Once upon a time a girl named Claire balanced at the edge of a dried-up well. She wasn’t playing with the other children who ran around and screamed after school. They called her Wonky in a way that can only be described as upfront. A nickname that cut too close to the bone. When she was three she fell down the well. Her inattentive parents didn’t notice until hours later, by that time it was too late, her future was already set. He broken spine fused. Her hips bent to the right and her head and feet to the left.
She had to walk in a roundabout way, but It never bothered her when she was alone, when she was free to skip and dance and sing without judgement.
The well fascinated her even before she fell in, there was something about its depths that had made her peer in — peer in way too far. When she was trapped in the bottom she had felt a hard object under her back, metal and regular in shape, but it was too painful to move and too dark to see
The object had haunted her dreams ever since. Six years of constant dreams. Which is why she always came here to drop pebbles into the black depths. Most landed with a dull thud, some, the rarest few, hit with a clang — a direct hit on the metal object. There — there it was, to the left, about a foot from the wall. She removed a large black rock from her pocket about the size and shape of a well-endowed sandwich. It was a lodestone stolen from her school, created when a bolt of lightning roasted most of the school’s chickens. Her teacher’s glasses still bore the crack from when they jumped off his face as he bent over to examine it.
Claire coiled a length of twine around the rock and secured it with a knot she made up on the spot, full of twists and turns and death-defying loops. She lowered it to the left of center. Down and down it went until the twine went slack, but she heard no satisfying clank. She lifted it up and edged it around in a circle. There, there — it stuck — the string became taut. She yanked it and pop — it came free, she almost fell over.
With caution now, she lowered it again, swinging it smoothly around. There, again, clunk. She pulled slowly this time. Leaning with her weight, testing for the point where the object would pull loose. It came loose and jumped up. She almost lost the twine from her hand. She took it in carefully. Clang, clang, clang it banged against the brick sides. She reached over and coaxed it hand by hand until she fished it out and laid it on the ground.
It was a box, a small metal box, with a lock, the type people keep money in, or secrets. She dragged the lodestone off leaving scratches on the lid. It wasn’t very heavy and it rattled when she shook it. There was a button on the side under the lock, she pressed it and the lid sprung open. Under a sheet of paper were five pieces of chalk: red, green, blue, white and brown. It was trash — worthless. Something someone had discarded in the well and not hidden at all. It could have been anything: jewels, the deeds to a castle — a magical stone that would concuss all her foes.
Claire picked the red chalk and drew an apple on the side of a brick on the well. She finished it with a green stalk and then stepped back. It was the best apple she had ever drawn. There was a strange dimensionality to it, like she had used shading. It had to be the texture of the brick. She touched the surface, it was smooth and waxy like an apple, it fell into her hand. Perfect — a real apple.
She let it rest in her hand. Her mouth opened as she lifted it up and down as to judge its weight. Her fingers squeezed the surface. She lifted it up to her lips and bit, then spat it out.
"Ugh, like nothing — dirt."
It dropped from her fingers, bounced off the wall and fell down into the well. There was a soft thud as it impacted into the bottom. Claire used the brown and white chalk to draw something she had sketched hundreds of times before — a kitten. Her room was filled with drawings of cats, but her favourite drawing was of her house with herself and a cat and a big brother. Not that she had a cat or a big brother.
The cats were always black with a big splash of white on the chest and little white socks, but she had to do with brown since there was no black chalk. She drew it with well practices ease, the front feet wide apart and the back two close together and the tail arching over. The tail hairs tickled her finger as she drew then. The yellow eyes blinked and swiveled and the cat jumped down from the wall.
It didn’t get very far — it tumbled in the dirt and gave a pained meow. Her two back legs were fused together. Claire had drawn them too close together.
"Sorry kitty, it was the bricks fault, it was too bumpy."
The cat shook her head and got to her feet. She waggled her butt and arched her back and then hopped. Her tail bounced above her back rigidly. She pounced and leaped and rubbed against Claire’s leg.
"I can’t kitty. I can’t take you home, my parents don’t like cats. You’re too broken to look after. I’m so sorry."
