The First Cut is the Deepest
“Get out of my shop! Shan’t have none of your sort in here!”
The girl froze at the door, clutching her basket. Her large brown eyes flicked from person to person in the queue, mutely imploring a protest, or even just a word.
The shopkeeper in her spreading, impeccably white apron, stared back defiantly.
“Mother—” I started.
“Ssh!” she said, tugging at my arm.
The girl turned and left, the bell jangling as she closed the door, leaving a heavy silence over the shop.
“Now where was I?” called out the shopkeeper’s voice. But the tone of easy joviality felt strained.
“A small half pound, please,” said the voice from the other side of the counter. “That’ll do.”
“But why Mother?” I whispered, pulling on her arm to bring her closer.
“Because dear,” she whispered back. “They’re not like us.”
I looked over my shoulder and out of the window. The was girl still standing just outside the door, clutching her things to her chest. Her eyes darted up and down the High Street, looking at each of the shops in turn. She looked back in through the window and our eyes met.
I saw no hate or anger, just moist brown eyes that looked like they were about to spill over with tears. I looked away.
There was to be a meeting, up at the school house that evening. That much I did know. For the rest we gathered behind the toilet sheds to compare what we overheard the grown ups saying at home and in the streets.
They had moved into old Haycock’s farm.
“He never did like the Village,” said Willy, expertly aiming a great gob of spit onto the wooden slats of the shed. “That’s what me Pa said. Did it to spite ‘em all after what they done to ‘im.”
We all nodded in agreement. No one rightly knew what Haycock had actually done, but it must have been pretty bad for him to up and disappear like he had.
“Now’en they be waiting to come to school,” continued our fountain of knowledge, as he inspected the lump of mucus inching down the wall. “They says they got the right an’ everything. Like it’s the Law or summat. But Pa says that ain’t gonna happen.”
“They can have my place if they wants it,” chirped up one of the squatting kids with knees covered in scabs. “I don’t care.”
“No they can’t!” Willy cut him off. “None of them comes to school. They ain’t like us.”
Obediently we all nodded our agreement. I looked at the dust on my boots.
And then, that evening at the school house, all the Village was milling round and crowding into the place when their cart drew up. The classroom was full to bursting, and so we were left under the distracted care of the older kids. So we saw them arrive.
I suppose I was expecting monsters, or at least some great deformity, but they were nothing out of the ordinary. If I passed any of the five men and three women, all respectfully dressed in blacks and greys on the Village streets, I’d never guessed that they were different to us. There were small signs: the cut of their clothes was not our style, and they all wore curious flat hats, but these were no more extreme than some of the garments you could already see. Preacher Brown’s clothes came from town and always looked too fancy and neat, and Mistress Jacques wore the most strangest hats you ever did see. But no one ever talked of chasing either of them from the Village.
Their driver pulled a brake and hitched the reins before stepping down from the cart and walking round to unclip a grate that folded down into stairs. Seeing us staring and open-eyed, he nodded curtly in our direction.
The women each took his hand as they climbed down, the other pulling gently on their skirts so as not to catch a hem and tumble. Then followed three children — two girls and a boy — wearing the same clothes but in miniature. Up to now they had been hidden by the others. Then the other men descended, dusting pants and pulling long jackets back into shape.
As they adjusted their funny flat hats, they walked off and up the steps to the school house, leaving one of the men and the children. They walked over to the benches where we were gathered.
“Ain’t no one gonna speak with them,” growled Willy.
I looked round. The temptation had been too strong and he, like us, was eyeing the newcomers attentively.
Up to this point they had all been the same. Not identical like, but like pots thrown from the same wheel. Even though they were different sizes, they all had the same air about them; the mark of the same craftsman.
Except now I noticed the girl from the shop. Her hair was pulled back and pinned up under her hat, which changed the shape of her face, but I saw the same dark brown eyes and I knew.
Her gaze flowed over and off me, like it did for all the boys fidgeting on the bench. The man walking behind — now we could see his face more clearly, we saw he was but a youth, a handful of seasons older than Willy at the most — he looked over with a cold, defiant stare. It was clear he’d chosen the bench carefully: close enough to provoke us by his presence, but far enough away to feign innocence when the inevitable confrontation arose.
As if sensing the strategy, Willy spat into the dust again, marking our territory.
