Familiar Well

~ Eric Witchey

Slinky’s best friend lived in the well behind the barn—the one with the rusty iron plate on top and the four locks at places around the edges like a compass. When someone hit her or took her toys or made mamma think she did a bad thing, she ran away from everyone and hid with her friend.

She had to be careful to run into the woods then circle back so nobody would know she came back and sat against the cold stones talking to Emmet. If anybody knew, especially Tilly who’d tattle a lie ‘bout it, they’d likely try and kill him. They’d get theirselfs all excited and call him a water monster living in the poison well.

That’s what everybody called Emmet’s well—the poison well.

Even though all the sweet grass growin’ tall around the poison well smelled more alive and tasted sweeter than anyplace else, nobody drank from the well. The farm had three other wells. Two were way far on the other side of the barn, the house, and the chicken field. Those were stone like Emmet’s, but they didn’t have tops and locks on them. The other well was pretty new and up next to the house and just a long pipe that went way down deep and deeper into the earth until it could suck up sweet water for the house and for keeping animals alive and all. That’s the one they used the most. It was the one with a windmill that lifted water up into a tank on top of the house, and it was the one that put water in the troughs and sometimes even the pipes out into the corn-n-gourd fields when they got thirsty.

Emmet called that one a dead well because, “Nobody could live in a well that narrow. For good living, you need a deep stone well with a proper width and maybe a cave at the bottom.”

She’d been sitting all quiet with Emmet a while after Tilly had done some mean thing to her when it occurred to her that maybe she didn’t remember what Tilly had done. It wasn’t tearing the head off her raggedy doll. That was last week. It wasn’t hitting. She’d remember that because Tilly left bruises. It wasn’t tattling a lie because if that had been it, she’d have heard her mamma calling after her, “Sylvia Jane Millicent Lancolm you get your ass in here, and you bring a switch with you!” Then, after some time of yelling for her, she’d hear, “Slinky! Come on in, Honey. It’s okay, Baby. Come on back now.”

Of course, she wouldn’t. She’d never been that dumb since she was maybe three years old. Now she was eight, and she was practically all adult now. No way she’d be so big a fool as to go back until after dinner when Mamma would think havin’ no dinner was enough for a stupid child who didn’t know to take her lickings.

She chewed some sweet grass stems, tossed some pebbles at the barn, and named some cloud animals, but she just couldn’t remember. “Emmet?” she said.

“Slinky?”

“Did I tell you why I come out here to sit with you?”

“No. You did not, Slinky. Would you like to?”

“I can’t ‘zactly remember.”

“Maybe you just wanted to talk a bit with a friend.”

She said, “Might be. You’re a good friend.”

“As are you, Slinky. If it weren’t for you, I’d be terribly alone in this well. I was alone for a long, long time before we chatted the first time.”

They sat in silence for a while. Slinky pulled a new stem of sweet grass and chewed the juice out of it. Finally, she said, “Are you a water monster, Emmet?”

“Don’t know,” he said. “Might be.”

“How can you not know?”

“I’m not like you. That’s for sure. I do live in the water, so that’s a part of it. I’m probably not the one to say if I’m a monster.”

“Well, somebody sure wanted you to stay in that well. They wanted it hard.”

“Somebody sure did,” he said. “They must have thought I was a monster, so maybe I am.”

“I don’t think you’re a monster, Emmet.”

“Me either, but I have to allow it might be true. They did go to some trouble to make sure I couldn’t get out.”

“Do you want to get out?”

Emmet was quiet long enough that Slinky wondered if he had something like sweet grass to chew on for thinkin’. Then, he said, “I think I’d like to look up and see the clouds again, and I think maybe I’d like to go in some different wells and maybe even a pond or a river. I think I used to like rivers a lot, but that was a long time ago. Now, this is my home. I don’t think I would like to leave it for long.”

“Some days, I think I’d like to leave home,” Slinky said.

“Where would you go?”

Three pebbles at the barn later, she said, “I’d like to see Paris some days. I hear it’s s’posed to be real nice.”

“Is that a well maybe you’d like to visit? Or a river?”

Slinky chewed another piece of grass and flicked a pebble. “I guess it’s probably more of a river than a well.”

“That’s nice,” Emmet said.

 

Dinner that night was pretty good because Tilly weren’t there and Mamma and Uncle Ralph and their baby, Reek, were all really quiet. Nobody yelled at her when she came back, so she figured they didn’t remember any better’n her what Tilly done.

When she finished mopping up some gravy with her bit of bread, Mamma said, “Slinky, I need you to wash up tonight.”

