The Legend of Spyri and Gympi - Part 10
The buses with the rest of the children and all the girls were returning today. The boys were just as excited as any of the parents to welcome their sisters home, despite all declaring they’d be glad never to see their annoying faces again. Big D was all ready for seeing his little brother after the 3 months he’d been away.
“There’s the bus! There’s the bus!” boys shouted, jumping up and down, jostling one another or pushing each other onto the road in their eagerness.
Spyri stood at the back of the crowd, remembering his family that he would never see again. Beside him stood Gympi, as quiet and thoughtful as ever, while Big D hopped from one foot to the other trying to see through the dark windows of the coach that had drawn up by the curb. It was funny to see Big D so excited. The girls tumbled down the bus into their waiting brothers’ arm.
“Therese, Therese, over here! Over here!”
“Big D! How are you, man?”
“Li’l D! How was the trip? I missed you, bro!”
The two boys standing with their backs to the brick wall of the school building watched as families were reunited and tears were shed over the realisation that someone was missing for good. Then both noticed one tiny little girl, only about four years old, wandering dazedly amongst the hugging, crying and laughing children.
Spyri walked forward to greet her, remembering vaguely that her name was Maria. Her family was all gone too. Some homecoming it was for her. How was anyone going to tell her that her parents and brother had died during the war?
“Do we know anyone related to her? I think I was distantly related, but I don’t know…” he said.
“She’s your cousin Brolga’s daughter,” said the firm voice of Gympi beside him.
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know. I remember seeing it on a registry once. Anyway, she’s your relation. You’ve still got a family after all.”
“Yeah,” said Spyri in a voice of amazement, squatting down to say hello to little Maria properly. “I still got family after all.”
Watching everyone celebrate was making Gympi tired and anyway, the sun was hot. He stumped off, wondering why he couldn’t think of a single song or tune at the moment. Passing by Jessica’s window, he saw her wistful face set toward where all the noise of the reunions was coming from and felt a pang inside him. She wanted to join the other children, but couldn’t. Not since the soldiers had broken her legs. He of all people, knew what that felt like.
“Hey, you! Gympi!” Stanton had seen him and hailed him.
“Yes, Mr Frilby?” Gympi stopped tiredly, wishing there was some nearby shade to pause in. The sun was making his headache throb more than usual and all he wanted was to lie down and rest.
“Let me have your crutches.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Frilby – ”
“You’ve seen her staring out that window. Those crutches are her only chance to get out into town and see people and things again. You can see how thin and pinched she’s getting. Let me have your crutches for my Jess.”
It seemed that the grocer was feeling particularly adamant today and Gympi had no patience to play the game out. His headache was making him dizzy.
“No, Mr Frilby. I’m sorry. Excuse me, I’ve got to go,” and with that, he swung himself away down the hill.
“Wait, Gympi! Wait!” Stanton’s patience snapped. “Fine, be like that, you selfish brat! Stuck up boy! You’re only thinking of yourself! You don’t want to give me those crutches, fine! You’ll get no more food from me until you give my Jess your crutches. You hear me?”
Ignoring the shouts, Gympi swung his way home, feeling more and more sick. What kind of man was Mr Frilby anyway? A desperate man, one part of his brain told him, but he didn’t feel like pitying him. Collapsing onto the cardboard of his makeshift bed, Gympi wearily contemplated what should be done. Surely someone could get crutches from somewhere for Jessica.
With night, came the cool change and evening breeze, which soothed the pain in Gympi’s head. He slept soundly and didn’t wake when a dark shadow crept into his shelter during the night and took his crutches.
Morning came and Gympi automatically reached for his crutches. They weren’t there. Pulling himself into a sitting position, he looked around. No crutches. His eyes fell on the food at the entrance and he wiped his sweaty forehead. The grocer had taken his crutches. He should feel angry, but he didn’t. Instead, he vaguely hoped Jessica would like the crutches and wondered why he felt so hot. The sun wasn’t even up properly yet. He’d have to learn to walk by himself, but right now, there was the picture of a small cave in the hills floating in his mind. It was so vivid… and he knew exactly how to get there. Since he didn’t have his crutches, he’d have to crawl the distance. Why he had to get there, he didn’t know. All he knew was that he had to find that cave and he would know. But what? Gympi dragged himself out into the dew of the new morning, having forgotten about the food and water, thinking only of reaching the cave he saw in his mind.
Big D frowned. It was the second day Gympi hadn’t turned up for school and he’d never missed a day since school had opened. Nobody had seen him since the girls and Little D had come home either. Where was he?
Beside the huge soldier, Spyri also stood at the gate, wondering where the boy he’d gotten used to seeing nearby all the time had gone. It was obvious that every movement he made was made in pain and yet Gympi still tried so hard, was always ready to help, even if he couldn’t do much. He was some boy.
