It toils below the surface. Powerful claws tear through the earth, mile after mile festooned with its larders. In summer it builds, waiting for harvest. It is ravenous, the last of its reserves have run out weeks ago. The first cool breeze draws it towards the surface. It is only a matter of time as summer ebbs and Autumn takes hold. Soon the Llanrog will feast. Soon it’s stockpile will replenish.
Life leeches from leaves, verdant to vibrant, they fall over the entrances to its lair. With russet fur and camouflaged traps, the Llanrog can begin its hunt. From unsuspecting hikers to late picnickers, enjoying the last of the sun. None are safe from its appetite. Its preferred prey are children, they are easier to store and to catch. Twilight is favoured, when gloom seeps into its forest home.
Some years ago, when I was 14 and my brother was 8, he was taken by a Llanrog. My parents had taken us up to Colwyn Bay for the day. I, petulant and irritable, was no doubt as frustrating to my parents as my brother – full of exuberance and irrepressible energy. We spent most of the morning on the beach, locked in combat. The drive had been warm and the Fiesta’s air conditioning had not worked for months. My brother set to digging trenches, making sure each shovelful of sand found its way onto my beach towel.
“You’re such a little shit!”
“Louise-May, we do not use that word in this family!”
I was pretty sure Mum used such words, usually about Nana when she thought we were asleep. Anyway Robbie -was- a little shit, he could have been a mile away and he’d still have flicked sand in my face. Dad had been gone for an hour, looking for ice lollies in Timbuktu rather than in the small cafe on the promenade. Looking over the rim of my sunglasses I caught sight of him sticking his tongue out at me. Little shit.
When Dad returned his head was pink, his expression harassed and the lack of lollies a point of contention.
“For heaven’s sake Mike, you only were meant to be gone five minutes and that was five years ago. The children have grown up and are ready to go to college.”
“They didn’t have twisters, Marianne. Apparently nowhere bloody does.”
Dad shot a pointed look towards Robbie, who absolutely, couldn’t possibly, put anything but a twister in his grubby little mouth. Just how far had he walked? Mum relented as she pulled a bottle of water out of the cool bag.
“Never mind, why don’t we just go to Betws-y-coed now? The Swallow Falls are near, we could stop there before heading into town.”
As Dad took a moment to cool off, Robbie had commenced a crab battle.
“Not now, Lou.”
“Your father and I are talking Louise.”
Eight legs flailed, sharp pincers poised as the crab flew through the air and landed on my lap. I screamed, Dad winced, and Mum dropped the water bottle on her foot. Robbie was delighted as I writhed across the sand, trying to dislodge the creature. The crab was decidedly unhappy about the whole situation and waved its pincers menacingly.
“Stop swearing Mike, help her!”
Dad adopted a karate stance. Robbie wheezed and crumpled into the sand and the crab finally exited, belly left, deciding that young boys were the worst thing on the planet. I had to agree.
“Right, that’s it, in the car, the both of you.”
Mum wore the expression she often had the day before Nana came to visit. Dad wasn’t sure whether to laugh or reprimand Robbie. Before I’d had a chance to shout shotgun, Robbie slid into my seat behind Mum and spread himself out. I was about to protest, until I felt the heat of Mum’s glare across the roof of the car. It was only a 30 minute drive according to Dad. Even if my knees touched my ears, I didn’t want to engage Mum’s battle mode. I could read my magazine.
“Mum! Lou’s reading about sex!”
“How do you even know that word Rob?”
Mum looked frazzled as she appeared between the car seats to pluck my copy of Seventeen from my hands. There was a tsk as she found the article about how to look hot in jeans. I was only interested because Sean had commented on my insta post. ‘Nice jeans’. It wasn’t like I was interested in him. Probably.
“Is this what counts for journalism these days? When I was your age, I was reading Jackie, they’d never publish smut like this.”
“They don’t even publish Jackie now, Mum.”
Mum should have read the article about how to maintain coloured hair, her roots were showing.
“No one likes a snitch Robbie.”
I was convinced my brother had been born exclusively to ruin my life. Dad was more concerned with teaching him how to function in the criminal underworld. It was a relief when we pulled into the layby by the hotel. The air was cooler here, autumn had crept over the forest, a swath of trees painted in sunset. Reds, oranges and yellows. Only a few, which hadn’t got the memo, remained summer green.
“Don’t go wandering off too far.”
Mum was desperate to have a night off, the sooner she could dump Robbie and me at the hotel the better. Dad had pretended to forget their anniversary, but we’d spent an evening last week picking out the perfect silver jewellery set. I’d promised to look after Robbie if we could get pizza delivered to the hotel room. All we had to do was to survive that long.
