I must be getting older, I thought. Our schoolteachers had organised a rare trip to the mainland for those of us who were old enough. It was put forward as a Remote Study trip, whatever that means, but to us it was a chance of a lifetime to see what really happened in the rest of the country. After all, many of us, including myself, had never been off the Island in our lives — indeed, some had never even been more than a few miles from the Village. In school they had had to teach us about how people live their lives in the big cities; how people treated each other so badly there, how they stole from each other, sometimes fought and maimed and killed each other. And how it was all probably due to the fact that people had to travel long distances to get to natural surroundings and peace; the sort of thing we took for granted.
At least, that’s what we were told. I only half believed it. I mean, what would be the point of actually killing someone who was one of your own Village? And as to natural surroundings, well… they were a bit too natural for me at times. I wouldn’t mind living in a place which was more exciting, when you could keep dry, and where you didn’t always come in during winter with your boots heavy with mud. No, it sounded exiting to me, and I was really beside myself when I was told that our class and the two above us would be going. The government had agreed to pay the bulk of the cost in the interests of education — a necessity in view of the Island’s current poverty.
I broke our — Ben’s and my — agreement that we wouldn’t ‘shout’ to each other in school. When we had done so at the beginning it had caused all sorts of problems because we couldn’t ‘talk’ to each other and listen to the teachers at the same time.
We’re all going on a Remote Study trip!
Shhh! I’ve got to concentrate.
But we’re going to the mainland! Are your class going? Are you coming too?
And that was all. He told me afterwards I’d interrupted as the teacher was actually talking to him, and he made a complete mess of the answer. It had happened before. Hence the agreement.
But later in the day we were all writing essays, and suddenly there he was, in my mind.
Aidan… we’re going too! All the way for two weeks! Yeahhhh…!
I was so happy I could have hugged him then and there. In fact I did later, but not until we were well out of school and out of sight. Why did I always feel so safe, so secure and happy when our arms went around each other?
And yes, of course we had kept checking on our children. Every week, in fact, and sometimes during the week as well, although we never stayed long there then. It was too difficult to get up for school if we did. And the progress? Well, the mounds seemed to be getting more pronounced, but we weren’t sure because it was always a bit dark despite the spirit light that kept us company while we were there. We looked keenly for any sign of anything else, like sprouting foliage or something, but there was nothing. We were more or less satisfied with the answers we had been given about our ‘offspring’ and asked no more. And no other signs had appeared to us; we had not seen the stags again.
But we knew that there, of all places, we could be alone with each other, and our love seemed strongest there, and all the week’s unspoken experiences were shared there. I was always worried that Ben might start treating the whole thing as a game, and go cold on me, but he caught the drift of my mind and was really quite indignant, upset that I could even think of such a thing. So I was reassured, and apologetic, and loved him the more. And we showed our love to each other, yet again, with the special parts of our bodies, and our mouths, and everywhere else that we wanted.
We never, ever tired of each other.
The week before the trip we discussed how best to reassure the Spirits that we had not abandoned our children. Funny, isn’t it, how even then, as a thirteen year old and a fifteen year old, that we quite happily called them that, and accepted that they would be just that. We went up to the Grove in the dead of night, as usual, stripped happily at the end of the wood and dropped our clothes, and were talking quietly — using voices — as we walked onwards, hand in hand as usual. So engrossed were we that had anyone been following us we would have been unaware of them.
That fact became obvious later.
We were just ducking down to enter the tunnel when we checked: There was no light from the Grove at all. This worried us as we had never wanted for light there or within ever before. But then there came a whistle, the sort that young men make after young women. We froze.
Who is it?
Don’t know. Have they seen us?
Don’t know. Keep still.
But they had. The beams of two torches shone at us, showing off our nakedness to the intruders.
As they came up to us, and I cursed myself for not being more wary, we could hear by the comments about us that it was the blacksmith and Steve. I felt sick. Steve was the one who was making the comments about our bodies and our holding hands. Hastily we parted. What did they want?
“A nice night for a romantic walk, boys?” continued the lout. The smith said nothing. I felt I could happily hit him.
“We’ll follow you into the Grove, lads,” said the smith. “Go on. We’ll be just behind you.”
“We weren’t going in,” Ben said, as positively as he could, naked and facing two clothed people.
“You were. And even if you weren’t, you are now.”
