By Toby Walmsley
Allie was a man who in his youth nearly drowned in the stream by the town. It was a small but vivid stream. It was at chest height for an average man standing, but was only seven metres across. He was collecting smooth river stones to bring home. His dream was to find the roundest one in the world. He had found five pretty round ones – smooth to touch, and pleasant to hold. But this day, he saw at the bottom of the stream a small boulder, so perfect and round it seemed to be suspended in the water. He waded in eagerly. But the river was strong. It picked him up off his feet and dragged him downstream, from the rapid but smooth current, into its white splashing and violently loud jaws. Allie crushed and gnarled against the riverbed. His tender, youthful arms were broken and made old through the machinery of the river. Every time he tried to pull himself above the stream he was pushed back underneath. He was found downstream by the waterwheel, where old Wheelman Rory waded in to pull him out.
The water took the life out of Allie and let it go downstream. Rory purged the water from his lungs and set his broken bones, but nothing could ever connect Allie’s soul to his body again. It was lost in the stream, and he was lost in time. When he recovered, Allie threw his stones back into the water.
Allie rose to the sound of birds playing on the birch tree outside his window. He dressed quickly to warm against the cold. In the blue tinged air he could see his breath smoking.
“Can’t wait ’til it’s summer” he murmured daily. It would be another hour or so until the sun rose thin in the air. Oil was expensive, but he’d have to bring his lamp if he was to begin work before that.
Allie didn’t eat in the morning, so he bundled a small quarter loaf of bread into a burlap sack for later. He knotted the top quickly, before holding it firmly over his shoulder. He left his hut as the birds began to whistle in the air, jumping from branch to branch as the morning sun gleamed off their rainbow feathers.
His hands were torn and withered from the months he spent fashioning the wood for the dam. Him and a few of the locals had found a suitable site for foretasting and felled the trees until enough was ready to complete his project.
In the summer months he promised to fix the roofs of their houses, as the rain was now dripping on their dining tables. The wood now lay near the water, where the old waterwheel used to stand. The old pullies that used to drive the wheel looked like nooses hanging the rotting wood from its sturdy beams. A few members of the town considered tearing it down, using the wood for a few things that needed fixing, but Allie refused to help, and the proposal died out. “It’s what Rory would have wanted.”
Edgar soon joined him. A few years back, blight had devastated his wheat, and Allie spent his afternoons racing to plant a new winter crop. The town was without bread for a year but at least they had something to stew for the coming winter.
“All thanks to Allie,” Edgar joked, “We can enjoy the worst meals we’ve had in our lives.” He was grateful, and asked if there was anything he could do to help.
“Something’s been on my mind for a while,” he replied.
Edgar had tended to his crops ever since he was a little boy. He had a large, rubber mouth and whispy brown hair that began to curl at his ears. His father had gone bald young, so Edgar was proud that he still had some hair standing. Like his father, Edgar had tended wheat since he was twelve and would until the day he died.
He idolised his father. “I think I have wheat in my bones.” They had buried him in the field.
They had a lot of work to do. The old wooden bridge near the waterwheel had fallen out of use, so they made a quick rope bridge across to the other side. During their foresting trip they’d bagged as much soil as possible into small sacks. They threw the dirt upstream to blunt the flow of the water.
By the time they’d thrown half the sacks of dirt into the stream, it was getting dark. They’d worked hard and in silence for the day, only talking when it came to detailing the construction or calling for help. Edgar was the first one to suggest they stop work. He wanted to walk through the woods while he could still see in the light. Allie decided to go with him, leaving his tools by the pile of materials before going to his house. He realised he hadn’t eaten all day. Edgar had taken a few small breaks, and probably had something to eat in the meantime, but Allie had worked. His shoulders were sore from the soil he’d carried, and although he quickly got used to it, the quiet, dull ache reminding him of the weight he carried.
When Allie was home, he put his burlap sack by the door and rummaged until he found the bread. A few years back traders came by with some salted butter, and the villagers exchanged some goods and split the butter between them. So for a year Allie enjoyed buttered bread, which was the only time in his life he enjoyed eating. The butter was oily and silky, softening the bread when he chewed. When he was running out, he began to count his mouthfuls: at least twenty per piece of bread. He wanted to capture the feeling of butter, frame it and hang it in his mind. As he chewed into the bread, he imagined it lathered in butter, and smiled.
That night he dreamed he was pelted with onions, as he turned and turned like a coiling rope.
He awoke to the birds, to his clothing. To the walk, to Edgar, to the death throes of a once proud stream.
