I grew up in what some people would call a sect. Or a cult. Oh, folk had their suspicions, but most of them were wide of the mark, and the truth was both more mundane and more strange than they would ever have imagined.
Let me tell you what we weren’t. What we did and didn’t believe, and what we did and didn’t do. Though there was some kind of headquarters, it was mainly for administrative purposes, and most members, like my family, just lived in regular houses, did regular jobs, and sent their children to regular schools. Members were allowed to drink and smoke, though excesses were discouraged, and marriage was broadly speaking seen as a good thing, but was not statutory, and there had been equal marriage for decades. We were allowed to celebrate birthdays, and Christmas (or the holy days of any religion) but also allowed to have no conventional religion. Oh, and we could have cars (though the over-use or unnecessary use of them was discouraged) and ride bikes, and vote in elections, and participate in sporting events. Before you run away with the idea that it was some kind of Liberty Hall or the like, oh yes there were prohibitions. We weren’t supposed to join the military (though I think there was some leeway when it came to just wars and non-combatant roles) and certain types of power supply, such as those coming from nuclear fuel or fracking were forbidden, the latter with especial rigour. Many were vegetarian or even vegan, but eating animal products wasn’t banned, though it was only ever supposed to come from ethical sources. Such things as battery eggs or fish farms were anathema to us.
I suppose some folk would call us Pagans, but that’s only true in the broadest sense. Look, I have no problems with Pagans. I won’t say some of my best friends are Pagans, because they’re not, but there’s no earthly reason why they shouldn’t be. But as I once heard Mum say, at heart they just never really forgave the Christians for taking over their festivals, “And I daresay they have right on their side,” she admitted, “But it really is time they got over it!”
We dressed pretty normally, and had doctrines of neither extreme modesty nor enforced nudism. We were nominally (irrespective of gender) supposed to wear robes at our gatherings (that’s what we called them, though they were usually pretty small ones) but in practise, that usually meant little more than something a bit longer and a bit looser on top of our regular clothes. Hair could be worn long or short, curled or straight, dyed or natural, as people chose.
Some of the more strict observers were against keeping pets, but didn’t enforce it on others.
We weren’t into preaching or proselytising, but inevitably people did find out. It wasn’t like some kind of closed order, and of course things got out, and though we tended to be suspicious of new members, sometimes they joined. Some drifted away, others stuck with us.
Anyway, at the time these events took place, I was twelve years old. To introduce myself, I’m called Anna. Well, at least that’s my everyday name. We all have another one, but we don’t tend to make a big deal of it. My Dad was an electrician, and generally acknowledged as “a good workman, not one of the cowboys”, and my Mother was a teacher. I had a brother called Paul, three years younger, and a total nuisance at times, but never in a nasty way. Yes, just your average family. Though one of the tenets we held to was there was no such thing as average. After all, the average was supposed to be 2.2 children, and I’ve never seen .2 of a child!
If we had a reputation, and if people applied a cliché to us, then I suppose we were known as “tree-huggers”. But that’s not true. Oh, we liked trees well enough, those lucky enough to have gardens often planted and tended them, and sometimes we had gatherings in woodlands, though as often, if, like us, members were lucky enough to live near the sea, on a beach, or just in a back garden. Trees were fine and wonderful, and to be accorded respect and care. But though I suppose some did, indeed, hug them on occasion (there was certainly no statute against it!) we didn’t worship them or ascribe any particular powers to them.
I may as well tell you – we worshipped rocks. Even the smallest, most stereotypical stone was viewed with reverence, and when it came to mighty boulders, we were in utter awe of them. Yet you may be surprised to hear that quite a few members lived in stone built houses. That wasn’t seen as in some way sacrilegious. I suppose rather than trying to explain how we viewed things, I’d be better telling you one of our songs. I guess in a way they’re hymns. Music is most definitely allowed and positively encouraged, and at home, or in our places of education, we could listen to whatever music suited us, in any genre, though I think some lyrics would have been frowned on, and not out of prudishness or because we feared some kind of retribution, just because it didn’t suit the way we thought about things. Anyway, this is one I remember from childhood:
Strength beyond our strength and power,
a thousand years to you an hour,
frosts bite, heat parches, light’s own play
brings forth the colours in the grey,
You erode, and yet survive,
you are still, and yet alive ….
