The last week in March, winter began to let go of the Ottawa Valley. The run-off of melting snow sent the river into a rage: it roared and thundered a few yards below the slope where Young William crouched. With knees folded in tight angles and heels braced against a jutting rock, he squatted close down under the earthy crest of the unstable hillside, almost a cliff.
The repetition of frosts and thaws had stirred things up, loosened the smaller rocks and eroded the soil, making this time of the year the most dangerous for climbing. William had found that it was also the best season to look for fossils, and chunks of quartz, and things decades lost: buttons, spoons, china pieces, square nails, once everyday stuff, now treasure, because they had lain long enough in the earth to take on a mystery.
William Wallace Knox had plans to be an archaeologist. He lived with his father on a farm between the river and Highway 17. Father and son bore the same name. So had the grandfather, and all the great-grandfathers for as long as anyone could recall.
Adjectives were stuck onto the front end of names to distinguish one William from another in conversation. The father was commonly called Old Will Knox. Sometimes he was called Grim Billy, but not to his face.
William had run to the hillside directly from school, and by sunset he had found two things. The first was a slim leaf printed in rock, printed as finely as if someone had carved it there. This rock now nestled in his jacket pocket next to his Field Guide to Minerals and Fossils, while he scraped and gouged at the dirt around the second thing. He used a tack hammer and his own bare fingers, which were now grimy and numb: the frost had crept back with the shadows.
When it became obvious that the second find was only an old shoe or boot William gave up, and put the tack hammer into his pocket. He blew on his hands, rubbed them, and began to feel uneasy about the time. He would be late for dinner, and Madame Leduc would snap at him, and all because of an old shoe. William took hold of the protruding sole and used it to pull himself out of his squat. It jerked in his hand, once, weakly. With a gasp, he let go of it. Then it jerked again, all by itself.
William stayed in the half-crouch, slanted against the slope, glaring at the wriggling shoe. A shriek welled up inside him, finally escaping along with an energy burst that threw him backwards down the hill. He rolled painfully all the way to the bottom, where a smooth curve of granite hammered the breath out of his body.
Lying on his back, trying to drag air back into his lungs, he saw the earth layer at the top of the hill crack and bulge. Then it exploded downwards, a torrent of mud and shale carrying something big that flailed like a spider, all arms and legs. William only had time to close his eyes before the horror landed on top of him. He screamed a second time, and the thing groaned.
Showering dirt, William scrambled to his hands and knees. He found himself crouched over the thing he had roused. He was face to face with it. It was...
It was human. And alive.
It had the usual number of arms and legs, and a face of live flesh, not bone. A white, thin, dirty face: a boy's face. The round dark eyes stared in fright and confusion.
William plumped down weakly in the debris. "My good Lord," he said emphatically. "I thought -- Gosh! Well, who are you? How did you get stuck up there?"
The boy said nothing. He stared at William, then up at the cliff, then down at the storming river. Spray flicked their faces. The boy licked his wet lips, sighed deeply, shuddered. He looked down at himself, struggled up on one elbow, and began to slap at the dirt on his chest.
"I'll get help." William was on his feet and away, almost out of earshot, when he caught the weak protest. He turned back. The boy was trying to get up, but he kept falling down again.
"You need a doctor!"
"No." The voice was faint and husky.
"But how did you get buried? You could have died in there. Did somebody --" He stopped, thinking uneasily of news stories about murders and other even worse things which he had not completely understood.
"Did somebody put you there?"
"Thought... I was dead." Some of the words had a foreign twist. Going by looks, William guessed his age at about thirteen, a couple of years older than himself, though something in the stranger's expression was older than that. This adult air grew more marked as the boy regained strength, and seemed to collect his thoughts.
William was impressed. He was eaten up with curiosity but couldn't bring himself to babble out his questions.
"You can come to my house and phone the police."
"It's not far. You can't walk? Then why not let me get help?"
