As the days wore into weeks, we established a routine. The trouble was that the need to make surreptitious visits to the Grove — and we were making two a day — and to make more obvious visits for the smith’s sake, to attend school and make sure we got enough sleep — well, it needed more hours in the day than there actually were. At weekends we would go to the Grove late at night to make sure that all was well. Without fail the comfort we found there would make us come together and take the ancient delight in each other that I had only recently learnt and that Ben was only a little more experienced with — not that he had ever taken a lover to bed before me, either male or female. And after our pinnacle of love for each other had been expressed we would sleep where we were until the early morning. Then we would return home, silent and depressed at having had our sleep interrupted, only to sleep late into the remainder of the morning. Carl had to turn people away frequently, and we became notorious for being lazy, for sleeping late as all elder boys and young men are wont to do. On the Island it was not allowed by any parent. You cannot run farms properly without rising with the sun.
During the weekends, too, we frequently found ourselves there having slept a good while, even if our visit was a morning one.
Mondays were a problem. We were often at the Grove until the early hours still, having used the weekend to make up for lost sleep from the week before — just about. But the early return home and the divided night’s sleep meant we were nearly zombies again the time we should be getting up on Monday mornings. And it was on those days that we used to hate and admire Carl for his insistence that we get to school on time.
Amongst all this battling against our biological clocks the brown domes under the trees on the hillside grew more pronounced, more head-like. Still there was no sign of any other distinguishing feature: no face, and certainly no body. We seemed unable to scrape any of the earth away from them to try and expose more. The thought crossed our minds, but it would have seemed… wrong. The smith, happy with his sightings of our regular visits, left us alone. I have no idea why he never asked us again for signs of progress.
The end of school for the summer — our area continued school well into late July for some reason — was a blessed relief. We could sleep as long as we needed and we could ‘entertain’ friends at the house. And revel in how grown up that sounded. We tried giving them tea at first, but that wasn’t popular and we ended up doing what any group of boys does best — playing football outside, and drinking ginger beer (Coke in those days had hardly been heard of on the Island and we couldn’t have afforded it anyway.) But we never once missed going up at least twice a day to check on our growing family. And growing they were — well, so far as we could tell. The brown domes seemed to be getting larger, and paler, although that might have been a trick of the light. We often showed each other our love there, but it was not every time as it had been at first. We were still attached to each other as we always had been, but increasingly there seemed to be a need to hurry back for some social reason. And, as our time was otherwise our own, we had no need for night visits. The long holidays continued until mid September, when temperatures were no longer what they had been and we, attuned to the seasons, could sniff the air and know that autumn was just around the corner of the next weekend.
And it was on that weekend that it happened.
A group of friends had been with us doing the usual things, ending up with general teasing and messing around. We’d given them something to eat and drink — and I mean we. Carl was one of us now: there was no difference in who did what for whom. And then they’d left, quite late. We’d said our goodnights — Carl had given his usual wistful look at me — and we’d separated, him to his room and we two to ours. Whereupon, of course, we’d kissed and fondled and slowly stripped, and held and aroused and finally lain next to each other in sleep.
I was dreaming.
I was in a room. Alone. That meant something was wrong, because apart from in the lavatory and on a very few occasions I was never alone. There was always Ben, school friends or family around. But this time there was no one there at all. Worse than that, I couldn’t move. There were no restraints binding me, but I just couldn’t move more than an inch or two in any direction, thrash around though I might. Something from outside where I was — was it a room? Was it the Grove? — was calling me. Insistently. Urgently. A note of panic in its voice. Louder… louder… louder…
I woke up, sweating. Ben was holding me, shaking me. I felt another presence there and looked past him, and there was Carl, too. But there was something about him… And why was he there, in our room? What was Ben saying?
“Aidan… Aidan… oh, thank God, he’s awake. Can’t you feel it? Can’t you hear it? They’ve been calling ages! They’re ready. They want to be born. Tonight. Now! We’ve got to go. Hurry. Get UP! Please! Aidan!”
At last I knew, even muzzily, what was happening. But why was Carl… But Ben was dragging me, dragging me…
“All right, all right. I’m coming. Let me get dressed.”
