He had always liked goats, ever since he was a kid. The way they looked at you, as if they knew exactly what you were thinking, the way they bleated at everything and anything , their eyes, dark pools of mystery, bottomless despair at a life of rustic hardship and inevitable death.
Yes…he liked this sad animal. He was one of them.
There was…no end …he thought…this place was tethering him, like a goat to a stake. He had to break free and he knew that there would be no return ; no warning, no punishment, no public forgiveness, not this time
This time he would leave for good.
Rhiannon nibbled at his boot – goats did that and she was just a kid. He caught hold of her collar and pulled her gently away. She squirmed in his grasp and broke free.
Now if only it could be that easy he thought.
He threw her the last of his sandwich, the bread was hard , rye bread always tasted stale to him.
He lay back on the bark of the giant Oak behind him – it’s wooden rivulets moulding to the shape of his young spine. It felt cold – the snows had penetrated many rings of it’s old trunk and now it too was frozen.
He pulled his wool coat closer around him – it gave him little comfort, it itched his neck and wrists where his skin met the coarse fibre.
His legs ached – it had been a long climb up to the high pastures. Northbridge looked like a big grey stone below. The snow covered most of the surrounding landscape but somehow only the roofs and trees of the gathering place had caught it’s icy mantle. The stone heart of his village was still visible amidst the blanket of white.
The Provosts house stood like a giant megalith – a warning to even mother nature that nothing would touch him – nothing could soften his granite heart.
Wasn’t the snow supposed to hide all that was ugly…?
His thoughts suddenly turned to “the Incident”. He hated that ‘it ‘ had made him feel this way. He hated that they had blamed him, even though he was only trying to help. Hated their disapproval , their teachings , their ways.
He hated this place. Hated it.
“…and so much hate wasn’t good for someone of his age – it could be dangerous… if left unattended…”
Wasn’t that what they had said ?
…as they left him alone in that dark cold room…to think, to self educate and to consider his ‘only’ option.
Rhiannon bleated – he looked up. She had finished the bread and was staring at him as if to say ” more ”
An image of ‘Oliver’ came to mind. He liked that film , his parents had bought him it as a child – and when his mother died , he and his brother watched it almost every day …until their father left to work for the Provost and then everything changed.
The VCR was taken away and Oliver along with other films and books were “disallowed”.
That was when it became grey. Grey and cold , and forever winter in Northbridge.
Northbridge – even the name seemed engineered. The practical positioning of a bridge in the North.
He heard a shot ring out below. Time to go. The herd he tended would have fed long enough now. It was his community service, part of the conditions put on him to atone for his mistakes. At first he resisted as was his wont but gradually his hill top look out gave him a sense of peace and a freedom from his Northbridge life that he began to look forward to. The goats were easy compared to the menial tasks set by his teachers. Somehow he seemed to fit better with these animals then with the humans they purported to be.
Rhiannon bleated loudly and the others responded. He wondered what they were saying about him.
Tufts of grass poked up through the icy slopes around him and yellow gorse bush clung to the ground…the only sunshine he could see in the dark hill top tundra.
He stared down at the village…a few candle lights were being lit and placed in the windows. Candles were part of their culture, a kind of artificial light.
He could just make out the roof of his house.
Tobias would be waiting for him…he hoped he had found the supper he had left. Poor Tobias he never knew what to do on his own, he had become so reliant on him just recently , as if growing younger not older. This troubled him and felt like a weight he could no longer bear. Guilt rose like bile in his throat. He swallowed hard and felt the wind pierce his eyes , as tears began to form in them.
This was not his choice. Maybe if things had been different…maybe if his mother…
The tears stated to flow.
His Father would not be home tonight – tonight was the Winter Solstice…the longest day of their year and much would be celebrated. He had to select one of their best milking cows for the occasion – a gift for the Provost – one from every farm commune in Northbridge.
The provost was King of this castle.
There would be the usual solstice rituals – slaughter , parade, feasting and drinking and of course the singing of the anthem …He hated that too.
Over the past few years he had found it hard to kill and eat the animals he cared for. Their eyes found his at times – as if they somehow knew their end was insight.
