I found this in one of my old "children's" books not too long ago. I say children
in quotes because this story (actually the seven stories in this book) are not
really suited to children. Anyway, the book is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More
by Roald Dahl. And the rest of the stories are great too. But this one really struck me.
Here it is. (Be forewarned: it's 11 pages typed, so it'll take you a bit to read. But I think it's worth it.)
Ernie had been given a .22-caliber rifle for his birthday.
His father, who was already slouching on the sofa watching television at nine-thirty on this Saturday morning, said, "Let's see what you can pot, boy. Make yourself useful. Bring us back a rabbit for supper."
"There's rabbits in that big field the other side of the lake," Ernie said. "I seen 'em."
"Then go out and nab one," the father said, picking breakfast from between his front teeth with a split matchstick. "Go out and nab us a rabbit."
"I'll get yer two," Ernie said.
"And on the way back," the father said, "get me a quart bottle of brown ale."
"Gimme the money, then," Ernie said.
The father, without taking his eyes from the TV screen, fished in his pocket for a pound note. "And don't try pinchin' the change like you did last time," he said. "You'll get a thick ear if you do, birthday or no birthday."
"Don't worry," Ernie said.
"And if you want to practice and get your eye in with that gun," the father said, "birds is best. See 'ow many spadgers you can knock down, right?"
"Right," Ernie said. "There's spadgers all the way up the lane in the 'edges. Spadgers is easy."
"If you think spadgers is easy," the father said, "go get yourself a jenny wren. Jenny wrens is 'alf the size of spadgers and they never sit still for one second. Get yourself a jenny wren before you start shootin' yer mouth off about 'ow clever you is."
"Now Albert," his wife said, looking up from the sink. "That's not nice, shootin' little birds in the nestin' season. I don't mind rabbits, but little birds in the nestin' season is another thing altogether."
"Shut your mouth," the father said. "Nobody's askin' your opinion. And listen to me, boy," he said to Ernie. "Don't go wavin' that thing about in the street because you ain't got no license. Stick it down your trouser leg till you're out in the country, right?"
"Don't worry," Ernie said. He took the gun and the box of bullets and went out to see what he could kill. He was a big lout of a boy, fifteen years old this birthday. Like his truck-driver father, he had small, slitty eyes set very close together near the top of the nose. His mouth was loose, the lips often wet. Brought up in a household where physical violence was an everyday occurrence, he was himself an extremely violent person. Most Saturday afternoons, he and a gang of friends traveled by train or bus to soccer matches, and if they didn't manage to get into a bloody fight before they returned home, they considered it a wasted day. He took great pleasure in catching small boys after school and twisting their arms behind their backs. Then he would order them to say insulting and filthy things about their own parents.
"Ow! Please don't, Ernie! Please!"
"Say it or I'll twist your arm off!"
They always said it. Then he would give the arm an extra twist, and the victim would go off in tears.
Ernie's best friend was called Raymond. He lived four doors away, and he, too, was a big boy for his age. But while Ernie was heavy and loutish, Raymond was tall, slim, and muscular.
Outside Raymond's house, Ernie put two fingers in his mouth and gave a long, shrill whistle. Raymond came out.
"Look what I got for me birthday," Ernie said, showing the gun.
"Cripes!" Raymond said. "We can have some fun with that!"
"Come on, then," Ernie said. "We're goin'up to the big field the other side of the lake and get us a rabbit."
The two boys set off. This was a Saturday morning in May, and the countryside was beautiful around the small village where the boys lived. The chestnut trees were in full flower and the hawthorn was white around the hedges. To reach the big rabbit field, Ernie and Raymond had first to walk down a narrow hedgy lane for half a mile. Then they must cross the railway line, and go around the big lake where wild ducks and moorhens and coots and ring-ouzels lived.Beyind the lake, over the hill and down the other side, lay the rabbit field. This was all private land belonging to Douglas Highton, and the lake itself was a sanctuary for waterfowl.
All the way up the lane, they took turns with the gun, potting at small birds in the hedges. Ernie got a bullfinch and a hedge sparrow. Raymond got a second bullfinch, a whitethroat and a yellowhammer. As each bird was killed, they tied it by the legs to a line of string. Raymond never went anywhere without a big ball of string in his jacket pocket, and a knife. Now they had five little birds dangling on the line of string.
“You know something,” Raymond said. “We can eat these.”
“Don’t talk so daft,” Ernie said. “There’s not enough meat on one of those to feed a woodhouse.”
“There is, too,” Raymond said. “The Frenchies eat ‘em and so do the Eyrties. Mr. Sanders told us about it in class. He said the Frenchies and the Eyeties put up nets and catch ‘em by the million and then they eat ‘em.