The boy pulled his legs under him, heaved himself to hands and knees, held it stubbornly, then pitched forward onto his face. William rolled him over to get his face out of the dirt.
Then he ran all the way home, with the dusk thickening around him like ice water.
"See? That proves I was telling the truth."
The newness of the cave-in at the top of the hill was obvious evenby flashlight beam. That was the only thing William had to back up his story, now that the boy had vanished.
They had been over the whole hillside and through the trees and brush of the crest. They had looked along the river bank. There was no sign of him. William expected now that he would be told the cave-in was the result of erosion, and punishment for lying would follow. His father was hard on lies.
Old Will, however, said nothing, which meant that he considered the matter important. Too important to be discussed with a small boy until after a decision had been reached.
Still silent, he climbed the crumbling slope to the place where the boy had been buried. A big hole gaped there now. At the back of it, something white sent back the light. Old Will reached in and wiped off some of the earth, revealing bony eyesockets.
Young William let out a yelp of fright.
"Hush that! Here, help me fill this in."
William held the light while his father pushed dirt and loose stones into the hole. Then with little effort, Old Will picked up all the larger stones within reach and jammed them into the cavity.
"Those won't wash away in a hurry."
"But he was alive. I saw him, I spoke to him."
"I believe you, boy."
William stared up in surprise. In the sideways light of the flash, his father's grey-stubbled, leathery face looked grimmer than ever.
"There was two of them," Old Will said. "Ever hear of hell busting loose?"
William was confused. His thoughts kept returning to the missing boy who, he seemed to recall, had not been wearing a winter coat, just some kind of overalls. Suppose he froze?
His breath was plumes of fog. He curled up his fingers, for warmth, inside his mittens. The broad granite surfaces that made such easy walking under the sun were sleek now with frozen spray, each in its glassy shell.
"Oh, gosh. Suppose he slipped into the river?" He ran nearly to the brink and skidded dangerously. His father yanked him back by the arm. They looked down at the turmoil of black and white.
"I don't believe he'd be killed," said Old Will.
"No? In that?"
"No. Or not for long. Getting his head bashed in didn't kill him, seemingly. Being buried ten years didn't kill him. I doubt drowning will kill him either."
Old Will still held him tightly by the arm. "Now I've got to do the job right, and Lord God help me!" He added, "That wasn't cussing, that was a prayer."
William's mind whirled itself numb, like his arm.
He did as he was told, and went straight to the kitchen for his supper. Madame Leduc had gone home, but she had left a pot of stew on the stove and plenty of bread and butter on the table. William helped himself and ate alone, wondering what his father was doing in the toolshed back of the house.
It had to be something out of the ordinary, because normally, Old Will never kept supper waiting. He gave the same no-nonsense attention to his food that he gave to his work, his religion and his politics. The same attention he'd given to his family once.
As a man of stature in the Orange Lodge, the Legion and the Baptist Church, Old Will had no trouble acquiring a very young and pretty wife, once he had decided, at the age of fifty, to found a family.
After a year of marriage, however, the girl had decided that she did not, after all, wish to be tied to a husband the age of her father, and could no longer bear being drudge to an old man and a baby. She had run away to the city, a fancy job, and friends of her own age. She was a light thing, a woman of no character. So much had William learned from Madame Leduc.
He had been made to understand that his mother had deserted him. Having never known her, he found that he could not take the betrayal personally. Yet he wished she had stayed. At this moment he would have liked somebody to give him a hug and tell him not to worry, that all would be well.
Because he could smell danger in the air. In the big empty wooden house, every creak of joist or stair had a stealthy sound, every noise carried an ominous message.
William faintly heard the grindstone whining in the toolshed. His father was sharpening a blade.
Taking a slice of bread and butter in his hand, he started upstairs to his room. He stopped with one foot on the lowest step of the enclosed staircase. Soft, careful footsteps passed along the upstairs corridor. William backed away softer still, then ran out the kitchen door.
