Ramsaa, Isle of Man

Egelric blinked against the light.

Egelric blinked against the light. He was cold and wet and naked, and aside from a sense-​​memory of a whistling sound, like falling through air, he did not remember any gradual return of consciousness worthy of the name of waking. He could not recall so much as the last five seconds. At some instant he had simply become aware.

Seconds passed – five and ten and thirty – and remained in his mind. This was good. Then he turned his head.

Then he turned his head.

A spark popped in the back of his neck, and in an instant his body was ablaze, crackling and twanging, awash in the melting pain that marbled his knotted muscles. 

He tensed and bore down and choked out the fire, but pain still sloshed from one end of him to the other, seeking its level. He did not think it would drain away.

The sense-​​memory of his ears told him he had made a sound: a paltry croak he knew as his only by the fresh scrapes it had left in his throat.

Then he heard a rustle from below, a scuffing and a rumpling and a rearing-​​up. This was very bad. He was in danger.

He rolled onto his elbow, though it felt like ripping himself out of his own skin.

A head popped up beside him. Tousled hair. His father’s eyes.

His father's eyes.

Egelric forgot pain and fear in his astonishment at this backwards scene. Somehow his father had become the little fellow on the floor, peering up in a silent plea for comfort or attention. Somehow wee Egelric had become the big man on the bed, with his mother’s talons in his back, preventing him from crawling down for a cuddle or a story.

Then he saw below the eyes to the angles of his mother’s cheekbones and chin, cloaked in Elfleda’s freckles and Elfleda’s fair skin. This was his boy. He was the father, not the son.

Egelric began to shake, from the arm that propped him up all the way down to the legs he clenched together to hold back the pain. Cold sweat ran down his neck and tickled through the hair on his chest. And Finn sat staring at him as one did not stare at living men.

Finn sat staring at him as one did not stare at living men.

“Well, say something.” The words scorched his throat.

Finn blinked. His stare centered itself on Egelric’s eyes, human to fellow human, but it still lacked any sign of recognition. “Are you awake?”

Egelric looked at his hand – the most he could see of himself without moving his head. He straightened and curled his fingers. “Aren’t I?”

Finn shrugged. His gaze warmed, and he relaxed onto one hip. “Sometimes you seem to be awake, but not truly. But if you ask, are you awake, I think it means you are awake.”

Egelric attempted to smile, but half his face was an inflexible, throbbing mass. He settled on a tweak of the other corner of his mouth.

Finn sat forward on his knees. “Do you want something? A drink?”

Egelric tensed. He had no time for a drink. He had to get out of here.

Then he reminded himself that Finn had made the rustling sounds, and all was quiet outside. His fear withdrew like a wave, leaving him wet and shivering.

“I could use a drink.”

Finn hopped up. Egelric dabbed around his mouth with his tongue. There was a lump in his lower lip, like a chip of stone, but he seemed to have all his front teeth.

Finn returned and dropped to one knee. Egelric tried to peer down at the mattress to plan how he would sit up, but even his eyes ached when he moved them.

Finn returned and dropped to one knee.

Meanwhile Finn simply lifted the cup. His mouth was prim, but his eyes were wide and frank, like his easygoing grandfather’s. He pressed the cup to Egelric’s lips, and Egelric opened his mouth and let the water spill in.

Egelric tried to retreat into memories of holding wobbly babies on his lap and teaching them to drink out of cups so big that their little faces almost disappeared.

But he could not forget he had never held a cup to Finn’s dribbling mouth as Finn was now holding a cup to his. He had never been the father, and now he was the baby boy. And still his head was too big for the cup to hide the tears that spilled out of the corners of his eyes.

Finn produced a folded towel from below the surface of the bed, and he patted at Egelric’s wet beard, making no distinction between water and tears. No hesitation, no fuss. It could not have been the first time.

He explained, “You need to drink a lot, because you have a fever. Oh!”

He lowered the towel and lifted a bare wrist to Egelric’s forehead. Egelric rocked on his elbow at the light touch.

“No, you are still hot.” He dabbed still more gently at the other side of Egelric’s mouth, the swollen half of his face. “Take care, because you have a cut here in your beard. We could not shave it.”

'We could not shave it.'

Egelric had to know. He bore down on his elbow and lifted his other arm.

Pain seared through the crackling skin over his shoulder blades. He made a sharp cry and stopped with his hand halfway to his head. Finn sank back, white-​​faced, watching him.

Egelric remembered blood trickling down his flanks like sweat. If he felt it now he would scream. Scream, and shit himself, and crawl out of his skin to flop raw and slippery onto the floor like a flayed rabbit.

