwin. Neville believed he could arrange a deal that supposedly paid the three of them equal money for the fields but secretly paid him a huge negotiator’s fee too.   

He imagined all the grass, flowers, bushes and trees beyond the hedgerow eradicated and replaced with a civilized landscape, of asphalt, brick, slate and electric light. “Poor Witch Hazel,” he gloated. “You’d be heartbroken.”

Cheered by the prospect of a new fortune, after the fortune he’d just lost, Neville began walking again. His footsteps were hidden by the noise of sluicing water as he neared the culvert.

Suddenly he discerned the smell again.

Before he could react, his next step brought his foot down amid a hydra of tentacles, made from ferns, briars and hawthorn, covered in barbs, slimy with rotten leaves. The grotesque jewelry that decorated them—moldered flowers, putrescent fruit and ghoulish images of wax, cloth, clay and bone—danced madly as the tentacles writhed around Neville’s legs. 

It had followed, he realized. The culvert’s noise had concealed it as it slithered past him, to position itself for an ambush.

He lost his balance and fell again. The phone dropped out of his hand, though its beam radiated up from the ground and gave him nightmarish glimpses of his assailant: a spiked branch that whacked against his mouth and tore bloodily through his lips, an animal-skull fixed to another limb that struck his face and disintegrated and left small fangs embedded in his cheek, fruit on a third limb that disintegrated too as it hit him and splattered him with rancidness. 

He understood that she wasn’t just animating the dead vegetation. This was her now. Somehow, through some spell affected by the occult decorations that covered it, her spirit had been preserved inside it. 

“Witch Hazel,” he howled, “fuck off!”

He struggled back onto his feet with the rotted, tentacled thing wrapped around him and blundered sideways into the adjacent hedgerow. He crashed through its bushes, burst out of its other side and plunged into the stream-water rushing from the culvert below. Because of tonight’s heavy rainfall, the stream was several times its normal size.

The powerful current ripped away some of the tentacles entwining him. “You’re coming apart,” he screamed. “Apart!” Then the frothing, freezing water swallowed his head.

He’d been washed partway across the valley floor when his head re-surfaced, eyes bulging, mouth spewing water. More of the tentacles had disappeared. “Coming apart!” he gibbered. “Where are you going to go now, Witch Hazel? Where?”

Then the stream swept him into the larger, even more tumultuous river. His head dunked under the water again and this time didn’t re-emerge.


The creaking of the bed made Annie stop praying, open her eyes and look upwards. When she saw her mother sitting upright for the first time in weeks, she immediately thought she was witnessing a miracle. For once, God had heard her prayers and intervened.

Annie scrambled up from the bedside and croaked, “Mither… How… How are ye…?”

“Cold,” announced the old woman. “An’ wet.”

Annie hugged her. Of course, because she’d been lying under woolen blankets in a well-heated room, she was neither cold nor wet.

Then Annie’s elation turned to fear. Perhaps this wasn’t a miracle but some last, freaky reflex that the old woman was experiencing before she died. She ran from the bedroom and clattered down the stairs.

Still clad in his dung-splattered boiler-suit, Edwin sat at the kitchen table, trying to make sense of a bundle of invoices. Annie flung her mobile phone onto the table-top before him. “Switch that on,” she squawked. “Ring for the paramedics. For a doctor if possible. Something’s happened tae mither!”

Edwin stared at her. With his reading spectacles on, his big, red, leathery face looked even more ridiculous than usual.

Annie shouted, “Don’t be so glaikit, Edwin! Jist do it!”

When she’d rushed back up the stairs and re-entered the bedroom, she found the old woman standing by the window, looking out at the valley floor. The flooded parts of the fields gleamed palely in the moonlight.

“It’s been rainin’,” she mused. “The river’s up. I hope the otters are okay.”

Annie bustled her mother back to the bed. Surely this was no death-reflex. This was a miracle. Then she thought of something else.

“Tonight o’ all nights, wi’ Neville comin’ hame, when the family will be reunited.”  Annie glanced back at the window. “Where is Neville, though? I’d forgotten aboot him. I hope he’s no walkin’ frae the bus-stop. He’ll be wet through.”

“Oh,” said the voice on the bed, “he’s wet through, all right!”

Suddenly, the voice had a pleased tone that Annie didn’t like. 

Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, largely educated in Scotland, and since then has lived and worked in several European, African and Asian countries.  He currently lives in Sri Lanka.  His stories have appeared in The Horror Zine, Aphelion, Death Head Grin, Flashes in the Dark, Hellfire Crossroads and Hungur, and he blogs regularly at: