Listen! Look!

By

IN our village a few summers ago the children became more out of hand than ever before. They set fire to hayricks, hacked down trees, stole vegetables from our gardens, trampled over our flower beds like a herd of cattle. They cheeked the elderly, tormented the infants, pelted dogs and cats with stones, shot at birds, opened farm gates so cows, horses, and sheep strayed onto the roads. In an epidemic of noise they shouted at us and we, to our shame, bellowed back. Family discipline was in abeyance and t he new schoolmaster, a mild-mannered young man, had no notion of how to control his pupils. We dreaded the long summer holidays that stretched out before us. Then, wonderfully, something happened. It was one of those days full of expectation, half-spring, half-summer, with cherry trees casting pink petals on the grass, the air sweet with briar roses and honeysuckle. One of the younger children came running down the village street. , wanting to be the first to tell. ``A tramp's moved into the Black Hut!'' she shouted. This was a tum-bledown shack on the riverbank where tinkers and gypsies sometimes camped.

A rabble of children set off to see, expecting the usual sort of vagrant who would screech at them, tell them to scram, and threaten dire punishment if they didn't. Sitting close to the river among red campion, yellow flag, and ragged robin was an odd figure in a shabby jerkin and trilby hat with an owl's feather stuck in the brim. He had lit a small fire enclosed by stones and was boiling a charred black pot on it. They circled round him and one of the boys kicked at the pot. The water hissed and sizzl ed in the flames. ``What are you doing here?'' they shouted.

The man didn't even look up but continued to stir his pot and look down into the river, absorbed by something he saw there, an otter's head skimming along among the reeds. It is difficult to attack someone who refuses to hit back and who seems even unaware of your existence. Not wanting to lose face, they aimed another kick at the fire, whistling loudly, then retreated, devoured by curiosity.

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Along with the retired schoolmaster, Fergus, and his successor, some of us walked down to the river the next day to see what the stranger was up to. A heron flew up from the sedges, a willow warbler sang, the river rustled past. After weeks of shouting, searching for solutions and finding none, we had suddenly come into a world of quiet. The man lifted his hat to us in an old-fashioned gesture. It was impossible not to return his courtesy. Instead of demanding what he was doing there, we stood beside hi m watching the otter and a pair of mallard ducks. When we came away, Fergus muttered something under his breath about not forgetting to entertain strangers.

As the days passed, we began , thankfully, to notice a change among the children. They were growing quieter. Singly, then in groups, they had taken to visiting the Black Hut. ``If you make all that noise you'll hear nothing. Wheesht!'' the stranger would say, not angrily, merely stating a fact. From nearby came the songs of the grasshopper warbler, the chiffchaff, the wheatear; the otter splashed past, chasing a fish. The children had never until now realized the riches of their own green countryside.

In the first weeks they pestered the stranger with questions: Where did he come from? Had he children of his own? How long was he going to stay? He didn't bother answering; them, instead he pointed out something they had not noticed, the emerald and blue flash of a kingfisher, the slithering of a grass snake, a weasel dancing among the whins, a trout rising.

He ignored their quarrels and their attempts to involve him in them, carrying on with whatever he was doing, carving a piece of wood, splicing a fishing rod, cobbling shoes, patching an old coat, perpetually watching. He could call birds to his hand and had tamed a hare with a strange whistle that made the children think of the Pied Piper. He had a way of smiling to himself as if he lived in an inner world where no one else could enter until he had learned

the secret of keeping quiet. They instantly obeyed were fascinated by his very silence, instantly obeying his wheeshts, for what might they not see and hear if only they looked and listened.

They were imperceptibly drawn into various ploys he had, rebuilding the drystone dike, behind the Black Hut, fishing, gathering herbs, collecting mushrooms, making a dam. If they brought him something to mend, he made them do it themselves. He taught Ellie to imitate the whaup and the peesweep, Callum learned how to carve a penny whistle from a willow wand and to play on it, Lachie made a walking stick for his grandfather from a hazel branch.

They came to accept him as king in the small kingdom of the riverbank, a kingdom of water rats, paddocks, dragonflies, flittermice, coots, badgers, foxes, squirrels, and tawny owls. They quite gave up asking him where he came from and what he used to do. before living in the Black Hut. It was of no real consequence. He was with them now and helped to make sense of their frustrations and the boredom of idleness. They found that there was somethi ng, however insignificant, that each of them could do.

Toward the end of August, summer's lease was running out. The days shortened, the first frosts brought a dry whirring among grasses and leaves, the robin changed his tune to a plaintive autumn note, swallows gathered in the eaves, ready for the flight south, and barn owls went hunting at dusk. A golden harvest moon shone. and shooting stars slithered down the night sky. There was a sense of The year was moving toward its close.

The night before the start of the Michaelmas term the wind rose to a gale, howling through the trees, and the rain fell in torrents. When the children went to the Black Hut after school, it was deserted. The river had burst its banks, peaty water swirled across the threshold, frothing over the circle of stones that had contained the stranger's fire. They called, but the only answer was the rushing of the river and the weird cry of a curlew. A hare loped away across the stubble fields, past sodden haystacks. Where had he gone? Would he ever return?

In the course of those summer weeks He had seemed so much part of the landscape that they could hardly imagine it without him. As time went on, they began to forget what he had looked like -- a grizzled head, dark eyes, the funny hat with the feather -- but his voice remained with them. They heard it in the rustling of the river, the call of birds, and in two words: Listen! Look!

The soft young schoolmaster would not have called his pupils well-behaved, but there was a difference about them.they were readier to pay heed to him And if ever he said ``Wheesht,'' they quieted down with a nostalgic glint in their eyes.

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