The Silkies

At breakfast Gary looked up, suddenly remembering something. He had just come back from a holiday with his cousins in the city, and was still reliving the wonder of it all. ‘We stopped at a garage,’ he said, ‘on the way to the beach. There was a sign up that said “Free Air”. That was a funny thing ... free air. Nobody has to pay for the air.’

‘They might,’ said Hazel, ‘if there wasn’t enough good air to go round. Like if it got too polluted, or something. We’d have to build containers to store the good air in, like the petrol tank in the yard — only bigger. Wouldn’t we, Dad?’

‘You’re being silly, Hazel,’ Ma interrupted. ‘There’ll always be enough air to go round, as you very well know.’

‘Yes’, persisted Hazel, ‘but supposing, just supposing a swarm of creatures came down from outer space — extraterrestrials with big rubber snouts — and they sucked up all the air like vacuum cleaners. What would we do then?’

Dad sighed. ‘Could we move on to something more practical — like who’s going to help me feed the animals this morning?’ He glanced up suddenly. ‘Where do you think you’re going, Simon? You’ve hardly touched your breakfast.’ But Simon had already disappeared through the back door. ‘Funny boy,’ said Dad. ‘Lives in a world of his own, that one.’

Simon was the youngest — four years old, nearly five, and still not able to talk much. Dad had been worrying about him lately, but Ma reckoned he’d talk when he was ready. ‘And when he does,’ she said, ‘he’ll probably outtalk the rest of us put together. There’s a lot happening in that head of his — more than we know, I’d say.’

Certainly Simon was aware of everything going on, and a good bit more besides, Hazel thought. He was like the cat in that respect, suddenly pricking up his ears and staring into space for no apparent reason. This usually occurred when he was wearing the tatty old sunhat with the wide brim that he had recently unearthed from the back of the linen cupboard. Ma wasn’t too keen on Simon wearing the hat. It had belonged to Great-Aunt Rory; and Aunt Rory was well-remembered in the family for her strange ways. She used to wear the sunhat all the time, inside the house as well as out, Ma said. And what was more, she wore it back-to-front, with the black ribbon behind, which looked odd. As a little girl Ma had been convinced that it was a magic hat. ‘But of course,’ Ma said, ‘I had a lively imagination in those days — rather like our Hazel. Maybe that’s where she gets it from.’

But there was something odd about that hat, Hazel reckoned. Or rather, odd things seemed to happen when Simon was wearing it. Like that winter morning when she’d looked through the bedroom window and seen him sitting on the bed with the hat on, biting into an enormous red apple. But when she’d burst into the room, the hat was on the floor and there was no sign of the apple anywhere.

‘Where did you get that big apple from?’ demanded Hazel.

Simon pointed to the ceiling. ‘Sky,’ he said.

‘Oh yes?’ said Hazel. ‘So where is it now?’

‘Hat,’ said Simon.

Hazel kicked aside the hat, but the apple wasn’t underneath it. ‘Fibber!’ she scolded. ‘Where is it?’ But the apple was never found. It was a big mystery.

Hazel couldn’t help giving a little start as she looked up now and saw Simon standing in the kitchen doorway. Ma had seen him too. ‘Simon!’ she said sharply. ‘Take that hat off at once. I’ve told you not to wear it inside. And anyway, it looks peculiar.’

But Simon merely pointed towards the yard. ‘Buzzy,’ he said.

‘Buzzy?’ Dad looked puzzled. ‘What’s buzzy, Simon?’

Simon said nothing.

‘I bet I know,’ said Hazel brightly. ‘It’s bees. He’s seen a swarm of bees in the garden.’

‘Or wasps,’ Ma said. ‘There’s been a lot around this year.’

‘It could have been a helicopter,’ suggested Gary.

Everybody laughed. ‘Good one, Gary,’ said Dad. He stood up. ‘OK, Simon, let’s see this buzzy of yours. And Gary — or Hazel — fetch me the petrol can from the workshop. The one with the oily rag stuffed in the spout. We may need that.’

A few minutes later they were standing at the back of the house in the small hedged enclosure that contained the detached bunkroom where Hazel slept.

‘Buzzy,’ said Simon, pointing to the ground. Everyone bent to look at a small neat hole in the ground, about two centimetres wide.

‘Ah ha!’ said Dad. ‘It’s a wasps’ nest all right. Better not get too close.’ Everybody took a step back, except Simon, who pointed into the air. ‘Sky,’ he said.

‘Thought so,’ said Dad. ‘He’s been watching them zoom down into the hole. It’s a wonder he hasn’t been stung. Come on, Simon, back you come. Quick now.’

