As recently promised, here is my latest Christmas story, in both written and audio form. A simple story of a little boy who weaves his own peculiar magic through this world and beyond. Have a safe and happy Christmas.
Everyone Should Have a Fergus
‘Where’s the tree!’ Dad screamed.
I was holding my throbbing hand and fighting to get my breathing under control. We were speeding down the road in the dark with no lights on. Dad called this a Black Ops move, designed to give our pursuers the slip.
‘Hold on – where’s Fergus!’ Dad yelled. I looked around in panic and felt sick.
‘Stop the car! Stop the car!’ I shouted, ‘we’ve left him behind!’
Dad jammed on the brakes and looked straight out through the windscreen onto the darkened road. ‘Your mother’s going to kill me,’ he said quietly before turning to look at me. ‘I suppose we should go back for him, should we?’ He was smiling as he put the car into reverse and took us back the way we had just come. He stopped short of where we’d been parked before and left the motor running.
‘Right,’ he said, ‘go back in carefully and extract him. And don’t forget the tree. He’ll be hiding somewhere close to where they caught us.’
I had the door open and one foot on the road when he stopped me. ‘Don’t forget son,’ he said, ‘good will.’
He couldn’t see the expression on my face as I gave him a sarcastic thumbs up and carefully closed the door. I stayed close to the aged stone wall, getting my eyes used to the dark, my ears alert to any sound of movement. Behind the wall lay a large estate with a beautiful, castle-like manor, various cottages, barns and stables, and dense forest that grew thicker and more prolific every year. Amongst the forest’s many gifts were lush pine trees of every size and it was a sitting-room-sized one of these that we had been about to make away with when the groundskeepers came across us. Delighted with themselves, they spoke to us, and Dad in particular, with equal parts condescension and contempt. The grimmer, smaller of the two was known locally as The Runt, a name he didn’t care for one bit, and he looked totally deserving of his reputation for hospitalising anyone who rubbed him the wrong way. His companion, taller and more amiable, was known as The Leash because of his ability to restrain his partner. Dad was unfazed by their arrival on the scene and jovially attempted to make them complicit in our festive indiscretion.
‘Come on lads, you have loads of them, it’ll never be missed. You know you don’t want the hassle of dealing with small timers like us. And sure look – it’s already cut. It would be a waste to not let us take it. Come on boys, it’s the season of good will.’
I could tell The Runt wasn’t having any of Dad’s good-humoured argument. He looked like he was just waiting for an excuse to get physical. The Leash seemed a bit more open to persuasion and held up his thumb and index finger, rubbing them together to suggest a financial incentive might be of interest. Dad baulked at this, as I knew he would, the not-spending of money being central to his Christmas vision. His involuntary scoff was enough to trigger The Runt, who suddenly thrust his finger in Dad’s face, a threat almost certainly about to issue from his curled lips. But before he could say a word, I screamed at him not to touch my dad and unleashed a vicious right hook on his jaw that connected perfectly, causing him to stumble backwards and land with a thump on the seat of his trousers. We all stood in shock for the briefest of seconds before Dad shoved The Leash in the chest and yelled at us to run. I didn’t look back as I ran as fast as I could to the stile in the wall where our car was waiting on the other side. Dad had somehow managed to overtake me and was in the driver’s seat turning the ignition when I jumped in, and off we went down the moonlit road, leaving Fergus and the tree behind.
As I stepped quietly through the wall, I couldn’t believe I was doing so for the second time that night, and I prayed I wasn’t about to get pummeled into oblivion by one of the area’s most storied hard men. There was no sign of them, nor, as I’d anticipated, of Fergus. There was nobody I knew who was better at hiding than him. To his ongoing disgust, no one in the family would play hide and seek with him anymore because it was so futile. Even the other kids on our road knew about it and as a result they would only play if Fergus was seeking, not hiding. It had become a superpower he never got to use. But he was using it now, that I was sure of. I just hoped he wasn’t looking at any sycamores. A lot of the sycamores in the area lined laneways, drives and hedges. When they got too big in late summer and early autumn, it was normal for them to be trimmed back. By the time they dropped their last leaves in mid to late November, their butchered limbs took on a nightmarish quality to Fergus, appearing to him no less than malign tree spirits, haunted by their agony suffered at the hands of sadistic gardeners and tree surgeons, their tender new limbs rising up with almost vertical pleading out of the truncated stumps. Fergus would lapse into a fear-induced trance as he stood transfixed by the plaintive victims of the carnage. He claimed to be able to see their anguished faces and hear their cries of pain. I’d have preferred not to know, but Dad unquestioningly extracted Fergus’s experience out of him as if he was some child shaman, bestriding the threshold between our dimension and the next. Dad said Fergus saw things other people didn’t. I said that was because he was so short. Dad laughed at that but said it wasn’t the reason. He said Fergus could bring the world to a halt when he stopped to look at something. He said Fergus became so still that it distracted the universe, and the universe would stop what it was doing to look back at Fergus. That was also why he was so good at hide and seek, he added.
