There are four of us gathered around Gustav’s pole. It’s still dark and the village square is quiet. No one’s going to stop this act of heroism. I stare up, up, up into the nothingness. Nothing, that is, except raving old Gustav, up there, doing whatever disgusting things Gustav does.
“Come on, Oli,” Ludo urges me. “It’ll be light soon. What are you waiting for? Going to chicken out on us?”
“Put your thumb back in your mouth, Ludo. I’m deep into my preparation phase. Need to concentrate,” I reply.
Remi scoffs. “Ha! I hope you climb as well as you talk. Let’s see some action, Pigeon Boy!”
Okay, it is true. I am having second thoughts. Once again, my mouth has flapped freely and I’ve talked myself into a stupid dare without considering the consequences. The timber pole looks so smooth and slender from a distance, but I can barely bring it into a full embrace, and as I run a hand along it, I feel its gnarls, nooks, knots and splits. Splinters like needles lie in wait. Cracks and crevices prepare to snare skinny fingers. Gazing up at where the pole disappears into the dark, I visualise each warp, each twist as it snakes its way up a good 30-long-bodies to Gustav’s barrel.
When Sylvie speaks, her words are soothing. “Second thoughts Oli? We can call it off. No shame in it.” But there’s an archness to her voice, just like there is in one of her eyebrows as I turn to look at her. Those sleepy, hooded eyes are unreadable in the gloom, but I can sense amusement. I’m trapped. If I don’t go up, I back down. Little Oli with his big talk. What a shame he didn’t measure up.
I spit on both hands, jump up and grab onto Gustav’s pole, bringing my legs up and wrapping them around the timber. And for a moment, I’m kind of stuck there like that, wondering how to proceed.
“Hoorah!” hollers Ludo the beanpole, his goofy face appearing next to mine. “Nearly there!”
Ludo, Remi and Sylvie are now in hysterics. I’d better get moving, rather than hang around here being humiliated. I get a technique going. Clench with the knees, reach up with the arms, hug the pole to me, bring the knees up and grip with my feet. Finally, being small pays off for me. Not much Oli to haul up the pole! Remi and Ludo are still not taking my efforts seriously.
“Oli, you’ve disappeared. Have you got to the barrel already?”
“Give Gustav our regards!”
“Don’t waste your breath, Ludo. He can’t hear us from up there in the clouds.”
Sylvie doesn’t say anything. I can feel her watching me. Evaluating.
Of course, those idiots Ludo and Remi are making so much noise that the shutters are flung open at Edvald the Shoemaker’s, and then there is the unmistakable out-of-tune whistling of Olaf the Baker coming over to see what all the fuss is about.
No one climbs Gustav’s pole. It is outlawed under village bylaws. It is also too high to climb. You would have to be an imbecile to try.
When the sun pops up to see what’s going on, I look down with delight to see how far I have climbed. Pigeon Boy rising into the sky! My good spirits are only slightly tempered by seeing I have the same amount of climbing ahead of me. For the first time, I can see the underside of Gustav’s barrel, right up there at the top of the pole. Looking back down, my friends have indeed been joined by Olaf the Baker, one hand shielding his eyes against the sun, the other scratching at his backside. Edvald the Shoemaker is now wandering across the cobbled square. According to Edvald, Gustav lives up the pole because he wanted to get away from his nagging wife. But if you ever come to my village and meet the shoemaker’s wife, you will know where that story comes from. Go over to the bakery, get talking to Olaf, and you will find that warm, fresh bread becomes less appealing when you see the baker constantly scratching his arse. You will also learn that Gustav was sent to live up the pole when he was a small boy for stealing a loaf from the bakery.
If you believe the old stories, the pole was hewn from the tallest tree in the old forest; a tree that grew through the clouds and bore fruit to the gods. I feel the first pangs of hunger. I rue the decision not to eat before the climb. Didn’t want to carry any extra weight up with me. I stare intently into the deep, dark brown fibres of the pole and I start thinking about chocolate. I give the pole a sniff. It even smells a bit chocolatey. I give it a lick. It tastes like tree and scratches at my tongue.
