This is my day off, so I’ll be at home with my lovely 18-month-old daughter, who will be ‘helping’ me unpack. Depending on the weather we might pop out later. I haven’t done anything to Coals of Fire yet (I’ll wait until work starts in earnest before I plunge into that) so here’s more Flowers of the Field.
Feel free to check out previous instalments by clicking ‘Previous’.
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Flowers of the Field
Dawn found him still crouched by the stone, shivering in and out of restless sleep. His eyes were grey-ringed, his mouth tacky with saliva; two lines, like dried rivers, ran down his cheeks. There had been many tears that night, sometimes more and sometimes less, but never far away. The only thing that had eluded him was sleep. Whenever the boy closed his eyes all he could see were the crosses outside the villa, with their limp burdens, two big and three small. So small …
A gulping sob escaped him, and he groaned and slumped sideways, thinking that he would die from the pain of it all. He wished that he was dead, that they had killed him after all. At least then he wouldn’t be able to feel what he felt now. At least he would see his brothers and sisters again.
And though he was not dead — he was here, and he was alive, and sooner or later he would have to get up and decide what to do — for now all he wanted was to lie still and try to forget the hideousness of yesterday.
A sound made him sit up with a start, suddenly alert. Someone was running through the gorse towards the stone circle. He jumped up, panicking, all thoughts of death driven from his mind. They had come back to finish him off. He could not stay here.
He dashed towards the edge of the circle, cursing himself for not having left while he still had the cover of darkness. He moved fast, but he was already too late. No sooner had he reached the first of the stones than the person burst into the circle behind him, and all he could do was dart behind the grey pillar and crouch down, holding his breath, hoping that whoever it was had not seen him.
After a moment he risked a glance around the side of the stone. A man was striding this way and that across the circle, still breathing heavily from his run. He was a tall man, wiry and thin, his skin the colour of old leather; his lean body was wrapped in a long robe of dull, un-dyed cloth, and his white hair was cropped close to his head. He moved with the grace and fluidity of a warrior as he paced this way and that, looking down at the ground as if searching for something.
As the boy watched the man gave up the search and thrust his hand into a small bag slung over his shoulder, taking out a handful of what looked like earth and scattering it over the stone in the middle of the circle. The hand dived into the bag again. This time it came out holding two stones, which the man knocked together until they spat a bright spark. The spark landed on the powder, and there was a flash of white light that seared the boy’s eyes and left a purple after-image. He blinked and recoiled, rubbing his eyes, then jumped as a chilling scream rent the air, startling, raw, like a wounded animal. He looked again. The man had dropped to his knees and was clutching his head in his hands, his lean body shaking as he sobbed like a child. For a full minute he wept into his fingers, moaning and grinding his teeth, then he raised his head and roared at the sky, venting rage and despair, his whole frame shaking with the effort. The cry went on and on, until the boy thought he would scream the life out of himself; then the man fell silent and slumped over as if spent, still sobbing quietly.
The boy let out the breath he had not realised he was holding. He did not know what to do. The man had not come here looking for him, but it was not clear exactly what he was looking for. Whatever it was, the boy decided he did not want to know. He had his own problems to work out. It was time to leave.
He started to creep away from the stones, treading as lightly as he could through the grass. But even as he moved the sobbing stopped and the man’s head whipped round with lightning speed. He saw the boy, and without hesitation he leapt to his feet and bounded towards him with impossibly long strides. The boy started to run, but then the man was on him, bearing him to the ground with strong hands, grappling him with more strength than the boy thought possible. He struggled for a second, but his efforts were in vain: the man’s grip was like a vice, and his fingers dug into the boy’s wrists until he cried out in pain and lay still, panting and shivering.
The man looked down at him, and the boy found himself looking straight into his eyes. They were dark, like his skin, and they burned with an animal intensity as they flicked this way and that, taking in every detail of the boy’s face. It was a look like none the boy had ever experienced: it pierced him, dissected him, peeling away the layers of his flesh until it reached his soul. It looked through him as though he was nothing, just a shadow passing over a hillside. The boy quailed under that gaze, writhing in his efforts to get away from it, but the man held him firm. In the end the boy gae up and lay quietly while the man’s eyes scoured every part of his face. Only when the man was satisfied with what he saw did he realease his grip and walk away, leaving the boy rubbing his wrists.
The boy glared at the man’s back as he paced into the middle of the circle again. The feverish energy with which he had arrived had evaporated. Now he kicked at the grass and stones with his hands on his hips, hardly putting any effort into it. Whatever he had hoped to find was clearly not there.
At last the man sighed and wandered back over to the boy. He said something, but the words were unfamiliar, and the boy looked back dumbly and shook his head.
“I can’t understand you,” he said. “Do you speak Latin? From Rome?”
A spark of interest crept into the man’s eyes. “La-tin?” He repeated the word as if he knew it, then drummed his fingers on his head as if trying to remember something.
“Yes, Latin.” The boy nodded encouragingly. “Everyone knows some Latin, even here. Do you speak it?”
