It was by then quite dark. As a rural community, involved heavily in farming, almost everybody went to bed early and woke early. Particularly at the age of twelve, my bed time was at the incredibly early time (by today’s standards) of half past eight. Adults usually went at about half past nine or ten. As it was we stayed, naked, drinking tea and cocoa until about nine, by which time I had started yawning. Others joined me: it had been an emotionally tiring day. All of us were unused to sexual activity, to walking naked in the cool air, to getting wet with bare skin, and to so many non-routine activities happening in a few short hours. Hamish made a move to get his clothes, to prepare to leave.
“No,” said the blacksmith. The young man stopped, turning. “You sleep here tonight. We all do. It is to cement our relationship.”
“Don’t be silly, boy. The relationship with each other and with the earth and the Spirits.”
“My parents expect me home.”
“No they don’t. They were told that you wouldn’t see them until tomorrow.”
“But you can’t…”
“I am an elder,” he thundered suddenly. I noticed that everyone gave a start as he spoke. Mind you, so did I. “I’ll do what is necessary for the good of this Village, and under my direction so will you. Now return. In that cupboard you will find mats; get them out. Blankets are in the other one. You and Mark set them out, in pairs, one pair per couple, and one set of blankets per couple. Lay them out tidily.”
Per COUPLE? What was he talking about? I didn’t sleep with anyone else apart from my brother! Murmurs from the others said the same about them.
But there was no escaping the blacksmith’s gimlet eye and insistent tones. Mats and blankets were laid down, and it looked as though we were all going to be made to lie with someone else whether we liked it or not. I was looking on, aghast, when I felt a presence at my side.
Ben who had said that thing to me when I was making his seed. Ben who was so… understanding when I was at school. Ben who was so honest about what we had been made to do, who had been on my side, and who had fainted at the moment of orgasm.
I was suddenly glad he was there, and knew that, if I had to sleep alongside anyone, it would have to be Ben. Turning, I smiled at him tiredly, nervously. He gave a comforting smile back.
But the man had other ideas. “Aidan and I will share. On one side of us Steve will lie, and on the other Aidan may choose. Who will it be, Aidan?”
“Ben,” I said promptly. And then courage came to me, sent perhaps by the events of the day and by tiredness. “I want Ben by my side and under the same blanket. You and Steve could sleep together…” and I added in a small voice for his ears only “… again.”
He looked at me sharply. Well? I was another of those who the Spirits welcomed in the Grove now, wasn’t I? I too had something over him, and a partial authority to choose. Today’s events had given me both. But still I had said it as a challenge I thought would be rebuffed, and almost expected a swipe from his powerful arm, or a verbal swipe from his powerful voice.
But to my surprise he just looked at me, and I’m sure there was disappointment in his eyes. He looked down, and in a quieter voice said: “Very well. Let it be that way. The rest of you can sleep with whoever you wish.”
Amidst all the pulling and pushing of the heavy mats there were comments about which of the village girls they’d prefer to be sharing with, but I smiled to myself and knew that, at least for the moment, I’d be happy with Ben’s company for the night. Perhaps when I was older, like them…
We were still naked, and for many of the older ones that caused problems. Steve had just got into his part of the bed, such as it was, and was facing the side where the smith would lay when he had ensured the rest of us had bedded down. Most of the others were lying as far as they could get from their neighbour. I didn’t see what the problem was – I mean, if you have to sleep with someone you just get comfortable and shut your eyes, surely? Ben was warm beside me, just beside me, quite close, and that was nice because he was a good friend. But why were all these others, all of whom were friends, so anxious?
At last they’d settled down and the smith turned off the light and with his big frame out of the way the air seemed clearer. I relaxed more, and with the breathing of so many around me in one ear, and with Ben’s deep breaths sweeping across the other, I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke with the moon in my eyes. Ben’s head was toward me, a silhouette. I turned, and must have moved myself nearer to him so my bottom touched his hand. It moved onto my hip. “You okay?” he whispered.
