F- A HISTORY LESSON
Skyclad they danced around the huge old oak tree, eyes fixed to the small, pink, screaming object tied to the tree's trunk, the huge bonfire flashing glimpses of their faces contorted in agony and ecstasy as they circled the frightened child. The chant rose up, 'tou fo noe, tou fo noe, tou fo noe…' In the village far off into the distance, down the hill, all seemed well. The watchman called the hour and patrols were made, they seemed to have no idea of the momentous events taking place above them.
Rising to a crescendo and stopping abruptly, as a tall hairy man entered the circle. He wore a Boar's head and pelt; other than that he was as naked as the rest of the gathering. The wild dancing stopped and a whisper began which shortly became a cry, 'He has come, he has come, he has come…' The stranger raised his hand, showing a keen bladed knife, and the cacophony abated. He spoke, 'to all the faithful who have followed this far, I can now tell you our moment is almost here. With this sacrifice we seal our pact with the gods of the forest forever, though our bodies should rot and decay.'
'Forever, though our bodies should rot and decay', they responded.
Rhythmic clapping commenced and the hirsute man, undulating like a snake, slowly wound his way to the tree bole where the naked baby girl was tied head downward. Lightly he traced a horizontal line across the child's abdomen, followed by a vertical line from her pubis to her throat. As the knife arrived at the jugular vein, a roar went up from the assembly. 'Tou fo noe, tou fo noe, tou fo noe…' As the pace of the chant quickened, Boar's Head plunged the knife into the jugular vein and watched as the blood spurted. He turned to the gathering for their approval, which was given by a quickening of the chant and an increase in volume, then he moved his knife slowly opening up the vein lengthways until only droplets of blood fell from the wound and the child was still. He raised both hands to the sky and cried, 'It is done.' His knife arm dripped blood and, by the bonfire light, it could be seen that his legs and lower body were drenched in the blood of the infant. The tree trunk glistened slickly with warm congealing blood and at the base of the tree, blood soaked into the soil around the roots.
'Come', he cried. 'Take your place'.
The assembled mass began to sing quietly, almost a lullaby, as ranks were formed to approach the tree. The first in line fell to their knees in the blood soaked earth and, scooping up a hand full of soil adorned their face and body. The taking of this unholy communion passed without incident for a while until a cry rang out.
'Torches, torches in the forest'.
No sooner where the words out than the first crossbow bolt struck. Boar's Head fell with a bolt through his neck, two in his chest and one through his head. Others of his company fell screaming and moaning around him, having attracted arrows and crossbow bolts to all parts of their body. One man looked as if he had started to become a porcupine; he had been struck so many times.
Self-preservation now took over from panic as the Villagers emerged from the woods, swords and daggers drawn, cursing the assembly and the scene of such vileness. The dancers sought escape. Some ran for the woods; others climbed trees only to be shot or stabbed down by arrows, bolts, pikes or swords, their bodies thrown in the fire. Others ran headlong into the woods to be hacked down by the waiting villagers. Those who stood and pleaded for their lives died just the same.
'No mercy, no quarter!!", was the battle cry today.
When all was quiet and the moans of the wounded silenced, the Village Head Man called his band together. First he assessed their injuries and accounted for them all and then he spoke. 'My fellows. It is good work that we have done tonight. It is only sad that it were not done sooner. We have rid our fair countryside of this scourge and made our land a safer place to live. Let this night be remembered for what it is; the night we gained our freedom from the old tyranny. Let none forget what was done here tonight and let none waiver should he ever be called upon to perform such a service for his village and children again. To that, I pledge my sword.'
As one, the gathered villagers drew their swords, daggers, bodkins or held aloft their pikes and concurred with the blood oath. 'I pledge my sword.'
'Let us put an end to this accursed place for all time', roared the Headman. The company roared back their approval. In a flash, the Headman's sword bit into the trunk of the old tree. Others joined him with whatever they could find and, after some time, the tree fell. 'Let this tree lie as it has fallen, let none use it for kindling or building. Let it be a memorial to our dead and a warning to those who would oppress us that even the mightiest oak may fall when the people come together'. The company roared their approval and broke into song, congratulating each other on their part in the night's work.
