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Authors: Jack Hastie

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BOOK: Fraser's Voices
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THE WETLANDS

It was Easter and the weather, though still rainy and blustery, was a little less cold and raw than it had been.

Fraser persuaded his parents that, to help in his recovery, he should go up to the cottage between his weekly visits to the hospital for his injections. The consultant agreed and so Fraser found himself back at Dunadd again three years after that first spring when he had found he could talk to the birds and animals.

As the consultant had said that he should get as much fresh air and exercise as possible he had no difficulty getting away to roam the wood and moor. As he tramped about he felt all his old energy surging in his veins and muscles in a way he had not felt for three years, and this gave him a new calm confidence in himself.

He didn't tell Jim Douglas he was back and hoped he wouldn't meet him with his gun and his murderous bloodlust. He did tell Rona and explained to her why he had come; first he had to meet his friends for the last time; then he would come and visit her and Sandy and the new pet she had told him about, the pinkfoot goose.

Nephesh still came to the garden, but the neighbours had arranged a festoon of netting over the goldfish pool which Klamath found impossible to penetrate; so he did not come. Still, Fraser gradually got up to date with the best part of six months' news:

One-eye had still not returned a year and a half after his disappearance. Bhuiridh, too, had been wandering for nearly a year; he had been seen several times around Kilrasken, but Jim's dad had chased him away. Nephesh said he had tried to join the red deer during the winter when they came down to more sheltered country, but now that they had returned to the high moorland he was not able to keep up with them and was now grazing, lonely and sadly in the wood where he would be unlikely to meet the triumphant Gobhar. Fraser
needed to see for himself; so he planned his expeditions carefully.

His first visit was to Klamath down in the wetlands by the loch side. He followed the Ballagan Burn through the wood where the traces of the great fire of a year and a half ago were gradually disappearing under a second spring's growth. There was Sebek's pool, black and brooding with a pair of moorhens dipping about at one edge. As he could see nothing in the depths he lay down on one elbow on the bank and listened.

There was no sound.

“What moves?” he called.

There was no reply.

He pulled a tuft of grass with a little mud still sticking to it and threw it on the water. As it drifted across the surface he could see the metallic glint of scales as the big fish rose slowly to investigate.

“I said ‘What moves?' Didn't you hear me?” Fraser repeated.

“I move; I alone in the pool.” That voice! That horrible grating voice. The pike saw there was nothing to eat and sank out of sight again.

“That's not what I came back for,” said Fraser to himself. “I don't care if I never speak to
him
again.”

He moved down stream out of the wood, past the lowest of the burn's waterfalls and on to the wetlands. He had never been as far as this before. From a distance it looked like a bright green field mottled by tufts of rushes and bog cotton. But the appearance was deceptive for the ground was sodden everywhere and the brightest patches of green hid places where there was no solid surface at all and the marsh plants floated on a bottomless sponge of ooze.

At first Fraser tried to pick a path through this quaking marsh, tiptoeing from tussock to tussock, trying to keep his feet dry, but after he had gone flat-footed into the soft green stuff several times he gave up and splashed straight on, accepting that there would be a row when he got home over the state of his socks and trainers.

The marsh was dotted with dozens of pinkfoot geese hungrily picking at the new green growth, building up their strength for the return flight to their summer breeding grounds, which, from the height of the sun, they knew they must soon make. They honked noisily at his approach, necks outstretched towards him.

“What moves?” he called.

“The sun, the height of the sun,” said one.

“What do you mean?”

“When the sun first rises to the north of Sgurr Mor we will return to our home,” hooted Ansar, the leader of the flotilla, already homesick for Bolstadur.

“Your home? Aren't you at home here?”

“For a time, yes, when darkness and ice close down over the north. But when the sun returns we long for the safest breeding grounds of all, where we can build our nests and hatch our eggs in peace, where the sun never sets and only creatures who can fly can reach us. Think of that, boy with a bird's tongue, no foxes, no dogs and none of your kind.”

Ansar became excited at the thought and started hopping from one big webbed foot to the other honking, “The sun; the sun.”

The others took up the cry and soon the whole flock was prancing about chanting, “The sun; the sun.”

Fraser left them at it and moved on with soaking feet to where the burn flattens out before finally ploughing into the loch and there he saw Klamath fishing for eels in the shallows.

“Klamath, what moves?”

“Where have you been?” asked the heron.