“Maybe he’s sick,” offered Little D.
“Then we should go visit him. If he’s sick, he’ll need help. Anyone know where he’s staying?”
The other kids shrugged.
“He lives halfway down Feathertop Hill in that burnt out house with the collapsed roof. I’ll take you there if you want,” said Spyri.
“Thanks, Spyri. Once everyone’s settled, we’ll go pay him a visit. I hope he’s all right.”
“That’s our Spyri for you,” said one child watching admiringly.
“Yeah. He knows everything!” exclaimed another, bringing a dark flush to Spyri’s face.
“He’s our hero.”
Spyri was still getting used to all the praise he was receiving. The affection all the children had shown him when his face had been revealed to them had been overwhelming. It felt strange, yet nice in a way. He’d never set out to be a hero and anyone who knew who he really was would have never thought that he would one day be a town hero. Before the war, anyone who had mentioned the possibility would have been laughed at. At that time, all anyone ever had to say to him were insults or to ‘get lost’. He’d only ever been a nuisance and a bully and he was glad that nobody recognised him now. Spyri was a good character to be. Better than what he’d been before. He remembered Andrew’s words. Could he really become mayor one day?
Sometime later, Big D and Little D sought him out from where he was trying to make a ball out of rubber bands other children had been collecting.
“Hey, Spyri, let’s go find Gympi.”
“Spyri and Gympi,” mused Little D. “It kinda rhymes, don’t it?”
“Yeah. Kinda, not really.”
“Makes you wonder sometimes whether someone will write a story about it one day.”
“Yeah. I sure hope Gympi’s home.”
“Here. This is where he sleeps.”
“Knock, knock. Anyone home? It’s Big D, Li’l D and Spyri. Is it all right if we come in?”
There was no answer and Big D peered into the entrance.
“He’s not here. Some food by the door.”
“Frilby’ll have left that.”
“That’s yesterday’s food.”
“You got some sharp eyes there, Spyri. True. That’s yesterday’s dosh. So Spyri hasn’t been here since the girls and you got back, Li’l D. What do you reckon?”
“Something like that.”
“Frilby was yelling at Gympi that day, so I heard. Do you know what about, Spyri?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t hear it. It was probably about the crutches. Mr Frilby wants Gympi’s crutches for Jess, but Gympi can’t get around without the crutches either.”
“Let’s go pay the grocer a visit then.”
Big D entered the grocery with his brother and Spyri in tow.
“Morning boys. What can I do for you today?”
“Have you seen Gympi around lately?”
“No. Why? He missing?” was the feigned concern they received.
“Yes. The food you left for him yesterday wasn’t touched.”
“Oh. That’s a surprise,” said Stanton Frilby with unimpressive nonchalance.
Big D loomed over the grocer.
“Where is he?”
“Where is he? How would I know? I’m not his father.” Beads of sweat dotted the man’s nose.
“You leave him his food everyday,” said Spyri. “You went this morning and saw yesterday’s food still there, so you didn’t bother.”
“It’s not my problem if he doesn’t want to eat.”
“You know something you’re not telling us. What is it?”
“Nothing. Nothing! I swear!” Perspiration broke out on Stanton’s forehead.
“What is it, Frilby? Where’s Gympi?”
“I don’t know!” came Stanton’s voice in a squeak. “I don’t know where the blasted kid is.!”
“Dad? What’s going on?”
“Nothing, Jess. You just stay in the room and rest.”
“You’ve been telling me to get out of bed since Gympi gave you his crutches for me,” Jessica entered the shop, shaking with exertion as she gingerly made her way in. “Why should I stay in the room? I’ve been stuck in there for months!”
Big D, Little D and Spyri stared at Jessica.
“Gympi gave you his crutches?”
“So Dad said. Something about him making his own. Why, is he missing?”
“Yes. Gympi’s gone. Yesterday’s food is still there. From what we can tell, he’s been missing one day already.”
“Nobody’s seen him?”
“Not since the other day when the girls came home.”
“I saw him just outside that day. Dad said that he wouldn’t give him anymore food if he wouldn’t give me his crutches. That was rude of you, Dad.”
“I just want the best for you, Jess. He wouldn’t give me the rotten things anyway. Didn’t he know you needed them more than him?”
“That’s not true and you shouldn’t have said that. He needs them as much as I do, probably more, because he’s always in so much pain. Anyone can see that. I’m not too bad. Anyway, the crutches were here yesterday morning when I woke up. Dad had already gotten up by that time for the morning rounds, although he’d gone to bed late the night before.”
“Where were you that night, Frilby?”
“Doing stuff! I get stressed and everyone spits on me when I pass them nowadays. A walk in the dark calms my nerves.”