But that was Carl’s ‘voice’. What… ?
We’ve all got to go now. As we are.
Why was Carl giving the orders? All right — he was as naked as we were. But these were our babies.
But somehow he rushed us out of the house into the chill of the night. I had no idea what time it was. All I knew is that it was totally dark, cold on my bed-warm skin, and I was for the second time in my life going through the Village totally naked, but this time with only two naked friends.
We disturbed no one, mercifully. Even the ever vigilant Miss Flude must have been asleep. We half walked, half ran up to the woods, stared stupidly at the point where we would usually stop to get stripped and hide our clothes, ran past it and into the woods. This time it was not so dark there. It was actually lighter than it had been outside, and as we ran on the brightness seemed to increase still further. It seemed the aura of the Spirit world had spilt over into the wider wood. By the time we reached the tunnel it was bright as day. But there was no tunnel. The enclosing bushes had sprung back, untangling. They were leaning away from the path into the Grove instead of over it. Astonished, we almost stopped, but Carl — it was always Carl — urged us on. Onward into the Grove. Over the place where the seven saplings had been…
The symbol of the Grove, gone?
Not gone, but dead. Withered away like grass. Lifeless they lay, uprooted and fallen away from the centre, to moulder in the long grass.
This time we did stop, aghast. Was this the work of the smith? An angry sound came from behind us, where Carl had been. Half of him still was — the top half. The bottom part was somehow shrouded in mist as if it no longer wanted to be seen. But the mist was not just around his legs, it extended from his waist backwards, and then down to the ground. I heard a hoof striking against a stone.
The memory of his appearance here all that time ago, when I had recognised the look in the eye of the young stag, came flooding back. Why had I never said anything to him… But there was no time to wonder or be scared now.
YOU MUST ATTEND THEM. ALL WILL BE PLAIN SOMETIME. GO. HELP THEM. LOVE THEM.
It was Carl’s voice still, urgent, commanding. And that took all the worry from us. This was why we were here.
The moment of birth.
We rushed to the glade, whose hiding bushes seemed almost to be straining away from the clearing. In the space the light, although still bright, seemed somehow gentler. We looked in.
A baby was crying.
But no… this was no baby’s cry. This was the agonised, heart wrenching cry of a small boy terrified. I had heard it last when some of the older sons of some visitors from the mainland — we discouraged them whenever possible — had got hold of one of the local young boys and was threatening him for some reason. In a gentle, busy community like ours that sort of thing never happened, and the boy thought he was bound to be murdered. His cries, when a group of us finally heard them, had been just like this…
Near one end of the line of domes — and they all, suddenly, seemed to have become skin coloured under the hair — was one who … who had shaken his head so much that some of the earth covering his face had fallen away. I gazed stupidly. The face was crumpled, but not in a vegetable way. This was the crumpled, agonised face of a terrified, crying child. And that hardened my resolve again. Questions could wait until afterwards.
I rushed to him, Ben just behind me. I think I must have said something stupid like “There, there…” But Ben had greater presence of mind. I felt him, in a voice more confident than I had ever heard him use before: It’s all right, little Aidan. We’re here now. It’ll be all right in a minute.
And then it hit me. This wall of panic. This incredible, mind-numbing agony of claustrophobia. This acute distress. This loneliness. And all expressed in this high, piping mental wail that is impossible to describe or to imagine unless you’d been unfortunate enough to experience it. Why I had been ‘deaf’ to it for so long I don’t know.
Ben had made sure he appeared in front of the head… no, in front of the young Aidan… and there was a check to the crying, and as deep a breath as the boy could make. It was plain the earth, in which he had grown, was now threatening to constrict him, to stop the human life in him as soon as it had started. Feverishly, Ben and I scrabbled at the earth around him. As he had grown in it, it had compressed, and it was very hard on our fingers and hands. We also had to make sure we didn’t throw the earth over any of the others who, mercifully, were still motionless.