Ignoring Dad, Robbie ran ahead, kicking up leaves in the dappled light. I was slower, drawn by the sound of rushing water. After the featureless horizon of the beach the forest was filled with a myriad of colours and scents. Oaks stood side by side with sycamore and Robbie let out a delighted cry as he found the horse chestnut tree.
“Be careful Robbie!”
Despite Dad’s warning he’d already shinned up into the lowest branches. Everyone knew the best conkers were higher up the tree, at least in the world according to Robbie. Mum barely contained a sigh, already anticipating the world championship conker competition that my brother would attempt to host. Whilst Dad was having some form of palpitation Robbie was living his best life, fearless as he wigged down a branch towards his prize.
Five large, spiky pods dropped from the tree, promising a rich harvest. All the smaller, “less worthy” conkers had been scoured from the base of the tree by tides of children, like piranhas – except hungry for victory. Robbie plopped back down with significantly less grace, rushing to collect and peel back the outer husks, to get at the conkers beneath.
“Right, well that’s enough of that, the waterfall is just over there.”
Dad’s gesture was vague, in the same way he would often tell us something was ‘just around the corner’ and we’d be still walking an hour later, lost and exhausted. Yet the frothing water was audible, so we formed a rough expedition line. Dad was at the front followed by Mum, then me and finally Robbie who was still trying to pry into the conkers.
I don’t know what it was that made me look back. In the years that have passed since that day I have often wondered if I knew. Some days I wish I hadn’t looked back, that I had been spared the horrible truth. Other days I feel grateful that I have been spared the not knowing that consumed my parents.
Robbie was only a few feet behind me.
PC Holden was a short woman and very much at odds with the mental image I had of a police officer. With her honey curls and open, friendly manner she slipped into our family in the vacuum left by Robbie’s absence. Currently she was brewing a pot of tea and plating up some custard cremes. Tinkling mugs in the kitchen was a comforting normality in a world which no longer made sense. Taking a seat next to me in the couch she patted my hand gently before hanging over the steaming Winnie-the-pooh mug.
“There you are love. You’re looking a little peaky today, not sleeping?”
The last seven days had been a blur of police stations, worried faces and reporters hammering on the door. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw it, looming from the foliage. My limbs jerked awake, a gasp of terror choking the sleep from my body. It had been impossible to snatch more than a couple of minutes at a time. I was certain, though, that Mum hadn’t slept at all. I heard her roaming the landing in the tiny hours of the morning and weeping quietly in Robbie’s room.
“I had a few hours.”
It was barely a mumble as I rubbed my knuckle into the sore, swollen line of my lashes. It was a lie, we both knew it, but PC Holden seemed to know when to drop a line of enquiry.
“The grief councillor will be in touch with you and your Mam soon enough.”
As though I hadn’t rehashed the incident enough times. Some person would come rummaging around in my memories, trying to solve the impossible. All I wanted to do was pull a blanket over my head and shut out the world.
“Do you remember anything more about the man who took your brother?”
“It wasn’t a man.”
On cue her expression shifted to that mixture of pity and sympathy that roiled the fury growing in my chest. Why would no one listen to me?
“It’s ok love, these kinds of things can be very difficult. The mind can play tricks on you.”
The tray rattled as I slammed Pooh and his inanely smiling face down, felt the scream rise up my throat and then swallowed it.
“So, you said he was about 6’ tall, large, heavy build, wearing a rusty-brown coat.”
“It was fur.”
“The coat was furlike?”
Not furlike, fur. It encompassed my every unguarded moment, those claws that spanned the breadth of my brother’s chest. Short, ruffled fur the colour of autumn. Then it and Robbie were gone, as though the Earth had swallowed them. The police had said shock could distort memory, but the creature was burned into mine.
Absently I rubbed at wool, wishing the ache would take away the creature. Instead of false sympathy I wanted PC Holden to scream, like Mum had the night before. Shake me by the shoulders until I could still feel the grasp of her fingers under my jumper where bruises had formed.
“Why can’t you remember him Louise? Why are you helping him? He took your brother!”
Dad had pulled her away. I willed my mind with all my might to make the creature to disappear, to form a man in its place. Or at least, some form of human, but it would not. I didn’t realise I was hyperventilating until PC Holden swam back into view, rubbing my sore shoulders, trying to console me.
“There, there love, don’t you worry we’ll find him.”
They never did.