“Yeah… Moon in my eyes.”
“Want me to be a hot water bottle?”
I was mostly asleep. But it sounded comfortable.
He moved himself towards me, and I moved back slightly, so his warmth was in contact with me all the way down my back, round my bottom, and even down my thighs. I relaxed again, and drifted comfortably away again.
Later I was aware of a mistiness in front of my eyes. As my mind cleared I realised I was in the Grove again, emerging from the tunnel which for some reason I could feel was warm. In front of me was the mist; a cool mist over the entirety of the Grove itself. The central trees stood like wraiths, only half visible. Why was I back here? Being beckoned, it was now clear, by some power I didn’t understand. As I tried to grip reality I felt another presence behind me, a friendly spirit. I turned. Ben. Naked like me. My friend, who had told me he loved me. It seemed natural now, and I could see it and approve. Our hands joined in mutual comfort and we answered the beckoning of the power, walking straight through the central trees, over the ground that my seed had supposedly fertilised just that evening, and towards where I had been watching during the getting of it and up to the moment of my first triumphant moment of sexual experience.
It didn’t surprise me at all that once again I could see into the other clearing. Naturally I would be able to. And I walked purposefully toward the entrance. Ben hung back. I could feel the question forming in his mind, and somehow overrode it with my own. I turned to him, and saw for the first time the love and the trust that shone in his eyes, unhidden now and naked to my eyes, as we both were naked to the strength of the spirit. And as I looked deep into his soul he registered astonishment, and the reluctance of the hand in mine to follow me diminished, and together we walked through the thin barrier of undergrowth into…
I awoke. Ben was shushing me. I could feel that I had said something out loud. Ben’s hand was in mine, across my thigh, and I was pulling, pulling…
And I knew then that I had to go back there. In reality, not in dream. And now. And with my friend. I felt awake, suddenly awake, an unknown occurrence for me if I awoke in the middle of the night. I turned to him and looked into the eyes that looked at me, care and concern in them as always.
“Come with me?” I whispered.
“Where? We’re not allowed to.”
“It’s important. It’s to do with yesterday.”
I was desperate. “Please Ben, just come?”
He looked at me searchingly for a few moments, then just started to get up.
“What about clothes?”
“No,” I said emphatically. “Just as we were earlier.”
He looked at me quizzically, but continued to shake off the blankets. We had to tiptoe over the sleeping bodies around us, and I just hoped that the door was unlocked and that it didn’t squeak.
As the toilets were outside, it was unlocked, and as it was a well used door, it made no sound. Outside it was decidedly chilly, and the breeze, although gentle, blew the cool night air over our naked bodies, making us even colder. Once we were away from the hall I thought I’d better tell him my reasons. I was about to start when I realised that he’d probably just tell me it was only a dream and want to turn back. So I thought I’d play safe.
“Thanks, Ben. It’s just something I know I have to do.”
“You’ll see.” In reality I had no idea what it was that I had to do. But I knew I was being called, called back to the Grove. To avoid any more questions I started jogging along, confident that he’d keep up with me. It was a good way of getting warm, anyway.
As we came to the edge of the village and headed toward the now-familiar woods he realised where we were going.
“Why there?” he puffed.
“I have to go back.”
“I’ll tell you when we get there. Not wearing anything, are you?” It was a silly question, and I wondered why I asked it.
“No,” he said with surprise. “You know I’m not.”
At the edge of the woods I paused. It was warmer there, as the trees sheltered us from the breeze. From the darkness inside came just the normal small sounds of a wood at night, yet deep in my mind I knew I had to go in, to find the tunnel, to enter the Grove, and once there I had to enter the secret part of it…
“Come on!” I was impatient to be off. Ben was more cautious.
“If he gets to know that we’ve been here, he’ll go mad.” He was thinking of the blacksmith. But I knew better.