“Did you have a good night’s sleep?” Edgar asked, as they lugged another sack of dirt.
“Enough to keep me going.”
The pace of the water was gradually receding. The dirt was in place to blunt the flow of the water, enough for them to place the timber framework, so that they could dam the whole thing without them being swept away by the current. Allie predicted the project would take a little over a week, if they worked hard.
The villagers were surprised when Allie suggested that they dam the river. It would be a lot of work. The woodwork, the construction – it would take months. Allie no longer possessed the strength of his youth. He bent slowly to pick up things from the ground. He puffed and heaved when he helped till the fields. What surprised them more was the conviction in which he embarked on this project. They thought that Allie had lost the will of his youth, too – the drive that got him to direct building the town hall, the drive that allowed him to learn to fix roofs, and work the fields with the farmers, stopping only to fall asleep.
His face hung, brown and spotty from the years in the sun, like a man condemned.
Four key members of the town met in secret on an autumns’ evening to discuss the plan with Edgar. In the cooler months, he kept stock of the food supplies. He also cooked a mean turnip stew.
“It’s not something we really need,” said Alma. They warmed by the embers of Alma’s fire after a pot full of chicken stew and an evening nightcap. “We have water supplies already. It rains plenty here.” He rubbed his hands, leaning forward. “And I’m not to disparage the old man. He’s done lots of good, but he’s building that dam for himself, not for us. ” The fire crackled in agreement.
“I think Alma’s right,” Lucy spoke. ” Bless Allie. He wants what’s best, but he’s an old man. Would he even see the dam built? We can’t be finishing something we don’t need.” There were murmurs of agreement now.
“If you ask me, he’s a fool,” Alex piped. ” We can’t be humouring him.”
It was Edgar who spoke up. “I don’t think it’d be a disadvantage to have a dam. Besides, Allie has been selfless to this community his whole life. Does it matter if he does this one thing selfishly? I’ll help him myself. We can cut the wood, instead of taking it from the stocks.”
It was Lucy who had the final say. Officially, changes in the town were a matter of vote by the four. But Lucy had been on the council since she was eighteen, and she far outwitted the other members. None had raised a voice against her in years.
They agreed to let Allie do it on the condition he would organise it, and Edgar would keep close watch on the old man. A few villagers, grateful for his work over the years, volunteered to help but slowly enthusiasm for the project faded. Only Edgar remained.
At another council meeting, Lucy took him aside and asked him why he was still helping. “I can’t give up on him,” he said, “He’s given us so much.”
A few days in, the timber framework was beginning to take shape. A few villagers popped down to see them work.
“Y’know,” Lucy remarked to Edgar, “That’s going to be a fine looking dam.”
When it was completed the town would have a full supply of fresh water and a power source to turn their mills. They could let their overworked farm animals roam.
Allie worked on. He was a skilled woodworker compared to Edgar, who needed constant supervision. They had a limited supply of nails as the town had to import its iron, so they spent much of their time fastening rope to make the structure sturdy. The water pathetically lapped underneath them. The timber had to be soaked before it was attached to the structure, so they made some pullies out of the rope suspended over the river from the trees, and then lowered it. They allowed the wood to saturate overnight, so that it wouldn’t rot in the following years.
The next day they took out the wood and fastened it to the structure. Often splinters would line their hands by the end of the day, and Allie would spent much of the night removing them using a pair of tweezers his mother used to pluck her eyebrows.
He dreamed again. Time ran in the rain. The stream would carry everyone down its path eventually. Allie remembered burying Rory. They noticed that he hadn’t been around for a few days, and found his body slumped in his hut by the water, beginning to rot. The town prepared one of their burial boats and fastened the body, along with Rory’s most prised possessions. It contained an ivory comb, a small silver ring, and a small, smooth rock he used to keep in his pocket for luck. Allie was there when they let the body go on the water. It floated away, like everyone in the town, far away from where they’d ever been.
He hoped the villagers would line up for him one day. That they would watch his body peacefully flowing down the stream and lament his death too.
But Allie didn’t dream of that. That day, by the water, the sun peaked out from the canopy surrounding the embankment. A line of sunlight warmed his face, and despite the fact it was a cold winter’s day, he felt a wave of warmth wash over him, a sensation of unity. He felt that feeling in his dream, and smiled.
He woke to birds rustling outside his window, and rushed to them to scream. As soon as the words left his mouth, he felt ashamed. He sounded like his father, who would spend all evening shouting after lapping up barley moonshine. His voice became deep and hoarse, like the small rumble of fire, until one day he made a bad batch and died of ethanol poisoning.
