It was later in the evening when we two decided, despite the tiredness brought on by the journey, the shock of having been given a house, and a sort of lovelorn male housemaid, that we’d better go and see to our ‘family’. Carl had gone to bed, after many thanks and reassurances, and we were alone. We needed no words, but crept quietly from the house — and yes, I knew it was ours and we had no need for caution, but we needed to be alone and weren’t sure if Carl would take it into his head to follow us.
Once past the old lady’s cottage we looked at each other.
We don’t need clothes now.
No. We didn’t really need them at all, the house is so near the wood.
Better to wear them past Miss Flude’s. Don’t want to give her a stroke!
If I hadn’t recently heard the joke about the two old ladies and the naked man (one had a heart attack and the other had a stroke. You know the one?) it would have been all right. But I had heard it, and gave a shout of laughter which was quite unintentional. Quicker than seemed possible a light appeared in the old lady’s house and I could see the curtains quivering.
Better not strip off here, after all.
Twit! Why did you shout out?
I reminded him about the joke. I suppose I shouldn’t have found it funny under the circumstances, but then I was very tired, and my mind was off guard.
We waited until the light went out again, then crept past in the shadows.
It was cold in the woods, particularly with the breeze against our bare flesh. By the time we reached the Glade we were shivering and certainly it was in my mind that we should have waited for this until the warmth of the following day. But as usual there was a surprise waiting for us. At the end of the approach tunnel we could see light, and cautiously emerged into the open space fearing an intruder with a torch. But no.
The air there was warm, and dry; a total contrast with the damp chill of the wood. There was again silvery light around us as if the moon was favouring that one clearing, yet it was a warmer light than the moon, the shadows were diffuse, not sharp as with moonlight. And there was a welcoming that we could feel there, yet not identify. And that joyousness was present too, that we had felt so many times before. Our eyes met, and we embraced, and to experience his body against mine again in that place brought it home to me that this was home. This was where we belonged. This somehow was where our love was strongest. And although our intention was to reunite with our offspring, the cocooning magic — I can explain it no better — of the place pressed us together until once again our bodies had reacted and we were conscious only of each other and our physical need to give and receive each other’s physical love. For ages we lay there, every movement of his body against mine a delight. And the intimacy of our touches with hands, with lips, with our excited bodies sent thrill after thrill through me once again
When at last we awoke, our strength recovered and our private kisses made, we made our way to the place we were both starting to regard as the Nursery. The little hummocks were there, still, and only a little bigger in height. But to me they looked more solid somehow. I looked closer. And at the top I saw it.
You know how some plants go through a growth phase where they seem to have grown hair? The hair’s there, I was taught, to be caught by the wind and so get the seed that’s attached to it to land eventually somewhere else. But here, the hair seemed coarser than the gossamer on a plant, yet not spiky like the beard on a head of barley.
It was hair.
Eagerly we looked at them all. All were alike; some brown, some a ruddy red, and one almost blond. Carefully we stroked them, one by one, not knowing why, but feeling within that some troubled spirit was stilled as we did so. Strange, because we had felt no disquiet to start with. But at the end, there was still this feeling of even deeper peace.
Are we meant to do more?
I don’t think so. They feel at peace now.
You heard them?
No, but it feels… quieter.
Ah, yes, I know what you mean.
I wish the Spirit would tell us what to do.
He will, in good time.
How do you know?
How do you know that he will?
Why did you say it, then?
I didn’t say anything.
Well, thought it then.
It never occurred to me.
But you… ah… I wonder if he used your thoughts?
When I said that I wished the Spirit would tell us what to do I felt you answer that he would in good time. But if the thought didn’t come from you it must have come from him.
I thought. ’Spose it must, then. ’Spose he will.
On our way out we once again bowed toward the ‘Nursery’ to show… What? Love? Goodwill? We never thought at the time what it might be; it just felt as if it was something we should do. And then, exhausted after one of the fullest days of our lives, we stumbled our way to our new cottage.
