I just realized this morning how long a time has elapsed since I last posted! My excuse (which is no excuse) is work upon my new book, which is taking shape at last. Anyway this, with apologies, is a story I wrote in 2011, which, though included in my website, has never appeared here. I will warn you, this is not a children’s story.
Angela bit at her lip, because just being on that street in the closing light of evening made her nervous. Where was the car? Mark was late. Last week he failed to come in spite of his promise. This time it was imperative. This time he must!
When first he came upon Bellarc Wood, Tam was tired and very much afraid.
All afternoon he had played in the great meadow, watching minnows in the brook, running and hiding from the monstrous Mardigal and the Fromigal of fiery breath, who chased him through the wild hay; then the faceless Oot people who teased and poked at him until he dispatched them horribly with his laser sword.
He stayed late, very late. Before he knew it the sun was setting behind Coldharbour Hill, and the last shadows were stretching themselves, ready for sleep.
When did Tam realise he was lost? He took this path, then this path, then this – but none seemed to go the right way – the way he knew. His head hurt, the bushes grew bigger and shadier in the twilight, each ready to conceal a boy stealer, or a hungry wolf. The trees, bigger still, frowned down on him, as if in disbelief that so small a boy should be abroad at such an hour.
Then there was a path he had not tried and a wall of darkness, and before he knew it Tam had wandered into Bellarc Wood.
Now in the normal way of things, in the proper way of things, if a few little trees made Tam afraid, the sight of a great wood – so many big, black, forbidding oaks and chestnuts and beeches should have made him very afraid indeed: but somehow these big trees did not. In fact, thought Tam, these seemed very friendly trees – warm trees, trees which beckoned him.
“Don’t fear us!” They seemed to say. “The moss beneath us is soft, and warm: our shelter is proof against rain, or hail, or snow. You can be safe here, Tam.” And they waved their branches a little, just to show they were sincere.
He wandered through the wood’s deep shade; breathed its sweet resin smells. The gnarled oaks, who despite their age were very kind indeed, spread their mighty limbs to shelter him, and curled their roots into a cradle of warm moss; so when he grew too tired to wander any more, he lay down upon the moss, and fell asleep.
Which was exactly how Mr. Fitzprickle discovered Tam when morning came. Mr. Fitzprickle, being a night time sort of person, was taking a morning time sort of stroll before returning home for dinner and bed. His lungs were so full of the fresh dawn breeze and his stomach was so looking forward to a hearty meal he almost missed the strange white thing that lay in the moss: in fact, he very nearly walked right over Tam without seeing him.
“Well I’m blessed!” He said, unrolling himself (Mr. Fitzprickle had an unfortunate habit of rolling himself up in a ball whenever he came across anything unusual – it often got him into trouble, and his wife never ceased to remind him of a time by the riverbank when he was surprised by O’Henry the otter’s boy, and rolled right into the river. “If that log hadn’t been across the weir, Mr. Fitzprickle, you’d be several miles out to sea by now!”).
“Well, I’m damned!” He said. And…
He sniffed around the thing to see if it would move, then he prodded it to see if it would squeak. It did neither. Then he ran straight home to Mrs. Fitzprickle, as he always did when he discovered anything really marvellous and extraordinary: which was quite often, for the most boring and unexceptional things were extraordinary to Mr. Fitzprickle.
“This,” declared Mrs. Fitzprickle, with a warning in her voice, “had better be something really extraordinary, Mr. Fitzprickle!”
“Why, ‘tis a little human child!” The lady declared between gasps for air. (Mrs. Fitzprickle was of ample build, and the climb up the wooded bank did not suit her constitution).
“It doesn’t do much.” Said Mr. Fitzprickle, critically. “From what I’ve heard, human children never stop doing something; usually involving damage.”
“Well, this one’s stopped. Sleeping, I do believe.” Mrs. Fitzprickle opined. “But it shivers, see? So it mustn’t stay here, now, must it?”
“Why not?” Enquired Mr. Fitzprickle, who was less inclined to charity than his wife.
