Elder

Will watched carefully as the group of five boys took turns jabbing at their sticks with skewers or other long pointy tools. Then one gave an exclamation of happiness, put his stick to his mouth and blew down it. The boy then pointed it at his nearest neighbour and blew again, making the other boy duck and dive out of the way, rubbing the side of his head where his hair had been blown sideways.

He assumed they must be bamboo, until a splitting, tearing sound, an exclamation of annoyance, a stick thrown down in disgust, much laughter and rude comments from the rest of the group, and then a new stick was cut from the bush right next to where they were all sitting.

Will was intrigued, so realising there was another similar bush where he was sitting, he cut a stick for himself with the pocket knife he had been given for his birthday. It cut cleanly with a bit of effort, and he could see that the wood formed a ring around a more pithy, soft middle. Odd sort of bush, tree? with long floppy stems and green berries in great bunches. No trunk. Though with stems like that, how could there be?

Lacking a skewer, Will picked a smaller, more solid stick off the ground and had a go cleaning out the middle with it. It started easily enough, but seemed to get harder as he compacted the contents. He supposed a skewer might work rather better, getting all the way through in one go and then smoothing the sides by twisting. But he didn’t have one. He persevered with the stick.

The other boys were all finishing their tubes, and then finding small stones from the path that would fit inside them. One, Will thought his name was Steven, put an empty can on a log a few feet away and then took aim, getting a metallic ting when on the third or fourth attempt succeeded in hitting it. He cheered while the others laughed.

Will wished he could walk over and join them. It was rubbish moving house at the end of term. He had scarcely met anyone in the week he had been at school, and now it was holidays. Six boring weeks stretched out in front of him, and all his friends miles away.

Four of the boys looked the same age, about a year or two older than he was; the fifth was tiny but had the same white-blond hair as Steven, probably his little brother. No one Will recognised from his year. But he assumed they must all live fairly close, since this strip of woodland didn’t really go anywhere. One end was by some pony fields, the other by some industrial units on the main road, and in the middle were the backs of houses, some with little gates onto the footpath. A short cut to school, but he didn’t reckon it was the sort of place his parents would go for an actual walk.

He needed a dog, so that he could throw a stick near the boys and let the dog go and say hello. Then he could see if they might be friendly. If it didn’t work out he could carry on as if the fields were where he was going, but at least he would have tried.

His mum didn’t like dogs. He carried on working his stick, wondering if he could get their attention some other way.

The resistance suddenly gave way and the middle started to come out the far end of the stick. He wanted to cry out in triumph, but just grinned to himself as he continued to push the stick down the hole he had made. Nearly there, nearly there.

Then the squeak of a distant gate, another person heading along the path. Someone really should go along with an oil can.

“Uh oh, it’s the witch woman!” the littler boy said half under his breath. Not that quiet though, Will thought, amused.

The others turned, then grabbed their stuff and headed off along the path away from the direction of the gate, close to where Will sat. He shrunk back slightly, into the shadows.

Will looked around to see who was coming, wondering if he should follow the other boys, or if that would be too obvious he was following them without knowing what to say.

In his moment of indecision he was caught, the woman already approaching.

He supposed she did look a bit like a witch, with a dark coat and long skirt, and long loose hair, but the shopping bags in her hands were fairly ordinary.

She stopped in front of him and looked him up and down. “You don’t want to be copying them,” she said shaking her head. “Shooting at birds isn’t your style. You could do something far more interesting and bird friendly with the stick having gone to all the trouble of hollowing it out.” Then she paused. “But I expect you’ll work that out for yourself,” she added, smiling, an afterthought as she walked on.

Okay, so that was why she was called the witch woman. He felt as if he had been examined and found not good enough. It didn’t exactly make him feel happy inside, having a complete stranger see through him like that, and just be criticising. Well he supposed she was right that he would never want to shoot at birds. But the other boys hadn’t shot at birds, only an empty can.

So far.

The words came unbidden. He didn’t know what the other boys were planning to do with their sticks. Running off smacked of guilty consciences though, and he supposed some boys might shoot at moving targets. Could a peashooter hurt a bird? Or a squirrel?

He stared at his stick, not knowing what to do with it, and not wanting to throw it away given the witch woman had told him not to. He realised it was nearly tea time and he could legitimately go home for some food, then head out in another direction later. Or stay in for a bit. Or kick a ball around the garden.

*

Will took the stick out of his coat pocket a few times over the next few days, puzzling over what he could do with it. A straw seemed pretty childish and boring, as was any form of bubble blower. He could cut it into beads but that was way too girlish. And he didn’t need a long stick for that; poking middles out of short bits would have been far easier.

He put it out of his mind over the weekend and enjoyed helping his dad around the house, putting up shelves, painting a wall, and generally helping to make their new house nice inside.

Then on Monday he was left to his own devices again for much of the day and the problem of the stick returned to bother him.

He was almost tempted to seek out the witch woman and ask her what she thought he should do with it. Except then it would be her ideas, not his. And she had said he would work it out.

Tapping the stick against a secluded bench he had found to sit on, it turned into a bit of drumming. A minute later he realised he was having fun with the stick at last. It wasn’t a very good drum stick, too light, but it did make a sort of musical sound of its own. A wind chime? Might work, if he made another three and used a stone and some string to hang them, but wasn’t that great a sound. And at the moment he only had one stick.

Bird friendly, she had said. He suddenly frowned at it. Could he make a whistle? Or a flute or recorder from it? Or pan pipes? They would be easier, not needing a mouthpiece. He blew over the top. It actually made a sound. Only one note, but it was definitely a note. A finger over the bottom changed the note.

Nah, he thought, it sounded rubbish, nothing like bird song at all. Definitely needed finger holes. Which meant a mouthpiece.

He tried to remember what a recorder looked like, how it worked. The top was at an angle, then there was a hole a little bit further down, and finger holes a lot further down. He would need another stick to plug the hole at the top. But then, there was no shortage of trees and sticks.

*

By the end of the week Will had finally succeeded in making a working recorder. It had taken a few attempts to get it right, and the tuning was decidedly suspect, but he was proud of his efforts.

He sat on his secluded bench and put the recorder to his lips, then played softly whatever notes came into his mind. The tune wandered like birdsong, a few repeated phrases, some trills, some warbling. He gradually lost himself in exploring what he could do. The birds called around him, he imitated them. He felt part of the woods, part of all that was going on around him.

How odd. He had never been much of a nature person before, never even lived in the country. He only explored this scrap of woodland because it lined the footpath behind his house. Yet here he was, playing a wooden recorder he had made himself to the birds, and they were singing back. It was weird, but somehow he didn’t feel lonely any more.

His neighbour, the one the other boys had called the witch woman in some dim and distant past, went past with her bags of vegetables from her allotment. He stopped playing for a moment. Then she looked over at him, smiled and winked before carrying on her way. It gave him a warm feeling inside. He played some more, then went home for some dinner.