Mammals, I Think We Are Called: Barleycorn


Number 18 of the eighteen stories in my debut short story collection, Mammals, I Think We Are Called.

Folk horror comes to the city. A forensic pathologist and climate change student struggle to solve the mystery of a mysterious headless man.

Read an excerpt:

In the early evening, the pathologist gives himself up to the mellow autumn warmth as he drives to work through the steam rising from the tarmac. The sun is setting at a leisurely pace, suffusing the sky with an eerie, luminous gold.

As he gets out of the car, the windscreen wiper catches the sun and gleams. Buried memories tug at him, a man, no, something like a man, insects serenading the end of summer in a stubbled field . . . He bends closer. A gold barley seed is lodged in the wiper’s rubber. He plucks it out and taps it against his teeth. Solid.

An image flashes into his mind: a severed head, its hair a tumbled, golden sheaf, its eyes a ferocious sky blue. He’d heard a scream above the harvester’s engine as he mowed down the last swathe of barley. He’d looked over his shoulder and—

How can he have forgotten?

He pushes the seed into a corner of his wallet.

A ray of sun penetrates the darkened morgue through the narrow pavement window. He hesitates at the door, not wanting to turn on the searingly bright lights just yet.

The darkness reminds him of sitting in the farm kitchen. His father had eyed the empty rafter where the corn dolly usually hung, tied with a red ribbon, then plonked the mug of harvest ale down in front of him without a word.

Absurd tradition! The nature spirits are about as real as Father Christmas. So why does he still feel so guilty about not leaving them the last sheaf?

He goes over to the window and stands in the sunshine with his eyes closed. A wave of nostalgia for summer washes through him, tinged with deep sadness, as if it might never come again. And then the vision that haunted him for years: a severed head returning to its body, a man’s parts miraculously joining back together.

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