Howlpants Sheeppoke, the Hallucinating Shepherd of Brue never meant to hurt anyone that October day so it was with dismay that he sat on the high hillside and watched the village explode and burn. He took no pleasure whatsoever in seeing Mrs. MacCuish from the Post Office flung 30 feet in the air in a slow elegant arc, even though a small part of him thrilled to the naughty semantic thought of her being hoisted on his petard. As a boy in the shop with his mother, he’d always taken a secret pleasure in being pressed in fond envelopment to Mrs. MacCuish’s suffocating bosom, with the sure certainty of a lollipop to follow. He hated to see her looking so floppy and flying.
Oh, he knew he hallucinated, he knew as well as anybody. The gentle rattle from the pill-bottle in his pocket usually soothed him, but looking at old burning Mr. Jamieson racing towards the duckpond, his clothes all aflame, the tinkle seemed to be mocking him. You shouldn’t have forgotten us on Tuesday…shouldn’t have forgotten us on Tuesday…Tuesday…Tuesday… they seemed to say.
But when exactly did the hallucination begin that day, and when did it end? Howlpants Sheeppoke, the Hallucinating Shepherd of Brue, could not be sure. Was he still hallucinating now, even nasally, as the smell of burning chaos drifted up the hill to his nostrils?
He was pretty sure now he had been hallucinating when he tore into the village shop screaming “The clouds! The clouds have fangs! Look everybody! See how their abominable maws are slavering with rain! They mean to fang US! Fang us to death! Hide! Throw tins of soup! Anything! Don’t just stand there gawking! O rainy, unhappy day of the fanged clouds! Who will help me throw things at them? Who will listen to me?”
The people had stared of course, they usually did, before saying to each other “Oh that’s just young Howlpants Sheeppoke, he’s an hallucinating shepherd, you know. Don’t pay him any mind. Nice lad really” Then gradually they’d gone back to the usual things of stacking the shelves, chatting by the eggs, doing some minor shoplifting.
Mr. MacKenzie was looking at the birthday card for their son Calum that Mrs. MacKenzie was showing him.
“Oh I don’t know, The Transformers? I mean he is turning 21, Effie.”
“Don’t be silly!” bustled Mrs. Mackenzie. “He loves technology and things of that sort. I think it’s Calumy, very Calumy.”
And that’s what had gone wrong. As she said “It’s Calumy, very Calumy” she chanced to look up and straight into the dilated pupils of Howlpants, now sitting quietly on the ice-cream freezer and eating scratch-cards.
Howlpants Sheeppoke heard nothing at all about a beloved son. What he heard was, “Calumny, very calumny,” and a gear snapped back into place in his head, the fan-belt engaged again and started up blowing hot winds of sulphurous rage over his throbbing, hurty brain.
For if there was one thing that everyone knew that Howlpants hated, it was to be called a calumnist. On less insane days, he knew that technically some of his Cassandra-like proclamations in the shop about man-eating Glaswegians coming over the hill, and all the tractors suddenly melting, thawing and resolving themselves into a dew, were not true, but, he had maintained at the emergency meeting last year – as had his doctor and indeed most of the village, except the minister – that because the hallucinations were true to him, he could not be called a liar. He would not be called a liar. The last person to call him one, he’d beaten so badly she couldn’t go to play-school for a month.
But, and also yet, here was someone looking him straight in the eye and saying “Calumny, very calumny” (albeit a bit archaically – but wasn’t that Shakespeare dude really popular, right now? Hadn’t the Barvas Players just done “As You Like It” in Shawbost? This woman had obviously picked up Elizabethan speech patterns and was using them to fling the stinging insult at him from her lair, by the greetings cards.) He could not stand for it. His brain kicked up another gear and with a fury that knocked the crisps-rack clear 10 feet across the shop, he leapt to his feet and attempted to strangle Mrs. MacKenzie.
Mr. MacKenzie paused only very slightly before rushing to his wife’s aid. He pried the mad shepherd’s fingers away from the purpling neck of his semi-beloved and was lucky to sustain only a broken coccyx when Howlpants’s rage-fortified strength lobbed him backwards into the washing powder.
Howlpants flung his head backwards, his neck ropey with fury, and screamed at the ceiling tiles “Calumny? Calumny, is it?” Then seizing the basket of Halloween rockets by the counter and a Zippo from the window display he roared out of the shop as suddenly as he’d entered it, leaving the shocked shoppers to attend to the whimpering MacKenzies.
All through Brue phones rang and the word spread rapidly that Howlpants Sheeppoke had really lost it this time. The village went eerily quiet. By and by, one by one, people started coming out of their doors to see what was happening. The first ones to do so were also the first to see the rockets go off as Howlpants clambered to the top of the statue of The Unknown Crofter at the crossroads, laughing maniacally and howling “Calumny nononononononononohahahahahahaha!”
The rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air – it’s an old story but never was it played out so multicolouredly as it was at Brue. Howlpants had been everywhere with his fireworks. The barns exploded, the library van, the church, the holiday cottages, the Post Office and the Whaler’s Rest. But not the school. Not the school.
And how beautiful it all was, thought Howlpants Sheeppoke from up on his hill. If you could ignore for a minute the flying cows and people, and the annoying screams of anguish, how beautiful to see the pub explode into green and red like that, the church into blue and gold! And suddenly, Howlpants was not sorry any more. Not sorry at all.
Not long after the sound of the explosions and burning Hebrideans had subsided, Flossie, Howlpants’s favourite sheep, wondered over and licked him absently with her rough tongue. He came to groggily, sat up and gazed down at the peaceful green village beneath him. He saw Mrs. MacCuish wave goodbye to the post-van from town, and there was Mrs. MacKenzie hanging out her washing. He lay back on the soft mossy grass, closed his eyes and smiled. It had all just been a beautiful dream.
When he opened his eyes again, it was raining and a grinning fanged cloud leered down at him as it descended upon the hill, shrouding it, and muffling all noise…