She picked up the box of chalk and ran. The kitten fell onto her side. She got up and hopped after Claire, but she couldn’t go fast enough to keep up with even Claire’s unfortunate gait. Claire ran for home, leaving the broken kitten behind. The kitten mewed at her, but with each step the mewing became quieter and more plaintive.
When the kitten was just a furry smudge in the distance she stopped and caught her breath.
"I can’t — I can’t just leave her. I made her, she’s my responsibility now."
Claire walked back and picked up the kitten, who licked her face with her sandpaper tongue. It weighed a lot more than it looked.
"Be quiet now. You can’t be found."
She stuffed the cat under her sweater. As usual her parents were not home, so she ran straight upstairs and closed her bedroom door behind her. She played with the kitten on her bed until they both fell asleep.
The next morning Claire made a warm nest for the kitten out of her sheets.
"Stay put, don’t make a noise. I have to go to school, but I will be back soon."
She tiptoed past her parents room. They were both snoring, so she went downstairs to the untidy kitchen, picked up a slice of bread for breakfast and went to school.
At lunch time they taunted her again. Shouting — Wonky, wonky, Claire is Wonky. She curled into a ball against the wall of the school as they stamped around her and shouted. All she could see through the gap in her arms were their angry knees. The dust and grit from their feet bounced up into her face. This time, though, she reached out and grabbed their ankles and dragged herself out through their legs.
She got up and ran. They followed and laughed. Wonky, wonky, wonky running. She ran past the school gates where they all stopped. They paused and looked at each other. She ran across the road and through the field and the trees to her house and into her room. She grabbed the box of chalk from under the bed and called for the kitty, but she was not there.
Outside on the huge chunk of granite that marked the edge of their garden, Claire drew. As high as she could reach, climbing up the rock to draw fingers. Merging brown and white and red chalk to make skin. Green shirt, blue pants, brown shoes. Bigger than she was — a real big brother. Then she stood back and then forwards again to draw white shoelaces and then her brother — her big brother — stepped out of the granite.
He said nothing, his huge jaw fell open, but no sounds came out. He was twisted and misshapen — even more so than Claire. She had rushed to draw him and she had little practice in drawing people. His left arm was too small and the shoulder it was attached to was a foot closer to the ground than the other. His right arm reached high over his head, way too long, like the neck of a giraffe and it was stuck in that position. His legs were short and bowed, but his torso was huge, like a boiler — looking ready to explode.
He sidled closer to her. She stood still. From her angle his long right arm looked like the crane of a wrecking ball. She looked up at it and gulped. He stepped closer again and raised his left arm, which he placed around her neck. The weight of his smaller arm almost buckled her knees, she couldn’t move.
His tongue rolled out, down his jaw, onto her shoulder and up against her face. It was wet and red and absurdly long. The boy made a noise that sounded like the gnashing of teeth. He had too way too many teeth and they were very close to Claire’s face.
"Claire? Did you say my name?"
His jaw clunked down on her shoulder and his tongue slithered back inside. She put her arms as far around his torso as she could.
"Clarence, I’ll call you Clarence."
He crushed her against his chest.
They went upstairs to her bedroom and played games as well as they could. He crumpled playing cards and dolls exploded from the pressure of his grip. Dress up went better, her dresses became fancy hats, her tiaras and crowns became bracelets. They served each other tea, Claire with a minuscule teacup and Clarence with a lump of wood. They were getting on grandly until Claire suggested they danced. His large feet stomped and his over-long upright arm crashed. He got too excited, she couldn’t get him to stop. The floorboards splintered and dust fell like snow from the plastered ceiling. There was nothing she could do but pray that he didn’t fall through the floor.
Then in a stroke of good fortune his pink party dress hat slid down over his eyes and he stopped. He stood quite still and his left arm fell to his side. Claire threw her bed sheet over his head, like she was doing the worst job of hiding him. He began to snore, sleeping perfectly upright. She got into bed, covered herself in dresses and cardigans and fell asleep too.
