Authors: Diane Setterfield
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For my parents, Pauline and Jeffrey Setterfield, who, amongst other things, have taught me everything I needed to know about catapults.
You will have seen rooks.
Don’t be put off by any sense of familiarity.
Rooks are enveloped in a glorious sky-cloak of mystery.
They’re not what you think they are.
have heard it said, by those that cannot possibly know, that in the final moments of a man’s existence he sees his whole life pass before his eyes. If that were so, a cynic might assume William Bellman’s last moments to have been spent contemplating anew the lengthy series of calculations, contracts, and business deals that made up his existence. In fact, as he approached the border with that other place—border toward which we will all find our path turning sooner or later—his thoughts were drawn to those who had already crossed into that unknown territory: his wife, three of his children, his uncle, cousin, and some childhood friends. Having remembered these lost, dear ones and being still some moments from death, there was time for one last act of remembrance. What he unearthed, after it had lain buried some forty years in the archaeology of his mind, was a rook.
Let me explain:
Will Bellman was ten years and four days old and the glory of his birthday was still fresh in his veins. He and his friends were in the fields that ran between the river and the woods, fields where the rooks descended, flapping and swooping, to jab robustly at the ground in search of grubs. Charles, inheritor-in-waiting of Bellman’s mill, was Will’s cousin. Their fathers were brothers—and though that sounds simple, it wasn’t. Fred was the eldest son of the baker. His mother was from dairy people. He was said to be the best-fed boy in Whittingford, and he certainly looked as though he had been weaned on bread and cream. He had white teeth and solid flesh over his strong bones, and he liked to talk about the bakery he would take over one day. Luke was one of the blacksmith’s offspring. There would be nothing for him to take over: his older brothers were too numerous. His bright copper hair could be seen
a mile off; at least, it could when it was clean. He kept a safe distance from school. He didn’t see the point. If it was a beating you wanted, you could get it just the same at home. Unless he was exceptionally hungry he kept a safe distance from home too. When he couldn’t feed himself by scrounging, he thieved. A boy had to eat. He was passionately devoted to William’s mother, who sometimes gave him bread and cheese and once a chicken carcass to pick.
The boys lived different lives, but something had drawn them together at the beginning of this summer and it was their age. All had been born in the same month of the same year. The power of the symbolic anniversary had acted upon them like a physical force, and as the days of August slipped by, it was not only friendship that drew them back, day after day, to these hedgerows and these fields. It was competition.
They ran races, climbed trees, and engaged in mock battles and arm-wrestling matches. Every yard run made them faster, every upper branch attained won them a broader horizon. They egged each other on, never refused a dare, took greater and greater risks. They laughed at grazes, bruises were badges of honor and scars trophies. Every minute and every day they measured themselves against the world and each other.
At ten years and four days old, Will was pleased with the world and with himself. He was a long way from being a man, he knew that, yet he was no longer a little boy. All summer, woken early by the stony cawing of the rooks in the trees behind his mother’s cottage, he had felt his power growing in him. He had outgrown the kitchen and the garden: fields, river, and woods were his territory now, and the sky belonged to him. He still had a lot to learn, but he knew that he would learn it as he had everything else so far in life—easily. And while he learned he could enjoy each day this new and exultant sense of mastery.
· · ·
“I bet I can hit that bird,” Will said now, indicating a far-off branch of a far-off tree. It was one of the oaks close to his home; the cottage itself was visible from here, half-screened by hedges.
“You can’t!” said Luke, and immediately he called to the others, scrambling up a bank and pointing into the distance, “Will says he can hit that bird!”
“Never!” the other pair called, but they came running to see the attempt all the same.
The bird, a rook or a crow, was well out of range, on a branch half a field away.
Will pulled his catapult from his belt and made a great show of searching for a stone. There was a mystique around the best missiles for catapults. A reputation for recognizing the right kind of stone was prized, and lengthy conversations were had comparing them by size, smoothness, texture, and color. Marbles were superior, of course, but rare was the boy ready to risk the loss of a marble. William’s private hunch was that any roundish, smoothish stone was as good as another, but he knew the value of mystification as well as any boy, so he took his time.
Meanwhile it was his catapult that interested the boys. He entrusted it to his cousin while he hunted the missile. Charles handled the weapon casually at first, then, feeling its fine balance, studied it more closely. The two prongs extended from the handle in a Y shape almost too perfect to be natural. You could search an entire forest and not find a Y like that. Will had a good eye.
Fred joined him in studying it. He frowned and the corners of his mouth turned down, as if he was inspecting a churn of disappointing butter.
“It’s not hazel.”
Will did not look up from his hunt. “Hazel cuts easily. But you don’t have to use it.” He had sharpened his knife, climbed, sawed patiently to excise the shape he had spotted. The elder was of an age to be strong, young enough for springiness.
The sling was familiar: Will had reused his old one, cut from the tongue of an outgrown shoe. Lines of small, neat slits made with a sharp
blade allowed the leather to be stretched so that it made a bed for a small missile. But one element of the catapult was entirely novel. At the level where the sling was attached, Will had carved shallow inch-wide grooves. In the center of each groove were tied the narrow strips of leather that attached the sling. But above and below this knot, string was wound. It lay neat in the groove, above and below the leather laces. Charles ran his fingers admiringly over it. It was deftly done, but he couldn’t see the reason for it.
