When I was at school, I was preoccupied with the contrast I felt between going to school in the city right in the centre of Edinburgh, and coming home to the countryside. The two became kind of bigger categories in my mental landscape. Town was people, doing, growing, consuming. Country was were you went to retreat back into yourself, a haven to just be. Even now I find the fields and the forest powerfully restorative. In my final year I was lucky to have an encouraging headmaster who made us think about what a poem was and taught creative writing. This story was the result.
Henry’s footsteps crackled and thudded over a field of broken corn stalks, his mud-encrusted boots slowly becoming obscured by the early afternoon mist. Even in his distraction he was alert to the bite of a wind picking up against him, to the rush of a stream half a mile away. Even as the branches tied to his bag chafed the back of his neck, May’s voice was still soft and echoing in his ears.
There had been a grey wind whistling over the flat land the first time it had happened. Just a boy, he had thought it was the wind that was making the branch he’d picked up for a sling-shot bend upwards in his hands. But it happened again, the switch of hazel was twitching and twisting as if charged with energy. Henry’s father looked up from setting his traps under the hedge, saw him staring down. A superstitious man, raised on vague warnings linked with the weather and the birds - trappers’ stories. Jim knew when a gale was blowing and when something even less tangible was at work. “You’ve got the gift, lad,” he called through the weather, proud and dimly jealous. “My father had it too. There’s water running under your feet, sure as anything.”
“What?” Henry was enchanted, could barely drag his eyes up.
“Dowsing. Water divining, some folk call it. A man can make a living off that, lad. Course, I doubt most just happen upon it.” But Henry wasn’t thinking about earning a living. Jim turned back to the sharp rough metal of the trap jaws, exasperated at his faraway son.
Henry remembered grasping hold of the new phrase -‘water divining’- that made so much sense to him, putting a meaning and a name to the natural awareness he’d always felt. He’d always studied clouds, fox holes, unripe berries. Now as he grew up, quiet and wiry with hair like upturned soil, he spent hours and weeks outside setting traps or labouring, and he began to listen for needle-piercing rain before it fell, or for trickles under stones. His ability soon set him apart, and he used it as an excuse for his loneliness. As time passed, the more he attuned himself with the seasons and elements, the easier it became to find water under the ground, and the harder it was to find the right words, or understanding in people’s eyes.
Henry remembered how it had been discovered by the rest of the village. He’d been at the tavern with his father, a new practice into which he’d been initiated only recently. Tracks were turning brittle with the start of winter, and work was drying up, and Jim was chasing away the darkness of the drawing-in evenings with copious amounts of cider. “My boy can find you water from five miles away!” he was boasting to a farmhand, his face ruddy with the drink and the glow of the fire. “He can smell a beck in the air, he can!”
“Jim Traverse, that son of yours couldn’t find the sea if you set him on the cliffs of Dover, he’s that away with the fairies…” Henry had broken up a brewing brawl stemming from Jim’s objection to the word ‘fairy’ in relation to his only son, and led his father home, thankful for his blustering faith.
As the pearly fog drew close around him, Henry had only the sound of his steps and snatches of memories for companionship: the rattling, pervading elation he’d felt on finding a river’s undiscovered tributary, and on actually being paid for the water it would give the fields, and most importantly on being recognised. The universal sense of wistfulness and beginnings when he left home to find new work. After that, the years became a blur of villages and seasonal jobs with ever-changing farms and the feel of bark and wood in his hands. As Henry continued striding, he recalled how in those years the sound of water was always in his ears. The booming of an unexpected waterfall, quiet lap of a still pool, gush of a hurried brook. Until that summer – until May. The crunching of the ground underfoot slowed as his thoughts turned to her.
He’d been working at that farm for just over a week, bringing in the hay and corn, when he heard the farmer wanted to build a new well. He saw May first when he went to her father, cap in hand, spoke to him in the sunny cobbled courtyard. She was carrying a tray out to the fields and seemed both to perfectly belong to the golden and cornflower-blue scene and to look right into him. She was there when he went to the edge of the farm with his hazel branches, distracting him. He tried to concentrate on the arc-shaped bough, to feel the warmth in the soil, to let the rush of water there in his head intensify and drown out her laughter. He knew there was water there, he had found it the week before, but her presence infused him and left no room for the craft he’d perfected.
“Are you going to tell me where to build my well now, young man?” her father asked him a few days later, still sceptical despite what he had heard about the boy. For the first time, Henry had to admit that he couldn’t. All summer long, the claws of ravens that would perch on him became replaced by May’s brown fingers curled into his. At night he stopped gazing at stars and they talked together. Then autumn came; Henry realised he was no better at finding a pheasant nest than the next man and suddenly the full extent of what he had lost seemed to leave him like a ghost, characterless. He left, to blindly search again for the consciousness that had shaped him.
But now the joy of the last months crowded back and her last words resounded - “You can’t just go on forever, Henry…” He slowed to a halt and drew over his shoulder the boughs tied to his pack. He was tired of having only his strides and the beat of wings to fall in rhythm with the drum of his heart. He couldn’t move seamlessly in concert with the seasons, but now he could place himself within them. Better to divine water or people?
The branches fell to the ground, and the mists lifted as his boots turned back the direction they’d come.