I was a bit jealous of this awe in which Dad held Fergus, and even more so when I asked Dad what my own special power was. He was quick to tell me I didn’t have one, although when he saw my disappointment he hastened to reassure me that of course I was special to him and my mother. But he said that everyone wished they had a Fergus. He explained that most families had no one special at all and that we were blessed to have a Fergus and that we should cherish our Fergus like the Godsend he was. As I proceeded cautiously through the trees, I thought the cherishing could wait, finding him would be enough for now. A sudden sound off to my left made me stop in fright. I stayed very still and listened without breathing. What I could hear was too small and light to be The Runt and The Leash so I pulled out my pocket torch and shone its beam in the direction of the noise. Four little orange circles stared back at me out of the dark, two sets of two, and I realised a couple of deer were watching me very closely. I could just about make out their elegant silhouettes in the gloom of the middle distance before I switched off the torch, allowing us all to move on. It was a clear night, and cold with it, the trees at times so dense that I couldn’t see the sky at all. I proceeded slowly, sometimes having to duck under branches, sometimes pushing through the thick Christmas trees that stood side by side, the branches heavy with needles first gripping then disgorging me, making me feel like I was in a dark green car wash.
As I walked on I began to feel the same pointlessness that afflicted our games of hide and seek. The whole idea of coming back into the woods to find Fergus was insane. Fergus would only be found when he wanted to be found. I was now annoyed with Dad for sending me after him, but I’d got caught up in the adrenaline surge of losing my little brother and simply followed orders. No wonder Dad had been smiling – he knew it was a fool’s errand. Fergus was little, and small with it. You wouldn’t think he was a dwarf or anything, but there was something about his smallness that made people notice him. I reasoned that was where the power Dad spoke about came in. Fergus wasn’t like other children his age, he wasn’t scatty and distracted, he wasn’t a whirlwind of chaos and whimsical impulse, he was rarely loud or combative. He moved through the world with unerring stillness and took everyone in with effortless concentration. And everyone always loved him. If I was out doing something by myself and bumped into anyone, all enquiries were about Fergus, not me. I wasn’t unpopular, I had friends, but their parents’ faces and voices would change when asking after Fergus, as if merely bringing him to mind improved their day. And it was impossible to be bothered by all this affection he inspired, because he did nothing at all to encourage it. He didn’t mug or play cute, he didn’t have punchlines or spiels, he was just himself. And that was enough.
Smiling to myself, I stopped walking. I knew he was going to find me, not the other way around. I just had to stand there and give up trying and he’d be beside me before I knew it. And I was lost, anyway. Not ‘lost’ lost, but from all the ducking under and being spun through trees and branches, I no longer had my bearings. It was like a maze in that I was probably only a couple of feet away from something very familiar. With that in mind, I disregarded my own advice and determined to test my theory by stepping to my right about four paces. Coming to a stop, I jumped back as I felt something fast and solid brushing against my lower leg. It rustled past me and as I flicked on my torch I saw a fox’s bushy white-tipped tail hurriedly disappearing into a patch of brambles not four feet from where I stood. I put the torch away and swore quietly at him as my eyes readjusted to the darkness. I nearly screamed out loud as I turned around and realised there was a figure standing right beside me.
“That was some punch, Joey. I thought you’d knocked him out.”
“Fergus!” I whispered, “You gave me a feckin’ heart attack!”
He gave me a look of some concern.
