Chapter 11: Baby Birds and the Consequences of Cruelty Part
Part Four: The Well
By Ivy Rangee
Waking from a fitful sleep, Heathcliff lay in utter darkness upon a hard earthen floor, his mouth and throat dry like a high desert in late summer. By the smell of it, he inhabited a fetid, dusty place; where, he knew not. Finding breathing difficult, he panted, his hair glued to his head with perspiration. He wondered if he were dead. It was possible; this could a tomb. Cathy had read to him of the heat and dust that torments the dead upon entering Hades. The conflation of these conditions caused such agonizing thirst in the newly dead that they flocked to the River Lethe and drank without a thought of the consequences. At this moment Heathcliff welcomed the oblivion of the waters of forgetfulness. He did not wish to remember the punishments Hindley had inflicted upon him. But, upon reflection, he decided to forgo the temptation of amnesia to suffer, instead, the knowledge of recollection; he could not bear the thought of forgetting Cathy. Just contemplating it caused him to weep in spite of his thirst.
How did Cathy fair, Heathcliff wondered; how much time had passed since he and Cathy returned to the Heights? Two nights at least. They were supposed to have come directly home after saying goodbye to Papa, running every short cut they knew to make it home by dinner time. Instead they'd rebelled: playing games, taking their favorite back trails and telling stories until they'd fallen asleep upon the moor. When Hindley found them after midnight, he'd dragged them home to face his Missus Earnshaw's wrath. She had separated the two children, ordering Hindley to imprison Heathcliff in one of the farm's outbuildings.
Later that first night as the full moon stood low in the west, Missus Earnshaw and the curate arrived; together they'd cross-examined Heathcliff with a litany of peculiar questions about his origins. He could tell them nothing, for the answers lay outside his grasp, within the cloud of early childhood. As he turned from one to the other for an explanation, his two inquisitors ignored him. Instead, their displeasure evident, they'd talked to each other as if Heathcliff had not the wits to understand their words. Shortly thereafter they left the shed, locking him within; Heathcliff crept to the door, to peer through the wood slats. Missus Earnshaw and the curate walked a few paces down the narrow moonlit path, but stopped a short distance away, to engage in heated conversation. At the time Heathcliff had not understood all he heard as he eavesdropped at the door, but now, he reconsidered their words in the light of the last two days.
"It is as I feared, my dear Missus Earnshaw," said the curate, his hands clasped behind his back while he rocked on his heels. "That boy is not human."
"Is he a changeling then?"Her breathe ran short as she wrung her hands.
"Worse even than that," replied the curate in his high, nasal voice.
Missus Earnshaw gasped for air. "He is soulless?"
"Indeed, but there is more, in my judgment a demon has entered the soulless vacuum within him. His answers were far too clever and evasive. A Gypsy whelp should be as simple as the dog that bore it. The shadow of Satan is upon him."
"What can be done?"asked the woman, who panted as if she'd run a marathon.
At this point Heathcliff could hardly hear Missus Earnshaw's words, and he turned his head, pressing his ear to the narrow gap between the wooden boards. In the brilliant moonlight he could clearly see the hay rakes, shovels, sickles and scythes that hung neatly on the opposite wall, and he examined one after the other while he listened.
"Administer penance and then on the third night I shall baptize him."
"How can the soulless be baptized?" Missus Earnshaw sounded incredulous.
"Prior to baptism, I shall conduct a ceremony we men of the cloth call the Little Soul."The curate said this in triumph as if he were the cleverest man on the planet.
"Little Soul. But is that not for animals?"Her distain for the idea was plain in her tone.
"Indeed it is, my good woman; that is why it is so appropriate, given the boy's low birth. This is such an ingenious solution; I am surprised a humble curate such as myself is the first to have thought of it. I shall write a dissertation for the bishop so others may employ it in similar cases," said the curate with obvious glee."You must send for your cousin; I shall need the aid of another as devout as myself."
"But Cousin Jabes travels; I doubt he can make it here on such short notice. And Mister Earnshaw despises him."
"Ah, but Mister Earnshaw is not here. You must try, my dear woman; that is all I ask."
"I'll send word tomorrow, but only if you explain what you are planning." She sounded skeptical.
"I shall call upon the Holy Spirit to bless the boy just as I would any animal; it will fill the emptiness within him. I'll provide you with proper instructions for the boy's preparation; follow them to the letter. We'll baptize him at Gimmerton Beck by the stand of willows just west of the stone bridge three nights hence."