The four Others sat on the bench, hands folded into their laps and stared at the whitewashed planking of the school where Preacher Brown’s buggy was drawing up. The driver stowed his whip then jumped down to unfold the steps for his charge.
Preacher Brown clutched his black Bible to his chest as he stood, then lowered himself down the steps. Reaching the bottom, he nodded in our direction before turning and cutting through the stragglers on the stairs, and disappearing inside.
Now the meeting could start.
Knowing that the grown ups were otherwise occupied, Willy stood up, stretched himself lazily, and strolled over in the direction of the lad tending the Preacher’s buggy.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the the boy on the bench stiffen, sitting upright and alert.
But Willy didn’t stop. Instead he continued his path, and patted the Preacher’s grey mare. We heard muffled words and short, sharp, explosive snorts of laughter as he and the lad chatted. Then he turned, facing us, but lookin over at the other bench.
The boy on the bench looked through Willy and on at the school house behind. The girls huddled together, whispering.
“What’d you say?” said Willy, stopping in his tracks and cocking his head.
The boy on the bench reached out an arm and clipped the girls on the side of the head to silence them. He turned back to face Willy but said nothing.
“I guess Preacher’s gonna have t’cleanse that bench after you’s been sitting there,” he sneered. “Or maybe we just better burn it, like.”
The bench remained silent.
“You not hearing me or summat?”
Willy swaggered forward, his hands deep in the pockets of his faded dungarees. “Cat gotten your tongues? No one ever told you it ain’t polite sayin’ nothin’ when you been spoken to?”
He was now standing directly in front of the boy. The two girls had pushed themselves along the bench, out of the way.
“You people got no manners? Round here we gives the time of day when we’s spoken to…”
He punctuated this last remark with a gob of spittle that appeared to land squarely between the other’s boots.
We saw his lips move, but heard no sound.
Willy leaned forward.
“What you saying?”
Everything happened quickly. There was a flash as Willy’s arm jerked forwards and the other slumped over. Willy pulled back, moving over to our bench when one of the girls screamed. A short, high-pitched wail that was cut off when she stuffed her hand in her mouth.
The boy slid off the bench and onto the ground.
Facing us, Willy’s smile cut his face in two.
Behind him there were now people standing on the steps, peering over in our direction.
A figure in black hurried down the steps, brushing aside the watchers, then running over to the bench. He scooped up the prostrate figure and turned to look at us, fury burning in his eyes. But he said nothing. He turned his heels and carried his charge back to the cart.
All this time Willy had had his back to the events. He was still looking at us with a smirk on his face.
More and more people were leaving the school house, like ants streaming from their nest.
Someone grabbed Willy from behind. His hands slipped back into his pockets as he spun round.
“Whachubinangonandun, you useless stick o’ nothin?” cried his father’s red face as a fist caught Willy on the ear and set him flying to the ground. A crowd gathered to watch as he picked himself up.
“‘E just got what ‘e deserves,” said the boy defiantly, from just out of reach of his father’s fists. “I stuck ‘im like you said what they needed.”
“I don’ say nothin’ of the sort, you ignorant runt!” shouted the father. “An’ you shouldn’ ‘a’ been spyin’ an’ lis’nin’ on folks.”
“But—” started the boy, stiff with indignation.
“Ain’t no buts,” said the father. “It’s my belt for you when we gets back.”
“Gentlemen!” said a voice that was both deep and somehow quiet, a voice that was used to being heard, and obeyed. Preacher Brown was now standing at the edge of the crowd, his arms flung wide, outstretched and outreaching, encompassing all of his flock. “Gentlemen…”
As the crowd moved, shifting to give him room, I caught a glimpse of the two girls, still seated on the bench, clutching at each others hands, heads bents, and forgotten in the rapid turn of events.
I slipped backwards, out and around, approaching the other bench from behind. Once there, I crouched.
“Psst! You two. Do you wanna get out of here? Get back with your kind?”
The brown-eyed girl turned, looked at me, and nodded.
“Quick! While everyone’s busy!”
She slipped down from the bench and took my outstretched hand, pulling the other behind her.
We slipped back out through the crowd until I stopped to get my bearings.
Suddenly pain seared through my face. The sky went black and then red.
“Stop it Nathan!” came a voice. “He’s only trying to help.”