“You’ll have to make us.” Where I got the courage to say that, I don’t know. But I wished I hadn’t when Steve’s arms reached out to Ben and held them in a full nelson up behind his back. Ben shouted, although his mind said that it was more in shock than pain. Although it was hurting.
But it was when Steve’s free hand felt down Ben’s back, over his bottom and made to go underneath that I suddenly shouted out. “All right, all right… we’ll go in. Just leave him alone… NOW!”
I’m sure the last word wasn’t in my voice. But I couldn’t bear the thought of someone else tainting my friend by touching him there. It would somehow spoil… well: it wasn’t logical to me, either.
The tone of my voice stilled him, and almost as if he was fighting against his own muscles he let Ben go. Rather than face him again, Ben ducked and vanished under the tunnel, something that surprised me since I thought he’d have waited to make sure I was all right. But I needn’t have worried.
Come after me, Aidan. HE’s waiting for us and is going to sort them out.
Need you ask?
To bend down and duck under the branches that formed the tunnel, naked, with two people behind me who I hated for their attitude, and who I thought had unhealthy designs on me, was almost more difficult than stepping out of the Village Hall naked to face the Villagers. Someone staring at your naked bum like that when you can’t weave out of the way, or even stand upright to hide its innermost secrets makes you feel totally exposed. But I made myself do it. I went through that tunnel quicker than I ever had before. Ben was some way ahead of me, and was standing waiting as I straightened up beside him.
Now what happens? They’re going to see... oh!
The two stags were standing opposite us, hidden from the tunnel exit as we were. If young male deer can look fierce and uncompromising, that’s what they were. I was awed. I just hoped the two who were following us would be too. As in slow motion I heard the smith’s approach, and as he entered the clearing he tripped and fell heavily. Steve was immediately behind him and couldn’t stop in time, and tripped over the man’s feet to land on top of him.
Although the fall was heavy, it wasn’t likely to have injured either of them. The ground was soft. But there they stayed, completely immobile. There was something odd… yes — One of Steve’s legs was still in the air. It hadn’t fallen naturally as it would had he completed the fall. Realisation started to dawn and I looked at the two stags with a grin starting on my face. As my face cleared, the light we had welcomed on all our other visits swelled out, and at last we could see the Grove properly, and the two stags.
THEY WILL RECOVER. THEY WILL NOT BOTHER YOU. THEY WILL NOT REMEMBER WHY THEY CAME HERE.
I don’t know why I used my voice. I knew whatever it was could understand my every thought, probably better than Ben.
“Thank you for doing that.”
THEY ARE NO LONGER WANTED HERE. THEY ARE UNTRUSTWORTHY.
“They are not nice people.” This was Ben.
THEY WILL NOT TROUBLE YOU WHEN YOU ARE HERE.
A pause. I was digesting what was meant, and realising the power behind the words. I thought I would leave that there.
“We are being sent away for two weeks and will not be able to visit our… er… them.”
IT IS KNOWN. IT IS FOR YOUR BENEFIT IN YOUR FUTURE. AND NECESSARY FOR THE BENEFIT OF YOUR CHILDREN. AND YES, IT IS GOOD THAT YOU REGARD THEM THUS.
“Oh… er… good.”
THEY WILL BE LOOKED AFTER. THEY WILL WANT FOR NOTHING. BUT GIVE YOUR LOVE TO THEM NOW. AND AS SOON AS YOU RETURN FROM YOUR ABSENCE, VISIT THEM AGAIN AND DO THE SAME.
What did he mean? Why were the stags disappearing? Why was I once again alone with Ben? Dear Ben… my friend through everything, whom I loved… loved… Is that what he meant? But the smith and Steve were there. I took Ben over the centre of the Grove and as soon as the seven saplings hid us the knowledge of the two intruders vanished from my mind.
And there, by the rounding hummocks that had something to do with our children, we lay again. And became close, and showed each other our love and trust yet again. And this time we must have been so aware of each other’s likes and needs that hands darted everywhere, on thighs, on stomachs, on faces, on the little nipples that are so sensitive and which seemed to have grown on each of us along with our penises… and on the delicate testicles in their sac of skin, and on the wonderful smooth thing that is the penis.
