Like all kids before them, the boys learnt how important weaving was to the Village, and to each family. We have had — we still have — a traditional design for the plaid the inhabitants make, one that was patented for us many years ago in Victorian times. It meant that no other island or mainland community could use our techniques or pattern. Our cloth was sought after in some circles, especially as very few stockists could get it apart from those in the mainland ports nearest to us. To most of the kids in the school, weaving was a fact of life, done by almost all the women and a few of the men, in order to bring in mainland money.
I just liked the feel of the rough plaid trousers I had — along with all the other boys on the Island — if I had no underwear on. I’d never dared to wear it like that before my preparation for fatherhood (I still shudder when I think of that day), but even now I was with Ben it was fun sometimes just to enjoy the sensations.
One day a stranger arrived with the ferry. He had with him a son of about twelve.
Visitors were unusual on the Island. We were regarded with some suspicion by the locals on the mainland — if someone who lived that far away could be regarded as local to us. As a result very few tourists visited for longer than overnight — that is, between ferries. Unless, of course, the wind got up… The pub did rooms, and were glad of the occasional break in the monotony.
These two told the publican that they’d be staying a week, possibly two. This news alone was enough to circulate the Village, but when it became known that the man was interested in cloth, and in proper plaid particularly, people made special journeys to spread the news rather than just leave it to the usual network of pub, shop, church and elders’ meetings. Rumour grew as rumour does; he wanted to pirate our designs; he wanted to move onto the Island; he wanted a bulk supply of cloth; he wanted to brag about how much better his stuff was than ours…
Small wonder he was regarded with suspicion. So was his son, to start with. Then he bumped into the boys one day when he was walking alone toward the school as it was home time for the younger ones — including them. They were playing the inevitable game of football as they slowly made their way home.
They’d not met with anyone unknown since they’d got to know all the Village. A stranger was something to halt their chatter, their thoughts, their very movement.
For his part, he had never seen such a vivacious group of boys suddenly become still and serious, or look at him as if to transfix him with their gaze. He felt no fear or embarrassment, just a kind of keen wonder; perhaps an instinctive knowledge that they were something not altogether of the known world.
And that, of course, set off young Ben and Aidan, those who particularly cared about the feelings of other people. What happened, in what order, they forgot, but soon Andrew was playing football with all the others as if he’d lived on the Island all his life. Though older, he was a kindly boy who completely omitted to make his greater physical strength count, but metered his muscles to match theirs. This endeared him to them, so before long the whole tribe found itself at our front door. Carl was expecting them, of course, and although surprised to see the older boy amongst them, he accepted him and gave him the same squash and biscuits the boys had.
After a very few moments talking about school and where he lived and why he was here and who his father was and what did he do and what did his father do, they moved outside for more football. As our front door had become the gathering place for the young of the Village, it seemed, there were probably enough for three full-size football teams waiting nearby. As our seven appeared, there was a general stripping off of clothes, something which left poor Andrew with his mouth open.
“Come on,” piped Padraig happily. “It’s good this way, and natural.”
Given that he was only a few months younger than I had been when I was made to parade through the Village on my way to start a family (I shudder again… it sounds now even worse than it was), he was more than reluctant. The presence of another boy, a friend of theirs of about eleven, about his height, may have helped him decide, or it may have been that Ben’s and my namesake just stood and looked at him in a certain way. But slowly he started to remove shoes, socks, shirt… and finally his grey shorts, and white underwear.
Padraig scooped up his discarded clothing and put it behind the fence near our gate. As he turned, Ben and I came round the corner. I promptly skidded to a halt. Ben bumped into me.
I saw a quite tall boy, pleasing features, a happy grin on his face, and a slim but capable looking body. He was distinctive because of the copper colour hair which exploded from his head. Oh, and he was distinctive because he was wearing nothing at all despite being the possessor of a very fine body with a scrotum that swung lower than his still-boyish penis. Apart from my own penis being a bit bigger by now, with some more hair around it which had grown over the last few months, he could almost have been my age. My heart skipped a beat.
Good looking, isn’t he? Damn! Ben was aware of me.
Yes. The least I could do was to be honest. Lying wasn’t exactly an option anyway, not when he could listen in to everything I was thinking.
I suppose I’ll have to watch out.
What? What was he saying?
How do you mean?
You might start to prefer him to me. It had started out a light-hearted exchange, but he sounded a bit grim now. I looked round at him.
I don’t even know him! It’s you that I love.
Ah, but will you, still, once you have met him?
I just looked at him.
We played with them all for a bit — clothed — much to our boys’ delight, though with some scorn at not removing our clothes, and then went in. Every now and again one of them would come in, disappear upstairs, and relieve him- or herself of the effects of the drinks that Carl had as usual given them. It was the standard arrangement we had come to. Firstly it avoided our having to say “yes” every few minutes, and second it gave the shrubs and bushes along the road outside a chance to survive the biological onslaught. It wasn’t long before the doorway darkened a little more than usual and the visitor entered, led by Efan. Seeing us there, he almost turned and ran, but Efan had his hand and he had no choice but to walk past us, his face reddening. I had to turn and watch, until stopped short by a snort from Ben.