"What will happen to the child … or whatever that thing is? I cannot rest easy leaving my children unprotected with it thing lurking about."Heathcliff detected desperation in the woman's voice.
"Only the Lord knows, my dear. But have no fear; it will be resolved one way or the other very soon. Just make sure you administer the severest possible penance to drive out the demon."
"Will he … survive?" asked Missus Earnshaw.
"Few survive the penance, let alone the baptism."
"Then the boy may die?" She said this with grim satisfaction.
"Most do in the process of being saved; it is the price they must pay for salvation," explained the curate. "We can only pray that you will find peace whatever the causatum."
"I must be sure my Hindley's birthright is not usurped by that beastly child." The vehemence with which Missus Earnshaw spoke these words brought on an attack as she coughed to the point of choking.
"Come, Misses Earnshaw. Take my arm. You must rest; leave all to me."
"My Catherine loves the thing; she plays at marriage with it. How will I rest?"
"Calm yourself … You cannot meet your Maker in such distress. You must find peace, for whatever your circumstance at the end, so you will spend eternity."
"But if he dies will I be judged a murderer?"pleaded Missus Earnshaw.
"Nay, Mistress Earnshaw, you do the child a mercy. Should he die, he will not endure the torments of hell, though he shall never find paradise either, he will enter a state …"
The curate's voice trailed off, and Heathcliff turned his head to see the man help Missus Earnshaw negotiate the shadowed path. He thought he heard the mistress weeping as they moved in darkness.
At the time Heathcliff had wondered about his destination after death, and he strained to hear the curate's words. However, now, Heathcliff understood; the mistress' cough heralded a serious illness from which she would perish, and she wanted his death to precede hers. It seemed she might get her wish, for every part of Heathcliff's body ached from the punishment he'd suffered. At this moment his wrists burned with pain, tied as they were behind his back. Too, hunger and thirst plagued him, but a small hope fluttered to life in his heart. Papa would return soon; Heathcliff would fight to stay alive until then.
While considering his situation, the young boy brought his knees to his chest, rolling his arms forward so that his hands were before him. If a demon lay within him then so be it; he would use its power. Getting to his knees Heathcliff made a silent pledge, promising the demon that he would cherish it. He had no desire for salvation, especially if it was full of people like the curate and Misses Earnshaw. Instead, he'd seek the demon's aid to survive this ordeal so he might remain forever with Cathy upon this earth.
A nauseating, twisted anguish rose from the pit of his stomach as Heathcliff sat back on his heels. All that he had endured since his imprisonment flashed before his mind's eye, bearing with it profound sorrow and humiliation. How could the curate order such base and evil punishments? This penance had brought him so low that he felt utterly transformed; the child, Heathcliff, that had ran along the Liverpool road three days ago no longer existed. That lad had accepted his place as the whipping boy of the Heights so he might remain by Cathy's side, but he had been blind. There could be no pact with these hungry ghosts for they altered the rules without conscience to suit their prejudice. If he survived this ordeal there would be hell to pay. Already he whispered curses upon his tormentors, giggling as he did so, for the words infused him with a sense of freedom as he broke the chains of his unholy compact with the masters of the Heights. He wished them the same misery they had inflicted upon him. There would be no more bargaining for acceptance; they would never tolerate him. From now on, he would do exactly as he pleased. And Cathy pleased him; she would be his.
In a melancholic reverie his mind wandered to Missus Earnshaw. Her cruelty bewildered him. If she wanted him dead, why did she do it by such a torturous method? Why not just kill him? Why bother with this pretext of saving him? But it came to him, she had said it; she feared committing murder. Killing him under the ruse of saving a base animal eased her conscience. He considered Missus Earnshaw's death, wishing he could stand before her, hand-in-hand with Cathy, as that monstrous woman drew her last gasping breath. With that thought, a heady mixture of hatred and triumph coursed through him, and he smiled. He would outlive her.
The first day of Heathcliff's confinement had been spent in that sweltering shed where the curate and Missus Earnshaw first interrogated him. But that night Hindley had come for him, binding him and then dragging him to a copse of oak on the moor. There Hindley tied Heathcliff to a tree, and, with the help of friends, he'd tormented the younger boy. Closing his eyes, Heathcliff wept at the thought of all he'd endured. Murder would be too good for the lot of them; their punishment would require great cunning. Ellen Dean had been there too, and, though she had added to his suffering, in the end she had stopped the worst of it. Nevertheless, Heathcliff had been unconscious when they bore him to wherever he lay right now.