“All right, then,” Ernie said. “Let’s see ‘ow many we can get. Then we’ll take ‘em ‘ome and put ‘em in the rabbit stew.”
As they progressed up the lane, they shot at every little bird they saw. By the time they got to the railway line, they had fourteen small dead birds dangling on the line of string.
“Hey!” whispered Ernie, pointing with a long arm. “Look over there!”
There was a group of trees and bushes alongside the railway line, and beside one of the bushes stood a small boy. He was looking up into the branches of an old tree through a pair of binoculars.
“You know who that is?” Raymond whispered back. “It’s that little twerp Watson.”
“You’re right!” Ernie whispered. “It’s Watson, the scum of the earth!”
Peter Watson was always the enemy. Ernie and Raymond detested him because he was nearly everything that they were not. He had a small, frail body. His face was freckled, and he wore spectacles with thick lenses. He was a brilliant pupil, already in the senior class at school although he was only thirteen. He loved music and played the piano well. He was no good at games. He was quiet and polite. His clothes, although patched and darned, were always clean. And his father did not drive a truck or work in a factory. He worked at the bank.
“Let’s give the little perisher a fright,” Ernie whispered.
The two bigger boys crept up close to the small boy, who didn’t see them because he still had the binoculars to his eyes.
“‘Ands up!” shouted Ernie, pointing the gun.
Peter Watson jumped. He lowered the binoculars and stared through his spectacles at the two intruders.
“Go on!” Ernie shouted. “Stick ‘em up!”
“I wouldn’t point that gun if I were you,” Peter Watson said.
“We’re givin’ the orders round ‘ere!” Ernie said.
“So stick ‘em up, unless you want a slug in the guts!”
Peter Watson stood quite still, holding the binoculars in front of him with both hands. He looked at Raymond. Then he looked at Ernie. He was not afraid, but he knew better than to play the fool with these two. He had suffered a good deal from their attentions over the years.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I want you to stick ‘em up!” Ernie yelled at him. “Can’t you understand English?”
Peter Watson didn’t move.
“I’ll count to five,” Ernie said, “and if they’re not up by then, you get it in the guts. One...two...three...”
Peter Watson raised his arms slowly above his head. It was the only sensible thing to do. Raymond stepped forward and snatched the binoculars from his hand. “What’s this?” he snapped. “Who you spyin’ on?”
“Don’t lie, Watson. Them things is used for spyin’! I’ll bet you was spyin’on us! That’s right, ain’t it? Confess it!”
“I certainly wasn’t spying on you.”
“Give ‘im a clip over the ear,” Ernie said. “Teach ‘im not to lie to us.”
“I’ll do that in a minute,” Raymond said. “I’m just workin’ meself up.”
Peter Watson considered the possibility of trying to escape. All he could do would be to turn and run, and that was pointless. They’d catch him in seconds. And if he shouted for help, there was no one to hear him. All he could do, therefore, was to keep calm and try to talk his way out.
“Keep them ‘ands up!” Ernie barked, waving the barrel of the gun gently from side to side the way he had seen it done by gangsters on television. “Go on, laddie, reach!”
Peter did as he was told.
“So ‘oo was you spyin’ on?” Raymond asked. “Out with it!”
“I was watching a green woodpecker,” Peter said.
“A male green woodpecker. He was tapping the trunk of that old dead tree, searching for grubs.”
“Where is ‘ee?” Ernie snapped, raising his gun. “I’ll ‘ave ‘im!”
“No, you won’t,” Peter said, looking at the string of tiny birds slung over Raymond’s shoulder. “He flew off the moment you shouted. Woodpeckers are extremely timid.”
“What you watchin’ ‘im for?” Raymond asked suspiciously. “What’s the point? Don’t you ‘ave nothin’ better to do?”
“It’s fun watching birds,” Peter said. “It’s a lot more fun than shooting them.”
“Why you cheeky little bleeder!” Ernie cried. “So you don’t like us shootin’ birds, eh? Is that what you’re sayin’?”
“I think it’s absolutely pointless.”
“You don’t like anything we do, isn’t that right?” Raymond said.
Peter didn’t answer.
“Well, let me tell you something,” Raymond went on. “We don’t like anything you do either.”
Peter’s arms were beginning to ache. He decided to take a risk. Slowly, he lowered them to his sides.
“Up!” yelled Ernie. “Get ‘em up!”
“What if I refuse?”
“Blimey! You got a ruddy nerve, ain’t you?” Ernie said. “I’m tellin’ you for the last time, if you don’t stick ‘em up I’ll pull the trigger!”