I’m allowed to look, aren’t I?
He just tossed his head.
When Andrew came down, we stopped him.
“It’s all right, you really have no need to be embarrassed. We’d be out there too, also without clothes, if we hadn’t just got back from school.”
He finally turned and spoke to us, in a low pitched but still unbroken voice with an English accent.
“It’s odd, but good. Thank you. Er…”
“I’m Aidan, and this is Ben.”
“They called one of you ‘Dad’”
“Both of us. It’s a long story.”
His eyes widened and almost disappeared into the mop of hair. He grinned. “It must be. Thank you for letting me use the lavatory.”
“Any time,” said Ben.
At last, they started getting tired and drifting away. It was also the boys’ meal time, so we went to break things up, to remind them all to dress before going home, and bring ours in. As I turned back I saw a movement in the bushes at the other side of the junction near the house. Fox?
The last of them said their goodbyes, and the boys followed us in. Soon Jim returned, having had a lot of marking and preparation to do at the school, much to Carl’s disgust. The meal, the rest, the little bits of homework we were starting the boys on and the bathtime, all followed as normal. They were just about to go to bed when there was a knock at the door.
Damn, I said. I’ll go, shall I? Hurriedly putting on some clothes, I went downstairs.
It was the publican from the village inn, and with him was a smart man I didn’t know, and he looked worried. Somehow I could sense trouble.
“I’m sorry to call so late,” started the innkeeper, “but Mr Burton’s son seems to have gone missing. According to some of the men in the pub, their sons say he was up with your lot this afternoon after school. Is he still here?”
I blinked stupidly, my mind still full of small boys and baths and bed. No, of course he wasn’t. I said so.
“But he was here?” asked the stranger. His voice was quiet, English and sounded friendly in a worried sort of way. His dark copper hair, now tamed but starting to show signs of unruliness, reminded me of his son.
“Er… yes… sir. But he went when the others did, when our boys’ dinner was ready.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I thought he went back with some of the younger ones.”
“They’re all at home, or so their fathers say. He’s not anywhere nearer the Village, staying with one of them. We’ve checked.”
Footsteps sounded behind me. I hoped Carl and Ben had remembered to put something on. They had. Swiftly I explained what had happened. They asked more or less the same questions as me. The conversation turned full circle. At last, in a lull, I ‘heard’: Steve was near when he went.
Without thinking, I said “I wonder if it could have been that Steve?”
“What?” asked the innkeeper. Mr Burton looked me straight in the eye.
“Er… I… I think Steve was nearby when they all went,” I said, wishing I’d spoken to Hamish before blurting out his news.
“I didn’t see him,” said Ben. “Where was he?”
“I… I think he was… er… over there.” I gestured vaguely toward the road to the village.
He was hiding behind the bush.
This time I was not so hasty. “Just a minute, I’ll see if one of the boys saw him. Wait there.”
In Hamish’s room I found them all wide awake, alert, and Hamish had big saucer eyes.
He was in the bush by where the roads join, he said. I didn’t see him, but I knew he was there. After they’d all gone he faded away.
Faded away? I asked, puzzled.
Yes. His thoughts got muddled, and weaker. Like he was going away, and thinking about something important I didn’t understand.
He wasn’t alone in that. I only just about understood what he was trying to say. You’re sure you didn’t see him?
No. He was behind the bush.
The memory of the “fox” I had imagined, and the movement I had seen, returned to me.
I thanked Hamish and went downstairs again. But how could I explain to Mr Burton that Hamish knew Steve had been there when he hadn’t seen him?
“I saw a bush moving,” I started hesitantly, “and Hamish knows he was behind it.”
“Who was behind it?” asked the innkeeper.
“You mean that this Steve, whoever he is, is behind Andrew’s disappearance?” asked Mr Burton, indignantly.
“No. I mean he was behind the bush.”
“How do you know?” The man, kind or not, was getting worked up.
“One of the boys told me.”
“How does he know?”
“I… I don’t know.”
He looked exasperated. From upstairs: Look for footprints!
Of course. I repeated the suggestion to the two men. We found torches and were just about to turn from the house when there was a scampering behind me. Hamish.
“I’ll come too,” he announced.
The innkeeper looked amazed, but Mr Burton’s eyes softened, even in his anxiety, as he took in the sight of the determined five-year-old, now naked as the day he was born — or rather, the day he was freed from Mother Earth.
“It’s all right, old son. I think we can manage, but thank you.” Mr Burton was obviously touched, and sincere. Hamish came to stand in front of him, reached for his hands and looked him in the eyes. There was a pause.
“I like you,” said Hamish at last, “and Andrew loves you. But he wishes you’d spend more time with him.”