“Coldness, Mr. Fitzprickle: dampness!” Said Mrs. Fitzprickle. “Bad for little human children – yes.”
She made her way back down the bank, and disappeared inside her tree-stump house, and in no time at all reappeared with the largest, thickest, driest of blankets you could imagine. It was a blanket covered with pictures of all the things hedgehogs (for Mr. And Mrs. Fitzprickle were, of course, hedgehogs) love the most – of grass, and earth, and flowers – and woven in among the pictures were little models of all the things that hedgehogs love to eat; tiny grubs and worms and beetles that live on the forest floor, who nobody speaks to because, after all, they are only tiny, and are unlikely to have anything interesting to say.
Mrs. Fitzprickle wrapped the blanket around Tam so that he would stop shivering, placing a thoughtful paw on his forehead.
“Do you know Mr. Fitzprickle, I think the poor boy might have a fever?”
“I’m blessed if I’d be surprised!” Exclaimed her husband. “Lying out here in such thin clothes!”
“We must take him in, Mr. Fitzprickle! We must take care of him! And when he is warmer, we shall feed him up – I never saw a creature so thin!”
“Feed him up, Mrs. Fitzprickle?” Mr. Fitzprickle enquired, looking doubtful: “Would he er……?”
Upon the stove in the tree-stump house was a steaming brew of Mrs. Fitzprickle’s special recipe, a spicy MIgwit casserole. “And why not?” Demanded Mrs. Fitzprickle.
“Well…..Migwits, you know. Not everybody likes them.”
At once Mr. Fitzprickle saw that he had said the wrong thing. Mrs. Fitzprickle gave him her most withering of stares. “Migwits,” she said weightily; “are all we have.”
Oblivious to all of this, Tam slept on, enwrapped by his world of dreams. They were not pleasant dreams. The great Mardigal and the Fromigal – so easy to chase in his waking fantasies, wrought their revenge in sleep. They danced about him, taunting. The Mardigal gnashed at him with its great hooks of fangs, the Fromigal flailed its long arms like whips; and the Oots came, with their glassy mouths, their claws raking his flesh, their talons grabbing and pulling. Tam knew the Fromigal and the Mardigal feared the Oot people, shied away from them as they charged, but try as he might he could not set one upon the other. All, it appeared, were intent upon tormenting him.
And so he was glad to wake, and somehow it did not seem odd to Tam to find himself looking up into Mrs. Fitzprickle’s concerned face. Half-drowsy, he reached up to stroke the soft fur of her cheek. A surge of warmth ran through him the like of which he had never known, bringing a moist tear to Mrs. Fitzprickle’s dark eye.
“Why, bless me! The boy’s awake, Mr. Fitzprickle! Awake! What a sweet smile he has!”
Sitting up, Tam took in his surroundings. A shady room with walls rising irregularly from an earth floor, complete darkness relieved by the light from two small lattice windows, and a lamp placed upon a table in the centre, where sat a sagacious-looking hedgehog with greying quills whose glass spectacles perched perilously upon the end of his nose. These were turned in his direction, and behind them Mr. Fitzprickle (Tam had no doubt this was he) emitted such a look of pleasure and benevolence that Tam almost crowed aloud with delight.
“He’ll be hungry, Mrs. Fitzprickle! Yes he will!” Then Mr. Fitzprickle added: “I know I am!”
As Tam’s eyes grew more accustomed to the light he took in the rest of the room. There was a fireplace glowing comfortably with an armchair at either side, a brass bed warmer hanging from the wall, a stove at the further side from which there wafted a hot, spicy scent of food. Often most hungry when he woke, Tam experienced pangs of anticipation.
Here he was, as far as he could understand, waking up to morning in a room scraped beneath the roots of a great tree. About his shoulders a blanket woven from dried mosses, illustrated with little insect creatures, and so very cosy he did not ever want to let it go. It did not occur to him as strange that he should have become so small, his hosts grown to be as large as he. Why should it? This was Bellarc Wood.