Deeper than ever, this time, was the welling for our seed, and so intense the feeling of pleasure and love and release that I think we both passed out for a time. Certainly I remember waking, and remembering that we had to get back, that there were two others who, despite the Spirit, might waken at any time. Reluctantly I roused Ben, who was still lying by my side, all but touching, with his beautiful, peaceful, young, sleeping expression. The eyes opened languidly, and I was rewarded by his delightful, guileless smile; the expression that says above all else: ‘Ah good, it’s you. I hoped it would be because I love you’.
My heart was full as we once again paid our respect to our sleeping, unborn family and crossed the Grove, stepped over the still-recumbent forms of our unwelcome visitors, and left. We were quieter, more aware, on the way out, wondering if they would be allowed to wake and pursue us before we reached safety. But there were no signs of anything. We donned our clothes, despite it being still the dead of night, and he saw me home. I vowed to myself that I would see him home one day, but tonight I was just too tired.
Fortunately my brother kicked me in the morning.
Fortunately, because I had to get up to join the Island’s only coach which was to take the three classes to the tiny settlement on the coast which we laughingly called the international seaport. All that was there was a quay, some houses and a pub, but a sense of humour is a wondrous thing. Ben was on the coach first, and despite jeers about having kids as friends had kept the seat next to him free for me. I could ‘hear’ him calling anxiously as I struggled up to the old vehicle with the family’s only suitcase filled with all that my father, brothers and I thought I’d need for a fortnight away. I sank thankfully into the space beside him.
Are you all right?
Couldn’t get up. Tired.
We should have arranged it so you slept at mine last night. I’m nearer the school.
Yeah. But we didn’t.
Dunno why I didn’t think of it. I’ve got a bed to myself, after all.
I couldn’t help thinking about sharing his room, maybe even his bed… that would have been nearly as good as lying with him in the magic of the Grove. Beneath my regulation school shorts (yes still, at thirteen), I could feel my body reacting, and unbidden I looked down at his long trousers, to where the usual interesting swelling was now a very obvious bulge. I didn’t dare do what I wanted — people might be watching. I could feel confusion coming through to me. But then something occurred to me.
Where are we sleeping?
Eh… on the boat at this rate. I ‘m so tired I could sleep anywhere.
No, I mean when we’re in the City.
Hostel, I think. Or on a floor.
Oh. Damn. I wondered if we’d be in a hotel, so I could share with him. But he’d ‘heard’ me. The head swivelled, and the look he gave me…
I wish we could, too. More than you know. But we’ll be together.
I do know, because it’s what I want to, too. And yes, we will.
“I thought you two were meant to be friends?”
I jolted into the world. The world of audible speech and classmates.
“You two. You’ve not said a thing to each other since you sat down. You argued?”
“No… ” I searched round for something suitably crushing to say to the form’s busybody. “We just don’t rabbit as much as you, that’s all. Listen to it! You can’t hear yourself think above this, let alone have a chat.”
The excitement had produced all the noise. Nobody else was as tired as we two, but we had the best of reasons.
“Anyway,” Ben’s deeper voice chimed in, “we’re saving conversation for the things that really matter.”
“Oooh,” she said. “Listen to him! And what might that be?”
“When’s the next food arriving?” he joked. She laughed and walked away.
We’d better be careful, he said.
The journey was uneventful as journeys go, except that to us it was an event in itself being the first time we’d travelled overseas. Well… made the 90 minute crossing to the mainland, anyway. There at the vast port, so different from the quay we had embarked from, were cranes and buildings and noise, all on such a vast scale — to us — that even the noisiest of us was silenced. It wasn’t fear. Not really. It was just… overwhelming. And you couldn’t stop it. It was the noise which got to me most. That and the fact that none of the workers or onlookers paid any notice to us at all, nor returned our smiles or normal greetings. In fact some looked at us as if we were mad. We were ushered to an incredibly smart looking coach whose driver took our cases and stowed them for us. And we set off to the City.
Some found their voices, and shouts of amazement and astonishment and near-disbelief rang round the coach. We moved so fast that it was impossible to take it all in. I wished we could have stopped every few yards to take in the sights and to get used to buildings so high and so big.
Even mentally Ben and I were silent. But occasionally one of us would draw the other’s attention to something.
We stopped outside a vast, old building with a sign that said ‘University Entrance’. And then I knew I was becoming a man. Me… at University!
Only for two weeks, Ben debunked me.
That’s good enough.