Quietly we let ourselves in. The stairs were opposite the door. Automatically we climbed up, and then realised we had never been above the ground floor.
Where do we sleep?
I haven’t the faintest idea. Where’s the bathroom?
Dunno that either.
I need a piss.
You had all the woods to piss in, and you had no clothes on, and you waited ’til you got home?
Didn’t seem right.
I knew what he meant.
Quietly we listened at each of the five doors. No sound.
Where’s Carl sleep?
Mentally cursing my lack of forethought I opened the leftmost door. Good: bathroom and toilet. Ben disappeared inside with a mental Yeah! Which left me to try the other doors. The first was a cupboard. The second and third had four beds in each, and suddenly I realised that this was for real.
Yes, I know, I know. With all that we’d been through I knew what was due to happen. But to see a room with cots in it just brings home the flesh and blood angle. The beings that were coming to us were real children, with children’s needs. Not some airy beings from the mythology we had become caught up in, and which was no longer mythology so far as we were concerned. These would cry at night, wet the bed, cause mischief, need to be taught… oh, everything.
Suddenly I felt awfully young and incompetent.
The toilet flushed.
I know, he said when he joined me. It’s some undertaking.
Can we cope?
Do we have a choice?
The answer was obvious. We tried the other doors, and found one with a double bed in it.
I don’t know where they MEAN us to sleep, but I know where we ARE going to sleep, he said.
Swiftly, without ceremony, we flung off our clothes and climbed into the first full-sized double bed either of us had ever been in. and there we slept in each other’s arms until a disgustingly late hour. Carl never woke us. It was the sunlight that did that. But once we realised what the time was we hurriedly rose, with no thought to savour the time in bed waking up properly as we had on the mainland. Although there was now nothing to stop us getting up late, having been expected to be active early in the morning for so long, it felt wrong to laze around.
The previous night we had automatically gone into that room because it was what we wanted. It wasn’t bad, a bit old fashioned, but it was comfortable. We wondered if that’s where we should have been. Dressed, we quietly let ourselves out and went downstairs. On the table was a pot of tea, hot and fresh, and through the open door we could hear noises from the kitchen.
Is Carl meant to be cooking for us?
No… well, I hope not. It’s wrong. We’re all in this together.
So we went into the kitchen. He was in the middle of cooking bacon.
“What are you doing, Carl?” asked Ben.
“’Cos that’s what I’m here for.”
“You’re not!” I said, hotly. “I mean, it’s nice of you, and we’ll all enjoy it, but this is a team effort…” a phrase of my father’s “… and we all do everything.”
“But I thought I was just here to help you.”
“Yes,” said Ben. “To help, please, but not to act as a sort of maid.”
Carl grinned. In the frying pan the bacon sizzled.
“But I’m meant to be a sort of nanny, the smith said.”
Ben and I looked at each other. “Sounds to me as if the smith says too much,” I said. “Yes, with so many babies we’re going to have our work cut out, but it’s a three way split, not a one-and-two. That’s the way it’s always worked in the Village, and that’s how it’s going to work here.”
“But mothers look after the family…”
“You’re not a mother. Had you noticed? And this won’t be an ordinary family. It’s a team.”
“What he means, Carl, is that we’ll all three eat together, cook together if that’s what’s wanted, and look after the babies together.” But not sleep together he added to me.
I grinned. “That’s right. So what d’you want us to do for the breakfast?”
He grinned back. “Lay the table?”
The Carl who joined us at the table was a very different Carl from the uncertain seventeen year old of the previous day.
When we had cleared away and shared the washing up, Carl showed us what the smith had planned for the layout of the bedrooms. The first of them was meant to be our room, Ben’s and mine, and in it were two single beds. We just looked at each other.
Yeah, huh. Carl said nothing about it having been unslept in.
