The Urchin’s Tale

The Urchin was a small creature.  Insignificant-looking, perhaps.  But to some he was very much the opposite, as we shall see.  He lived on a moor, a moor on a hilltop, in a land of misty hills and billowy dales.  He had, over the years, had many resting places, but one of them had become home, and it was a fine home at that.  He was a wild creature, weathered by years too many to count, and his home reflected it.  To us, it would look like a hole, a dip; a twiggy and stony nook.  To him, contrarily, it was just as it was, and it was close to perfect: he fitted it and it fitted him, snugly.  There were heather flowers: not collected but blown, sat on and compressed into a delicate spongy floor.  Surrounding the Urchin, when he was resident, were tough, wiry heather branches: living wood, grown to accommodate the Urchin’s resident shape.  These grew up, along, around and upwards again to reach for the sky, as far as they could on this windy, stunted moorland.  Thus, they created a cavern, topped by green leaves, and by vivid flowers of a wild purple in the warmest season.  And in this cavern, concealed from view, but able to turn his beady, shiny eye on his surrounding moortop, sat the Urchin.

The eye which regarded the windswept domain known as Urra moor was of deepest, darkest black.  It was apparently without expression, but twinkled with bright intelligence.  But also in its depths swam wisdom, of a kind only ageless, timeless beings possess.  A creature as old as nature itself, as old, as they say, as the hills.  And what was he doing, as he sat, regarding the season, the wind, the light, the plants, insects, trees and sky?  He was having a beer. A pale, frothy, slightly herbal beer. A beer to refresh and relax with.

The Urchin peered through a very small gap in his heatherplant wall and slowly, noisily grunted through his long brown nose.  How he loved it up here.  It wasn’t really his territory, being a hedgehog.  He had been born in the lowlands, the farmlands which surrounded the moor.  They were beautiful too, strewn before him like a handful of mosaic tiles grown green and velvet soft with age.  But they were only beautiful from up here, here where they were far below, here where he was within reach of the sky, could smell the ancient earth, could see the stone markers which the people who had once travelled this way for more reason than leisure had left.  They were long gone.  It had been a long time ago now.  He hadn’t known his purpose then, had just wandered the moor-tops keeping an eye on things, much as he did now.  The miles he must have covered, the things he had seen, the storms he had weathered!  Often he spent his days with the sheep, who although stupid and skittish were a link to the ancients.  Their horned heads and long noble faces were reminders to him of a time before men had even touched this land. He remembered those times well.

He heaved to his feet, giving a small shake to his needles.  His back was a thick brush of them, grey, tawny brown.  They were lovely: warm, smooth and slightly grubby.  He stretched, stroking his soft belly and picked up his staff and his cloak.  The Urchin, as we have already mentioned, was very old, and no longer walked the moors without his staff.  Strange, over the years, how it too had moulded itself to him, picking up his character in a way that old wood knows about, and new wood must learn.

He was to go to the woods on this windy day.  He loved the woods, so close to the moortop but so different.  The grass so soft, so freshly green, the trees so high and vocal.  Only sheltered, cosseted plants can grow that newest, softest of greens.  The wind, the raindrops and snowflakes that batter the heather leaflets render them darker, tougher, closer to the wood from which they grow.  The trees protect the grass beneath them, keeping it softly untroubled through the storms.  There were many sheltering places amongst those trees, many dens and cubbies where a troubled soul might shelter and be safe.  Comforted too, for the trees were understanding creatures.  They would sigh with you, sway with you, and sing for you as you sat in contemplation.  But to stop you over-dwelling, there would come a shudder, a shake, a sprightly rustle to remind you not to be still too long, to shake off whatever it was that weighed on you and get back up on the hill.

The Urchin was halfway there by now, steadily pacing through the heather.  Stopping occasionally to sniff, to touch very gently the very end of a heather branch, or to pat a stone, comforted by its place there.  Always the Urchin greeted in this way his moor, so as to keep strong the old bonds that tied them together.  All creatures of age and wisdom know this, that one’s anchor in a place requires a constant rediscovery of it.

He trudged on, not hurrying, but not dawdling.  The Urchin had a way, in more than the way he travelled, of purpose. He was small, and his staff of old, darkened heatherwood was barely halfway up the plants that grew up around him.  But he found his way between them, very occasionally through them, and occasionally dropped to his four limbs to push underneath them.  Although he seldom did it, for secretly he thought it rather rude, he enjoyed going through the plants themselves, feeling them drag through his fur and spines, scratching his back.  The light would fade as he pushed to the centre, and sometimes he would stop, just to breathe in the sounds and smell of a plant caught unawares, going about its business.  This, of course, was how he had found his home, and why he had stayed there so long.  He had come to know that old plant very well, and the plant knew him and wasn’t surprised any more, when he pushed his way amongst its tiny leaves and twisting branches.

Amongst the heather, the Urchin was always reminded of the old times, the old people who strode these moors and erected stones, already ancient, from quarries that now were barely discernable.  They left their marks on these stones, marking them in a way that now seemed more ancient than the stones themselves.  Wild, staring faces, old letters from alphabets and languages long abandoned.  Some of these stones were in arrays, circles and rows, and the Urchin remembered well the happy folk who had arranged them, sometimes solemnly, but always eventually laughing gaily, once laid as they should be.  This had been the beginning of the Urchin’s time amongst Men, when he was still young, not even full grown, peering out at them on one of his first trips to his moor.  Of course, those men had known he was there, had even known that the moor was his domain, even before he knew it.  They had seen all this and more in their wild dances amongst the stones, and in their quiet, mournful silences when they sat amongst the trees.  So when they met, face to face, for the first time, the Urchin was not caught unawares but was ready, having studied the people from afar, and the people knew enough to bow down to him and offer him the path they knew he was destined for.

He leaned against a marker stone for a time, breathing loudly and snuffily as he drew the moorwinds deep into his lungs.  He could smell the heather, the earth, the trees, sheeps wool and old stone, mould and rotting bones, soft grouse feather and rainwater sitting in puddles for days.  Beneath this was the sea, which was a blue wash in the distance, smooth and grey and misty.  Then there were the new smells, scents of men, of farms, of the chimneys that grew nearby and breathed out smoke and fumes.  Voices on the winds, feelings in the earth: all had changed nearby, whether for good or ill the Urchin had no mind for.  It confused him, but did not worry him unduly.  His moor was in its right state, he would know if things were in danger here.

He chewed on a piece of wood and ate a slug which crawled past.  There was something, some awareness in his small head of things not quite as they were.  A feeling, an urge, some momentum which left him restless.  He snorted, a helpful noise, snorted out the feeling onto the moor.  Then he threw himself down, limbs splayed, belly to the ground beneath the stone.  And he had a think, and he waited, and he wondered…