Old Will had sharpened a sickle. It was a small tool, but very sharp, used to keep down the weeds around the house and sheds. He raised it threateningly as the boy stumbled in the toolshed door, then put it down and showed his teeth.
"You should have called out. Is that for me?"
William held out the bread on a trembling hand.
"You're a good boy. Now, don't shake so! The Lord is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Don't you believe that?"
"Then have faith. You'll have to stay here and keep praying, while I flush out this -- boy, as you call him -- and send him back where he belongs."
"Hell." The old man stared down at him. "Havent you figured that out yet?"
"But -- he seemed -- he looked -- "
"Like a regular person? Sure he did. How much harm d'you suppose the Devil can do in his own shape?"
"But how do you know?"
"I knew it when they turned up here from nowhere, ten years ago: the two of them, a man and a boy dressed alike. They looked queer, they talked queer, they felt queer. Never mind how nice and polite they acted. Your mother was taken in but good."
William wanted to hear more about his mother, but Old Will went on. "When I finally got to the bottom of what they wanted, I understood what they were. Said their boat was broken down, said they needed something to fix a part. Now, I knew well there was no boat on the river that night -- not in a half-thaw. What they really wanted was my damnation."
He pinched the boy's shoulder as if the memory still frightened him. William knew better than to pull away.
"What did you do?"
"Pretended to go along. Got them out to the barn, said I'd give them what they needed. Got them to look at the cows. While they were doing that I picked this sickle off a nail and swiped off the big one's head."
"Caught the so-called 'boy' with the backswing, give him a good crack on the skull. Wasn't sure he was dead. Still, I figured he wouldn't last, once buried. Seems I was wrong. But I won't make the same mistake twice."
He brooded, running a finger along the blunt edge of the sickle.
William thought of the footsteps in the upstairs hall, and said nothing.
"I should have guessed," Old Will muttered. "I should have known. Why the evil lingered on: it wasn't dead, you see. Not all of it. Your mother was afraid of me. Not of them -- of me! Can you believe that?"
William shook his head. No point in saying anything.
"When I got back from burying them, I found her all packed up and ready to go. She had you on the one arm and a suitcase on the other."
"She wanted to take me with her?" William burst in.
"That she did. I said I'd see her dead first. I showed her the sickle. She ran like a rabbit. Billy! The Devil was in her, I swear it. Are you afraid of me?"
Pinned by two big hands and staring up a mile, William set his mouth and shook his head.
"Say the Shepherd's Psalm."
William recited without pause or flaw. He sagged as his shoulders were released.
"You're all right. For a bit there I was afraid for you. Now, go to your room, get out your Bible, and read Psalm fifty-four. Then pray for me, and keep on praying till I get back."
The moon was full. William, who always looked for the face, thought that it wore a strange expression this night. A gleam of mischief lit up its usual dignified sadness. The strong silver light picked out the blade of the sickle, like another phase of itself, as Old Will carried it across the barnyard. It winked out in the shadow of the trees beyond the barn.
The moon also shone on a pale face that briefly peered from the window of William's room, above the kitchen. Glancing up before he entered the house, William caught the stealthy movement. His heart jumped.
He hesitated, but only for a moment. Then he went in and marched up the stairs to his room. He closed the door behind him before switching on the light.
The boy was sitting on the bed, blinking. He had washed his hands and face, and brushed the dirt out of his hair, probably with William's hairbrush. His clothes, a suit of ordinary-looking brown overalls, were now remarkably clean. So clean they shone like satin.
"You were the baby, weren't you?" he asked quietly.
"There was a woman, too."
"My mother. She ran away."
"No wonder. And you stay? You live with that madman?"
"He's not mad. He won't hurt me, I'm his son. It's you he wants to kill. I thought I better warn you."
"I knew you were a friend, when I heard you speak to him, back by the water. So I followed you here. I also knew who he was, so I followed very, very quietly."
"Why does he think you're a devil?"
