S.P. Hannaway

S.P. Hannaway’s first story appeared in Litro Online in 2014. Since then his work has featured in journals such as Dream Catcher, Brittle Star, Lighthouse, The Incubator, Neon and The Interpreter’s House. He’s studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. He’s worked as an actor and lives in London.


In Winter, The Snow

A starveling in the winter sky – it’s high up, on the wing. It darts about the eaves and the slates, slipping on the roof. It races through the icy air; it wheels and dips. Then it circles back, circles round. A ball of speckled feathers, a gaping yellow bill; it’s desperate.

And all around it, frozen, still.

Knot idles on the path. He can’t take his eyes off it; his worn face riveted. He can feel its belly aching for a berry. He knows its heart. He sees it climb, soar above the crumbling chimneys of the house, then swoop down in a panic, flit about the farmyard. For a moment, a breath, it stops. It hangs weightless in the heavy evening air. Then it’s off, up towards the window where it sees the sky and fell reflected – a way out, another world. It rushes headlong. It cracks into the pane of glass, bounces off. It falls down, limp, to the cold ground.

Knot edges closer, keeping one eye on the house. He longs to be near the bird, to be with it. He loves to see the little things – everything there is, is in the little things – its glassy eye, the twitch in its craggy foot. It’s crumpled up among the stones, its heart failing, blood popping from its beak. A herald: a sign of death to the living. To Knot.

It’s night in his dream. He is Knot, looking dapper in his slightly crumpled tweeds. And he is flying. He is high above the valley, the deep tumbling hills. He’s fleeing to the fell – Death on his tail. But the wind is against him. It tosses him. It tries to force him back. And the more he fights, the stronger it becomes. Until it throws him, head over heels, his long arms dangling by his sides. And he falls. 

He jumps awake, gasps. He’s alive.

A stone crashes into his shed door. He struggles up in the murk and cold, his long johns sagging at the knees. He hunkers down behind the door. He loves to watch Miss Racket throw a stone. It’s her sign, her way to bring him to the house. Through a crack, he can see her scout around the yard for another stone, one with a bit of life. She doesn’t know he’s got his eye on her, the way she lifts her apron as she skirts the puddles, her greying hair pulled back, pinned. Purple shadow pasted round her eyes; the way she hides. He sees her falter as she lifts one – it isn’t small – takes aim.

–Do it! Knot mouths.

And she does. The rock clatters against his door. And Miss Racket grins like a little girl. Knot coughs. He sees Miss Racket tilt her head, light up inside. Then she does her morning dance. In the dim light, she sets about it. She scoots round the yard. Circles it. Sometimes, she slips, slides in her sensible shoes. She sticks her arms out as she picks up speed, as if she could take to the air. But she’s startled. Noises from the house – muttering. It flusters her. She puts on her best face, vanishes inside.

The orange sun spills over into day. Knot is at the door, hovering. He knocks. Knocks again – an echo of the first. He feels awkward in his suit, shuffles, tries to slough off the panic. He turns away. The house behind him hunches down under lanky trees. He looks to the land – the rough-sewn fields, tired hills, the broken line of mountain.

There’s a mouse-under-the-floorboard cough. He looks back. And Miss Racket is behind the door. In the small square window at the top, her painted eyes are caught in the light. They seem to tremble as she looks at him.

–Are you psychic, Mr. Knot?

This is Miss Racket’s little game – to know and to seem to not: to not know and to seem to. She witters on.

–How did you know I was looking for you? Was it in your head, Mr. Knot, in your heart of hearts?

This tickles Knot. He glows.

–The thing is, Mr. Knot … if you’re looking for Snuff, he’s gone. The young master took him, pushed him in the van. I could hear his nails clawing, scraping on the metal in the back. Off down the lane. In the night.

Knot is beside himself. The young master, take the dog, the life of the farm, Knot’s strength?

–Miss Racket?

Miss Racket’s eyes circle to the clouds.

–It’s his dog, Mr. Knot, not yours. He doesn’t want you having it, petting it. He doesn’t love the dog, or the farm. The old master died when he was little. You and I were here. And he’s still young. Still lost.

Knot is seething. He feels thwarted.

–I have to take them, Miss Racket, before the sky closes in, before the snow. I need the dog.

Miss Racket’s eyes flutter.

–Shh, Mr. Knot! He’s asleep. He doesn’t like to be disturbed.

–The ewes, they have to go to the fell, to the heft. There’s nothing here. We’re down to the bone.

But Miss Racket disappears, the window empty. Knot slips to the side of the house where the van is dumped. Its ice-grey paint’s chipped. He tries the van’s back door. But it’s tight. The engine clicks as it cools. And Snuff stuck in the back, freezing, slowly.

It’s a last supper. He rips the bag open with his faithful knife, empties the pellets. The ewes charge, knock him sideways. He loves the way they barge and scrum, their dripping fleeces trailing in the muck. It’s hunger. He has to wrestle them from one trough, shove them to another. They’re headstrong. They’re hard to shift. And there isn’t much feed: a bag, two. The young master doesn’t care. And so: a last supper. What else is there?

