My private little drama was interrupted by an excitement in the land. The Laird had decided to take a new wife. As the most powerful man in Alba he had wives, and children, aplenty but, if he was getting bored of the ones he had, no one would say anything against him. The call went out for willing and unmodified virgins of a suitable age for him to make his selection from. I know, barbaric. It was how things were then.
The use of the word ‘willing’ covered quite a range of meanings in this instance – past events had shown men and whole villages giving up their daughters, lying about their age even, to try and curry favour with the overlord. Virginity, however, was non-negotiable. It was a one way deal. The unplucked flowers of the land would be given up to the Laird. He would take what he wanted and pass the others on in the endless game of politics and favour. If any were foolish enough to be ‘plucked’ along the way they would be left behind, unable to return home, adrift and left to their own wits.
Who’d have thought it? It looked like I had found a way out by the very traditions that had caused my problems in the first place. I wasn’t a man in that place. Technically too old to be a child anymore, if I wasn’t a man I must have been a woman. Notwithstanding the passion of my guilty fumblings with Boaz I was also undoubtedly a virgin. At sixteen this seemed like a plan with merit. That I was clearly the wrong gender did not seem to be a subject covered in the small print.
I went to my father to explain my logic and to ask if I could be sent.
To say that it was an odd conversation … well, yes odd, but once the big news was out of the way it was not as difficult as I had feared. Finally I think he was relieved that it was out in the open between us and he now had something he could work with. I remember asking why he was not surprised at Boaz. No, such things were not unheard of it seemed – even in our little village. Sameer, the smith, had been pressuring father into suggesting a match between me and his daughter, a woman widowed at an unfortunately young age. The match would have put me in his household and, my father had suspected, his bed with no dissent from his mouse of a daughter. So many things we had never spoken about.
Maoilios, my father, had always been a practical man; now he committed himself to helping me. I had thought no further than trying to get away to a place where I could become anonymous. Aware of an undercurrent of rumours about the Laird my father considered the ‘what if’ scenario all the way to the remotest outcome. His gruffly worded instructions to start eating properly, to leave my hair loose and look after myself were as close a declaration of unconditional love as he would ever make. He shamed me with his love.
All the time I thought I’d been keeping him safe by keeping him shut out, he’d known and he’d worried about me. His disappointment was not that I was something anathema but that I hadn’t trusted him with my fears. He berated me for my foolishness and pride, why did I have to be so certain of my difference, so unwilling to even try the pleasures that would make me a man? He railed against the ridiculous strictures of our lives where honesty had to mean expulsion. And he shed tears at the thought of losing a son for the second time. Stupid the things we put off because of fear.
Maoilios, that surprising man, supported my wishes before the council even at the risk of losing face by telling the truth. I could not go before the elders of the local villages, I was not a man and a chattel had no voice. I heard the raised voices but not specific words as he argued that our area needed to find someone eligible and willing to send, surely they would be happier for a true volunteer to go rather than risking losing one of their few virgin daughters. Sameer seemed to be the main voice of dissent but was silenced by a contemptuous voice – the Imam? However it was expressed, it seemed that concern for their own daughters and fear of exposing the collective to shame if my ‘sin’ was discovered was enough to get my name submitted. I would be someone else’s problem after that.
I was to be sent to the Laird. I would have a few weeks to say my goodbyes before transport details would be confirmed. Given the nature of my leaving, there were not many goodbyes to make.
Mother was livid, called me all kinds of names and refused to have anything to do with me, slamming doors and stalking away in high dudgeon. Pishon and his wife, at least, were civil. They told their children that Uncle Gihon had to go away and they should be nice to him in the days before he left, but felt they were too young to tell them why. Hiddekel and Perath had been away from home for some years. Like my friends they found it easier just to shun me – Uncle Gihon would not be seen by their children in the time he had left and his name would no longer be said.
Unexpectedly, Hannah seemed relieved at the truth. Finding out that her previous ‘failure’ was definitely me and not her seemed to cheer her up immensely … and then she started asking me who I thought was the best looking of her boyfriends. Go figure. All that time she had been missing a sister to talk to after Rebekah had moved away.
Rebekah. Rebekah and Boaz. What to say to them? I couldn’t face them. Even though I knew I had the time I didn’t want to go over to Pez, I couldn’t trust myself. Thankfully Maoilios didn’t force me; he also wanted to keep that particular leaving low key. I didn’t want to call them, didn’t want to run the (very real) risk of someone listening in on the conversation. Whatever else, I didn’t want to be the cause of my father being unable to see little Adam again. I wrote to them. A bland and non-specific message of love and support, saying how much I valued them and how much I would miss them. The letter was set to be delivered after I had gone. Ok, I was being a coward. I was sixteen, what do you want?
