Three Happy Places, by James Stephens

I

One awakened suddenly in those days. Sleep was not followed by the haze which trails behind more mature slumbers. One's eyes opened wide and bright, and brains and legs became instantly active. If by a chance the boy lying next to you was still asleep, it was the thing to hit him with a pillow. Even among boys, however, there are certain morose creatures who are ill-tempered in the morning, and these, on being struck with a pillow, become malignantly active, and desire to fight with fists instead of pillows.

Bull was such a boy. He was densely packed with pugnacity. He lived for ever on the extreme slope of a fight, down which he slid at a word, a nod, a wink, into strenuous and bloodthirsty warfare. He was never seen without a black eye, a bruised lip, or something wrong with his ear. He had the most miscellaneous collection of hurts that one could imagine, and he was always prepared to exhibit his latest injury in exchange for a piece of toffee. If this method of barter was not relished, he would hit the proprietor of the toffee and confiscate the goods to his own use.

His knowledge of who had sweets was uncanny. He had an extra sense in that direction, which was a trouble to all smaller boys. No matter how cunningly one concealed a sticky treasure, just when one was secretly enjoying it he came leaping out of space with the most offensive friendliness crinkling all over his face, and his desire to participate in the confection was advanced without any preliminary courtesies—

"What have you got? Show! Give us a bit. Can't you give a fellow a bit?"

When the bit was tendered he snatched it, swallowed it, and growled—

"Do you call that a bit? Give us a real bit."

There are plenty of boys who will defend their toffee with their lives. Such boys he liked to meet, for their refusal to surrender a part gave him an opportunity to fight and a reason for confiscating the whole of the ravished sweetmeat. One often had to devour one's sweets at a full gallop. It was no uncommon thing to see a small boy scudding furiously around a field with Bull pounding behind, intent as a bloodhound, and as horribly vocal. A close examination would discover that the small boy's jaws were moving with even greater rapidity than his legs. If he managed to get his stuff devoured before he was caught it was all right, but he got hammered anyhow when he was caught. However, Bull's approach was usually managed with great skill and strategy, and before the small boy was aware Bull was squatting beside him using blandishments both moral and minatory.

He was a very gifted boy. He had no bent for learning lessons but he had a great gift for collecting and turning to his own use the property of other people. Sometimes three or four boys swore a Solemn League and Covenant against him. His perplexity then was extreme. He saw toffee being devoured and none of it coming his way. Possibly his method of thinking was in pictures, and he could visualise with painful clarity the alien gullets down which toffee was traveling, and, simultaneously, he could see the woeful emptiness of his own red lane. He must have felt that all was not right with a Providence which could allow such happenings. A world wherein there was toffee for others and none for him was certainly a world out of joint. His idea of Utopia would be a place where there were lots of things for him to eat and a circle of hungry boys who watched his deliberate jaws with envy and humility. Furthermore, the idea that smaller boys could have, not the courage, but the heart to congregate against him, must have come to him with a shock. He was appalled by a sense of the sinfulness of human nature, and dismayed by the odds against which virtue has to fight.

The others, strong in numbers, followed him on such occasions chewing their tuck with grave deliberation, descanting minutely and loudly on the taste of each bit, the splendid length of time it took to dissolve, and the blessedly large quantity which yet remained to be eaten. He threatened them, but his threats were received with yawns. He wheedled (a thing he could do consummately well) but they were not to be blandished. He mapped out on his own person the particular and painful places where later on he would hit them unless he was bound over to the peace by toffee. And they sucked their sweetstuff and made diagrams on each other of the places where they could hit Bull if they had a mind to, and told each other and him that he was not worth hitting and, would probably die if he were hit. But they were careful not dissolve partnership until the sweets were eaten and beyond even the wildest hopes of salvage. Then, in the later-on that had been predicted, Bull captured them in detail, and, as he had promised, he "lammed the stuffing" out of them.

