I was so tired again that night that I went straight up to bed when told and straight to sleep. Well, almost. Just before I finally nodded off I felt a faint voice in my head: Aidan, it’s me. Goodnight. Remember, I’m with you.
And I knew it was Ben. And with all my strength I thought in my mind how I wished he was part of our family so he could be here with me instead of my brother, and that dad had said he could come any time. And I heard an answering contentment — no words, just the emotion — and then I said goodnight with a mental kiss. I wondered how he would get that, but as he wasn’t there and the whole thing now seemed so unreal I didn’t care. Being nearly asleep had a lot to do with it as well.
So it wasn’t until the next morning that the world seemed to crash about me again. My waking thoughts were something like:
that means school
I haven’t seen anyone since last Friday, except Ben
but they’ve seen me, all of them
for a long time
I panicked, and the gorge rose in me so I wondered if I was going to be sick. I thought about telling dad I wasn’t well and couldn’t go in, but knew he’d never stand for that unless I’d actually been sick. And doing that would mean the doctor, the man who had said I was old enough to spill my seed, which meant being naked in front of my school friends and their parents… And it’d only be putting it off, anyway. I couldn’t plead sickness from now on in.
My occasional shivers at breakfast time seemed to go unnoticed by the rest of the family. But I wasn’t eating much, and the nearer it came to leaving time the more shaky I got. After my brothers had either left for work or had gone upstairs again at last my father noticed.
“What’s the matter? You look awful.”
I nearly gave way to the tears that were welling up inside me, but narrowly managed not to. But I couldn’t trust my voice, so just shook my head. He paused.
“It’s school after last Friday, isn’t it?” I nodded.
“I know it’s difficult, but… ” He seemed to be searching round for something to say. But there was a knock at the door which saved him.
Ben come to keep me company, to keep me from the stares and comments I was so scared of. Ben who loved me. Ben who was saying in my head: Don’t worry. Your body’s fine. No one will laugh at it. And if they do, it’ll prove they’re no friends of ours.
“Hallo, Mr McKee,” said his voice at the door. “It occurred to me that we could use some moral support from each other this morning.”
“You’re a good boy, Ben,” said my father. “I’m glad Aidan’s got a friend like you. Thank you for coming. And yes, he’s a bit anxious about it.”
A bit anxious! How would he feel…? Ben came through to me, in my head. I’m in this too, you know. And he’s right, I need your help as much as you probably need mine. In fact I know you do, ’cos you never answered my good morning call.
Despite myself I smiled as he came through the door, and had to stop myself from rushing to hug him, my natural inclination.
“Hallo, Ben,” was all I said, feeling less choky than before he had knocked.
“Hallo Aidan. Ready?”
“No. But I suppose we’d better go.”
“Good luck,” said my father as he hurried from the room. I looked at my saviour.
“Luck!” I said bitterly. “He thinks we need luck.”
“Well, perhaps we need a bit more than that. Perhaps we need the spirit to help us.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
As we neared the school my mood of anxiety increased again, almost to sickness point again. If Ben hadn’t been there I’m sure I’d have turned tail and fled, back home, back to the Grove, back even to the smith. But Ben was with me, and although we were silent, even mentally, I knew he was as apprehensive as me.
The first of our school friends we met was Alice. She smiled nicely at us and walked on without a word. Nothing unusual there, she wasn’t the most talkative of people. But then there were a knot of them. Boys my own age. Boys in my class.
Help, someone, please!
“Hi Aidan, Hi Ben! Enjoy Friday?”
“No.” Thankful it wasn’t anything worse.
“Yours isn’t as long as my brother’s.”
His brother was sixteen.
“Bet it’s longer than yours, squirt!” This was Ben. There was laughter, but it was directed at the other boy, not me.
“Didn’t you feel cold?”
“That was the last thing on my mind at the time!&rdquot; I said. “If you knew what it was like to have to step out of that door in front of the whole village… well, it was awful, that’s all.”
“Glad it wasn’t me,” said someone else.
There was silence at this. I think it was going through their minds what would they have done in the same circumstances. Gradually conversation returned, and I faded into obscurity again — at least with that particular group of people. I felt a bit let down, in a way. Nothing had been said; none of the taunts, none of the laughter I’d been dreading.
And then I felt a touch on my shoulder. Jane. Jane the school bike. Jane who was after anything in trousers, who’d been tossed in the hay by half the school’s older boys (so they said). Jane who was permanently in disgrace. Jane.