The next two rooms, as we had discovered, were for the babies. The bathroom we knew about. “And this,” said Carl, “was specially furnished for visiting parents. When he told me I said nothing, but I more or less knew that you’d be using it.” The face was impassive, the eyes down to the carpet, but I could still hear the pain in his voice. Poor guy.
I know. I’m sorry too. For him, not for us. I wonder if there’s anything we can do?
Like what? I like Carl, but I don’t… er… I mean I’m not in love with him.
No, I know, and nor am I. And I don’t know how we can help.
Is there someone else he could have here?
Nor me. It’s got to be up to him, anyway. He’ll have to get used to the idea.
A pause. What had he said? Oh yes.
“Yeah, well…” I started.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I don’t mind, really.”
Odd, hearing words that said one thing and a tone of voice that said the opposite.
“Where d’you sleep?” I asked him.
He looked at me longingly, unable to hide the emotion from his eyes or voice. “There’s a stairway up from the kitchen that leads to the attic. There’s a room there, and another bathroom. That’s where the smith said I should sleep.”
I bristled. Why should the man tell people what to do in our house?
“No,” I said firmly.
Both the others looked at me in surprise. For the first time I hadn’t consulted with Ben before making a decision.
“You’re not living up there on your own as if you were a servant, like he wanted. You’ll have the room in the main part of the house, then we can all care for the babies. Any visitors can have the attic. Nothing wrong with that — at home I slept in the attic with my brother. What’s good enough for us is good enough for them.”
Is that a good idea?
Dunno. But he’s not going to be treated like a servant here, and certainly not if the smith told him he was.
I agree with the servant bit, but don’t you think that makes him too close to you?
He’s a friend. He’s not like you, you’re my — what?
I’m not a friend? He was mocking. I rather hoped I was!
Stop it! You know what I mean.
So long as you’re sure.
Carl was looking at us. “Are you sure? Won’t the smith mind?”
“He’s the one who said it was our house. In our house, we do as we want. We certainly do what’s best for the babies and each other. Far as I’m concerned, having you living near the babies is better for them, and certainly better for you.”
A pause. Then “Ben, I’m sorry about this…” And he put his arms round me and once again kissed the top of my head. I could tell Ben didn’t know whether to smile or be concerned. It’s all right. He’s safe.
How d’you know?
He wouldn’t do anything to get himself thrown out.
You’re probably right.
It was that evening that the world nearly fell in on us. Ben and I had been up to the Glade as usual, and the usual things had happened. I could tell Ben was not just pleased, but relieved as well. He was really worried that Carl’s constant presence might have started to sway me. It made no difference how many times I told him, by voice or thought, that so far as love went I was only interested in him. But the depths of feeling between us, and the depths of our minds that we showed in the Glade, proved that he really had no need to worry.
We had been back about fifteen minutes when there was a knock at the door. More of a bang, really. I was just going to open it when the smith barged in.
“Right,” he said as if we were still in the Village Hall that first time. “I want to know why you haven’t been to the Glade yet.”
Ben and I looked at each other like naughty schoolboys. Carl was in the kitchen.
“We’ve only just got back,” said Ben.
“You’ve been back a day.”
“I meant we’d just got back from the Glade. What — about a quarter of an hour, Aidan?”
“Don’t lie to me!” the man shouted. “Do you think I haven’t been watching? You must think I’m stupid. The whole future of the Village is resting on you, and you’re too lazy to visit the most holy place on the Island?”
“smith,” I said, my eyes blazing at him. “We went last night, in the dark. We went this afternoon, and have just got back. If you don’t believe me, ask Miss Flude. She will have heard us last night, and must have seen us this afternoon.”
A pause. “I don’t talk to Miss Flude, and anyway, I was near the Glade, watching. Nobody has been there.”
“Well, we were there. And if you don’t talk to someone in your own Village, then that is no problem of ours.”
As soon as I’d said the words I regretted it. Although I was absolutely right, no one ever spoke to the smith like that. Certainly not a thirteen year old. His eyes narrowed, and bored into me like hot coals.