“That would be a criminal act,” Peter said. “It would be a case for the police.”
“And you’d be a case of the ‘ospital!” Ernie said.
“Go ahead and shoot,” Peter said. “Then they’ll send you to Borstal. That’s prison.”
He saw Ernie hesitate.
“You’re really askin’ for it, ain’t you?” Raymond said.
“I’m simply asking to be let alone,” Peter said. “I haven’t done you any harm.”
“You’re a stuck-up little squirt,” Ernie sain. “That’s exactly what you are, a stuck-up little squirt.”
Raymond leaned over and whispered something in Ernie’s ear. Ernie listened intently. Then he slapped his thigh and said, “I like it! It’s a great idea!”
Ernie placed his gun on the ground and advanced upon the small boy. He grabbed him and threw him to the ground. Raymond took the roll of string from his pocket and cut off a length of it. Together, they forced the boy’s arms in front of him and tied his wrists together tight.
“Now the legs,” Raymond said. Peter struggled and received a punch in the stomach. This winded him, and he lay still. Next, they tied his ankles together with more string. He was now trussed up like a chicken and completely helpless.
Ernie picked up his gun, and then, with his other hand, he grabbed one of Peter’s arms. Raymond grabbed the other arm and together they began to drag the boy over the grass toward the railway line.
Peter kept absolutely quiet. Whatever it was they were up to, talking to them wasn’t going to help matters.
They dragged their victim down the enbankment and on to the railway tracks themselves. Then one took the arms and the other the feet and they lifted him up and laid him down again lengthwise right between two rails.
“You’re mad!” Peter said. “You can’t do this!”
“‘Oo says we can’t? This is just a little lesson we’re teachin’ you not to be cheeky.”
“More string,” Ernie said.
Raymond produced the ball of string, and the two larger boys now proceeded to tie their victim down in such a way that he couldn’t wriggle away from between the rails. They did this by looping string around each of his arms and then threading the string inder the rails on either side. They did the same with his middle body and his ankles.When they had finished, Peter Watson was strung down helpless and virtually immobile between the rails. The only parts of his body he could move to any extent were his head and feet.
Ernie and Raymond stepped back to survey their handiwork. “We done a nice job,” Ernie said.
“There’s trains every ‘arf ‘our on this line,” Raymond said. “We ain’t gonna ‘ave long to wait.”
“This is murder!” crie the small boy lying between the rails.
“No it ain’t,” Raymond told him. “It ain’t anything of the sort.”
“Let me go! Please let me go! I’ll be killed if a train comes along!”
“If you are killed, sonny boy,” Ernie said, “it’ll be your own ruddy fault and I’ll tell you why. Because if you lift your ‘ead up like you’re doin’ now, then you’ve ‘ad it, chum! You keep down flat and you might just possibly get away with it. On the other ‘and, you might not because I ain’t exactly sure ‘ow much clearance them trains’ve got underneath. You ‘appen to know, Raymond, ‘ow much clearance them trains got underneath?”
“Very little,” Raymond said. “They’re built ever so close to the ground.”
“Might be enough and it might not,” Ernie said.
“Let’s put it this way,” Raymond said. “It’d probably just about be enough for an ordinary person like me or you, Ernie. But Mister Watson ‘ere I’m not so sure about and I’ll tell you why.”
“Tell me,” said Ernie, egging him on.
“Mister Watson ‘ere’s got an extra big head, that’s why. ‘Ee’s so flippin’ big-’eaded I personally think the bottom bit of the train’s gonna scrape ‘im whatever ‘appens. I’m not sayin’ it’s goin’ to take ‘is ‘ead off, mind you. In fact I’m pretty sure it ain’t goin’ to do that. But it’s goin’ to give ‘is face a good old scrapin’ over. You can be quite sure of that.”
“I think you’re right,” Ernie said.
“It don’t do,” Raymond said, “to ‘ave a great big swollen ‘ead full of brains if you’re lyin’ on th railway tracks with a train comin’ toward you. That’s right, ain’t it, Ernie?”
“That’s right,” Ernie said.
The two bigger boys climbed back up the embankment and sat on the grass behind some bushes. Ernie produced a pack of cigarettes, and they both lit up.
