He stopped feeling, and straightened up quickly, holding the hawk in his hand. Fresh tears descended the ragged cliff side of his face, mingled with the dirt on his cheeks, welled up at the bottom of his chin, and dropped as shiny brown globules onto the limp corpse of Kes. Through his blurred and bloodshot eyes Billy begun to examine the hawk; pulling out and stretching its unresisting wings, realigning its twisted and broken neck, and finally staring into its glassy eyes, which were now just small, cold umber marbles, devoid of any life.
Blinded by the now steady stream of salty water pouring down his face, Billy, hawk clutched close to his chest, turned on his heel and ran, slipping on the wet gravel as he did so. As he arrived back in the kitchen, his mother and Jud both stared at his dishevelled form. Billy stared imploringly back at his mother, and then gave his brother a glare of unmitigated and utter hatred. ‘He killed it. ‘ Yet more tears arrived in the corners of his eyes. ‘Oh gi’t a rest now Billy. ‘ His mother replied quietly ‘There’s nowt you can do about it now.
‘ ‘That bastard killed it,’ Billy shouted pointing at Jud. ‘Shut tha mouth Billy. It were thi own bloody fault anyroad. ‘ Jud was beginning to lose his temper. ‘Just look what he’s done mam. ‘ Billy had started to regain some strength through the warmth of the fire. He pushed the body towards his mother’s face. ‘Gi’ over Billy. ‘ ‘None of you care about me. ‘ Billy was shaking. He placed Kes carefully on the kitchen table and, without warning he lunged at Jud, kicking and scratching with every fragment of muscle he could force together.
One powerful jab in the stomach from Jud and Billy was a small, damp and almost lifeless heap, sobbing on the lino. ‘Stop it now, both of you! ‘ Billy crawled, sobbing, across the cold flooring towards the door. ‘Oi! Come back ‘ere,’ his brother called to him, standing up from his position at the kitchen table. Billy did not hear him. Blood pounded his eardrums deafeningly. He thrust his exhausted arms against the floor and managed to rise to his feet. Face burning, stomach aching, he lurched out of the narrow kitchen door.
A freezing curtain of wind and precipitation smashed against his weak body with all of its terrible force. The icy air wrapped itself around Billy, strangling him in its grasp. He stumbled through the narrow side ally leading to the main road, and ran. Or at least tried to run. His head spun and his legs rebelled; the best he could squeeze from them was a slow and unsteady amble. He had no real idea of where he was heading. He felt as if he was standing outside his own body, watching the events of the last thirty minutes from afar.
He stared at himself traipsing over the grey-green gravel of the road outside the red-brick maze of terraced houses, which looked like they had been built, crushed and compacted together until each house was extremely thin, and then splattered with grey water. These architectural follies soon disappeared behind Billy and gave rise to lush green hedgerows enclosing golden yellow fields on every side. Everything looked dreadfully dingy as the rain poured in huge round blobs that splashed as they hit the gnarled, pitted surface of the road, running into each other and collecting in potholes and dints.
A small green frog splashed about in these newly formed puddles, leaping across to a different pool every so often. It looked up and quickly retreated as Billy waded through the miniature lakes, icy water seeping through his old trainers making his feet sting. Over the horizon, dark peaks arose, overshadowing the fields ahead. A car trundled past, swerving as the driver saw Billy, and spraying him with muddy liquid. Not that it made any difference; every inch of Billy’s ragged attire was saturated, and his skinny legs ached with the strain of running.
As he reached the cover of the woods the rain seemed softer, though around the edges of the red, yellow, brown, and occasionally green autumn branches the rain poured down like a mass of billowing skirts. Billy squelched across the carpet of soggy dead leaves, his tired legs catching on tangled, scarred oak roots and fallen branches. He finally came to rest under a hollow tree trunk. It was warm and comparatively dry with a soft floor of decomposing leaves, which felt like a radiator on Billy’s frozen torso.
He laid back and surveyed the scene around him, first examining the rotted and deformed interior of his temporary shelter, and then the rest of the forest. He was beginning to awake from his earlier dreamy state. A chaffinch perched on a fallen log seven log several metres in front of him. It chirped, ruffled its damp feathers and launched itself into the dingy sky. There was little more noise but the constant thudding and splashing of raindrops on the bright tones of the forest floor. The air smelt of wet leaves rotting wood and, perhaps most strongly of all, mud.
The contorted shapes of bright blue and violet fungi hung above Billy’s head, casting an eerie shadow and sprinkling its dust like spores all over him. He coughed sharply as he inhaled one, and then sank back into his bed of leaves. Again, he glanced out at the depressing scene before him and then at a small muddy burrow at the foot of a dripping pine. To his surprise, a small white head emerged and surveyed the area shiftily, soon followed by the body. It began to dig and sniff the soil, perhaps searching for roots or seeds of some sort, its shiny white body soon becoming as soaked as his own.
Suddenly, Billy was caught in its field of vision. It froze, its delicate body quivering slightly. Billy blinked. It had gone. He lay back, closed his eyes, and finally fell asleep. Only a bit further. Just a little further. Billy stared up at the bell tower, the sky rushing past at impossible speed. Billy’s vision swayed and span as the distance from him to top of the tower expanded to an immeasurable distance before him. A hawk cawed, and it echoed and reverberated inside Billy’s scrambled head. I’m coming Kes. The foothold beneath him suddenly gave way. He fell. Blackness surrounded him. Voices strangled him.
He could not breathe. A kestrel appeared from the void, flying straight towards him. Kes! Kes! He reached out, only to be holding the rifle he had hidden under the sofa. Jud was in his sights, screaming for mercy. It was loaded. Bang. The suitcase dropped to the floor. The man beside it picked it up again, and walked out of the door without so much as a goodbye… Billy awoke with a start. He was shivering, the comparative warmth of the hollow seeming far more chilly after a few hours. He rubbed his blue hands together and breathed into them his breath condensing in the cold night air. The rain seemed to have stopped.
He reached out to a shard of tree bark resting at his feet and, with his finger, began to trace the rough patterns engraved by unknown hands into the surface of the material. One, he thought, looked distinctly like a hawk. NO. The thought made him shudder, but more like it came. Thought after thought of Kes flooded back into Billy’s conscious mind like a huge damn had burst. He fell backwards, knocking his head on the hard wood of the tree. Only semi-conscious he fumbled for support, found it in the shape of a branch, and finally regained balance. Then, directly overhead, he heard a very, very familiar sound.
He looked up, and saw the shape of… Was it a kestrel. Even if it was not Billy was in no state to deny its existence. He had to see it. He begun to scale the great oak branch by slippery branch, with all the might and haste he could summon. He climbed, and climbed, and climbed, and slipped. He desperately grabbed for a handhold, but none came. The back of his head slammed into the first branch for twenty feet with breakneck speed, closely followed by a second, and then a third. As he lay in the mud and autumn flotsam, and as his vision disappeared, he began to dream again.