The man shook his head. Obviously he was familiar with the language, but that was it. The boy thought about this. He had lived his whole life on this rainy island, but he had heard the stories of barbarians who lived across the sea, in Europa and the Roman lands, whose skins were dark and who spoke other tongues. He had supposed such things to be just stories, but perhaps this man was one of those barbarians — perhaps he had become lost somehow, and had washed up on the shores of Brittania, or else had sailed here looking for other lands that he had heard of in the stories of his own people.
The boy waved a hand to attract the man’s attention, and spoke slowly and clearly, miming along with the words as best he could imagine: “Did – you – come – here – from – Europa?”
“Yur-up?” the man said, frowning as he tried to imitate the last word.
“No.” The boy spoke patiently as if teaching a child. “It’s ‘Europa’. You know: Germania, Roma, Gaul?”
“Germanee!” The man nodded furiously, and a sudden smile split his face. He started to babble again in his own tongue, only this time there were other words mixed in, words the boy vaguely recognised. He thought he heard some names of places that sounded familiar, but he could not be sure.
The man stopped, and a look of triumph came over his face. He drew himself up, and with the look of a teacher giving a lesson he said three words in the High Latin, words which the boy knew but did not see what they had to do with anything. The man’s accent was terrible, but the words were recognisable:
“Veni, vidi, vici!”
The man looked at the boy with an expression of almost unbearable eagerness, and the boy nodded and repeated the phrase back, showing he understood. The effect was incredible. The man laughed out loud and danced a small jig, then ran to the boy and seized him in a crushing embrace. The boy cried out in shock, but the man’s gesture was one of joy, not of violence, and he released him with some sort of apology and stood looking adoringly at him.
The boy was not sure what to think. It was clear to him now that the man was mad, but whether it was the dangerous sort of madness or something less sinister, he could not tell. He felt uncomfortable under the man’s gaze, as if the man could see something secret in him that he himself was unaware of.
The man clasped his hands together and kissed them, trying to find some way to communicate the immense happiness he felt. Then he put out his hand with a questioning look, touched the boy’s arm, and opened the pouch and showed him the black, earthy powder inside. The questioning look again, touching his arm, showing the powder … At first the boy did not understand, then it slowly dawned on him what the man wanted to do, and he pulled his arm away quickly.
“No!” he said. “I saw what happened to that stone. I don’t care how crazy you are: you’re not using that stuff on me.”
He spoke sharply, and the man quickly backed away, shaking his head and speaking in his own language, putting up his hands in the universal gesture of peace. He pointed at the rock to which he had set fire and shook his head fiercely, then pointed to the boy and spoke softly, waving his hands in gentle swaying motions; he crouched down and grabbed a handful of grass, rubbing it softly against his cheek, making all the signs of peaceful intent he could think of.
But the boy did not relent. He did not care what the man thought would happen, he had seen the flash of light when the spark had landed on the powder and knew that he did not want the same thing to happen to him.
Eventually the man sighed and accepted that he was not going to get his way, and to the boy’s relief he did not try to force him. Instead he started to mutter to himself, repeating words that, once again, the boy found familiar without knowing exactly what they meant. Some of them seemed to be names of places and people. One sounded like ‘Judea’, another like ‘caesar’, then ‘Augustus’, ‘Justus’, ‘Iepeter’, and …
“Wait!” the boy interrupted him in mid-flow. “Say that one again!”
“Jee-zus,” the man said with his abysmal accent.
The boy laughed. Suddenly it all became clear. No wonder the man was so crazy!
“You know Iesus?”
The man nodded. “Jeez-us kryst.”
“You’re a Christ-ian?”
The man pointed to himself. “Kris-chun?” He shrugged and nodded. “Kris-chun.”
The boy laughed again, and this time the man laughed with him. They had reached some sort of understanding which swiftly dissolved the tension.
“Look, we’d better get going,” the boy said. “The men who brought me up here, they might be back soon. And they hate Christ-ians. Most people around here do these days, to be honest. So don’t go spreading it around, all right?”
The man looked at him with a total lack of comprehension.
“You don’t understand a word I say, do you?” said the boy. He tapped his head and shook it at the same time, then pointed at the man. The man laughed and repeated the motion, and the boy gave a shrug that tried to communicate, as best he could: “Neither of us understands a word the other says, but I trust you and I hope you trust me.”
Because who else have I got now to trust in the world except this crazy Christ-ian? he added silently to himself.
The man looked up at the sky, swiftly lightening as the pale stain of morning chased the black of night away into the east. He looked down at the boy and made a motion with his hand that plainly meant: “Come.”
The man turned eastwards and began walking away. The boy hesitated for only a moment before he followed him, turning his back on the villa where he had spent his whole life, on his family and his British friends, on people whom he had trusted, on the people who had betrayed him.
And when he looked back half an hour later the standing stones were just a huddle of dark shapes in the distance, the last familiar thing he would see for a long time.
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Well, there we have it. If I find the time and energy I will try to put together another Lifting the Lid. Enjoy your day, everyone.