I looked at him in surprise, now anxious myself. It was not the right thing to say to anyone; I knew that. But especially it was not right to say it when someone was so troubled, so worried. But there was a simplicity, an honesty, about Hamish’s quiet statement that held the man. The boys all had the knack of doing that, young though they might be. People took notice of them more than they did me, or even Ben or Carl. It was a knack they had.
“It’s cold out,” said Mr Burton. “Put something on.” I knew Hamish had won; indeed, even if he hadn’t the boy would have followed us anyway. He sped upstairs.
Join us when you’re ready, I told him.
We went cautiously over to the bushes, the four of us, although what we hoped to see by then, with only a torch, I had no clue. We carefully looked, and yes, there were footprints. We were about to start following them when Hamish reappeared.
“He was watching from here.” It was a quiet, positive voice. “He has brought some of the earth from near his house with him. It’s different.”
Mr Burton blinked. The Innkeeper looked up sharply.
“How can you tell?”
“By the smell. And… look, here on this ridge. There’s a sandy earth there.”
We’d just recognised them as footprints. He was seeing the details we never even thought to look for.
“So what do we do now?” Jim was nonplussed.
“We follow them,” said the quiet voice before anyone older could speak. “We need my brothers, too.”
“We can’t just keep you all from your beds, Hamish, when there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to find him.” Like all parents I knew they had to get their sleep or they would be useless at school tomorrow.
“Oh, we’ll find them. But we need to do it tonight if we can.”
It was my turn to blink. What the Innkeeper and Mr Burton thought I had no idea.
“We’ll carry on looking,” I said, knowing from experience that whatever I said the boys should not do, in an emergency they would always follow their instincts even if it was against my own instincts as a father.
“No,” said Hamish, “anything we do alone could damage the trail.”
I suppose he had a point, though once again I could feel resentment being registered by the two adults.
“Hang on a minute,” said Mr Burton. “If we think we know it was this boy who went off with him, why don’t we just call at his house and ask him?”
“Good idea,” said the Innkeeper, “except that he lives with the smith.”
I understood his reluctance, even if Andrew’s father didn’t. “So what?” he asked. “If we can call on the fathers of the youngsters Andrew was playing with I see no reason not to call on the father of the main suspect — if that’s what he is.”
“I can show you where he lives,” said the Innkeeper doubtfully, “but I’m not going to hang about while he comes to the door.”
Mr Burton looked at him, exasperated. “For goodness’ sake, man. He’s a blacksmith, not an ogre. Come on. We’ll leave you to follow the trail, if you can, but if he’s been taken by this boy — Steve, did you say his name was? — then I’ll make the smith look for him too.”
“You shouldn’t do that, Sir.”
Mr Burton looked at Hamish. In the distance I could hear his brothers running toward us.
“Sorry, Hamish, but Andrew is my priority. I don’t care much for a father’s bad temper when my son’s wellbeing is at stake.”
“Yes, Sir, but you might frighten Steve off.”
“I doubt it, but if I do, you can track him.” And with that, he and the Inkeeper were off.
Which way would he have taken him?
Don’t know yet. Ruaridh, Ifor, you go each way round in a circle, smell the earth. You’re looking for a sandy soil or anything that smells out of place.
The two that Hamish had nominated set off to start their circle, and it became obvious to Jim that this was a practised move.
“How do they know what to do?” he asked.
“Because Hamish told them,” I said without thinking.
“He never said anything!” I cursed myself for forgetting that he had no ideas of our private means of communication. I was about to start the long explanation when there was a shout from Ifor — fortunately using his voice.
“Over here! There’s a difference!”
We all clustered round him, much to Hamish’s fury. “No, NO! Now they’ll have to do it again to find where he came from. You’ve put more smell on top of it.”
“It’s ok,” said Ifor. I can smell where it goes.”
We cautiously followed as he turned, head toward the ground like a bloodhound and started walking… in a straight line toward our house. He reached it, then looked up, confused.
“It ends here. This is us and our friends this afternoon. But we were here afterwards.”
“I know, I know!” exclaimed Ruaridh. “He was round here first, then went behind the bushes to watch us, and never left until they went. Then he went too. There’ll be another trail going somewhere else.”
Get everyone to stay here, Dad, can you? Hamish wasn’t going to be foiled by too many interfering adults again.
“If we stay here, Jim, Carl, they’ll have a clear run at it and stand a better chance.” I hoped that would do the trick.
Ifor crossed to the bushes again, Ruaridh hovering between us and him. Like a bloodhound again, he circled the bush, wider and wider, and then gave a “shout”: Got it! As Ruaridh started off, so did Ben and I. Jim and Carl just looked.
“He asked us to stay here…” started Jim.
“He’s found a trail,” I said over my shoulder. “Didn’t you hear?”
“Hear what?” he asked, hurrying after me. I checked and once again cursed my carelessness.
“He speaks very quietly,” I said hurriedly.
Down through the village we went, at times almost running, at others hanging back as Ifor cast around for the invisible trail. At last he reached a road where the houses were fewer, and his progress became more certain.
“We’re heading for the smith’s,” I gasped. And sure enough, we were. Some way off I saw the man’s door open, and in the light saw a figure step forward. Mr Burton.