“You look really gooood with nothing on. Really.” And she’d said ‘good’ as if it actually did have four o’s. “I’d love it if you’d come to my house and show me closer.”
She wasn’t known for beating about the bush.
“Er… er…” I could feel myself blushing furiously. This was both worse and better than being laughed at. I gulped. “Er… well… it’s not something I do normally,” I said, not wanting to pass up the chance of doing something really grown-up and really naughty: breaking new ground, so to speak. But Jane… no… surely not? Was she going to be the only one who’d offer? And would I have the nerve to do it anyway? How could I just take everything off and stand, on my own, in front of her? Or did she want something more?
And the thought of that undefined something, on top of not wanting to take everything off in front of her, no matter how much I could brag about it afterwards, mingled with the fact it was Jane, decided me. All this sped through my mind at the speed of thought — hardly surprisingly — and ended up with my poor confused body contracting into me in my embarrassment.
“No. No thanks. I’ll not be doing that,” I said.
“Pity,” she said. “It’d be no big deal, really, after what you did on Friday. After all, there’s only one of me, and I’d really have liked to see you close, and have you to myself.”
I had no idea what to say. It’s just as well she swept away, possibly aware she’d gone too far. But then, if all that I’d heard about was true, she wouldn’t know where ‘too far’ was.
Ben had been talking to someone else, and only just then rejoined me. “What did she want?” he asked.
I wondered whether to tell him, and was about to when I remembered how good he’s been to me all through the weekend and what we had shared. And all my feelings just went out to him. I knew if he’d asked me I’d have thrown off all my clothes in front of him, for him to inspect me, and I’d have enjoyed it.
“Jane wanted me to strip in front of her, so she could look at me closely.” I said flatly.
The expected laughter and whoop never came. I didn’t know whether to look at him to see if he was holding his sides or just to walk on. I walked on.
“When d’you go?” asked a tight, thin voice beside me that I only just recognised as Ben’s.
This time I did look at him. “I don’t. I’m not going. Surely you don’t think I’d do that for Jane?”
A pause. “Who would you do it for?”
I stopped and looked at him properly, wondering what was going through his mind. Which of the girls would I do it for, anyway?
“I don’t know of any of them. The only person I’d be happy doing it for is you.” The words just came out. I knew what I meant by them; that I could think of nobody I’d be happy stripping in front of except him on the grounds that over the weekend I’d done so, many times. But as I heard myself say it I realised what it might mean to someone who didn’t understand. But before I had a chance to stammer out an amendment he spoke. Softly.
“Please let it be only me.” And an arm came briefly round my shoulders, and then the next wave of our school friends caught up with us and he hurriedly tore himself away. At the time it meant little, because I was caught up in chat. But later I thought more and more of it.
And of him.
There were one or two snide remarks made, but all in all people either ignored what had happened or sympathised. Some, though, seemed to have radically altered their attitude toward me. To some of those who used to ignore me I’d become a person of courage, someone to welcome into different, more exalted circles in the school. Others who I’d not really liked before just openly sneered at me, and it was only because of the support of those with better attitudes that I stopped myself feeling put down. Break time found me encircled by a complete mixture of attitudes, including more of both sexes who told me to take everything off then and there, in the middle of the school playground, to prove I could do it. But Ben was there, and in his quiet, good-natured way, told them to remind me how it was done, by doing it first themselves; then telling them not to be stupid. In fact he told one sneering, bullying sixteen year old that I’d probably do it if he did first, if only to demonstrate that I was better equipped than him.
Gradually they all faded away, and we were alone again.
“You all right?”
“Yeah. Dunno if I could have got rid of them on my own, though.”
“Just tell them to do it first if anyone else asks you.”
“Does that include Jane?”
A short pause. I looked at him, at his expressionless face, surprised he was actually using his voice to me. I spoke back, since he was.
“Depends if you want to, I s’pose.”
And he walked off. I wondered what he meant. He’d sounded hurt.
“Ben?” I asked tentatively. “Ben? What d’you mean?”
“If you want to strip in front of Jane then it’s your business. Just don’t come to me when it all goes wrong, that’s all.”
What was he talking about?
“What d’you mean, if I want to strip in front of Jane? You know what she’s like.” Well, at least he’d stopped walking off.
“I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“Don’t be bloody silly. She just asked me to, this morning. I told her I didn’t want to — you know that.”
“Thought you might have changed your mind.”
I just looked at him. We walked to my home together.
