The Keeper of Wells
They say I am the keeper of wells. The one who tends the water of life, stops it becoming polluted with effluence. Guards against its’s theft. I am the protector.
This is what they said to me when I was appointed the One. I wasn’t so impressed by the title, being only ten years old when they had lowered me through the green and damp walls. On that day, my only companion had been fear, riding my shoulder and peering down with me to the bottom of the well, miles away so it seemed. I remember looking up at the impassive faces getting further away and had clutched the bucket I rode in more tightly.
It is supposed to be an honour to be chosen and I should have seemed more thankful when the Masters brought the news to Mother, shouldn’t I? I had watched them approach our small house, kicking up dust in their wake that drifted and sparkled in the early suns. I knew something was up because the Masters never came out when the suns were up, preferring to send servants to collect water or whatever it was they needed.
Only by the cool of twilight would they emerge, to sit in circles around the fires and drink copious amounts of fermented, yellow- flower tea.
They had spoken softly to Mother and I knew from the way she held her body and clasped her hands together that something was afoot. She had come to me soon after the Masters had retreated to their shady houses.
“Oh, Vesi, I have the most wonderful news!” But there were tears on the edge of her eyes, ready to breach the defences. “Vesi, the Masters have told me you are next in line to be Keeper of wells!”
Already I had felt the walls closing in on me.
“But, Mother,” I had stammered, “there is already a Keeper.” Old Croaker, the children had called him, because his distant voice had sounded like a frog from the depths.
Mother had lain a gentle hand on my arm.
“The Keeper has gone to his reward and his rest. You will become the One at the new dawn.”
I remember the dream I had had that last night of peering down into pit and seeing the two glimmering points of light peeping up at me. Of falling, falling and old Croaker's long pale arms reaching up to hold me in a cold embrace.
I had eaten cold meat by the newly laid fire, washed down with water fragrant with fresh flower heads. Then, washed and brushed, had walked slowly with Mother to the well.
The Masters had created a circle within the village folk, gathered and sombre, although this was a called a ‘festival’, and I had been ushered with ceremony to the seat prepared. My heart beat against my chest, almost drowning out the Masters’ chant, familiar as the crisp chirruping of insects in their nests of dried grass.
A new keeper had been born, they said. Divinations of the sand and the sky and the suns had revealed Him. He had been chosen. The One. The villagers had chorused their replies: A birth, they had cried. Taken from the ashes of the old and fashioned anew! And they had taken each a mouthful of water from a stone cup to celebrate.
I had looked at Mother as she sipped from the cup, her eyes closed, and then to the walls of the well behind me, the bucket suspended above its’ maw. Into this they had urged me, although my legs trembled and all sounds seem to come from a great distance. A package of something bound in leather was thrust into my arms and I began my descent.
I could barely breathe as the line creaked and I dropped inch by inch into the gaping mouth like a worm being fed to a chick. Then the desert light deserted and I was below the lip and into the throat of the beast.
I don’t know how long I swung there; ages it seemed. Although I had closed my eyes I could still sense a deepening cold and smell the damp walls. I could feel the weight of rock above and to each side of me. A living tomb.
Though gentle, the sensation of hitting the bottom jarred me and I clutched the sides of the bucket tightly, dropping the package with a dull thud. I dared not look around me yet, so lifting my chin I stared whence I’d come.
A dim light came as if at the end of a long tunnel, shining the brighter as it reached the end. Of the blue sky, I could see a patch. Then someone must have pulled across the wooden shutter and even that was gone. With my head still pointing skywards I think I had screamed.
I had sunk into my own body after that, rocking and crooning a lullaby as if I were at home and suddenly the hide cover would be pulled back and a bright day would fill the tent. But eventually, hunger and thirst had forced me from my make-believe dreams and for the first-time I had looked at what was to be my sole domain until the day I died.
When I finally hardened myself enough to peek out between my fingers I saw, not blackness and horror, but a green glow. I dared to uncover my face and stared wonderingly at what was a shining wall of light.
The chamber was curved above me, leading down to a cold, blue pool below and every inch of it gleamed with a verdant fire. Where water trickled along its’ length, drops fell into the coolness below, a cacophony of jewelled music.
Forgetting my fear, I had climbed out of my bucket and walked hesitatingly over the dry floor of the cavern, touching the walls which felt warm to my fingers. A dark cluster caught my eye; What seemed to be a mound of sticks and thatch – a miniature hut complete with cloth door. Nearby a small stack of oil cups and wicks stood ready, flints and tinder alongside. Lighting one of these, I carefully lifted the cloth aside.
Inside it was scented with burnt fire wood, comfortable and familiar, which hung onto the smoothed walls. A small cooking pot sat suspended above a, now cold, stone surround fire place. Next to it was a small pallet, fur-lined and draped. Over in the furthest corner was a table built out of the chamber walls itself and furnished with a stool.
I had wasted no time in bringing wood in from a small store outside and getting it lit. There is nothing like a fire for restoring cheer to a heart and I lay before it on the small pallet as it replaced the warming suns now far above and beyond my reach. Lulled by the heat I had curled into the furs and slept.
I had been awoken by an unfamiliar sound which I likened to an empty pot striking our earthen floor. The caressing dream of home had faded too rapidly, replaced by my new world of unknowns. The fire had burned low but still emitted heat and light, augmented by the green glow beyond the curtain. Stumbling I lifted it aside and walked towards the cavern opening below the well. I had blinked stupidly at the package that lay where I had dropped it next to a depression in the soft earth where the bucket had been.
It was gone, hauled up to the world above while I slept my fears away. I looked up at the far-away place, darkened again with the wooden cover. No sound or movement disturbed its stubborn entrenchment as I hauled the leather package back to my little home and untied the bindings.
Inside were stores of food; strips of dried goat and beef, dried beans, cactus hearts, a very small pot of spices, yellow flowers – and a letter.
Written on a golden piece of vellum in gallium ink, the letters were small but carefully inscribed.
“Vesi, this is Mother talking to you now as I am next to you. My son, fear nothing! Though I am far above you, the thread that connects your water bucket to the sky will be our language. Be warm, eat, do your duty. I am with you at all times.”
She had drawn below a little scuttle- lizard, our secret story. The mischievous little fellow who went on big adventures but always landed on his four feet. I smiled at that and caressed his image, drew strength from him. If scuttle always landed on his feet, then so could I.
The meal I made was poor but homely, stewed meat, beans and a touch of spice, washed down with hot flower tea. Full and tired I lay on my wooden pallet amongst the furs, reading and re-reading my letter until I dozed into another dream with scuttle as my indomitable and happy friend.
©Nick MacIneskar 2018
In the final part of the story, Vesi discovers the real secret of the well.