Rhiannon would only live till May…she was being fattened for Mayday. That was to be her end too.
Why he had named this goat – was his treasured secret. The Provost has forbidden sentiment when it came to animal kind.
There were to be no pets, no pet names – just man and animal. The Provost had turned Northbridge into a cold almost alien place.
He couldn’t live in this black , he needed the light, he needed to feel…happy again. His hand found the rucksack beside him…
He had packed enough food for the next week…some apples, berries , tinned ham and sardines ,oatcakes and cheese. He had concealed it over the course of that week..He didn’t want Tobias to suspect anything… or his father, even though he was his father, only in name.
He supposed any sense of family had left his father when their mother had passed. One day dad was there , the next …gone and in his place – father – but not the man they had once run up these hills with as children, with Tobias perched on his broad shoulders and him running , out of breath at his side, always trying to keep up with him, trying to meet his approval.
Like two peas in a pod his mother had said…and he remembered that he had felt proud to be like him…not now…now they were as different as the moon and the stars
Now his father was dead to him too.
Now Tobias was his only concern…his family …how would he be without him?
He picked himself up from the frozen ground and wrapped his scarf round his head… To cut out the wind’s icy blast …the light was fading…four of the afternoon and it was already getting dark…too dark for ” them ” to see.
He whistled for the goats and watched as they made their way over to him, running like tots in clumpy boots through the drifts of snow.
Rhiannon chewed at the gorse bush beside him…she was never one for mixing with the rest …since he had raised her as a ‘kid’ she had always seen him as her family.
Tobias thought this was funny..that he was like her “nanny” goat. He just laughed …he was a fool to everybody else…it didn’t matter somehow. He liked being different…he liked being on the other side.
Would Tobias understand why he was doing this? He hoped he would.
He picked up his crook and began to walk towards the gate of the high field. Rhiannon followed first…almost following in his exact footprints.
The rest grouped behind at a slight distance, occasionally stopping to gnaw at some half hardy plant or other that hung on to the icy earth for dear life.
The lights of the village came into view as he rounded the foot of the hill. He saw his house and it was still dark. They were not home yet. Tobias would probably still be at eve’n school and his father would be busy with the preparations for the solstice service.
They would not notice he had gone, perhaps till morning.
The streets were deserted. The cold kept people in at this time of year and it was a ‘sunday’.
A Sunday solstice was rare and one which was treated with much solemnity and occasion – each household would have its own celebration before meeting at the Gathering Place at midnight to welcome in the Spring.
He vaguely remembered December-time before – before the Provost… Before he changed things and brought in the new way, new traditions , a brand new heritage.
They had celebrated Christmas-time then with decorations and a tree with coloured lights, and sweets and presents and dancing and singing at the school parties.
He remembered getting a row from his father for drinking…Rhys had dared him to drink his father’s Christmas whiskey and being who he was he could never say no to a dare.
He had been sick all the next day and had to miss school and his mother had brought him lentil soup and buttered soda bread on the settee whilst he watched television.
The ‘ television ‘ left when she did and Christmas was disallowed when the Provost was made lawful leader.
Christmas was only a memory, a faint smell of freshly baked mincemeat pies and winter spruce. He couldn’t even remember what Christmas really meant but he knew it made him feel loved and happy.
He locked the goats in their pen at the back of the yard. Rhiannon looked up at him through big brown eyes.
She seemed to know where he was going, and what he was going to do. She bleated nervously at him through the wooden slats of the fence. He out his hand through the wood to comfort her and her nose was moist in his hand, her breath gentle on his wrist as he stroked her fur.
He made to go and she cried, it was the most human sound he had ever heard her make.
He turned and saw her jump up on the gate, her hooves tearing at the wood.
Was she telling him something? He didn’t know. But he knew he could not leave her here…just to die. Better to come with him and be free than stay and be ‘ served ‘on Mayday.
He opened the gate and she trotted through…the rest turned and watched her, chewing the cud, their ears pricked back as if in warning.
There they were …man, little goat and the dark night sky… but there was some light…a single star shone bright ahead of them.
