Wednesday, 18 February 2015
06:18:51 PM (GMT)
Brinn remembered the little house on the moor: a splintered wooden edifice, that
moaned and creaked in its skin of lichen and frost. The armorial emblems had been
crudely painted on the side of the shack, signifying the loyalty of those who
inhabited it. Inside were three cots, a wood shove clogged with soot, and a large
leather trunk, cracked with age, that also served as a table. The shabby wool
blankets under which Brinn and her brothers had tried to hide from the cold had been
infested with fleas. Years later Brinn was still phobic of parasites, and reluctant
to touch any animal.
Magnolia Von Reed, the swamp witch, an ancient woman with dreadlocked hair, who wore
a heavy leather cloak with a patchwork of pockets on the sides, often passed by the
shack and left loaves of salty black bread, tallow candles, flint matches, and jars
of fresh water on the windowsill. The moor was home to many children. Brinn saw them
at times, running through the fog in the distance, calling out to one another,
forming alliances and hunting parties. She warned her brothers to stay inside when
they came near. It was not only because she feared they would one day abandon her to
join a pack of wild boys; it was also because of the way disease spread through the
gangs of children who slept together and ate together, wiping out dozens at a time.
Why the swamp witch had taken pity on Brinn’s little family, she did not know. Nor
did she know if she and her brothers were the only children Von Reed had helped. She
only knew that they had to survive, and survival was best done alone.
Her brothers, Briley and Ira, both younger than she, hunted pheasants on the moor
while she gathered plant food in the forest and fished in the swamp. One day, as she
dipped her bait-tipped willow branch into the clear waters at the edge of the swamp,
skimming it along the surface to attract fish, a strange boy approached her. His skin
was red, burned and ruddy from the sun and scarred, presumably from fights. He shook
his tangled blonde hair out of his face and stared at her through squinted eyes.
“I know you,” he said.
Brinn stood her ground. He was small—not a threat, unless he had a gang with him,
“You and those boys, you’re the ones with wolf eyes,” he accused. “I seen
you and them be given food from Old Maggie. I think she like you best for them eyes.
None the other kids has got eyes like that.”
Brinn looked down into the water at her reflection. Her eyes were golden, like her
brothers’ eyes. She couldn’t help it. What did it matter?
“Leave me alone. Leave us alone,” Brinn told him.
He picked up a stick and tossed it into the water. It splashed in front of her.
“They gon’ burn it down, your shack,” he muttered, ambling off.
Brinn took the only thing she’d been able to catch that morning—a fat
bullfrog—and hurried home. Her brothers were safe inside.
Briley, the youngest, had found some wild garlic on his way home and unearthed three
bulbs, a rare treat. He grinned widely beneath his rust-colored hair, golden eyes
gleaming. Brinn praised him for his find. Ira was solemn and silent, closed in upon
himself, thin shoulders hunched, dark hair covering his face. He couldn’t help but
be ashamed on the nights he came home empty-handed. No matter how Brinn tried to
reassure him, he hated to let his family down.
That night, Brinn cooked a small stew of meat and garlic, and they ate it with what
was left of the bread Von Reed had left for them. Even with food in their bellies,
they were still miserable as they shivered beneath their wool blankets and scratched
where the fleas bit them. Brinn dreamed of warm baths and clean clothes and fresh
milk and everything else she’d gone without for as long as she could remember but
somehow still knew existed somewhere beyond her reach.
She didn’t notice when Ira left in the night.
He returned in the morning, a scrawny quail in his arms. It wasn’t the prize catch
he had hoped for, but it was something, and so Brinn smiled at him, resisting the
urge to chastise him for sneaking out. His pride was no longer shattered, he had
regained a bit of his self-worth, and so Brinn bit her tongue and let him have his
The quail had been wounded when he found it. Ira cooked it himself. Brinn thought
the meat might have smelled strange, but maybe she imagined it.
Brinn had just begun her first cycle of the lady pains; her appetite was gone, so
she lie on her cot rubbing her aching belly while her brothers ate the quail. She’d
lined her shorts with absorbent peat moss, but she feared it wouldn’t be enough.
What would happen to her brothers if she bled to death, she fretted?
The next morning she awoke early with cramps. She arose and prepared to go outside
to relieve herself when she realized both her brothers were shivering and soaked with
sweat, deep in a fevered sleep.
The meat had been tainted. The quail had been sick. Hadn’t she known? Hadn’t she
sensed it? Why hadn’t she said something?
She ran outside, gritting her teeth against the pain in her belly, and fled across
the moor, through the forest, and into the swamp. The twilight folk were supposed to
be wise. Von Reed would know what to do.
The swamp witch’s cabin was built into a natural cavern of a granite cliff. The
old woman listened to Brinn’s pleas solemnly, and began filling her pockets with
medicines she took from a high shelf, then followed the child back to her home.
Both the sun and the full moon were in the sky when Brinn returned. Briley’s hands
shook. Ira’s eyelids fluttered. The girl and the old woman held the younger boy’s
limp body upright, and poured a dark liquid from a clay jar into his mouth.
“Will that make him better?” Brinn asked.
“Hopefully, it’ll make him puke,” the witch replied.
They did the same to Ira.
They stuck their fingers down the boys’ throats. Neither vomited, although they
gagged. The poisoned meat remained in their stomachs. Their fevers did not break.
Brinn fell to her knees and wept as the life slipped out of her brothers' bodies.