They cut the rope bridge as soon as the wood scaffolds were sturdy, and began to drag the wood into place. They alternated – Allie would pull the wood for half an hour and then Edgar would take over. By midday, the sun had arced high in the sky and they decided to break.
“Let’s grab some proper lunch back home,” Edgar said.
The path they walked was a track now from when they moved the supplies down. Allie remembered having to cut away the leaves the first time they went back to the water.
“This dam is really coming along now,” Edgar said. “I can see it being quite useful.”
“I think so,” Allie replied, confidently. “It’s a shame they let the waterwheel fall into disarray after Rory died.” He paused. “He was a great man. The building didn’t deserve that.”
Edgar paced behind Allie, who charged up the ridge.
“I do see why it was left behind. We had plenty of animals and plenty of ways to get water. By the end of Rory’s life it was his pet project, more than anything.” Edgar panted.
“I don’t think you were even alive to see Rory, Edgar,” Allie’s voice rumbled. “How do you know all this?”
“I mean, you hear people talk about things like this. When we were discussing the project, people would bring up Rory and his waterwheel.” Edgar now struggled to keep up with Allie, taking long paces up the hill.
Allie stopped, and turned. “Who’ve you been talking to about this?”
“Well, I mean, a few people here…” Edgar felt a sense of heaviness when he tried to look into Allie’s eyes. His gaze was forced to the ground.
“I’d be better off asking – What did they talk about at the council meeting?” Allie’s voice was low and calm.
Edgar shook but he looked up. “How do you know about that?”
“I’ve been alive as long as Lucy,” Allie said. “I’m not a fool.”
Edgar hung in silence for a moment. “They raised concerns about the project. They were worried you were just doing it to honour Rory’s memory. They say he was close to you, but that doesn’t mean we need a dam.”
“I see.” Allie let the words hang. “What changed their minds?”
“Well, I thought I did a good thing for you. I reminded them that you’ve really done a lot for us around here. Selflessly helped us for years, and you never asked anything in return. I wanted them to repay your generosity.” Edgar felt emboldened by his speech. He finally caught Allie’s gaze again. But instead of gratitude or understanding, he saw regret.
“A debt,” Allie said.
He was glad to get away from Edgar. The presence of the town no longer hung over him. One tightened noose cut over top his nearing grave. He watched the birds from his house. They chirped and rustled in the trees. What master could cut the chains off me?
Allie went home that night, and dreamed of the round stones he used to collect as a boy.
It was a foul day. The water cracked like lashes and the wood of the wheel moaned.
Rory sat by the water. The canopy covered the waterway with splotches of light. It was midday, and it was hot. Allie had helped Rory all day with the mill. Grinding the wheat down into flour, then passing it into large sacks, before lugging them up to the village.
Rory just sat by the waterwheel and stared into the plashing stream. Allie returned from another trip. His clothing was soaked with sweat and rain, so he walked up to the mill and rested under the cover.
“That’s enough for now, Allie. Take a seat by me.” Rory called into the downpour.
Allie reluctantly changed directions and sat next to Rory’s chair by the water. The grinding wheels splashed flumes of mist over them.
“You’ve done a good job today,” Rory said. “You need a rest.” He stared at the water wordlessly.
“There’s a balance, boy,” he continued, “A balance.”
“What do you mean?” Allie asked. He saw on Rory’s lap a seared fish, looked away, and began drawing lines in the wet clay.
“What are you drawing?” Rory asked, picking at the fish, absent-mindedly. His eyes were on the clay. It was marred with circles.
“There’s a balance.” He sighed. “I know I’m no example. There’s an axel so deep in me, turning and turning me like I’m hung on some wheel. I’ve hardly stepped foot in town since you started coming around, but you have to believe me. You never let the water leave you. When you struggle with the sacks up the hill, I can see it pulling on you. Drowning you. ”
Rory looked at the water wheel. Turning, turning. “Take a few more sacks of flour every few days. But leave the water. You know what it feels like to be pulled under.”
He paused, looking back at the water. “I love you, boy.” He could see the drowning in him. “I love you, boy.”
As Allie walked to the mill, he caressed a small, smooth, river rock in his hand. He’d picked it up from the clay. He looked back at Rory. He didn’t see the river. Not its whole, coursing body. He saw every splash of water as a miracle from the mountains. Rolling, clear fragments of cloud. But no amount of looking would ever connect the world to his soul again. Allie looked to the wheel. It churned on.
He turned to the water and gave the round stone to the river. Back at the village, the friar rang the bell. It was a knell.