If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.
The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Sallinger
Mark David Chapman was born on May 10, 1955. He shot dead John Lennon, a founding member of The Beatles, in the entrance to the Dakota apartment building (New York) on December 8th 1980.
He had developed a series of obsessions, including artwork, The Catcher in the Rye, music and the musician John Lennon. In September 1980, he wrote a letter to a friend, Lynda Irish, in which he stated, “I’m going nuts.” He signed the letter, “The Catcher in the Rye.” Chapman had no criminal convictions prior to his trip to New York City to kill Lennon.
When I see birches bend to left and right Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy’s been swinging them. But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning After a rain. They click upon themselves As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel. Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust— Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load, And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed So low for long, they never right themselves: You may see their trunks arching in the woods Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. But I was going to say when Truth broke in With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm I should prefer to have some boy bend them As he went out and in to fetch the cows— Some boy too far from town to learn baseball, Whose only play was what he found himself, Summer or winter, and could play alone. One by one he subdued his father’s trees By riding them down over and over again Until he took the stiffness out of them, And not one but hung limp, not one was left For him to conquer. He learned all there was To learn about not launching out too soon And so not carrying the tree away Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise To the top branches, climbing carefully With the same pains you use to fill a cup Up to the brim, and even above the brim. Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. So was I once myself a swinger of birches. And so I dream of going back to be. It’s when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it, and one eye is weeping From a twig’s having lashed across it open. I’d like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate willfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better. I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, But dipped its top and set me down again. That would be good both going and coming back. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Remember me when I am gone away, Gone far away into the silent land; When you can no more hold me by the hand, Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay. Remember me when no more day by day You tell me of our future that you plann’d: Only remember me; you understand It will be late to counsel then or pray. Yet if you should forget me for a while And afterwards remember, do not grieve: For if the darkness and corruption leave A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, Better by far you should forget and smile Than that you should remember and be sad.
Just loved this poem when reading it to sixth-formers the other day.
The next morning arrived. Grey clouds sat stubbornly overhead. Only a few of the castle’s defenders had slept, the rest had endured an uneasy journey from the previous day. Without much talk, people breakfasted and went to their positions. It would happen on this day, they were sure.
By mid afternoon, an uneasy hush had swept across the castle and its grounds. A faint humming rolled towards them. Those on watch, girded themselves for whatever new plague would emerge. It was growing in volume, rolling like drums from beyond the grounds.
At exactly two fifty-seven, and Chris would remember this moment for the rest of his life, the drums stopped. Seconds later, a stag stepped out of cover and nervously sniffed the air. It picked up the smell of humans coming from the stones to its left, but chose to move towards them. Taking two tentative steps onto the melting snow, it waited again, then broke into a gallop.
From behind it came the gathering storm of hooves, each now in full flow. Wave upon wave raced across the lawns and then down the precipice and with practiced ease, raced down paths that no human could have followed. Then they were gone, a swathe of trodden slush the only sign that they had been there at all. Nature was in full flight before the Piper’s creatures.
At seven minutes past three, the giant showed itself.
“So that’s it then?” Lucy asked.
“Yes, that’s our man,” answered Chris.
A small group of them had gathered in the muniment tower to watch the gathering of the Leathers.
“He doesn’t look human,” she added.
“Technically he’s not, Lucy,” Mr. Dale took the opportunity of speaking, his rational tones playing against any panic that may have surfaced. “It’s like a mummy. From the look of what he is wearing,” they could see from there that he was dressed in an old cloth draped over his torso, “he was a member of a monastic order, probably a penitent. I would say that he ceased being human a number of centuries ago.”
“Whatever it is, it is certainly scary,” murmured Judith.
“That would be The Piper’s intention. Battles can be won before they are fought. It is fear that destroys armies and makes them run. Remember that the Piper is the heir of Pan and Pan caused panic in his victims before he struck.”
The news of the giant monk spread quickly. Panic had been intended and its seeds were sown.