Knot twists on his mattress on the floor. He can’t sleep. He misses Snuff lying at his feet, keeping them warm. The wind rages and the leaves are aflutter. A spatter of hailstones strikes the window. Soon, the snow will come.

He hears the van – the young master barrelling through the night, tearing up the windy lane. Knot huddles by the door in his blanket, has to see. The headlights arc through the air. The van hurtles into the yard, screeching. Its lights stay on. Its engine rumbles. Then the gears shift; the van reverses, fast, whining as it backs away. Knot can see it stop. Rev. Then it takes off. He can’t believe it. The van is headed straight for the house – to ram it – the door where Miss Racket lingers, the spot where Knot sometimes stands.

It wracks his heart. It kills Knot. His door stirs in the morning wind but no stone comes. He clambers up, trailing the blanket at his bony feet. Through the door, he scans the yard for a pair of skipping shoes. It’s empty. The air is cold, cutting – a sliver of daylight.

At the house, Miss Racket is behind the door. He can hear her shoes scuff the concrete floor. But no eyes appear. The little window is a mirror for the sky. A feather duster pops up, waves at him. It’s pink. And ruffled.

–Are you ready, Mr. Knot?

Her voice is quivery.

–Will you cope with the sheep? They’re hefted.

She seems distracted.

–It’s a thankless task, birthing. You can’t keep them, Mr. Knot. You can’t save them from themselves.

Knot would like to see her eyes, tell her he knows them better than he knows himself. She babbles on.

–The young master does what he likes. I promised his father I’d take care of him, and I can’t. I love him like a son.

Miss Racket’s voice tails off.

–I didn’t call you this morning, Mr. Knot. I couldn’t.

– …

–Mr. Knot, the young master doesn’t want you here. He says you interfere, turn my head. He says you won’t see another winter.

Knot looks down at his polished shoes. He’d like to die. He has no choice, no clout: he’s just a hand. He looks up, sees a snowflake falling. It idles, drifts.

–Winter, he says. –It’s time.

He turns from Miss Racket, the house. But down the path he stops: there’s a voice trailing him.

–Mr. Knot? He’s shut me in.

He unties the gate, winds the blue twine round his reddened fingers. The gate falls away from the sheep. They don’t know what it means. They huddle in the corner of the field, facing the gap. They stare at Knot. They sniff the air as if it’s new.

–Come by!

He says it without thinking. He looks around for Snuff, for the shape of him. The ewes trickle into the lane – in their memory a panting dog, a black shadow lurking in the grass. They spill out from the field, on their way, hundreds of them. When they reach the end, they could go either way.

–Get down, he urges.

The ewes heed the gruffness in his voice, veer away from the dog not lying in their path. They head for the fell. Their hooves patter on the ice, mud scattering.

They make good time on the bending road, in the dead hush of winter. Knot buries himself in his heavy coat, feels the air nip his face. He clutches the twine bundled in his pocket. It tortures him, what he’s left behind. Snuff, Miss Racket; in the master’s grip.

Before he realises, it’s open ground. The upland unravels. The fell pushes up to the sky. The ewes rush forward and Knot struggles to stay with them. His boots sink in bog. Bracken slows him; it’s thicker this year. A rock gives way, slides beneath his tiring feet. The hillside is steep, the ground uneven. His legs burn but he digs in.

On the upper fell, the land is closer to the sky. The high wind nearly knocks him off his feet. And Knot remembers his dream: flying. The sheep scatter to find fresh shoots of heather. Knot digs in his pocket for a sweet, puts it in his mouth. It’s sharp like a berry bursting on his tongue. He’s landed.

He drops down on his knees at the hawthorn. It lies prone on the hillside, sculpted by the wind. But it still has life. And power. Knot’s in awe of it, the way it grips the earth; bowed down, unbroken. He tears a thorn from the tip of a twig – it’s razor sharp – tears off another, a third. He invokes the tree. He whispers to the thorns: Snuff, Miss Racket, the young master. He binds them in the twine, makes a knot. Then he digs a hole with his knife. And he buries the knot under the twisted trunk.

It’s strange. It feels warm. A bead of sweat trickles down his nose. The air is different. And then the snow comes. It falls like a gift from another world. On little frozen wings, a ghostly flock.

The light skulks away behind the hills. The dark descends. It folds around Knot like a swirling cloak.

He climbs further, higher. He has to bow his head to stand in the unforgiving gale. He finds the place. He beds down in the heather, on a shelf of rock. He looks up at the snow rushing toward him, without end. And he surrenders to it, accepts it. 

His eyes close under the cold white blanket. He lets the snow cover him, the winter take him.

And the wild plants burst from the earth, grow up through his bones, are born: yellow stars, sundew, a sea of wavy-hair-grass. Knot’s in them. Somewhere.

A starling flies up with a cloudberry in its beak. It seems giddy, it dances; it’s madly alive. Then something compels it, it sweeps away. It hurtles across the awakening land.