Echoes: The Hermit

by Tracy  Davidson

read it in the correct order

 

The usual sounds of early morning birdsong were interrupted by a loud, piercing, baby’s cry. The sudden silence afterwards was more unnerving than the unexpected cry itself. Henry tilted his head to listen for any further noise. But even the birds were silent now.

Henry shrugged. Perhaps his solitary existence was finally getting to him. It was probably just an animal, though it sounded like no animal he knew of in these woods, and he knew these woods well.

Another piercing cry made him jump. This time, the cries kept coming. It was definitely human, and distressed. Henry followed the cries down to the river. It was indeed a baby, newborn by the look of it, lying on a blanket. The infant – a boy – was naked.

A woman Henry judged to be in her forties lay a few feet away. Her eyes were open and fixed, clearly dead. Though from what, Henry couldn’t make out. There were no obvious injuries and she was fully clothed. If she was the child’s mother, she hadn’t given birth here. The expression on her dead face made Henry shiver. If he was the superstitious type, he would have said she’d been frightened to death.    

The baby had stopped crying as soon as Henry appeared. Henry picked him up, rather awkwardly, unused to handling babies. The child stared up at him with an intensity Henry found unsettling. He didn’t think babies were able to focus this well.

The morning air was still cold, so Henry wrapped the child in the blanket and held him against his chest. There was nothing he could do for the woman, but the child needed warmth, and milk. Henry took the child back to his cabin.

It wasn’t much of a cabin, more a converted woodshed, but it suited Henry. A living room cum kitchen downstairs, a small bedroom and bathroom upstairs. No TV, no internet, no phone. He didn’t care that locals called him ‘Henry the Hermit’. He came here seeking a quiet life, and that’s what he got. Until today anyway.

Henry put more logs on the fire and heated up some milk. He dipped his fingers in the warm milk and held them to the baby’s mouth. The boy suckled them. He was strong, and seemed unharmed.

Henry didn’t know what to do. The nearest phone was three miles away, the nearest town ten. What would the locals say if he suddenly turned up with a baby in his arms, and a story about a dead woman? They already thought he was weird. Henry feared they’d think he was a murderer too.

Henry stroked the child’s head and the baby flashed a big smile at him, gurgling happily. Henry smiled in return, though it faded when he felt something under the child’s hair. Raised marks of some kind. Henry’s fingers traced them, and he frowned. What the…

A sudden knock at the door startled him. He usually heard any approach, not that he had many visitors. Henry laid the child down on a chair facing the fire, away from the door, and went to answer it.

A young couple were standing there. The girl looked pale and worried. The young man stared at Henry with the same intensity as the baby. He had the same eyes and features as the baby too. As though the baby sensed their presence, he let out another gurgle.

“Oh thank God,” cried the girl, slipping past Henry and running toward the chair.

“I don’t think God had anything to do with it,” the young man murmured, sounding amused. Something about the man’s gaze made Henry stand aside.

The girl cradled the baby in her arms. “Thank you,” she said. “For taking care of him. When we found my mother dead by the river…” The man held his hand up and she fell silent.

The man spoke. “My wife is understandably distraught. My mother-in-law had a heart condition. And a mental one, alas. She took our child without permission. Perhaps you’ve seen something on the news?”

“No,” said Henry. “I don’t keep up with the outside world. I keep myself to myself.”

“Good,” said the man. “Then we won’t bother you any longer. We’ll keep your name out of things. No-one will bother you Henry. Goodbye.”

The young man put an arm around his wife’s shoulder, smiled at his son, and steered them out. It wasn’t until they’d gone that Henry wondered how the man knew his name.

Then Henry remembered the markings he’d felt on the baby’s head. The raised numbers his fingers had traced, red hot to the touch. The numbers 6… 6… 6.

 

 

 

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