Chapter 1: The Laziest Boy in Scotland
Maybe his story started like this. Maybe his story started long before, but maybe this is a good place to start his story, the place where dramatic tension makes the retelling of the event at least as significant as the event itself. After all, is the memory of a vacation to the Grand Canyon as important as the quality of the memory of a vacation to the Grand Canyon? Herewith do photographs lie, (with their insidious ability to replace memory with image) but, being 15th century low south Scotland, the cultural impact of photography had yet to be realized). The memory of Alexander “Sawney” Beane was suspect, hardly photogrammetric, so stories must start where they start.
His father, nemesis since birth, his father is beating Sawney again and this time with the broken handle from a broken hoe, the hoe that Sawney broke, slyly he thought and unseen he was mistaken. It was just an excuse, another excuse, another poor excuse for not working in the fields as his father does, for not working in the small patches his father calls his own or for not working in the vastness of the fields their Lord and Master outright owns. Sawney hates to work.
“Year a lazy, worthless bit o’ shite,” his father gurgled, the force of the blows he’s giving the boy strangling the words in his throat. “Yer a greedy lay-a-boot, you is. Ye dinnae work the wee bit o’ field I gae ye. Ye dinnae gather the fuel yer mam’s fire needs. Ye dinna do a thing I asked ye, the things a man would want to do for the wanting of doing ’em. Yer a bad ’un, you are, Sawney, ye are a bad ’un, and ye canna be nae son ’o mine. Ye canna be a Beane a’tall.”
The sermon is delivered in bits and bites, through gasps and gulps, as punctuation to the blows from the hoe handle.
That was the last time Sawney, dizzy from pain and exasperation and fear that his father actually meant to kill him dead right there in front of his mam and his sisters, them who cowered in the corner of the room the Beanes all shared together and, on the really bad nights, the father would bring in the pig, that was the last time Sawney saw the world unbent—too many blows to a head that wasn’t good to start with.
They, the Beane women, huddled near the smoldering smoking slab of turf beneath the chimney hole. That was the last time Sawney heard his father’s voice. When unconsciousness stole his wits completely and he lay himself down upon the damp cottage floor to sleep, Sawney was grateful not to hear that man’s voice nor feel the hoe-stick on his back and his legs and his unprotected head as the old man continued to paste the helpless boy with blow after ringing blow.
When he awoke, Sawney was wet. That is, he was soaked to the skin, his woolens heavy and cold. He was on his back, open-mouthed and then sputtering, his mouth and his throat filled with the mist, the drizzle, the constant precipitation the Scots call weather. It is black, no star nor moon to light his dismal world, all such celestial bodies fog covered, hidden, and Sawney cold, so very cold, and alone in the yard of his father’s hut, his father’s hovel, his father’s swine yard. It might be midnight. It might be much later than that. It might be the sun had died and cold night was forever Sawney’s fate. He might very well be dead and hell was Scottish night.
The cottage itself seemed not so much to stand upon the heath as it did to issue from the ground. Half dug-in, it was a windowless block only a few feet high with a living patch of meadow for a roof, not a single window, three steps down to the doorway now puddled under the lean planks, and a small twist of smoke always spinning from the chimney hole. The lean-to that was the pig’s sty used the cottage’s west wall as its fourth.
When Sawney sat up to let the water and the drool and the blood fall down from his mouth and onto his own soaked self, he had a plan already formed in his terribly hurting head, and crawling through his father’s mud toward his father’s door, the awful plan gelled as few things did or ever would again there within Sawney’s poor broken-up brain.
Creeping his way back to the cottage, writhing in the mud most wormishly, he found his tool, a stone no bigger than the fist that held it tight, but stone enough for its intended purpose. Sawney lurched first to his knees, muddied and insane, and then upright in his sad and sodden, broken boots to take three steps down to the cottage front door, to kick the planking open like the kind of man he had suddenly become, a man who kicked doors open.
It was almost biblical and Sawney sensed that and the things he did, he did as another kind of Beane, a divine performer, while another Sawney somewhere else watched the whole thing and saved it for the legend it would become.
Mud beclothed and wild of eye, sharp spikes of hair twisted up from his mangled skull, dripping with silt and farmyard offal and Beane blood, he raised the small stone above his head and wished there had been lightning rather than moss-soft mist at his back.
The father made as if to lift himself from the pallet near the fire where all Beanes slept but the one now standing with righteous stone in hand, but before Sawney could hear that awful voice again, he brought that stone down upon his father’s head not once, not twice, but three solid times and fast—crack crack crack the sad crunch of the failure of father’s skull bones beneath each stony blow—and, for the first time in a very long time, Sawney felt a measure of what another person might call happiness. Sawney himself had no word for such a feeling anymore and, even as he felt it, he wasn’t sure he liked it.
And the other Sawney watched it all unfold, neither pleased nor displeased, but fully aware of consequence on a celestial level and marked it thusly.
Maybe then Sawney dropped his lithic instrument of fratricide and rummaged under the slate hearthstone to withdraw a leather pouch inside of which the father’s silver slumbered warm, and maybe Sawney pushed it deep inside his dripping woolens, soaked now with the rain water, mud, and blood he’d brought inside with him, and his very own father’s blood and brain matter that fell from his face to his chest, thinned in the waterlogged weave of his thin, dark tartans.
Maybe then, too, Sawney raped his mother and his sisters, but, being as his father said “no son of [theirs]”, he hardly felt the sin in it; first the first, his mother. Her wailing and the copulation mean and small, her cunt a dirty, matted, unwashed pudding.
“It’s a sin,” she cried as her son humped away at her through her filthy rags. “Think of the sin.”
And Sawney did think of the sin and it made him want to sin more.
“Sharrup, ya hag,” he tried to say, but his mouth wasn’t working properly.
And then he came to his sisters each in turn, oldest to youngest if only to show them all that he could now do anything he wanted to do. They cowered from him, their fear of this new Sawney greater than the fear of his terrible actions, but they did not resist as he ploughed them one by one, foully bushed to sparsely haired to not yet of the age. He had already forgotten their names.
He looked in vain for the dog as he had vague thoughts of killing it before their eyes, of baptizing them anew in Beane dog blood. Instead, Sawney got distracted by himself and rummaged through the family’s sparse hoard of possessions and took one of the good knives, no, he took the two best knives; he took the dented pewter mug the father’d otherwise use; he took a long sliver of old and suspect meat.
Maybe he left them then, his family hollowed out, their father/husband and their son and their good Scottish cottage life scooped away and washed gone with rain and blood, some of those women, his old mam and sisters, maybe chopped up dead or sorely wounded and dying, but certainly he left them, whole or in pieces, with wails and lamentations. Maybe he dragged the pig, Sawney screaming and the pig screaming and the women screaming, into the cottage and cut its throat to wash them in its blood, made blasphemous mockery of a priest’s baptismal pantomime, and then, forgetting why he’d come back to the place, Sawney turned his back to them, distracted by returning thoughts of the dog, turned his back to the cottage, to all of it forever with no chance of ever coming back, and he stepped himself forth to invade the cold and dripping Scottish night with murder in his heart, an outlaw then and forever at war with the world as he knew it.
Sawney Beane was fourteen years old.