The next day had settled down to be normal again. No one mentioned it; teasing went on as usual, and it was only brought up as a sort of side joke. You know — two boys bragged about how long theirs were and mine was suddenly the yardstick. Though when I say yard — well, I was sure no one’s was that long. The incident was one of those which were so excessively out of the ordinary that, with nothing tangible to show for them, they slipped out of the villagers’ short term memory like a dream. Only later do people recollect them, by which time they are well on the way to being folk tales.
Even my father said nothing. My brothers were all supportive towards me, something I found oddly disquieting after having been all but ignored — in a nice way — for so many years. Sean was suddenly much nicer to me, and a lot less careless about getting undressed with me around. It wasn’t a big deal or anything, he’s my brother; it’s nice to feel that we, the closest in years, were a bit closer in trust as well.
Every night, before I lay down to sleep, either Ben called to me — he knew the time I was always sent to bed — or I called out to him if he’d lost track of it. Few distinct words passed. It was just the knowledge that we were each saying good night to the other.
But on the Friday night I woke up. It was pitch black. I was sweating, although the night wasn’t hot. And then I… what: heard? felt? …his mind, screaming at me. I came fully awake quickly; at my side Sean slept on like a baby. I shouted out to Ben in my mind, over and over again until at last, to my immense relief, I felt he had ‘heard’ me.
What’s the matter, Ben? For God’s sake tell me what I can do!
A pause. I began to think he’d not heard me and was just getting my strength up to ‘shout’ again.
Oh… ugh… it’s all right, Aidan. It was just a nightmare.
Are you sure? It felt dreadful here.
You really felt what I was dreaming?
Not exactly. I knew you were in some sort of trouble though.
And you woke me from it. Thank you… thank you, my… friend.
It was the first time he’d actually called me a friend, although he’d been one for ages. Yes, he’d said that he loved me, but somehow friendship was more easily understood, more earthy, more… I’m trying not to use the word ‘normal’. Somehow it felt like another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of life’s events had been found and laid in place.
Are you feeling better now?
Yes… yes. With you there, talking to me and wanting to help, I’m fine.
What was it about?
I can’t tell you like this. It’s too difficult. Funny, for me it was as easy as talking face to face now I’d got used to it. Perhaps it was because I was the ‘chosen one’. I’ll have to tell you when I see you next.
Ok, I answered cheerfully. Where shall we meet?
I’ll come to your place.
All right. I’ll see you in ten minutes.
A pause, then: I didn’t mean tonight!
Why not? It’d be better now.
Because it’s now you’ve just had the nightmare.
Another pause. All right. I just hope I don’t get found out.
Something came into my mind from ‘outside’ both of us.
I stopped shouting at him, and as softly as I could I got out of bed. Sean stirred with the movement of the mattress, but never woke. I took a few clothes, then tiptoed naked downstairs. In the dimness of the strangely comforting familiarity of our front room I put them on.
The door was awkward. In the normal run of things the fact that it stuck and made a noise never mattered. In fact it was a cheerful announcement that a member of the family was coming in (or going out!). But trying to silence it now took ages, and its muted protest, I was sure, would wake the house. But at last I was outside, and waiting in the shadows for Ben. After a bit he ‘shouted’ in my head as if we were still in our respective homes.
Where are you?
Shhh! Everyone will hear you!
A pause. Then a more normal ‘voice’ in my head.
Don’t be damn silly. I’m not talking to you!
If my thoughts couldn’t be heard, then the laugh I gave at this strangest of exchanges certainly could.
Shhh. You laughed out loud.
I couldn’t help it. Where are you?
Just coming round the corner to your front door… “Ah, there you are.” The last was in a whisper, but I was no longer listening to him with either mind or ears. I was just gaping, stupidly.
He was naked. True, he was carrying his clothes in a bag, but I had expected him to be wearing them.
Aidan? What’s the matter? You seen me like this before.
“I know,” I whispered back, confused about which method of communication we were using at the moment. “But I’m not, and I just wasn’t expecting you to be… oh well.” And I started taking off my own few clothes.
Can we put them in your bag?
Yes, of course.
We’ve got to go through the village like this, you know.
For the first time since his silent screaming had woken me it occurred to me that we were going to the Grove.
We’re going to the Grove, aren’t we?
Yes. I could hear the surprise in his voice. Isn’t that obvious?
It is now, but I never thought about it until then.
But that’s what came into my mind as soon as you told me to meet you here.
Not to me. But then… oh well, I suppose we should. It’s a week ago, after all.
We were now well away from the house, and near no others.
“I suppose it was,” he whispered back.
