The Stripling


I found the Stripling cowering under the van in my dad’s garage. They were like a stray, scared animal – a very young bird or a very old cat. They had bound their eyes up with one of my dad’s oily rags.

After my first glimpse of them, the urge to scream abated.

Hello

I said, and whirred my lips to them – the same way I would to a very young bird or a very old cat. Even trusted people ask me this: How did I know they weren’t dangerous? When I was younger, our family had a terribly old cat. Rangy old animal. Wasn’t truly our cat at all, but a wild, semi-feral old mog that we half-adopted. It was blind, that’s why we did it. It was a kindness. The cat was such a defiant old man, you would never have known – unless the milky film of its eyes caught the right light – that it was blind. After you realised that, you noticed the precision of its feet-placings, and the cautious extension of the joints.

The Stripling unfolded, trembling lightly all over their naked skin to the tune of my voice, the percussive quality of my lips. I knew, as I’d known with the cat, that they were a wounded person. Decidedly, a person, despite appearances. Just like the cat. Every creature becomes human when it is in pain. Pain is the nature of the human condition. We see ourselves in its surface. It has a captivating familiarity. That’s why pain can make us so kind, or so angry.

They crept from under my dad’s van, being terribly careful where they put their hands. Gradually, they leaned into my touch, pressing their fingers to the vibrations emanating from my mouth.

They were covered in oil. It was obviously not right. Their wings were crooked. The quills were showing. They had bald patches. One leg was a little bit shorter than the other. There were badly healed burns on their shins. Their feet were not as our feet are. They were dark, and built of more bones.

Weeks later – a naive length of time, really speaking – I realised that what I’d first thought was oil from dad’s van belonged to them. They had a sort of emanation, foremost from the feet and wings, that fizzled on the air and surfaces around it. Very dark. But an illumined kind of dark. You know the rainbows on a slick? A little bit like that. I kept waking up with it on the pillow.

Everything hums at its own particular frequency. This was a lesson the Stripling taught me. I knew rudiments of this already. Radio signals, GPS tracking, whatever it is that means wi-fi works, the sounds cats and dogs hear but we can’t. These were things the Stripling didn’t need to teach us, cause we knew. Knew adequately, at least. Here is what we didn’t know: everything else has a frequency, too. Pain is the first and the deepest. It is the hardest for us to register with the external mind. It was the loudest to the Stripling. Feelings are all different levels of hum on a frequency. Colours, the same. Concepts, an amalgamation of many. Have you ever heard a theremin? A bit like that, I should think. That was how the Stripling and I learned to communicate.

It was a wet Irish summer and Dad was not particularly fussed by another waif in the house. Even one blind, unconventional, winged, without origin and nameless. I bathed them, loaned them my old jumpers, with holes cut carefully in the back. The Stripling was a comforting presence. They liked the peat fire as much as we did. Once I realised they were not covered in oil, I let them lean in as close as they wanted, touching the crackle of the thick peat bricks through the fogged stove glass. Dad fixed stuff up in the garage, made errands to the village for a weekly shop. He drank fewer beers. An almost untroubling number of beers. I wandered the house and the back garden with the Stripling. I took them down to the lough and they listened to the midges that nibbled my skin. We all waited for Danielle to come join us. The summer cottage didn’t have television or an internet connection or very much else to do. Walking and sailing were our chief amusements. When it rained this much, what could we do? Besides listening to the drum of rain on the skylight in my attic room. Besides listening.

Compared to the thing with the slick emanations, I caught on pretty quickly that their expanse of skull bound with discoloured bands of cloth did not conceal a sight impairment as I’d originally thought. The Stripling didn’t see and hear as we did, with eyeballs and eardrums. They would place their fingers on my lips and the base of my throat, the places where ululations of saliva and sound worked themselves into meaningful noise. Minute tremors passed through the tips of their fingers, and their head would tilt with a silent, communicative motion. They absorbed the sounds from all things with great care, as if reading Braille. Then, with care still greater, I would find them crackling back to the fire, rustling back to the books on the living room shelf. Head tilted in the same listening manner as when they touched my mouth and throat. Talking back to the fire, and to the books. Having, for all I knew or know now, a productive conversation. Approximate Human English took them longer.

It has never been good etiquette to ask someone What Are You? The Stripling was a listening being, however. So it told me anyway. We had been sitting, in silence, me angled towards the rain on the living room window, them angled towards my face. They pointed, in a firm, fluid motion, to the book lying open on the sideboard. Dad’s dictionary, kept mostly for the elderly guests who rented the cottage in the months we didn’t want it.

Stripling. Noun.