Peter Watson, lying helpless between the rails, realized now that they were not going to release him. These were dangerous, crazy boys. They lived for the moment and never considered the consequences. I must try to keep calm and think, Peter told himself. He lay there, quite still, weighing his chances. His chances were good. The highest part of him was his head and the highest part of his head was his nose. He estimated the end of his nose was sticking up about four inches above the rails. Was that too much? He wasn’t quite sure what clearance these modern diesels had above the ground. It certainly wasn’t very much. The back of his head was resting upon loose gravel in between two sleepers. He must try to burrow down a little into the gravel. So he began to wriggle his head from side to side, pushing the gravel away and gradually making for himself a small indentation, a hole in the gravel. In the end, he reckoned he had lowered his head an extra two inches. That would do for the head. But what about the feet? They were sticking up, too. He took care of the by swinging the two tied-together feet over to one side so that they lay almost flat.
He waited for the train to come.
Would the driver see him? It was very unlikely, for this was the main line, London, Doncaster, York, Newcastle and Scotland, and they used huge long engines in which the driver sat in a cab way back and kept an eye open only for the signals. Along this stretch of track they traveled around eighty miles and hour. Peter knew that. He had sat on the bank many times watching them When he was younger, he used to keep a record of their numbers in a little book, and sometimes the engines had names written on their sides in gold letters.
Either way, he told himself, it was going to be a terrifying business. The noise would be deafening, and the swish of the eighty-mile-an-hour wind wouldn’t be much fun either. He wondered for a moment whether there would be any kind of vacuum created underneath the train as it rushed over him, sucking him upward. There might well be. So whatever happened, he must concentrate everything upon pressing his entire body against the ground. Don’t go limp. Keep stiff and tense and press down into the ground.
“How’re you doin’, ratface?” one of them called out to him from the bushes above. “What’s it like, waitin’ for the execution?”
He decided not to answer. He watched the blue sky above his head where a single huge cumulus cloud was drifting slowly from left to right. And to keep his mind off the thing that was going to happen soon, he played a game that his father had taught him long ago on a hot summer’s day when they were lying on their backs in the grass above the cliffs at Beachy Head. The game was to look for strange faces in the folds and shadows and billows of a cumulus cloud. If you looked hard enough, his father had said, you would always find a face of some sort up there. Peter let his eyes travel slowly over the cloud. In one place, he found a one-eyed man with a beard. In another, there was a long-chinned laughing witch. An airplane came across the cloud traveling from east to west. It was a small high-winged monoplane with a red fuselage. An old Piper Cub, he thought it was. He watched it until it disappeared.
And then, quite suddenly, he heard a curious little vibrating sound coming from the rails on either side of him. It was very soft, this sound, scarcely audible, a tiny little humming, thrumming whisper that seemed to be coming along the rails from far away.
That’s a train, he told himself.
The vibrating along the rails grew louder, then louder still. He raised his head and looked down the long and absolutely straight railway track that stretched away for a mile or more in the distance. It was then that he saw the train. At first it was only a speck, a faraway black dot, but in those few seconds that he kept his head raised, the dot grew bigger and bigger, and it began to take shape, and soon it was no longer a dot but the big, square, blunt front-end of a diesel express. Peter dropped his head and pressed it down hard into the small hole he had dug for it in the gravel. He swung his feet over to one side. He shut his eyes tight and tried to sink his body into the ground.
The train came over him like an explosion. It was as though a gun had gone off in his head. And with the explosion came a tearing, screaming wind that was like a hurricane blowing down his nostrils and into his lungs. The noise was shattering. The wind choked him. He felt as if he were being eaten alive and swallowed up in the belly of a screaming murderous monster.
And then it was over. The train had gone. Peter opened his eyes and saw the blue sky and the big white cloud still drifting overhead. It was all over now and he had done it. He had survived.
“It missed ‘im,” said a voice.
“What a pity,” said another voice.
He glanced sideways and saw the two large louts standing over him.
“Cut ‘im loose,” Ernie said.
Raymond cut the strings binding him to the rails on either side.
“Undo ‘is feet so ’ee can walk, but keep ‘is ‘ands tied,” Ernie said.
Raymond cut the string around his ankles.
“Get up,” Ernie said.
Peter got to his feet.
“What about them rabbits?” Raymond asked. “I thought we was goin’ to try for a few rabbits?”
“Plenty of time for that,” Ernie answered. “I just thought we’d push the little bleeder into the lake on the way.”
“Good,” Raymond said. “Cool ‘im down.”
“You’ve had your fun,” Peter Watson said. “Why don’t you let me go now?”
“Because you’re a prisoner,” Ernie said. “And you ain’t just no ordinary prisoner neither. You’re a spy. And you know what ‘appens to spies when they get caught, don’t you? They get put up against the wall and shot.”