“What’s this for?”
Luke reached out and ran an appraising finger along the winding of string. “Stops the sling riding down, does it?”
Will shrugged. “I’m finding out. It hasn’t shifted so far.”
Until today the boys had not known that a catapult so perfect could exist. They had always thought of catapults as things that were good or bad by the will of the gods, things of chance, of hazard. To use one was to pit your chances against fate, fifty to one you’d miss. There was nothing accidental about Will’s catapult. It had been made, fashioned, engineered.
Luke tested the give of the leather strips. They were supple enough, but he couldn’t resist the chance to contribute something to this enviable catapult. He spat onto his fingertips and applied the wetness lovingly to the leather strips.
By the time Will had identified the stone that satisfied him he was surprised the bird was still there. He took back his catapult and loaded it. He was adept. His eye was good, his hand steady. He practiced a lot.
The bird was too far away.
Turning their attention from the weapon to the target the boys grinned and shook their heads. Will’s boast was so ludicrous that he was half laughing with them. But then his ten accumulated years of observation, of growth, of strength, and of power readied themselves in him and he fell deaf to the noise of his companions.
While his eye traced the arc—the impossible arc—between missile and target, his brain calculated, calibrated, and instructed its tools. His
feet shifted, his weight settled squarely, the muscles in his legs, back, shoulders prepared themselves, his fingers altered their grip minutely on the catapult and his hands tested the tension. He drew the sling back.
At the moment he launched the stone—no, just before: it was the second when it was too late to stop it—he knew a moment of perfection. Boy, catapult, stone. Brain, eye, body. He knew certainty, and the missile was released.
It took a long time for the stone to fly along its preordained trajectory. Or so it seemed. Time enough for William to hope that the bird, flapping into life, would rise upward from the branch. That the stone would fall harmlessly to earth and the rook’s granite laughter would taunt them from the sky.
The black bird did not move.
The stone reached the apex of its arc and began its descent. The boys fell silent. William was silent. The universe was still. Only the stone moved.
There is still time, William thought. I could cry out, and startle the bird into taking off. But his tongue was thick in his mouth and the moment stretched out in time, long, slow, paralyzed.
The stone completed its journey.
The black bird fell.
· · ·
The boys stared in puzzlement at the empty branch. Had it happened? It can’t have! But they’d seen it . . . Three heads turned as one to stare at Will. His gaze was fixed on the branch where the bird had been. He was still seeing it fall, trying to make sense of it.
Fred broke the silence with a great bellow, and three boys went haring over the field in the direction of the tree, Luke stumbling over the tree roots and furrows, always the last. Belatedly William ran too. He came upon them crouching under the tree. They shuffled and shifted to make room for him to see.
There, on the grass: the bird. A rook. Juvenile, still black of beak.
It was true, then. He had done it.
He felt something move in his chest, as though an organ had been removed and something unfamiliar left in its place. A sentiment he had never suspected the existence of bloomed in him. It traveled from his chest along his veins to every limb. It swelled in his head, muffled his ears, stilled his voice, and collected in his feet and fingers. Having no language for it, he remained silent, but felt it root, become permanent.
“We could bury it.” That was Charles. “A ceremony.”
The idea of a ritual to mark the extraordinary event found favor. But before they could agree what to do, with a tentativeness that provoked laughter, Luke took hold of the tip of a wing and gently splayed it. A ray of light breaking through the foliage fell upon the dead creature and the black was suddenly not black: inky shades of blue, purple, and green were released. This was color that did not behave as color should. It shifted and shimmered, alive with vividness that played tricks on the eye and the mind. Every boy wondered for a moment whether perhaps the bird was not dead after all—but it was. Of course.
The boys murmured and once again turned to look at Will. This beauty too belonged to him.
Emboldened, Luke picked the bird up.
He lunged the cadaver toward Fred, toward Charles—not in Will’s direction—and the two boys stumbled back, exclaiming in alarm, laughing with relief. Then it was Fred who larked about with the dead creature, manipulating its wings, imitating flight, cawing and croaking with gusto. Will laughed weakly. There was the aftermath of turbulence inside him. His lungs were tired.
Before long Fred found something unpleasant in the slackness of the small body. They all did. It was the limp hang of the head, the way the feathers would not go back into place. In disgust Fred tossed the body away.
All thought of a burial was now forgotten and they turned their attention from the bird to the stone that had killed it. That stone had a
value now. They spent a long time looking, picking up one round pebble after another.
“Too big,” they agreed.
“It didn’t have that mark, there.”
The stone would not be found. Having accomplished its miracle it had divested itself of its uniqueness and was lying somewhere about indistinguishable from any number of similar stones.
In any case, Charles suggested, and for once they all agreed, it wasn’t really the stone. It was Will who had done it.
They told and retold the story, acted it out for each other. With imaginary catapults they killed whole parishes of imaginary rooks.
Will stood by. Like any ten-year-old hero, he took more than his fair share of teasing and shoving. He smiled, sick at heart, proud, abashed, guilty. He grinned and shoved back without conviction.