“But after yesterday I am meant to come here too, and that’s why we’re here, because I want you with me.”
He looked at me, undecided. “But…”
“Come on, Ben. Please? I don’t want to do it without you.” I still had no idea what it was I was going to do. But he reluctantly followed me as I took the first steps into the shadows, and was soon at my side as I felt my way along the path, visible only by what minute traces of moonlight filtered down through the thick branch cover.
At last I felt that we were near the Grove, and started trying to cast about for the entrance to its tunnel. As I cast around, there was one point where a glimmer of cold light filtered its way almost through the bushes. I walked towards it, Ben now close beside me, and the tunnel enveloped us, dank and oppressive as always, yet now with this beckoning light at the end. A light which became clearer and more welcoming as we progressed. Ben was now once again at my side.
And as the tunnel gave way to the Grove itself we both stopped and gasped. Moonlight poured into it, filling it with that cold, pure light as if it were a rare glass container for some intoxicating draught; a glass into which we were about to walk. Yet it had none of the strangeness of dim moonlight, nor its eeriness. This was full-blown light, cold yet welcoming, shadowy yet wholesome. As if at the edge of an unknown sea we each, without words, tested it with a cautious foot to see if it were real. And as we took our first steps the purity of the air once again took my spirit, and with the welcome and the joy of it I felt as though I had returned home; but, impossibly, that I had returned for the first time.
As in my earlier dream we walked through the central saplings, and I wondered at how carelessly my feet trod on the ground which was meant to have accepted my seed. My hand was indeed in Ben’s by this time, though how it got there and who instigated it I knew not. I was leading him onwards, across the centre, toward the encircling hedge; though for me, of course, there was only a thin outcropping of shrub at the normal edge to the circle, no barrier at all. Yet just as in my sleep I felt Ben hesitate, and pulled him urgently after me until I was about to take my first step over the boundary. And there I froze.
A voice rang out, and echoed in my head. ARE YOU INDEED THE ONE?
Startled beyond belief, I managed to stammer an answer. “Er… yes… I have been told so.”
HAVE YOU THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE BEHIND YOU?
That was more difficult. My brain worked as fast as it could. They had all been there at that terrible moment when I had had to step naked from the village hall with everybody watching and able to see every inch of my skin. And they had given me encouragement. “Yes… er… yes… I believe I have.”
AND IS THIS YOUR CHOSEN FRIEND?
“Yes,” I replied with absolute certainty. “He is.”
THEN ENTER AND SERVE.
Ben had gone rigid as he had heard the voice, and had he been a small child he would probably have endured a biological accident. But as he heard the welcome in the last phrase, although we were both uncertain about the ‘serve’ bit, he had relaxed a little, and as I heard him gasp I looked round. His eyes were focussed beyond the line of the encircling trees and I realised that he had seen the secret of the Grove.
As he relaxed further – whether because of amazement or because of the warmth of the welcome that was subtly apparent to us, I did not know at the time. But, still hand in hand, like two little boys who were part of some spell, we crossed the low scrub and entered the small clearing I alone had been shown before. It was empty. But it was warm, and even more comforting than the main Grove. The air cocooned us like soft, luxurious bedclothes, yet the air was somehow still fresh and pure.
We stood in the centre of the clearing, on soft, cushioned grass, and wondered. The peace of the place entered my soul, and I knew that nothing bad would be allowed to happen here. We waited, and still there was just us, and quiet, and nothing.
At last I turned to him. His gaze was still wandering around the magic place, and his face was absolutely at peace. Its expression was just as I would have expected to see if he was in deep sleep; young even to my eyes, vulnerable, sweet, kind, relaxed. If this was the real Ben then I knew at that moment that he was more than just a good friend, if such a thing were possible. He was to be my near-constant companion, and I felt an emotion come over me that I had never experienced before.