“Ain’t it Wednesday? That’s Tilly’s night.”

Mamma’s face got pinched up like she wanted to yell a bit, but then it got smooth like it was too tired to stay scrunched up. Mamma said, “The doctor is coming for Tilly. I need you to pick up some chores so me and Uncle Ralph can talk to him.”

“Tilly sick?” Slinky asked.

Reek made a wet sound like he always did, and Slinky thought maybe a water monster lived inside him, and then she almost laughed at the idea of Emmet inside Reek trying to talk through his belly button.

Mama said, “Real sick, Honey. Scary sick.”

Real fast, Slinky said, “Okay, Mamma,” because that was when she remembered why she’d run out of the house. When Slinky was scrubbin’ the kitchen floor, Tilly called her “Chore Girl,” so Slinky sassed her sister. That’s when Tilly fixed to smack her with a fist again.

Slinky jumped up and backed off close to the back door. “I hate you!” Slinky yelled. As soon as she said it, a hot feeling came right into her feet and climbed up her legs. Scared worse, she screamed, “You’re sick!” The hot snaked up over her hips, marched up her belly into her right arm then spit itself out the finger she pointed at Tilly.

Just like a shot squirrel, Tilly dropped on the clean floor and commenced to puking her guts out.

Slinky saw that, and she ran out the back door fast as she could. No way she was gonna stay around and get blamed for Tilly getting sick. It weren’t her fault, and she weren’t gonna clean that floor again nohow. She spent the whole afternoon hiding out with Emmet.

 

The next day and the next, the doctor came back. On the third day, the doctor told Mama he weren’t coming back. No reason to. Nothing to be done. “The girl is past helping,” he said. “Best to pray now.”

That’s what Mama, Reek, and Uncle Ralph all did, too. They commenced to praying like the devil had come to tempt them to sell their souls. Slinky seen them in the big room kneeling at the fireplace like it was an altar. Mamma reached out a hand for Slinky and said, “Come and pray for Tilly with us.”

“Come on, girl,” Uncle Ralph said.

Reek made a smell that made Slinky pretty sure a water monster really did live inside him, and that smell and all them scared eyes lookin’ at her was enough for Slinky. She cut out for the woods, circled back, and settled to sit with her back against the cold stones of Emmet’s well.

Without even plucking a stem of grass, she said, “I think Tilly is dying.”

“Your sister?”

“Ain’t no other Tilly here abouts.”

“I suppose not,” Emmet said. “What’s killing her?”

“I don’t know. We was fightin’, and she took sick.”

“Did you call for the doctor?”

“’Course we done.”

Emmet kept quiet until Slinky said, “The doctor won’t come by no more, and Mamma and Uncle Ralph and even Reek are all in the living room knee-beggin’ to God.”

Emmet stayed quiet. He was good at that. It probably come from bein’ alone so much in the bottom of a well.

Cloud animals danced across the summer sky.

A couple of mourning doves darted from the barn and across the open yard to the woods.

Finally, Emmet spoke. “Before your Mamma’s Mamma was born, and back when I could still go around to other wells and ponds and rivers, your Great Grandma, Selene, grew up here.”

Her Greatgram’s name made Slinky go all stiff. She looked around for some calamity comin’ their way, and when she dint see nothin’, she whispered, “Hush. We ain’t s’posed to talk about her never, not ever.”

Emmet said. “She was like you.”

“You take that back!”

“Why?”

“I ain’t like her.”

“You take the time to talk to me just like her.”

Slinky calmed down a mite. Nothin’ bad had happened, and Emmet lived in a well, so he likely didn’t know a lot of stuff. “Emmet, I don’t know how to tell you this, but she was a witch. They come for her in the night, grabbed her, and burned her up.”

“Somebody killed her?”

“I said she was a witch. She was hexin’ people.”

“What’s a witch?”

It was Slinky’s turn to be quiet. How do you explain a woman what fornicates with Satan to a thing that lives in your well? Finally, she said, “A witch is a woman with powers—a bad woman who hurts people.”

Emmet said, “Oh. Then she wasn’t a witch. She was always helping people. Once, she pulled water up from my well and boiled it to help a woman having her baby backwards.”

“Really?” Slinky sudden-like felt bad asking because Emmet never lied to her, but everybody knew Selene was a witch and got burned for it. “She never hurt nobody?”

“Not that I know of. Once, she told me she pulled up some healing from the earth to fix a foal’s leg. Another time, she said she had to touch a man who went stupid after his mule kicked him. She said he got mostly better.”

“Mostly?”