"Sort of an evil spirit."
"What makes you think I'm not?"
William looked at him sharply. Was this a joke? Or a test? "I know better than that! I know about UFO's, and ET's, and those things. My dad said you came in a boat, but he should have said ship. Here, look -- "
William's bookcase was crammed, because Old Will retained the traditional Scots respect for pragmatic learning and had a high regard for books, so long as they were factual.
Fiction, though, was not welcome in the house. William's comics were stowed behind his 1911-edition Britannica. He fished them out now and spread them over the quilt.
The boy fingered the pages, smiling. He laughed gently as he looked at the covers.
William was perplexed. "Doesn't your ship look anything like that?"
"No. You would think my ship very boring. No colored lights, no shooting flames, none of these long bright shapes. You would say my ship was just a big ball, the color of its surroundings. Now it is the color of mud, because it lies in mud."
"In the river? You mean it's lost?"
"Not lost: hidden. My father and I, we knew this river: it lies across a well traveled route. Ships pass by here all the time, on their way to and from the.... door? Gate?"
"I don't get you."
"Perhaps your language has not the right words. I mean a place where ships go in, to come out some place else, sooner than expected."
"That sounds right. One more word for my vocabulary. My father and I, we are -- were -- students of peoples, of worlds. But your world is not known as a safe place. The people are afraid of strangers: and afraid is dangerous. For this reason ships pass by but seldom stop, except a few students."
Well traveled routes? Students? William could only stare. It hit him suddenly. This was not a comic book. This was real. A real alien. Right here, in his bedroom.
"But you stopped," he croaked.
"Not by choice. When something in the ship went wrong we came down in the deepest part of the river, below the rapids. We left it there, hidden, anchored and sealed, and walked under the water to the shore, wearing our protective suits. We brought the failed part with us and found a place without too many people -- your house --and asked for help."
William pictured his father meeting these strangers at the door. He shivered. The boy saw it and smiled faintly.
"Yes, that was our mistake. It was clear at once that we had broken some taboo, we had said something shocking. But we never learned what. And for that my father is gone, except his bones, and I am stranded here."
"I don't understand how you're alive!"
"Is this so unusual? Don't you sleep, too, for healing?"
"I sleep more than usual when I 'm sick. But only a couple more hours a day. How can anybody live ten years without food? And how come you aren't grown up?" The boy spread out his thin hands. "This is normal with us. The worse the illness or the hurt, the longer the sleep. You don't breathe or eat or grow: you just heal. They put you in a safe, warm place, though, not in the ground. And people watch you, because when you wake up you are weak and confused."
"Hungry, too, I bet."
"Not at first. But soon, yes. I feel it beginning. That means I am almost myself again. I wish -- but no, my father is gone forever. Some injuries are beyond repair. When his head fell from his body, he was dead, and that was the end for him."
William sneaked a sideways look, but saw no tears.
"Are you going to leave him where he is, or take him with you?"
"Take --?" The boy opened his eyes very wide. "Why would I want his bones?" The two stared at each other in confusion.
"To bury them at home. Decently," said William.
"I don't know what you mean. My father is gone. The bones are nothing."
Gone where? William wondered if this alien believed in heaven, but he never had a chance to ask.
"As for me, without that part for my ship, I go nowhere. After these years, it must be lost forever."
"Maybe not. I pick things up all the time: I collect lost things, old things. What did it look like?"
"Like this." The boy crossed his index fingers at right angles. "The same size, but hard and black."
"I sort of remember..." William scrounged in his memory.
"What it needed," said the boy, "was to be well soaked in some organic liquid. Blood would be best."
"Yes. The part was mostly organic itself, and needed renewal. The easiest way was to soak it in blood. But we did not like to bleed ourselves, of course. So we looked for some owner of animals --your father, in fact. Oh, not to kill the animal! Only to take a little blood."