A night, a day and then part of another night had passed while he hung, tied to the oak. Where had Cathy been? Weeping, he curled into a ball, biting his arm so hard he drew blood. The warm liquid wet his dry mouth. He must survive until Papa came back from Liverpool. But to keep that promise, he must get free before Hindley returned, for tonight they planned to put an end to him. Thus, he bared his teeth, tugging at the ropes which refused to budge. Even drunk as a lord, Hindley could tie a decent knot - about the only thing he could do for himself the pampered, bloody bastard.
Heathcliff gave up on the rope and rolled back onto his knees, deciding to explore his prison. Thinking himself very like the blind prince, he got to his feet, after which he inched along the dusty ground, sliding first one bare foot and then the other forward as he explored the dark tomb. Eventually, his toe touched a wall of stone, and, pressing his shoulder to the cool rock, he followed its contours.
The rock wall took Heathcliff on a circular path which he walked round and round for some time, until he slid to the earthen floor, wondering where he was. He'd explored every inch of the Heights yet he'd never come across a round stone room. In his mind he visualized the grounds, running its boundaries, examining every building, but to no avail for, instead, the effort sent him into a light sleep from which he woke with some urgency. Rest would have to wait; he wasted time. Thus, blind as he was in the pitch darkness, he commenced crawling in a careful grid search, looking for a sharp rock with which to cut his bonds.
Heathcliff had been at this for a short time when, from above, there came a grating sound followed by a rain of pebbles. Looking up, the child gazed into a glaring circle of white. Now blinded by light rather than darkness, Heathcliff turned his eyes away from the direct brilliance, and squinted toward the shadowed stone walls, trying to get his bearings. When his eyes adjusted, he realized he had been dropped into a dry, shallow well; gazing heavenward once again, he saw a rope dangling as if from the pure light of the sun. Upon closer observation, he noticed a dark figure slipping quickly down the corded thread. It couldn't be Hindley; that twit did not have the physical agility for such a maneuver.
"Glory be!" shouted Hugh, the ploughboy, as he leaped to the bottom. "Ye be a sight. And by all tha's holy where be ye clothes?"
Heathcliff looked down; he wore only tattered britches. His chest, arms and legs were covered in cuts and bruises, and his face must look as bad by the way he felt. Humiliated, he turned away without a word.
"That rantallion, Hin'ley, I be bound," continued the bold ploughboy, as, shaking his head, he answered his own question. A fixture at the Heights for the last two years, Hugh stood sturdy as a rock though a head shorter than the younger Heathcliff.
A hearty, well-liked boy, Hugh tied his long blond mane with a bit of frayed string, so that it fell down his back in a messy ponytail. Ever enamored of sea captains thanks to Cathy's stories, he imitated their imagined bearing whenever possible, and now was no exception as, arms akimbo, Hugh marched around Heathcliff, examining him closely.
Heathcliff's thoughts remained on the word rantallion, and he chuckled in spite of himself as a visual crossed his mind. Precocious for his twelve years, Hugh had a grown man's way with oaths. He'd been on his own for six years, and, having picked up cant in his travels, he never failed to entertain Cathy and Heathcliff with his poetic and colorful curses.
"That young master be a bouncer. I hate the bloody pego," grumbled Hugh. "The drunken, cods-head by-blow! Look at what he's done to ye while ta' master's awee."
Heathcliff stared at the dry earth. He wanted to talk, but his mouth was too dry for speech.
"Here, this is for ye," said Hugh with disgust and just a hint of sympathy. "Cook sent me with water and gingerbread for ye. But that's s'pposed to be all! The bundle-tailed old mopsey warned me not to give ye no t'other help."
His bottom lip swollen, Heathcliff returned a sad, crooked smile, attempting to express his gratitude to the ploughboy; at the same time he did not forget his debt to the demon, secretly thanking it for answering his prayer. With the dark being's help, he would change Hugh's mind.
"Jeez. Why are ye squintin'at me like that?" asked Hugh, backing away. "Som'p'thin' wrong with yer peepers? And yer lips are blue like a ghost's. Ye art scarin' me. When's last ye drank?"
Heathcliff shook his head.
"Ye do na' know?!" interpreted Hugh, who commenced pacing back and forth, his tattered, too small shoes sending clouds of dust into the stifling air.
Heathcliff nodded. At this Hugh let loose with a string of oaths so powerful and obscure that they flew up, over Heathcliff's head and out the well's narrow opening. To Heathcliff, they sounded sublimely profane, and he made a note of them.
"Well, take it then," growled the plow boy, handing him a water skin. Hugh stormed back and forth; he seemed in the midst a crisis of conscience. "Jeez, 'tis hotter than bloody hell down here."