Peter didn’t say any more after that. There was no point at all in provoking these two. The less he said to them and the less he resisted them, the more chance he would have of escaping injury. He had no doubt whatsoever that in their present mood they were capable of doing him quite serious bodily harm. He knew for a fact that Ernie had once broken little Wally’s Simpson’s arm after school, and Wally’s parents had gone to the police. He had also heard Raymond boasting about what he called “putting the boot in” at the soccer matches they went to. This, he understood, meant kicking someone in the face or body when he was lying on the ground. They were hooligans, these two, and from what Peter read in his father’s newspaper nearly every day, they were not by any means on their own. It seemed the whole country was full of hooligans. They wrecked the interiors of trains, they fought pitched battles in the streets with knives and bicycle chains and metal clubs, they attacked pedestrians, especially other young boys walking alone, and they smashed up roadside cafés. Ernie and Raymond, though perhaps not quite yet fully qualified hooligans, were most definitely on their way.
Therefore, Peter told himself, he must continue to be passive. Don’t insult them. Do not aggravate them in any way. And above all, do not try to take them on physically. Then, hopefully, in the end, they might become bored with this nasty little game and go off to shoot rabbits.
The two larger boys had each taken hold of one of Peter’s arms and they were marching him across the next field toward the lake. The prisoner’s wrists were still tied together in front of him. Ernie carried the gun in his spare hand. Raymond carried the binoculars he had taken from Peter. They came to the lake.
The lake was beautiful on this golden May morning. It was a long and fairly narrow lake with tall willow trees growing here and there along its banks. In the middle, the water was clear and clean, but nearer to the land there was a forest of reeds and bulrushes.
Ernie and Raymond marched their prisoner to the edge of the lake, and there they stopped.
“Now then,” Ernie said. “What I suggest is this. You take ‘is arms and I take ‘is legs and we’ll swing the little perisher one-two-three as far out as we can into them nice muddy reeds. ‘Ow’s that?”
“I like it,” Raymond said. “And leave ‘is ‘ands tied together, right?”
“Right,” Ernie said. “’Ow’s that with you, snotnose?”
“If that’s what you’re going to do, I can’t very well stop you,” Peter said, trying to keep his voice cool and calm.
“Just you try and stop us,” Ernie said, grinning, “and then see what ‘appens to you.”
“One last question,” Peter said. “Did you ever take on somebody your own size?”
The moment he said it, he knew he had made a mistake. He saw the flush coming to Ernie’s cheeks, and there was a dangerous little spark dancing in his small black eyes.
Luckily, at that very moment, Raymond saved the situation. “Hey! Lookit that bird swimmin’ in the reeds over there!” he shouted, pointing. “Let’s ‘ave ‘im!”
It was a mallard drake with a curvy spoon-shaped yellow beak and a head of emerald green with a white ring around its neck. “Now those you really can eat,” Raymond went on. “It’s a wild duck.”
“I’ll ‘ave ‘im!” Ernie cried. He let go of the prisoner’s arm and lifted the gun to his shoulder.
“This is a bird sanctuary,” Peter said.
“A what?” Ernie asked, lowering the gun.
“Nobody shoots birds here. It’s strictly forbidden.”
“’Oo says it’s forbidden?”
“The owner, Mr. Douglas Highton.”
“You must be joking,” Ernie said and he raised the gun again. He shot. The duck crumpled in the water.
“Go get ‘im,” Ernie said to Peter. “Cut ‘is ‘ands free, Raymond, ‘cause then ‘ee can be our flippin’ gundog and fetch the birds after we shoot ‘em.”
Raymond took out his knife and cut the string binding the small boy’s wrists.
“Go on!” Ernie snapped. “Go get ‘im!”
The killing of the beautiful duck had disturbed Peter very much. “I refuse,” he said.
Ernie hit him across the face hard with his open hand. Peter didn’t fall down, but a small trickle of blood began running out of one nostril.
“You dirty little perisher!” Ernie said. “You just try refusin’ me one more time and I’m goin’ to make you a promise. And the promise is like this. You refuse me just one more time and I’m goin’ to knock out every single one of them shiny white front teeth of yours, top and bottom. You unnerstand that?”
Peter said nothing.
“Answer me!” Ernie barked. “Do you unnerstand that?”
“Yes,” Peter said quietly. “I understand.”
“Get on with it, then!” Ernie shouted.
Peter walked down the bank, into the muddy water, through the reeds, and picked up the duck. He brought it back, and Raymond took it from him and tied string around its legs.
“Now we got a retriever dog with us, let’s see if we can’t get us a few more of them ducks,” Ernie said. He strolled along the bank, gun in hand, searching the reeds. Suddenly he stopped. He crouched. He put a finger to his lips and said, “Sshh!”
Raymond went over to join him. Peter stood a few yards away, his trousers covered with mud up to the knees.
