Listen to Susan Hill read The Boy on the Hillside:
The boy, Seth, stirred in his sleep.
He had pushed the blanket off, with his tossing and turning about.
‘Here, here.’ The man seated on the ground nearest to him rearranged Seth’s covering, pulling it up and tucking it under him until he was swaddled like a baby. His head rested on an old fleece.
There were five men and the boy out on this first night of bitter weather. Until now it had been wild winds and huge clouds grey as boulders rolling across the sky and the sheep huddled wherever they could shelter from the gale, but later that day the clouds had shredded into skeins, becoming thinner and paler until they vanished and the sky was quite clear.
The boy mumbled and stirred again. There had been a fuss about him coming at all.
‘It’s too soon… he’s a child.’
Words were all Seth’s mother had to beat her husband with and she knew that words had no power. Jonas’s mind was as set as his face, and the boy was got ready.
‘Up there in the bitter wind and dark.’
‘The fire gets going like an inferno. How else do you think we keep the wolves off?’
‘And the loneliness…’ She turned the woollen foot-binders over on the cooking slab, to heat them as hot as coals before they were stuffed into boots.
‘What, with five of us and more? His father, uncles, neighbours…’
Seth had come to stand in the doorway, nine years old and thin and pale as a peeled greenstick, but strong on his legs and swift as a hare.
‘He’s a child. I don’t like it.’
‘Well you must live with it.’
Nothing was ever said about Seth being their only one, but the knowledge of it never went away and now it hung, heavily unspoken, on the air between them.
The night was silken black, stars scattered thick as jewels in a king’s crown.
Asa, the head man, glanced up and saw the drift of milky light, like a pale scarf draped across the sky. As it neared midnight the frost began to glitter on the ground and gather itself into bolsters, to roll down the hillside and lie in the hollows.
Something caught his eye from the darkness and at once he turned his head away from the flare of the fire, to see it better. A gleam of topaz. It went out. Came on again. Went out, as the wolf blinked.
He took up his cudgel and stood quickly. Jonas thrust a stake into the fire and held it there until it burned up into a brand. Nearby, the breaths from a cluster of sheep smoked out on the air.
The tallest man, Japhet, took the lead, moving with long strides over the rocky ground towards where the eyes had shone out, and the others followed, brandishing cudgel and stick and flaming brand. At once, there was a movement out in the blackness. Then silence.
‘Gone,’ Micah said, turning.
‘Not yet. Hold up here.’
They waited, listening intently, eyes peering ahead and all except Jonas gradually picked out the shapes of a boulder, a patch of scrub, the beaten path. Jonas’s eyesight had been weakening for several years, though not a soul knew. It was one reason he was so keen for the boy to start.
The brands began to fade and the men’s fingers to freeze round the shafts.
They made their way back slowly, checking the sheep as they went.
The fire was roused to a fine blaze again, until it crackled and the sparks flew, and then the men settled back on the ground close to it, scorching hands and faces. Two dozed. One snored. One whistled softly. And still the boy slept on, watched by his father, who saw what a small bundle he made under the blanket. Was he too young? But he himself had been out here when even younger, eldest child of a dead father and forced into shepherding when his milk teeth were barely gone.
He should wake the boy and send him round the field, holding up a brand to scare the wild beasts away, but he was as soft as her. Neither of them wanted him to grow up.
They were quiet. A mean and icy wind got up briefly, blowing from the east, flaying their backs and whipping up a sudden dragon’s breath of choking smoke to make them cough and spit and curse. Jonas pulled a leathern bottle from the fold of his cloak and took a swig. The liquor struck the back of his throat and flashed down into his belly. As the warmth coursed through him, he passed the bottle to Asa.
‘Get the boy up,’ Asa said, smacking his lips together.
‘Aye,’ Jonas said, for that was another thing, that he mustn’t lose face with the rest. He glanced round. But Asa had forgotten about him, the liquor had begun to loosen tongues and they were all drawn into complaining.
‘How can we be expected to go?’
‘Who do they think is going to look after the sheep while we tramp off to pay tax?’
‘They don’t think and they know nothing about how the rest of us live.’
‘…never taken into account. Never have been.’
‘Say no, then?’
‘Fat lot of good that would do. It’s the law.’
‘Laws and taxes, laws and taxes.’
They spat the words out.
Wulf leaned over to stoke the fire on his side and the light flickered on the face of the sleeping boy and gilded it.
They all nodded, eyes half-closed again.
Jonas looked over his shoulder. Taxes were one thing, wolves another. It was not long since the hungry eyes had gleamed yellow on the very edge of their circle.
But now, the air seemed to have become quite still again. The whole night was strangely silent. Even when it was calm, there were always sounds, the sheep moving about, and wild beasts, and small ones burrowing, the crackle of the fire. There was nothing. Nothing, and yet something. Something. Jonas felt a shiver run through his body but not with cold.