Mrs. Fitzprickle sat Tam at the table on a wooden stool opposite Mr. Fitzprickle. She ladled three portions of dark stew from a pot upon the stove into three bark dishes, which she set before Tam and her husband and at a vacant place for herself. Three black carapaces were laid as spoons.
“Dig in, dear boy!” Mr. Fitzprickle coaxed Tam cheerily: “Dig in!”
Tam dug in. The stew was quite spicy, a sort of chocolaty flavour that tingled in the back of his throat.
“What is it?” He asked when he was sufficiently sated to draw breath.
“Migwit stew, my dear. The very best! Niceness! Tastiness!” Answered Mrs. Fitzprickle seriously. “Eat your fill, now. Eat your fill!”
There was an aftertaste of liquorice. “I like it very much.” Said Tam.
At this Mrs. Fitzprickle beamed from ear to ear with pleasure, and they ate dedicatedly for a while, the three of them, in silence. From a corner by the hearth, a single black beetle ventured out onto the great open expanse of the floor. Mr. Fitzprickle spotted it instantly. He leapt from his stool to pounce upon the creature, bringing it back to the table in triumph.
“There! Fresh Migwit!” He popped the hapless insect into his mouth. “Completes a meal!”
“Don’t speak with your mouthful, Mr. Fitzprickle!” His wife reminded him tersely. Tam laughed.
It was a magical morning. Mr. Fitzprickle postponed his usual morning snooze to take Tam for a walk deep into the wood, down through the tallest trees to the river. They went to visit O’Henry the otter’s family. Mr. and Mrs. O’Henry were very polite, and the kittens (three of them) were quite charming, although they prodded at Tam in a way which reminded him of tiny Oots, and smelled appallingly of fish.
Afterwards Mr. Fitzprickle and Tam strolled beside the water, shuffling among the dry leaves, listening to a gentle wind riffling the treetops and the cry of rooks wheeling above while the river picked up their reflections as though it would take them on a journey of its own. Beside them, clumps of reeds waved in graceful dance. As boys will, Tam reached for a stick to thrash at them – a long, straight stick which stuck straight up out of the water. He grasped it and pulled.
“Do you very much mind?” Said a gruff voice.
Mr. Fitzprickle squealed and, disconcertingly, rolled up into a ball. Still holding the stick, Tam looked upwards in the direction of the voice: upwards into the stillest, roundest, most piercing eye he had ever seen.
He found words. “I’m sorry! Who are you?” He gulped.
The owner of the eye turned its head slightly to one side. Tam’s mind registered a long, rapier-like beak, needle sharp, a feather crest bristling with annoyance.
“I? I am Helmut Heron. You are holding my leg und this is not good. Vill you let go, please?”
“I thought it was a stick.”
“Ja.” Helmut glared down at Tam: “This I understand, but, as you see, it is not. It is my leg. Vill you let go, or must I peck you?”
Mutely, Tam took his hand away.
“Gut. Very gut.” Said Helmut approvingly. Then as if to recall his anger, he added: “You realise you have ruined my fishing? Who are you?”
“My name is Tam.”
“Ah, Tam.” The heron’s great eye clouded a little. “Now I understand. Ja. The vood has been expecting you, Tam.”
“Has it?” Tam was amazed that his name should be known.
“Ja, Ja.” The heron said. “Ve shall meet again, you see, from time to time. You must come back, I think. You!” He snapped at Mr.Fitzprickle: “Stupid spiky thing, unroll yourself!”
Mr. Fitzprickle reluctantly allowed a black nose to protrude from his sphere of quills. “Yes, sir: yes, Your Mightiness!” As if to further gratify the heron, he stuck out one leg as well.
“You are taking him to ze Father of ze Forest?”
“Ja, sir. I mean, yes, Helmut.”
The great beak inclined slightly, as though in a nod of approval. “It should be so. Now, go avay unt let me get on mit my fishing!”
For a while afterwards progress was slow. Every few paces the crackle of a twig, or a louder rustle of breeze would send Mr. Fitzprickle back into a ball and, coax though he might, Tam could not unroll him until he was convinced the coast was clear.