I reach a metal ring around the pole where bracing chains are attached and run taut down to anchor points in the square below. I can support myself here and take a rest. I take a moment to consider why I am here, halfway up a pole. What is it with me? I just seem to talk myself into things. Always trying to prove myself. The runt of the litter is what Mama lovingly calls me. From here, I can look out over the rooftops and see our home. Mama will be in there, clopping around in her clogs and wielding her broom like a staff, rousing my brothers to their chores. Any moment now she will call for me. “Where’s Oli?” she will ask. “Where’s my dear little Oli?” and her heart will soften and miss a beat as she worries that I have been stolen in the night. Sorry to worry you, Mama, but when you’re the little guy in a big family and the smallest among your friends, you’ve got to rise up! And so it goes. No dare too tall an order! Steal schnapps from the innkeeper? Oli’s your man! Sneak into the chapel and pee into the Holy Cup? Leave it to me! Anything to impress my friends and especially anything to try to impress Sylvie. I look out over the rooftops again and there it is: the cherry tree. In spring you can climb up through the blossom and find a strong, broad bough, settle your back against the trunk, stretch out your legs and gaze at Sylvie’s window. And there you can wait for her to come to the window and notice the small boy with the big heart sitting among the blossom.
I’m startled by the sight of a pail dropping from the sky. Gustav’s lifeline! He is letting out the rope, lowering his pail to the ground. The villagers will replenish it and send food back up. Once it was fruits to the gods, now it is nuts to the imbecile.
There’s a crowd below now. The Magistrate tries to call me down, but he’s drowned out by the raucous shouts and laughter of the villagers. I see Hector the Preacher lope over. He’s unaccustomed to large crowds. If you ever come to my village and make the mistake of stumbling into the chapel, you will get a sermon from Hector. If you can get a word in, ask about Gustav. The preacher will widen his eyes and point his shaky finger at you, tell you Gustav lives up the pole because he wants to be closer to the gods. Others will tell you that Gustav has been up the pole for five New Years; he’s been up there for 1,000 nights. Mistress Gnud gravely warns us that Gustav was sent up the pole because he was lazy at school. Mama swears Gustav was a mischievous child who was chased by an angry ox he was teasing. He bolted up the pole and has been too scared to come down since. I scan the crowd trying to see if Mama might have come to see what all the commotion is about. My eyes catch the brilliance of Sylvie’s quilted cloak. Look up, Sylvie! See how far I have climbed. Look at me!
Climbing this pole will be one of the Great Feats. Stealing the schnapps, peeing in the Holy Cup. These are notable feats. They impress Ludo and Remi. “Didn’t think you had it in you, Pigeon Boy.” But they don’t compete with Sylvie’s Great Feats. She truly is the Queen of the Dare: the eyeball that found its way from Vled the Undertaker’s to Mistress Gnud’s cup of broth; the mad pig smuggled into the sleeping quarters of Rufus the Drover after he took his whip to Sylvie. You cross Sylvie, be ready to reap. She’s the one who never walks away. No challenge too great. Or small. Kiss the Pigeon Boy? It’s nothing. Nothing at all. That’s no Great Feat.
Does she see me now? Is she waiting to see me struggle and fail and then show everyone how it’s done? I picture Sylvie shimmying effortlessly up the pole. I feel a stirring in my breeches. I push on before things get too uncomfortable.
Now with each thrust upwards, I can feel my muscles protesting, tremors running through my legs as I try to hold fast. There is a dull ache in my shoulders and my arms feel spent. The splinters in my hands and feet sing out with every clutch at the pole, hands slipping as I try to maintain my grip with sweating palms. I crave liniment for my sore feet, wish for a strip of cloth to bind around my smarting hands. You don’t think about these things when your big mouth flaps and you find yourself at the bottom of a pole. No one can tell you how to climb this pole. Except, maybe, Gustav.