Amongst the audience was one Craig Dawkins, a young man who was well aware of what the monk was. Unlike the others, he felt a surge of enthusiasm. At last, he had the means to escape and get some very valuable cargo back to Flowers. He sat on the end of his bed and wondered just what would be given to him if he were to help capture the Andrews’ clan. His first step was make his escape, a thing easier thought than done in this place of heightened tension.
Since the events in the forest, his head had cleared. Dawkins was a rationalist. Whatever happened there had died there. He could not help them and wouldn’t wish to. One for one and one for onemeant putting yourself first. He had always been a survivor. As such, he recognised no bonds of loyalty, friendship or love, he was an island that only traded with others. On his own, he had to think and act quickly. The first problem that he had to solve was how to get out of his locked room.
Now he watched the leathers from his window, their dark forms filling him with certainty. Soon, he would be free. He listened to the confusion around him, the nervous voices, hurried feet, and the unmistakable hiss of panic. His secret smile was there again, the last time he had worn it was when his marksmanship had brought down the boy who had failed him. His contentment was twofold, first there were the Leathers who had been sent to save him and then there was his own deception, a masterstroke. They had fallen for it, had carried him childlike from the car, had tucked him up and cared for him. Now they would rue their kindness and he would ensure that. Outside the room came footsteps.
In all the confusion, they had almost forgotten about Dawkins. They had kept his room locked ‘just in case’, but visited him regularly with food and water. His normal carer was Mrs. Sanderson, the woman who had done so much to care for the children when they first fled the city. Now, the present crisis had taken her off with the other children again and nobody had spared a thought for their guest apart from Lucy.
She was sweeping the corridors and rooms making sure that nobody was left behind. Many of the small children read the signs immediately and the memories of the past came back. Mr. Dale and Mrs. Sanderson had collected them together and calmed them. After moving to the muniment room, a headcount revealed that at least one child was missing. Lucy volunteered to check the rooms.
Whilst Dawkins listened with his ear to the oak door, Lucy’s voice was entering rooms and enquiring if there was anybody there. Her progress brought her closer and Dawkins clasped the metal fork he had been fed with. As her steps moved towards him, he folded back against the stone wall just as the handle began to turn.
Lucy was a little puzzled. This door was locked. She searched for the answer before noticing the key that rested on the top of a small cabinet. She picked it up, inserted it into the heavy mechanism and turned it. When she pushed open the door, she found an empty room awaited her.
“Why lock it?” she asked herself.
Two steps in and she had the answer.
When Dawkins saw that it was a girl who had entered his trap, he was both surprised and delighted. She would be easy to take down. He watched her careful steps, allowing her the access that a spider would give to a fly. His instinct was to strike, to bring pain and blood, to watch with amused interest, but he knew that she would be more useful as a hostage. His silent steps, unfettered by shoes gave him the advantage he required. With her back to him, she presented an easy prey.
As the mechanisms of Lucy’s mind were falling into place, Lucy simultaneously felt the cold touch of metal upon her exposed throat and heard the chilling words,
“If you move or scream or do anything that I don’t like, I’ll ram this fork as far into your throat as I can. It will hurt like hell. Do you understand?”
Beginning to tremble slightly, Lucy nodded her understanding.
“Now you are going to show me how to get out of here without anybody seeing us. Move.”
Chris knew that Michael was not the same. Physically, he was bigger. He was obviously stronger. That run along the passageway and up the stairs was not something his older brother could have done before. And he did it without breaking sweat or having to catch breath.
Lucy had not said anything as yet, but she had spent her time considering his brother. On the surface, she had been friendly, but beneath, she was unsure. In the short time he had known her, he had begun to measure her reactions to people and situations. His mother also appeared nervous around her son.
“It is a concern,” the voice coming from the stairwell said. “I noticed something from the first moment I set eyes upon you,” said Mr. Dale. “I have seen this before and have since persuaded myself that I did not.”
Chris was confused yet Michael looked on resignedly.
“In my previous role as a man of the cloth, I worked in India. India is suffused with the spiritual and their holy men are granted a status very rarely enjoyed by other mortals.
In that country, especially away from the main towns and cities, people’s lives are governed by a profound belief in the worlds that exist alongside our own. Spirits are to be found in everything from a beetle to a bull.
One day, I had the wife of a local farmer come to me for help. They were members of my church, attended every Sunday, but were also believers in Krishna. I was never absolute in my demands upon the church’s flock. I had this belief that most roads eventually led to God or, in some cases to his nemesis. Her husband had been bitten by a snake and was struggling for his life when a strange happening befell their youngest son. The child started to speak in an old language that nobody in the village understood, we found out later that it was Sanskrit, and the child lay with his father doing battle with the demon within for three days. When I was called, the father had made a miraculous recovery but the child was dreadfully unwell. It was as if he had sucked all the poison out of his father and was now suffering the consequences.
The thing that I noticed above everything else was the vague blue light, an ethereal aura, that encased the child. I saw that with you, Michael.”
“What happened to the boy?” asked Chris.
“I’m afraid he died. I tried everything to save him. Just before he went I read him the last rites, my belief was still stout back then, and he opened his eyes, looked straight into my soul and spoke in English. That was the first time I had heard that. He said that the Piper was awake and then he passed away.”
“What’s that got to do with us?”
“You know what it has to do with us. You’ve seen your brother in that other form. You saw what I saw.
We are living in the time of judgement. I denied it to myself for so long, but now it is inevitable. These are the revelations that are in the Bible and there will be battles. You two are as much our weapons as anything we have found in the armoury.”
Outside a blast of winter rain peppered the windows and roof. In the hills to the north, the rain was falling with more vigour, melting snow and ice and swelling the streams that fed the rivers that flowed out of them.
The following morning, a member of one of the scouting parties saw the first line of leathers on the horizon and the alarm went up.
“As you can see,” Graham said with pride, “Zack and his group have been doing an awful lot of groundwork. Indeed, they discovered these,” he continued and produced three swords from the armoury. “We have quite a selection of these and after out talk earlier, I think that swords may be one of our best forms of defence. Without their appropriate limbs, the leathers will struggle to do much harm.”
For once, his gentle humour failed to reach an audience so he continued.
“The next thing that I wish to ask is difficult,” he cleared his throat slightly. “You see, we need to get an early warning of their arrival so we would be best served by deploying a scouting unit that can cover the immediate areas around the castle. It will be a dangerous task so I only want volunteers. One thing to bear in mind is that you may have to move pretty quickly to get back to HQ if and when you do spot them.”
Keith Rains shot up a hand and this was followed by several others, all men in their late twenties or early thirties, all of them having lost family members. Then, Michael stepped forward and he was holding the sword he had picked out for himself. It was a shorter version of a long sword yet had a blade that was not straight. The blade had been fashioned into a facsimile of a series of flames, each one glinting with shiny menace. Graham had told him that the sword was favoured by German soldiers protecting the most important personnel.
“It would have been used in a sweeping movement to ensure greater coverage and to keep the unwanted attentions away from those who were being protected,” Graham touched the blade and drew a little of his own blood in doing so.
“As sharp today as it was when it was first forged. They called this a Flammanschwert, the flame sword, and these edges meant that any strike would be intensified by the additional surface area. It was meant to maim.”
Chris had noticed that his brother’s presence brought immediate attention from the rest. It was not born of the charisma of Graham, the wisdom of Mr. Dale of the admiration of Judith. No, when Michael was in the room, people just stopped doing those things that they would have been doing; chat and movement were stilled as if awaiting the arrival of some natural disaster.
If Chris had not known his brother so well, had not understood his truly sensitive nature, had not seen his head stuck, night after night, into some grand book or other, he would have felt the same as the others.
“I volunteer,” Michael announced. This was followed by his brother who was now standing shoulder to shoulder with him.
The rise in optimism was matched by a hike in temperature. The signs of a thaw were there for all to see and, whilst usually the disappearance of snow brought about a twinge of sadness, everybody welcomed its short, if powerful life span.
Within little time, the organisation for the defence of the castle was completed to a satisfactory level. The rat runs were trodden and re-trodden to familiarise all with the evasive measures that would probably be required. Graham, his knowledge of history becoming their guide to survival, set up three murder holes, confined areas were attackers could neither move backwards or forwards once they had entered and where his quickest and strongest males could strike with relative impunity.
Because of the confined spaces, only short swords and spears could be used. However, Keith Rains had equipped himself with a ‘morning star’, a brutish looking club that was studded with vicious spikes. “I used to play cricket a bit so I should still have a good swing,” was his explanation for choosing such a weapon.
Towards twilight, the first of the refugees began to emerge from the countryside. First there came two young men, all smiles and greetings not disguising their discomfort at being within such a large group of strangers. Then, very soon afterwards, came more and more. On questioning, it would seem that the empty landscape through which Graham’s band had travelled was not so empty after all. The group’s reluctance to venture into buildings meant that they had missed numbers of others who were just hiding and surviving. For all they knew, Graham may have been in charge of a mopping up exercise run by The Piper so they did not show themselves.
“So why now?” Mr. Dale wondered aloud.
The dreams. They had all experienced dreams about the leathers and these dreams had been so disquieting, so very different to the replays of the previous terrors, that many of them took them to be warnings of things to come. Then they had dreamt about the man who was yet a boy, the one with a sword of flames, the one who had the brightest light at his back but not upon him, and they headed towards the castle in which he resided believing that he could halt the flood of their hunters.
“That’s him,” a voice cried out in amazement, its owner pointing towards Michael who had just entered the room with his brother. “That’s him from my dream.”
A tide of rising whispers seeped into the library with faces turning towards the one who had been identified. In return, Michael walked quickly from the place intent on becoming as invisible as he could.
“Michael wait for me,” Chris was after him. “What is it? Why were they pointing at you?”
Michael had broken into a run by this point and his brother had to do likewise to keep up. The pace increased to a sprint as they raced along the ground floor and then the eldest darted to his left and through a large opening that took them into another tower. Taking the stairway two steps at a time, they were soon at its summit. Chris was breathing heavily, the short activity having taken a surprising amount of energy from him. His brother, who was standing by the towers widow looking out to the east, was apparently in no discomfort at all.
“What was all that about? Why did you run away?”
Michael hesitated for a long time before answering, “They think that I can save them. They believe that I have been sent here to stop the leathers.”
“That’s stupid. How do you know that?”
“Have you not seen it in their faces? Every time somebody looks at me, there’s something in their eyes. Have you not noticed how only a few of them actually talk to me. The young ones, they talk, they’re not the same, but the older ones…sometimes some of them can’t even meet my eyes. They look at their hands or their feet. Others just rush away as soon as they can.”
“Perhaps it’s just your imagination.”
Again Michael looked towards the gathering dusk.
“When I was with Mum, I had this dream, it was as if I couldn’t wake up. You were in a wood somewhere and you were with Lucy. There was a man who was pointing a gun at you. You were in danger. I saw the man. No the physical one, but the one inside him and it was The Piper. He’d coiled himself up inside this bloke. Inside him was this snakelike creature that controlled all of his actions and the creature was commanding it to kill you. Payment. That’s what it was after. Payment.”
“That happened. Just last week. We had stopped by this big private school and Will, a bloke who came in with Judith, made me go up the woods where he was going to kill me. He had a gun. Said that it was for The Piper and he talked about the debt. It’s a good job that he couldn’t shoot straight.”
“I distracted him. At the very last moment, he saw me and I saw him. You were thinking about the window you had seen in the church.”
“How do you know?”
“You thought that the figure in the window was me.”
The younger brother listened without interrupting.
“The Man in the window had something like this hadn’t he?”
Michael was holding up his sword and, in an instant, Chris noticed the flames, the real fire that danced along its edge. “Chris, I don’t know who I am any longer. I have blackouts. Look at me. Am I the same brother you had less than two months ago?”