“I can’t help it, you see. It’s health and safety.” Mr. Fitzprickle explained. “It just happens – yes!” And he gave his quills a vigorous shake, as if to rid himself of this particular demon.
A half-mile up river they crossed an old log bridge, up through a willow copse (“All sorts of nice snacks here.” said Mr. Fitzprickle, plucking something small and wriggling from the leaves: “Try one!”) to Bellarc Ridge.
“There!” Mr. Fitzprickle said proudly: “The Father of the Forest!”
Before them stood the largest, the oldest, the most venerable chestnut tree in the whole of Bellarc Wood. The mighty spread of its branches loomed over their heads like a vast domed roof, its web of wooden girders interlacing the sky into leaded windows of blue or white. At their centre a trunk of such girth as might support a town of wild creatures; wrinkled and knotted by the frown of age. Beneath the tree’s canopy chestnuts old and new coated the forest floor.
“Conkers!” Cried Tam enthusiastically.
“But you must not touch them, dear boy!” Warned Mr. Fitzprickle. “They are his children!”
So they approached the huge tree carefully, picking their way.
“Be respectful now.” Mr. Fitzprickle warned Tam. “He can be a bit crotchety in the mornings.”
Why, he did not know, but Tam walked forward alone. And as he did so, he felt the old tree’s boughs like arms stretching out to him, as though in welcome. He saw at once how these were not just of one tree, but the arms of the whole of Bellarc Wood. They were the arms which first beckoned him when he was lost, which cradled him as he slept: they brought the wonderful Fitzprickles to find him, and they made him warm, and at home.
“Come to me.” The great chestnut’s invitation was somewhere inside his head, deep and profound. “Come and rest.”
Tam sensed the tree’s tiredness, its age and its wisdom. His ‘must I?’ was not a spoken question, but it was answered. “We all must rest.”
All at once Tam saw that he could not make the final step towards the tree without pain! He shook in the grip of this sudden fear, tried to rebuff it, to step away. But then he understood: the hurt was the last hurt, the gateway to the freedom of the wood. At last he had found a place where the Fromigal and the Mardigal, the Oot People could not go. If he could but suffer it this once, just this once, he was safe. So Tam accepted it, took the agony to himself like a fire of resurrection and stepped, wholly and willingly, into the tree’s embrace.
They were all inside. Mr. and Mrs. Fitzprickle, the O’Henrys, Helmut, their welcome reaching out to him – all affirming.
It was the right thing to do.
Angela had been standing in the doorway for a long time.
“Come on, Ange, it’s a police matter now.” Mark said.
Nodding, she turned away. Not that she would ever turn her back on the picture: the tiny details of the picture; the ragged book with its illustrations of trees and animals, a strange shape like a hedgehog scraped by broken fingernails into the bare floor. And then, scrawled in who could tell (who would want to tell?) what, upon the timber nailed over the window, a word or a part of a word: T-A-M. Was it possible, Angela wondered, this poor creature taught itself to write in some way? Had it given itself a name?
That sight, that stench would be with her forever: the little naked body tortured so, torn so, lying twisted but finally content in death, would haunt her to her grave.
There was still a post mortem to endure, when they would find bruising from a thousand blows, traces of cockroaches and earwigs in the stomach, last desperate attempts at sustenance by a child in a locked room for whom food stopped coming: for whom love never came.
Mark, at her side, guiding her, shaking, to the stairs. “You can’t save them all.”
The police: “Come on, this is a crime scene. Let’s get the suits out of the way, shall we? What’s the name of the tenant?”
“One Thomas Madrigal and his girlfriend Andrea Forminghall.” The young officer’s reply was steady and unemotional. But even he had dreams.
“Why didn’t you come last week?” Angela asked Mark.
“Its case overload, babe.” Mark said. “We did all we could.”
The coffee breaks, the committees, the case conferences, the endless reams of paperwork, the ticking heartbeat of a relentless clock. If Angela looked into his eyes she would see the lie:
“Did we, Mark?” She asked; “Really – did we?”
© Frederick Anderson 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.