“I migrated.” It was the only way to answer the question, and not entirely untrue.

“This lot'll soon be off again. Time too. Noisy crowd.”

“What's been happening?”

“Not a bad season for eels. Still a bit too early for frogs, but I see there's quite a bit of spawn about.”

“What news on land?”

“Bhuiridh the goat, he's still wandering around like a lost hatchling on the moor. I hear the foxes have had another litter too.”

“One-eye?”

“I hear stories from Eye of the Wind. You should really go up to the moor and ask him yourself.”

And that was what Fraser decided to do next.

ON THE MOOR

It was a week before he could carry out his plan. First he had to go back to Glasgow for his injection, the second last of his course. Then his voices left him again and he wondered if, this time, they would come back at all.

However, they did and so he set off one blustery day to go up to the moor. He couldn't entirely avoid the traces of the great fire as he followed the Ballagan Burn past Kwarutta's pool. He climbed the steep slope past the rusting wreckage of Dyer's caravan on to the Goat Trail and then cut across the moor above it until he was at the foot of the jutting black cliffs of the Sgurr. He sat down on a boulder and waited.

Eventually in the distance there appeared a speck which Fraser could scarcely see. But that speck could not only see him, but recognised him as the “birdboy”, to whom he had spoken before and about whose adventures he had heard from Klamath. So Eye of the Wind decided to find out what it was that brought the strange boy onto his territory and the speck grew into a pair of big, blunt, fingertip wings which dropped lower and lower in wide swinging circles until the eagle landed on a rock.

“Why have you come here?”

Fraser shuddered at the harsh steely voice and the sight of those vicious, hooked, blue-black talons. No wonder the hare and grouse were so terrified of Eye of the Wind.

“I want your advice. You see everything.” Fraser started off with a little flattery, which worked with most animals, but the bird cut him short as it had the last time they had met.

“What do you want to know?”

“One-eye, the old fox, have you seen him?”

“I do not hunt crippled foxes.”

“But you might just have seen him somewhere.”

“Somewhere under the sun I may have glimpsed a fox, old and crippled, who is ashamed to show himself in better hunting grounds because he cannot face younger rivals. If he is still alive he might be your One-eye. But that was some time ago.”

“Where is he?”

“Do you see that cloud?”

“Yes.”

“Where will it be tomorrow? Your fox – if he is still alive – is now a wanderer without a home. Is that all?” The eagle opened his wings and launched himself into the air. In seconds he was again a speck, circling, always circling, and Fraser knew that when next he dropped, it would be to sink those talons into the flanks of a hare or the back of a grouse.

He shuddered again at the thought and looked in the other direction. There, below him on the Goat Trail, the herd was browsing by the edge of the wood. The powerful young buck standing on a rock on his own must be Gobhar. There was an older billy goat there too with one of his horns broken off at the tip and Fraser realised that Bhuiridh had at last swallowed his pride and rejoined the herd.

He trudged slowly across the moor. Perhaps One-eye too – if he was still alive – and then, somehow, he was certain that, although he would never be able to talk to him again, sooner or later, some windy night he would feel the thrust of a wet nose into his palm, the ruffle of silken ears under his fingers; and then there would be a bounding away into blackness.

EACH TO HIS OWN

Barook was more difficult to find than Klamath or Eye of the Wind. The badger never strayed from his sett until after dark and that meant a midnight expedition for Fraser.

He waited by his open bedroom window till a signal from Nephesh told him that Barook was out and about.

“Tell Barook I'll meet him where the rabbit track crosses One-eye's old trail.”

“I will tell him.”

Then he tiptoed downstairs, turning the key in the lock so carefully and closing the door behind him so gently that neither his mum nor dad heard. Then came the quick rush out across the garden and the walk along the trail he could have followed blindfold.

Barook was waiting.

“What moves?”

“I still move, a bit more slowly than I once did. More frogs and slugs and not as many young mice as when I was a cub.”

“One-eye?”

“Never been back. You know a new fox has taken over the territory. He came here about a year ago, but I chased him off. I'm getting too old to put up with litters of fox cubs. He found himself an earth on the other side of the wood.”

“Barook, I won't be able to come here again like this. You know I'm the only human who can speak your language.”

“I have heard of others,” said the badger, “but not in living memory.”