Emmet said, “She said that men can be pretty stupid whether they’re mule-kicked or not.”

Slinky smiled, but it didn’t change the fact that Greatgrams had been doin’ some hexy stuff. She said, “Them there’s all powers, Emmet.”

“Sure, she had some power,” Emmet said. “But she wasn’t a witch. She didn’t hurt anyone. She only helped them.”

Emmet didn’t lie about things, and he didn’t say stuff that didn’t mean something. Slinky thought for a while about Greatgram Selene and how maybe some stories weren’t so true as she been told. After some grass chewin’ and some pebble plinkin’, she said, “I wish she was here now. Maybe she could help Tilly.”

Emmet answered quick—so quick Slinky thought maybe he’d been waiting for her to say just that. “Maybe there’s somebody a lot like her who can help.”

Slinky squinted at a cloud that looked a lot like a horse with wings. After deciding it needed more legs to be a horse, so it was more like a hawk, she said, “Who?”

“When you were fighting,” Emmet said, “did you get really hot in your feet then the rest of you?”

Slinky didn’t like to say so, but she said, “Yes.”

“Then you,” Emmet said. “You have the feeling in your blood like your Great Grandmother.”

“No.”

“Yes. That’s why we can talk. That’s why you can go in the woods and nobody can follow your trail. That’s why even if they look right at you from the barn, nobody can find you sitting right here next to me.”

“Hidin’ ain’t hexin’.”

Emmet ignored her and said, “And that’s why Tilly got sick.”

Slinky jumped up and ran away. She wanted no more of Emmet telling her she might be a witch and get burned.

 

After dinner, she saw her sister wide-eyed scared and near to dying in her cot. That’s when she started to thinkin’ maybe she might listen to Emmet a bit more. Slinky cleared the table and did the dishes real slow so Mamma, Reek, and Uncle Ralph got settled by the fireplace for Uncle Ralph’s smokin’ and thinkin’ time.

Slinky slipped out to talk to Emmet.

Under the paintbrushy splatter of stars across the sky, she rapped on Emmet’s iron plate. “You awake?”

“I’m here. Are you okay?”

She tried not to let him know she was half cryin’. “Tilly’s real bad sick.”

“Yes,” Emmet said.

“Can you tell me what to do? What I did? I gotta make it right.”

Emmet said, “Close your eyes.”

She did.

“Feel down through your toes right through the grass and into the ground. Like a big old oak tree, root your heart down into the warm rivers of life flowing in the earth.”

She remembered how it felt when she got mad and pointed—all that heat running up her body like a river. Wiggling her toes, she reached with her feeling heart down and down and . . . and there it was, down in the ground, down where the blood of the world flows and moves the livingness all ‘round the earth.

She wiggled her toes again, and the warm come right up into them like she was standing in a yesterday’s storm puddle under hot August sun.

“Now,” Emmet said, “take hold of the South and East padlocks on my lid, one in each hand.”

She didn’t dare open her eyes cause the river of livin’ might disappear, so she fumbled until she gripped the two locks.

“’Good, Slinky. Now, let the flow move into those locks so they know what you want.”

The river of heat come up her legs and belly. It moved like water through her arms into her hands and into the iron locks.

Those locks remembered that before the forge they was sand in the ground, and they snapped themselves free and fell away like Uncle Ralph had hit them with a sledge.

Her eyes snapped open, and she looked at her empty hands. On the ground at her feet, the locks melted away into red sand that just sank down into the earth and was gone. “I broke ‘em,” she said. “Oh, God. I broke ‘em just like I broke Tilly.”

“No, Slinky,” Emmet said. “You helped them go home. You helped me, and you’re going to help Tilly.” Where the locks had been, the near edge of the iron plate bulged upward, bent a bit, and lifted. Two brilliant yellow cat-slit eyes caught starlight.

Slinky jumped back.

“It’s okay,” Emmet said. “It’s just me.” A flat, glistening red-black head pushed outward. A four-toed hand pulled on the edge of the well. With a pull and wiggle, a long, flattened, glistening body and tail followed until the whole slick Emmet plopped down on the grass between the well and Slinky.

A little afraid and a little curious, Slinky touched a finger to Emmet’s head. Her finger found cool, damp skin. She said, “You ain’t no monster. You’re just a real big salamander.”

Emmet chuckled. “I’ve been in the well a long time.”

“Should you be out? Folks might gonna notice a slick salamander big as a panther slitherin’ round.”

“Yes,” He said. “But I’m your salamander just like I was Selene’s.”