“Right, children… ” (That brought me back down to earth). “We take our cases inside. Because there are still some University students here we are having to double up on rooms. You will find in each room a bed, together with an extra mattress on the floor. Now, in your year groups, pair up, and you’ll be given a room.
In our year groups! My heart skipped a beat. Somehow I had to share with him. We staggered into the foyer, and I stood slightly behind Ben as we had ‘thought’ to each other. But of course I was spotted.
“I said ‘in your year groups, Aidan. Not two years above them.”
“But Miss, we’re friends. We want to share.”
“You may want to, but I’m not going to run the risk —”
I wondered what on earth she was going to say.
“ — of the older ones keeping the young ones awake until late.”
I bristled. If only she knew.
“It’s all right, Miss. I go to sleep early anyway.”
“No, Ben. I can’t allow it. Go to the end of the line and don’t be difficult.”
“It’s really all right miss. HE’LL BE BETTER OFF WITH ME.”
I looked at him astonished. What…?
I… I… don’t know. Shhh, she’s turning back. Oh damn. Now I’m for it.
“On second thoughts, Ben, you two are good friends. He’ll be better off with you.”
He looked at her, open mouthed. So did I. He recovered first.
“Thanks, Miss. I’ll look after him.”
I dodged behind him, confused, and ready for one of the biggest belly laughs of my life. Fortunately the confusion got to me first, and I made no noise.
How did you do that?
I didn’t. He must have done, but used my voice.
My heart rose again, to singing proportions. We were to be together. To sleep. In the same room. Not in the same bed, but in the same room. To my horror I felt my body starting to react to the idea. Now, sitting down in class, with a desk in front of you, where the folds in your shorts ride up and disguise matters, to go stiff is just about Ok. But when you’re standing up, your shorts are old and a bit too small for you, any increase in size shows immediately.
Quick. My suitcase. I reached down to grab for it so that at least I had an excuse to turn my back on the rest of them. I might even be able to hold it in front of me for long enough to hide it. As I bent down, so did Ben. He wanted his suitcase too. Was he suffering the same reaction? No, surely not at the thought of me. But as we each bent our heads coincided, hard, and like a comedy routine at the village hall we each staggered back, clutching our temples.
There was laughter all round, to my embarrassment. “Ben, I said he’d be better off with you. That’s hardly a good start in impressing me accordingly, is it?” More laughter.
“Sorry, Miss,” we said together.
All this had made my body behave itself again, but I took up station behind Ben, just in case.
At last she was happy we were all allocated, and gave us room numbers. We were on the third floor, in a corner of the building, as we found when we looked out of the window. Our house on the Island had two floors, and apart from climbing the trees on the Island I’d never been up so high. That was another novelty. We looked at the room, at the bed and the mattress, then at each other. He sighed.
I never thought we’d actually be alone together.
Nor did I, especially after that performance downstairs. I still don’t know how you managed it.
I told you, it was nothing to do with me. Well, apart from using my voice.
Well. it was effective.
There was a pause.
“How are we going to do this?”
I think he realised that my change into normal voice was an indication that I was embarrassed.
Despite all that we’d gone through, the love we’d shown each other, the times we’d been naked in each other’s arms and given each other the ultimate pleasure the human body can enjoy, I still realised that I was thirteen, in a hotel room, along with a boy of fifteen. It was all official, and for once I was the junior partner.
He looked at me, surprised, then his face softened. “You’re not going off me, are you?”
“No… no. Don’t be silly.”
“Then what I hope will happen is that we’ll go to bed in the bed. Together. Just as if we were lying by our children in the Grove.”
And at that I knew I had to throw my arms round him. And like they do in the romantic books I’d read once or twice in the dentist’s waiting room, we sank slowly onto the bed, looking deep into the mirrors of the soul that are the eyes.
But we had little time for rest, or anything else. There was a knock at the door. “Come on, Ben, er…”
“Aidan.” I heard whispered.
“…and Aidan. We’re all going down to this meal. You’ll be late.”
“Thanks, Ruaridh. I think we’ve more or less unpacked now.”
Quick. Dump all your clothes in that cupboard. Go on — doesn’t matter how. You can sort it out later.
I did as he said, just upending my open suitcase on the bottom of the cupboard. He did the same. The cases went on the top of the wardrobe as we’d been told, and we rushed for the door and the meal.