“I saw you near Gympi’s sleeping place.”
“I didn’t go near the place, Spyri. What were you doing up so late anyway?”
“You said you’d gone to Feathertop Hill, Dad.”
“Jess, you’re mistaken. You heard wrong,” sweat trickled down the grocer’s chin and the shrill in his voice was a dead giveaway.
“Dad, you do know something, don’t you?” asked Jessica quietly. “Gympi would never give me his crutches because he can’t walk without them. What did you do to him?”
“Nothing! A man can’t go about looking after his own daughter in this town without everyone accusing him of murder?”
“No one’s said anything about murder yet, Frilby.”
“That’s what you’re all thinking. I can see it in your faces. He gave me the crutches, because we had a deal. Crutches for food.”
“That’s mean,” said Spyri. “He’s got nothing but the crutches and you took them anyway.”
“Dad,” said Jessica slowly. “You didn’t steal the crutches did you?”
Stanton Frilby looked at his daughter in shock, stumbling back a little on his walking stick.
“S-steal? No! I’m an honest man, I am. How can you suspect me of such a crime, Jess? I’m you’re father, for goodness’ sake! Everyone thinks the worst of me. Even my own girl is against me now!”
“You stole them,” Jess said flatly, looking into her father’s desperate eyes. “You did. Now Gympi’s gone and we don’t know where. Did you even notice that he might have been sick? He didn’t look well the other day.”
“I did it for you, Jess! Everything I did, I did it for you! Yes, I took the crutches, but he doesn’t need them. See, he’s gone and disappeared on us, so that you can use them. He can get around without crutches. He was just pulling one over everybody’s eyes. Only I could see he was faking it!”
The clatter of crutches falling to the floor brought the distraught man to his knees.
“Next you’re going to tell me you killed him. Spyri, please help me to my room.”
“Certainly, Jess,” Spyri held out his arm for Jess to take.
“I didn’t kill him! I don’t know where he is! I only took the crutches while he was sleeping. I left him his food. I kept my side of the bargain. He was gone by the afternoon, I checked! Believe me, Jess, please, believe me. I didn’t hurt him. I don’t know where he’s gone. I’ll do anything, only believe your old man, Jess. Please. Don’t leave me alone. Don’t leave me.”
“You only took his crutches,” Jessica didn’t say anything else, too upset by what her father had done; at how selfish he was. She knew he loved her and that he’d done it for her, but to steal the crutches from a boy that really needed them more than she did when he was sick… could she even forgive her father for that? It was bad enough that the whole town saw him as a traitor, but for them to also find out that he stole from children? A man with no principles, no scruples – so selfish he’d do anything to survive. They’d have to leave town. She would be punished along with her father for something she hadn’t done. Mother would never have let him do something like this. Why couldn’t her mother still be alive? Why?
Big D, Little D and Spyri left the grocery after making sure Jess was safely in bed. They felt dirty, as if Stanton Frilby’s low sense of morals had rubbed off on them. Anyway, they couldn’t stand the sight of the skinny man kneeling by his daughter’s bed, blubbering and begging for forgiveness. The crutches lay forgotten in the doorway. They believed that the grocer didn’t know where Gympi was, but that left them back at square one. Where was Gympi?
They searched the town and Spyri, all the hiding places he could think of, whether Gympi would have been able to get there or not. When the two brothers had to stop looking and return to dismiss school, Spyri kept on looking. When the brothers and other children came to rejoin the search, Spyri’s search had taken him into the hill sides.
“He could be anywhere,” said Li’l D glumly.
“For all we know, he’s sitting some place watching us and laughing,” said Big D, not believing a word he’d just said.
None of them could bring themselves to say that he could be dead. They just kept looking and hoping. Hoping the brave, determined boy with the crooked legs who had travelled all the way from Murnabeem just to get home, would still be alive.
By the trunk of a scraggly tree, Spyri noticed some drag marks in the bare dirt there and followed it up the hill.
“Found something, Spyri?”
Wordlessly, Spyri pointed to the impression of a hand clawing its way through the dirt and followed the trail of subsequent flattened grass. The brothers followed him, scouring the ground with their eyes for further signs. They lost the trail a few times, but would soon find another mark nearby to help them on their way.
The sound of a groan and a string of mumbled words made them stop and look around. Where was the sound coming from? There was nothing but grass and trees beyond those bushes and they couldn’t see anyone or anything unusual around the thin leaves. Nevertheless, it was the only cover that anyone could hide in around here.
More mumbles drifted to them on the breeze and they brushed between the bushes to find a little dip and a small cave between the roots of one of the trees. In the shallow cave beneath the roots, they could see a small figure. Big D immediately jumped down.
“Gympi. Hey, Gympi.”