“I’m not sure that’s so good an—”

Emmet lifted a four-toed front foot to hush her. “A nice thing about being your salamander is you can make me look like whatever you want.”

She remembered the scared and maybe gonna die look on Tilly’s face in the cot, and she decided that helpin’ was maybe better’n arguin’ just now. “Well, we gotta do somethin’ if you’re gonna help Tilly.”

“You, Slinky. I’m going to help you.”

She put her hands on her hips like Mama and wished she had her a wooden spoon, too. “You mean help me help Tilly. Right?”

“Of course.” Emmet lifted his broad, flat head and fixed his yellow starlight eyes on her. “What do you think I should look like?”

“Maybe a boy my age or a dog or somethin’ that fits in ‘round here.”

Before she could think of something else folks wouldn’t notice too much, Emmet stood up on his hind legs and commenced to melting all over and to twisting like he was made of chink mud and to shifting some and lifting some and stretching some until he was a barefoot boy a bit taller than Slinky and wearin’ an old-time Sunday suit with a tall hat, a string tie, a split-tail coat, and a silver watch chain. Even though the suit crumpled up on him like it was hands-me-down from an older brother or cousin, it seemed like a fittin’ in thing for him to be wearin’.

His smile went all wide and starlight bright and full of joy and life. His big yellow eyes sparkled like shooting stars. “Thank you, Miss Slinky. Thank you ever so very much.” He took her hand in his four-fingered boy hand and kissed it like she was a lady in a story.

Slinky jerked her hand back. “You Satan?” Sayin’ it, she knew she kinda hoped so ‘cause she figured she knew enough stories to figure out how to sell her soul to fix what she done to Tilly. She hoped she didn’t have to fornicate with Emmet’s salamander self.

“I am certainly not,” Emmet said.

Slinky relaxed a bit. “Then what zactly are you?”

“I am part of that living earth feeling you can touch, and you decided to see me like this.”

“I did not. I would not turn some old salamander into—”

Emmet’s deep laugh interrupted her.

She stared at his all-happy face in the starlight.

When he caught his breath from laughing, he said, “We’ll talk the how and what of things later. Right now, listen to me if you’re going to make Tilly right.”

Slinky went quiet.

Emmet said, “I’ll lift up the well cover a bit, and you draw out some water.”

“We can’t slip a bucket under there. It’s too tight.”

“We don’t need a bucket. Just a bean tin and a long bit of baling twine from the barn.”

Slinky kenned him right away. She ran and gathered up the stuff then they dipped up some water.

Slinky, holding that bean tin full of well water like it was made of liquid gold, let the frumpy-suit Emmet boy lead her toward the house with him whispering in her ear all the way.

 

A few days passed after Slinky life-warmed that cup of water from the poison well and gave it to Tilly. Come a mid-afternoon, Slinky ran away ‘round through the woods to the well. Of habit, she set down with her back against the circle of stones, knowing true that Emmet had gone on and away after they healed her sister.

Slinky was bustin’ to tell him Tilly was all fixed now and a lot nicer, and she had to tell somebody she felt a little bad about that ‘lot nicer’ bit. She worried maybe the hexin’ made Tilly a bit not who she used to be.

“She is.” Emmet’s voice near scared her dead even though it come right up from the well just like always. Slinky jumped away and twisted around until she was on her hands and knees starin’ at the iron cap and the stones.

Emmet said, “Now, she just knows better than to hurt you.”

“You came back!” Slinky crawled across the grass and hugged the stones of the well, and she was pretty sure she’d’a hugged Emmet himself even if he come up out the well as a slick-skinned, panther-sized salamander.

Emmet said, “Took a long walk is all. Visited the river and the pond. Looked in on the other wells.”

“Just like you said.”

“Of course. I told you this was my home.”

“Yes. Yes, you did.” Her face heated up a bit, but not full of the living heat, just with the embarrassment of forgetting that Emmet never lied to her.

“Slinky?”

“Yeah, Emmet?”

“Would you mind breaking off the other locks and taking the iron cap off a while so I can see the sky?”

“Sure enough, Emmet. Right now.” She come close up and grabbed the North and West locks, one in each hand, and commenced to conjuring up some livin’ and lock rememberin’ from the earth.

“Don’t break them so much as the other ones,” Emmet said, “We’ll want to put the lid back on and hang the locks like they aren’t broken.”

She kenned him quick and slowed down her conjurin’ to make sure the locks didn’t get too excited about bein’ sand again.

Once she slid that lid off, she sat down against the stones. Emmet come up out the well enough to get his wide, flat head up on the stones by her shoulder. Quiet and happy, they watched the clouds together.