Deeper and deeper we dug, and gradually the neck, the shoulders, the small nipples appeared, the boyish chest below… and the breathing deepened, the cries became less, and as we dug deeper still they descended into whimpering. As we dug, he threatened to flop over onto his front, so I carefully put my hands under his arms, trembling as I did so, and held him gently upright. Immediately the whimpers stopped and he leant back to rest his head on my bare chest.
If this was how a mother felt when she first held her new-born baby, then suddenly I understood an awful lot about motherhood… and again the knowledge of the death of my own mother stabbed at me. At once the being in my arms turned — as best he could — and looked up at me. He may have had the body of a five-year-old boy, yet the look of compassion in his eyes was as old and as positive as the hills, and went straight to my heart, along with the love I had for this small, strangely-born waif.
At his waist, Ben was still scraping at the earth. Slowly he revealed the belly, devoid, of course, of a navel: what would any child formed in the earth need of one? Then at the back, where one of my arms still encircled him, I dug away to reveal the top of his buttocks, and at the front Ben was slowly, delicately clearing the earth from his little penis. I watched, entranced. Even when, at last, his slim thighs were free, he still couldn’t move, and it wasn’t until a sweating Ben reached the middle of the calves that he began to struggle and help. But at last there was that moment when both feet came free of the soil and I could lift him, turn him to face me, and support him properly so we were face to face. Ben came to join me.
Hallo… Aidan, I said. Aidan smiled. For some reason I kissed him on the forehead, and immediately his arms were around me and he was snuggling into my shoulder. The next thing I knew his head drooped, and he was asleep.
Well, Aidan, if your brothers and sister need the same amount of work before they’re safe, we’re in for a long night. Ben was right, and I felt guilty about having left him to do most of the work. He was tired, sweaty and muddy, and we only had the one boy free. There were seven others! Don’t worry, he continued. Perhaps Carl will help us with the next one? Carl? “Carl? Will you help us with some of them?”
The only reply was a pawing noise, and we looked round. All that was there was the stag, pawing at the earth. But again there was that look in his eye that was familiar. I had no idea how this could be. If it was Carl, why had I not realised it at home? How could I have been so familiar with someone I knew as a friend and now as a helper, when all the time he was a Spirit?
YES. I WILL HELP YOU. BUT YOU HAVE TO TAKE THE LEAD. IT WOULD BE WRONG FOR ME TO DO IT ALL. THEY ARE YOUR CHILDREN: ALL EXCEPT ONE. AND YOUR HANDS ARE BETTER FOR THIS WORK THAN MY HOOVES.
Why do you not change back and help?
BECAUSE WHOLLY SPIRIT HERE I AM. THE HUMAN INFLUENCE HAS LEFT. BUT HELP I SHALL.
There was a silence after this, a silence which was broken only by a scrabbling sound from the other end of the line of mounds. Swiftly we moved towards it.
A head was trying to move from side to side. It was trying to shake the soil from it. As the sea swells and breaks over the rocks I felt the panic well up and break into the agony of imprisonment. As the mouth became free it opened to emit the first shriek of terror, but then we were with him. This time I was at the front. It’s all right. We are with you, and we’ll soon have you free. Here… And I started to dig frantically at his neck and shoulders. From nowhere it came to my mind…
My name is Benjamin.
Well of course it is. Your brother is Aidan, so you must be Ben. Well, Ben, it may be uncomfortable now, but soon we shall have you free, and then you can join Aidan.
I can’t breathe.
Any minute now, you’ll be able to breathe properly… I hoped I was right. The earth was tightly packed and I wasn’t digging very fast. I tried to think of what would help. Ah yes… Breathe out fully, then take small breaths until we can release the earth.
Carl, I could hear my Ben calling him. Help us, please!
The stag came round to where I was frantically digging and planted his hoof about six inches away from the boy. I wondered how he was going to dig., but he soon showed me. The powerful front hoof kicked against the packed earth, denting it. The next blow loosened it, and more and more kicks really started to achieve a good hole. Again and again he kicked, and the soil loosened, and at last I could pull the earth from in front of the young Ben much more easily. At last the boy’s breathing became easier, as his brother’s had, and the level of panic in his thoughts diminished.