In a quiet voice now, and full of menace, he hissed: “Not only do you tell me lies, you are deliberately rude to me, and after I’ve arranged this house for you, given you a friend and a servant to help you. You are an ungrateful little urchin, and were it not for the beings which I can only hope are now starting to grow up in the woods you would be out of here and off the Island too, if I had my way.” The eyes continued to bore into me, and it was only Carl’s voice at the door which broke the mood.
“Tea, you two? Oh… sorry, didn’t know you had er…” He had seen something was wrong.
“Carl,” growled the man, “Did these two go to the woods this afternoon?”
“Er… well, yes… or at least I think so. They’ve only just got back, and their shoes are muddy.”
He looked at the two pairs of shoes we had left drying in the hearth — out of habit, for there was no fire.
“How d’you know they went to the woods?”
“Well, I don’t, not really, but then they would, wouldn’t they? To look at the babies.”
Shut up, Carl. He doesn’t know about them yet, and we don’t trust him!
I thought it, as if I were ‘talking’ to Ben. And as soon as I’d done so I realised it was pointless. Carl wouldn’t be able to ‘hear’ me.
But… his face was going red, the mouth opened, the eyes looked at me. A pause. Then he looked straight back at the smith. Almost in time, he said: “…or rather, to look at where the babies should be growing.” Then the look came back, wonderingly, to me. I was confused, and worried, both by my sudden apparent ability to make him hear and by what the smith was now thinking.
“I was there, and they came nowhere near.” He was very short about it, and very sure. I had an idea. If I could get Carl to tell the smith that we’d been there the previous night, without being heard to prompt him, then perhaps…
“And, of course, they went up there last night, too…” What was this? I hadn’t ‘said’ anything to him yet. Nor had Ben — had he?
No, I’ve said nothing. It seems he can ‘hear’ you though.
“…I heard them go and followed them. It wasn’t difficult once they’d left the Village. I didn’t go into the Glade, of course; that would have been intruding. I stayed outside and…” he swallowed “…found myself going to sleep. When I woke, the place was pitch black and there was no sound. I thought they may have come to some harm, so I went in through the tunnel, and it was light in the clearing, but they’d gone. So I came back.”
Carl… weren’t you scared?
He looked strangely at me. And for the first time, haltingly, I ‘heard’ him. Yes… very. But inside you were, and careful I had to be for you. I mean I had to be sure you were all right… and Ben.
“You see?” I said triumphantly to the smith. “He knows we were there.”
“I’m not sure you haven’t cooked this up between you. How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“Ask Miss Flude.” Ben was becoming impatient. “She will tell you because I saw her curtains move as we went past this afternoon.”
“I was outside the Glade and you never showed up.”
“Is it possible the Spirit sent you to sleep like Carl last night?”
Silence. Then that hissing, menacing voice again: “If I find that you’re lying to me, it’ll be the worse for you. You WILL go up to the Glade every day. You WILL tell me when you’ve been. And you WILL tell me what is happening in that clearing. IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?”
“Excuse me,” asked Ben, “Are you going to be checking up on the babies in this way when they are born, too?”
“I may not do so.”
“I am prevented from doing so.” The voice was subdued, yet angry: I could tell that the anger was no longer directed at us.
“But if that’s the case,” said Ben, capitalising on it, “won’t they stop you somehow from seeing what else is happening in the meantime? I mean, I’m sorry, but well, if the Spirit doesn’t want…” He trailed off.
“Just make sure you do what I say,” the man growled. He turned on his heel and went out, slamming the front door so hard that the glass rattled. There was a silence.
“That’ll be a ‘no’ for the third tea then, will it?” said Carl, breaking the tension. We laughed,
“Carl, how did you — well, know what I was thinking?” I just had to know. It was logical — if there was any logic at all to a gift that before all this started I would have regarded as magical — that Ben could hear me. He was in it deep as I was, and besides, we were… together. But Carl?