As I gazed at his wondering face his eyes came to rest on mine, and stayed locked into them, wordlessly, at one each with the other. For what seemed ages we communicated like this. There were no words, just the wonder and the gradual acceptance of our being together, secretless. Tentatively my right hand lifted to touch his right shoulder, and as one we shifted so as to face each other squarely, and his hand came up to lay on my shoulders. Still with eyes locked, the gap between us closed, until with a shock I realised that we would be touching each other. Everywhere.
My eyes must have given me away. Then there was a look of hurt in his, and I wondered at it. I looked back, still troubled, and I saw – somehow – a pleading, an acceptance, in them. And for the first time in that place I heard again the words he had said to me in the village hall.
“But I love you, Aidan.”
Once again our eyes met and explored each other. And gradually, seeing no harm or guile in his, I let the space between us diminish. At last my stomach and chest became warmer, and I knew he was again about to contact my body, and I knew that this time I was ready, was welcoming him.
At the same time I knew that my body was excited, and was about to give me away, but was sure that the part of me that had only today been taught of its real purpose would not trouble him if it touched, even if it touched him first as seemed likely. The lift of it, and the unusual coolness at its tip gave it away to me. And then, gently, that part of me touched… another… rounded… warm… throbbing with life, and a thrill shook me as I realised that he was in the same state. Gently, gently, our chests and our bellies touched, and the excitement of each of us was trapped between us, pressing in, pressing in, and his face was as close to mine as it could get, and I knew that our lips would touch.
And I wondered what to do. To kiss? Boys don’t. But then boys didn’t expose their skin to each other, didn’t get so close to each other, didn’t touch each other with their body, either. But he solved the problem by pressing forward and putting his lips to mine and holding them there.
At this range my arms on his shoulders were uncomfortable, and I decided to put them round his back to hold them. He moved one of his down to the small of my back, whilst the other found the back of my head. Both served to hold me closely to him. As if I were going anywhere!
The closeness of his eyes, still looking deeply into mine, and of his lips, touching mine, not to mention the rest of his naked body against mine and the joint acceptance of the hardness of our arousals being gently massaged by the minute movements of our bodies… all of this was sensory overload to me. Hugs in our family were infrequent: we were all male and too old. Demonstrative acts and behaviour were, whilst not frowned on, just not part of our routine. So to be so close to another human, to me, was wonderful beyond words: disturbing but wonderful, emotionally draining and frightening and wonderful. And that he had instigated it – unless the Spirit had – and was now accepting it and finding it as wonderful as I, was another reason for my emotions to be on my lifetime’s high.
Our hands, without either of us realising, had started to stroke each other’s skin. Wherever they had landed they were just caressing, without hurry, just discovering the skin tones and the subtle shapes of the other. His hands were on my back and now between my shoulder blades. Mine were between his shoulder blades, and, to my astonishment, on one of the cheeks of his bottom. Circling gently. Feeling. Knowing that warm, soft roundness with the hint of muscles deep below, and expecting any minute that he would shy away despite my stroking there for many minutes before I realised what I was doing. And he accepted it. And moved his hand to mine.
I had no idea what was happening to me, why I was doing this to him, or him to me. But I felt complete and part of him and excited and at peace.
I have no idea how long we had been standing there before he asked me. “Can we lie next to each other?”
I made no answer, but sank to the soft grass, his body keeping pace with mine. And there we started again; the long wondering exchange of gaze, the tentative hands on the other’s body… and this time on the chest. I thrilled as he fingered those little nubs high on my chest beneath which, had I been a girl, breasts would lie. No one had touched me there before, not in that way, not even myself, and it was electric. I did the same for him, and he sighed.