Ifor, I called, stop now. The smith is there. He’ll see you.
Reluctantly the boy came to a halt, leaning slightly forward like a retriever who had just picked up the scent of his quarry. It goes there, he said simply.
We must wait, I warned him.
“What’s the hold-up?” Jim was getting anxious.
“The smith’s talking to Mr Burton,” I told him. “We don’t want him to see us at the house too.”
“Why? We might be able to help.”
“If we go there, smith will worry. If we wait, he’ll think Mr Burton was just taking a chance.” This was Hamish, who seemed to have worked it all out. “When he’s gone, we can wait a bit, then Ifor can go and try to smell if Steve or Andrew are inside.”
The logic was inescapable. We waited in the shadows. At last the door closed, and Mr Burton was hurrying back down the road. He seemed about to pass us by until I called out to him. Startled, he turned off the road and came to where we were waiting.
“So you followed me, did you?”
“No,” said Ben. “Ifor followed the trail and it came straight here. We saw you talk to the smith. What did he say?”
“He was very helpful. He said that Steve had gone out at about the right time to see all the young ones leave school, as he usually does. He’d not seen him since, and asked if we found him, could we send him back as he’s worried. He’s not seen Andrew at all.”
“Do you believe him?”
There was a hesitation. “Yes. Yes, I do. He seemed genuinely concerned.”
“But not concerned enough to help look for him,” said Jim. It was a thought that had been nagging at my mind. On the Island, if there’s any trouble, so many people usually try to help that it’s almost embarrassing at times. You could understand all the parents not being able to, as their young ones were home and it had been only an enquiry when Mr Burton first visited them, but I knew that if we returned now we could raise a search party in about ten minutes flat.
Then the smith’s door opened again. The bulky man came out, and without a word — not even from Jim — we all retreated into the shadows. As he approached I could feel the tension mounting.
He will not see us.
The tension faded. I saw Carl’s hand cover Jim’s. Odd: it had sounded like Carl’s “voice”.
The smith looked neither to right nor left, but walked straight past. As he disappeared we all breathed a sigh of relief.
“Ruaridh, Ben, Padraig: Go and follow him. Take Jim and Carl with you. The rest of us will go and see if either of them is anywhere in there.” Hamish had it all worked out. Usually one of the quietest of the boys (everything is relative!) this emergency brought out a quality in him his character had only hinted at before.
“All right,” said Ben (the older one), “but make sure we all meet back here in half an hour, whatever happens.”
Losing half the family, even temporarily, brought it home to me that this was no game. The safety of a boy was in danger, and if it had been one of ours… I shuddered.
I know, said Ben, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
It’s that Steve, too, I thought. I never did like him.
If it is him.
Innocent until proof of guilt is provided. I knew that. But what if…?
We were moving, our bloodhound Ifor leading the way. The track took him straight for the smith’s front door. Just before it, he stopped and looked round at us unhappily.
It ends here, but it’s very faint now.
Do you think he’s there? I asked, rather nervously, thankful that now Jim had gone we could all talk silently.
Dunno yet. Let me try round the side.
We followed at a suitable distance as he followed the rather scruffy fence into the gloom. Silence reigned, until a sudden bleating and a squeak announced the presence of a puzzled sheep and an alarmed Ifor. It was the breaking of the tension that made us all start grinning; then someone gave a stifled laugh and before long we were all getting on for helpless.
It’s not funny, said Ifor as he reappeared. I was scared.
I just held out my arms, the laughter gone. Slowly he came to me, eyes still unhappy. I gave him a hug.
Sorry, Ifor. It was just that we were all so worried, and then you and the sheep both shouted at the same time…
The others were calming down by now, rather embarrassed.
Andrew’s still missing, Ifor reminded us. The remainder of the laughter stopped abruptly.
Should we go and look around the house? I asked.
No use. He’s not there. The trail’s too faint. Ifor was as sure as he could be.
Damn, said Ben the elder. Where could he have taken him? Ifor thought a moment.
We followed it from the bush to our home, and from the bush to here. He must have gone from here to the bush, somewhere else. I’ll have to follow it again.
You can’t tonight. It’s too late. I really couldn’t face being up much longer, and more to the point they had to be up for school the next morning.
Andrew’s in trouble. We could be in time to make it all right for him.
With his thoughts a picture came into his mind. A picture of a boy as lost as I had been that time I was on the mainland with the school trip. Not lost as in unable to find the rest of the party, but lost amongst people who thought differently, who cared less, who lived different lives. People who I couldn’t fathom. But within that city, if I had been lost, or in trouble, I would have been doubly lost, and desperate for help.
Come on, then, I said.
We trooped back to the main pathways, Ifor ahead, the rest of us hanging back. Tiredly we waited while he tested the earth, stopped, moved on, stopped again, moved on… I was so tired I hardly knew where we were when he calmly announced that he’d found another trail, one separated from the “scent” we’d followed earlier by the footsteps of others.