Stirring, Gympi mumbled something incomprehensible and turned over to reveal several old scrappy exercise books and a small red coloured box that obviously had contained the books within them.
Little D and Spyri joined Big D and opened one of the books. Spyri exploded in astonishment.
“It’s Cotton! Gympi’s Andrew Cotton!” he jabbed his finger repeatedly at the name on the exercise books. “It’s Andrew!”
“Yes,” said Big D, scooping Andrew easily up into his arms, “and he’s sick. Come on, little man, let’s get you to a doctor.”
“It’s Cotton,” said Spyri, picking up all the books, replacing them in the red box. Opening another one at random, he laughed. “Look, this is his song book, where he wrote down all his weird songs. It’s even got the song he used to sing to me.”
Andrew turned his head at Spyri’s voice and opened his eyes.
“Cotton, we’re gonna get you to the hospital, ‘k?”
“Stuart. I remember now. Remember everything now…” and Andrew’s voice faded into mumbles once more.
“Come on, bro. We gotta get this kid down the hill. Spyri – Stuart’s your real name, hey? Well, Stuart, you take that box of books for Gymp – I mean, Andrew. Let’s go.”
The news that Andrew Cotton had survived the Night of Burning swept the town by storm and people visited him in the hospital almost non-stop, bewailing his crooked legs. From a distance, Stuart watched and scowled. It was just like him. Just like Andrew to steal all the attention. Everyone, once they had found out his real name from Big D and Little D, had been surprised. It felt like everyone was shunning him again, except for the youngest children that didn’t seem to remember what he had been before the war.
Although he had been pleased to find Gympi alive, for him to turn into Andrew Cotton was something he had not expected and Stuart didn’t know what to do anymore. Sometimes, when no one else was there, he would sit by Andrew’s bed, knowing that now that Andrew was back, he would be out of the picture again. He had enjoyed being Spyri. He didn’t want to be the Stuart Mendleton that the whole town found troublesome.
“Hey, Stuart,” said the quiet voice beside him.
Stuart turned away, embarrassed that Andrew had caught him crying.
“Thanks for finding me.”
“The doctor said that they can fix my legs, but I’ll never walk normally again. I used to wonder, you know, before the war, why the two of us just couldn’t be friends.”
“You were the one everybody loved. The best. The golden boy. The mayor’s son.”
“And you were the bully. The attention seeker. The stupid kid who couldn’t read, but you know, Stuart, you aren’t really all that. You’ve made yourself a new name. People aren’t going to remember that you were Stuart, but they are going to remember that you were Spyri. Just like they’ll always remember me as Gympi, because that’s what I am now. Look at us. We’re nothing like we used to be. Now you’re the hero and I’m the poor little mite. So, whatever people say, I’m gonna just keep calling you Spyri. You’ve earned yourself that name. In my books, you’re a good guy now.”
“So I saw.”
It was Andrew’s turn to be embarrassed.
“You read my books?”
“Yeah. I didn’t read anything that said ‘private’ on it though. It took a while, but… your writing’s good. I liked the stories. One of the books had my name on it. Why?”
“It was the book I was gonna use to teach you how to read properly if you ever wanted me to teach you. I meant what I said before the war that I’d be glad to teach you. I guess, I just didn’t say it very nicely.”
“No. I thought you were just making fun of me.”
“Yeah. I was kind of mean about it. You just used to make me so mad when you picked on the other kids. I couldn’t understand why you did it. I think I do now though. Sorry… Friends?”
“You can teach me to walk again after the operation. Then we’ll be even.”
“Fine. It’s a deal. Do you want me to get those crutches back?”
“Nah. Jess needs ‘em. You can help her and teach her how to use them, so that the time I’m out of here, she’ll be walking as well.”
“Sometimes I can’t help but hate Mr Frilby for what he did to you.”
“Me too, but it turned out all right in the end, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah. I gotta go. I’m helping Big D and Li’l D out – they’ve decided to stay in our town and they’re building a house over where my house used to be. Some of the other girls are waiting for me to pick up Maria too.”
“You’d better go then. See you, Spyri.”
“See you, Gympi. Get better soon so that I can kick your behind again.”
“We’ll see who kicks who when I get out of here,” retorted Andrew.
“You’ve never won a fight before and you’re even less likely like that.”
“So? Think it’ll stop me?”
Both boys laughed and Stuart left, glad that he had a friend who understood him. A soft song followed him out the door. A familiar tune, but now, the words had changed and this time, he didn’t mind one little bit.
‘Mendle’s a-mending again, once again, once again.
Mendle’s a hero again, once again, once again.
Saved the town's kids from the fires,
Kept ‘em safe,
Food and stuff,
Mendleton, he's Spyri now,
Our hero now,
Ho, yes he is!’