Von Reed checked both boys for breath or a pulse and found nothing but emptiness and
The ground was frozen hard, and they could not bury the boys, so Brinn wrapped them
as comfortably as she could in the wool blankets, and she set the small shack aflame.
It burned quickly. She walked away from it and did not look back.
Magnolia Von Reed, perhaps feeling she had no other choice, brought the girl back to
her cabin in the swamp. She cut Brinn’s long brown hair short. She scrubbed her
clean, washed her clothing, and rubbed a soothing poultice on her flea bites. She fed
her meat and bread and made her drink bitter tea. Brinn found herself fed, warm, and
comfortable for the first time in her life, but she had never been more miserable.
She opened her mouth to thank the swamp witch for all she had done and she discovered
she had lost the ability to speak.
Von Reed had a grandson. He was called Kit. He was a year older than Brinn, and
taller and bigger with watchful grey eyes and pale skin. His hair was dark, and had
been cut short, like hers. Brinn had never seen him before and wondered at how she
had never known there was a boy living in the swamp witch’s cabin. But he didn’t
interest her much. Nothing did anymore.
He, however, was very much interested in her. He watched her eat. He left rocks by
the nest of blankets on the floor she’d been given to sleep on. Von Reed had thrown
Brinn's locks of hair into the swamp, but the girl saw the boy fish them out of the
water and stash them in his pocket. He was a freak, she realized. He was a witch
Brinn crouched at the edge of the water and stared into her own eyes. Now there was
no else left with eyes like her own.
The swamp was not murky or putrid or stagnant. Somewhere underground it connected to
a stream that connected to a river that connected to the ocean. It was too cold for
many bugs to be out. The trees that still had leaves dropped them into the water to
created floating islands of leaves that frogs liked to hide in. There were caves in
the deeper parts of the swamp; in some places the water disappeared into the caverns
and you would have needed a raft to see what secrets were inside.
After a few weeks, the weather took an abrupt shift and the temperature climbed.
Soon Brinn was bathing twice a day just to cool down.
"It's the people in the city that do this," Kit said. She had just returned from her
bathing place in the swamp, a small secluded waterfall, and she stretched in the
sunlight, letting the heat dry her wet skin and clothes. She ignored him.
"They have control over the weather, my grandmother said. They can do anything
Brinn pushed past him and went inside.
"Listen to me," he insisted. "I'm trying to tell you something important. It used to
be that the weather was predictable. Nature moved in a steady pattern all year long.
Now they can make it rain when they want to, make it snow, make it warm up, anything.
Everyone votes on what kind of weather they want for the month, and then the weather
people make it happen."
"You're stupid," Brinn muttered. "There are no weather people. The clouds and the
trees and the sun make the weather."
"They do not."
"They do so. You can look out there, see them moving. It's obvious."
"Maybe they did, a long time ago. But now, it's all controlled by the people in the
"I've never seen the city. I don't think it's real."
"Of course it's real. That's what the symbols painted on the houses mean. We're all
property of the city people."
"That doesn't prove anything."
"You were born there."
"I was not!" Brinn screamed. "How would you know?!"
"Because that's where everyone is born. They decide how many people are born, and
when, and where."
"You make up stupid stories."
"I'm not making it up. My grandmother told me."
"Your grandmother is just as stupid as you."
"Don't say that. She might hear you."
"I don't care. What will she do? Kill me?! Let her!"
Kit folded his arms across his chest and stared at her hard.
"My grandmother is very wise," he said. "And she is also kind. And she would not
"She wasn't wise enough to save my brothers," Brinn hissed, as she turned on her
heel and marched back out into the swamp. She perched on a granite boulder and turned
her back to Kit and the cabin.
"It wasn't her fault," Kit pleaded. "They do that too, the city people. They release
poisoned animals, and the children eat the poisoned animals and they die. It's
Brinn stood up on the boulder, and the stone was hot beneath her bare feet.
"Leave me alone!" she screamed.
Kit looked pained, and he retreated back into the cabin where his grandmother was
Brinn leapt down from her boulder, and ran through the reeds, splashed through the
shallows, following the path of her own footprints to her secret waterfall where she
bathed. She would drown herself, she decided. She would stay underwater until she
either died or became a fish.
The water was warm. Tears trickled across her wet cheeks. She scratched her
fingernails through her short brown hair. The gold eyes of her rippling reflection
watched her. She knelt in the water, then sat. It came up to her neck. She breathed
in, breathed out. Looked up at the blue sky and white clouds that peaked through the
canopy of trees. She let her body float. Her clothing was made of leather and wool,
and it became very heavy as the swamp water soaked it through. She let it pull her
down, but her face remained above water.
"Brinn," she said. "Brinn, Brinn, goodbye Brinn," she whispered to herself. She
exhaled bubbles as she went underwater.
She did her best to relax. She pulled herself deeper, and buried her feet into the
mud at the bottom. She released all her air in small flurries of bubbles, and waited
for her life to leave her.
Soon a sharp pain clutched her chest. She began to cough, and bright white panic
filled her closed eyes as she flailed beneath the water. Her lungs roared for oxygen.
She was above the surface before she knew it, gasping air and spitting out water. Her
body did not want to die, even if her soul did.
When she had caught her breath and relaxed, she turned on her stomach and floated
face down, taking a breath when she needed. She could not die this way, but she could
pretend to be dead. She floated for a long time.
Last edited: 18 February 2015