It seems to stop over the bridge by the river. It shone down and illuminated the other side.
The road to Southbridge stretched before them
Southbridge was just the other side of the southern hills and he had planned to leave for sometime. His trips to the river with Tobias were not just for fishing…he had watched how the guards changed over every sixth hour and how only one was really ever on at night.
He knew that his best chance of crossing unseen was during winter when parts of the river were frozen and he could walk onto the broken stones that emerged through the water when the fast flowing current was weakened by ice.
There were at least three or four big stones at the river bend before the bridge that would form stepping stones for tonight’s crossing.
He would have to be quick and now with Rhiannon to carry…it may not be as easy…as he had planned.
He and his little kid made their way around the outskirts of Northbridge – by the paddock that was being transformed into some kind of wired enclosure for livestock. He had heard his father say that the Provost wanted it electrified and a watch tower built.
His father had, for a moment, looked like he thought this strange…something in the way his voice broke slightly when he told the boys at tea one night.
When Tobias asked why…he said he didn’t know but said that the Provost would have his reasons and that the Provost always knew best..and when Tobias asked again he shouted ” that the Provost had brought harmony and community spirit back to Northbridge..so was not to be questioned but respected.”
He remembered thinking that his father was wrong for not questioning the provost’s reasons, and that he no longer simply ‘believed’ in his father.
His father looked at him that night… as if he knew that too.
The enclosure looked like a half built prison, whether for animals or humans he didn’t know…nothing would surprise him any more about this ‘provost’ and his ‘ paganistic ‘ intentions.
He was a man to be feared, not respected as his fsther believed.
The star was leading him to the river, and it came into clearer sight as he moved past the last house in the village. A girl appeared at the window. Lydia…a pretty girl with wild red hair and eyes the colour of the May sky. She held a bronze candle lantern and the glow of the flame made her skin look like gold.
She looked at him for a moment and smiled. Did she know ? Then closed the wooden blind and the dark swallowed her up in the house again.
“Goodbye Lydia” he whispered
Then he remembered she had played Mary in the school nativity play…she was the prettiest girl in the class and all the boys had wanted to be Joseph, just so they could hold her and maybe even kiss her. But not him…He never wanted that.
A song from before suddenly came back into his head…he couldn’t quite remember the words but the tune was there in his mind…he began to sing…
“Away in a manger…no crib for a bed…the little lord Jesus lays down his sweet head…
The stars in the bright sky…looked down where he lay…la la la la la la la
No crying he made…”
He wished he’d sang those Christmas songs in school properly when he was younger ,instead of passing notes between his friends under the desk, or looking out of the window, then he would have remembered the words…the meaning of it all… maybe ?
The star in the bright sky looked down where he stood now. Right at the edge of the riverbank
He bent down and took off the rucksack, he took out the extra jumper and leather shoe he had put in there this morning.
He threw them out into the river…the current caught them and carried them slowly away from the river bank.
By morning they would hopefully have reached the weir, where they would be discovered and the news of his disappearance would then coincidentally be delivered to the commune authorities.
That was the plan at least. That they would think he had perhaps fallen into the river and maybe frozen to death in the frozen waters.
A plan was only as good as when you stick to it. He had been careful not to give any sign of his growing discontent and depression, to anyone in the past few months, least of all Tobias.
But he suspected his brother knew how he felt , and so always tried to be extra cheery around him and his friends , heartfelt laughter came easy when you were used to an act. Some thought him almost manic.
His act began shortly after the incident. It would only be a matter of time before they found out the truth. What had really happened to change him.
He wanted it all to stop now. He didn’t want to become an Initiant. It would be his turn to be apprenticed next year, to become like the rest of the young males who reached eighteen. His training would last three years and then he would be put to work where the Provost deemed suitable for his skill set.
Everyone wanted to be placed at Provost House for their initiation season – the thought of being ‘ brain washed’ like the others made him shiver – this was his only way out.
Southbridge would be his escape, he didn’t know what lay on the other side of the border fence but it couldn’t be any worse than what remained for him here.