Together we crept, naked, but holding the bag with our clothes as insurance, through the sleeping village. I had no idea of the time — neither had he — but there was nobody around, no one awake, no lights on. Even the baker’s shop was in darkness, and he was the first to start work in the morning long before anyone else even thought about waking. The wood, when we got to it, was dark and quiet, but no longer held any terrors for us, who had been there so frequently the previous weekend. We left our clothes by a recognisable tree and again, unconsciously hand in hand, we entered the wood’s dark embrace. The Grove we found because, for the first time, the shimmer of its spirit light was visible to us through the entrance tunnel.
Once in the Glade we became warm again, and knew we were welcome. Our special area, which I was starting to think of as our bed, was open to us, and we cast around for a sign of anything growing.
We looked at each other, a bit dismayed. Surely something would be showing by now.
Perhaps they grow like trees, I heard in my head.
But they’ll be still young when we’re old men!
Not if they’re like pines.
THEY WILL BE AS BOYS.
We started, then settled back, reassured. We knew what this was.
How do we care for them? I asked
YOU WILL BE SHOWN. FOR NOW IT IS ENOUGH THAT YOU ARE HERE, AND THAT YOU CARE FOR THEM AND FOR EACH OTHER.
When will we be shown? I asked.
Had we been in school I’m sure I’d have come back with some comment about not having received an answer to a genuine question. But this was not the time to be smart. Instinct told me that. But instinct prompted me to ask a different question.
Please, do they need love? And how do we give it to them?
A pause, then the Voice came back, so gently I could almost feel it caress me.
THAT WAS NOT EXPECTED. THAT YOU ASKED THE QUESTION SHOWS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HUMANS AND OTHER LIVING, GROWING THINGS.
Another pause. We waited.
FOR NOW, IT IS ENOUGH TO SHOW YOUR LOVE FOR EACH OTHER. THAT LOVE SPIRIT WILL NURTURE THEIR GROWTH.
And that was all. We looked at each other, aware of a strengthening of the warmth, the companionship between us, if it were possible to strengthen it. Almost shyly, I thought, he put out his hand to touch my face. Why shyly, after all we had been through, after knowing the feeling there was between us? Was it just that it was all so out of the usual that each of us was still worried that the other one might suddenly resist an approach? His hand found my cheek, and gently stroked it. My eyes sought his and held them. They stayed locked until his stroking moved too far away from my face for him to be able to watch me, and it was then that I moved closer to him and cradled that most delicate part of him in the same way as he was fondling me.
It was inevitable that his body, the sensation of feeling it, was as much a part of my feeling for him as the closeness of our minds and the respect and the friendship and the will to protect. It was no longer anything to do with the Spirit, but everything to do with the spirit of attraction between us. What was to start with just a smooth, muscular nearly adult body, with the previously forbidden parts that were so intriguing particularly in what pleasure they could give, was now electric, exciting, and, even better, mine to do with as I wished. But that gift was not one that I wanted to exploit selfishly, because that way would lie betrayal and rejection. To explore, enjoy and to give pleasure was all I wanted.
And all he wanted for me, too. That much I knew, for although we were silent with our mouths and had no intention of using this thought transference (if that’s what it was), his openness, his care, his love, all flooded into my mind. I knew that there were no other thoughts, no hidden agenda in his desires. I knew his mind absolutely, and he knew mine absolutely: there were no secrets at all possible between us.
When at last — and it was no short lapse of time — we had once again shown our absolute love for each other and our bodies had recovered, we were sitting on the soft grass by the area to which we had a week ago given our seed. And there seemed to be a sigh, but it didn’t come from us.
Then from our new angle of vision we each noticed something simultaneously.
Where we had each given of ourselves, seven days previously, there were eight low hummocks, so low that, when we had been standing we could not have noticed them at all. Yet there they were. And all of a sudden their significance was obvious to both of us. A feeling of wild pride, of elation, of wonder swept over me, and tears came to my eyes as my brain tried to accept that it was more than the love between Ben and myself that was real.
It seemed that we had, in reality, sired a family.
And the feelings in Ben’s mind were similar to mine: no words passed, but I knew, of course. Wordlessly we rose, knowing inside ourselves that it was time to leave. And as we did so something made us bow towards the site of the tiny mounds, to grasp hands again, and to walk from the Grove with heads held high in pride. As if we were floating on air we passed unheedingly through the wood, and it was only the chill of the lightening morning air past its borders that brought us down to earth.
“How long can we have been there?” were the first words past my lips for what seemed hours. Somehow it seemed wrong to start talking about what we had seen last, as if talking about it would lessen its wonder.