It took me ages, it seems, to reach the base of his chest and the delicate organs that waited below. By this time Ben was supporting him, holding him, cuddling him to keep him calm. Down and down we dug, the stag and I, and gradually Mother Earth released her second newborn. When finally he was free, as his brother had, he smiled in relief, drooped his head against Ben’s chest, and slept. Ben carefully laid him down next to Aidan, asleep in the long grass, and as we watched the elder boy snuggled up close to his brother and stretched an arm over him, all without waking. We were entranced.
Are they all right? Surely we should be keeping them warm somehow? The ever-considerate Ben was worried. I hadn’t the faintest idea what we should do for them, or how, with no clothes of our own anywhere near and eight children to care for, we could keep them warm.
THE SPIRITS WILL CARE UNTIL THEY LEAVE.
This was not Carl’s voice. This was less earthy, more of the spirit. We had heard it before, right at the beginning when we were first about to distribute our seed. We looked round, startled, but there was nothing else in sight, only the stag, also gazing around, alert. He too was sweating after all his efforts to give freedom to Ben’s namesake.
And we still had six more births to attend to.
As children and young men, we had all three helped on the land. We had done all manner of jobs. Some, when we were racing against the weather, trying to bring in the harvest and working every possible daylight hour in the hot sun, had exhausted us, we thought, well beyond normal tiredness. But all that exertion on the farms was as nothing compared with the events of that night when we were parents, midwives and surgeons to our own offspring. We had nothing to use by way of implements save our own four hands and two hooves. The mental strain as each of our children awoke, found they couldn’t breathe, and had given their first screams, had worn our nerves to a frazzle. The subsequent physical effort for them, knowing that if we failed or took too long the child would die a slow, lingering death as Mother Earth prevented her sons and daughter from breathing, rendered us exhausted beyond belief. It was adrenaline, pure and simple, that kept the frenzy of digging going, as first one of us and then the other, helped by the stag’s Herculean efforts, dug to give the freedom of birth to our children. By the time it was over, all we could do was collapse where we had lain the lastborn to sleep.
There came a point when we awoke, but there was no indication how long we had been at rest. The Grove was dim, although as the births had taken place it was as light as a spring morning. It was still, and above all warm and dry. There was none of the discomfort we had experienced on our naked journey to the Grove that night in early autumn.
Every muscle I possessed was aching. My head was aching. My stomach was aching. I was filthy with the soil that I had frantically dug away; away from my child, away from his unborn siblings, away to anywhere but nearby. I felt greasy and stiff jointed. All I wanted to do was to crawl back under the bedcovers and sleep for a week.
But there were no bedcovers. There was a family to care for. I had no chance to rest. Half of me wanted to let them all take care of themselves until I had slept my sleep out, and the other half knew that I couldn’t and that we all had to feed them, bathe them, care for them. Were any awake? It seemed not. But then I saw the glint of an eye.
I had known each of these five year old babies… and that stopped me in my tracks too. There had been no time during the births to wonder of the manner of these children. Five years old at birth, and developed to that point in just three months! How… why…? I had known each of them for the thirty minutes or so it had taken to release him. But during that short period of communication I had learnt who was whom. Each except one had told us his name as he was first comforted and was enabled to breathe, and had been promised his full freedom. Aidan had come first — I felt an irrational pride in that — and then Benjamin — and I was honoured by that too. Then Hamish and Ruaridh in quick, exhausting succession. Then the blond haired girl had appeared, and she had been the only one not to volunteer a name, to our surprise and consternation. A short pause and we had been startled by the shrill cry of Patrick. Efan was next, and lastly Ifor.
It was the brown eyes of Ruaridh that were open, and as I looked blearily at him he gave the most mischievous grin I have ever seen. I loved him immediately; something, I suppose, that must have communicated itself to him in my look at him because he carefully raised himself to his hands and knees and shuffled uncertainly along to me.
He was, of course, filthy. Mud was caked on him. Much of it we had tried to get off as they came free of the ground, but what was left had partly dried. He must have been as uncomfortable as I had been when, at a similar age, I had been caught playing in the mud by someone’s farm pump, much to my Father’s disgust.
