Friday, 17 October 2014

The well at the end of the world

The river went deeper than Brim's head, and wider than he could swim. Mam had taught him in the shallows when he grew big enough to collect the water by himself. The river mud felt squidgy between his toes, and little dark fish darted away from his thrashing feet as he churned up the silt and gravel at the bottom. 

In the hot months, clouds of insects hung above the brown water. The shallows became a dry bed of river-pebbles with mud in-between and lank green grass. During the cold months, the river was a roaring black streak against the hoar-frost spikes that coated the bank. At all times it stretched out beyond sight on either side of the well-trodden path from the cottage. The river, the dead forest and the endless cliffs - all three were boundaries that marked the edge of the world. 

That morning, the well was dry.  Brim put his whole weight on the pump handle, swinging his feet free from the ground, but not a drop came from the spout, only a horrible sucking gurgle from far below.

'Oh leave off, Brim...' Mam called from the cottage door. 'Take the buckets and run to the river instead.'

 It was hot. The tall grass moved listlessly in the light breeze and his feet thudded on the dusty path. It would be cooler at the river. He could fill the buckets first and go for a swim after. He could swim first and wait for the water to settle before dipping the buckets into the water. There would be fish to guddle for, and maybe a dragonfly. 

The last bit of the path crossed the ghost track. He jumped over the marker and touched the post for luck. Now he was definitely going to catch a fish, he felt sure of it; something was different about today. Just a few more steps and he'd be at the river.

But the river was gone. The hollowed out scoop of the land where the river had been was there, but nothing else. He shaded his eyes and squinted at the emptiness. No, it wasn't all empty. The fish were the same colour as the dried out mud. They looked like the stone fish he had dug up out of the endless cliffs - grey, shrunken, and dead.

He ran all the way back to the cottage, the chains that held the empty buckets jangling fiercely.


As Brim clambered into bed that night he could hear the wind batter around the cottage. The outer door creaked on its hinges with the force of the storm, but the shutters on the windows were strong, and the blankets stopped any dust from blowing through the cracks. Really bad storms were rare, maybe two or three a year, but it was best to be prepared. This one had whipped up just after he'd got back from the river. He had seen it coming over the dead forest - a grey cloud that swarmed like insects, growing larger as it neared the endless cliffs.

He was used to the wind. Sometimes he would crawl to the edge of the cliffs and lie on his stomach, stretching his hand over the side to push against the updraught. If he closed his eyes it was like he was flying. Scraps of bark or dead leaves would be tugged from his hands and whisked away into the nothingness. He watched them fall and wondered what was at the bottom.

Every year since he could remember, the winds had been increasing. The cliff was crumbling away, and with each inch that it vanished, the nothingness crept closer to the cottage. The winds that came from the cliffs were strong and cold and clean - they dried the clothes on the line and blew the dust from the roof, and sang Brim to sleep as he lay on the other side of the wall.

The winds that came from the dead forest brought dust that settled on the garden, turning everything grey, and making Mam and Brim cough if they breathed it in. Sometimes the two winds met each other overhead, and then there was nothing to do but sit in the house until it passed.


It was quiet when Brim woke. Mam was still sleeping in the bed opposite, the sheet tangled around her legs. He pulled the blanket away from the bottom of the door and slid the bolts back. Sunlight and warmth poured into the dark cottage from outside. He curled his toes back from the pile of dust that fell over the threshold. His boots were right by the door and he shoved his feet inside. As an afterthought he grabbed the broom from the cupboard and carefully swept the chalky dust away from the door, covering his mouth with the sleeve of his pajamas.

After he'd finished sweeping the area around the door he stopped to rest. The dust from the dead forest covered the area around the house, sitting in clumps on top of the tarp draped over the vegetable patch and piled up in little heaps and drifts on the other side of the fence. Everything was very still. When he glanced over at the dead forest he could see the haze spreading out from the trees, tendrils reaching towards the cottage. He shivered, despite the heat.