“Lookit in there!” Ernie whispered, pointing into a dense patch of bulrushes. “D’you see what I see?”
“Holy cats!” cried Raymond. “What a beauty!”
Peter, peering from a little farther away into the rushes, saw at once what they were looking at. It was a swan, a magnificent white swan sitting serenely on her nest. The nest itself was a huge pile of reeds and rushes that rose up about two feet above the waterline, and upon the top of all this, the swan was sitting like a great white lady of the lake. Her head was turned toward the boys on the bank, alert and watchful.
“’Ow about that?” Ernie said. “That’s better’n ducks, ain’t it?”
“You think you can get ‘er?” Raymond asked.
“Of course I can get ‘er. I’ll drill a ‘ole right through ‘er noggin!”
Peter felt a wild rage beginning to build up inside him. He walked up to the two bigger boys. “I wouldn’t shoot that swan if I were you,” he said trying to keep his voice calm. “Swans are the most protected birds in England.”
“And what’s that got to do with it?” Ernie asked him, sneering.
“And I’ll tell you something else,” Peter went on, throwing all caution away. “Nobody shoots a bird sitting on its nest. Absolutely nobody! She may even have cygnets under her! You just can’t do it!”
“’Oo says we can’t?” Raymond asked, sneering. “Mister bleedin’ snottynose Peter Watson, is that the one ‘oo says it?”
“The whole country says it,” Peter answered. “The law says it and the police say it and everyone says it!”
“I don’t say it!” Ernie said, raising his gun.
“Don’t!” screamed Peter. “Please don’t!”
Crack! The gun went off. The bullet hit the swan right in the middle of her elegant head and the long white neck collapsed onto the side of the nest.
“Got ‘im!” cried Ernie.
“Hot shot!” shouted Raymond.
Ernie turned to Peter, who was standing small and white-faced and absolutely rigid. “Now go get ‘im,” he ordered.
Once again, Peter didn’t move.
Ernie came up close to the smaller boy and bent down and stuck his face right up to Peter’s. “I’m tellin’ you for the last time,” he said, soft and dangerous. “Go get ‘im!”
Tears were running down Peter’s face as he went slowly down the bank and entered the water. He waded out to the dead swan and picked it up tenderly with both hands. Underneath it were two tiny cygnets, their bodies covered with yellow down. They were huddling together in the center of the nest.
“Any eggs?” Ernie shouted from the bank.
“No,” Peter answered. “Nothing.” There was a chance, he felt, that when the male swan returned, it would continue to feed the young ones on its own if they were left in the nest. He certainly did not want to leave them to the tender mercies of Ernie and Raymond.
Peter carried the dead swan back to the edge of the lake. He placed it on the ground. Then he stood up and faced the two others. His eyes, still wet with tears, were now blazing with fury. “That was a filthy thing to do!” he shouted. “It was a stupid, pointless act of vandalism! You’re a couple of ignorant idiots! It’s you who ought to be dead instead of the swan! You’re not fit to be alive!”
He stood there, as tall as he could stand, splendid in his fury, facing the two taller boys and not caring any longer what they did to him.
Ernie didn’t hit him this time. He seemed just a tiny bit taken aback at first by this outburst, but he quickly recovered. And now his loose lips formed themselves into a sly wet smirk and his small close-together eyes began to glint in a most malicious manner. “So you like swans, is that right?” he asked softly.
“I like swans and I hate you!” Peter cried.
“And am I right in thinkin’,” Ernie went on, still smirking, “am I absolutely right in thinkin’ that you wished this old swan down ‘ere were alive instead of dead?”
“That’s a stupid question!” Peter shouted.
“’Ee needs a clip over the ear-’ole,” Raymond said.
“Wait,” Ernie said. “I’m doin’ this exercise.” He turned back to Peter. “So if I could make this swan come alive and go flyin’
round the sky all over again, then you’d be ‘appy. Right?”
“That’s another stupid question!” Peter cried out. “Who d’you think you are?”
“I’ll tell you ‘oo I am,” Ernie said. “I’m a magic man, that’s ‘oo I am. And just to make you ‘appy and contented, I am about to do a magic trick that’ll make this dead swan come alive and go flyin’ all over the sky once again.”
“Rubbish!” Peter said. “I’m going.” He turned and started to walk away.
“Grab ‘im!” Ernie said.
Raymond grabbed him.
“Leave me alone!” Peter cried out.
Raymond slapped him on the cheek, hard. “Now, now,” he said. “Don’t fight with auntie, not unless you want to get ‘urt.”
