Authors: Jack Hastie
Copyright Â© 2013 C Jack Hastie
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ISBN 978 1780884 141
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Map, by Mary Hastie
Cover design by Mandy Sinclair
is an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd
Converted to eBook by
This book is dedicated to Amber, Erin, Mark
and Courtney, the author's grandchildren.
MAP OF THE AREA
Fraser did not realise at first that something unusual had happened; he could understand the speech of birds.
On the window ledge beside his bed they perched, starlings and jackdaws, tiny sparrows and blue tits and occasionally huge seagulls blown inland by gales, and he understood what they were saying. Then he was discharged from hospital and taken to the cottage to recover.
“We don't really know what the trouble is,” a doctor told his dad. “Keep an eye on him and let us know if there is any recurrence.”
He would lie awake at night, afraid of those tumblings of the mind, worrying about what might be the matter with him and he would hear the shrill conversations of mice in the room and outside the whispering voices of bats, the calls of owls and sometimes, far away, the sharp bark of a fox.
Slowly he began to feel as if he had found a whole new family of friends on Facebook.
At first, although he understood most of the words, Fraser found it difficult to make much sense of what the birds and animals were saying. They talked so much about smells and sounds, flying or burrowing, building nests and hatching eggs, hibernating or migrating, that the conversations on which he eavesdropped were rather like those of his dad and his friends about politics and business, banks and investments, stocks and shares.
But gradually, as he picked up the language and came to understand a little of what it all meant, he began to appreciate some of the problems and hopes and fears of the speakers: the worry of a pair of starlings nesting under the eaves, with newly-hatched chicks, that Lucky, the black and white cat from across the road, who moved like a shadow and could climb almost as well as they could fly, might reach the nest; the grunted complaint of a bad tempered hedgehog about the shortage of fat black slugs in the garden; the twittering of two mice working up their courage to dart out into the middle of the bedroom for a crumb.
It was then that Fraser discovered that he could talk as well as listen.
The first time he tried it was by accident. A young male magpie, in his first mating season, had whistled a boast so outrageous â about fighting a sparrow hawk â to a hen, that, without thinking, Fraser found himself whistling in the language of the birds, “Believe that and you'll believe anything.”
His lips had scarcely come back to their normal shape for human speech when he realised what he had done. The bird stood, beak agape, eyes wide with amazement, as if he could not believe his ears while the hen stopped preening herself abruptly, uttered a cackle of laughter and flapped off to another branch where a more mature male was practising his courtship patter.
Keen to experiment, Fraser tried out his new talent on someone else. A blackbird looked startled when he greeted it and flew to the safety of a higher branch, but then returned his compliment.
Starlings gossiped and argued so constantly among themselves that they accepted his contribution to their chatter and answered it without really noticing that it came from a ten year old boy and not from one of themselves. One of them even asked his opinion about the flavour of the beetles in the field on the other side of the garden wall.
At first Fraser found all this very interesting and he dreaded the day when his parents would announce that he was well enough to go back to school in Glasgow, away from his new friends. But after a while the novelty wore off. After all, catching beetles in a field isn't particularly exciting. Besides, Fraser was sure that no one would believe in his new gift and so, rather than be laughed at, he kept it all to himself â and he had nobody to share his adventures with.
Then came the mass murder.
Two doors away the people with the big garden kept hens. These lived in a run enclosed with wire mesh and slept at night in a big wooden coop. One night they were all slaughtered; fourteen hens with their heads bitten off and not one of them eaten.
Their owner swore vengeance on the killer, whoever he might be, and talked to a local gamekeeper about setting traps, putting down poison and sending out shotgun parties with assorted mongrels to drive the creatures of the woods and fields on to the guns.
At once the slaughter of the hens became the talk of the gardens. Fraser knew that some animals have to kill in order to live, but even the owl who night after night took a toll of mice and voles, and the gulls and rooks who thought nothing of taking live chicks from the nests of smaller birds, were horrified at the idea of such wholesale slaughter. Fraser learned too that even the boldest and most cunning of killers, the wildcat and the fox, shrank from taking farmyard animals, like ducks or hens or young lambs, because they knew that men would surely come with dogs and guns and traps and poisons and everyone would suffer.
As he idly kicked a stone by the side of a fence in the twilight one evening, Fraser listened as the birds voiced their suspicions as to who the murderer could be.
“Weasels, probably,” said a jackdaw. “They always spoil things for themselves. Too greedy!”
“No weasel did that,” answered an old rook. “Whoever did that dug right under the fence and then clawed his way into a corner of the coop where the wood was rotten. Reckon they'll be blaming One-eye.”
One-eye, Fraser had heard, was the old fox, scarred victim and survivor of a hundred traps and fights and close encounters with dogs. Possibly, in his old age he might have taken to killing poultry, but why so many? Most of the birds felt that, like the cunning old dog he was, he would have taken what he needed and slipped away.
“He'll get the blame anyway,” insisted the rook. “You watch. They'll be into all his earths with terriers in a day or two.”
Fraser had a strong sense of justice. Occasionally, at school he or one of his friends had been punished for something he had not done, and he had resented it. So the killer, if it really wasn't One-eye, would have to be found so that the fox wasn't chased out of his earth and trapped or shot for a crime he had not committed.
But if not One-eye, who else?
Fraser was only beginning to get to know the creatures of the woods and he knew that there must be many he knew nothing at all about, so he decided to try out his new tongue and see what he could discover.