I looked up from where I was lying on my back. The girl was holding back one of the Others. Blood was dripping from his hand.
I felt someone lift my shoulders and cradle something cool to the side of my face where it burned.
Then all went black again.
When I woke, my Mother told me I had been in a fever for five days. I felt like a great weight was pressing down on my chest and face still, and the air was as heavy as molasses. Somewhere, a fire burned in me, drying me up. In my haste to drink, water dribbled down my chin and my chest
My eyes adjusted to the gloom and I saw that there was someone else in the room, standing in the shadows behind my Mother. She moved, and Preacher Brown sat on the chair by the bed.
“My boy,” he said as he placed a cold hand on my brow and kept it there. His eyes were closed but I could see his lips moving. I supposed he was praying.
“My boy,” he continued in his quiet, low voice. “Tell me. How do you feel?”
“A bit tired,” I admitted. My tongue felt strange and awkward in my mouth. “But I’ll be fine, won’t I?”
“I daresay, boy, I daresay. But for now you must be strong, d’you hear me? You must be strong for your Mother here. You must be strong for your family. You must be strong for me. You must be strong for the Lord Almight. You must be strong for all of us, d’you hear? But most of all, you must be strong for you. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you, Preacher.”
I noticed that my Mother had buried her face in a kerchief.
“Now Daniel, listen to me boy. While you were resting and the Lord sent his angels to look over you, the people of this Village met and voted. They listened to the Lord and spoke with one voice. The Others bring discord into our midst, and the Lord does not like discord. Are you hearing me, boy?”
“I am hearing you, Preacher.”
“In exchange, we shall give them passage when they need to cross our lands, but no more can they or their kind reside in our midst. The Lord made them different to us they say, and I ain’t going to question the Lord’s doings. But I’m sure he didn’t intend for us to mix. Are you hearing me, Daniel?”
“That I am, Preacher.”
He paused, took a sip of water, then wiped his face with a kerchief.
“Now Daniel, do you remember what happened outside the school house?”
I nodded. Fragments of the events played in my head. The girl with the brown eyes. Willy provoking the boy. The searing pain in my face. I lifted a hand and felt bandages.
“Why..?” I started.
“What young William did was wrong, and the Lord will see that he is punished for his deeds. What do you remember after that, boy?”
I heard my Mother crying, softly and out of sight.
“Daniel, you must forget your Mother for the moment, and tell me: What do you remember after?”
He moved closer, blocking my view of the room.
“One of the Others. He hit me..?”
“He did more than hit you, Daniel. With his claws he burned you with his mark. Do you understand, boy?”
“Sir? No. Not rightly.”
“The Others, as we call them, they have a different nature. A nature that the Lord in his wisdom saw fit to give unto them. When that Other hit you, he showed his true nature. And in that moment, his nature passed into you.” He paused. “You are now an Other, too.”
“But you can stop it? You can take it away?”
“Daniel, we have consulted with the Others, and we have prayed the Lord for guidance. But once this mark is upon you, no human and no Other can change it. The Lord is calling a great trial down upon your head, boy. You shall face it and be strong. That is the Lord’s will.”
“But I don’t want—!”
“There can be no ‘buts’, boy. The Village has decided. The place for the Others is outside. And that is your place now.”
A few days later, when my legs were steady enough to carry me, Preacher Brown drew up in his buggy outside the house where we were waiting. Mother brushed my coat down again, and hugged me tight. Father and my sisters watched from behind the curtains. Mother ended her embrace. I could feel the damp on my cheek. My other cheek. The one that wasn’t under the bandagaes still. She handed me my sack.
Preacher Brown nodded, for once at a loss for words, and lead me by the hand to his cart.
Then the driver flicked his whip and we were off, down the street to the road out of town.
While the streets and paths were deserted, I felt the weight of eyes upon us, saw the flicker of curtains as we passed.
Where the road turned to leave the Village, off towards the crossroads that had always been considered the border, there stood Willy, his hands in his pockets still, looking up at the passing cart with the same twisted grin.
He spat into the dirt as we passed.
I said nothing, and gave no sign that I had seen him, just silently clenched my fists. Under the skin I could feel the claws growing into place.
A mixed bag of influences this one, I’ll admit. And the title isn’t the best, but it is better than it was. I do seem to have problems with the titles for these.
See you next week…
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Last edited: Thursday, August 27th, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus