There was an old photograph above the fireplace in the bedroom. He could barely remember it. The picture was old and grainy like memory like the world around him, the days like nights and nights like pitch.
The wind-up lamp’s light flickered. The dirt road in front of him blinked. He sat as the lamp went out and felt for the worn crank. He used to count the seconds and worry.
Every second static was an invitation. They might come. They might hear the whir, the birth of kinetic energy-cum-light. And they would find him. They would drag him and chain him, among whatever lay outside the path. Among bushes or trees under the blackened sky and then
He looked over his shoulder and down at the lamp. Its edges, plastic rim and plastic protector were hardly visible, lines of grainy grey a little darker than the rest. He coughed. He used to count the seconds but they do not matter. They’d slipped into an abyss like the stars and the rain and coffee and cigarettes and sunlight. There‘s no solace here, there’s no respite.
Find the wishing well. Walk and wind and walk and wind and find the wishing well.
The photograph was in his brother’s room when they lived in Hammersmith and sang nursery rhymes at school. Every night they would climb on top of his brother’s bed and his father’s glasses case would snap like a clapper board and he would begin. His voice transformed for every witch and peasant or knight and princess, for every little boy or girl he would raise his jaw and stretch his neck. His chin would double and droop under the weight of vocal depth. He could remember that still, but his brother’s face was a blur, a microcosm. It was the picture. It had terrified him but he couldn’t sit he couldn’t listen without staring at the photograph.
The lamp flickered and then beamed and he stood and walked. He wasn’t sure if there was anything either side of the path. There was darkness and that was that. He walked.
There were no pebbles, no gravel, or brown stalks or weeds. It was smooth dirt, hard as if trodden, and beaten into submission a thousand times. Once it had been straight, for days he was certain it was straight, but now the miles of curves and bends began to twist upward and curve to the left. A staircase. He sat down.
Light flooded the landing and the black metal staircase in the middle of her apartment.
He turned off the lamp and coughed.
She had some stained glass, small, like a little patterned window just above her front door.
He looked over his shoulder.
She followed recipes off Google and made her own pasta and drank sherry and smoked cigarillos out of her bedroom window.
He put his palms flat against the hard ground.
He painted her, at the window, with dawn rising, her stare beyond the horizon.
Laughter teetered on the same decibel as her weep; in another room he couldn’t tell the difference.
Faint, slight vibration, it walked slow and quiet. He coughed into the crook of his arm.
He used to kiss her, tongue her, bite her ear before she moved to Manchester before she met her fiancé and raised three kids that went to universities across Britain studying refined humanities degrees in the footsteps of their academic father.
The vibrations grew. He stood up, ran the knuckle of a forefinger under his eyes and continued.
It became steep. He coughed, he panted, breath warm against his cheeks. His knees clicked, arthritis long since diagnosed quashed, squashed far behind a vision of the wishing well.
He reached a plateau. The path levelled and expanded. The lamp went out. He looked at his hands. Dirty, covered with a dusty brown. He walked further forward and looked down at his feet. Hard calluses dusty and brown.
He could see the well. A few feet of old brick and mortar stood out of the earth. A clean cone of light shone from its surface. He walked forward and felt grass tickle his feet. He lay down and looked up at the black quilt of sky and coughed.
He lay on the bed, over the cover next to his brother and looked at the photograph. His dad began. There was a witch who had turned a princess into a frog. She had taken her from her bed and chained her to the bottom of a wishing well.
He looked at the woman in the photograph, her brown apron, blue eyes and grey-blond hair tied behind her head, a single strand dangling by her neck, her husband to her right, his hand frozen on a pitchfork, black eyes staring, they stood in front of a barn house.
Under twelve feet of stale water she croaked. The princess’ lover was hired by the King and made his way to the well. There, the witch, a cauldron and camp.
He looked at the woman in the photograph, she sat before an open window, her knees up and pink dress scrunched above her thighs, her bed white, her walls white, a red brick building outside the window.
The lover beheaded the witch and her spell ceased. The knight could not swim.
“What happened to the Knight?”
“I don’t know.”
“He must have died too.”
A wind rushed about him, he could feel the grass flitter against his hands and arms and the soles of his feet.
His father stood behind him holding a cup of murky water and leant over his shoulder mixing the colours on the wooden palette in his hand.
Something had changed in the sky as if grey and black swirled together.
En plein air, the legs of his easel had sunk into the riverbank, the dark green river meandered with his brush.
He coughed and began to sweat.
There was short applause. A small review in the newspaper. His wife rubbed his back shushing everything will be alright as long as you make a sale.
Turning onto his side, palms together under his head, he studied the well.
A solitary string of cobweb lay across the tops of brushes, their bristles stuck together. He ran his finger over them and closed the door to his study behind him; there was no solace here, no respite.
He lay on his back. It was snowing, small flecks melted on his forehead. He opened his mouth. Snowflakes floated in troops down from the darkness, illuminated in the cone of light shining from the well. He sat up and looked at the light. Snowflakes danced. Teetering side to side, humming. He closed his eyes and coughed and felt them brush and tickle and disappear on his skin.
The brick was cold. The mortar crumbled at his touch. He heard a whisper and panting. Snarl. He looked over his shoulder.
Its hands were grey and its fingers long and curled. From the darkness it stepped forward. The long nose of a bird jutted from under its hood. A mask. It snarled. He could feel its eyes glare about his body. It stepped forward crushing the wind-up lamp. He stood up and he stepped back, heel to the brick.
He turned and climbed up onto the well. The water was black and dark like memory and days like nights and nights like pitch. It stepped forward.
His heel broke the surface. A shiver ran up from his heel to his neck and sprung out of his arms. There was solace there was respite here, a white quiet.
He looked over his shoulder. It swayed and spoke.
“Promise me you’ll be here in the morning.”
He used to count the seconds and worry, they did not matter. He could feel them tighten, his neck his apple and chin and behind his ears they squeezed and taut he jumped.