He had all the grave wisdom of the stupid, and the extraordinary energy and persistence which perpetuates them. He never could learn a lesson, but he could, and did, pinch the boy next to him into adept prompting, and would intimidate any one into doing his sums. Indeed, the man of whom he was the promise had no need for ordinary learning. The lighter accomplishments of life had no appeal, nor would the deeper lessons have any meaning for him. He is simply a big, physical appetite, untrammelled by anything like introspection or conscience, and working in perfect innocence for the fulfilment of its simple wants. For at base his species are surely the most simple of human creatures. In spite of their complex physical structure they are one-celled organisms driven through life with only a passionate hunger as their motive power, and with no complexities of thought or emotion to hamper their loud progressions. None but those of their own kind can suffer from their ravages, and, even so, they fly the contact of each other with horror.

Doubtless by this time Bull is a prosperous and wealthy citizen somewhere, the proprietor of a curved waistcoat and a gold watch. Possessions other than these he would regard with the amiable tolerance of a philosopher regarding a child with toys. So strongly acquisitive a nature must win the particular little battles which it is fitted to wage. When a conscienceless mind is buttressed by a pugnacious temperament then houses and land, and cattle and maidservants, and such-like, the small change of existence, are easily gotten.

II

The sunlight of youth has a special quality which will never again be known until we rediscover it in Paradise. What a time it was! How the sun shone, and how often it shone! I remember playing about in a parched and ragged field with a leaf from a copy-book stuck under my cap to aid its quarter-inch peak in keeping off the glare of that tremendous sunshine.

Tip-and-Tig, Horneys and Robbers, Relievo we played, and another game, the name of which did not then seem at all strange, but which now wears an amazing appearance—it was, Twenty-four Yards on the Billy-Goat's Tail. I wonder now what was that Billy-Goat, and was he able to wag the triumphant tail of which twenty-four yards was probably no more than an inconsiderable moiety. There were other games: Ball-in-the-Decker, Cap-on-the-Back, and Towns or Rounders. These were all summer games.

With the lightest effort of imagination I can see myself and other tireless atoms scooting across reaches of sunlight. I can hear the continuous howl which accompanied our play, and can see that ragged, parched field spreading, save for the cluster of boys, wide and silent to the further, greener fields, where the cows were lying down in great coloured lumps, and one antic deer, a pet, would make such astonishing journeys, jumping the entire circuit of the field on four thin and absolutely rigid legs; for when it made these peculiar excursions it never seemed to use its legs—these were held quite rigidly, and the deer bounded by some powerful, spring-like action, its brown coat flashing in the sunlight, and its movement a rhythmic glory which the boys watched with ecstasy and laughter.

An old ass was native to that field also. He had been a bright, kind-hearted donkey at one time: a donkey whose nose might be tickled, and who would allow one to climb upon his back. But the presence of boys grew disturbing as he grew old, and the practical jokes of which his youth took no heed induced a kind of insanity in his latter age. He took to kicking the cows as they browsed peacefully, and, later, he developed a horrid appetite for fowl, and would stalk and kill and eat hens whenever possible. Later still he directed this unhealthy appetite towards small boys, and after he had eaten part of one lad's shoulder and the calf from another boy's leg he disappeared—whether he was sold to some innocent person, or had been slaughtered mysteriously, we did not know. We professed to believe that he had died of the horrible taste of the boys he had bitten, and, afterwards, whenever we played cannibals, we refused, greatly to their chagrin, to kill and eat these two boys, on the ground that their flesh was poisonous; but the others we slaughtered and fed on with undiminished gusto.