In the morning, when the clearing was empty and the forest quiet, a rustling commenced in the forest. From out under the cover of the fallen leaves, from behind boulder spills emerged five shivering, naked, bloody, bedraggled people; all that were left of the evil assembly. They made their way to the stump of the fallen oak and muttered some words in an old tongue. Falling to the ground as in the last night's ceremony, they anointed themselves with the blood-soaked soil. When this was done they stood and embraced each other, saying as they went, 'Forever, though our bodies should rot and decay. We will not forget.'
Then gathering what clothing or covering they could find, they went their separate ways.
2. TIME PASSING.
For a while the villagers did, indeed, not forget. The evil that had plagued the countryside seemed gone, eradicated forever. The oath taken that night seemed to bond the original villagers together. Nobody ever spoke of the events in the clearing again. An air of calm and optimism seemed to pervade the whole village.
Time passed, days turned to weeks, to months, to decades. The village grew to become a large town and became very prosperous. Over time the villagers forgot about the evil place and the oath was never again spoken of. The monument was lost in memory; the accursed place was just a place. The fallen old oak was dragged away and used for timber beams for homes and farmhouses. When these fell out of use the beams became incorporated into other structures, such as the pub, the reception area of the Town Hall, upmarket olde worlde houses for incomers and also the new Primary School Hall.
As the village grew new people came and settled, fewer people knew of the events in the clearing and those who did regarded it as a folk tale handed down from parents to children.
As for the forest, it became a protected area, conserved for nature. But progress, as is the case, began to encroach on other woodlands for timber to build more homes. Roads were hacked through the pastures and factories built to keep the populace busy and productive. Farms became building sites to feed the ever-increasing need for more homes.
The forest and the clearing were now places for Sunday rambles and picnics. Occasionally, people would wonder how the clearing stayed so clear, bereft of weed encroachment. It was a mystery. Regularly, people would climb or stand on the stump of the old, evil oak. The clearing had lost its accursed taint. All seemed well.
3. HERE AND NOW.
James was late. He was also in big trouble, but most of all he was late. His Mum, Dad and sister would be wild with worry and then go ballistic when he turned up, clothes torn and sporting a brilliant black eye. How could he explain, who would believe him?
It was 7.30pm when James arrived home. Mum was at the door, craning her neck in the twilight for signs of his approach. She rushed down the road to meet him as soon as she saw him, calling over her shoulder,' George, George, he's here'.
'Where have you been, are you OK? We've been so worried', she screeched, all in one breath.
Dad, George, and sister, Grace, arrived and looked him up and down. 'Are you OK? We almost called out the police, but the phones aren't working.'
James ignored the hubbub and launched himself into them trying to gather them all in a huge team hug. It was a massive, 'clinging on tight for dear life' kind of hug. For a while they just held each other and felt the joy of being together and safe.
Finally, when his grip on them loosened, he said, 'I really hate that school. I really do.'
They looked at him, startled for a moment and burst out laughing. Grace put her arm around his shoulder and started to walk him towards the house.
At home, his mother, Diane, checked him over for bruises and asked if he was OK. He just grunted, 'I'm fine.'
After James had freshened up and had his tea, the four of them sat down in the living room and George finally said, 'Well then? What's all this about then?'
'You won't believe me', replied James. 'I was there and I'm having problems.'
'Believe what?' said Grace. 'You haven't said anything yet.'
'Ok, I'll try and explain, but please let me finish before you ask any silly questions. I'm having enough problems as it is.'
This is James' story. You make up your own mind.
After school lunch and play time, the children were dispersed to their classes. Today, however, was a special day for the older children as a local Historian was coming in to tell them about past local events. So the students of year 4 and above were recalled with their teachers to the Hall. Mrs Simpson, the Headmistress was on the rostrum and Mr Jenkins, Miss Telford, Mr Dawson [usually called Dopey when he wasn't listening] and Miss Gordon arranged themselves around the class like two legged sheep dogs, keeping the class corralled.
The bulldog faced Headmistress introduced Miss Abel, who lived in the town and whose family could trace their history back 400 years. Miss Abel was forty-something, bespectacled and dressed almost exclusively from Oxfam. James had seen her riding around town on her bicycle or haggling with the butcher for scraps for her dog. 'Weird', he thought.