Heathcliff held up his roped hands, the sight of which sent Hugh into a fit. His light blue eyes went rapacious and round like an owl that searched for prey in the dead of night, as once again he proved himself a virtuoso of cant curses.
"I s'pose I be bound to set ye free," stormed Hugh, taking a small knife from a scabbard that hung round his neck and grabbing at the ropes. "Bollocks! Sure'n that whore pipe, Hin'ley 'ill know 'twas me set ye free. I'll get a whippin'; yet I canna let ye be. T'would break the cant code; bes' I bugger off."
Heathcliff held his hands out, and Hugh hacked away at the knots, as a litany of swear words escaped his lips in a low, chanting growl. Once set free, Heathcliff grabbed for the water skin, tore off the cap, and took a long pull.
"Bes' ye slow down; 'twill make ye sick on an empty belly," said Hugh with a frown as he kept a close eye on the younger boy.
"Have you seen Hindley?" croaked Heathcliff, after another long drink.
"Nay, but he and that jilt he runs with are plannin' to come for ye just before tea. That's when she gets off."
"How long until tea?"
"Are you going to help me escape?" asked Heathcliff.
"Cook said nay," replied Hugh, kicking the dusty ground.
"I'll repay you somehow."
"'T'would be wicked ta let that bollocks ha' at ye."
"Then let's get out of here, Hugh," said Heathcliff, his voice raspy. "Before Hindley catches us. I need that knife; will you lend it to me?"
"Depends. What are ye' planin'?" asked the ploughboy, his eyebrow arched suspiciously.
"To run for it; I'll keep it hidden, but if he catches me I mean to use it as a weapon."
"And where 'ill ye be hiddin' a knife? Ye art near naked."
"In my britches pocket," whispered Heathcliff.
With a sigh Hugh took the blade and scabbard from around his neck. "I owe ye; so here ye are, but that is all I own worth a pence."
"No, Hugh, I will pay you back. Where's the gingerbread?"
"Here," said Hugh, taking it from a bag hung round his shoulders. Heathcliff took the moist, fragrant brown cake in his hands and brought it to his nose, inhaling the clean scent of cloves. When hunger overpowered him, he stuffed his mouth until his cheeks looked like those of a chipmunk who'd labored all day collecting nuts for the winter. Swallowing the cake in one gulp, he set to coughing as crumbs caught in his throat. In desperation, he snatched the water skin, gulping down the rest.
"Hugh, have you spoken with Cathy?" asked Heathcliff when he recovered.
"Nay. Cook says she be bound to 'er room."
"If you see her, will you tell her I'll come for her?"
"I be banned from talkin' ta the young lass," said Hugh. "Cuz' I taught 'er cant, and now she's so bloody good at it she could be a pirate purest-pure. Have ye ever seen the like of her? What a bonnie fair-roe-buck she be." He said the last words with soft reverence.
"Bonnie fair-roe buck, indeed," whispered Heathcliff. "Tell her that no matter what happens I love her. Please, Hugh.
"Why are ye sayin' such a thing?" asked Hugh, his anger clear. "Ye sound like ye are goin' ta die."
"It's the river for me, tonight."
"Jeez, Master Heathcliff. Are they goin' ta drown ye?"
"That's their plan."
"I'm not one for the mushy palaver," said Hugh after a long string of curses. "I canna carry sweet nothin's to yer lady love."
"Oh," said Heathcliff, crestfallen.
"I's'ppose I 'ave no choice but to haul yer bacon outa here so ye can tell 'er yerself. Then ag'in I owe ye."
"No, Hugh, lending me the knife made us even. I'll owe you for getting me out of here. Is there something of mine you want?"
"I'll think on it. For now, let's sherry off, before that bumfiddle, Hin'ley, catches us."
"You first," said Heathcliff.
Heathcliff tried to climb the rope, but he could not, for each time he tried to shimmy up a sharp pain shot through his right shoulder. Dropping to the ground he turned to Hugh. "I can't."
"That's a nasty badge ye bear upon ye back and nub. Let me have a look," said Hugh, peering at the younger boy's neck and shoulder. Heathcliff stood silent, letting the boy examine him. "Skin's broke; there's a bit o' tab in there. I be goin' first; then I'll pull ye up."