The last time I saw Mum it was on the news. Every so many years she did the rounds. Morning tv, talk shows – all the while clutching the raggedy monkey that once had been Robbie’s favourite. Phone calls were rare, cards following the familiar rhythm of celebration. Dad lived closer with his new partner. At first it had been weird seeing him with Audrey but every time I saw them together it got easier. Time had made everything easier. Only the last whispers of that autumn remained in my dreams. At times I wondered if I had imagined it all; had Robbie ever really been part of our lives?
My therapist called it dissociation. A coping mechanism to ease the trauma. Mum thought I was a disappointment; Dad drank too much. The police kept looking, but who could find something that couldn’t possibly exist? Every time the leaves began to fall, I felt the familiar turmoil crunching my abdomen.
This year would be the year, they’d find his body this time.
It would be Robbie’s birthday next week, he’d be 30. Perhaps that was why the thoughts weighed down on me. I hadn’t returned to Wales in over a decade, but a work course found me travelling to Bangor. Cara had suggested I visit Colwyn Bay previously, it would ‘reframe my experience’ or some other psychological trauma resolution technique, but I’d never quite been able to convince myself that it would be a good idea. I’d almost made it once when I was 19 but I’d fallen asleep on Warrington Bank Quay railway station and by the time I woke up freezing and hungry I realised I didn’t have enough money for a hotel and caught the last train home instead.
The Travelodge work had set me up in was comfortable enough and the training had been a mixture of team building and blue-sky thinking. A few of the younger staff had decided to check out Bangor’s nightlife but those days were behind me, so I excused myself to take advantage of the deep bath in my hotel room. I barely gave the complimentary copy of The Leader a second glance as I rolled it into the crook of my elbow. I’d bought a lush bath bomb as a treat, rather their bath than mine – it undoubtedly would contain an inordinate amount of glitter. Throwing the paper onto the bed I didn’t notice the air conditioning flicking over the top three pages.
The tub had taken on a suspicious grey hue by the time the silver sparkles of the galaxy had been washed away. Mum would have scolded me; Dad would have laughed and Robbie – Robbie would probably have reported me to reception then and there. Remorsefully I scrubbed at plastic with a now, equally grey, towel. Why did everything have to be pristine white? It was like they were waiting for you to incriminate yourself.
By the time the bath was looking clean I was sweaty and agitated again.
I was about to shove the paper over to pull back the sheets when the article’s photograph swept the warmth of the bath from my bones. The boy could have been Robbie, if not for the slightly pudgier cheeks and smaller stature. For a moment their images overlaid as I snatched The Leader up, the headline not giving me any more comfort.
“Boy, 9, disappears at local beauty spot.”
I didn’t even need to read the article to know where the boy had been taken from, I recognised the horse chestnut trees in the background. I knew what had taken him, just as I’d always known. A search was being organised for a body they’d never find. I knew all of these things and yet the compulsion to join the search was almost overwhelming, as though I could right some wrong for the past by showing willing. As if had I looked for Robbie, or gone after him, somehow my parents would have been given resolution.
My husband offered to join me when I called him to let him know I was staying at least another night. As much as I’d have appreciated the support, I didn’t want Jeff anywhere near this place. Over the years we’d been married I hadn’t really spoken much about Robbie and I’d been thankful he’d never asked. I was sure he’d seen enough on the tv to form a conclusion, but some things were better left alone.
It had been easy enough to add an extra night to my stay but sleep had been harder. I tossed and turned, the scent of rich mulch and wafts of the summers last fruit filling my senses every time I started to drift. By the morning I was exhausted and grouchy, taking my coffee black, looking as rough as the rest of the staff who had only crawled in at 4am, according to Dave. The cheeriness of the trainer served to make the day drag, turning a pleasant Friday afternoon into a slog. Every time I stretched my feet, they clattered into the wellies I’d picked up in Asda on the lunch hour, a constant reminder of what I had planned tomorrow.
The morning was crisp, the first frost glittered on the exposed stone walls, a haze of pastel light giving the forest an ethereal aesthetic. In many ways it was a perfect morning, if you could ignore the row of men with long sticks probing into the undergrowth and drowned out the bays of search and rescue dogs. The concept of the search within such pristine nature was jarring, causing me to pull my coat closer as I signed up with the ramshackle of volunteers. Most were locals, a scant few were friends of the family who had travelled from Hertfordshire. The man being propped up by an officer in a high-vis coat I imagined was the father. Had Dad looked like that? I was grateful that I could barely remember.