He reached me and let himself fall at my side. His piping voice came through into my head.
Hallo, Ruaridh. Are you all right?
He looked surprised.
Yes. It wasn’t nice when we were in the earth but it’s all right now.
Good. Are you still tired?
This was more in hope than anything else.
I don’t know.
Hmmm… puzzling answer. But if he was uncertain, there was no time to ask more or to answer anything else — not that I knew what to say — for Ben was starting to stir, groaning as he did so.
“Ohhh… ahhhhhh… I feel awful.”
“So do I. If you look as awful as I feel…”
“You look dreadful. Do I look like that?
There was a noise by me. Ruaridh’s eyes were big. Scared.
You’re making noises!
“We’re…” Of course — he’s never heard talk before. We’re talking, Ruaridh. It’s the way most people… er… tell each other things.
Because not everyone can hear thoughts.
Is that what we’re doing now?
How do I talk?
This was difficult. You… er… just open and shut your mouth and make sounds.
What did come out of his mouth, of course, would have interested a psychiatrist. On reflection it didn’t surprise me. But it was certainly disconcerting, and meant we would have to teach all of them how to make all the sounds people make to be able to talk. I started practising in my own mind…
You sound funny!
Huh! I’ve got to teach you how to talk! Wait ’til you start!
Is it difficult?
No, ’cos you can think. When you’re a baby you can’t do that very well.
Because babies can’t.
Because… because they’re not as old as you.
But I’m not old.
You’re older than a baby.
Because you spent a long time in the ground, growing. Growing bigger than… human… than babies do.
Aren’t I human, then?
Yes. Don’t you look it?
A pause. A blessed pause in the questions. Perhaps that was the answer — instead of responding to the question you asked another.
Good. I think you do, too.
Ben was grinning at me, tiredness seemingly gone. I still felt dreadful, but all around us seven small boys and a small girl were staring to open their eyes, to move, to ask questions. More questions than any of us could answer. But as each one piped up we did our best to respond with his name, with something, and gradually the looks we gave them made them smile happily at us and to press close to us, anxious for that first touch, that first individual hug from a parent that forms the bond. But the questions never stopped.
But from one they never started.
The girl, the beautiful little blond girl, watched all her brothers with amusement in her eyes, now and again even laughing at their unsteadiness as they crawled nearer to us. Time after time one of us would try to get her to get nearer so we could hug her and include her in the family group, but she never moved. I started to worry, for I could hear nothing from her, nor could I gauge whether she could hear Ben and me, or her brothers, although God knows they were easy enough to hear. I was about to stagger to my feet to go and sit by her to find out what the problem was when there was a sudden silence from the noisy crowd around me. All their faces pointed behind me, and the eyes went round as saucers again. Anxiously I looked round, as did Ben.
An ancient stag stood there, splendid in his spread of antlers, yet with a coat that somehow showed an achievement of years that was far greater than could normally be seen in any member of the deer family. More, his air of authority, his charisma was such that had he appeared at the forefront of any of the sport-hunts that were a feature of life on the Island, he would have stilled even the dogs that had tracked him to his lair.
It was a matter of the spirit, solely, that I try to describe next. I have no words to use that can portray the impetus on the spirit — itself a difficult part of the human condition to quantify — that can really identify for someone who was not there how natural the whole thing was. Even the written device of using thick italic capital letters, such as I have used to try and show the unquestionable authority of the Spirits when they had ‘spoken’ to us before is inadequate. The force of will — no, even that is wrong. There was no force. It came to us as entirely inevitable, natural, normal, beautiful, accepted; the proper course of events. But nevertheless, it was as inevitable and as good as when spring takes over from winter, that the beautiful, nameless girl, the only girl of our offspring, should become a child directly of the Spirit world. We would not take her to the Village. We would not have a shadow of responsibility for her well-being, her education, her development. We would see her rarely, and even then she would appear as a Spirit only, and then only here in the depths of the woodlands.
The word ‘ambivalent’ had only recently come into my vocabulary, and that with only a scant understanding. As my human brain, which was trying to cope with losing a child, vied with my spirit, which understood perfectly the reasons for her destiny, the part of me that I have always made to stand aside from my life to observe myself suddenly knew the precise meaning of the word. One part of me wanted her as part of my family: the other part of me was ecstatic that she was to be a pure being of the spirit world.