“It comes to me sometimes,” continued Fraser, “but at other times I can't talk to you and I can't understand you and I can't explain how it happens. Now they are doing something to me that will make me only able to talk to other humans. It's nearly finished and so, after tonight, I won't be able to speak to you again.”

For a long time the badger said nothing and Fraser wondered if he had fallen asleep.

At last he grunted, “That's how it should be. The badger lairs with the badger and the fox with the fox. In the spring the geese go back to their homes. The place of men is in houses behind doors barred and bolted like traps, not free with us in the woods. Go back to your own people.”

Fraser turned away in tears and Barook vanished into the night.

* * *

“She's as tame as a farmyard goose,” Rona told visitors to the surgery when they asked about Thorsa. “We'll soon have to find a farm to take her in.”

But when April came and the first long skeins straggled overhead, northwards from Islay on their way to the arctic, Thorsa became restless and started calling to the wild birds in the sky. Her wing had long ago healed, but she had made no attempt to fly since she first arrived in the compound.

Then one day she was gone.

That night she came back to the compound. The next day she was off again and again returned at night. For a week she was away every other day, but always back in the evening.

Then one morning she took off after a wild skein and did not return that night – or ever again.

“She'll be somewhere in Iceland or Greenland,” Cathy assured Rona, “with a mate and a nest and a clutch of eggs to hatch; and that's how it should be.”

A NEW VOICE

Barook was the last beast Fraser spoke to.

The next day he travelled back to Glasgow for his final injection. Shortly afterwards he realised that he had finally lost his special voice, but had found another.

He was walking the old trail in the woods. There were birds galore: rooks, jackdaws, pigeons; and slow worms under leaves, and toads under stones, and fish and frogs in the burn. He heard their chatter only as jangles.

Then he heard another sound ahead on the trail; a crude stamping sound that seemed to come from somebody who did not care if all the woodland knew he was there, and he was face to face with Jim Douglas – with an air rifle under his arm and a cigarette in his mouth.

“Fraser, how you doing, mate?”

“Did you have to bring that thing?”

“Sport mate. Get a bead on them, steady, then bang!” He dragged on his cigarette and spat, “Anyway they're all vermin.”

“Wood pigeons?”

“They're all the same. Look, we're farmers. You don't understand. They eat us out of house and home.”

“Wood pigeons do that?”

“Aye.”

There was a sudden flutter in the branches above them. Jim swivelled, swung his gun and fired. There was a harmless ‘ping' as the slug stung through the branches and a pigeon fluttered away unhurt.

“Don't try that again.”

“How not?”

“I'm telling you.”

Jim laughed, broke the gun and reloaded with deliberate, exaggerated, insulting movements. He swung the barrel in a big arc.

A rook exploded from high in a treetop, “
Caw! Caw! Caw!
,” was all Fraser heard.

Jim fired, but at the same instant Fraser struck the barrel of the gun upwards and the pellet flew wildly at the clouds.

“What the hell are you playing at?”

“I told you – don't try that again.”

“You gonnae make me?”

“You better believe it.”

“OK.” Jim put the gun down and crunched his cigarette under his heel. “Come on.”

They eyed each other like gunmen in a video.

Suddenly they grappled, like crabs, clutching each other and levering sideways, broke away and flung fists, clashed heads and backed off with bloody noses.

“Had enough?” challenged Jim.

“I'm waiting for you,” Fraser's voice was strangely quiet.

Suddenly Jim realised, like Rona with Gobhar standing stubbornly in front of her, that there is a time to let well alone.

He picked up his gun. “Sod off! You don't own the place. I'll be back,” and he turned away with what he hoped looked like a swagger.

Fraser stood his ground like a bulldog and only moved when he could tell by the tramplings and crashings that Jim was well out of the wood.

* * *

The next morning he wakened very early when it was still dark. He got up and opened his window. Nephesh had finished his hunting for the night and it was completely silent outside.

Then, like a signal, there was the whistle of a blackbird and within moments the still dark night was filled with the song of all the birds in all the woods and gardens of Argyll. Fraser watched as the sky slowly lightened until he could see the green of the lawn and the fields, and then, somehow, it was full, bright day. The music lasted a few minutes longer and then gradually faded.

His mum came into the room.

“Listening to the dawn chorus?' she asked. “Song birds sound so beautiful, just like the sound of flutes.”

IF ONLY SHE KNEW!

BOOK: Fraser's Voices
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