There were only two trees in the field—great, gnarled monsters casting a deep shade. In that shade the grass grew long and green and juicy. After a game the boys would fling themselves down in the shadow of the trees to chew the sweet grass, and play "knifey," and talk.—Such talk!—endless and careless, and loud as the converse of young bulls. What did we talk about? Delightful and inconsequent shoutings—

"That is a hawk up there, he's going to soar. How does he keep so steady without moving his wings? Watch now! down he drops like a stone. . . . If you give your rabbit too many cabbage leaves he'll die of the gripes. . . . Did you ever play jack-stones? a fellow showed me how, look! . . . When we were at the sea yesterday Jimmy Nelson wouldn't go out from the shore. He was afraid of his life—he wouldn't even duck down. I swam nearly out of sight, didn't I, Sam? So did Sam. . . . You could climb right up to the top of that tree if you tried. No you couldn't.—Yes I could, it's forked all the way up. . . . The new master wears specs—Old Four-Eyes! and he grins at a fellow. I don't think he's much. . . . How do midges get born? . . . My brother has one with four blades and a thing for poking stones out of a horse's hoof. . . . A horse-hair won't break the cane at all: it's all bosh: rosin is the only thing. . . ."

There was a little stream which twisted a six-foot path through the field, the sunshine dashing off its waters in brilliant flashes. The top of the water swarmed with flying insects and strange, small spider-things skimmed over its surface with amazing swiftness. We believed there were otters in that stream—they came out at nightfall and, unless you had the good fortune to be rescued by a Newfoundland dog, they would hold you down under water until you were drowned. We also held there were leeches in the stream—they would grip you by the hundred thousand and suck you to death in five minutes, and they clung so tightly that one could not prise their mouths open with a poker. We hoped there were whales in it, but not one of us desired a shark because it is the Sailor's Enemy.

An iron railing ran by part of the field. Every hole and joint of it was crammed with earwigs, and these could be poked out of the crevices with a straw. When an amazing number of them had been poked out there was always another one left. The very last earwig that could be discovered was the King. He was able and willing to bite ten times as badly as any of the others, and he was awfully vicious when his nest was broken into. Furthermore, he had the ability to put a curse on you before he died, and he always did this because he was so vicious. If a King Earwig had time to curse you before he was killed terrible things might happen. His favourite curse was to translate himself into the next piece of bread you would eat, and then you would see one-half of him waggling in a hole in the bread: the other half you had already eaten.—For this reason the King Earwig was always allowed to go free until he was not looking, then he was killed with great suddenness.

I remember how the slow evening shadows drew over the quiet fields. The sunlight slowly faded to a mist of gold, into which the great trees thrust timorous, shy fingers, and these gradually widened, until, at last, the whole horizon bowed into the twilight.

Across the field there could be heard the voice of the river, a furtive, desolate hoarseness in the dusk. The cows in the far fields had long ago wandered home to be milked, scarcely a bird moved in the high silences, the gnats had hidden themselves away in the deep, rugged bark of the trees, and, through the dimness, the heavy beetles were hurling like stones, and dropping and rising again in a laborious flight.

III

He could remember that he had wept to be allowed go to school. Even more vivid was his recollection of the persuasive and persistent tears which he had shed to be allowed to stay at home.

Most of the joys of school were exhausted after he had submitted to one hour of dreary discipline.—To be compelled to sit still when every inch of one's being clamoured to move about; to have to stand up and stare at a blackboard upon which meaningless white scrawls were perpetually being drawn, and as perpetually being wiped out to a master's meaningless, monotonous verbal accompaniment; to have to join in a chant which began with "a, b, c," and droned steadily through a complexity of sounds to a ridiculously inadequate "z"—such things became desperately boring. One was not even let go to sleep, and if one wept from sheer ennui, then one was clouted. School, he shortly decided, was not worth anybody's while, but he also discovered that a torment had commenced which was not by any artifice to be evaded.

Along the road to school there ran a succession of meadows—the path was really a footway through fields—and how not to stray into these meadows was a problem demanding the entire of one's attention. Sometimes a rabbit bolted almost from under one's feet—it flapped away through the grass, and bobbed up and down in a great hurry. Then his heart filled with envy. He said to himself—

"That rabbit is not going to school: if it was it wouldn't run so quickly."

