SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: First, Bury Your Martian by Sue Harper
Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers' Hub.
One day, in the early 1970s I was walking my dog in a wood. Jack was a lively terrier, and since he was my very first dog, he was not quite under my control.
He disappeared, and as I frantically called him I heard a frenzied yapping a long way off. I plunged into the undergrowth where the brambles and nettles made my legs bleed.
Cursing and half-weeping with frustration, I recalled that a friend’s dog had plunged down a rabbit hole never to be seen again, and another had flown over a cliff with a seagull in his mouth.
I came to a clearing and found the naughty creature. He was digging something up. As he dug, a most frightful smell exuded from the ground.
It was like no corpse I had ever smelled – not rancid, not sweet, but alluvial almost. I thought he might have unearthed a body.
As indeed he had, but this was no normal murder victim.
I am curious by nature, even a little forensic, and so I encouraged Jack to dig away. In my bag I had a little trowel, which I had brought so as to steal wild flowers.
And so, dog and girl, we pummelled away at the ground. Jack gloried in the smell. I gagged, and covered my nose with a handkerchief.
Gradually the ladder-work of a rib-cage emerged. But this was no human form – too big to be a gorilla, even.
I decided to shift our attention to the head. After some scraping, I sat back on my heels with shock.
The skull was colossal. But more than that, it had a huge beaky form. A massive bony proboscis, solid as a rock, lay like a helmet atop the neck. The eyelets were small. I fancied I saw something glint in them, and hoped I was wrong.
In those days, there were no mobile phones. I hauled Jack away from his prize, made my way back to the car, and drove to the police station.
They were suspicious of my tale, of course, since aliens are an unusual find in a thicket, but four bobbies accompanied me back to my trophy.
They too began to dig. As dusk fell, we saw that the thing was 12ft feet long, and had claws instead of hands and feet.
The police, realising that this was beyond their remit, called the security services. And here my troubles began.
I never knew if it was M15 or M16, or what M it was, but concealment was their game. They covered the corpse with a tent and, after dropping Jack off at my house, took me to an office and interrogated me about my intentions.
Did I want to sell my story? Was I aware how dangerous my find was? Did I want panic to run amok in the streets?
I was young and brave then, and refused to give any undertakings, or to sign their secrecy form, and so after several hours they let me go.
I did not realise then that the exhumation of the alien produced a sort of hinge in my life. Everything before that was easy – everything after it was hard.
I tried to sell my story to the papers, reasoning that proof of life beyond our solar system must be interesting to someone. But it was not.
No-one would see the image or smell the aroma, not they. They had been tipped off, and then the smooth running of my life became impeded.
I did not get the jobs that I applied for, even though I was qualified for them. I began to hear a ‘click’ when I picked up my phone, and it was as though, in some strange way, people had been warned off me.
It was easy to become paranoid in such a situation, and indeed for some years I became suspicious and unbalanced, mistrusting the evidence of my own eyes and the smell on my fingers, which I fancied could never be scrubbed away.
In the end, 20 years later, I thought I would go back to the wood and look again. I took another dog this time – Jack’s alien corpse had been his last triumph, and I fancied that he knew he would never find anything as remarkable as that again.
So my new terrier Jill and I approached the spot once more. It was overgrown, of course. I did scrabble around on the old site, and found what I thought was a long nail.
But then I decided to draw a large circle around the grave with a ball of string, and extended the radius bit by bit.
Jill gave a soft bark. She had found something. Together we dug and scraped, but what we unearthed was much, much smaller than the previous find.
It was the size of a baby, but no human baby ever looked like this. The carapace of the skull had the same sharp beak that I had found before, but this one was agape as if it had tried, and failed, to breathe the strange air.
The little claws were gnarled as though they had attempted to tear something.
I wrapped it up and took it home. People glimpsing me from a distance might have seen a mother carrying her child. But this child was a proof of the unimaginable.
I was now too wise to persuade anyone to give it credence. I locked it in my bottom drawer.
For years and years I would get it out and look at it, knowing that it was proof of a cosmic catastrophe and that I was its only witness.
Sue Harper is emeritus professor of film history at the University of Portsmouth. She has written books and articles on British cinema, but she is now writing micro-fictions which are all gothic in tone and are about unexpected transformations.
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