The children shuffled in their seats as the Historian brought out a sheaf of notes as thick as a telephone book, arranged them and started to read in a thin quavering voice. 'The croft, as it was then, of Southminster was founded in the year….' James could feeling himself sliding into sleep already and this was only page one. A quick dig in the ribs from Dopey Dawson, put paid to that though. Dopey was behind James. He leant forward and whispered, 'I'm giving up the will to live already but at least I'm staying awake, and if I've got to stay awake so have you.'
'Yes, Sir'. Muttered James through gritted teeth.
'Over the years, Southminster grew and in the year 1785 it finally achieved Town status, with a Town Hall, guest houses and a livery stable. It became a regular and popular stopover for the gentry. However, our history has not always been so pretty chocolate box and evensong pure. Back when we were just a village, mysterious things used to occur in this village. Babies and young children would often disappear or be kidnapped and all that would be found would be a limb or a head. Never the whole body. More peculiarly, the heads that were found always had the mouths stuffed with oak leaves.'
James was awake now. Her voice rose as she started to talk about night fires in the woods, secret meetings, naked dancing and human sacrifice. Mrs Simpson's face had now turned scarlet with embarrassment or anger while Miss Abel's voice became stronger and her eyes danced with excitement.
'…..on the night of the full moon they would dance around the sacred oak intoning the phrase 'tou fo noe, tou fo noe, tou fo noe'….’
What? The teachers, with the exception of Dopey Dawson, had taken up the chant and it was getting louder. 'Tou fo noe, tou fo noe, tou fo noe…' Now it felt like a bad dream as the chanting teachers started to undress. Dopey shouted to the Headmistress that the Governors would take a dim view of this and, for his concern, was struck smartly across the head and shoulders by the petite Miss Gordon wielding, rather effectively, a form room chair.
The chant grew louder, 'Tou fo noe, tou fo noe, tou fo noe', as the naked teachers and historian moved to lock the hall doors. Students who tried to escape were sent flying by some excellent backhand strokes from Miss Telford and Mr Jenkins [not normally noted for his sporting prowess]. James tried to catch a sprawling Year 11 student and got an elbow in the eye for his trouble. Another flying student tried to steady himself by grabbing at James' arm, and only succeeded in tearing his jacket pocket before landing in a heap on the floor. Bodies were stacking up all around him now, while the younger children huddled in a group for their own protection. Someone was calling for his Mummy.
However, this was not the really worrying bit, oh no. Black gooey stuff was falling from the oak beams, forming dark pools on the Hall floor, and the naked adults were smearing themselves in it. Now the chant changed.
'Forever, though our bodies should rot and decay', they shrieked.
This was not good. Some of the older pupils had started to take off their school uniforms and join the adults. This was turning into a major nightmare. The naked children dragged Mr Dawson's body to the rostrum and tore off his clothes. Using the ropes from the stage curtains they tied his hands and feet and hoisted him, upside down, over the stage, his head about two feet off the floor.
The teachers, now that their body painting was over, encircled the children, chanting all the while ''Forever, though our bodies should rot and decay'. Some students where screaming and crying, others wet their pants with fear. James was speechless. Calmly he surveyed the craziness around him and thought, 'A bit like last orders in Bethnal Green from what Dad's told me. Just keep your head down and don't attract unwanted attention'
Now in the distance James could hear the refrain taken up by other classes and teachers. Mrs Simpson and Mr Gordon, with a small detachment of bloody children, opened the left hand Hall door and stood sentry as the other naked teachers and classes came to join them in the Hall. The new arrivals paused briefly to adorn their bodies with the age-old blood that was falling from the timbers of the evil oak before taking up their positions around the children in the Hall. The chanting continued. 'Forever, though our bodies should rot and decay'
'But what had become of the other students, the ones not infected by this craziness', James thought.' I hope they're alright.'
Shortly his questions were answered. Uniformed students were brought in tied together, hands behind backs and mouths gagged. The first group in the Hall were the lucky ones; at least they were not trussed like turkeys.
Finally, in strode a tall portly man with a Boar's Head hat on and a huge sharp knife. It was time to panic and James was right up there with the big time panickers. He scanned all the doors and windows looking for a way out. There was none.
The portly man strode up to the stage and Dopey's inert upturned form and raised his knife wielding hand. Silence fell except for the whimpering of the children.