"Did the part look like this?" William reached down his Bible from the shelf above his bed. He pulled out the cross-shaped bookmark that was a prize from Sunday School, and held it up.
"In outline, yes. But you hold it the other way up."
"Like this?" William reversed it. He remembered the worst thrashing he'd ever got. It was the day he'd playfully drawn a cross upside down on the side of the toolshed, meaning nothing by it. "And you wanted my father to put blood on it? Oh, my good gosh!"
"What was the error? The blood?"
"I... never mind." He didn't even know how to start explaining. He dropped to his knees beside the bed, pulled up the quilt, and began to drag shoeboxes out from under the steel frame. Twelve boxes contained his collection. He opened the oldest and dustiest first.
"I think I remember -- a couple of years ago -- Nope, it's not in here."
In the next box he turned up a dozen beach stones, a four-inch fossilized dog-like pawprint that had to belong to a wolf, a brass button that had "Dieu et Mon Droit" printed on it, a handful of frosted waterglass like rough sapphires, a --
The boy cried out and reached down past William's arm. He snatched up the small, dull, black cross and examined it with delicate care.
"Now I remember," William said. "Found it in the barn, down between the floor and the wall. I was looking for a marble that rolled into the crack. Is it all right?"
The boy nodded slowly, still studying the cross. He laid it on his thigh, his hand over it protectively, and took a deep breath. "Now, I can go home."
"I guess you still need blood for it, though." William pushed the shoeboxes back under the bed. "I wonder where we can get it? How much would you need?"
"This much." The boy cupped his left hand. "No more."
"I bet I could get that much from Madame Leduc's husband. He sells chickens and cuts their heads off for you. Only, I'd have to think of a darn good reason for wanting some blood."
He paced about, believing it helped him think. "Now, we got to hide you till tomorrow, away from my father. And I guess you'll need food. Are you hungry yet?"
"Okay, you stay here and I'll get something. There's lots of stew left." He headed for the door.
"Wait." The boy smiled at him in a way William found puzzling. But then, his experience of smiles was small.
"You woke me," the boy said. "You raised me from the dead. You tried to rescue me. You gave me shelter, you hid me from my enemy. You found the thing I had lost, the one thing I needed, and now you are going to feed me."
William was embarrassed. He shrugged.
"I must do something for you."
"Well, you don't have to. But -- " He whirled around. "When your ship is ready, could I -- could I see inside?"
"Better yet, I will take you away with me."
"Oh!" William felt a pang of unease. For a moment, the boy -- slight, pale, intent -- was a shade too strange, too unfathomable. Too alien. "Queer," Old Will had said.
He held out his hand to William. "Come to the window." He pulled aside the curtain and pointed. "You see that star, the very bright one, very yellow? What do you call it?"
"I don't know, I don't know the names of stars."
The boy gave him an astonished look. "Then I'll teach you what we call them. We'll head for that star, because far, far beyond it is my star. You can't see it from here, but I know where it is, and my ship will take us there. Would you like that?"
William hesitated. "Would I ever get home again?"
"Of course, if you wish to."
"Then, yes! Oh my gosh!" William bounced once, then calmed himself. "You really mean all this?"
"I promise it." William left the room simmering with joy. Feeling his way down the dark staircase he ran into a shadow which embraced him, then knocked him into nothingness.
He woke up in his own bed, wearing pyjamas, and snugly coccooned in sheets and quilt. He worked a hand out from the covers to feel the left side of his chin.
"Sore?" Old Will sat beside the bed on the chair from William's desk. It creaked under his weight. William's Bible was open in his hands.
"I don't expect you to like it, but it was the only way. There were things I had to do. I didn't want you seeing them, and maybe getting bad dreams."
"You killed him."
"That I did. Twice and for all. This time I pierced his heart and watched the blood flow. And after, I made sure there was no pulse and no breath. He's dead and gone for good."
After a thoughtful silence he added, "See how well they chose their time? Easter. The first time it was Good Friday, and now the same again: tomorrow's Good Friday. The cross, the blood, the day. You see, boy?"