  1. A youth passing into maturity.
  2. One who is passing into X.

Language developed gradually from that point. Sound was gestural. It hummed in the space between the Stripling’s movements of the hands. An understanding was developed. The Stripling liked touching the picture of Danielle on my chest of drawers. They turned to me, enquiringly.

That’s Danielle.

            Kin?

            She’s my sister.

            Si-ster?

            Kin. Daughter of my father and mother.

Sometimes explanations needed to be that convoluted. Concepts layered upon concepts until the Stripling recognised the frequency and filed it away for their own reference. They were thinking. I was thinking.

What happened to you?

            Si-ster.

            One who is like you?

            Not an-y-more.

Danielle had been permitted to join us. She was coming home. She came home. Things had changed. She greeted the Stripling in a much similar way to the way she greeted us. She would sit, swollen knees protectively enclosed by thin arms, staring abruptly into the bound face of the Stripling, saying nothing. And the Stripling would nod and make listening, communicative motions, even so.

One evening, late in the summer – I remember it was near the time when we would normally have been preparing to go home. I remember it felt like the summer would turn into winter and we would stay there forever. I remember we were waiting for an abstract something.  Then Danielle spoke to me. This was no small deal. This is what she said. Just that,

Real divine creatures were denied their arms in exchange for having the privilege of winged flight.

The Stripling nodded absently from the other end of the room, flicking their fingers against the floating motes in the window light. Danielle didn’t speak again until the pyre. The pyre was the ritual end of our summer at the cottage. It was different every year, but later this year than ever. It wasn’t like the three of us had anywhere to be. But I think we might also have felt some sense of responsibility towards the Stripling. We could not leave them there, to be cared for by tourists who were elderly, intermittent, who wanted the cottage as a base from which to go places and do things.

It was hard to imagine that anyone would want to hurt the Stripling. But it is hard to imagine that anyone would want to hurt one’s self either, and the three of us had variously known plenty of that. We stayed. We stayed until I woke up one morning and looked out to see Danielle and the Stripling striding out beyond the garden wall, down to the lough. Danielle looked impossibly present in wellingtons. The Stripling was wearing an old Arran jumper with strategically unravelling shoulder holes. They leaned into one another where necessary. They selected the best pieces of wood from the shed. They built a base of plywood. I watched until it was nearly lunchtime, then I went down to the kitchen, where Dad was looking out the window, a stone cold cafetierre and an empty mug near his left wrist. He put his arm around my shoulders.

That night, we lit the pyre, as we had done for as long as I can remember. It was later this year than ever before, but a pyre is something that can only happen at the perfect time. Which is exactly when it happens and at no other. We roasted food on it. We built it up and burned it out and built it up again. Finally we launched it into the lough and watched the elements dance, commingle and ultimately quench it. The Stripling stood at the waterline, arms outstretched, fingers moving faster than I’d ever seen them. Reading and absorbing and storing the minute susurrations in the air which the pyre left behind. The tendons stood out in their neck. They were ecstatic. It was hard to watch, but harder somehow to turn and see Danielle smiling again.

The three of us fell asleep after the pyre sank, so I have to admit I was the only one who saw this. Make of it what you will, but I was roused at dawn to see the Stripling striding away at the other end of the lough. I know it was them, because afterwards they were not there. Another figure had them. Not by the hand, or the arm, I don’t think. Yet there was an aura of having about the pair. A soft, susurrus emanation reached me on our side of the water. Things which are gestural and hard to convey in words:

Doubt.

            Reunion.

            Admonition.

            Nerve.

            Submission.

            Compromise.

            Tentative joy.

That afternoon, Dad, Danielle and I packed up the van to head back to the city.

This is the sort of narrative people normally don’t believe. The Stripling did not leave many relics. I have the drawings I made, a few blurry Polaroids, a succession of outgrown sweaters with strategic holes. Some oily fragments of the binding cloth, which might really be from anything. The pictures are meat-coloured. Wonderfully ugly, exquisitely graceful. They do not do the Stripling justice. They were possessed of communication I can just barely convey in words. I have no evidence that would change the face of reality as we understand it. But people still listen. And I think I would feel it in my fingertips if they laughed at me behind my back. The Stripling left us that much. I think – if you want to know – they hear it, as one hears a fable. As one dreams figures into windowseats when half asleep. As one is still comforted at night, by certain childhood lullabies.

Danielle took a few months and went back to university. Dad drinks an almost untroubling number of beers. I am also around. Elderly tourists leave nice comments in the guest book. We have had subsequent summers.

[Helen Victoria Murray –@HelenVMurray]

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