In the few minutes before the last arc of the sun finally dipped below the horizon, it was at last cool enough for the two women to creep out and continue their exploration for another night.
For Arica, slightly the younger of the two, watching her shadow stretch and lengthen was never less than fascinating. Myrna wondered if she too had once been as diverted by such simple pleasures. Underfoot, the texture of the ground was different enough – firm and unyielding – to tell the elder woman that they were still on one of the Great Ways.
In the looming dark, there was a sudden twinkle and Arica looked up sharply.
“So, are we going to have a look?” she asked at last.
And find what? Shards of a bottle carelessly discarded and smashed a century before?
Finding something – finding anything – would be like a betrayal. Better to travel in hope than to arrive, a ghostly voice whispered inside of Myrna’s mind – her mother’s voice. That determined her to go after the source of the reflection properly. Somehow she couldn’t bring herself to trust in ghosts.
“There,” she pointed and set off to leave the path.
Closer up they should have been seeing more of the old house, but it was getting darker. Together the women mounted the front steps of the house and they found themselves standing before the front door. A house as well preserved as this had to be inhabited, Myrna thought.. Yet, at the same time, there was a silence which weighed exceedingly heavy with years. It was an object very definitely of their world.
The travellers entered.
Somewhere, something stirred, vast but noiseless. Then, it was still once more.
Where the floors met the walls there were drifts of dust and sand, blown into tiny desertscapes.
They camped in a downstairs room. Arica had wanted to go upstairs but Myrna painted a brief, while graphic picture of the likely results of the steps giving way beneath them and the two of them living out their shortened lives on spikes of rotted timbers. Arica hastily agreed that it might be worth waiting for daylight.
Myrna awoke with sweat dripping from her forehead and her clothing was plastered to her body as tightly as a second skin. She considered taking a mouthful of water to make up for the moisture she had lost but the two women generally only drank from the water flask when they were together. It was an unspoken rule of survival etiquette. Myrna looked over to where Arica had been sleeping. She was gone.
“Arica!” Myrna cried. There was no reply. Myrna moved to the bottom of the stairs. She called again, much louder.
Arica’s reply came from outside.
“Myrna,” Arica’s voice trembled “Come here.”
Outside, Arica was standing and looking into what Myrna recognised to be a well.
“Is it real?” Arica was finally able to ask.
“It certainly is,” Myrna answered evenly. That wasn’t what Arica had really meant to ask, though, and Myrna knew it. To ask the real question would risk shattering the fragile magic that might, just possibly, make it true.
Myrna knelt down and picked up a stone. She stood up and moved to the edge of the well and held the stone out over the drop. She felt that she should be making a wish.
“Please,” Myrna heard Arica whisper from close behind.
Myrna released the stone. Myrna thought that perhaps she had heard something at the last moment, a dry rattling sound.
They explored the area around the house, finding a tangled heap of old tools, some preserved in the arid heat almost as they must have been left, the metal still patchily shining, the wood as hard as iron, plastic decayed and shattered by relentless ultra-violet.
“How long have we been out in the sun?” she asked her companion. Arica squinted.
“Two hours. Maybe more.”
“Time we moved back inside then.”
“How far are we now past the return date?”
Arica winced. “And the water?”
Myrna held the canteen up and jiggled it. “If we ration it carefully,” she replied thoughtfully “Two days.”
“So we had better move on.”
“Let’s try to get some sleep and travel again tonight.”
When they came to shelter again, Arica shuffled close and popped her thumb into her mouth, sucking at it hard – a good way to stimulate salivation, but Myrna suspected that this thought was not uppermost in the younger girl’s mind.
When Myrna awoke, her dreams and the electric bright reality took their time in decoupling. She found Arica again by the well.
“Listen,” Arica said hoarsely and tossed another pebble in.
This time there was the unmistakable sound of the pebble dropping into water.
It took them a while to rig up a bucket they had found in one of the outhouses on a rope they had carried with them and all the time, Myrna was trying to convince herself that the water they would draw up would be brackish, polluted, undrinkable.
Arica took the first drink of water from the well and Myrna knew instantly that she had been wrong. The water was fine.
Arica turned to look at her companion, eyes flashing over the rim of the bucket with fierce jubilation. She passed the bucket to Myrna. The water was cold enough to make her back teeth ache and when she had finished drinking she cupped her hands and scooped out handfuls of water to splash on her neck. Even then, there was still water left in the bucket. Myrna knew that they should refill their water canteen – perhaps even try to find some other containers, yet some sort of fledgling superstition acted to prevent her
Arica tipped what remained of the contents of the bucket onto the ground at her feet. She squeezed her eyes shut and Myrna saw her lips twitching as she made a second wish.
The next time they went out to the well, the ground around its base was encircled with a light green fuzz. Myrna bent down to examine the young grass shoots.
“I wanted to see what it must have been like – in olden times. I wanted a whole garden, but I think that could be asking for a little too much, don’t you?”
Myrna didn’t answer.
By the next day, there could be no mistake. The pale pink tendrils of creeping ivy twisted almost perceptibly along the ground and the stubble of the day before had erupted into a verdant lawn.
On their last night, Myrna found herself alone at the well and she peered once again into the depths, straining to see the water itself. Far, far down, she thought that she could indeed make out a shimmering surface and she squinted to get a better view.
Then they spoke.
They spoke of times gone, of how, with a single, simple wish, she could turn the clock of the world back. Give us one more chance they begged. Myrna’s vision clouded and when she could see clearly once again, she was looking down upon a vast city, lights twinkling merrily in the gentle shadows of early evening. She began to take flight.
The metropolis was as beautiful as anything that Myrna had ever seen. Vehicles flowed like a rainbow metal river. Closer she came, now only feet above the tops of the cars, and the air shimmered with petrochemicals that ripped the back of the throat and clung to the membranes of the nose. In the gutters, papers and plastic tumbled, as if trying to keep pace with the flow of traffic alongside.
Myrna followed a roadway to the harbour. In the doorways of the houses, men, women and children slept in filthy rags while others hurried by them, too exhausted for compassion because across the face of the planet these hopeless ones numbered in their millions upon millions.
In the wan moonlight, the scales on the decaying fish winked dimly, anti-stars in the viscous waters.
She gasped and pulled back from the edge of the well.
Behind her a voice croaked.
“You can change all this,” the voice tempted.
Then, the voice became that of her mother, long lost. “Bring us back,” she begged.
Around the well, wraiths of smoke turned and twisted. Faces formed, light against the dark, and they shouted wordlessly to her.
For a minute or more, Myrna considered. She had never expected to be asked to save the world.
The next day, of course, the well was dry and the vegetation had already turned brittle and brown, with flakes of leaves gently crumbling into the dry wind. Arica looked very sad, but she didn’t cry.
They had offered her all the undoubted treasures of the past. All she had to offer was the untried promise of the future. Myrna hoped that the choice made in the final wish would prove to be the right one.