“Gimme your knife,” Ernie said, holding out his hand. Raymond gave him his knife.
Ernie knelt down beside the dead swan and stretched out one of its enormous wings. “Watch this,” he said.
“What’s the big idea?” Raymond asked.
“Wait and see,” Ernie said. And now, using the knife, he proceeded to sever the great white wing from the swan’s body. There is a joint in the bone where the wing meets the side of the bird, and Ernie located this and slid the knife into the joint and cut through the tendon. The knife was very sharp and it cut well, and soon the wing came away all in one piece.
Ernie turned the swan over and severed the other wing.
“String,” he said, holding out his hand to Raymond.
Raymond, who was grasping Peter by the arm, was watching, fascinated. “Where’d you learn ‘ow to butcher up a bird like that?” he asked.
“With chickens,” Ernie said. “We used to nick chickens from up at Stevens Farm and cut ‘em up into chicken parts and sell ‘em to a shop in Aylesbury. Gimme the string.”
Raymond gave him the ball of string. Ernie cut off six pieces, each about a yard long.
There are a series of strong bones running along the top edge of a swan’s wing, and Ernie took one of the wings and started tying one end of the bits of string all the way along the top edge of the great wing. When he had done this, he lifted the wing with the six string-ends dangling from it and said to Peter, “Stick out your arm.”
“You’re absolutely mad!” the smaller boy shouted. “You’re demented!”
“Make ‘im stick it out,” Ernie said to Raymond.
Raymond held up a clenched fist in front of Peter’s face and dabbed it gently against his nose. “You see this,” he said. “Well, I’m goin’ to smash you right in the kisser with it unless you do exactly as you’re told, see? Now, stick out your arm, there’s a good little boy.”
Peter felt his resistance collapsing. He couldn’t hold out against these people any longer. For a few seconds, he stared at Ernie. Ernie with the tiny close-together black eyes gave the impression he would be capable of doing just about anything if he got really angry. Ernie, Peter felt at the moment, might quite easily kill a person if he were to lose his temper. Ernie, the dangerous, backward child, was playing games now, and it would be very unwise to spoil his fun. Peter held out an arm.
Ernie then proceeded to tie the six string-ends one by one to Peter’s arm, and when he had finished, the white wing of the swan was securely attached along the entire length of the arm itself.
“’Ow’s that, eh?” Ernie said, stepping back and surveying his work.
“Now the other one,” Raymond said, catching on to what Ernie was doing. “You can’t expect ‘im to go flyin’ round the sky with only one wing, can you?”
“Second wing comin’ up,” Ernie said. He knelt down again and tied six more lengths of string to the top bones of the second wing. Then he stood up again. “Let’s ‘ave the other arm,” he said.
Peter, feeling sick and ridiculous, held out his other arm. Ernie strapped the wing tightly along the length of it.
“Now!” Ernie cried, clapping his hands and dancing a little jig on the grass. “Now we got ourselves a real live swan all over again! Didn’t I tell you I was a magic man? Didn’t I tell you I was goin’ to do a magic trick and make this dead swan come alive and go flyin’ all over the sky? Didn’t I tell you that?”
Peter stood there in the sunshine beside the lake on this beautiful May morning, the enormous limp and slightly bloodied wings dangling grotesquely at his sides. “Have you finished?” he said.
“Swans don’t talk,” Ernie said. “Keep your flippin’ beak shut! And save your energy, laddie, because you’re goin’ to need all the strength and energy you got when it comes to flyin’ round in the sky.” Ernie picked up his gun from the ground, then he grabbed Peter by the back of the neck with his free hand and said, “March!”
They marched along the bank of the lake until they came to a tall and graceful willow tree. There they halted. The tree was a weeping willow, and the long branches hung down from a great height and almost touched the surface of the lake.
“And now the magic swan is goin’ to show us a bit of magic flyin’,” Ernie announced. “So what you’re goin’ to do, Mister Swan, is to climb up to the very top of this tree, and when you get there you’re goin’ to spread out your wings like a good clever little swanee-swan-swan and you’re goin’ to take off!”
“Fantastic!” cried Raymond. “Terrific! I like it very much!”
“So do I,” Ernie said. “Because now we’re goin’ to find out just exactly ‘ow clever this clever little swanee-swan-swan really is. ’Ee’s terribly clever at school, we all know that, and ’ee’s top of the class and everything else that’s lovely, but let’s see just exactly ’ow clever ’ee is when ’ee’s at the top of the tree! Right, Mister Swan?” He gave Peter a push toward the tree.