“Are you going to be done for salt? You know Dickie Keogh’s cousin, Tealight? Well Dickie said he got done for salt after throwing a big piece of glass at the sub teacher. He was too young to go to jail, but Dickie said the Guards beat the lord out of him in the back of the baddie wagon.”
I kneeled down and eyeballed him.
“It’s not salt, it’s assault. Ass-ault. And it’s a paddy wagon, not a baddie wagon.”
“But isn’t that where they put the baddies?”
“Maybe. But it’s still a paddy wagon. And don’t be listening to Dickie, he can’t open his mouth without lies spilling out everywhere. Tealight’s not much better, he’s been telling that story for months.”
“What about the ass salt, Joey? Are you going to get in trouble? That was some punch. Why did you even hit him?”
“I thought he was going to hit Dad. And no, I’m not going to get in trouble, as long as we get out of here right now. Come on, you lead the way. And make sure we get the tree too.”
I stood up to get going but I instantly felt the flat of Fergus’s hand pushing into my belly, holding me on the spot.
“You can’t be hitting people like that, Joey. Someone will turn around and beat the lord out of you one of the days. I don’t want that to happen.”
“No,” I agreed, “but I was scared, Fergus, I didn’t know what else to do.”
His hand pushed a little deeper and clenched into a fist. I knew he was looking up at me.
“Okay Joey, let’s go.”
Fergus led us along a path that I was amazed he could follow in the limited light. His steps were smooth and brisk, his momentum constant. Within no time he had brought us to the tree that we had quietly felled earlier.
“It’s a beauty Joey, Mam is going to love it,” he enthused.
It really was. Even in the dark it was easy to see how lush and springy and vibrant it was. And the smell of its sap was a citrussy zing that made me want to help Dad throw it up the moment we got it home so the whole room could fall under its aromatic spell. I could picture it dripping with the decorations and lights, proudly standing watch over our Christmas gifts like a particularly well-turned-out palace guard. I popped it up on my shoulder and told Fergus to lead on.
The boundary wall of the estate came into view ahead of us. We were moments away from locating the stile and the short walk back to the car. Dad had been right, there was nothing to worry about. But just as my brain had finished savouring that comforting thought, I felt a jolt of pain in the arm that was holding the tree. I instinctively yelped and dropped our prize on the ground. I knew exactly what was happening. The Runt stood behind me holding a big stick. The Leash stood in front, looming between us and our easy exit. I felt like an absolute idiot – they had been waiting for us. The Runt was quick to speak and he wasn’t happy.
“Now Mr. Boxer, was that your left or your right you hit me with? You loosened one of my teeth with that little punch of yours, did you know that? That was your turn. Now it’s mine.”
He moved so quickly that I didn’t even realise he was on top of me before I felt a sickening thump in my stomach that seemed to touch the frontside of my spine. I went down like a sack of spuds, doubled over, my lungs burning and breathless, my brain frazzled with strange lights as my forehead rested helplessly on the cool ground.
I heard The Leash say I was only a kid, but The Runt snarled back that he wasn’t going to be made a fool out of by a young fella, let alone a tree-stealing young fella the likes of me. I sensed him come closer and as I turned my head could see and then feel his booted foot kicking me hard in the side. A flash of white flooded my brain again.
“How’s that going for you, is it nice? Is it going to be a nice Christmas in hospital?” leered The Runt.
The next voice I heard was Fergus’s. He sounded calm and unintimidated by what was he was witnessing, but he spoke a bit louder than normal.
“Mr. Runt, can you please stop hitting my brother?”
The Leash almost fell over with the shock of suddenly seeing Fergus.
“Where the hell did you come from?” he gasped.
The Runt turned to Fergus angrily.
“What did you say to me?”
“I said could you please stop hitting my brother, Mr. Runt.”
The Runt cocked his head sideways like a confused dog, looking at Fergus in bafflement. Fergus looked at him in return and upon receiving no reply to his request, went to speak again.
“Mr. Runt, can you please – ”
He was cut off before he could finish.
“That’s not my name,” yelled The Runt. “That’s not my name!”
Fergus looked right at him and then asked, just as politely as before, “Then what is your name?”