Afterwards we were given a coach tour round the city. The wonder of the buildings wore off only a little, but at least now we were used to how strange everything was, and normal conversation returned. Except when a police car overtook us, siren blaring, and we thought we should all follow it in case we could help. It took our guide some time to persuade us that it was quite normal here, and no one batted an eyelid. By contrast, if anyone needed help in the Village, everyone was there immediately.
We were shown some of the places we’d be taken to over the next two weeks, and told how to make the best of our time. I was intrigued by the idea that some of the buildings housed nothing but books, and longed to lose myself in one of them. With Ben, of course.
At last we returned to the hotel and a short while after that we — the youngest class — were sent to bed. Ben told me he’d wait a few minutes until the rest of them were chatting, and then follow. It was only ten minutes later that the bedroom door opened and he stood there, looking at me as I lay on top of the bed covers.
I’ve been looking forward to this all day, he said. The fact that this time he hadn’t used speech made his words and his presence that much more special, more of the Spirit, so that I started to feel the lift of my mood as I would as we entered the Grove. He came to sit by me on the bed, and still just looked at me.
“You know, this is the first time we’ve been indoors and on our own, ever.”
I looked at him. It was true, but did it matter?
“Every other time, there’s been someone else around, or someone expected back. We’ve never been totally free of other people.”
“But here there are people all round us.”
“But they’re not in here, and nobody’s going to come in, are they.”
At last I could see what he meant. We were private. I smiled. “And we’re going to be private every night for two weeks!”
He smiled back, and put his hand on my head. I reached out and tried to pull his shirt out from his trousers.
And that’s how it started. First the shirt, then the shoes and socks, and then, as he lay back, content, I loosened the belt and, trembling, laid my hand on the top of his zip…
I’d never seen him in just underwear before apart from at the village hall that first time, and then I was in no state to notice anything. But now, he looked so… well… potent, dressed in nothing but a pair of bulging white briefs, that I almost wondered if this was the same boy. The muscles across his chest and stomach were very visible, made strong by the gym classes at school and holiday and weekend work on the farm. His thighs were long, and slim, seeming strong without being obscenely muscle clad, and the calves followed the same pattern: healthy, capable, shapely.
For as long as I wanted, he let me lie by his side, looking at him, at every part of him. From the face that I knew and loved, knowing so well the mind that had shaped it, the chest and stomach that undulated with the muscles underneath, the flat belly and the bulge below that I knew could give us each so much physical and mental pleasure, the legs, the feet that could run rings round me… I looked at him, discovering the little things I’d missed, learning better the things I thought I knew…
What did this young god see in me, a whispy, weak, boring thirteen year old?
Courage, sense, more courage, intelligence, a beautiful face, a beautiful nature and character, and a love for me that at the moment seems so strong I can hardly believe it.
Damn. Was I really ‘talking’ so loudly?
Yes, you are, and I love you for it. I don’t know what there is about me that makes you love me, but I’m glad of it, whatever it is.
I couldn’t let him just talk to me without doing anything, so I twisted my body so that my arm could go over him and my face could approach his on a level. We kissed unashamedly, knowing that our love was real and this was the natural way of both showing and enjoying it. And after a time, when we had rolled on the narrow bed to explore all the positions possible to embrace each other, he started taking off my clothes too, and I lay there and let him. It felt foreign, wrong somehow, to be stripped of my clothing as if I were once again a tired small boy of seven. But love and common sense told me that it was also a matter of trusting him absolutely, that I had done it to him, and that we loved each other so he could do anything he wanted.
He, too, stopped when my pants were all I had left, and he, too, just looked at me. It felt so… what? I hesitate to use the word ‘foreign’ again, but I can think of no other. ‘Unusual’ or ‘out of the ordinary’ are too weak. ‘Wrong’, as a word, was itself wrong. Nothing that had happened felt wrong, although my upbringing was telling me it was against all that we had had drummed into us as kids, by families and by our church. It was so much the complete opposite of what living the years between eight and now had prepared me for that I shivered in apprehension. But how could anything that still felt so right, so fulfilling, after all the mental layers had been peeled away along with most of our clothes, be wrong? I was still worried about was to happen next, though it was obviously nothing like the same level of worry I had felt that day when I had to step naked out of the village hall…
Or was it delight that made me shiver? Delight that he actually wanted to look at me just as I had looked at him? As he scanned me, my body decided it was just that, and I stirred inside my scant clothing. Unlike his adult briefs, my loose pants were a bit like shorts with a slit in the front for relieving myself. They were things of childhood, about as attractive or as appealing as a wet weekend. But still he looked at me.