And after a moment, he heard the faint sound of singing, coming from far away and yet just at his back, an unheard music in the darkness. The earth hummed. He shivered again.
The other men seemed to have receded from him, to be seated on the ground beside the fire and yet to be far, far from him, vividly here and yet not in this world, which held him and only him in the palm of its hand.
Jonas sighed and as he sighed, he saw that among them, and beside his sleeping son, there was another. The men were all half asleep and seemed quite unaware of a stranger in their midst. Jonas moved closer and peered at him.
It was a young man. It was a boy. It was an old man. The other remarkable thing about him was not about him at all, it was something which emanated from him and surrounded him. A translucence, a light that was not a real light, like the ruddy glow of the fire and the orange of the sparks that flew upwards. He had never seen its like and could never have described it.
Jonas stepped forward.
‘Welcome,’ he said.
What happened then not one of them could clearly recall. It was real, no dream or mirage, no trick of the firelight against the shadows, for there were no shadows, shadow had vanished entirely from the world.
The strange young-old boy-man stood and in standing grew in stature and brightness and in a sort of majesty. Above his head and seeming to spread like sunrise across the skies, was light that was not the golden light of any sunrise they had seen, but a silver and a white light, so bright it could hardly be looked at. But at the same time, the night was still there, inky black, there were still the moon and the stars.
The men had all fallen on their faces with fear and dread and bewilderment and also with awe, but as they lay flat on the ground, each of them was touched by a touch that drew the sting from their fear and left them, wide awake, calm, expectant.
Afterwards, each one remembered snatches of the words they had heard and the glory of the silent singing. Their heads rang with it as with the sound of bells.
‘…tidings of great joy which shall be to all people…’
‘…a sign to you.’
‘…a manger… swaddling clothes…’
‘You will find…’
‘Follow the star.’
‘You will find… you will find… you will find…’
Gradually, the singing and the light faded, faded. And it was over.
But as they had been told, when they could bring themselves to look up again they saw such a star as they had never seen in all their lifetimes of keeping watch by night, winter and summer. The brightness, the glittering comet tail, the way it seemed to hover there, waiting for them, these things were enough to get them up and running, stumbling down the hillside without a backward glance, one with his crook, one without, one barefoot and one with his sandal flapping and all oblivious to the cold. On and on, on and on, until they came to the plain and then the highway, where they slowed and gathered together in a tighter group, against wild beasts and brigands — though clearly, in their hearts, they knew that there were none and that the way was safe. And ahead of them, sailing like a craft on a calm sea, there was the star, leading them on.
It was only when the fire had died almost to nothing that the boy finally turned over and woke, his face and one hand near frozen and the silent darkness deep all around. He pushed the blanket off and sat up. The icy cold made his teeth chatter. He stared about him for some time, but there was nothing to see.
‘Hoy!’ he called but his voice sounded reedy and thin and no answer came back to him.
His father and the other men had left him here then, to guard the sheep alone, to shiver and freeze and even die, while they…
He braved himself to pull the fire together a little and then, in the leaping light, he saw the eyes, only a few yards away from him, gleaming yellow out of the night. The sheep had begun to stamp, and then to cry and those at the farthest edges of the hillside caught the fear and cried too. Seth called out to reassure them but they were too panicked now to pay attention. He wanted to run away. But which way?
The yellow eyes, set in the narrow head in the lean grey shape, came at him and the sheep scattered wildly, bleating loudly enough to be heard for miles, if anyone had been within those miles to hear them. Another wolf came slinking after the first, the boy heard their yelps and howls and the screams of the sheep, and smelled their terror and then their blood. Dozen after dozen of them went pattering fast down the hillside, crying out, and the topaz yellow eyes gleamed here and there, in amongst them.
Seth could do nothing. He sat hunched into his blanket, shaking, until wolves and sheep had gone and the night was eerily silent again, when he lay down, rolled himself tightly in the blanket, the fleece under his head. He did not sleep, only shivered and waited for daylight.
It returned and the men with it, eyes wide with wonder, ears ringing, hearts full, wits scattered, returned to the cold fire and a hillside empty of living sheep and the boy in a cocoon of wool, but frozen to the ground in spite of it.
They sobered a little, though their eyes were full of stars. Seth’s mother wept when they got him home, and then stopped weeping, to rage instead, at their stupid faces and their drunken story of a stranger and a night sky full of singing, raged at them that they had lost their minds and now lost the boy, the sheep and all their livelihoods, when they had run and run, she raged at the grown men for forgetting everything, leaving everything to run down the hillside and then on and on, following nothing but a star.
The Spectator Christmas Short Story is brought to you by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in the UK.
Susan Hill has published 22 novels, including the bestselling The Woman in Black, and four collections of short stories.