Hugh climbed the rope and swung to the well's rock ledge. He disappeared as Heathcliff waited for what seemed eternity, fearing he'd been abandoned. Then the rope fell from the bright white circle above. Hugh had tied two sturdy loops into it. Heathcliff slipped his foot through the lower and his arm to the shoulder through the upper, afterward reaching upward and grabbing tightly with his left hand. Ready, he yanked on the rope, and Hugh hauled him out of his prison. Once outside, he fell to earth where he lay on his back, staring at the clear, cloud spangled sky. Never had he been so happy to gaze upon that great blue infinity.
"Come along! Ye canna' lag about."
Weak with fatigue, Heathcliff stood to find himself in a low pasture down where the road to the Heights met Gimmerton Road. It was close to the bridge over the beck where Heathcliff was to be baptized that night. Dizzy, he stooped, hands on his knees to steady himself. "I'll only slow you down. You best be on your way; before that git, Hindley, gets here."
"Nay, ye are comin' with me. That tab in yer back 'ill have ye as queer as Dick's hatband before long," said Hugh, holding his hand to Heathcliff's forehead. Pro'bly already does. Ye are burin' up and as green as a frog with gout."
"She canna' go no place."
Frowning, Hugh stared at the younger boy. "I'm rattlin' off this cursed gentry cove, and, by the sight of ye, ye ought ta bing along with me."
"I cannot leave with you, but they'll not put an end to me. One day, I swear, Cathy will be my wife, and I'll be the master over them all; come back then."
"Nay, I be done with these swells," said Hugh. "'Tis bound for America I be; they say low borns like me and ye can make a fortune there. Take my advice and let the bonnie-roe buck be."
"You don't understand; I am bound to this place. Without Cathy, I'm nothing. She is my soul; I am her spirit."
Hugh frowned at the younger boy. "Ye sound like a poet speakin' riddles. One last time I warn ye; bing off or ye 'ill be regretin' it."
"I said me piece; 'tis yer chioce. Now, keep low, it's the hedgerow we be followin'."
Hugh ducked across the pasture with Heathcliff limping behind him. At the hedge they turned right and followed it to a wicket that opened into a just ploughed field. Keeping within the shadow cast by the hedgerow, they skirted the edge of the field, crossing a small stream, and taking a narrow sandy path that lead to an outbuilding where farming implements were stored. Within was a sleeping area occupied by a narrow cot, for in the growing season Hugh made his home in the small shack in order to watch over the fields. By the look of it he'd already moved out of his second story garret.
"Stay here 'til I get back," ordered Hugh.
"Where are you going?"
"For water and soap. Take the cot."
"Will you take a message to Cathy?"
Heathcliff made to protest, but Hugh had disappeared. Lying down on the cot, he tried to think about what to do next, but he could not focus, instead slipping into slumber. When Hugh returned, it took all Heathcliff's will to awaken.
"Did you find her?" asked Heathcliff.
"Nay. Roll on yer belly," said Hugh.
"Did you try?"
"I did," replied the ploughboy bathing Heathcliff's wound. The younger boy winced as Hugh dug a bit of metal from his shoulder and then applied black drawing salve. It stung severely, but Heathcliff bit his lip; he'd bear any suffering to achieve his goal.
"The lassie's lattice lay open and I hung 'neath it, gathering pebbles to hurl through the openin'. But that bumfiddle came out the door with his jilt."
"Hindley and Nellie?" asked Heathcliff.
"Who else would I be talkin' about?"
"What happened then?"
"They's arguin' 'bout ye. Ta' young master kicked me and sent me packin'."
"Thanks for trying," frowned Heathcliff.
"I stole some food; help yerself," said Hugh, throwing a bag upon the cot.
Heathcliff 's mouth watered at the sight and scent of Cook's concoctions, and he tucked in, forgetting temporarily his worries. "I owe you twice now, Hugh," he mumbled, his mouth full of meat pie.
"Nay, call us even; ye've saved me double jug more times than I can count."
"No, I owe you. Besides you don't count that well."
"That be true," said Hugh with a sheepish look. He pointed to his ragged shoes from which his toes peaked out. "I'm done, Heathcliff; I been 'round, but I ain't seen the like o' this ken. It makes me sick; I'll be buggerin' off, but I need me some vampires and hopper-dockers for the road."
"If I own those things they're yours," said Heathcliff, with no idea what he was promising.
"How big are yer dew-beaters?" said Hugh, staring at Heathcliff's feet.
"What else? Stand up. Better take a bead."
Heathcliff stood and Hugh placed one of his 'dew-beaters' beside one of the younger boy's. Heathcliff's foot was at least a big toe longer.
