Down the beck by Anna Tan

One of a series of blog posts written by Brunel’s creative writing students, inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

There are strange things down the beck. Things that sparkle and glimmer, things that flit and flutter, but also things that nip and nibble, that sneak and quibble. Caelie knows it’s the reason she’s not allowed there alone.

It’s the place where bad things happen, like the way her older brother Cieran had walked past the trees and never come back. They’d looked for him, taking sticks to the tall, biting grass, the thwack-thwack-thwack still echoing in her mind as she looks longingly down the purling brook. Mother doesn’t speak of Cieran anymore, pretending he didn’t exist to keep the grief at bay.

It’s also the place where good things are found, like the magic pot her eldest sister Camlyn picked up that never ran out of gold. She’d wanted to keep it, but the strange small man with fiery hair and a sharp chin had convinced her otherwise, exchanging it with her for a lucky rabbit’s foot. Camlyn is now at some fancy university on an all-expenses paid full scholarship, studying to be a doctor like she’d said she would be since she was nine.

Caelie cannot help but wonder what she will find when it is her turn to wander down the beck, when the fae and spirits start calling for her. For now, she sits on the back porch, staring at the grasses that rustle with the soothing wind, listening to the merry babbling of the water as it trips over stones, basking in the warmth of the sun and the scent of green life sprouting beneath the brown earth.

#

It’s not the fae that call Caelie when she is twelve but her brother Cieran, who stands on the other side of the brook, not having aged a day since he’d disappeared.

‘I miss you,’ he says, ‘come visit me.’

Caelie gives him a long, ponderous look before she answers, ‘Mother says I’m not to go yet. Another year, she says.’

‘The fae await you.’

‘Will they take me like they took you?’

‘I had to stay.’

There is a sorrowful look in his eyes that Caelie cannot understand so she asks, ‘Why?’

‘It was time.’

‘Time for what?’

‘My time.’

Caelie looks him over, thinks that although he hasn’t changed over five years, he looks healthier, his cheeks rosy and his skin glowing. His hair doesn’t hang limp and oily any longer, bright curls that bounce as he moves. His pallor has lifted and it has nothing to do with the sun but everything to do with life.

‘Will they take me?’ Caelie asks again because Mother will not survive another heartache, another child taken by fae or fate.

Cieran shrugs. ‘I don’t know. They didn’t say.’

‘Wait another year,’ Caelie replies, although she longs to go, to see what they have in store for her.

#

When Caelie is thirteen, nothing comes for her. She waits as she always has on the back porch, looking out across the field, to where the beck disappears in the grass that grows tall, no matter how often Father mows them.

The wind blows both hot and cold, the sun hides his face behind the dark clouds, and Caelie thinks today must be the day she goes down the beck. Caelie knows she may not return and her parents may be alone forever. Cieran is with the fae and Camlyn is too busy with her new life to come home except for Christmas and Easter.

Mother will not speak to her, not since she let it slip that Cieran had spoken to her. Father looks at her with resignation on his face.

‘Fate,’ he starts, but he doesn’t finish, turning away from Caelie. Not saying goodbye may be the only thing that keeps Father from breaking.

Mother is already broken.

Still, Caelie walks out towards the beck that has defined her life, that has destroyed her family, the beck that beckons with sweet threats and dark promises. It is quiet, the wind in a lull, the water sluggish. It smells of dead things and decay. Her breath mists, frozen like the lump in her chest that is barely beating. 

‘I’m ready,’ she says as she stands by the brook, looking for the shimmer and shine, for the twinkle and gleam. Nothing moves, and all she sees is winter death, dark and grim. She pushes her way through the browning grass, past the trees that once swallowed Cieran. He’s not there.

No one is there.

‘Take me!’ she yells to the empty fields and the heavy skies, and she feels the earth shudder around her.

Camlyn stands before her instead, a shimmery mirage. ‘Go home,’ she says, barring Caelie’s way.

‘What are you doing here?’ Camlyn is supposed to be far away from here in the real world, not in this in-between of life and death, reality and imaginary.

‘I’m not here,’ not-Camlyn answers, ‘neither should you.’

‘The fae call me.’ But Caelie is not sure because she hasn’t felt the call, not since last summer when Cieran had let her go.

‘Our debt is fulfilled. Go home.’

Camlyn disappears into the mist. Caelie goes home and shuts the back porch door.

There are strange things down the beck. Things that sparkle and glimmer, things that flit and flutter, but also things that nip and nibble, that sneak and quibble. They do not call to Caelie anymore. She never returns to the beck.

© Ann Tan, 2019. All rights reserved.

‘Down the Beck’ was inspired by Ups & Downs: A Lifetime Spent in the Yorkshire Dales by C.V. Horner (2-422), in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections, Brunel Library, Brunel University London.

Author’s note:

I’d picked CV Horner’s Ups & Downs: A Lifetime Spent in the Yorkshire Dales to look at because the description mentioned ‘rural customs, songs and ballads’, which I’m generally interested in. Horner uses some fine (and fun) turns of phrase in his depiction of Yorkshire life, like ‘foxes from her crags’, ‘down the beck’, ‘dead man’s view’, ‘a pig to kill’, ‘a wild showery day’, and ‘have you no b– ink?’ I played around with them until something clicked and went with it.

Anna Tan grew up in Malaysia, the country that is not Singapore. She is the author of two fantasy books, Coexist and Dongeng, and has short stories included in anthologies by Fixi Novo, BWWP Publishing, Bausse Books and Wordworks. She is also the editor of NutMag, an annual zine published for and by MYWriters Penang. Anna was once a certified and chartered accountant with a big 4 firm and is the current treasurer of the Malaysian Writers Society (MYWriters) and oversees the group in her hometown of Penang. As a recipient of the Chevening Scholarship 2018/2019, Anna is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing: The Novel at Brunel University London. Anna is interested in Malay/Nusantara and Chinese legends and folklore in exploring the intersection of language, culture, and faith. Her new short story ‘Operation: Rescue Pris’ will be published in The Principal Girl: Feminist Tales from Asia forthcoming from Gerakbudaya Enterprise in 2019. She can be found tweeting as @natzers and forgetting to update annatsp.com.

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