But to everyone’s horror, Simon unexpectedly crouched down over the hole. He appeared to be listening to something.

‘Simon!’ shrieked Ma. ‘Grab him, Dad!’

Dad lifted Simon bodily off his feet and deposited him safely in Ma’s outstretched arms. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Everybody out of the way.’ He stuffed the oily rag in the hole and poured in the petrol. Then he dropped in the lighted match. There was a sudden flame, followed by lots of smoke as the rag began to burn.

‘Poor buzzies,’ said Hazel. ‘You’re cruel, Dad!’

Dad laughed. ‘Nonsense. It’s quite quick and painless. And anyway, wasps are a pest. Nobody wants them multiplying all over the place. Come on, race you back to the house. Last one gets eaten by a buzzy.’

Everyone scrambled for the garden gate, except Simon, who walked slowly backwards, staring at the still-smoking hole.

In the afternoon Hazel and Gary went down to the creek for a swim, and on the way back they stopped to look at the charred remains of Simon’s buzzy hole.

‘It isn’t a wasps’ nest,’ said Hazel firmly. ‘The hole’s too large, and it’s round and smooth at the edges, like it was made by an object.’

‘What sort of object?’ said Gary.

‘Don’t know.’ Hazel knelt by the hole. ‘I can hear something,’ she said. ‘A sort of murmuring noise.’ Gary listened too. ‘Can you hear it?’

‘I think so,’ Gary said doubtfully.

Hazel picked up a stick and prodded it down the hole. It disappeared. ‘It’s deep,’ she said. She got another stick, about a metre long, and tried that. It went down to its full length and then tapped against something firm. ‘There’s definitely something there,’ said Hazel.

‘Is it a stone?’ said Gary.

She shook her head. ‘It feels brittle, like a tight sort of skin or something ... Oh!’ she exclaimed suddenly. ‘I think I’ve cracked it. I felt something give then.’ She backed away.

‘Aren’t you going to dig it up?’ said Gary.

‘No I’m not. It might be dangerous — some sort of nasty. Let’s go.’

They ran at high speed for the gate, then stopped and looked back.

‘There’s nothing happening,’ said Gary. He looked disappointed.

‘I’m not taking any chances,’ Hazel said firmly, and shut the gate.

That night Hazel lay for a long time in her bunk, unable to sleep. Usually she loved to be in the bunkroom: it was like a small island, cosy and private, and yet within easy bridging distance of the “mainland” — if she needed it. But this evening she felt uneasy. The night was dark and hot. She had thrown off most of her bedclothes and turned the pillows half a dozen times in an effort to keep cool. Outside, the birds seemed to be restless, too: there were flutterings in the big white poplar tree, and once she thought she heard a soft rushing sound, like a flock taking to the air. Later still she was startled awake by the thud of horses galloping in a distant paddock. Animals were restless like that before earthquakes, she told herself. They picked up the vibrations before adults could. It was a well-known fact. She held her breath, listening for tremors deep down in the earth. But the only sound she could hear was a gentle rustling, very pleasant, and for a few sleepy moments she enjoyed a feeling of sinking down slowly into a warm bed of feathers.

And then, with a violent choking leap, she was out of bed, staggering for the door. There was a tightness in her throat as if a small bubble of air was trapped there, struggling to get free. She found the door handle and lurched out into the paddock, gasping.

A shape loomed in front of her — a young pencil cypress. She leaned against it, and took a big gulp of air. Her head was beginning to throb.

As she stood there, recovering her breath, she became aware of a strange low sound in the air like the muffled whirring of a tiny dynamo. It was coming from a patch of light surrounding Simon’s buzzy hole. She stared, aghast. For there was something coming out of the hole: a skein of glistening, silk-like fibres stretched, quivering, along the top of the hedge as far as the bunkroom, which it was busily encasing in a faintly luminous chrysalis. And all the time more and more strands were floating up out of the hole, thickening and extending the skein. They had begun to move up on the other side of the fence, the nearer side, smothering everything in their path. And suddenly Hazel realized that whatever it was that lay hidden in the hole was weaving a silken cocoon around the garden: an ever growing, constantly thickening cocoon that soon would cover everything under a smothering shroud — the paddock, the house, the farm, the valley ... There would be no escape. The air was already misty with silk. She could feel that unpleasant tightness coming back into her throat.

‘Simon!’ For now she saw that Simon had been there all the time. He stood in the shadows like a small pyjama’ed gnome, staring, transfixed. He looked terrified.