It led to a part of the village that had been all but abandoned. This was where Carl had lived, where his house had burned, taking the lives of his mother and father along with three other houses from which, fortunately, the inhabitants had escaped. None of them had the will to return to them, to live at the scene of one of the Island’s greatest tragedies.
The four houses had had smallholdings attached, as was the usual pattern on the Island. There was a scattering of sheds and other outbuildings still remaining at a great enough distance from the dismal shells of the burnt out homes not to have been damaged by the blaze. Ifor once again stopped, a look of horror on his face.
The people were hurting, here. Badly.
All I could do was to nod to him, glad that Carl wasn’t with us.
He continued searching around, hampered by the long grass. We hung back. He stopped. With a gesture of impatience, before Ben or I could stop him he almost tore off his shirt and jumper, then lay down in the grass. I started toward him.
No! cried one of the others — I forget who — he must do that to get as close as possible.
Moments later he was on his feet, and this time the shoes and socks were flung aside, and… surely not… yes… And he was standing in the wet grass, in the cold, naked. No: he was lying in the wet grass, naked, testing, feeling the earth, the grass…
… and then beckoning us over to him. He’s in there, he said, pointing toward one of the old sheds. Oddly, it looked to be in better condition than most of the others, and certainly there was a new padlock on the door now we came to shine our torches on it.
Is Steve in there? Ben asked.
No. He’s gone on further. I don’t know where yet. We can get Andrew out.
Could we? If he was in there, with the door locked, how? We went in a group around the hut, then met up with the door and its padlock again.
“Andrew?” Ifor’s voice was quiet, but somehow penetrating. A pause. Nothing. “Andrew!” Louder this time, but still no reply.
“He’s in there.”
I heard nothing, said Ben.
“He’s in there. Isn’t he?” A chorus of his brothers’ four voices agreed.
“Do we break the padlock?” I asked Ben.
“We’ll have to. There’s no other way.”
Yes there is, said Ifor, speaking silently in his excitement. These stones aren’t stuck together like most are.
“It might be drystone walling, but how does that help?”
“There’s where a window used to be at the back. We can get the stones out.”
“Don’t be silly! There aren’t enough of us.”
Ifor looked at me scornfully. Come on, he ordered, and four small boys led off round the back, discarding pieces of clothing as they did so. Obediently we followed, though why we didn’t just call a halt to the whole thing and go for help I can’t now say.
Ifor was standing on the old window ledge, stretching up to the top course of random-shaped stones that the old craftsmen had wedged between it and the lintel to block up the small window.
His hand found its top edge. Hold me, Aidan, Ben. No, not you, Dad. My brothers. If we do it together…
Each of them held his ankles. Once again he found the top of the stone and spread his fingers. His brow furrowed, as if he was concentrating. His two supporters did the same.
Noiselessly, apart from the sound of sand hitting the ledge and the ground, the stone seemed to evaporate. Not for the first time in the life of these boys, my jaw dropped. All right, it was a sandstone block, but not even the smith would have the strength to do that. I was almost scared of the sheer power that these boys seemed to possess. As if sensing my worry, Ifor looked round and smiled.
It takes most trees many years to do that. We’re better.
They could really speed up the action of tree roots and do that? To solid rock? Well, yes, they could. We’d just seen it. Ifor was already busy on the next one.
It took them about five minutes before two things happened. Ifor swayed and would have fallen if Ben hadn’t rushed forward to support him and lift him off the shelf. He lay him on the ground and rather sharply told the others to get his clothes. The other thing was that I could hear voices.
It’s the others, said Aidan. Good. They can take over. Get Carl — he can do it if we help.
Carl? Why Carl?
They hurried up to us. Carl looked dreadful, as well he might. He always avoided this part of the Village, the scene of his upbringing in happiness and his parents’ death in agony. He was shivering when he came to us, his face white. The five of them had been unable to track the smith more than a short distance. His ‘scent’ had been covered by others’. When he heard what had happened he nodded, and thought.
Why don’t you do the same to the hinges on the door?
They all looked at each other, then at him. Too new, the tin.
Hinges are rusty.
Jim looked at them, exasperated at the silence. “We must go for help,” he said.
“Come round the front,” ordered Carl. “Jim, go and keep guard for a minute, would you? We’ll get the hinges loose.”
Obediently, and despite his exasperation, Jim went and stood on the road where he could see anyone approaching. Immediately he was out of sight, Carl flung off his clothes. Ben and I goggled at him.
Come with me.
The Voice of Authority. From Carl. How? Why?
Ok, he was going to do something. Our minds were reeling. It was as if he really shouldn’t be using the Voice, but as we thought, now, we knew that he did and that he had done so before. Obediently we followed him round to the front, Ben and I being the only ones clothed by this time. Carl was standing by the hinges, which were old and rusty in contrast to the shiny new hasp, staple and padlock that secured the door. He covered the bottom one with his hand, then switched to its sides.