How much farther could this madness go? Peter wondered. He was beginning to feel a little mad himself, as though nothing was real anymore and none of it was actually happening. But the thought of being high up in the tree and out of reach of these hooligans at last was something that appealed to him greatly. When he was up there, he could stay up there. He doubted very much if they would bother to climb up after him. And even if they did, he could surely climb away from them along a thin limb that would not take the weight of two people.
The tree was a fairly easy one to climb, with several low branches to give him a start up. He began climbing. The huge white wings dangling from his arms kept getting in the way, but it didn’t matter. What mattered now to Peter was that every inch upward was another inch away from his tormentors below. He had never been a great one for tree climbing and he wasn’t especially good at it, but nothing in the world was going to stop him from getting to the top of this one. And once he was there, he thought it unlikely they would even be able to see him because of the leaves.
“Higher!” shouted Ernie’s voice. “Keep goin’!”
Peter kept going, and eventually he arrived at a point where it was impossible to go higher. His feet were now standing on a branch that was about as thick as a person’s wrist, and this particular branch reached far out over the lake and then curved gracefully downward. All the branches above him were thin and whippy, but the one he was holding onto with his hands was quite strong enough for the purpose. He stood there, resting after the climb. He looked down for the first time. He was very high up, at least fifty feet. But he couldn’t see the boys. They were no longer standing at the base of the tree. Was it possible they had gone away at last?
“All right, Mister Swan!” came the dreaded voice of Ernie. “Now listen carefully!”
The two of them had walked some distance away to a point where they had a clear view of the small boy at the top. Looking down at them now, Peter realized how very sparse and slender the leaves of a willow tree were. The gave him almost no cover at all.
“Listen carefully, Mister Swan!” the voice was shouting. “Start walking out along that branch you’re standin’ on! Keep goin’ till you’re right over the nice muddy water! Then you take off!”
Peter didn’t move. He was fifty feet above them now and they weren’t ever going to reach him again. From down below, there was a long silence. It lasted maybe half a minute. He kept his eyes on the two distant figures in the field. They were standing quite still, looking up at him.
“All right then, Mister Swan!” came Ernie’s voice again. “I’m gonna count to ten, right? And if you ain’t spread them wings and flown away by then, I’m gonna shoot you down instead with this little gun! And that’ll make two swans I’ve knocked off today instead of one! So here we go, Mister Swan! One...two...three...four...five...six...”
Peter remained still. Nothing would make him move from now on.
Peter saw the gun coming up to the shoulder. It was pointing straight at him. Then he heard the crack of the rifle and the zip of the bullet as it whistled past his head. It was a frightening thing. But he still didn’t move. He could see Ernie loading the gun with another bullet.
“Last chance!” yelled Ernie. “The next one’s gonna get you!”
Peter stayed put. He waited. He watched the boy who was standing among the buttercups in the meadow far below with the other boy beside him. The gun came up once again to the shoulder.
This time he heard the crack and at the same instant the bullet hit him in the thigh. There was no pain, but the force of it was devastating. It was as though someone had whacked him on the leg with a sledgehammer, and it knocked both feet off the branch he was standing on. He scrabbled with his hands to hold on. The small branch he was holding onto bent over and split.
Some people, when they have taken too much and have been driven beyond the point of endurance, simply crumple and give up. There are others, though they are not many, who will for some reason always be unconquerable. You meet them in time of war and also in time of peace. They have an indomitable spirit and nothing, neither pain nor torture nor threat of death, will cause them to give up.
Peter Watson was one of these. And as he fought and scrabbled to prevent himself from falling out of the top of the tree, it came to him suddenly that he was going to win. He looked up and he saw a light shining over the waters of the lake that was of such brilliance and beauty that he was unable to look away. The light was beckoning him, drawing him on, and he dove toward the light and spread his wings.
* * *
Three different people reported seeing a great white swan circling over the village that morning: a schoolteacher called Emily Mead, a man who was replacing some tiles on the roof of the chemist’s shop whose name was William Eyles, and a boy called John Underwood who was flying his model airplane in a nearby field.
And that morning, Mrs. Watson, who was washing some dishes in her kitchen sink, happened to glance up through the window at the exact moment when something huge and white came flopping down onto the lawn in her back garden. She rushed outside and sank down on her knees beside the small crumpled figure of her son. “Oh, my darling!” she cried, near to hysterics and hardly believing what she saw. “My darling boy! What happened to you?”
“My leg hurts,” Peter said, opening his eyes. Then he fainted.
“It’s bleeding!” she cried, and she picked him up and carried him inside. Quickly she phoned for the doctor and the ambulance. And while she was waiting for help to come, she fetched a pair of scissors and began cutting the string that held the two great wings of the swan to her son’s arms.