The physical result of my ambivalence was that I knew I was both crying for a loss and smiling in approval. I could scarcely come to terms with my own emotions. And it was not until Ben’s arm came under my shoulders that I realised he must be similarly affected and I needed to support him, just as he was supporting me.
Our emotions held us still. Our muscles gave us no opportunity to move as our beautiful, blond little daughter rose to her feet, far steadier than her brothers, and smilingly crossed to the ancient stag. When she reached him she turned, and her eyes lit on Ben and me in turn. And we knew that she was undismayed: far from that, she was complete, at ease, full of love both for us and for… For what?
There was a rustle in the bushes behind her, and in an almost comical contrast to the aged, formidable, charismatic stag, there appeared a fawn. The dappling on his short coat was muted, and it seemed only when he moved that he was visible, so wonderfully did he blend with the flora around him. The spring in his step, and the playfulness of his graceful movements, showed us that he was the complete equivalent in age to his equally beautiful human spirit counterpart. As with any young animal I was immediately entranced, and suddenly I realised that this was the real playmate of our only daughter. It was only right that the two of them should be together, to play, to learn, to take their place in the woodlands and in the Spirit world, and perhaps, eventually, to produce young, who would… What? Did it matter? They were so young, and it seemed wrong to think of mating and of offspring. And between a girl and a stag?!!! My mind, even then, rebelled.
In fact, my mind was exhausted from the shifts of emotion it had undergone in such a short time. I saw the girl, now smiling at the little fawn’s approach to her, as through a mist, my eyes needed to seek the light of the sky, and roll backwards in their sockets, and a moment later my knees began to buckle… I crumpled to the ground, but was aware that Ben was fainting beside me. My last thoughts were for the boys: I could not see if they were all right, and even through my stupor a part of my mind shrieked at me.
The roaring sound seemed completely out of place. The dim light came from somewhere outside my world. I couldn’t stop its approach as it brightened, then faded to a dark red as the roaring grew less. And at last I remembered that I had eyes, eyes that could open. With care and foreboding I willed the eyelids apart. The brightness and the cold struck at me, and I winced. As the irises closed, vision, normal human vision, returned. And at the edge of the Glade there were two desperately young, desperately attractive fawns, one male, one female, standing by each other, occasionally rubbing their necks together in contentment. As they saw my eyes open and focus, the female bowed her head and pawed at the ground. I moved not a muscle, but the memory of our daughter and the knowledge of her destiny returned to my mind. Gently they crossed to where we lay, and I could feel that Ben was now conscious too, thank goodness. They stood over us. The girl — what was I thinking: the little doe — lowered her head to mine, and softly rubbed her muzzle against my cheek. My arm reached out, and for the first and last time I stroked her neck — the neck from which, only a few hours before, I had feverishly cleared the life-threatening soil at her birth, the thanks for which were at that moment being implanted in my head from nowhere. She passed to Ben, and repeated the caress.
The sight of this communion between our daughter and my life’s partner is cast into my memory as if in stone. It is a memory which returns to me in times of stress, and sometimes when we are together at night and I am watching him. It says to me, stronger than anything else, that the feelings between us were pure, are pure; that they can be shared with creatures of tender years safely, since they are as natural and as normal and as delightful as the warmth of a summer’s day. And that, as pure emotions, they are as far from equating same-sex love with dirt, or even sex with dirt, as it is possible to get. Yet many people close their minds to any other possibility than that sex is dirt: I feel sorry for them, for their bigotry and unhappiness must be staggering, if they could but see it.
And then the couple stood back a few feet so we could see them both.
My name is Angharad. He says it is the nearest name in human sounds to the old language words ‘fy nghariad’ which means ‘my heart’. His name is Gwaed, which is Blood in the new language. I am of you, and he is of the Stags, and you are of us. We shall live nearby and we shall be there at need. But at other times we shall live with the herd, guided by the Spirits, and shun humans. But farewell for this time. Come here at times with my brothers, and know both that we are near, and that we love our birth parents and our human family too.