You give us shelter, sacred stone,
gave our first ancestors their home,
you hold all thoughts, you hear and see
the voices or eternity,
though unnourished, still you thrive,
you are still and yet alive!
We read various texts, secular and religious, and those occupying that grey area in between that it’s handy to call spiritual. But we didn’t go in for sayings and tracts, and such as we had, tended to be brief, very brief, and to the point, like Rocks Remember. We had that engrained into us. It might sound a bit spooky and menacing, and it could certainly give pause for thought, but we generally saw it as sustaining and, quite simply, the truth.
Though I might be driven to distraction by Paul at home, I’d always looked out for him at school. He was one of those children who are full of mischief, yet oddly vulnerable. He had been a lovely baby (not that Big Sister had always necessarily thought so at the time!) and I was pretty sure (not that I said so at the time!) that he would grow into a handsome man, but now he was at an awkward in-between stage. Come to think of it, it wasn’t really his looks. He had become clumsy, and though it was still too early for his voice to break, it tended to croak and sweep on occasions, especially when he was getting excited. I made a point of not fighting every battle for him, but I fretted about how he’d manage when I went on to “big school” as we said. Alas, it wasn’t long before my fears were proven right. I could tell he’d been crying, for all he had gamely scrubbed his eyes with cold water. “Out with it,” I said, tempering my bluff words by giving him some of my week’s supply of chocolate (in our household it wasn’t forbidden, but was rationed) being pretty sure he’d finished his own.
It transpired that he had been given a hard time by the big lads. I knew at once whom he meant. Somehow, every year, there seemed to be a group of lads (and I’m not being sexist here, though girls had their own way of victimising people, they were always boys) in the top class at the junior school who ruled the roost. Despite the nickname, they weren’t all necessarily above average size. But they had an exaggerated idea of their own importance. If I say they were bullies, I don’t mean they beat other boys up, or put obnoxious things in their desks or bags, though I’m pretty sure the latter did happen sometimes. But they always seemed to hunt in packs, and to crowd round their prey, and even though some of them weren’t always the brightest buttons in the box, they had a way of finding words that hurt. “And I don’t know how, Anna, but Ewan,” (he was the current pack leader) “has definitely found out about the rocks. He says we must have rocks for brains.”
“Well, I’d sooner have a rock for a brain than what passes as his brain,” I said. Then worried that I had not shown enough reverence for a rock in my own words, I added, “Come to that, I’d rather have a – a cow pat than what passes for his brain!”
I was relieved to see that made him give a shaky laugh but he was plainly still upset. Otherwise he’d have done more of a demolition job on my chocolate!
I put my mind to doing something. Nobody treated my little brother like that (and I suspected there was quite a lot he hadn’t told me) and got away with it. I supposed I should have told Mum and Dad, but even though Mum didn’t teach at either of our schools, there’s something about being a teacher’s offspring that always makes you more likely to be accused of snitching.
Anyway, I had recently made a discovery that I found both thrilling and slightly scary, and now I was quite glad I’d kept quiet about that, too. We didn’t go in for spells and sorcery as a regular matter of course, and they didn’t form part of our gatherings. Well, not officially. And no especial honour or kudos was given to someone who did have the gift. Well, not officially. But we all knew there were those who did – and I had realised I was one of them. I’d had my suspicions for a while. I’d put a hand on one of Mum’s moribund houseplants (she hadn’t inherited Grandma’s green fingers, though lord knows she did her best!) and within a couple of hours it was blooming and burgeoning. I’d seen that our neighbour’s lovable but excitable Golden Retriever had slipped his leash, and was about to lollop onto the road and into the traffic, and I clapped my hands and said, “Goldie, STOP!” And he sat down on the pavement, looking as if he didn’t quite know what was going on. Goldie’s owner seemed to be under the impression that in the end he’d thought better of it of his own volition, and I wasn’t going to try to persuade her otherwise. Though there can be something flattering about getting a reputation as a dog whisperer, it can lead to a lot of hard work, too!