'Work before breakfast?' Mam joined him, putting an arm around his shoulders and pulling him close for a hug.

He pointed at the dead forest, 'I don't think we've got time for breakfast - look.'

She squinted at the haze, putting up her hand to shield her eyes. 'Nah, it'll be fine. Them old ghosts won't bother us in this sunlight.'


She clapped him on the shoulder, ' Come on - there's blueberry pancakes.'


After breakfast they both began the regular garden clear-up. All the dust had to be swept up and taken outside of the garden boundary. Normally they would take it as far as the dead forest, but with the ghosts so close they just tipped it in a heap on the other side of the fence.

Brim swept the area around the well. This wasn't strictly in the garden boundary, but it was safest to keep the well clean too - even if it had run dry.

He heard a noise from inside the well, under the heavy wooden boards. The pump came up through the middle of the boards, which meant that the water that wasn't there now never had to be exposed to the dust. The noise came again. It sounded like something knocking on the side of the metal pipe that ran right down to the water level. He looked over to where Mam was adding more dust to the heap, and walked across to the well-cover. It was still securely fastened and the padlock on it was strong.

Bang, bang, bang! BANG.

He jumped back. Even Mam had heard that.

'You OK?'

'There's something in the well!' he shouted back.

'Water -- I hope.'

Mam fetched the key from inside the cottage. When they hauled the boards off the stone base the knocking stopped. They both gazed down the dark hole in silence.

'Some help would be nice.' The voice was old and cross. Brim peered over the side of the well. He could see some sort of hunched-over figure clutching onto the pipe.


Brim sat on the bed, hands clasped round his knees.  Mam was fussing over the old lady; draping her in blankets and offering her hot soup.

'Is there anything else I can get you?'

The old lady shook her head, and let her eyes wander all over the inside of the cottage: looking at the faded labels on the seed drawers, the battered pans hung up by the stove, and the trapdoor leading down to the food store. Finally she turned her gaze to Brim. He raised his chin slightly and tried to out stare her. She raised one arm from out of the bundle of blankets and crooked a finger at him. Brim glanced at Mam. She nodded, and he reluctantly unfolded his legs from the bed and slumped over to the stove.

'You have a strong young man for a son. Looks a mite sulky though.'

Mam looked up from stirring the soup, 'We don't...we don't get many visitors. He's just shy.'

'Hmph.' said the visitor, looking Brim up and down as if she could see right through to where his heart thudded in his rib-cage, as if it was a frightened bird trapped under the tarp. 'More like we don't get ANY visitors. Who are you? Mam - why did you let her in? She could be from the forest for all we know.'

Mam shushed Brim and sent him down to the food store to fetch the wheat crackers for sprinkling on the soup.

The old lady chuckled to herself. 'I like this one. He'll do.'

'But don't let it go to your head, mind,' she continued,raising her voice. 'I'm only choosing you because I got no one else.'

Mam shoved a bowl of soup and a spoon into the old lady's lap. 'Boy's got a point. Eat.' She stood between Brim and the visitor, arms folded, still holding the soup ladle. 'I've given you food and shelter, and that's all I've a mind to give you until you explain. What were you doing in our well? And what's all this talk of choosing?'

The old lady nodded her head appreciatively, 'That's good soup. Any more?' She rattled her spoon against the side of the empty bowl.

Brim, helping himself from the pot, curved a protective arm around his soup and shook his head quickly.

Mam brandished the ladle at him, and glared at the visitor. 'Brim, give her your bowl.'

'Aw, but...'

'Don't argue.' She poked the lady with the ladle. 'Talk. Now. Or I open that door, push you out, and let the ghosts get you.'

The visitor cackled again. 'Ghosts! Is that what you call them? Them's not ghosts, dearie me, no. Them's memories.' The spoon clattered in another empty bowl. 'Soup finished? Got anything else?'