"Look at the size of yer back paws; yer goin' ta be a big one," said Hugh with a whistle. "Maybe ye will beat the crap out of that dimwit one day."
"What are vampires and hopper-dockers? If I have them they're yours."
"Shoes and socks. Did I not teach ye that?" asked Hugh, incredulous at the oversight.
"No, you didn't; nevertheless my vampires and hopper-dockers are yours. I hid them in the oak grove just beyond the upper pasture at the edge of the Heights, close to the Liverpool Road. Do you know it?"
"There in the knot hole near the top of the big, old oak in the middle."
"Travelin' t'wil be sweet with me paws covered."
"There's a bag of marbles there too. Take them."
"Nay … I canna'. 'Tis too much."
"Maybe … one."
"The blue and white glass."
"But that's chipped."
"No matter. 'Tis a beauty still."
"It's yours, and any other you fancy. But it's best we separate; so you don't get caught with me. "
"I be makin' my way to the lassie's lattice; I'll try ta' pass a message. Then ta the mistress for me wages."
"I hope we meet again, Hugh. You saved my life."
"Ye'r a damn clinker, ye art, sayin' such. But if ye come ta' yer senses an' make for the new world; ask for Hugh Prunty in New York City. Wait, better ask for Mayor Prunty; I be runnin' the place by then."
"Mayor Prunty it is," said Heathcliff as the two boys touched hands in a secret handshake which will not be revealed here as only those initiated in the art of thieves' cant may have knowledge of such esoterica.
"What'll ye do now?" asked Hugh, gathering some food and his few possessions into a cotton sack.
"Rest until sundown; then I'll try to sneak into the house."
"Be wary, 'tis a gibbous moon."
"I will. Thanks, Hugh," said Heathcliff. The younger boy stared at the earthen floor, his chest tight with the impending loss of Hugh; he fought to hide it.
"Be seein' ye on ta other side," said Hugh, with a wave of his hand.
"On the other side," said Heathcliff, following the ploughboy's progress as he made his way down the sandy path. When he was out of sight, Heathcliff sat upon the cot mourning the loss of his friend.
"I canna' leave ye in such straits. Ye been a good friend," said Hugh. He'd returned so silently that he startled Heathcliff, who flinched at his voice.
"Go," said Heathcliff. "Make your fortune. Afterwards we'll meet again as rich and powerful men."
"Are ye sure?" asked Hugh, his brow creased with uncertainty.
"Give 'em hell, Master Heathcliff," said Hugh, walking to Heathcliff and slapping his arm. Heathcliff winced, but stood and returned the hearty blow.
"Mayor Prunty," replied Heathcliff with a bow.
Hugh laughed, grabbing the younger boy, and lifting him in a bear hug. "Take care of your bonnie roe buck. I hope she be worth it."
With that Hugh departed quickly, closing the door silently behind him. Heathcliff peeked through the slats as the older boy ran up the sandy trail toward the main house. He'd miss Hugh, who understood the nature of life at the Heights far better than Cathy. Together the two boys had commiserated, using wit and humor as their weapon against the unfairness and abuse they suffered daily. Hugh was particularly good at making fun of their shared abusers, and the banter always lifted Heathcliff's spirits. Unbidden, tears coursed down the boy's dirty face as the abyss of loneliness once more opened before him.
Kneeling on the cot, Heathcliff wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand; no time for tears. It would be several hours until sunset, and he needed to keep well hidden until then. Soon enough Hindley would realize Heathcliff had escaped from the well and start a search. Hugh's hut seemed an obvious place to look. But there was no way to move about in daylight without notice, so in the darkest corner of the shed, he made a nest with rags Hugh had left behind. Gathering matches, candles, food and water he made ready for the hours of waiting. Then he piled the largest farm implements around him, building a neat barrier. Once inside he realized he'd be trapped if Hindley found him. Thus he dug a hole beneath the enclosure's south facing wall. It abutted a hedge so he might escape unnoticed if it became necessary.
His work done; Heathcliff sat cross-legged upon the rags, keeping watch through the gap in the slats. But as time slowed by the tedium of vigilance, his eyes closed, his head falling to his chest while he dozed, and, though, when he woke, he pinched himself in an attempt to stay alert, he lost the fight as sleep defeated him; the scene shifting subtly.
Heathcliff remained in Hugh's hut, but rather than heavy darkness, light poured through a hole in the roof, and the escape tunnel he'd dug under the building's wooden wall gaped larger, deeper and darker. From within it two golden eyes stared at him. Startled, Heathcliff backed away as the eyes came ever closer; when realty impinged, the child worried over how he'd get away from Hindley, for the creature behind the eyes blocked his escape. Thus he took the only course possible. He took some food from the pouch Hugh had left behind, and held it out.