Eventually, of course, our last barriers were removed, his by me and mine by him, and we lay side by side, propped up on elbows, just looking. And I couldn’t believe my fortune in finding someone who was such a friend in all the accepted ways, and was so wonderfully good looking too.
Our heavy sighs of contentment and continuing astonishment that all this was really happening were simultaneous, and we both laughed. “I am so lucky… ” we each started, and then laughed again. Sounds corny, doesn’t it? But that’s what happened. And then our looks got more serious again, in a loving sort of way, and our hands started the ancient dance of pleasure on each other’s bodies.
When it was almost too late, I realised that when a boy releases his seed, the results can go anywhere. We were on a bed where we would have to sleep not just tonight but for the fortnight, at the end of which someone would have to look at the sheets, remove them, and wash them.
And probably complain.
As the start of our friendship had required me to catch his seed in my mouth, I interrupted my actions — much to his consternation — to shift so I could do so again. That left him in a position to do the same, and if it was the first time he had done that then I was glad. In fact it was. He would now have some of my body in him, just as I had some of his.
The trouble was that I was ready first. I could feel the familiar sensations quickly building up inside me, and I couldn’t even warn him before it happened. His mouth was eager, though, and gentle as he helped me to my release. His was mounting as mine had all but spent itself, and to continue for him took all the self-control I could muster. Not only did I have to make my body react to his physical movements, but I had to make my mind accept what my orgasm had suddenly made foreign to me to accept. You know how it is: nature says to a man ‘you’ve done your job, now rest, and to make sure you do it you won’t be interested in anything to do with sex for the next few moments/minutes/hour.’ But, with some distaste that I regretted, knowing the love we shared and realising he’d just done the same for me, I continued until he had his turn to reach the sudden peak of arousal. The wet warmth in my throat suddenly restored my desire for it all to happen, and my momentary lapse of interest was cured.
We slept well, and warmly, and together. And in the morning, waking up with each other was as natural to us as if we had been doing so all our lives. His smile to me was the welcome any day needed, the more so since we were on unfamiliar territory, and I know from his mind that my smile to him was as important. We moved closer and lay for what seemed a short time together, embracing, our bodies touching everywhere we could contrive. We could have stayed there all morning but for the pressure on us to relieve ourselves and a sudden knock on the door and the shout that we were to be late for breakfast. It was a night and a morning that were to be repeated each day of the two weeks we were away, and as the stay progressed we grew ever more despondent that there was no way we could continue to live together like this. On the Island the only times we could be together in that way would be at the Grove.
Days were full, and interesting. As he was older we were sometimes parted since his curriculum was different from mine. But generally we were inseparable, and one or two comments started to be made. We countered them by pointing to others who chose to go around together.
“Yes,” said one commentator, “but they don’t sleep together!”
My blood ran cold, and I thought I must have been going red. But Ben put him in his place.
“Were you involved in the Grove? Did you ever have to do what we had to do? No? Nor were any of the others. Those that did are in some ways set apart by having to do it. So we look out for each other. And because what we did was for the Village, we’re looking out for you, too.”
There were no further incidents.
Toward the end of our stay our group, the younger boys, were let loose on the City’s reference library. I had some looking up to do for projects we had been set, but because it was all quite simple and we weren’t allowed outside until later anyway, I decided to do some exploring on my own. I wondered if there was anything in the ‘Folklore’ section about what had been happening to us, and to the Island. After the usual dead ends, all of which were non-committal to the extent of making me wonder if there was something the author wasn’t saying, I found the name of a book in a bibliography. When I looked for it on the shelf there was no sign of it. Cursing my luck, I looked round to see could possibly be using it . There were very few people in the library anyway. The direct approach seemed the best solution, so I asked the librarian.
“It’s in reserve stock,” she said. “I’ll have to get it for you.”
When it came, it was large, dusty and daunting. I settled myself with it in a remote corner of the library and flicked through to see if I could find anything of interest, but it all seemed so wordy that I was about to give up. But I tried the index, and there was our island mentioned. Eagerly I turned to the page.