To most of the volunteers, wandering through the woods, did not render them stiff limbed and shoulder clenched. It was a laborious process as we inched our way forwards below the ancient boughs of oak and sycamore. A few seemed to be in good cheer, convinced they’d find the boy and unaware of the manner of creature that made this place it’s hunting ground. The locals, though, were mostly silent and I could not work out if they were just gruff or if they were as terrified as me.
As we gathered under the makeshift shelter for hot, sweet tea and to break for lunch I found that exhaustion had worn away most of my fear. Perhaps there was safety in numbers. If the creature was willing to appear in such circumstances, I was sure it would have been front page news years ago. The thought I couldn’t quite shift was the glaring lack of evidence of its existence. The loops my mind made, trying to justify why I had seen it then, but could not find it now were infuriating.
What if we were looking in the wrong spot? If a large creature existed surely it would have been caught on film by now? If it was living in the woods, then surely there should be some sign of its den? Yet repeatedly we found nothing. Could it be that I was as mental as my therapist thought? Could I have imagined a monstrosity to make sense of a traumatic event? I began to feel a little foolish, perhaps this was what Cara had wanted me to realise all along. That only coming here, seeing how normal it was through an adult’s eyes could I begin to process that perhaps what I thought I had seen had been the fantasy of a 14-year-old girl.
At some point I had started to laugh, flask trembling as the unexpected mirth scoured me and left me empty. A few of the volunteers edged away but I didn’t care, let them think me mad, I was starting to agree.
The rest of the search was uneventful. My thighs were burning as I stumbled blearily into The Eagles, light failing and search concluded for the day. The battery on my phone had dropped below 10% and I needed some hearty food before I attempted the drive home. Wood smoke beckoned me into the small seating area, the waft of warmth from the fire a welcome relief from the dusk chill. The few old men scattered about stared at me, an intruder in their territory. A few Welsh rumbles broke the silence as they turned back to their pints. Ignoring growing trepidation I made my way to the bar. I had just as much right as anyone else to here and sizzling steak that whipped past me on its way to its rightful owner made my abdomen clench with hunger.
The small bar was located under a low oak strut and held only enough room for three bar stools, one of which was occupied by a bundle of material which turned into a man as I approached. It was only then that I realised the walls were an alarm shade of red. Not the warm, muted tones of mulberry or maroon but the red usually reserved for post boxes, for good reason. It was as though the bar had swallowed me into its depths. My wedding ring scrapped against my palm as I approached under the curious gaze of the barmaid.
“You’re not from round here, are you?”
“I’m quite a way from home. I had work in Bangor but I decided to come to help in the search. About the boy. It’s terrible. I had a brother…”
I had a tendency to ramble when I was uncomfortable. Offer information which wasn’t sought or necessary. Dark brows lifted as the bar maid gave me the once over before the slight incline of her shoulders decided that she didn’t care enough to query more.
“What can I get for you?”
“The Llanrog got him.”
I’d quite forgotten the gnarled man at the bar, his hand reaching out to take the tumbler of amber fluid off the bar mat. I almost jumped when his voice emerged, a creaking tree in autumnal gale. Rheumy eyes glared up from beneath his flat cap, challenging us to disagree with him. The barmaid tsked and muttered something in Welsh before turning her attention back to me.
“Don’t mind old Tegwyn he’s away with the spirits.”
“Iesu Mawr woman! If she’s going looking then she needs to know what she might find.”
For a moment their conversation faded below the pounding of my heart. It was improbable they knew who I was, Robbie had been taken over 20 years ago. It was even less likely that they knew that I had never been able to identify a man as the perpetrator. It had to be some strange happenstance that I’d encountered the only person as mad as I was. When I looked back up I realised that all eyes were on me.
“Can I have a menu and a cup of tea, please?”
There was the awkward silence to be expected when ordering a hot drink that was not a hot toddy before the barmaid seemed to agree my cause was worthy enough and gave me a nod.
“Extra sugar? You look like you’ve had a shock.”
It occurred to me that a strong cup of tea was the cure to most ills, so I nodded, not realising she was going to disappear through the back to find a kettle until I was alone with Tegwyn. A bony finger lifted, soundlessly indicating the entrance. An ominous gesture, perhaps telling me to turn back and leave this place. My feet remained rooted as I glanced at first and then stared at the host of faces arranged on the large cork board by the door.
“There’s more of them but they wouldn’t all fit.”
Feeling shaky I pulled myself up onto the stool next to him, wanting to know. Not wanting to know. Not responding to his comment.
“The Llanrog took them all, took my sister Myfi too, but that was a long time ago now.”
Though he clutched a stick Tegwyn was surprisingly spry as he made his way to the board, pointing furiously at a small, faded black and white photo of a girl who could have been no more than 5.
