We were walking up on the headlands and it was late. The wind had picked up, and out to sea there was an ominous black cloud line running right along the darkening sky. We were far from home.
Then I heard it, as the wind dropped for a moment, a little high pitched snicker, then a skittering sound of tiny feet scrabbling on dry earth. Arthur picked it up too. He has magnificent ears.
“What was that Dad?”
“It’s nothing” I say, “probably just a weasel in the undergrowth”. He moved in closer to me and we pressed forward in silence. I picked up the pace and hurried the family along.
We both knew that sound though.
The kids are familiar with gorse babies ever since that run-in we had with them in Dorset some years back. And now as we walk hurriedly back home, the rising panic of that sultry evening comes flooding back to me. I curse myself for not learning the lesson then. That too was a summer’s walk, only it turned into a nightmare as we gradually grew aware of their presence. First a sly rustling and snickering deep in the sea of gorse. Then a building storm, the foliage sighing and trembling all around us, as if the rooted foundations beneath stirred and seethed. Tiny hands pulling at the fronds, brown limbs entwined like snakes around the branches, yellow eyes glinting out at us from between the yellow furze flowers. There must have been hundreds of them. It was only through a commotion of shouting, stamping and hammering the path with a heavy stick that I was able to force us a route out of there. We shuffled homewards along the pathway for an age, clustered close together, the kids tightly guarded, Menna snarling and bringing up the rear.
I had never heard of the little creatures being so brazen before. It was simply not known for them to approach while adults were present. Usually it would be just an unattended child who might quietly disappear on the cliff top. Clearly we had run into a tribe that day, one that was powerful enough, or desperate enough, to attack a full family.
I would like to know more about gorse babies, those vile little creatures that fascinate and disturb me in equal measure. I’ve heard the stories, of course, vague and speculative as they are. That the first colony was started in Victorian times, somewhere in the south country, seems realistic. It was most likely a pair of very small children that were either deliberately abandoned on the moors, or became lost somehow. I always imagine a couple of smudged little tots, wide-eyed, tearful, holding hands as the dark closes in; their voices undetectable over the howling wind. They would have sheltered under those wide robust banks of gorse I guess, burrowing in deep to avoid the needles, cushioning themselves in the dry scree underneath. Perhaps they found rabbit or badger holes there. Perhaps they scraped away the earth with their own little fingers. Did the yellow beams of gas lamps flicker distantly in the night? Did the wind carry far off voices shouting their names with increasing desperation? Or were those first nights uninterrupted but for the slithering and scratching of wild creatures making their winding tracks under the fern and gorse?
Whether they were looked for or not, they weren’t ever found. Neither alive, nor as frozen bodies curled tight around the gorse roots. Instead somehow, against all odds, they survived. Some say the founders of the first great colony are still down there somewhere, enthroned in galleries of clay; an ancient and twisted little king and queen of the gorse world, surrounded by the wild civilisation they have created. I don’t believe this myself. That would make them well over a hundred years old. And to survive so long, in a life so harsh…
Our children didn’t sleep well for ages after that first Dorset encounter. They knew that they had had a very close escape. They were still small and malleable and could have so easily been snatched away and pressed down through dark holes into a new life under the earth. A life of slithering through tunnels, eyes straining and swelling in the darkness, bodies never to grow again, skin hardening, fat melting away, tendons, ligaments and bone gaining prominence. How long would it take them to forget their parents and their old soft lives in that subterranean world? Their backs would curve and knot under new muscle growth, their limbs contort to facilitate a life of scrabbling on all fours. Small naked bodies taking the colour of clay, covered in scar tissue and course matted hair. Teeth filed into little points; hardened claw fingers; flesh pierced with thorns and gorsewood. A life driven by instinct and tribal duty, squirming around the gorse roots, sleeping piled up with other small bodies in musky, airless underground chambers, nourished by the blood of rodents and who knows what else? They would have spoken that reedy, chirruping language, full of the anger and violence of wild moorland creatures. Many children have been lost this way.
Now though it’s different, Arthur is nearly ten and Matilda a plump eight year old. They would never flit through the tunnels that honeycomb the headland. Their bones have set, their haunches are soft and they have no value as conscripts to the tribe. Now they are simply prey.
The mist was rising as we hurried on into that yellow dusk. Around us the rustling and chittering slowly intensified like a locust storm approaching. I looked for a stout stick.