‘… has a much gentler tradition. The spirit observed by the inhabiting peasants is purely that of the savage woods, so say the people, although after other legends we had heard it was scarce to be believed. But the rough blacksmith, the keeper of the so-called mystery, appeared to have an almost Christian honesty about him; there was little guile in him that was evident to our enquirers. He was abetted in his endeavours by a young boy, scarce fifteen, who treated him with some reverence, rather as if the artisan were actually the senior religious figure in the notion of the spirit world.
Their belief is similar to that which pertains elsewhere. At need, the Spirits must have contact with homo sapiens, without whose presence they are prevented from offering young of themselves, in which case the villagers believe that the Island will become sterile, be incapable of sustaining life, and they would be cast away from it. So strong is the belief that the blacksmith became quite agitated when the suggestion was made that the observation of Christianity would be the more effective way of ensuring the same end.
The contact that the sprit is held to demand from the peasants is similar to others that we found on nearby islands. The young boys of the village are examined to ensure that one is suitable, by being inviolate, and the product of a family extended to some seven or more siblings, and he is then required to make public of himself with others but only a few years his senior, as best as he can at so early an age, and to proceed with these others in a similar state to the appropriate place, and once there he is forced to inseminate the ground of himself and one other close companion whilst others watch and perform a like action nearby. Again, once this is completed the place is left, but in ensuing days and weeks he and his companion are made to return there to ensure that the insemination has been successful. We were told by the artisan that it always was, and that it was in no small measure the result of the selection process which requires the candidate to be intimately examined for some years before he is ready, to ensure that he is both physically capable and intactus.
Once the success of the operation is held to be assured, doubtless by the planting of suitable weeds by the blacksmith, the boy and his chosen companion are compelled to live together as ‘man’ and ‘wife’, despite their being of the same sex, and eventually a family of some six male babies is delivered to them, and it becomes their duty to succour them until they are ripe for disposal into the community. We were unable to discover what arrangements were made for the provision of the infants since an insistence was maintained that they grew from the ground which had been inseminated, presumably as a mandrake might be found. No one would furnish us with further details, and an almost surly countenance met our insistence that we be told in order to provide scientific information. Neither were we able to uncover further details, nor find any past ‘progeny’, nor discover what the purpose of such progeny was held to be in detail, nor where the place was from whence they ‘sprang’; and although we hinted publicly that we were well used to histories of the subsequent violent disposal of such miraculous children in other such lawless locations, such suggestions were ignored by all the community.
The island of Fechan, on the other hand…’
I stopped, fascinated and horrified by the suggestion that the children might be ‘disposed of’ in some way, even on a different island. How could anyone go to all that trouble, go through all that — and yes, of course I recognised what I’d been made to go through in the old fashioned wordiness of the Victorian author. And how typical it seemed to me, as an Islander, that an outsider should refuse to believe what he’d been told. I thought for a bit about what the book hinted at, and then decided to read on.
‘The island of Fechan, on the other hand, the horrors of human sacrifice…’
This really became too much to me, and my mind rebelled.
Ben… BEN!!!… For God’s sake… BEN!”
I must have been “shouting” loudly. The response was quick, but irritated; one of the few times I had heard him so.
Aidan… I can’t concentrate on you now… you are so distant, and we’re in a lecture… what is it? You sound upset…
They’re going to kill our babies.
They’re… Look, you’ve got to come over here.
I can’t… Oh… it’s no good…
And abruptly, as if a door had closed, he had gone. I tried again, but could hear him no more. After some agonising I read on. And after a few dark hints, a description of the ceremony of seeding the ground similar to ours, the growth and ‘harvesting’ of the babies and their early development with the inseminating couple, the book continued.
‘… and when the children are not yet five years, before they are fully aware of the proceedings that surround them, and before they are of an age when normal society regards them as full people in their own right, they are returned to the land from which, it is said by the village elders, they came. The circumstances of the ceremony are so appalling, even given that those who suffer it are not just prepubescent but, as has been indicated, not valid members of society, that anyone of a remotely delicate disposition is advised to read no further and to concentrate instead upon page 448.
‘From the young man and the boy whose imposed duty it has been to nurture these apparently earth-born infants, the entire brood is taken. Naturally the two, in spite of their gender and youth, are concerned at the separation, and inevitably form a part of the procession as it moves from the village into the forest. At the start of the trees the order is given that the infants should be stripped of their clothing, something that causes but a little concern to them, being young and tender. But the two accompanying youths are also obliged to expose themselves, and if they refuse are physically restrained from following the procession further. Apparently the village elder also removes his clothing, but this appears unlikely in our estimation..