“I just heard you. The thought came into my head, and somehow it was your voice, and I was… well… surprised. I couldn’t help look at you, but you looked no different. I thought for a moment I was going to give the whole thing away to the smith, but he didn’t seem to notice. But could you hear me?”
“Er… yes. But then…” I looked at Ben.
You may as well tell him. He’ll probably find out some time. I nodded. He noticed.
“You mean… you and Ben can hear and talk like that all the time?”
“Yes. Ever since we came back from the Glade after that first night.”
“Yes. I had a dream that we were up there and had to do something important. So I woke Ben, and we both went. We went up again the next day too, and while we were there I began to be able to listen to his thoughts. Him mine, too.”
“But that’s amazing… and I can hear you too, and you can hear me. Can you hear me, Ben?”
“I heard you when you were talking to Aidan just now. But can you hear either of us when we’re not actually ‘talking’ to you?”
He looked surprised. “Er… no. I only heard Aidan when he talked to me.”
“So if we two talk to each other, you can’t hear us?”
“No.” He blinked. I didn’t know whether that was because he wanted to or whether he was glad he couldn’t. In his position it would have been awful to hear Ben and me making love… poor Carl.
Good. I’m glad he can’t hear us all the time, otherwise we’d have no privacy.
We probably can’t hear him unless he’s actually trying to say something to us.
That’s all right then. I mean, I’m happy sitting inside your head with you and looking round. It’s nice.
Hmm… there are bits of yours which could do with a bit of cleaning.
We both managed not to laugh.
“When are the babies going to be born?” Carl was bringing us back to earth with a bump.
“We don’t know. All we know is that they’ll tell us when it’s time.”
“Oh.” I knew it wasn’t an answer, but somehow I needed to think before I gave too much of the details out, even to Carl.
After a bit of experimenting we found that Carl could ‘hear’ us only when we ‘spoke’ to him. We could hear him only if we were close, and then he had to be directing his thoughts to us. It seemed very satisfactory, and useful.
“I mean, if we have to do the same if he’s here again, at least I shall know what to say.” Put like that by Carl it was logical. “But why isn’t he meant to know about the babies?”
“We don’t know,” I told him, “at least, not exactly. But the Spirits have said that he’s not to be trusted. So we don’t.”
A pause. Then wistfully: “They must be very powerful, these spirits, if you disobey the smith because of what they say.”
“They are. Powerful but good. And the more we listen to them, and then listen to the smith, the less we trust him.” I thought back to what I had read in the library on the mainland. Was it really only a few days previously? It seemed another lifetime, but the doubts and fears planted in that silent room in that other life were still fresh in my mind. Our minds, Ben reminded me.
Over the next few days, every time we made to visit the Grove it seemed the smith was watching. We went there once when he was watching us, just to see what would happen, and weren’t at all surprised when his obnoxious, naked frame forced its way in behind us once we had been there a few minutes. The Glade itself, with its secrets, was hidden from us as well as from him, and that was part of the reason we knew we were not alone.
“Is anything growing?” came the growled question.
“Doesn’t look like it… sir. How long should it take?”
“How do I know? It’s not been done in my lifetime.”
This was news, or rather confirmation of what we had expected.
“We’ll go, then. Come on.” It was an instruction.
“Er… we’re going to stay a while. It’s so peaceful in here.”
“It’s not a rest home for boys. You come home with me.”
“But… er… sir… we have to do what we think the Spirit is telling us.”
“You mean it’s telling you to stay? Then why isn’t it telling me?”
“I don’t know… sir. Don’t you feel it too?” This was a good game.
“No, and I think you’re just making it up so you can be alone with each other again and have another go. Don’t forget it was me who told you how to do it.”
Perhaps it wasn’t such a good game.