The afternoon with the Imam was something of an ordeal. All I got was a fire and brimstone lecture from him. While I owed my physical body to the Laird – as did everyone in his lands – I was an abomination and would damn both of our souls if I actually gave myself to him like Jonathan to David. I’d always thought that the old boy was a kindly man at heart. He must have known more about the secret lives of his flock than he ever said, but to be directly facing an uncomfortable reality upset him and he fell back to harshest aspects of his confused creed, the forgiving God was nowhere to be found that day. Listening to his well intentioned but closed reaction was good for me in one sense – I wasn’t going to fall for that God shit any more.
It was a strange time waiting for the next phase – like the world was holding its breath. In that surreal in-between my father continued to support me, he seemed convinced that I would make it all the way to the Laird. Hannah became his ally in convincing me to accept that I could be an intriguing prospect to a man thought to bore easily with simpering girls. Without the pressure for anything to happen I let her cast an objective eye over me. Though slightly younger than me she was probably the girl with the most experience in the village and I had to value her opinion. Her appraisal was that I should let my hair grow, that I should continue to keep my face as closely shaved as possible – surely no one would want stubble where she expected my face to end up – but that I should stop shaving my torso as I didn’t want to appear too young.
Little Hannah, curious to a fault, had learned about my hidden shaving kit down by the pond after following me one day convinced that I was up to no good with a girl or, failing that, myself. Little Hannah, hiding there in the trees, had watched me change in a few years from a genuinely scrawny, gangly boy into a wide-shouldered, greyhound-toned young man with long legs and, apparently, a very nice arse. Under my ill-fitting clothing no one had ever seemed to notice – or care – that what they were looking at had not been a boy for some time.
In perhaps one revelation too far it seemed that I was the cause of some of her behaviour – she claimed to have been looking for a lover who could match up to what she had seen in her brother. She didn’t even mind that I was so pale, an unusual feature she said that made me unique and interesting. I didn’t really know how to react to that, the thought that a female could find me attractive. Of course I would learn differently in time, but it gave me shudders back then.
There seemed to be little they could do about the scars I had. Seeing what I had done garnered disparaging comments from them both. My wrists had borne the brunt of the damage. Maoilios thought it unlikely that I would be able to wear long sleeves all the time. He suggested it would be best that I wear bracers to cover them from casual observers and gave me an old but serviceable pair of his own. Pulling the laces as tight as possible, feeling the restriction of the leather on my forearms was surprisingly comforting. Most of the other scars, we hoped, would only be seen by someone intimately close.
Hannah took it upon herself to work oils into my skin to try and soften the lines – though I wasn’t entirely convinced that her attentions would make much difference in the time we had. After a couple of false starts it turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant experience to give myself to her care, and it seemed to make her happy so that was ok by me. It was like I was able to relax for the first time after years of being afraid. I began to stand properly, my narrow posture being rubbed away along with the fear of discovery as she repeated a mantra of possibility. Somewhere in me there grew a germ of belief that maybe I could have something to get me far away from the village.
I didn’t dare put my new found confidence to the test though. There was no way I was going to expose myself to whatever was outside our door.
So, as I was not leaving the house, the community doctor came to me. It seemed that my status needed to be certified before I could be collected. Another part of the barbaric mindset and, of course, completely ridiculous. Still, thanks to my unknown parentage and the fact that I was considered too old when Maoilios found me I really was unmodified. A minor thing you might think compared to what you’ve had done, but a foreskin had been just one of the things that had made me shy when I was growing up – now it was part of my final qualification.
Probably not the most appropriate start to our meeting then when Mother pushed him into my room to find Hannah giving me perhaps the best back rub ever. I’m sure I had no scars on my back then but it had seemed a natural progression of her activities and, with a wicked turn of phrase, she had pointed out that my back, and certainly my tight arse, might soon get some very close scrutiny. I’d never been ill and, apart from the day I was found, I had never seen the doctor before. I certainly was not expecting him to just appear by my bed where I lay naked, blissed out and all but purring while my sister worked me over. I hadn’t wanted to come back from the peaceful place I had found and it was with a reluctant sigh that I rolled on to my side and opened my eyes.
Hannah just about got a chair under the poor man before his legs gave out. You might think it was a mean stunt to pull perhaps, but I had no idea that I could cause such an effect. I’d gone around for so long with my gaze downcast there were probably few people who could even remember what colour my eyes were. Hell, I looked in the mirror so rarely that even I wasn’t sure what colour they were. Looking people in the eye had been Father’s suggestion. He’d meant me to show that I was not afraid but, after seeing the doctor’s pole-axed reaction and remembering the way Boaz sighed when we were close, I suspected that something else was being conveyed. Half an hour later the doctor left my room with his paperwork apparently complete, a smile on his face and feeling remarkably at peace with the world though, when asked later by his wife, he couldn’t quite say why.
The doctor gone in a pleasant daze, I sat with Hannah and we both wondered what had happened. Why such a strong reaction? A combination of my relaxed state and … what? Whatever it was I was relieved that the girl had stayed with me, needing a chaperone was not something I had anticipated. With a nervous giggle we decided that maybe it would be safer if I was dressed the next time I really looked at someone.