We explored from there, stroking the flat stomach and the top of the barely rising belly, and it was not until my hand touched the edge of the still whispy hair that marked the boundary that I stopped and rested my hand on the naked skin above. He looked at me, a lost puppy look, and reached down to take my hand, as I thought, away from this most private area. But instead he lifted it to replace it directly on top of the throbbing shaft of his manhood, arranging my fingers so they extended down to the soft, delicate, encased egg shapes below. In turn his own palm and fingers came to hold me, and to make my feelings of attachment and excitement and delight even greater. I had to compare it with the efforts of the rest of the day. When I had massaged him to make his seed it had been done as I had instinctively known it should, but it was devoid, then, of the deep love – love? Was it that that I was feeling? Well, if so, so be it. Anyway… the deep love I felt now. And when in the Grove I had massaged myself to finality for that first ever time there was no love there, just the need to release and to do what was required of me.
But now! Now I – we – were both totally involved with each other, and I was starting to feel that I wanted him with me always, to do this, to help me, to protect me, and so I could do the same for him. It was a bigger load of emotions than my twelve year old brain was anywhere near used to carrying, and as I gasped at the sensations which flowed through every part of my mind and body I was conscious of the tears running unchecked down my face. Tears of joy and happiness they were, tears of acceptance, tears of happiness at being so close to, so needed by, another human being.
At last we were each once again rubbing the other in that special way, lying on our sides, facing each other, scarcely a gap between us. And when I knew there was no going back, somehow I could sense that the same was true for him. As we each reached that magical climax I pulled myself to him and kissed him, hard, on the lips, and he did to me, too. As our bodies spasmed and the hot seed escaped from each of us in what felt like great gouts we kissed and I swore inside myself that I would never leave this boy, this my closest ever friend, this man who loved me, this other human who I loved, as long as I lived.
We lay back, resting, recovering, chests and stomachs separate now to allow air around us, arms round each other. And from our chests and bellies where it had landed the semen followed gravity’s pull and fell onto the grass between us…
I awoke with a start. For a moment, although what had happened between Ben and me seemed real enough, I thought I was still asleep and dreaming as I had been the first time, when I had felt the call to return to the Grove. But no: the grass was below me, and my body knew it was less soft than the mat I had been sleeping on, and Ben’s arms were still around me. And I was cold, and my face was wet. And then the thing that woke me happened again. A long, warm, wet, rough tongue swept over my face.
Startled beyond belief I gave a shout, which woke Ben. He gained his senses quicker than I could at that point, as I couldn’t trust myself to move. I saw shock and astonishment cross his face, then to my own surprise and relief he smiled. I looked round.
And two immense, brown, liquid eyes stared back at me. I lay back and took in the full appearance of the young stag I had first seen that afternoon. It was he who had woken me, and he now looked at me with curiosity. There was a sound behind Ben, and I saw another, the same age, standing behind him. I wondered where the king stag was, and whether we were safe from his antlers and hooves.
We each looked back into the eyes of the young stag nearest us and I felt, rather than heard, a voice. As I became aware of it the stag’s eyes narrowed and became more human in shape, losing their depth but gaining in their intelligence and awareness.
“THE LOVE BETWEEN YOU HAS SEEDED THE EARTH MOTHER. FROM YOUR UNION WILL COME THE SALVATION OF YOUR PEOPLE AND THEIR SPIRIT. COME WHEN YOU WILL AND HELP TEND YOUR CHILDREN. THEY WILL TELL YOU WHEN IT IS THE TIME.”
I lay there in shock. Was it somehow the stag who was speaking? As I watched his eyes they changed once again into the brown, silent pools that befits an animal, and I could not be sure. Then, as quickly as they had woken us, they wheeled away and ran from the clearing.
I looked at Ben. He was — inevitably — looking at me. I think we were both then aware that dawn was approaching, that we were cold and tired, and that if we didn’t get back soon we would once again have to walk thorough the village naked, this time with no darkness to hide us and no ceremony to give us reason. Silently we rose and left the clearing, through the centre, and paused to look back only when we gained the tunnel’s mouth.
Of the entrance to the special clearing where we had found the love between us and in some manner, apparently, jointly fathered a family, there was no sign.