Then Ben chimed in. “But if we hear the Spirit telling us we must, and that we must be alone, then surely we must obey. Sir.” The honorific was such a long way from the sentence that it must have sounded like the insult it was intended to be, even to as thick-skinned a person as the smith. He shot a malevolent glance at Ben, but pushed his way back up the tunnel without another word. The big, ugly bum disappearing into the darkness was not pleasant, except that it marked his going.
It’s going to stop working one day, Ben. And then what’ll we do?
Then, my friend, the Spirit will take over!
Without either of us being aware, we crossed the clearing hand in hand again, and looked at where the Glade should be.
No sign. Just impenetrable thorn bushes like the first time.
We looked at each other, suddenly worried.
Perhaps it needs time for him to get away.
S’pose so. Hope so. What d’we do, wait?
We sat, hand in hand still, watching the bushes like anxious lepidopterists. But the sound, when it did come, was behind us. As one, our heads swivelled.
Carl. Naked. Just like that first time that… Unbeknown to me, my body stirred, something it hadn’t been doing with just Ben there. I was horrified, and hoped Ben wouldn’t notice.
Ben and I had been communicating mind to mind. So it was hardly surprising that in our surprise we carried on doing so, but to Carl.
But… why are you here? You know it’s not allowed.
Know that, I do. But smith… following you was. I mean, the smith was following… and to warn you I followed him. When to strip he stopped, I thought he would discover, but he never saw, and I knew to strip would be me… I mean, I knew I had to strip as well. He paused. Obviously he was having to struggle with the idea of putting thoughts together so ‘loudly’ for him that the thoughts were coming to only strangely to our minds.
And in the darkness the way I lost, and thought to be here for ever. But then the smith in the other direction passed me, so I came to here from whence he came.
When we had translated that I knew there was something that didn’t add up, but I was so affected by the sight of him and the surprise of seeing him that I didn’t know what it was. Nor, obviously, did Ben. Carl seemed to think that it was necessary to talk in this way on the Grove.
Why wait you here?
This was a difficulty. But it seemed to me that partial honesty was best.
We’re waiting to see if the Spirit has anything to say. The trouble is that it never happens unless we’re alone… oh.
From the corner of my eye I could see a movement. Our heads swivelled round to the front again, and saw that the bushes were thinning, melting, whisping away as ghosts… and there laid out in its glory, was the Glade. Its light was waxing; its warmth was beckoning us. But what of Carl? Should he be seeing this? I looked back at him.
But there was only a young stag, standing there. But there was a light was in his eyes that I recognised.
Carl? I breathed.
NOT HERE. HERE I AM NOT CARL. JUST AS AT YOUR HOME I AM NOT FULLY SPIRIT. HERE YOU MAY TREAT ME AS YOU ALWAYS HAVE, BUT OUT THERE WHERE I AM ALMOST WHOLLY HUMAN YOU MUST TREAT ME AS YOU ALWAYS HAVE TREATED CARL. IT IS CREDIT TO YOU BOTH THAT WE BOTH ARE TREATED BY YOU WITH RESPECT.
But how can we, now that we know? Ben was right. There was no way I’d ever be able to view my friend Carl in the same light, to treat him as… well, a friend only.
BUT YOU WILL. WE SHALL MAKE IT POSSIBLE.
Doubt showed in both our faces. But a force made us turn to the Glade again. And our babies were there, all that was visible of them.
But were these babies? When we had been on the mainland we had been taken to a fair, and once we had acclimatised to the noise that was even greater than the noise of the city, and to the puzzlement of having such a big, tented village within the city solely given over to pleasure, we had explored every corner of it. And one of the booths was a thing which naturally suited every one of we Island boys. A coconut shy. Throwing to improve our accuracy was one of the things of recreation that every one of us did at home, partly for fun and partly to show off.
Eventually the stall owner had to close. We each won so many of his prizes that we must have nearly bankrupted him.
They wouldn’t let us take them back home with us, though. Not enough space in the luggage, they said.