One evening, a little before dusk, he walked deep among the trees and addressed a question to no one in particular.
“Who killed all the hens in the coop in the big garden?”
All at once there was silence, just like when the shadow of a hawk or an eagle falls on a field and everyone crouches down still and tries to hide. Fraser repeated his question and this time a particularly cheeky starling broke the silence.
“How should we know? None of our business.”
“Then who does know?” persisted Fraser.
This time a magpie chirped up, “Go and ask Eye of the Wind. He sees everything,” and he repeated the starling's remark, “None of our business.”
Suddenly all the bird chatter broke out again as if they had all dismissed the thought of the killing from their minds.
“Eye of the Wind,” wondered Fraser. He would have to ask someone who that was. “No use asking the birds,” he muttered to himself. “They're too empty-headed to talk seriously about anything.”
By this time he was almost through the wood and was just about to clamber over the dry stone dyke that marked its upper boundary, onto the open moor, when there was a hiss of wings, a crashing of curved talons, and a huge feathered thing skidded into a peat hag and bounced off again in disgust as a young rabbit dived, just in time, under the roots of a fallen tree.
Fraser caught a quick glimpse of a cruel eye and savagely hooked beak before the thing was off on the beating of powerful wings and soon no more than a speck in the sky.
“Ah!” gasped the rabbit, shaking himself to make sure he was really still in one piece. “Must be more careful. One chance too many, they say.”
“That was close,” said Fraser in the dialect he had learned from the mice in the cottage. “What was it?”
The rabbit looked up in amazement. What was this enormous creature that looked like a human boy and yet spoke like a fellow rodent and burrower? He retreated as far as possible under his root before replying.
“You mean you've never seen him before? You're lucky! But then you're too big for him; you don't have to worry.”
“Maybe there are bigger ones who would come for me. Who is he? Where did he come from?”
“We call him Eye of the Wind because he comes out of the sky, from behind the sun. Nobody knows where he lives, but I did hear from a grouse that he has a nest somewhere up in the mountains.”
Feeling that he had taken enough chances already that evening the youngster scuttled off into the deep cover of some heather and was lost.
Fraser looked up towards the blue hills that rolled endlessly along the horizon, broken only by the sharp crags of Sgurr Mor which jutted forward like the prow of a ship. Between the Sgurr and the wood lay the moor. He had never been close to it before and now, looking at it for the first time, he felt a sudden clutch of fear as he saw the terrible desolation of black peat hags, brown pools and grey rocks.
High above, somewhere, was Eye of the Wind, wheeling and circling, always circling.
Fraser felt completely helpless. He had never been in such a huge, empty place before. To track down Eye of the Wind in that wilderness must be impossible.
It was Klamath, the heron, who himself regularly flies over the moor from one fishing pool to another, who gave him some hope.
“Eye of the Wind is the golden eagle and he has a nest just like the rest of us. Up there,” Klamath pointed with his long beak to the black cliffs which encircled the bald summit of Sgurr Mor. “A sheep track leads to the foot of the cliffs. If you can get up from there you'll find his mate sitting on eggs somewhere on a ledge. But take care. The only creatures who come anywhere near his nest are thieves, ravens and sometimes gulls; so if he sees you getting too close â and he sees everything â he'll try to knock you off your perch.”
It was several weeks before Fraser could go. Day after day grey cloud raced across the moor wrapping the cliffs in a shroud of soaking cotton wool. And day after day Fraser turned away from his window to plan other adventures. Then, one day, a clean wind swept the sky, the moor bristled and the cliffs stood out, cracked and creviced, every ledge outlined by the slanting sunlight.
Fraser crept away, as he had planned, telling no-one, and set out to reach the crag-perched eyrie of the most dreaded predator on the moor.
The trail through the heather led gradually upwards towards the cliffs. From time to time he met grouse who exploded with a “Watch out! Watch out!” from almost under his feet, or a bolting hare, with bulging eyes that could see in all directions. Fraser tried to ask them about his search but, although they must have known about Eye of the Wind they were too startled, too quick to bolt, to stop and talk to him. Only a curlew, stepping delicately through the brown moor grass, told him, “Go home, boy with the bird's tongue. The cliffs are death to those who cannot fly.”
So, under the hot sun, Fraser toiled upwards until he had left the grouse and the hares behind and stood at the foot of the cliffs, looking up. All he could see were towering columns split by a maze of cracks and crannies; the ledges where a bird might nest could not be seen from below.
What should he do now?
Just as he wondered there was a hiss of wings and a huge bird landed on a boulder a few yards away, balanced for a second and then folded his wings and eyed him. Fraser noticed the sharp, curved talons gripping the rock.
“What moves?” Fraser asked, using a phrase he had heard from a kestrel.
“Boy with a bird's tongue,” came the reply in a harsh metallic voice. “Why have you come here?”
The giant bird flapped his wings several times and fluffed out his feathers. Fraser was afraid. His eyes kept coming back to those talons and that beak. “Who killed all the hens in the garden in the village?” he stammered. “They're blaming One-eye andâ¦ “ Fraser started to explain his question, but the eagle cut him short with a clatter of his beak.
“How should I know that?”
“They say you see everything.”
“I do, by day. I see everything that moves on land and in the air. But I do not hunt by night and even I can't see what moves under water. Go and ask Nephesh the owl.”