On top of Finn.

No, he could not.

No, he could not. He must not. He reined his pain in tight, clamped his teeth together, and wrenched his arm up the rest of the way. He touched the trickling on his neck and checked his fingertips. Only sweat.

He felt the lump in his lip, and patted along his mouth until he found the thick scab in his beard, all gnarled in the hair.

Above his beard the skin of his cheek stretched taut and shiny over the throbbing mass. He could feel the brush of his fingertips, and he felt pain, but he could not believe the thing was a part of him. They must have stuffed his face with breadcrumbs and suet, and sewn it up again. He touched the crusted seam.

Finn said, “You had a bad cut. They stitch-​​ed it up.”

His over-​​correct pronunciation allotted the word two syllables, like “stitches,” softly staccato. Egelric’s shivering heart warmed with love, and his clenched muscles relaxed slightly.

He muttered, “That’s going to leave a devil of a scar.”

Finn’s thin bottom lip could scarcely form a pout, but every expression of his wide eyes was profound. He seemed to mourn.

He seemed to mourn.

Egelric mustered up a chuckle that sounded more like clearing his lungs. “It’s no matter, Finn. I don’t think I could get any uglier than I already was. And if I can…” At the last instant he thought better of a shrug. “So be it.”

He felt along the swollen socket of his eye and up his temple. He realized there was something wrong with his head.

Finn said, “We had to cut off all your hair. So it would not stick in your wounds.”

Egelric ruffled what was left. It was just long enough not to bristle. “The devil! My hair hasn’t been this short since… since I was a baby, I imagine.”

Finn shrugged his knobby shoulders. “It does not look bad.”

“Must be the only part of me that doesn’t.”

'Must be the only part of me that doesn't.'

He gave Finn a cockeyed smile until both corners of Finn’s mouth turned up.

He tucked his chin and tried to look down the front of himself without shifting his shoulders. His neck was still flexible, but his back was a scaly carapace seamed with oozing stripes, like the slashed skin of a roast pig. He did not want to split himself open.

His belly was a welcome sight: smooth and brown and softly furred as ever. But it did not explain the sharp pain in his side.

He tugged weakly at the blanket beneath him. “Am I lying on something here?”

“Your stitches.”



“You had a cut on your belly also. They stitch-​​ed it up also.”

Egelric laid his arm back on the mattress. His legs trembled until he jammed one kneecap into the side of the other. He remembered struggling with a swelling bulge beneath his clothing that did not belong to him – a phantom member that had reared back and struck him like a snake. But there were no snakes on the island…

Finn whispered, “Father?”

Egelric gasped and opened his eyes. He was panting. His tense fingers were knotted in the blanket. He could not recall the last seconds.

Finn asked, “Don’t you remember what happened to you?”

Egelric looked down at his hands. Even his fingernails hurt. Some were bruised or rimmed with blood. He must have torn and twisted with all his strength.

Even his fingernails hurt.

His knuckles were smooth and unswollen – he had not landed a single punch – but rough, scabbed scrapes circled his wrists.

His legs shuddered, and no amount of clenching them together could stop them. He whispered, “I don’t remember them binding my hands…”

Finn’s pale face went bloodless. “We did. We had to tie you to dress your back. You thought, we were trying to kill you.”

No, that was not what he had thought. Egelric looked up at the bedpost, knowing that he would see scrapes on the wood to match the rope burns on his wrists. He remembered. He remembered Comgeall lying behind him, crooning into his ear. He remembered Comgeall’s hairy chest rasping over his back until he bled. He remembered Comgeall’s knee jabbing between his knees, trying to pry his legs apart.

He whispered, “Did Comgeall get in here?”

“No! Never! Not one of them.”

'No!  Never!'

“You’re certain?”

“Yes! You never were alone without me or Eadred here! We would not let you.”

Finn leaned his forearm on the mattress, and after a moment’s hesitation, he laid his hand on the back of Egelric’s hand. His voice went soft, but it thrummed with a gentle, steady strength, like the voice that had reassured wee Egelric when he crawled to his parents’ bedside after a nightmare or a clap of thunder.

“They’re gone now. They left this morning. We had too much rain at first, but Diarmait made them leave as soon as it stopped. And tonight is clear and quiet, and all the stars are in the sky.”

With the last words his voice changed again, went taut and fell silent. He had that from his mother, too. Beauty seized him like a hand around the throat, as if those who knew its secrets were forbidden to tell.

His hand slipped off of Egelric’s, but his arm remained on the bed beside Egelric’s arm.