But now… our babies looked exactly like coconuts. Half-buried, hairy coconuts, true. And three were red-haired, four brown and one had straw colour hair. But the ‘head’ underneath each was earth-brown, rough and looked wooden. We looked at each other. He knew what I was thinking at the same time as I did. Had I been alone, I may well have backed away and tried to ignore what I was thinking, but Ben was with me. I couldn’t let him down. And as the thoughts passed through my mind I knew he was thinking just the same. Neither of us could admit being repulsed.
I made myself approach, and stroke the hair as I had done on the previous visit. It still felt silky, and human, and I felt better. As I laid my hand on the dome of the first ‘head’, though, I got the real shock.
It was warm. What’s more, I could feel life pulsing through it. I pulled my hand away as emotions swept through me. After the shock, the knowledge that here was real life, life sprung from my body, mine and Ben’s, and it was a part of me. My responsibility. Our responsibility. Mine, Ben’s and Carl’s. Ben was experiencing the same revelations further up the line of… heads. No longer were they unpleasant looking growths, or coconuts: they were potential children. Our children. And they were alive.
Whilst the revelations had been dawning on us, subconsciously I could feel apprehension around me. A feeling of strain, of stress. Or was it distress? But when, after the short gap, we were both mentally euphoric about what was below our fingers the air cleared, and once more that complete, still peace flooded the Grove. Or was it just in our minds? I looked round to ask Carl, but he had vanished; yet I never heard him leave, either as a stag or a man. But he had gone, and I know that in our heightened state of mind we would have “felt” that he was there.
Our family was at peace for the night. We were alone. As naturally as night follows day we embraced, and traced the old patterns on each other back, our bodies — one hairless and the other mature — pressed together. Sensations of exploration to the back, and the warm, growing contact on the front… heaven was here. And as we sank to the soft earth to find each other fully we seemed to be cushioned, cocooned on it and in it. Stones had no place in this tilth, nor weeds, nor anything that humans find objectionable. Rather, it was a bed. A giant, king-size bed, there just for us, but also a part of the Earth that is there for all humanity and all life to care for in its own way.
And in our bed, yes of course we showed our love for each other. Yet again. And every time we did so it was as fresh as the first time. The only difference was the depth of our feelings for each other. And that increased, time after time.
When I awoke, it was darker. I looked at Ben. So strong, he looked. So vital. And yet so vulnerable like this. Asleep, his face looked to be that of a boy my own age. For ages I watched him, the chest rising and falling gently, eyelids fluttering as he flew through the skies of some dream. It seemed a shame to wake him. And once more I heard a sound from the Grove. It was Carl. I knew there was something at the back of my mind about him but I couldn’t think what, and certainly he shouldn’t have been there anyway.
“Carl… but… why are you here? You know it’s not allowed.”
“I know… but the blacksmith’s fuming round the village, and your Dad’s at the house, worried. I thought I’d better come and get you.”
“Oh… why is he worried?”
“I don’t know — something the smith said to him, I think.”
“He was up here.”
At which point Ben woke, stretching languorously and yawning loudly, eyes closed. As he opened them and saw Carl they opened wide, and he tried to hid his nakedness with his hands before he realised that it was doubly pointless. Not only had they seen each other naked before, with me, in the Village Hall and in this very Grove, but also Carl was himself naked.
“It’s OK, Ben. The smith was hanging around and Carl came to warn us… oh, and my Dad’s at the house, worried.”
Why are you talking?
So Carl can hear us.
But he could hear us when we’re talking like this.
No — only when we talk directly to him.
Yes! We found it out when the smith came to the house. Remember?
Vaguely. Must be still half asleep.
“We’d better get back then,” he continued. “See what the problem is.”
It was a silent trio that made its way back to the house. There was something troubling me, something about Carl, and I couldn’t work out what it was. Had he only just reached the Grove when I heard him? Had he been there for some time? If so, why? It was lucky I had woken then, anyway, or he’d have seen…
The Glade. Our babies. We’d been lying there, by them, asleep. He HAD seen them.