“Oli, what in the name of the gods are you doing? Get your runty arse back down here!” Mama’s tender salutation booms out from the square below. I look down. There must be a hundred people down there now. Looks like the whole village has turned out to witness this great spectacle. My tummy swims a little as I stare down at the tiny square. I can’t see Mama’s face, but she must be the one with the little circle cleared around her. And yes, here she goes again. “I’ll take my broom to your backside for shaming the family like this, you little Pea Brain!” Pea Brain’s just a pet name to show her affection. She’s going to be so proud when I reach the top.
At first, I think a cloud has passed in front of the sun, but then, unbelievably, I look up to see I have entered the shade under the base of the barrel. Ha! The runt of the litter triumphs! There is a strut running diagonally from pole to barrel which I hoist myself onto. Here I can maintain an awkward sitting position and rest my weary limbs. Hoots and cheers drift up from the crowd below. The bright quilted cloak is no longer visible but I’m sure Sylvie’s still down there, a look of wonder on her face. Lips mouthing words of adoration. I’m sliding down the pole to kiss those lips. And this time she doesn’t pull away with a dismissive smirk, dare fulfilled. This time it is really something. She kisses me again and again and stares dreamily at me and then...a grunt from above shakes me from my reverie and I look up to see another face entirely. He’s staring down at me from the rim of the barrel. A shock of silver hair sticking up in all directions. A face all leathery, lips cracked and dry. Bloodshot eyes ringed with thunderclouds. Here I am, face-to-face with crazy old Gustav.
Come to my village and ask my friends about Gustav; ask anyone at the schoolhouse, and they will tell you: Gustav is the imbecile who lives in a barrel on top of a pole in the middle of our village. He lives up there because he does. Because he’s an imbecile. The villagers send up bread, nuts, fruit and water in a pail on a rope. And mad Gustav stuffs it all into his frothing mouth while gibbering away, sitting in his own shit and pulling on his little maggot to pass the time.
But if you do come to my village, don’t ask my friends about Gustav. Don’t ask the kids in the schoolhouse, or Vled the Undertaker, or the baker who has floury finger marks all over the back of his breeches. Come and ask the only person who has spoken to Gustav since he’s been up the pole. Come and ask the little boy with a big heart—the King of the Pole. Come and ask me.
And I might tell you.
I might tell you how Gustav saw me starting to lose my grip. How he reached down and grabbed me by the hair. Held on as I dangled 30-long-bodies above the square. How the crowd gasped and edged away from the base of the pole. And how that wiry old man must have had bolts of lightning crackling through his biceps. How he found the strength to whip me up and into the barrel just as if he was pulling a drowning cat from a brook.
I might tell you how that “crazy old man” showed no surprise that a stranger had dropped by after all those years in the barrel alone. How he frowned and cocked his head and said, “Oli, son of the late farrier?” And how somehow, this hermit on high seemed to know all about the comings and goings within the village below.
I might tell you of the pristine and orderly interior of Gustav’s barrel and describe the intricate carvings that decorated each plank of oak: finely detailed constellations from his observations of the night sky.
I might tell you about the words of wisdom, the poems and his sweet songs. Of the birds which would land on the rim of the barrel to share his bread, hop onto a shoulder or the palm of his hand.
I might tell you of how he came to be in the barrel. And you would be surprised how similar his story is to mine. Boys who may have lacked stature but had strong hearts. Boys who reached out beyond themselves and ascended.
I might tell you all of this if you take the trouble to find me and you really want to know the truth. Look for me at Mama’s house. Look for me at the schoolhouse. Look for me sitting on a branch of a cherry tree outside Sylvie’s window. Look for me in a barrel, at the top of Oli’s pole.