Egelric asked him, “How long has it been?”

Finn shrugged and tipped his head to the side. “Three days.” He did not straighten his head.

“And you’ve been in here all this time?”

Finn shrugged again and laid his head on his arm. “Or Eadred,” he mumbled. “And Brede. And Muirgius, too. He’s nice. And Sadb. But not Diarmait. Brede says, we must be polite with Diarmait, because that is why we are here. But I don’t want to.”

Finn shrugged again and laid his head on his arm.

Egelric sighed. “I don’t know that I want to be polite with him either, Finn. But I want you to know, if he hadn’t been there, it would have gone worse for me.”

Finn snorted into the blanket. “He should have stopped his brothers from everything.”

Egelric could only see the top of Finn’s head, but he watched a feathery lock of hair that rose and fluttered over Finn’s hand with his every breath.

He remembered peeking into a cradle to watch his infant son breathe – remembered that paralysis of the heart in the seconds before he saw the first rise and fall, and the cascades of love and relief that followed. He wondered how many times Finn’s head had popped up beside his bed in the last days to be certain he was still breathing.

Suddenly Finn twisted away and flung himself across the mound of blankets on the floor. He shoved his arm beneath a pillow and rooted around. His slender body stretched almost from bed to wall. When had he grown so long?

His head popped up again. “I got your knife.”

He slapped the knife flat on the mattress and laid his head back down on his arm beside it, a handsbreadth closer to Egelric’s arm. Egelric felt its warmth on the back of his hand.

He slapped the knife flat on the mattress.

Egelric had not realized he had lost the knife until he had seen it again. He had not realized he never wanted to see it again.

“Keep it, Finn. It was to be yours anyway.”

“No. It’s yours. I got it for you.”

“Finn – ”

Got it for him? How? From whom? Scoured the beach, pawed through the grass where his father’s blood had stained the sand? Demanded it of the men who had nearly hacked his father’s cheek off with it, nearly gutted him with it? Stolen it? Fought for it? His boy? For him?

Got it for him?

“Thank you.” Egelric’s voice went taut. “You’ll have earned the right to wear it when that day comes.”

Finn shrugged.

Egelric swallowed. “Why don’t you keep it for me, for now? I’m in no condition to use it.”

Finn nodded and slapped his hand on the handle. He slid off the bed, and his long body snaked across the floor to slip the knife beneath his pillow again. Just as sinuously he coiled himself up and laid his arm back on the bed, and his head on his arm. Now his hand lay against Egelric’s hand.

Egelric asked him softly, “Been sleeping with that monster beneath your pillow, have you?” 

Finn nodded.

“Been sleeping in here?”

Finn nodded again. His head scooted forward until his cheek rested on the back of Egelric’s hand. “You always knew who I was, so you were not so scared.”

Egelric’s voice softened and slid into depths that the hoarseness had not reached. He could not speak loudly, but his boy’s head was very near. “Did I?”

'Did I?'

“And one time when you woke a little, and I was not here, you thought someone stole me, and you were scared. So I stay here.”

“You must be all wrung out, Finnie.”

Finn shrugged and sighed.

“Sorry, Finn. I forgot you don’t like to be called that.”

“It’s all right.” He mumbled his words, no longer bothering to lift his head from Egelric’s hand.

“I’ve been calling you that in my head for fourteen years. I’ve tried not to, but lately I’ve been hearing your friends call you that…”

“It’s all right. I decided you may call me that, if you want.”

Egelric lifted his head and squinted into the shadows behind Finn’s shoulder, at the pile of blankets and pillows. He wondered whether Finn had made his “decision” while lying there, perhaps wondering whether he would ever again hear his father call him anything at all. He wondered whether Finn blamed himself for denying him the name only days before he nearly died. For that alone Egelric was grateful he had lived.

For that alone Egelric was grateful he had lived.

He wrenched his left arm off the bed in spite of the searing pain to his back. He had already endured fourteen years of pain for the chance to stroke his son’s dark hair.

“Let’s say I’ll call you that when we’re alone. Is it a deal?”

Finn shrugged and rocked his cheek back and forth over Egelric’s knuckles, sliding his head back and forth beneath Egelric’s hand. Softly, as if he did not quite mean to be heard, he said, “And I could call you Da.”

Egelric pulled his arm out from beneath Finn’s head and wrapped them both around his boy’s shoulders. Finn twined his arm over and under Egelric’s and pulled it tight. He laid his head down again, locking their bodies together: the little fellow on the floor and the big man on the bed.

Egelric whispered, “It’s a deal.”

'It's a deal.'