Fiction, Issue #69

Sisters of the Sacred Well

The years of the pandemic, Colin’s mind followed the seasons: a whisper of renewal in the spring, hot streaks in the summer, desiccated thoughts in autumn, and white silence in winter. By the second summer of his bursts, we ceased hoping for rational time with him. We are not in the habit of deluding ourselves, no matter how boosted it might make us feel. That Colin’s mind goes as the pandemic, a surge here, a drop there, is not lost on us. We love him, but some are made faint and feverish by his antithetical dithyrambs, which drop like gas, slick on water, spreading. Quickly. Anointed we are, heart-racked, strung tight as a bow.

For all the gauze on his brain, Colin’s gaze remains penetrating, as if he sees the truth in each of us. It lights up every time we close our eyes. A sweet dream, a sweeter love, a song, a rhyme, an elixir. An affair here, a bastard child there, more than one birthed of a father not their own, an aborted one in the shadows. And Colin knows all, not because we told him, but because in our bay there is no such thing as a secret between us, us and him that is. Colin, he has gifts. Had gifts. There exist those who know without words, those who live and die by what is written on the body. But the body betrays us all. We are not gods.

So, we visit him in love and fear praying that The Dementia would not loosen his tongue too much. Our fear took on a humor which even now we cannot suppress. Oh, one of us will say, weren’t we just bad when we were young? Like a Greek chorus, we all reply. That we were. And we look on our dear Colin, who does not know Tuesday from New Zealand, a pebble from a pea, a prick from a pencil. His eyes are shut, as if dismissing our refrain.

But in that we are wrong. One by one, his gaze falls upon us as we sit for gin and tonics. Ice clinks on glass like a far-off tolling bell. Rose brings out a tray of sweet and savories. Taking her place next to him, his wife holds his hand. Although it is not yet dark, it is our witching hour, this pre-sundowning. Colin’s eyes widen and he points a withered arm at his granddaughter in the cradle. His son rocks it with his foot, and the rhythmic squeak assaults our senses.

Oh, Colin says. Bosky fairy.

Fuck, mutters one of us, and the rest nod. Colin’s wife smiles, weakly. What’s he on about now, she asks. We feign ignorance with our lidded eyes, but Greer MacKay—she never could keep her lips sewed—says You mean, and just like that Doreen kicks her. Gin slops on the verandah, slips down through the planking to the rock.

We look out at the water in Colin’s bay. The wind slips around us, soft as baby hair. An outboard chugs by followed by another with a dog in the bow, ear flapping like a loose hat. A lone kayaker holds steady in the wake and we freeze as their paddle hangs high in the air, as if waiting to slice through each one of us, splitting us open, revealing our ruby-red pomegranate jewels.
But really, what could women like us hold? You are thinking nothing and we will nod. We will not deny you before the cock crows. A rooster knows so little of the world beyond his coop.

We were not so cooped, nor was our Colin. He was bookish, the sort the other boys didn’t take to, so he was left to us, and with us he paddled and motored to places we thought we discovered, but really, were well known to all. But the boys, they did not follow or come around, leaving us be. In the heat of the summer we sought relief. And as Colin taught us, we sought basin mud, a soft slippery clay found near till deposits and mélange—we knew our geology if only because of the Canadian Shield, that vast area depressed by the ice sheets that gave us the glacial lake that holds our bays. The stripes and folds of granite and quartz. The pines that knelt to the wind and the crisp water that cooled our scorch. The rock and till so hot it cooked fish. The unrelenting heat of a nimble season. Feckless girls we were with Colin, our Apollo.

Away we’d go with our mate, across the water to beaver-logged channels and blueberry coves.  Hoisting boats on sand or rock, we dug the shore for basin mud and silty clay. On our young shapes we slapped the stuff and settled to bake in the sun. Colin’s exacting finger carved designs on our silty encasements, slipped rings on our fingers, molded babies on our bellies, shaped clay laurels on our heads. Raking his fingers through the mud on our limbs, he positioned an arm here, a leg there, cementing us to the ground, where we dried hard and fast in his modeled prophesies till we could no longer bear the heat. Let us go, we ‘d murmur. Set us free.

Sisters of the sacred well, he’d intone. Bosky fairies. Water sprites. Rise, he’d whisper, and we did, splitting and cracking, shards of faux shale falling around us like slices of life. Always to the water we went, dizzy with the damnation of the innocent.

 And so with Colin we swam in the depths with or without our suits till the day we got nubs, and those nubs so intrigued Colin that he wanted some of his own—but nature is not like that. So we shared what we had with him, as well as our lovely mistrust for the boys who became our men. You have names for all this these days, but do not think you invented it. It’s been with us all along, and only the weak cannot see. Our Colin, he saw. Our Colin, never to bow, sculpted his way to desire and rapture known to those whose belief in the body extends beyond the visible horizon.

How great our joys, so large our grief, so small our minds. 

We think this as Colin’s wife lets go his hand and stares at us. The baby in the cradle whiffles. What have we given ‘way?

It is not us, though. It’s Colin. He raises his arm toward the sky as if aiming an arrow and we lean in. Pulling back, he licks his thumb and presses a sunbeam, and in it we see a chorus, a never-ending stream of women, naked, clay-smeared, fossilized in time, and we know we have lived this before and will live it again. We shiver as a shape emerges from the emerald blue into the glaze, we feel the soft puff that is Colin’s breath, and we promised to tell you this, that which is no secret at all if only you shift your shape.

By Catherine Parnell

Catherine Parnell is an editor, educator and co-founder of MicroLit Almanac and Birch Bark Editing. Her publications include the memoir The Kingdom of His Will, as well as stories, essays and interviews in Switch, Hyacinth Review, Emerge (ELJ), Cult, Orca, Grande Dame, West Trade Review, Tenderly, Cleaver, Free State Review, Barnhouse, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, The Southampton Review, The Baltimore Review, and other literary magazines. She’s the Director of Publicity with Arrowsmith Press and she also works with the Florida Center for Governmental Accountability.