‘Birth Parents’… Even had there been time I could not have said anything further for the constriction in my throat that those two words caused. Thirteen, and a parent. To a daughter and seven sons as well! But the pride evaporated as suddenly as it had come, as I knew it was not just my own doing. And the rest of her words — even then it crossed my mind that she was only the equivalent of five years old. And if she was, how did she manage to speak as if she was an old, regal woman? But we hardly had time to answer in our minds with our wishes for their safety, their health, their happiness, when they backed away further, wheeled around, and disappeared into the foliage with hardly a rustle.
Once again Ben’s arm was around me, and mine around him. And gradually all our little boys started to wake again, the questioning in their minds increasing as the water at the rise of the tide. We had our responsibilities, and our own questions and need to be quiet together would have to wait.
So we adopted smiles — to start with no easy task after what we had just witnessed. But as our lively little band became ever livelier they started to have that effect on us that only children can have, and that just by being there. We found our spirits lifted by their constant presence in our minds that soon the grins on our faces were absolutely genuine. But I knew we could stay here no longer. The temperature, which had been warm and constant all during their birth and our recovery, was now noticeably dropping, and it was probably this which was making them all jump about. Ben was looking at me, tenderly, and I knew the same thing was in his mind.
“Come on,” I said. “We must go home.”
They were stunned into silence, having communicated only by mind since their birth. As one their eyes turned to Ben beseechingly. But he knew what I was trying to do.
With both voice and mind he said “I know you — we — have no need of voice… of noise… when we talk. But we’re all humans, and all other humans can only talk by using their voice. You need to learn that. So, starting now, we will get you used to making noise to talk, so you can learn easier.”
I don’t want to. This was Ruaridh. It’s scary.
“It doesn’t need to be. Just get used to it.”
“You can. Just listen, like you do to…” To what? Ah yes: a constant in all those weeks of growing as a drake must have been “…to the wind.”
The wind always tells if there’s going to be water to drink from the sky, or if it’s going to be warm and time to spread out.
“Well, now it’s a different kind of wind. A wind that’ll tell you all about everything else too.”
How will we know it?
“When you hear us talk with noise. And when other people talk too.”
Are there other people?
“Yes. Lots. And they’ll want to tell you things about themselves that you don’t know.”
Why can’t they talk like we’ve been talking?
“Because they weren’t born like you.”
“Because all of you, and Angharad, are special people; very special. But we don’t tell anyone else that.”
I was expecting another ‘why’, but all he did was shiver.
“Come on,” I called again, and this time they all got up. Who was going first? Ben or me? But he was helping Ifor, who was still rather weak on his legs, to get up. It had to be me. But would they follow?
I walked purposefully towards the entrance, across where the saplings had been when they were alive… and I felt a stab of regret at their passing: they had been beautiful trees, yes, only trees, but we as a Village were taught to respect trees everywhere as being a natural resource. They provided us with shelter from the winter’s ravages, they grew berries or nuts, their dead branches were fuel. Yes, trees were friends. These particular friends had been a part of the Grove for as long as we had been coming there, and now we missed them. The tunnel, I was glad to see, had relaxed into its normal musty, womb-like darkness. The need for it to help us on our way in to ease our children’s panic had passed. I ducked into it, and looked round. Ruaridh was behind me, and I could see another of the boys after him. That was good enough. On I went.
I found Carl standing at the end of it, where it joined the main path through the wood. It was dark there, and the cold light of the moon penetrated the autumn branches only a little.
“Have I got a surprise for you?” I asked.
But as little Ruaridh appeared from the tunnel it wasn’t surprise on Carl’s face, just a welcoming smile that was as quickly returned by the boy. As each of them appeared, Carl gave him a quick hug, a hug that was returned, just as if the elder boy was already known.
I felt disappointed. It should have been Ben and me they were hugging, not Carl. And why were none of them surprised? It seemed almost as if they already knew him, and he them. Something was at the back of my mind… but I couldn’t retrieve it.
