The evening summer sunlight ran like gold through the trees and the bush behind St. Gertrude’s College. Shadow crept down the hill before it, and the mercury dropped to 37℃. Sweat, half an hour prior, had ceased dripping from the brim of the broad brown Akubra perched on my dusty head, and the route I sought to the old olive grove had me passing in a northerly direction down a gravel track behind the two story white painted monastery. An elderly monk on a yellow quad bike passed me to my left, giving me a smile and a wave as he did so. His heavy Spanish accent trailing a ‘hello’ behind him.
Some five minutes later, gravel crunching under my elastic sided work boots, I crossed a small bridge, and turning left, northerly once more, I passed through a gate and moved onto the track heading into the old olive grove. Flies now dissipating, mosquitoes the size of Harrier Jump Jets did their very best to prove their love to me, swarming around my face and neck, kissing me as best they could; my hands belting out a staccato beat against every part of my bare and exposed skin. Shadows cast by the gnarled tall olive tree’s giving an odd, ethereal, undertone to the beauty now surrounding me. I was there to look for a spot to play ‘Rock Bocci’ with the small, failing, social group known as ‘The Jellybean Jam’; they were due to play it there the following evening.
With no particularly good, nor conscious reason, I stopped and turned east, then gazed down off the track, my gaze falling upon a deep cut in the ground. What filled my sight was monk made, dry as old bones, entirely stone walled and floored; wedge shaped in its construction, roughly two metres deep at it narrowest point. Being a good four metres wide at the open end, the ‘wedge’ sloped from ground level, inward and down, finally ending at a point no more than six feet in width.
Horses had been a huge part of the life of the community surrounding the monastery proper. Used to work the land associated with the monks, the equine beasties were of varied and impeccable stock, sold not just locally, but nationally, and internationally, some being sold from as far off as India, and this stone construction was where once or twice weekly those horses were washed, regardless of the inclemency of the weather, nor time of year. Labour, as the norm, was provided by the mission kids, and later, the students of the college’s; more often than not, wearing nought more than the suit they were born in. And gazing into that particular pit, my mouth detached itself from my brain, opening of its own accord, my half smoked Champion Ruby cigarette fell to the ground.
Rooted to the spot, smoke trailing up from the dropped rollie sitting between my feet, my eyes widened in concert with a gasp escaping my lips. There, in the deepest part of the stone cut, were two skinny boys facing away from me toward the south. At a guess, they appeared to be no more than eight or nine years of age, completely naked and wet looking, the pair stared down at the ground around their feet. A look of sorrow or misery masking their young thin faces, shoulders slouched forward, giving me the notion that the pair were being severely reprimanded. Neither paid me the slightest notice, this did not fully register to me until I called ‘hello’ in a strained voice. The fact that I was able to see the stone walls and floor through where they stood still hadn’t fully landed within the void between my ears as to the enormity of what I was seeing. By the time my brain had caught up, it dawned on me that they were no longer there. I had neither seen them move, nor heard sound of movement; one moment they were there, and then they weren’t, as simple as that.
Gathering my no longer smoking cigarette from the ground, I placed it between my lips with a less than firm hand, and lit it. Inhaling deeply, I looked about myself, and further out into the old olive grove proper to the northeast of where I stood. With all of my senses screaming to their height, combined with goose bumps covering my neck and forearms, I turned my back on the grove, returning the way I had come, now through a rapidly encroaching darkness. Whilst I did not run, I most certainly did not stroll. Midway down the path of my escape, a sound that either was not there earlier, or I just hadn’t heard prior, crawled its way in through my left ear; the sound of a child crying some distance behind me.
Cursing myself, I stopped once more, fear fighting with the concern that what I was hearing was not that of a wraith, rather that of an actual child. Not engaging the brain to ponder further on it, I about faced, and strode with all purpose back to the origin of the weeping child, its volume increasing with every step I took.
Abreast of the place I viewed the spectral image of the two wee naked lads, the crying stopped abruptly. If I was nervous before, I was outright scared now. Shouting, I called to see if there was anyone there, uncertain if I really wanted a reply or not. A lifetime passed in the space of a minute, yet no reply to my call was made, and the darkness of the evening fully closed in.
Action pushing thought to the rear of the equation, I ran. Fast. The ‘from’ out weighing the ‘to’, ten fold. My direction, fortunately the way I entered. Dust springing up from my booted footfalls, I cut an impressive, terror induced gait. Feeling as though an unseen life threat was behind me, the fear I felt was something I had not experienced since I had been under fire, tracers lancing around me, during my military service. Hurdling the gate at the end of the track, my sprint continued back over the bridge, around past the Grounds Department shed, behind the monastery, and diagonally toward the Trading Post; my dwelling. Crashing through my gate, my Scottish Deerhound ‘Fredrik’ was the first to greet me, quickly followed up by ‘Tia’ my oversized Greyhound. I collapsed into the seat beside the front door, sweaty and out of breath. The security of both of these huge dogs flopping down at my feet was not lost upon me.
Thinking myself mad, I told no one of my encounter in the old olive grove, and it took me sometime to return back there, regardless of my work requirements. Thankfully, never once did I see the two lads again, nor did I hear them as they wept when I returned to that place.
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