Eventually, Emmet said, “In a few years, I think we should go to Paris.”

Slinky smiled. “I’ll be growed all up then.” She watched a cloud goose chasin’ a tick hound across the sky then said, “You think you’ll grow into that suit of yours?”

“If you want me to. You think I should wear it to Paris?”

“Yup. I think it’s just the thing.”

Emmet asked, “How far will we have to swim to get there?”

Slinky plucked a stem of sweet grass and chewed it for a while. Eventually, she come to think maybe she should explain about Paris being a city and not a river or a well. Instead, she said, “If we was clouds, we could fly.”

Emmet said, “There’s a lot of water in clouds.”

Slinky smiled, wiggled her toes into the grass and dirt, pulled up some life into her toes, pointed up at that ‘ol dog-chasin’ goose, and pushed and pulled the conjurin’ on that goose just enough to get her wings flappin’.

Satisfied, she let the goose go on across the sky after the dog. In a couple years, she’d about have flyin’ figured. That was plenty of time to explain Paris to Emmet. Slinky sucked in the lazy smell of summer heading on toward harvest and pulled herself a stem of sweet grass to chew.

 

Eric Witchey has sold stories under several names and in 12 genres. His tales have been translated into multiple languages, and his credits include over 160 stories, including 5 novels and two collections. He has penned dozens of writing-related articles and essays, has taught over 200 conference seminars, at 2 universities, and at a community college. His work has received recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer’s Digest, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award Program, Short Story America, the Irish Aeon Awards, and other organizations. His How-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines.

 [ issue 7 : summer 2022]

These Waters

~ M. Shedric Simpson

The hands that drew me up were not the hands that had pushed me down.

“It’s okay,” she said. Her eyes were brown, and her skin was dark, and her fingers wrapped tight around my wrists. “I’ve got you.” She pulled, and I fell onto the rocky shore beside her.

A dull and listless light accosted me, and I squeezed my eyes shut. Anything seemed searingly bright after those silt-clouded depths.

“I’m Asha,” the girl said. “Can you talk?”

I drew a breath and forced out the word. “Yes,” I said, surprised to find it was true. I still felt the memory of water flooding my lungs, like a clenched fist inside my breast. “I think so.” I looked up and she smiled at me.

It was a warm smile, but sad too. It was the smile I’d seen on my mother’s face when she was reminiscing. “Do you remember how you got here?”

A beer bottle skating across the ground. The bright stab of pain on the back of my skull. The world spun before I even understood it was the bottle that had struck me. “I was walking by the river,” I said. “But something happened.”

Hey! Fucker! The words rang in my head. The pickup truck skidded to a halt, and four boys piled out of the bed in the back. A boot crashed into my ribs, and my body curled up like a pillbug’s. Go back to where you came from!

“It’s okay if you don’t remember,” Asha said. She tucked a twist of unruly brown hair behind her ear. “A lot of people don’t.”

But I remembered it too well. The flurry of words and blows that rained down. Shit, look at him bleed! the boy said, but I couldn’t see it, all I could see was the muddy brown sky. I ain’t going to jail for no chink. You better finish what you started.

I felt my hands twisting, and I looked away from Asha, not wanting her to see what was written on my face. Humiliation, rage, and hate formed a knot inside my heart; their threads cut through me like burning steel. “I drowned,” I told her.

“We all did.”

I tried to struggle when they dragged me into the river. I was still fighting when the blonde boy pushed my head beneath the water. But I was too weak. I’d always been smaller than the other boys. Whorls of silt blotted out the sky, and I couldn’t hold my breath any longer.

“All?” I glanced around. We weren’t alone on the shore. Other figures huddled beneath the murky sky. Children, all of them. A few were barely more than infants.

“About a hundred of us, now. There weren’t so many when I came here.” She placed her hand over mine. “If you’re ready, I’ll show you around.”

“I’d like that,” I said. Anything was better than reliving those moments over and over again. I pulled off my right shoe and placed it on the rock. I’d lost the other in the river, and I didn’t think I’d see it again.

I shoved my socks into my pockets as Asha led me away from the shore. The soil was warm beneath my bare feet, as if heated by the sun, though I couldn’t tell if it was night or day. A persistent breeze swept in from the water, cold and metallic and tasting of stone.

“Let’s go up the hill,” she said. “There’s a fire, and you can get a view of the whole island.”

I looked beyond her shoulder at the landscape above. Figures nestled amidst the pale grass that covered the slope. Some slept, curled into tight balls, while others stared out across the water in some long and silent vigil. Few seemed to notice our passage.