"Want some of this?" asked Heathcliff. The creature stopped, but its eyes bore into Heathcliff's heart. "What are you?" asked the boy, reasoning by dream logic that the hole opened into the Underworld, and it was a demon he faced.
No verbal answer came, but he could hear loud sniffing as once again the eyes approached. Next a narrow pink tongue reached out of the darkness, licking the boy's fingers. It retreated to be replaced by a long snout filled with sharp teeth which unceremoniously grabbed the morsel.
"Have thee more?" asked the creature from within the dark of the tunnel.
"Well, give it here!" demanded the mystery being with a low growl.
"First, who are you?" asked Heathcliff, standing his ground.
"Who wants to know?" replied the haughty animal.
"If not your name then what are you?" said Heathcliff, thinking fast.
"Surely thee may hazard a guess."
The boy heard the creature's smart, haughty, smirking tone; then too he'd noticed the sharp teeth, rusty red fur and black whiskers upon the nose. "A fox," concluded the boy.
"Indeed! Well done! I deserve more food for your success."
"By what logic?"
"I believe that is clear."
"Will you come out so we may discuss it?"
"Are thee sure thee wish it?"
"Thee will share thy food?"
With an enthusiastic bound, a fluffy, rusty red fox emerged from the darkness. Leaping playfully about, its thick fluffy tail brushed Heathcliff's cheek as it twisted and turned. Finally it came to rest with its chin upon Heathcliff's shoulder, tickling his cheek with its beautiful black whiskers.
"What are you doing?" protested Heathcliff, bringing his hand to his cheek, for though the creature's tail had not injured him, its touch left a strange tingling sensation. "There is no room for such antics."
"Indeed, there is," said the fox, lying down and nuzzling the sack of food.
"Stop that …" But Heathcliff did not finish, for the small space wavered and shifted as it enlarged. "How?"
"Leave that to me."
Heathcliff stared at the incredible creature; as a hunter he'd followed fox trails, but they were an exceeding clever and tricky species. Never had he gotten so close to one that lived. Something about this fox was different - extraordinary even - as he noticed for the first time that she was a vixen. With narrow golden eyes, she stared back, batting her beautiful black eyelashes at him.
"What is in thy sack?" she asked, nudging it with her dainty black paw.
"You have an excellent sense of smell, so you know very well." He tried to seem stern and aloof, but she was irresistible, and he removed a mince pie, feeding it to her. She chewed loudly with apparent delight.
"Mince, ah, cloves. What a divine scent! It is an essential ingredient in the ambrosia of the gods."
"I love cloves too," said Heathcliff before he could stop himself.
"I know. What else have thee got in thy sack?" she asked, slipping her snout into the bag.
"Those are my supplies."
"I am in hiding."
The fox stood, circling the child as she took in his scent. After a time she stopped and sat facing him eye to eye in a penetrating golden gaze that mesmerized Heathcliff. He'd never seen such a beautiful animal, and the more he stared the greater her glory. Strange and unfathomable as she was, it seemed to him as if he'd known her forever.
"Here," said the boy, breaking the fascination. He'd decided to give her everything. With much effort, he emptied the seemingly bottomless bag, spreading the food before the fox. Her manners unladylike, she gobbled it all up, and then rolled on her back with a groan. Deeply intrigued by the creature, Heathcliff reached over and gingerly scratched her chin.
"Did thee not care for any of thy supplies?" She said this with sheepish curiosity.
"No," said the child solemnly.
"Oh that is a most serious tone. What ails thee, boy?" The fox rolled over on her tummy and let Heathcliff scratch the area between her ears.
"Nothing." His face went sullen.
"Thee lie. I, fox, am far too clever for thee."
Heathcliff turned his back upon her to hide his tears. Her concern moved him; rarely did anyone, even Mister Earnshaw or Cathy, bother to ask what ailed him, let alone persist with questioning, for they already knew the answer, yet they let the reason go unchecked.
"Hide thee not thy tears of innocence," said the fox, getting to her feet and circling to face him. "Tell me what turns thy face so stormy, and, in return, I shall reveal to you a great secret."
"My dazzling name."
"Indeed, I pledge to never lie to thee." This said she licked the tears from his face, and then, circling her tail protectively around him, she settled, resting her chin upon his lap, waiting.
Heathcliff told her of his imprisonment and impending doom, but she did not leave it at that. She wanted his entire lonely life story, and when he was done the two sat in silence.
