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Listen! Look!

By Pippa Stuart / December 23, 1985

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.

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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.

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.