‘Inevitably the youths comply, just as any natural father would in order to ensure the welfare of his family. They remove their entire clothing in public, to their undoubted humiliation, and follow their charges through the wood.
‘At the so-called religious site altars have been set up. Each of the infants, unaware of what is to happen, but inured by soft words of comfort and descriptions of ceremony from the elder, is placed, face upwards on one such. What occurs to the mind of the two youths during this procedure can only be imagined. Perhaps as they are themselves under humiliation they restrain themselves at the back of the site. It may be that other elders forcibly restrain them.
‘Behind each of the altars one of the elders stations himself. The words (we could neither find nor obtain details of what these chants contain, even after considerable threats and bribery.) are spoken. At the end of the verbalisation there is a silence, and slowly, above each altar, a knife is brought from the robes of the accompanying elder. Before any of the victims or, presumably, the appointed guardians youths, have an opportunity to register the sight, the knife is… ’
I was caught up completely in what I was reading. My mind, always affected by books and writings to the extent that I was always disorientated when I surfaced from reading, was now standing, bodiless, appalled, powerless, in that small clearing that was ours, where our sons were growing. Despite myself I could feel my gorge rising, as if to vomit, to expel from myself the very presence of the awful thing that was to be visited on the earth-sons of the Island. My mind rebelled. My eyes seemed to be rolling up into the back of my head. Darkness seemed to grow around me. A corner of my mind registered that our babies were in danger, that they were going to be sacrificed on an altar.
I passed out.
It was fortunate that I had chosen such a quiet corner where I was out of sight of the librarian and of the others in the library who, I’d noticed, were more interested in reading newspapers than books. When I regained my senses, groggy and with a headache, nobody had noticed me. There was no crowd of anxious people around me. I was still alone with the book. Could I bring myself to take it up where I had left off? I raised myself carefully to a sitting position again. The book had gone. I blinked, feeling sick again. I had to know…
And then I realised what had happened. As I had slid forward on the desk I had pushed the book ahead of me. It had fallen to the floor. I bent down — carefully — to look at it.
It was just about intact, but the spine had come away from the cover at one end; hardly surprising as it was heavy and old and weak. The pages that were open were creased, but fortunately not torn. As carefully as I could I picked it up, closing it as I did, and massaged it a bit as if that would cure it. The damage to the spine was still there, but the creased pages were out of sight.
Well, I had to continue with the history, appalling or not. By this time my mind had registered that the writer was talking about Fechan, wherever that was, and not my home, so I felt able to continue. I’d forgotten the page number, so had to look up the name of our island again.
I skipped through the reports of the ceremonies on our own home island and turned the page to find the section about the barbarities on Fechan.
It wasn’t there.
At first I thought that a page had come out when the book fell, and searched the floor around for the missing piece of paper. Nothing. Then I looked at the page numbers in puzzlement.
There was no break.
But the flowery, Victorian prose had flowed on continuously, speaking of our Island, then Fechan. A paragraph separated them, certainly, but no more. I skipped back to the account of my home, and read through it again. At its end was a totally different article, about some village on the mainland. Of Fechan, nothing.
I looked frantically for Fechan in the index. I sought “sacrifice” in the index.
I pinched myself, but was obviously still awake, sitting with a headache in a dim, dusty mainland reference library with a puzzled frown on my face.
“Five minutes to closing time please. Five minutes please!” What? What was the time? I was late! In a panic I looked back at the book. Something in my mind shouted out “page 448” to me. Why? Ah yes; that was where those of ‘a delicate nature’ were told to refer in order to avoid the horrors of Fechan. I hurried to page 448. “Inverness” started the heading. I skipped back a page. No. Witchcraft in Braemar. I scanned the pages hurriedly.
“Closing time please. Closing time please!”
Damn… damn… I couldn’t leave it. But the librarian was approaching determinedly, and I remembered the damage to the spine. Damn again. How could I disguise it? I rose hurriedly, closing the book as I did so.
“Sorry,” I said before she could speak. “I was so — er — interested, that I didn’t hear the time. Shall I put it back on your desk for you?”
“Yes please, but be very careful. It’s old and very valuable.”
I hoped my face wasn’t as red as it felt.