She ran to him and shook him hard by the shoulders. ‘Simon! Help me!’

He stared blankly at her, uncomprehending. ‘Please, Simon! With the hat ... You know, your magic hat. Like the time you made the apple disappear ... Simon!’ She was screaming at him. ‘Take them away!’

Slowly Simon reached up and touched the brim of his hat. It was as if he had forgotten that he was wearing it.

‘Go on, Simon, go on!’

Simon took a slow step back and lifted the hat from his head. Then he held it out at arm’s length with the bowl upturned, and spoke in a low voice. ‘Hat,’ he said firmly. ‘Hat!’ And at once, as if drawn by a magnet, the fibres began streaming into the hat. Faster and faster they spun, unraveling like a single shining spool of light. Hazel suddenly felt giddy and put her hand over her face. When she looked again, she was enveloped by darkness and a strange, cold silence. The silkies had gone, vanished as if they had never been. She took a deep breath of fresh air and stared at Simon. He was still standing there with the upturned hat held out. Hazel was shaken by a sudden, overwhelming surge of astonishment. How had it happened? How could that endless tangle of silken strands have disappeared inside a hat — a sunhat, for heaven’s sake? It was like some sort of conjuring trick.

‘Let me see,’ she said. Snatching the hat out of Simon’s hand, she held it up close to her face.

For a single horrible moment she glimpsed a great black space inside, stretching down like the shaft of a well, down and down forever. A space that could suck you in. She screamed, dropped the hat, and ran.

All the lights in the house seemed to go on at once. Then a door slammed, and Dad came marching out in his dressing-gown, waving a torch. ‘Hazel! Simon!’ he snapped. ‘What on earth are you doing in the garden? Who screamed?’

Hazel ran and buried her head in the warm folds of Dad’s dressing-gown. ‘Simon’s hat,’ she sobbed. ‘Oh Dad! I saw this hole in it going down and down!’

Dad picked up the hat and flicked it over. ‘What’s all this silly nonsense?’ he said irritably. ‘There’s no hole in it — it’s just an old scarecrow hat that’s seen better days. Nothing to go screaming about and waking everybody up at two o’clock in the morning.’ He frowned at Simon. ‘No, you can’t have your hat back. I’m going to put it in a safe place where it won’t cause any bother. Now get inside, both of you. You can sleep on the spare mattress in Gary’s room, Hazel. And tomorrow I want a full explanation.’ And he marched them into the house.

But by breakfast time Dad had calmed down somewhat. ‘You gave us such a fright last night, Hazel. That scream was blood-curdling. What really happened? One of your nightmares, was it?’

Hazel opened her mouth, but not a word would come out. She stared down at her porridge, stirring it about with her spoon.

‘Well?’ said Dad.

‘I had a dream where I couldn’t get my breath,’ Hazel said at length. ‘I woke up choking.’

‘Ah,’ said Dad. ‘I expect you were sleeping on your back, and it interrupted your breathing. It must be because you snore ... You should try to sleep on your side. But what about Simon? Where does he fit in to all this?’ Fortunately, at that point Gary interrupted. ‘How can a hat have a hole that goes down and down and can suck you in?’ he wanted to know.

‘Sounds like a riddle, doesn’t it?’ grinned Dad. ‘Well, the short answer is, it can’t. All right? Unless it’s a dark night, and you’ve got a lively imagination, like Hazel. And you’ve just had a very nasty nightmare. It all helps.’

Gary thought about this. ‘Can I look at the hat?’ he said.

Dad shook his head. ‘I think we’ll hold on to Simon’s hat a little while longer yet,’ he said firmly. ‘At least till everyone’s quietened down a bit.’

But Simon never did get his hat back. Dad pretended he’d forgotten where he put it, but Hazel suspected that it had probably gone out with the rubbish. She thought that Simon would be upset about the hat, and would keep nagging for it; but to her surprise he seemed to forget all about it. At about the same time, he began to talk. It was like Ma had said: once he started, he didn’t seem able to stop. Sometimes he talked so fast that that he stuttered in his efforts to get everything out. But there were some things he would never talk about: the silkies, for instance. ‘There’s no such things,’ he said. ‘You dreamed them up, Hazel.’

‘Fibber!’ said Hazel. ‘You were there, Simon. ‘You saw. I’m going to dig up that hole and see if any bits of that capsule thing are still there in the ground. And that’ll be proof, so there!’

‘Go on, then,’ said Simon. ‘Why don’t you?’

‘I will, too,’ said Hazel. ‘But she hasn’t — not yet.’