But at last the young Ben came into the open, and he came straight to me before hugging Carl. He looked straight up into my face, and smiled; the sort of smile that says “Dad…” without you even remembering what it felt like when you’d done it yourself. That made me feel better. A lot better. At least my love’s namesake had his priorities right.
When we were all there, I turned once again to lead them down to the Village, and home. One by one on that journey they tired, and we had to carry them on our shoulders. Easy it was not. We were still tired, and although young they were not light. And I was only thirteen. But to carry your own children to their home, naked, on your own bare shoulders, is a wonderful thing to do, and brought each of them closer to us. What a way to start fatherhood.
It wasn’t until we had nearly left the shelter of the trees that I realised it was dark. The dark of night still, not nearly morning as I had expected. The part of my brain that measures time was totally confused, for surely we had entered the woods in panic after well nightfall? After bedtime? But why…? But then, did it matter? It was better this way. There would be no Miss Flude, no blacksmith, no Dad, even, to scorn and be outraged.
The boys seemed to know that we must keep quiet as no noise was made — even from mind to mind — as we walked through the sleeping Village towards our home. Little Ben was close to me, and Ifor was on my shoulders. I looked down, and Ben’s face was alight with amazement at seeing the houses and the tracks that we called roads, and the lack of trees. He saw Miss Flude’s well kept garden and smiled happily, and a chord of contentment at the flourishing of living things in it floated into my mind from his.
And at last our home came into view. Ben pulled at my hand as he stopped short, and from the others I could feel the request to stop being repeated. We complied, and all ten of us stood in a straight line, facing the house.
Notes of uncertainty there were from some of them. Somehow they knew that this was to be the place where they were to live from now on. But two, at least, were happy, and ‘told’ the others why.
This is the gift of their family and friends. This is where love is. This is where they live. This is where the Sprit is too. The Spirit who will help them help us.
I had no idea, of course, what the last bit meant, but assumed it was something to do with all three of us, Ben, Carl and me. It seemed to have the desired effect, because they all gave off waves of relief and acceptance, and by a stirring of five year old legs I could tell they wanted to see more. I put Ben onto the ground and he marched straight up to the house, planting his feet in the soft earth outside the front door.
I’ll stand here tonight. Then I can see who’s coming and going.
There was a note of uncertainty in his voice, and I could feel the tiredness at the back of it that partly balked at the idea of standing in the cold all night. Before any of the others could find their spot to plant themselves to go to sleep I intervened.
You don’t need to do that now. Now we all sleep in beds, and the door looks after itself. Nobody can get past it.
There was a pause.
But the door’s dead.
It took me a moment to work that one out.
The tree has given its wood to make the door, yes. And it’s not a tree any more. But we have a thing on it that stops it being opened.
I overtook Ben, whose feet and toes were now muddy again, and we went inside. As soon as we were in and the door shut it seemed very crowded and uncertain, and I at last knew that the work was over and my family was safely delivered. Tiredness crept — well no, leapt would be a better word — over me and my mind seemed to go numb. I heard Ben say something about a bath, and couldn’t have cared less. And Carl agreed with him, and as my legs nearly crumpled beneath me I could feel strong arms go round my shoulders and lower me gently to the floor.
Poor Aidan. He’s had enough for tonight. I keep forgetting he’s five years younger than me, and two younger than you. Let’s bathe him with the boys, and put them all to bed.
My brain rebelled at that, and I made an effort to get up, but nothing seemed to work properly. I made myself keep awake as best I could, helped by the chill of the night on my naked body. But eventually I could feel my brain shutting down completely, although the last bit of consciousness took some time to follow. Later I was dimly aware of being held up by Carl as Ben soaped me in rather tepid, dirty water, but the soft sweeps of the flannel in his hands lulled me back to sleep again. I just recollect being oh-so-gently rubbed and patted dry, and wondered if my body would react as it usually did to such a near-tickling sensation. I registered that it didn’t, that time. At last, dry, I was put between smooth sheets, and then even my subconscious mind seemed to close down. A little later, I suppose, I was aware of a warmth next to me: the subconscious registered that it was Ben, and therefore good, and I fell deeply back into an even more contented sleep.