It was paltry comfort to hurl a wad of grass after it.

Through most of the journey there was an immense, lazy bee with a bass voice, and he droned defiance three feet away from one's cap which almost jolted to be put over him. He seemed to understand that at such an hour he was not in any danger, and so he would drop to the grass, roll on his back, and cock up his legs in ecstasy.

"Bees," said he to himself in amazement and despair, "do not go to school."

Each bush and tree seemed, for the moment, to be inhabited by a bird whose song was unfamiliar and the markings on whom he could not remember to have seen before; and he had no time to stay and note them. He dragged beyond these objects reluctantly, pondering on the unreasonable savagery of parents who sent one to school when the sun was shining.

But the greatest obstacle to getting to school was the river which danced briskly through the fields. The footpath went for a stretch along this stream, and, during that piece of the journey, haste was not possible. There are so many things in a river to look at. The movement of the water in itself exercises fascinations over a boy. There are always bubbles, based strongly in froth, sailing gallantly along.—One speculates how long a bubble will swim before it hits a rock, or is washed into nothing by an eddy, or is becalmed in a sheltered corner to ride at jaunty anchor with a navy of similar delicate tonnage.

Further, if one finds a twig on the path, or a leaf, there is nothing more natural than to throw these into the river and see how fast or how erratically they sail. Pebbles also clamour to be cast into the stream. Perhaps a dragon-fly whirls above the surface of the water to hold one late from school. The grasses and rushes by the marge may stir as a grey rat slips out to take to the water and swim low down and very fast on some strange and important journey. The inspection of such an event cannot be hurried. One must, if it is possible, discover where he swims to, and if his hole is found it has to be blocked up with stones, even though the persistent bell is clanging down over the fields.

Perhaps a big frog will push out from the grass and go in fat leaps down to the water—plop! and away he swims with his sarcastic nose up and his legs going like fury. The strange, very-little-boy motions of a frog in water is a thing to ponder over. There are small frogs also, every bit as interesting, thin-legged, round-bellied anatomies who try to jump two ways at once when they are observed, and are caught so easily that it is scarcely worth one's trouble to chase them at all.

Just where the path turned there was an arch under which the river flowed.—It was covered in with an iron grating. Surely it was a place of mystery. Through the bars the dark, swirling waters were dimly visible—there were things in there. Black lumps rose out of the water, and, for a little distance, the slimy, shimmering, cold-looking walls could be seen. Beyond there was a deeper gloom, and, beyond that again, a blank, mysterious darkness. Through the grating the voice of the stream came back with a strange note. On the outside, under the sun, it was a tinkle and a rush, a dance indeed, but within it was a low snarl that deepened to a grim whisper. There was an edge of malice to the sound: something dark and very terrible brooded on the face of those hidden waters. It was the home of surmise.—What might there not be there? There might be gully-holes where the waters whirled in wide circles, and then flew smoothly down, and down, and down. If one could have got in there to see! To crawl along by the slippery edge in the darkness and solitude! It was very hard to get away from this place.

A little farther on two goats were tethered. As one passed they would cease to pluck the grass and begin to dance slowly, such dainty, antic steps, with their heads held down and their pale eyes looking upwards with a joke in them. They did not really want to fight; they wanted to play but were too shy to admit it.

And here the schoolhouse was in sight. The bell had stopped: it was now time to run.

He gripped the mouth of his satchel with one hand to prevent the lesson books from jumping out as he ran, he gripped his pocket with the other hand to prevent his lunch from being jolted into the road.

Another few yards and he was at the gate—some one was glaring out through a window. It was a big face rimmed with spectacles and whiskers—a master. He knew that when yonder severe eye had lifted from him it had dropped to look at a watch, and he also knew exactly what the owner of the severe eye would say to him as he sidled in.