The Runt stared at him, unsure how to proceed. He ran one of his fingertips along a groove in his ear and looked with some confusion at The Leash, to which The Leash shrugged in response.
“Do you not have a name?” asked Fergus, an unmistakable note of sympathy in his voice.
“What do you think! Of course I do,” came the reply.
“And it’s definitely not The Runt?”
Fergus turned to The Leash and inclined his head right back so he could see his face before addressing him.
“Do you know his name, Mr. Leash?”
The Leash looked over to his partner and then back at Fergus and then at The Runt again. He was still looking at The Runt when his mouth opened and one word came out.
Fergus’s eyes lit up.
“Ooh, that’s a lovely name.”
He looked back at The Runt. And he gave him every ounce of his focus, breathing ever so quietly and letting the woods hold them all in its embrace. The wind had gone out of The Runt. He was utterly perplexed by this small boy who seemed to be communicating with the deepest part of him. Fergus held his hand out flat as if waiting to receive something. With his other hand he then very slowly picked out of the centre of his palm something tiny and held it aloft for The Runt to see. There didn’t seem to be anything there, but Fergus was focused so intently on it that we all strived to catch even a glimpse of whatever it was. Fergus raised his eyes to The Runt again and spoke quietly and deliberately.
“Teddy,” he said, “I know what it feels like to be the smallest. But Teddy, we’re all small. Even Mr. Leash. Even the trees in here. Look out there.”
Fergus pointed to the sky behind The Runt.
“We’re being watched. Right now. It’s always out there, seeing everything. Can’t you feel it?”
The Runt turned his head and looked where Fergus was pointing. Fergus went on.
“There’s no part of us that can’t be seen. People think I’m really good at hide and seek. But Teddy, there is no place to hide. There is no hiding spot where it can’t go. So I just let it come with me. I just let it be. It’s not going to hurt us. It never will. It doesn’t look at us that way. It sees every drop of blood in your body, Teddy. Every air bubble. Every bone. Every -”
He looked at me.
“What is it, Joey, the really, really small thing that’s in every bit of us?”
“Yeah, every atom. In us, and in the trees, the rocks, that stick in your hand, everything. It sees us when we’re hurt and when we’re happy. It doesn’t feel anything itself, but that’s okay, it doesn’t have to. It’s not angry with you, Teddy. It was never angry with you. But it’s been with you since you were in your mammy’s belly.”
The Runt was suddenly not threatening at all. He looked small and helpless. He stared at Fergus. And then he wiped his eyes and rubbed his nose as if he’d been crying. There was nothing scary in his voice when he spoke.
“I’m sorry I hit your brother, little man.”
He saw me still lying on the ground and came over and pulled me back to my feet. He then went to where I’d dropped the tree, picked it up and handed it to me. Still in shock from his attack, I used the tree as an impromptu crutch and allowed it take my weight while I composed myself. The Runt rubbed his jaw as he spoke to me through the branches.
“That was some whack you gave me.”
“Yeah. Sorry about that.”
“Mostly, I feel like everyone wants to do that to me. I’ve always felt like that. So I got my retaliation in early.”
He inhaled deeply as he regarded Fergus, now circumnavigating The Leash, who for his part looked very uncomfortable.
“Your brother is a bit different, isn’t he.”
“He is that, yeah.”
“I’m going to try to give the retaliation a skip for a while.”
“Now go on with your Christmas tree and we’ll all pretend none of this ever happened.”
He called The Leash’s name and said they had better go. The Runt moved off quickly and I went to do the same in the opposite direction, but both Fergus and The Leash were walking backwards away from each other, the better to satisfy their intense mutual curiosity. And then they were gone and we were hoisting the tree over the stile and making our way back to the car and Dad. He beamed when we got in, the tree squashed between us.
“Not a bother on you!” he exclaimed. He started the engine before turning back to us. “Right boys, where are we getting the turkey?”
It was subsequently said of The Runt that he never raised a finger to anyone again and was altogether regarded as a changed character. But every now and then someone would turn up with black eyes and knocked-out teeth and broken ribs, and the evidence was allowed to speak for itself. Whatever the truth was, I liked to remember him as he was that night after Fergus had spoken to him – a man who looked like he was going to take his shot at peace and run with it, as fast and as far as he possibly could.