I knew the rules about magic, or the gift as we called it, and knew they were firm and never to be broken. It must never be used to gain an unfair advantage, but far more importantly than that it must never, ever, be used to commit violence or inflict harm on any living creature, no matter what the provocation. Oh, that was infuriating! Not that I wanted to do even the big lads any lasting damage, but I couldn’t help thinking I wouldn’t lose any sleep over a few bruises and scratches.
That evening I asked my rock what to do. We all had our own rocks, every day of our life, though not always the same one. Even babies had little ones like milk teeth, though they rarely touched them themselves. I’d had one of those, and then a smooth pebble. We kept our former ones, and still revered them, though it was okay to pass them on to your children or younger siblings if you wished. But I was deeply attached to the smoky blue grey stone I had now. It was cool and serene, and yet in certain lights, at certain times, it was as if a flickering vein of flame, like the sky at early spring dawn, shot through it. I held it in my hand now and asked it to help me. “You know I have the gift,” I said, or thought, I’m now not quite sure which, but with the rock it didn’t matter. “I won’t abuse it, I promise you, though that doesn’t mean I don’t want to,” as I said or thought that I felt a slight roughening, a little surge of chill in my palm – not painful, but enough to remind me that I must never do such a thing. “But they’re picking on my brother. And they can’t get away with that!” The rock became cool and smooth again, and the feeling of it calmed me.
There were no rules as such about leaving rocks in what you may call “shrines” and never taking them out of the building, but it was understood that there were some places you didn’t take them, and I had never taken my rock to school, and tempted as I was, did not do so now. Still, that day I felt very close to it, not just spiritually close (though in our philosophy, there is nothing “just” about the spiritual) but physically. And as I sat trying to look as if I were interested in a geography lesson (I loved learning about other lands and their landscapes and people and flora and fauna but could not summon up similar feelings about contour lines!) I had what I suppose I will have to call a vision. It was a familiar place to me, though it was a couple of years since I had been there myself; the playground of the junior school. And they were on their afternoon break, a privilege not longer accorded to those of us who had graduated to “big school”! The Big Lads were about to start circling Ewan and taunting him. No, I thought, oh no! But then a smoky blue grey stone started spinning and whirling around their heads, shot through with little veins and crackles of flame like the ones that suffused the clouds at early spring dawn. Noiselessly, it summoned up the pebbles, and even the fine grit from the playground, and they flew in formation, in perfect formation, around the heads of the would be tormentors. They did not so much as brush against the skin of the big lads. They squawked like a flock of frightened geese, but they weren’t hurt. And as they panicked and flailed and cowered, there stood Ewan, calm and in control, a sedate little sentinel. He knew, as I did, that rocks and stones would never hurt or harm. But they, the big lads, didn’t know that. “Okay, that’s enough now,” and this time I made sure I only thought it. But of course that made no difference. Mr Sharp’s voice (if ever anyone was well named!) cut through, “Anna, would you perhaps do us the honour of a couple of minutes of your attention?”
“Yes, sorry, sir,” I said meekly, but to my surprise gave what appeared to have been a satisfactory answer to his question and he decided to give me the benefit of the doubt.
The junior school was nearer our home than the secondary school, and Ewan was already home when I arrived.
“Anna, you’d never believe …..” he started, and then gave me an old fashioned look (for a child his age he already had an impressive mastery of the old fashioned look) and said, “Actually, you would ….”
I nodded. Yes, I would!
The big lads never picked on him again.