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Chapter 1 —The hermit
Waking to sunlight in early April so far north is a luxury. Neil stretched and yawned, feeling a kind of relief through all his limbs as the sunlight pressed down on him through the small square of the window.
'Spring!' he said to himself. 'Spring at last!'
And, afraid to miss a minute of it, he leapt up and leaned out into the clean, morning air. It was too early for the tall grasses, too early for the flowers, but the blessed pale sun touched everything with a kind of benediction, and everything seemed right with the world. In the marshlands in the centre of the island many of the lakes and pools were still frozen. The marsh birds that had stayed through the long winter went about their business. The first strings of migrants began restlessly to wing northward towards Iceland, the warming sun touching their feathers. The speckled, long-legged redshanks, the pink-footed goose, the greylag goose, the heron, the cheeky meadow pipit, all on the wing, all as excited as Neil. Summer would not be long in coming.
At the farm, the rough Lewis stone rubble walling of the farm buildings looked honey colour in the light except where the lichen turned them orange. The heather thatching was so overgrown with moss and lichen that it was almost as though the long building was there purely to support a garden. Against the winter wind the thatch had been lashed down and weighted with stones which in themselves were covered with lichen and added colour to the whole. The cold still kept the horses stamping in the paddock and breathing puff-balls of steam. The dogs were out, sniffing about; the hens and cocks pecking amongst the dirt of the yard. Onegreat golden cockerel shook out his gleaming feathers and crowed as though he personally was responsible for the spring.
The winter in the Isle of Lewis is like one very long and very bitter night. Dawn is Spring. Spring is release from the dark stuffy pressure of the house, from the stinging smoke in the eyes, from the damp, dank stone that surrounds you when you sleep. Bed rugs could be aired, clothes could be changed, journeys could be contemplated. Neil bound up the thongs of his shoes, pulled on his clothes and was away, clattering down the stairs, shouting to the dogs in the yard, desperate to get out before the suns' mood changed and the damp hand of the winter choked the life out of him again.
'Where are you going?' shouted his mother.
But Neil either did not, or would not, hear and kept on running. He would have breakfast with Brother Durston. Brother Durston would have some dried meat left from his winter store, he might even have oat cakes and porridge. He was a good cook in spite of his appearance. And he would have things to tell him, maybe some more carvings to show him.
'You are not going to that filthy hermit? Neil! Neil!' His mother's voice bleated across the yard. The dogs were all barking to greet him. A horse or two came to the fence to have its nose stroked. The chickens scattered, noisily.
He never knew how Brother Durston managed to survive the winter. It was bad enough in the great house and they had roaring fires and plenty of fur and wool to keep them warm, company and torches and good food, strong walls to keep out the scavenging winds and needle-sharp rain. The hermit on the other hand lived in what appeared to be a heap of rubble covered with turf. It was in fact a sturdily built little cell, each stone carefully placed to fit the next, the cracks totally covered by the turf roofing, and it leant against the slope of the hill so that the main blast of the winter wind would blow straight over the top. It was built steeply so that most of the snow would slide off its roof. The thick door of black oak had a curved wall just outside it to break the force of the weather when it was opened, and most of the smoke went up and out through a primitive chimney above the hearth. Most of the smoke. But not all. The walls inside the cell were blackened with smoke and Brother Durston himself had rings of black around his bloodshot eyes and grease clinging to his rancid clothes by the time the spring came. The smell inside his cell during winter was foul, but as the spring and summer advanced the whole place was aired and it became a pleasant place to be if you were a boy with a restless spirit and anxious to hear tales of the distant world with which Durston had been so familiar before he became a hermit and settled near Uig.
Neil had first seen him when he was eight years old. He had been sent to watch some sheep which were grazing rather too near the cliffs. The sun was high, the pale butterwort flowering, the heather marvellously purple. He had eaten his fill of bilberries and had had the satisfaction of watching a pigmy shrew scuttering about her business. Everything seemed set for an exceptionally good day. At midday he stood and gazed at the sea. It lay in gleaming sheets of silver below him as far as he could see. Where the rocks of the Island cut into it, white foaming cascades of water broke and scattered. He longed to be on it, longed to have a ship like a Viking ship, to sail away and never come back, following the sun, following the call of the nine sea maidens . . . One day . . . one day he would . . . no one would stop him! After a time he grew hungry and, as the sheep were grazing now safely away from the cliff, he started walking down the slope towards the farm, thinking of the good steaming stew his mother would have ready and the cool milk he would drink afterwards. Suddenly he was startled to hear a scuffling noise and from what appeared to be a pile of turf and rocks there rose a monster, getting taller all the time as he watched. It looked like a man and yet was too big and too ugly for a man. It seemed to have claws and a great beak and eyes as penetrating and as deadly as the eyes of the great golden eagle. He ran screaming from the place.
'It was something like a ghoul,' he babbled to his mother, 'and something like a beast. Like a great eagle, yet it had legs and arms. It lifted its claws and tried to clutch at me! Its eyes can see me!' He howled, 'its eyes can see me even here!'
'Nonsense,' said his mother.
'It was horrible . . . it rose up out of the ground, out of a kind of mound . . .'
'I am sure it was nothing but your imagination.'
'No. No! I saw it! It had rags instead of feathers or fur. Almost like a man.'
'You know,' his mother said thoughtfully, 'I think you might have seen the hermit of Uig.'
'Hermit? What is a hermit?' wept Neil, still thinking it was a creature from the underworld. Had he not seen the thing rising out of the earth?
'A Holy man, a man of God. One who has chosen to live by himself to pray for mankind and meditate on God. A good man. He would not hurt you.'
'A good man?' Neil could not believe that a good man could look so ugly and smell so vile, and be so tall and keep growing taller.
But as he grew older and had spent some time observing the hermit from a safe distance, he grew bolder and one day drew near enough to speak to him.
Copyright © 1976, 1999, Moyra Caldecott