“I don’t know, but it was the middle of the night when I woke.”
“It’s near dawn now.”
“I know. And I’ve never told you what it was woke me.”
Nor he had. That was the reason we were both here. Well, it wasn’t really, but it was the cause.
His dream had him once again naked, with me, but there were fewer people on their way to the Grove this time. Just the smith, fewer of the elders, and we two. Oh, and seven small, naked boys. Once there, everything had started to go wrong; things got vague in his mind, but he knew that there was danger, mortal danger, to all of us and to all the Village. But try as he might in his dream he could do nothing but shout silently in his mind, louder and louder…
Until I had woken up and heard him.
He shivered. So did I. But mine was a practical shivering, not one born of distaste for a nightmare. And then I realised that we had nearly reached the outskirts of the Village, that at least the baker must be up and doing, and that we were still naked. We had forgotten our clothes.
When at last we reached my house — clothed by now — we didn’t want to part. Outside, we just stayed, looking at each other, communicating about anything that came into our heads, but silently, in our special way. He kept saying to me: I want to come in and be with you.
I know, I kept answering. I want you to be there too, but I share with my brother.
And that would stop him, until in his exhausted state he would ask again, forgetting. At last I sent him stumbling home with the promise that when I’d slept enough I’d call at his home. As he left me I felt wretched, although we could still ‘talk’, but his ‘speech’ grew rapidly weaker with the distance. I stumbled upstairs and fell into bed, uncaring for a change of his progress, just knowing that I had to switch my brain off for a while.
A few hours later, my brother got up and left me sleeping. I didn’t go down to breakfast, and Dad said that if I couldn’t be bothered to appear he couldn’t be bothered to wake me. Apparently Sean came up later and I was still dead to the world. He assumed I was ill, and left me. Dad came up to investigate his comments and shook me awake. I was very groggy. It was nearly half past eight.
“Are you all right, Aidan?”
“You should get up if you’re not ill.”
“Nah… too tired.”
“Why? You’re not usually like this.”
“Ahhhh… Dad… leave me alone, please.”
I think it was the ‘please’ that persuaded him that I might be contracting flu or something, and he left me alone after that. The next thing I knew it was eleven in the morning. I felt awful, and really ashamed of myself for sleeping so late and missing so much time. The feeling of ‘awful’ resolved itself in my mind as a persistent call from Ben, who was anxious that I wasn’t reacting. It seemed that, with practice, this ‘calling’ business over distance was getting a bit easier. But not when we were both exhausted. He sounded fine, awake, anxious. I was still confused, groggy, turgid. But I managed to say ‘hi’ and tell him I’d just woken.
By the time I’d dragged myself through a wash and snatched a bowl of cereal he was there. There was no one else around. We were about to go to the shops or somewhere, or even help in our fields with whatever needed doing, when there was a knock at the door. And before I could open it, the smith entered noisily, uninvited, and was surprised when he saw we two together.
“Aha. The two chosen ones I see. And both together, too. Very pally.”
He is not genuine, I heard. He is using his voice. If he was real he’d be able to understand us.
Ok, ok. We’d been told not to trust him.
Armoured by our shared knowledge and the fact that I’d outwitted him once, I asked him how we could help him.
“I suppose you’ve been up to the Grove and have checked on progress there, have you? And how many babies are growing there, can you tell me?”
I thought fast. “But surely. You as the chosen one must know the answer to that better than we do.”
“How do you know if you’ve not been there?”
“But we have. We can see nothing, but you with your experience must be able to.”
I hoped my face was as guileless as my voice.
“So you’ve been there, have you? When?”
“Earlier this morning.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“We took good care not to let anyone know we were around. I mean, it’s a bit more personal for me, isn’t it… sir, and I didn’t want anyone apart from Ben there, and he was only for moral support.”
Sorry, Ben. You know I don’t mean that.
“Hmmm. Well, let me know when you see something.”
He was about to march out again.
“And will you do the same… sir, please?”
He glared at me and left.
The more I see him, the more I hate him, said Ben.
I never have liked him. He once used to look at me… in… well… some way. And it made my flesh crawl.
I never meant to think it out loud, but the memory just came to me of how he had made me take him in to me, before I took in the other boys on that fateful Friday. Ben’s dislike of the man had communicated itself to me, strengthening my own dislike, and my mind rebelled at what I had had to do. Ben looked at me in horror.
He made you do that?
Oh… come here… you poor, poor boy…
And I was still in his arms, my tears dried by that time, when my father and brothers appeared on the doorstep ready for lunch. They never saw us, though.