The grass was waist-deep and silken to the touch. I found myself yearning to lie down in it as well, but I followed Asha up the well-worn footpath instead. We passed a dwarf tree, leafless and skeletal. Dark bulbous fruit hung from its branches.

Asha grasped one. The tree shivered in protest, but relented. She pressed the fruit into my hand. “You can eat these,” she said. “Actually, there isn’t much else to eat. I tried catching fish once, but they smelled wrong.”

“Wrong?”

She shrugged. “Like they’d died days ago, even though they were still moving. So I just let them go.”

I nodded and held onto the fruit as she turned back to the trail. It felt warm in my hand. “What’s wrong with the children? Why aren’t they playing, or doing anything?”

“They’re waiting,” she said. “Some leave as soon as they get here, but for others . . . It’s been a long time.”

“How long have you been here?”

She glanced down at her feet. I couldn’t see the look on her face, but her voice was ragged when she answered. “I don’t really know anymore.”

I didn’t push her any further. We turned at the switchback and headed up along the ridge. The view opened up around us. The island was made of three low hills, all dressed in the same pale fields, and fringed with jagged black rocks. Across the water to my left and right lay the distant banks of the great river, though I could see nothing of what waited there. Faint points of light drifted across the span between them, crossing always toward my left, against the course of the wind.

The trail cut away from the ridge and into a small hollow near the top of the hill. A group of children huddled around a campfire there. Asha caught my hand and drew me towards them. A boy in a faded tank top stared at me with bright blue eyes. His skin was white and his hair was the color of dust.

“You’re new,” he said.

“My name’s Lee.” My father had spelled my name with the hanzi, but I always pictured it the way my mother had written it.

“I’m Toby,” he said. He looked up at Asha. “One of them is leaving.”

“Where?”

He stood and pointed down the slope. “Over there. He just started walking. Should we do anything?”

“It’s his time,” Asha said. “He has to go.”

She let go of my hand and moved beside Toby. I stepped next to her and gazed down the hill until I saw it too. A boy walking through the waxen field below. He might have been twelve at most; the grass came up halfway up his chest. None of the other children moved to stop him as he walked toward the shore.

“Where is he going?”

“Out there,” Asha said. “One of those boats.”

When she said it, I could see them for what they were. The tiny drifting lights were lanterns, hung from the prows of boats that crossed between the two banks. A lone figure sat in each. “They’re crossing over,” I said. “The souls of the dead.”

“I think so.”

It didn’t surprise me the way I thought it should have. I had died. It stood to reason that the others here had died as well. Some part of me had known it ever since I’d climbed back out of the water. “What about the boy?”

“Watch.”

The boy pulled off his shirt as he reached the shoreline, then waded waist-deep into the water. He dropped the shirt, and the current pulled it downstream. His shoulders trembled, and then he dove. The river devoured him with barely a ripple. A few seconds later it was as if he’d never existed.

“I see him,” Toby said.

I strained against the uneasy light. A flicker of movement pierced the surface—an iridescent shimmer where there should have been a boy. It slid further out into the depths. A jagged fin. The serpentine twist of a coiling tail. Out, and deeper, until I could no longer track it.

We stood in silence for a long minute. The wind that wrapped around the island sent waves through the fields beneath us and painted whitecaps on the water. Toby sucked in a deep breath, and I felt myself do the same, tensing in anticipation.

One of the drifting lights flickered out. The silhouette of the boat vanished.

“He made it,” Toby said. His voice was sad.

“Of course he did,” Asha answered. “You will too, one day. I promise.”

“Mmhmm.”

Asha turned back to the fire, and I did too. We sat down on rocks. The other three children never glanced up, only stared into the flames with the ruminative gaze of ancient pyromancers.

“What happened out there?” I asked. “What was that boat?”

“He found the person who’d drowned him,” Asha said. “And carried them to the depths, so now they’ll never cross over. He’ll feast on their flesh for eternity.”

My chest tightened. “Is that all we’re here for? Just waiting—just waiting for that?”

“To set things right. To punish the ones who murdered us,” she said. “That’s what we’re waiting for.”

I still held the fruit in my hands, and I tore it open to focus on something else. The flesh inside was white, and filled with pockets of glistening black seeds. Like a pomegranate in monochrome. I slid one of the seeds past my lips and held it between my tongue and the roof of my mouth until it disintegrated. It was sweet, almost too sweet at first, but it drew my mind away from the taut wires inside my breast.

“Can I get some wood for the fire?” I asked Asha at last.