Rhiannon bleated softly beside him – he quickly bent to silence her jaw. He could see the guard on his chair in the bridge hut, he didn’t appear to have heard…maybe he was sleeping…maybe listening to one of the many MP3 players that were frequently smuggled over the border from Southbridge. Technology eventually found its’ way to the North. He had even heard about devices that were like small computers in your hand – machines that let you see people when you spoke to them on telephones.
Computers had been disallowed in school in the second year of
Provostship, the same year they restricted the use of the telephone lines and other modern conveniences.
The electricity pylons remained, some things were still ‘permitted’ in Northbridge, electricity was seen as practical and therefore in keeping with “the way”.
The Provost advocated a return to country ways…a new order, family unity , communal agreement and any other glib phrase he could conjure up for his “adoring” followers. Things changed when he felt they needed to…you never quite knew what was right or wrong, allowed or disallowed.
He wondered if the Provost was the one with the mania not him. wondered too if he would stand out in Southbridge; If they would accept him considering his birth home.
Maybe he would be accepted there in more ways than one. He had struggled with being different all his life, there would be no acceptance for his ‘kind’ ever in Northbridge. The provost had told him that. He had made him feel wrong, an outcast even amidst his own peer group. Only Tobias understood who he was, only Tobias saw him for the person he was inside.
His mother always told him to be his own man. She was watching over him now…he was sure of that.
Rhiannon shivered as a gust of icy wind swept over them …her frail legs buckled inwards as she leant into his side.
Time to go. He put the rucksack back on his back and picked her up in his arms, slinging her small bulk over his broad shoulders. She wriggled slightly then settled into the top of the bag, trusting him to carry her safely onwards.
He saw the first stone emerge from the water in the dark , the star seemed to spotlight it like a solstice fire lantern.
Would they be gathering yet? He didn’t know…he didn’t really care anymore, he was ready for a new way…a return to his old ways, to cars and trains, telephones and computers, television and the kind of music they used to be allowed to listen to ‘BP’. To doing what he liked, to not being judged, to being happy.
He wanted to be free of this regime, this ritualisation, this extreme life. He didn’t belong here. He didn’t fit in to the Provost’s chosen people.
He was just Andrew. Andrew Evans. A Seventeen year old with a mixed up mind and youthful energy and swagger that needed nourished not repressed.
The star shone brighter than he had seen its’ light before – it seemed to fill the whole riverbank with light – a bright ice cold light that made his world turn electric blue
He stepped out knowing he was safe at last.
Then everything froze, time slowed and he was out of himself…
He felt Rhiannon slip from his shoulders, saw her hit the ground, her eyes staring up at him from her tiny red fractured skull
The pain hit him like a hammer…he felt his body collapsing down with her. His head struck the rock and he felt a warm gush of liquid seep from his nose.
The light around him intensified till it found his face.
The voice sliced through him like a knife…
Then he knew… He knew there would be no leaving Southbridge; not tonight …not ever.
He would have known that voice anywhere. The acrid stench of Menthol and arrowroot filled the air round him as he lay staring up and into the face of evil. No he would never forget the smell of the Provost.
The words were direct and held no hope for him:
” Going somewhere?”
Yes he thought…Home, any home , that is away from you.
” Take him back”
But as they laid their hands on him, to lift him from the river…he realised he was already on the other side, standing looking over at them, lifting up the figure of a young man who was already free.
The lifeless body was dragged to the cart and hoisted on board, the youthful head dangled over the edge, eyes like open pools staring back at him – smiling
” bring the animal ”
They lifted the dead baby goat and threw it on top of the limp body.
As they did…he carefully bent and picked up his precious Rhiannon, and she nestled into his arms and licked his face.
They couldn’t hurt her now. She was safe…they both were.
The road to Southbridge stretched out before them. The star started to move away behind them, as the men and the Provost drove the cart away, and back into Northbridge.
The light was dawning. The sun peeking over the foothills ahead of them, a short walk and they would be there.
A short walk to freedom. He liked the sound of that. One day he might even write a book about it he thought. Anything was possible. Another life awaited him and the kid.
The light broke suddenly from behind the hilltop and in a burst of sunshine – Andrew was gone.