Who’s not exhausted yet? Padraig? Hamish? Come on then. Toes into the ground… now, together…
Their fingers seemed to increase the rust on the old hinge. It grew almost furry with the redness. The edges roughened.
That’s enough, panted Carl. Now the top one… ready?
Once again the old metal seemed to age in a matter ofmoments. Again Carl called a halt. “Jim!” he called. “Can you come here, please?”
His friend appeared, only to stop short as he saw Carl standing, naked, in a circle of naked boys.
“Never mind that. Come here. We need your strength to pull this door off its hinges. Ben, Aidan, can you help too?”
With a will we found gaps at top and bottom, and heaved against the now-weakened metal securing the door to its posts. Slowly they gave, and bent, and then with a rush the bottom one, where the boys and I were pulling, gave way and we fell backwards. Soon after, the top one bent and snapped, and Carl was able to pull back the door.
What a good thing the hinges were weak enough so he could bend them like that, I thought. It must have been hard work — he’s taken off his clothes. Or had it just been to keep the boys company?
He stooped into the low doorway, followed by the boys and Jim. We were about to follow when Jim turned round and came out again looking white.
“Don’t go in,” he ordered.
“It’s our problem too,” said Ben the elder curtly. “We can help.” The man looked dazed, and horrified. We followed the others.
Andrew was lying across a table, face down. His slim bottom bent over the long edge of it. Each of his wrists and ankles were tied to one of the legs, spread out to a cruel angle. He was naked. Blood had dribbled down his legs. Red weals showed across his back. He was absolutely still.
There came a gap in time. It was filled by our mounting horror, disbelief, and finally our compassion. We sprung into motion and people worked at the knots around his limbs, then very carefully supported him to lift him off the table and take him outside. We lay him on the ground, face up, wondering what we would find.
He was gagged, his eyes were closed, but he was breathing. There were dirty marks on his chest and legs. His penis appeared red, and its foreskin was pushed back, leaving the purple of its delicate contents to stare angrily into the night. But he was breathing.
And then the young Ben said, aloud: “he’s coming.”
He wasn’t referring to Andrew’s return from unconsciousness, nor to Mr Burton. I could feel the anger in the boys and Carl well up to a level that I knew I could never quell, even if I was the father-figure to them, and the friend of Carl who was here to help us with them. This was a wild emotion, as unstoppable as the winter gale that rushes unchecked over the moorland, uprooting trees, damaging buildings, capsizing ships. For the first time with my family, I was scared. Scared that a power was about to be unleashed which would change us all, and our relationship to each other.
Six boys and one young man seemed about to explode in some way. The seventh small boy stood with them, calmly, and with all the force he could muster said:
As if a door had been shut against a storm, a calm fell.
No, repeated Padraig. If we kill him we are no better ourselves. He is capable of destroying himself if that is his will. We must show him what he has done, and how it feels inside. But he must live. But he must not live here.
A silence fell. I could feel the emotions dissipate, leaving just a deep disgust, and something like normal calm returned. Steve appeared round the corner of the building, looking at the ground, and was almost on us when he realised he was not alone and looked up, and around at us all. His face drained of colour, his eyes stared wildly as he took in the broken door, the naked boys and Carl, Jim, and the damaged body of the boy over whom Efan was bending. Slowly he started to back away.
Padraig said it quietly, yet the word rang like a bell. Steve stopped. Frozen.
Bring him here, and lie him down by the side of Andrew.
“What’s going on?” asked Jim as the inert youth was half led, half dragged, to Andrew’s side. “What are they doing? How do they all know what to do? And what are they going to do anyway?”
“They are going to show Steve what it’s like to be raped,” replied Carl. “But they’re going to do it without touching him. Probably the best thing for you to do is to go and get Mr Burton and the smith, please, and some of the Village elders.”
Again, it wasn’t so much what he said, but the way he said it. Jim turned meekly and walked off toward the main part of the Village. I didn’t envy him his task; people would have been in bed for almost two hours by now and a visitor would not be welcome.
Steve’s eyes were wildly sweeping us, trying to find what was happening, frantic that he could move nothing apart from them, his pallor going from deathly white to a sort of green, and then back again. He was unable even to turn and look at his victim who, mercifully, was still unconscious. Efan, anxious to start work on his patient, looked pleadingly at Padraig, who seemed to have assumed the leadership.
No, said his brother. If you start now it will seem that Andrew is the bad one and Steve his victim.
I could see the logic. How could a five-year-old understand other people better than me, at thirteen?
Because they’re special, answered Ben the elder. There was a further calming of the atmosphere, and those of our boys who weren’t involved with victim and criminal smiled. A force, one that I could feel but didn’t understand, wavered, and Steve’s voice cut through with a scream. Having found all of a sudden that his voice worked, the words tumbled out.
“Iiieeeeeee… warra ya doin t’me…?”
The force resumed, snapped shut like a fish’s mouth over a fly, and he said no more. But his eyes resumed their rolling.