“That was her, a more beautiful little thing, you couldn’t imagine.”
“Got yourself an audience then Teg?”
It was clear from the jovial tone that this performance had graced The Eagles more than once and that the other patrons paid Tegwyn no mind but I was transfixed, not sure how to find out more without seeming too invested. So I gave the man who had spoken up a smile that promised I was humouring Tegwyn.
“What happened to your sister?”
Ignoring the spattering of groans Tegwyn seemed to warm to the subject, life lifting his frame as his arms rose into the air, outlining a suspiciously familiar shape.
“It was about this big, it was. I didn’t see much of it mind, there was only a glimpse. Myfi was only 6, we lived right off Swallow falls, used it like a playground. Then one day when Tad was off the mine Myfi wanted to get some leaves to press them. That’s what kids did for fun back then, none of these playboxes or me-tubes. Just simple fun in nature. Mam told me ‘Teg look out for your sister and mind you’re home before dusk.’ People didn’t worry about all this health and safety in those days so off we went without a care in the world.”
The story was a familiar one, all Robbie had wanted was conkers. Tegwyn seemed to be running out of puff, returning to the seat next to me to have a gulp of whatever it was that was fortifying him.
“It was beautiful up there. All reds and yellows. Myfi wanted the reddest ones she could find; it was her favourite colour. So, we went looking for them. She wouldn’t have any with those little bug holes in them, they had to be just right. After a bit I got bored and went to skim rocks. I wasn’t any good, mind, I was just liked to see them drop in the water. Myfi grumbled a bit but she was happy enough doing her own thing so long as she could see me. That’s when the Llanrog got her.”
Whilst he paused for effect my cup of tea finally appeared from the depths of the kitchen, along with a menu. The barmaid rolled her eyes having caught the last sentence and started to pour a pint of lager, though no one had ordered one.
“So how did you know… that it was a Llanrog?”
“Well, here’s the thing… everything went quiet. Just like that. So, I looked up to see where Myfi was and there was his great big thing behind her. As big as a bear but with fur like a fox, tiny eyes and claws so big that they covered her side to side. All I could see was teeth and a hole for a mouth. Then they were gone, it and Myfi too. Like the ground had swallowed them up.”
“Then the fairies started dancing through the woods, isn’t that right Teg?”
I jumped as a voice approached the bar, coins handed over for the lager now waiting for him. I might have laughed, nervous energy needing some release as I tried not to let cold dread rattle my teeth. Tegwyn had seen the same thing I had; I was convinced of that, but they all thought he was some mad, old fool that had drunk one too many measures.
“Did you look for her, afterwards?”
I was struggling to keep my emotions in check so I picked up the menu, making a show of looking at it, though I couldn’t read any of the items.
“Well, we looked for her. We could never find her. I tried digging once, near to where she was but there was nothing there and most folk thought me mad, out with a shovel after my shift. I never forgot though, what took her. You need to be careful out there or you’ll be one on the board.”
I felt the eyes staring at me from the cork board, for a second wondering if Robbie was among them.
“That’s cause you’re batty as a nut Teg, it’s ok though, most of us are.”
Despite her words the barmaid’s tone held no malice. Even if they thought Tegwyn was a weirdo, he was their weirdo.
“I’m sorry for your loss, I’ll be careful out there, I promise. Thank you for telling me about your sister.”
Words sounded hollow, even to me, as numbness cauterised my emotions. I heard myself ordering sausage, egg and chips but I have no recollection of how it tasted or if I even managed to eat it at all. The overriding thought was that I had to go back there, dig it up, or how many more Myfis’ or Robbies’ would there be?
She toils above the surface. The shovel cuts through the earth, the handle rubs welts into her palms. The forest floor is a carpet of ambers, reds and shallow holes. She is exhausted, limbs rattle, her reserves run dry. The first biting frosts of winter do not deter her, it’s only a matter of time before the earth will freeze and protect its secrets. There is no sign of the Llanrog and still she digs, hunting it as it has hunted others.
Despair leeches from her, given vigour by the endeavour. Desperate calls from her husband and work are ignored, some things are more important. In time he arrives to collect her, begging her to relent, pleas falling on deaf ears. That night he tosses and turns in an empty bed, trying to find the words to bring her home.
In the morning she is gone.
The police arrive but no trace of her is ever found.
The cork board at The Eagles gains a new missing person and Tegwyn wonders why no one ever listens.
The Llanrog’s larders are full for another winter and so it sleeps, in its home beneath the forest, dreaming of autumn leaves and the feast to come.