After a short silence he intoned. 'Our moment is here. We have waited patiently throughout the long years, and unlike our forbears, we shall not fail'.
A roar of assent arose from the blood-clad host, and Boar's Head replied. 'Come, take your place', tracing as he spoke a bloody line across Dopey's abdomen and then from pubis to throat.
Before anything else could happen the Hall doors burst open and were filled with men in what looked like biohazard suits. On each of their backs they carried a cylinder and in each pair of hands was either a small gun like weapon or a spray nozzle. It was like a scene from Ghostbusters.
A man appeared from their ranks. He seemed to be the leader. He sprayed the untied children from his tank and shouted, 'Remember.'
It started as a whisper and rose to a scream as the older children took up the refrain, 'Remember, remember, remember…'
Next he aimed his pistol at Boar's Head, who recoiled and ran before he could do Mr Dawson any further damage.
The naked mob surged towards the 'Ghostbusters' throwing chairs and curses, tearing at them with their hands. The students chanting, 'remember, remember' joined the battle and attacked the flank of the naked throng. A bio-suited group methodically pacified their attackers either by force or with their tranquilliser darts, while another team sprayed chemicals over each patch of goo and each dripping rafter. As each pool or beam was coated the naked assembly grew quieter until, at last, all that was left were Miss Abel, the original teachers and the man in the Boar's Head who now became animated and dived headlong out the hall window with five suited men giving chase.
'No one escapes this time, do you hear me?' ordered their leader.
'Yes, Sir', came the response from the running men.
Miss Abel and the remaining teachers now stood at bay, back to back, as the suited men closed around them. A chant began. 'Forever, though our bodies rot and decay. Forever, though our bodies rot and decay. Forever, though our bodies rot and decay.'
'Not this time'. Replied the Leader. 'Hose 'em down.'
The suited men sprayed the naked group thoroughly from their packs, and watched as they slumped to the ground.
'Just that last one and we've got the set', laughed the Leader. 'Let's get them out of here.'
The men smiled back and started to collect the inert bodies of the fallen students and teachers, pausing only to cut Mr Dawson down and re-dress him.
'He'll have a bit of a headache, but otherwise he looks alright', said one of the suits.
'Could have been a lot worse', offered another. 'Remember?'
James now shook off his shock and surprise, and found curiosity in its place. 'What's just happened here? Can someone explain?' The Head Boy, who had been one of the first to take up the chant of, 'Remember' was about to speak when one of the suits answered.
'Consider it a History lesson, lad. Just a History lesson.'
The other suits laughed and James new that that was all he was going to get out of them. So he tried a new tack. 'What's in those cylinders, then?'
The laughter rose. 'In most of 'em just a damn good antibacterial detergent, good for cleaning up things like blood and infectious stuff. In others, a bit of knock out foam, and occasionally we carry some stuff to wake people up a bit, you know, make 'em a bit lively. See, it helps 'em to remember. But you're not from round 'ere, are you. You didn't remember anything, did you?'
James guessed he meant like the chanting students and said, 'Well, no. Was I meant to?'
'Guess not', said the Suit, closing the conversation.
Later, after the Suits were gone and the naked people removed, Mrs Moynihan, the Deputy Head, arrived and tried her best to pacify the remaining students.
'Today we have seen some regrettable acts of mass hysteria and I hope that you will all learn from this. Fizzy drinks, blue Smarties and too much television make a young mind so susceptible.' On she droned. People were starting to look very tired and sleepy now. Why, he even felt like curling up and sleeping himself. To try and stay awake he looked from side to side, and as he looked he could see the faces of the other pupils start to turn blank and their eyes glaze over. Quickly he switched his gaze to the ceiling and saw the rafters still coated in foam. 'This is real, it's not a hallucination', he thought and then fell asleep.
When he awoke it was 7.15pm, the Teacher explained that he had been kept behind after school for some misdemeanour and he had fallen asleep. His parents must be very worried by now. Best if he went home.
Half dazed, James started to walk home. Strange, he couldn't remember any lessons after lunch and certainly couldn't remember the detention. Then up in the distance he saw what he thought was a naked man being pursued by three men in white biohazard suits and a voice in his head whispered: