Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 11

Strange Encounters

The grave decision about the plight of Homo sapiens seems to have occurred at a time when John’s own development had ripened him for a far-reaching spiritual crisis. Some weeks after the incident which I have just described he seemed to retire within himself more than ever, and to shun companionship even with those who had counted themselves among his friends. His former lively interest in the strange creatures among whom he lived apparently evaporated. His conversation became perfunctory; save on rare occasions when he flared up into hostile arrogance. Sometimes he seemed to long for intimacy and yet be quite unable to attain it. He would persuade me to go off with him for a day on the hills or for an evening at the theatre, and after a brave effort to restore our accustomed relationship, he would fall miserably silent, scarcely listening to my attempts at conversation. Or he would dog his mother’s footsteps for a while, and yet find nothing to say to her. She was thoroughly frightened about his state, and indeed feared that “his brain was giving out,” so blankly miserable and speechless could he be. One night, so she told me, she heard sounds in his room and crept in to see what was the matter. He was “sobbing like a child that can’t wake from a bad dream.” She stroked his head and begged him to tell her all about it. Still sobbing, he said, “Oh, Pax, I’m so lonely.”

When this distressful state of affairs had lasted many weeks, John disappeared from home. His parents were well used to absences of a few days, but this time they received a post card, bearing a Scotch postmark, saying that he was going to have a holiday in the mountains, and would not be back “for quite a long time.”

A month later, when we were beginning to feel anxious about him, an acquaintance of mine, Ted Brinston, who knew that John had disappeared, told me that a friend of his, McWhist, who was a rock-climber, had encountered “a sort of wild boy in the mountains of northern Scotland.” He offered to put me in touch with McWhist.

After some delay Brinston asked me to dine with him to meet McWhist and his climbing companion, Norton. When the occasion arrived I was surprised and disconcerted to find that both men seemed reluctant to speak frankly about the incident that had brought us four together. Alcohol, however, or my anxiety about John, finally broke down their reluctance. They had been exploring the little-known crags of Ross and Cromarty, pitching their tent for a few days at a time beside a handy burn or loch. One hot day, as they were climbing a grassy spur of a mountain (which they refused to name) they heard a strange noise, apparently coming from the head of the glen to the right of them. They were so intrigued by its half-animal, half-human character that they went in search of its cause. Presently they came down to the stream and encountered a naked boy sitting beside a little waterfall and chanting or howling “in a way that gave me the creeps,” said McWhist. The lad saw them and fled, disappearing among the birch-trees. They searched, but could not find him.

A few days later they told this story in a little public-house. A red-bearded native, who had not drunk too little, immediately retailed a number of yarns about encounters with such a lad — if it was a lad, and not some sort of kelpie. The good man’s own sister-inlaw’s nephew said he had actually chased him and seen him turn into a wisp of mist. Another had come face to face with him round a rock, and the creature’s eyes were as large as cannon halls, and black as hell.

Later in the week the climbers came upon the wild boy again. They had been climbing a rather difficult chimney, and had reached a point where further direct ascent seemed impossible. McWhist, who was leading, had just brought his second man up, and was preparing to traverse round a very exposed buttress in search of a feasible route. Suddenly a small hand appeared round the far side of the buttress, feeling for a hold. A moment later a lean brown shoulder edged its way round into view, followed by the strangest face that McWhist had ever seen. From his description I judged confidently that it was John. I was disturbed by the stress that McWhist laid on the leanness of the face. The cheeks seemed to have shrunk to pieces of leather, and there was a startling brightness about the eyes. No sooner had John appeared than his face took on an expression of disgust almost amounting to horror, and he vanished back round the buttress. McWhist traversed out to catch a view of him again. John was already half-way down a smooth face of rock which the climbers had attempted on the way up and then rejected in favour of the chimney. Recounting the incident, McWhist ejaculated. “God! The lad could climb! He oozed from hold to hold.” When John reached the bottom of the bad pitch, he cut away to the left and disappeared.

Their final encounter with John was more prolonged. They were groping their way down the mountain late one evening in a blizzard. They were both wet through. The wind was so violent that they could hardly make headway against it. Presently they realized that they had missed their way in the cloud, and were on the wrong spur of the mountain. Finally they found themselves hemmed in by precipices, but they roped themselves and managed to climb down a gully or wide chimney, choked with fallen rocks. Half-way down, they were surprised to smell smoke, and saw it issuing from behind a great slab jammed in an angle of rocks beside their route. With considerable difficulty McWhist worked his way by rare and precarious holds over to a little platform near the smoking slab, and Norton followed. Light came from under it and behind it. A step or two of scrambling brought them to the illuminated space between one end of the slab and the cliff. The sides and opposite end of the slab were jammed in a mass of lesser rocks, and held in position by the two sides of the chimney. Stooping, they peered through the bright hole into a little irregular cave, which was lit by a fire of peat and heather. Stretched on a bed of dried grass and heather lay John. He was gazing into the fire, and his face was streaming with tears. He was naked, but there was a jumble of deer-skin beside him. By the fire was part of a cooked bird on a flat stone.

Feeling unaccountably abashed by the tears of this strange lad, the climbers quietly withdrew. Whispering together, however, they decided that they really must do something about him. Therefore, making a noise on the rocks with their boots as though in the act of reaching the cave, they remained out of sight while McWhist demanded, “Is anyone there?” No answer was given. Once more they peered through the tiny entrance. John lay as before, and took no notice. Near the bird lay a stout bone knife or dirk, obviously “home-made,” but carefully pointed and edged. Other implements of bone or antler were scattered about. Some of them were decorated with engraved patterns. There was also a sort of pan-pipe of reeds and a pair of hide sandals or moccasins, The climbers were struck by the fact that there were no traces whatever of civilization, nothing, for instance, that was made of metal.

Cautiously they spoke again, but still John took no notice. McWhist crept through the entrance, noisily, and laid a hand on the boy’s bare foot, gently shaking it. John slowly looked round and stared in a puzzled way at the intruder; then suddenly his whole form came alive with hostile intelligence. He sprang into a crouching posture, clutching a sort of stiletto made of the largest tine of an antler. McWhist was so startled by the huge glaring eyes and the inhuman snarl that he backed out of the cramping entrance of the cave.

“Then,” said McWhist, “an odd thing happened. The boy’s anger seemed to vanish, and he stared intently at me as though I were a strange beast that he had never seen before. Suddenly he seemed to think of something else. He dropped his weapon, and began gazing into the fire again with that look of utter misery. Tears welled in his eyes again. His mouth twisted itself in a kind of desperate smile.”

Here McWhist paused in his narrative, looking both distressed and awkward. He sucked violently at his pipe. At last he proceeded.

“Obviously we couldn’t leave the kid like that, so I asked cautiously if we could do anything for him. He did not answer. I crept in again, and squatted beside him, waiting. As gently as I could I put a hand on his knee. He gave a start and a shudder, looked at me with a frown, as if trying to get things straight in his mind, made a quick movement for the stiletto, checked himself, and finally broke into a wry boyish grin, remarking, ‘Oh, come in, please. Don’t knock, it’s a shop.’ He added, ‘Can’t you blighters leave a fellow alone?’ I said we had come upon him quite by accident, but of course we couldn’t help being puzzled about him. I said we’d been very struck with his climbing, the other day. I said it seemed a pity for him to be stuck up here alone. Wouldn’t he come along with us? He shook his head, smiling, and said he was quite all right there. He was just having a bit of a rough holiday, and thinking about things. At first it had been difficult feeding himself, but now he’d got the technique, and there was plenty of time for the thinking. Then he laughed. A sudden sharp crackle it was that made my scalp tingle.”

Here Norton broke in and said, “I had crawled into the cave by then, and I was terribly struck by the gaunt condition he was in. There wasn’t a bit of fat on him anywhere. His muscles looked like skeins of cord under his skin. He was covered with scars and bruises. But the most disturbing thing was the look on his face, a look that I have only seen on some one that had just come out of the anaesthetic after a bad op. — sort of purified. Poor kid, he’d evidently been through it all right, but through what?”

“At first,” said McWhist, “we thought he was mad. But now I’m ready to swear he wasn’t. He was possessed. Something that we don’t know anything about had got him, something good or bad, I don’t know which. The whole business gave me the creeps, what with the noise of the storm outside, and the dim firelight, and the smoke that kept blowing back on us down the sort of chimney he’d made for it. We were a bit light-headed with lack of food, too. He offered us the rest of his bird, by the way, and some bilberries, but of course we didn’t want to run him short. We asked if there wasn’t anything we could do for him, and he answered, yes, there was, we could make a special point of not telling anyone about him. I said, couldn’t we take a message to his people. He grew very serious and emphatic, and said, ‘No, don’t tell a soul, not a soul. Forget. If the papers get on to my tracks,’ he said very slowly and coldly, ‘I shall just have to kill myself.’ This put us in a hole. We felt we really ought to do something and yet somehow we felt we must promise.”

McWhist paused, then said crossly, “And we did promise. And then we cleared out, and floundered about in the dark till we reached our tent. We roped to get down the rock, and the lad went in front, unroped, to show us the way.” He paused again, then added, “The other day when I happened to hear from Brinston about your lost lad, I broke my promise. And now I’m feeling damned bad about it.”

I laughed, and said, “Well, no harm’s done. I shan’t tell the Press.”

Norton spoke again. “It’s not as simple as that. There’s something McWhist hasn’t told you yet. Go on, Mac.”

“Tell him yourself,” said McWhist, “I’d rather not.”

There was a pause, then Norton laughed awkwardly, and said, “Well, when one tries to describe it in cold blood over a cup of coffee, it just sounds crazy. But damn it, if the thing didn’t happen, something mighty queer must have happened to us, for we both saw it, as clearly as you see us now.”

He paused. McWhist rose from his arm-chair and began examining the rows of books on shelves behind us.

Norton proceeded: “The lad said something about making us realize we’d come up against something big that we couldn’t understand, said he’d give us something to remember, and help us to keep the secret. His voice had changed oddly. It was very low and quiet and composed. He stretched his skinny arm up to the roof, saying, ‘This slab must weigh fifty tons. Above it there’s just blizzard. You can see the raindrops in the doorway there.’ He pointed to the cave entrance. ‘What of it?’ he said in a cold proud voice. ‘Let us see the stars.’ Then, my God, you won’t believe it, of course, but the boy lifted that blasted rock upon his finger-tips like a trap door. A terrific gust of wind and sleet entered, but immediately died away. As he lifted he rose to his feet. Overhead was a windless, clear, starry sky. The smoke of the fire rose as a wavering column, illuminated at the base, and spreading dimly far above us, where it blotted out a few stars with a trail of darkness. He pushed the rock back till it was upright, then leaned lightly against it with one arm, crooking the other on his hip. ‘There!’ he said, In the starlight and firelight I could see his face as he gazed upwards. Transfigured, I should call it, bright, keen, peaceful.

“He stayed still for perhaps half a minute, and silent; then, looking down at us, he smiled, and said, ‘Don’t forget. We have looked at the stars together.’ Then he gently lowered the rock into position again, and said, ‘I think you had better go now. I’ll take you down the first pitch. It’s difficult by night.’ As we were both pretty well paralysed with bewilderment we made no immediate sign of quitting. He laughed, gently, reassuringly, and said something that has haunted me ever since. (I don’t know about McWhist.) He said, ‘It was a childish miracle. But I am still a child. While the spirit is in the agony of outgrowing its childishness, it may solace itself now and then by returning to its playthings, knowing well that they are trivial.’ By now we were creeping out of the cave, and into the blizzard.”

There was a silence. Presently McWhist faced us again, and glared rather wildly at Norton. “We were given a great sign,” he said, “and we have been unfaithful.”

I tried to calm him by saying, “Unfaithful in the letter, perhaps, but not in the spirit. I’m pretty sure John wouldn’t mind my knowing. And as to the miracle, I wouldn’t worry about that,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “He probably hypnotized you both in some odd sort of way. He’s a weird kid.”

Toward the end of the summer Pax received a post card, saying “Home late tomorrow. Hot bath, please. John.”

On the first opportunity I had a long talk with John about his holiday. It was a surprise to me to find that he was ready to talk with perfect frankness, and that he had apparently quite got over the phase of uncommunicative misery which had caused us so much anxiety before his flight from home. I doubt if I really understood what he told me, and I am sure there was a good deal that he didn’t tell me because he knew I wouldn’t understand. I had a sense that he was all the while trying to translate his actual thoughts into language intelligible to me, and that the translation seemed to him very crude. I can give only so much of his statement as I understood.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30