“It just burns,” she said. “It always has. I think it’s not really a fire. Just—the memory of a fire.”

I nodded, though I didn’t understand. I itched for something to do. I was like my father in that way. His hands had never been idle. I still remembered the grass stains on his fingers when he’d grabbed me and lifted me up to the sky.

My father had come with the factory, but when the factory moved away, he’d stayed for me and my mother. There were no jobs for a foreign engineer in town, so he took what work he could find. He trimmed hedges and fixed motors. He made sure there was always food on the table and new shirts in my closet. If there was ever any despair inside his heart, he channeled it into his work and never let it show. Not even on the day he died. I still remember Mrs. Siegel shouting at him from her porch when he collapsed in the middle of her yard. He kept trying to stand up and push the mower, even after his heart had stopped.

I swallowed another pomegranate seed and looked at Asha. “So there’s nothing to do? No work?”

Her eyes burned. “This is our work. Keeping watch. Waiting for our time.”

“Who are you waiting for, then?”

Her mouth twisted. “I don’t know. I don’t remember much of what came before this. Just glimpses here and there. Flames and darkness. Water, like ice inside my lungs. Someone calling my name.”

I shook my head. “If you don’t know who you’re waiting for, how will you know when they cross?”

“Everyone knows. They always do,” she said. “Whoever did this—” She pulled the collar of her dress to the side, and I saw the puckered scar beneath her clavicle. “I’ll know when they come.”

I knew I was asking the wrong questions, but it was too late to stop. “If you don’t even know who it was, then why not let it go? Just walk away?”

“Don’t you think people have tried? We can’t just leave.” She glared at me. “There’s a reason that we’re here.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but she stood up and turned away. “I’m going for a walk.”

“I’m sorry,” I called after her, but she didn’t respond. There was only the faint rustling as her figure parted the pale grasses, and then the cold wind stole even that.

“It’s okay,” Toby said. “She’ll be back.”

The flames whirled. I held out my hands and caught a whisper of warmth, or maybe it was only the memory of warmth.

“I think she’s been here a long time,” he said. “I think it’s hard for her to keep waiting.”

He didn’t look more than six, but I wondered how long he’d lingered here. “I shouldn’t have pushed her.”

Toby wrapped his arms around his knees and shivered. “It’s not really you that she’s mad at. It’s me.”

“Why would she be mad at you?”

He frowned. “Because I’m leaving soon, and she’ll still be here.”

I saw the way his legs shook, just like the shoulders of the boy who’d walked into the river. I saw his eyes, wide and darting. “You can feel it,” I said.

“But I don’t want to.”

“It’s nothing to be scared of. Asha said it’s what we’re here for.”

“But she didn’t mean to do it. I know she didn’t. She was just upset.”

“What do you mean?”

“My mom. She would have come back for me, if the car hadn’t fallen in the river. I know she would have.” He looked up at me with eyes that shone desperately. “I don’t want to hurt her.”

“Then don’t,” I said. “Don’t go.” I felt sick to my stomach.

“But you said it too. It’s why we’re here. We have to go.”

“I was wrong. Go somewhere else. Anywhere but here.”

He shook his head. “I can feel it pulling me already.”

“I’m sorry.” The words weren’t enough, but they were all I had.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s just what happens, right? Maybe I don’t have to hurt her. Maybe I can just hold her, like I used to before the river.” He turned his eyes back to the flames. “She was always nice to me, even when she was sad.”

My hands curled into fists and my thoughts twisted against each other. I didn’t know who I hated more. The mother who’d drowned him in the river, or the world that had cast him up on these shores just to torture her. I saw the face of the blonde boy, shoving me beneath the water. The ripples distorted his face. My jaw ached from clenching, or maybe it was just the memory of pain. I forced myself to eat another pomegranate seed, chewing it mechanically. “I’m sure she loved you,” I said.

The flames were silent, without any of the crackle and roar of the school bonfire last month. The quiet made the sky above us feel enormous and heavy. I leaned closer to the fire, watching the embers spiral skyward. I don’t know if I dreamt, or even if I slept, but I know that time passed in that timeless place, and it was only Toby’s restless stirring that brought me back to myself.

His face was taut with worry. I wished I could believe the story he’d told himself, but I knew Asha was right. All of us here had been murdered. There was a reason we were here. “Can’t sleep?” I asked.

“No,” he answered. “You?”

I shook my head.

“The fruit helps sometimes. Make it easier to rest.” He glanced over his shoulder at the river. “But Asha won’t eat it anymore.”