My sudden stop made both the others look round. I asked hesitantly: “Carl… when you came to find us, what did you see?”
He looked puzzled. “Well… you two, lying… close together…” he trailed off, then cleared his throat and continued in a firmer tone. “Why? What else should I have seen?”
“I mean — well, what about… er… the shape of the Grove?”
“The same as before, I suppose, except the bit where you two were.”
“You saw that?”
“Yes, of course. You were lying in it. When did you cut back the bushes?”
It was my turn to stop and think. Should we be honest with him? He’d need to know about the babies sooner or later. But did we trust him enough at this stage? What could he do?
I say no, we don’t tell him. What he doesn’t know he can’t repeat, even if someone tries to force him.
That hadn’t occurred to me. Ben was right. If the smith got him on his own one night… I shuddered.
“You OK, Aidan?”
Carl was anxious for me. “Yeah, just a bit cold, that’s all.”
We hurried on. His question had been stemmed by my shiver, it seemed, and no other words passed between us until we arrived at the house. Dad was waiting outside, and from the corner of my eye I saw a movement at the end of the lane as I turned to greet him. It was blacksmith-shaped.
“Thank God you’ve come back,” said Dad. Watch out — the smith’s watching. Ben was warning me of what I’d already seen.
“What’s the matter, Dad?” I asked as we ushered him into the house, carefully securing the door behind us.
“It’s that man. He’s really… intense about all this. I know there’s a lot hanging on it, but… well… if it’s going to happen it’ll happen in its own time. Won’t it? I mean — well — er… babies take nine months.”
He stopped. Embarrassed about mentioning something that had been whispered about in his day, but was common knowledge in ours even if it was sniggered at.
“Well, yes, but who’s to say it’ll take nine months?”
“Do you know something, Aidan? Because if you do, please tell the smith and get him off your back. And off mine.”
“It’s not that easy, Dad. The smith is… er…”
“Not to be trusted,” Ben chimed in. “We were specifically told that by the Spirits.”
The look on my father’s face was a picture. Disbelief. Astonishment. Words had left him.
“Oh yes,” I said. “We get talked to. Advice. Information, that sort of thing.”
“But…” Dad was trying to make sense of it, “…you mean there’s really something happening?”
“Well yes. Of course there is. I mean, it’d all have been a waste of time and… er… well, time, if nothing was going to happen.”
“But that’s — I mean… I don’t know what I mean.”
“You mean you never thought it would because I’m not old enough?”
“No. No. I mean whether you’re old enough or not doesn’t matter. I mean… oh, sorry — I didn’t mean that.” He took a breath. “Whether or not you’re old enough, I’m just surprised that… something’s happening up there, that’s all. But does that man know it is, that’s the point.”
“No. And he mustn’t. He’s not trustworthy.”
“But how do you know that?”
“We don’t know. Perhaps they think he might somehow damage the babies.”
“Yeah… don’t tell anyone, Dad. Please. And the smith mustn’t know, or something might happen.”
Poor old Dad. This was getting too much for him.
“Dad, you know that all this was about making life better for us.”
“Well, the way the Spirit is going to do it, I don’t know. But it involves babies.”
“So we were all told at the meeting. The one where I should have called a halt to everything and taken the consequences.”
“We’d have had to leave the Island if you had.”
“I don’t believe they could have made us. But go on. Are there really babies up there?”
“But they should be here! Indoors! You can’t look after babies in the wild. I mean, they’re getting pneumonia as we speak! Don’t you know babies can’t regulate their own temperatures? And what are you feeding them with? How are you occupying them… Oh.”
He’d suddenly realised both Ben and I were just smiling gently at him, unconcerned about his concerns.
“There’s something else you’ve not told me, isn’t there?”
So we told him about the little hummocks, the growth of hair, the brown domes and the life below. He sat down with a bump, looking dazed. Speechless.
No further words were said until Carl arrived with the tea. Poor old Dad. He really couldn’t take in any more.