The boys were starting to shiver, and to yawn, and I realised with a shock that they had been naked in the cold of the night for ages. As had Carl, for some reason I had forgotten. Quietly, remembering the effect a wavering of their attention had had on Steve, I told them to get dressed, having first trawled for their clothes in the large area around the back of the hut. I gave Carl his, too, and almost in a daze he wordlessly took them and put them on. It was just as well, for only a few minutes afterwards Ifor announced the arrival of Mr Burton who appeared out of his mind with worry tinged with relief. As he saw the two figures lying there he checked, gave a cry, and ran to his son, kneeling at his side.
“What has he done to you? What… ? He’s unconscious!” He looked up at Efan, who was naturally the nearest. “What have you done? What has he done? Why is he here?”
Efan said not a word, but looked troubled. Padraig looked at Carl. Will you talk for me? In what Carl said, Padraig’s eyes never left him.
“Mr Burton, Andrew has been raped by this boy, Steve…” The man started, and would have spoken, but Carl’s tone stopped him. “Two things you should know. We have no police here. The nearest are on the mainland. If we took Steve and locked him up, we could not keep him there until the next boat.”
No, I thought. The smith would see to that.
“If we send Andrew to the mainland, he would be very distressed, very humiliated, and would suffer even more than he already has, mentally and physically. It would take him months, years, a lifetime, to recover. Or…”
An almost theatrical pause. Even Steve’s eyes were fixed on Carl.
“…Or, we can rely on the fact that here, unguessed, on this island, are seven people who are more special than you will ever know. People who know the human mind and body and spirit so well that, at need, they can cause pain to stop, wounds to heal. Not only the wounds of the body, but of the mind and spirit too. They can take away Andrew’s hurts and leave them where they belong.
“On his attacker.”
Despite the power of the force that bound him silent and still, a hoarse croak came from Steve’s mouth.
Mr Burton looked at him. The anger and contempt that was in his eyes speared into the guilty youth’s eyes like pokers. But his concern was over his son. The change in his expression, from the deepest loathing to the tenderest love as it crossed his face, was heartwarming, powerful, amazing. Here was a Father worthy of the name, I thought, just as mine was in his undemonstrative way. I knew Dad would have looked for me the same way.
“I don’t know…” he said. “Can you be sure? Can you know these people will do this, that they will be effective? Would they do it for a stranger? And how long will it take them to get here?”
“They will, they can. And they are all around you.”
Mr Burton started, then looked round. “Where?”
“US!” chorused the boys. “And I need to start this now,” added Efan. “He’s going to start waking up soon. It’d be better if he knew nothing about it, not the pain, or being damaged, or even being naked.” Come on, he added. I’m going to start now anyway. Strip him. And if Andrew’s dad interferes, just stop him.
Carl, Ben and I knew what he’d said, but neither Jim nor Mr Burton did. So when two of the boys started to remove Steve’s shoes and socks, and two more started on his jacket, they started to object. Carl looked at them.
That was all. How he did it I don’t know. But I had a dim remembrance of his having used the Power before, recently, but it was only Carl. He couldn’t. Could he? But the adults didn’t object any more as Steve’s clothes were removed, finally exposing his penis to the world, to the assembled men and boys.
Normally I like seeing the male body. But Steve’s… Well, it may have been the knowledge of what he’d done or it may have been the memory of our first real encounter, or even just the knowledge that he was — had been until now — the smith’s “boy”, but I found him repulsive. I could feel Ben agreeing.
Bring him closer. Why? Why should Efan want the objectionable youth closer to him? Evan was standing up and, once again, taking off his clothes. He stood between the naked, slim and good looking Andrew, and the naked, flabby and unpleasing Steve like the little angel that he usually is.
I need dockleaves. Lots. And nettles — a few.
Even his brothers looked surprised at this. The stinging nettle was one of the plants they always hated. Not only was it useless for anything except making wine, it caused Efan so much work in soothing the little ones — and some of the bigger ones too — when they got stung at school and when playing near our home.
Once again he made a poultice of the docks by simply chewing them and applying them to the bruises and rednesses of Andrew’s body. There was a strong, pure, earthy smell; less pungent than the mint he had used on Miss Flude that time, but still invigorating and clean. After a wait, he carefully removed them, to reveal pure skin. The boy’s penis he covered in his saliva and protected again with its foreskin before applying the poultice over its discomfort. The used, chewed, spent leaves he put onto Steve’s body, causing him to stiffen and his eyes to grow round with horror. I wondered what was happening to him. As he removed the wad from Andrew’s penis he was careful to put it over Steve’s, and once again a grunt escaped his lips as if it was the nearest he could get to a scream.
At last Efan was satisfied with the front of Andrew’s body. With help from Ruaridh he turned him over to reveal again the damage to his back, as well as the blood trickles hinting at damage deeper in.
Turn Steve over. It was an order, not a request. Four of his brothers went to do so, and the older boy’s eyes nearly disappeared into the back of his skull as he turned, his face toward Andrew and Efan. The used poultices stuck to him, and turned over with him.