William tried to make the right words come. It was an accident. They meant no harm. He opened and shut his mouth.
Old Will closed the Bible carefully. "That's the Devil's way, to mock the things of God. What are you crying for?"
"I don't know."
"Then you can stop it. Look at me! Are you afraid of me?"
"No," said William, sadly. He believed his father loved him, in his own terrible way, but he would never again try to tell him anything, especially not the truth. Not after the boy's second death.
Old Will was the alien now. More alien than the nameless boy from an unknown star.
"Did you bury him?"
"I did. Same place as before, but back more from the edge. And this time he'll stay buried."
He turned the boy's face toward him with calloused, gentle fingers. William forced himself to meet his father's eyes steadily.
"You've taken no harm, I thank the Lord. Now go to sleep." He walked to the doorway and switched off the light. Then he stopped, one hand on the switch.
"You'll be doing no more digging, unless it's potatoes. That clear?"
Towards the end of April, William had a Saturday afternoon alone. He used the time to dig into the hilltop and find the boy's body.
At first, after uncovering the face, he was afraid to look straight at it. Then he forced himself to make a careful inspection. The hair was clogged with dirt, and an earthworm slithered through it. He picked the creature out and threw it down the cliff.
With a trembling finger he touched the cheek. It was cold and white, but firm. Shivering with fear, he bent down to sniff. He smelled wet earth and bruised grass, and nothing else.
He laughed aloud with relief. Then he unfolded the pillowcase which he had brought with him and eased it under the boy's head, folding the ends over the face.
"It's the best I can do, because of my dad," he told the covered face. "But when I'm big, I'll come here and dig you up, and I'll take you away. And he won't be able to stop me. We'll find my mother, and stay with her."
But even to William the part about his mother sounded like a pipedream.
"Anyway, I'll find someplace," he said. "And I'll watch you, and be there when you wake up."
It felt wrong to bury the boy in dirt again. But it had to be done, and he did it, gently but thoroughly.
He recalled how, the last time, the boy had come out of the hill dirty but unharmed. He suspected that the shiny suit had protected him, and hoped that the sickle hole had not ruined its ability to protect.
"I found the cross where you put it, under the bed, and I'll keep it safe," he told the patch of earth. "And your ship's not in any danger. I did some reading and some asking, and guess what? Nobody's sure exactly how deep that deep place in the river is. So it must be really, really deep."
William stood up, whacked his hands on his seat to shake off the dirt, and gazed down at the river. It roared and boiled below him, sliding in dark sheets over the smooth granite, into the foamy white hollows. The birch thicket at his back had burst into life, overnight from bud to leaf.
Not the worst place in the world, William thought, to lie dreaming.
"Do you dream? Do you see me in your dreams? Do you hear me talking?" There was no way of knowing whether the buried boy, deep in his healing sleep, could hear or know anything at all.
"I wouldn't want you to feel lonesome, so far from home. I'll come here as often as I can. How long will it take this time, I wonder? More than ten years, that's for sure -- a stab in the heart is worse than a bang on the head -- but how much longer? Twenty years? Thirty? Will I be old when you wake up? Will I be -- "
He didn't say it. The thought was unbearable, that he might watch for a lifetime, and all for nothing. He pushed the monstrous idea to the very back of his mind, and made it stay there.
"I'll be ready, don't you worry. I've given up archaeology and I'm learning astronomy. I can pick out the stars and name them. That big bright one you showed me, that's... " He pulled out his Stargazer's Guide and leafed through it. "We call it Arcturus."
He looked up at the sky, an ocean with whitecaps, and for the first time he thought of it as a barrier. From his recent reading he knew why the sky was blue, and why the stars vanished in the daytime.
They were invisible, but they were really there, shining behind the blue, exactly like the picture in the book. Sharp, fierce, icy fires in the blackness of space, where someday he would go.
He had been promised.