“I don’t think I need it either.” I understood her anger; I was wrong to have denied it to her. I wanted to let mine burn, but I hated the feeling that I was being used by this place.

“I wanted to wait until she came back,” Toby said. He hugged his legs against his chest. “Will you come with me instead?”

“Is it time?”

His breaths were quick and shallow. He nodded.

I stood and took his hand. He climbed shakily to his feet. “I’m scared.”

“Everything’s going to be okay,” I said. My mother had told me the same thing, with sad dark eyes, before my father’s funeral. But when we’d gotten home, she’d held me when I cried for hours.

We followed the winding path through the fields of pale grass, until we came to the river’s edge. Toby stepped onto the bare rock and looked up at me. “I don’t want to go.”

I knelt, so that we were eye to eye. “Then stay,” I told him.

He shivered and pulled away from me, but I caught his other hand and held him. He craned his head to look over his shoulder. “It won’t let me.” Panic tugged at his voice. “Help me. Please.”

I pulled him close and wrapped my arms around him. “Of course.” I didn’t have any choice. My mother would have done the same in a heartbeat.

Every muscle in his body pulled taut, and he froze like a panicked deer, until his body erupted in tremors. His flesh turned to ice, so cold that it burned my arms. He uttered a choked sob. “Don’t let me go. Please. Don’t let go.”

“I won’t,” I said. “I promise.”

I kept hold of him, but the trembling didn’t pass. He cried out, and his skin peeled away. Glittering scales rippled along his shoulder. Bones twisted unnaturally beneath his tank top. I clutched him against my chest, desperate to stop the change. Spined fins erupted from his shoulder blades. I gasped as they tore through my arms, but I didn’t let go. There were no fins. I felt no pain. It was just the memory of pain.

There were no words to his cries, just a plaintive whimper that went on and on. The uneasy sky whirled overhead. The pale shoulder beneath my cheek was sometimes skin, sometimes scales, and sometimes both at once. His tears soaked the back of my shirt.

I pulled him against me, rocking gently. His breath came in ragged gulps. Slits flared along his neck, then sealed shut again. My mother would have sung to him, but I had my father’s voice, so I just held him until the shaking stopped.

The scales crumbled into shimmering dust, and the wind carried them away. The boy sucked in a lungful of air, then let it out slowly. “She’s gone,” he said. “She’s gone.”

I released him, and he took a timid step back. “She’s gonna be okay,” I said. “You are too.”

Toby slipped his hand inside mine as I stood back up, and we stood and watched the boats crossing in silence. I knew that one of them would call to me, one day. My flesh would writhe, and I would go out to meet the boy that had pressed me under the water. But I remembered my father too, lifting me up as if he were returning a constellation to the sky.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” Asha’s voice rang out behind me.

I realized that my hand was empty. I turned, but there was no sign of Toby. I hoped that wherever he’d gone was somewhere better than what this place had meant for him. “It was what he wanted,” I said.

Asha stood at the edge of the field, her mouth drawn into an angry slash. There were other children too. Some looked on with horror, others wide-eyed with wonder.

She shook her head. “That wasn’t right.”

I took a deep breath. I held the air inside of me, dark and metallic and tasting of stone. “Maybe that’s for each of us to decide.” I peeled off my shirt and dropped it on the black rocks. The cold wind wrapped around my body. “Maybe there’s a reason we’re here, but I have to believe that there’s something more.” I turned away, feeling Asha’s accusing eyes upon me. “I don’t know what’s waiting over there, but I’m going to find out.”

I waded out into the river. Gravel shifted beneath my feet, and I fought for balance. Waves crashed around my waist, pushing me toward the shore. For every step I took, the river only cast me further back. There was a weight inside of me—a knot that hung like an anchor from my heart. The image of the boy who’d held me under. Like a sickly jewel, it gleamed in my mind. Full of hate and heavier than anything. But I didn’t need it anymore. It belonged to this place, and I did not. I cut the threads that bound it one at a time, all the shame and hurt and bitterness, until the current carried it away.

I felt my father’s hands lifting me up. My mother’s hands wrapped around me. Those were the hands that mattered. Boats drifted like fireflies in the distance, drawn always toward that distant shore. Like the promise of daybreak, I would reach it too.

The water embraced me, and I swam.

 

M. Shedric Simpson is the familiar of a small black cat. They studied art in Baltimore, MD, before moving to Seattle to live between the mountains and the sea. They spend their free time crafting stories and other small things.

They can be found online at shedric.com or on Twitter (@inkspiral).

 [ issue 6 : spring 2022 ]