"Am I a demon?" asked Heathcliff, running his hand over her soft furry coat.
"Thou art no more a demon than I."
"What does that mean?" asked Heathcliff, confused by the ambiguity of her statement.
"These folk you describe would not know a demon if one sat down to share Sunday dinner with them." She rose on her front paws and nuzzled his check.
A vision of an ignorant Joseph passing the potatoes to Mammon as the old man preached to the embodiment of avarice on the dangers of an eternity in hell appeared before Heathcliff, and the boy laughed so hard he rolled upon the earth. His body battered as it was ached with it.
"What ails thee now?" asked the fox. "Why do thee hold thy side?"
Heathcliff tried to answer her, but the vision returned he could not get a word out. She stared at him with her glittering golden eyes, and the bewilderment in her expression added to his hysterics.
"Thank you, fox," he said when he could speak. "I have not laughed in days; it did me good."
"What said I that thee found of a humorous nature?"
Amid fits of giggling, Heathcliff explained.
"Demons are a serious topic; not to be taken lightly. Yet it pleases me to see thee in joyful spirits. Why do thee hold thy side so?"
"It aches from the beating I took."
"Let me see. Move thy forepaw."
Heathcliff raised his arm as the fox crouched down to examine his side.
"These blue marks are not natural?" she inquired.
"No, they are the result of injury."
"Seek no more the high opinion of those you have described to me, for certainly, they are demons." With that conclusion, she commenced licking his side.
"That tickles," said Heathcliff, wiggling away.
"It will heal more quickly for it," she explained, sitting down before him.
"Are all demons to be feared?"
"Nay, demons are a complex subject few understand. But it is best the ignorant remain ignorant."
"Will you teach me?"
"Perhaps. I shall think on it."
They sat cuddled together in silence for a long while before she spoke again.
"I am called Roo ah Ree," she said finally. "Those I favor, such as thee, may call me Ree."
"That is your given name?"
"It is. We of the fox clan place our surname first."
"My name is Heathcliff. I am a bastard; I have no surname."
"Heathcliff. That is not your true name is it?"
"No." Stricken, Heathcliff watched her. How could she know when he barely remembered? In truth there were times when he became so deeply engrossed in this reality that he forgot his true identity.
"No matter, I shall unravel it. I do enjoy a good puzzle," she said with a superior smirk. But after a moment her brow furrowed as if she pondered deep thoughts. "What is a bastard?"
Heathcliff tried to explain, but Roo ah Ree found the concept passing strange.
"Do thee mean a bastard is not a human child?"
"No, a bastard's father is unknown."
"Yet the child exists; thus a father, though he be incognito, exists."
"Yes, but it's more complicated than that."
"Perhaps the father was caught by dogs or killed by hunters."
Heathcliff sighed; Ree simply could not grasp the nature of legal marriage. Foxes, after all, mate for life in a ritual deeply embedded in nature. They have no need for a preacher's vows; through some numinous mechanism of recognition their relationship is intrinsically monogamous.
Ree got to her feet and sniffed the air. "I must away; thee must awake."
Heathcliff looked bereft, and Ree, as if to comfort him circled his body with her silky red-rusty tail.
"Fear not; thee have a surname, though it be lost to thee. That is thy fate and, though thee be but a child, thee must accept this bitter herb. But, this too is thy fate; here, now, I, Roo ah Ree, pledge my allegiance to thee. With this bond, thee shall never be alone again, for I will come whenever thee call. Now, thee are fox, as well," said the vixen, who seemed grow and gleam like the stars in heaven as she said this. "Do thee accept this boon?"
"I do accept, Roo ah Ree," said the boy, awestruck as he wrapped his arms around her neck and hugged her. In turn she rest her head upon his shoulder and nudged him.
"Now you must awake for square noggin' is upon us. Remember! Thee are fox clan; seek not again a demon's aid. Speed, stealth and cunning be your guide; you will survive."
At this Heathcliff awoke to find Hindley and Ellen towering over him. Quickly, he got to his knees and squirmed through the tunnel he'd constructed under the hut's wall, but Hindley grabbed his foot, yanking him back. Heathcliff fought with all his might, but Hindley, at seventeen, was almost full grown, and Heathcliff, tall though he was for nine, did not have the strength to withstand him. It was as Roo ah Ree had said. He must use stealth and cunning; raw strength would not suffice.
"Come along, your presence is required at tea," smirked the older boy, as he dragged Heathcliff to the center of the hut. "After all, you are the main course."