The weals on Andrew’s back were swiftly dealt with in the same way, then Efan turned to the young Ben and Aidan. Stand at my back. Give him some privacy. Obediently they did so, blocking the sight from all of us except Steve who, if it was possible, looked even more agonised than before. As the wad first of leaves was removed from the injured area and held toward him Steve flinched, and would have squirmed away if he’d been able. Five-year-olds don’t sneer, yet Efan managed it. Very carefully he picked up one of the nettle leaves and held it with the used poultice on top.
“Take this in your hand, and put it in you. The same place as it just came from.”
Partially released from the restrictive power to enable him to do so, Steve used his arms to move himself away. The power snapped back, and he froze. Swiftly, four of them were pushing him back nearer Andrew and Efan.
“You have no choice,” said Hamish, taking over, picking up another nettle leaf. “More of these will be used until you do. You enjoy forcing things into others. It’s time you did it to yourself. Do what I say.”
All the colour had by now drained from the youth’s face. He could not move except by permission from this insignificant looking five year old, and obviously couldn’t understand why that should be. He doubtless realised just what he had done, and knew he had to pay for it somehow, but could bring himself no more to face the pain of stinging nettles inserted into his rectum than cut his own wrists, especially as he would have to do it himself.
It was a tableau, held for what seemed like an hour. Finally Hamish lost patience, and grabbed Carl’s hand. Why Carl? Together their eyes bored into Steve as he did his best to wriggle away in his shame, his nakedness, his horror at what he knew his punishment was to be. Against his will, it appeared, his hand moved to take the poultice. That it was not willed by him was obvious by the fixed looked of astonishment along with the dread as he watched his own arm moving, moving toward the means of his expected agony. Unwillingly, yet without his voluntary involvement, his fingers clasped the used, potent wad, and as the first of the minute darts of poison from the nettles attacked his fingers a moan of terror escaped from him.
We all watched, Ben, and Jim, and I, and Mr Burton; all with horror in our eyes at what had happened, but almost more at what was about to happen through the medium of Ben’s and my sons. I knew that Steve had to be taught a lesson, and would have to leave the Island, but to torture him as he had tortured his victim? Was that right? The crime had been carried out because of frustration, because of a lack of appreciation, because of a mental problem of a sort I didn’t understand. But this punishment… was it right?
Steve’s arm moved slowly backwards towards the cleft of his bottom. As far as his eyes could swivel he watched it, and his arm continued beyond that point his face turned to the front, his eyes closed, and a further sound came from him. His arm snapped back and before we realised it the nettles were on the soft skin of his bottom and were still being pushed between, when three things happened.
A real scream came from his mouth, free at last from the force of the will of others. Two voices, one adult, one a child’s, called STOP! A third voice shouted “NO!” His hand stopped, and withdrew itself, and the wad vanished into the bushes. Hamish and Carl looked at each other, then at Mr Burton, who was standing looking green and horrified.
“I don’t know how you made him do that, but that’s not justice. Not that. That’s going back to the principles of torture and we’re over that, thank God. He’s done wrong: God knows he’s done wrong, and he’s wronged my son and therefore me as well. But I can’t see him tortured for the sake of punishment. No one could…”
He stopped, catching his breath. Hamish and Carl looked at each other again, and then at him. “We both know that, Mr Burton,” said Carl. “That’s why, once we were sure he really knew what was about to happen and had been touched with a tiny fraction of Andrew’s pain to make him feel he was going to face the same, or something similar, we stopped him. We stopped him just as you shouted ‘No’, and I was more pleased to hear you say so than you realise.”
The man looked nonplussed. “Are you sure it was like that? I thought you stopped when I shouted.”
Carl laughed grimly. “We did. At exactly that moment.”
Mr Burton thought. “Exactly that moment. Yes. And if you were doing as I asked it would have been a second afterwards — or more. Well…” There was a silence, broken eventually by a moan from Steve.
“He fainted, or something like it,” said Efan. “He’s coming round now.”
“I think he should he marched through the Village to the pound and secured there until the morning,” said Hamish. “We’ll give him a blanket, but it needs to be taken from him at first light so he can face the people. We’ll put a sign outside to explain what he’s done.”
“What about Andrew?” I asked, curious at the sudden adultness of this boy I knew as a five-year-old son.
“He’ll recover,” Efan interrupted. “He’ll come round soon and still be weak, so he needs to be helped home. He’ll sleep late into the morning, and by that time this one will have been sent to the mainland. Andrew will remember nothing.”
“Until he’s told by one of the others in the Village, or hears it in gossip,” I said. Hamish looked at me. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said simply. “I need to look further ahead.” He looked crestfallen, so I crossed to him and gave him a hug, and once more he was my son, and Ben’s, and five years old again.
“Perhaps the pound isn’t the best idea,” said Ben.
“The pound is a good idea,” stated Hamish. “The notice is what would be wrong. We need for him to be out of there before people are up in the morning, I know — the smith. He’ll go and rescue him, won’t he? We need to tell him very early. But I don’t know who will do that.”
“You will have no need.”