In the middle of the night she woke up. She rubbed her eyes. “Did you hear that, Clarence? Was that a scream?” But he wasn’t there. His looming shape was missing. There was a strange banging noise right below her — conk — conk — conk. She slowly lowered her head down the side of the bed. Underneath, mewing lightly, was the kitten.
"Was that you kitten? Was that you mewing? It sounded like a scream to me."
The kitten was busy chewing on something. Claire switched to the other side of the bed. There was that noise again — conk — conk — conk. She was eating a rat, or what was left of the rat. It was almost as big as the kitten. The banging noise was the sound of its bones hitting the floorboards, bones she was munching on.
"Um, kitten, that’s what dogs do, not cats."
The night was cold so she put on two cardigans before she left the room. There was no noise coming from her parent’s room, not even a snore. Perhaps they were still out. She heard the banging sound again, but this time further away, downstairs. Conk — conk — conk. She lit the lantern and walked towards the noise, into the kitchen. Clarence bending over licking the floor — licking up some kind of red liquid with his abnormally long tongue. It stretched like a great pink slug from his mouth to his knees.
"Clarence, I’m sorry, I should have gotten you something to eat, you must have been starving."
Clarence licked up the last of the liquid and grinned at her the best he could, his red lips gaping madly.
"Did you spill something? Was it beet juice? That’s my favourite too."
He pushed the table several feet as he straightened out.
"We can’t stay down here, what will my parents say? Let’s get you back upstairs."
He nodded and held out his smaller left hand. She grabbed it in her own.
"Sticky, what else have you been eating? Is that a bone of the floor? Did you eat the roast? What am I going to do with you?"
Clarence burped, his jaw flopped down and vibrated. She led him carefully back upstairs and when they were safely back in her room she threw her sheet over his head and in seconds he was fast asleep again.
In the morning the kitten was fast asleep under the bed with no sign of the rat she had eaten. Clarence was still standing as still as a boulder in the middle of the room. After she got dressed she lifted the sheet from his face.
"I have to go to school. You have to stay here and be quiet. Please be quiet."
Clarence rolled out his long tongue over her head and down her back.
"I won’t be long. Don’t make a sound, my parents must be sleeping."
She threw the sheet back over his head and did her best to get his tongue back into his mouth. There was still no sound from her parents room as she tiptoed past. Downstairs, in the kitchen, she turned a dry slice of bread into breakfast.
School was miserable again. She was punished for leaving early the day before. Her teacher bruised her palm with the side of a ruler, not once, or twice, but seven times. The children called her Runaway Wonky. They copied her crooked running gait. Even the small kids were doing it. They were all running around like her. They could run however they liked, she was the one stuck running that way. It wasn’t fair. They crowed around her and scuffed her shoes and kicked her socks and pulled at her dress. They all wanted to see how bent her spine was. They shouted Wonky Freak, Wonky Freak. Nobody was helping her. She cried and held her dress tightly around her legs.
There was a crash and someone screamed. They all looked around. There was something through the crowd of children — a huge hole in the fence and roaring — like a lion or a hippo. The air filled with shrieks as children scattered. It was Clarence — her big brother — just like she had always wished for, he had come to save her from the other children.
He ran sideways with his long right arm bent over his head far in front of him — like an enraged elephant — his trunk like arm swatting children left and right as he passed. They flew away from him and did not get up again. They were as crushed and broken as Claire herself. Her teacher tried to tackle him to the ground, but Clarence didn’t even slow down. He grabbed his head with his smaller left hand and rammed it into the hard ground. His neck was bent sideways at what the teacher would have previously called an obtuse angle.
Clarence stopped, raised him up to his mouth and fed him in, like he was feeding logs into a furnace. He chomped down his head and neck and shoulders. Blood spurted onto the dry playground dirt. The teacher’s feet smacked against the ground with every bite — conk — conk — conk. In no time he was gone: legs, feet and shoes.
Everyone else was gone too. Children ran home to their mothers and the teachers too. Clarence held out his hand to her again, she ran over hand grabbed it.
"It’s sticky again. What will I do with you?"
They ran back home. She held the kitten tightly to her chest, hid under the bed and waited. Waited for the people to come with torches and axes. Waited for her parents scold her for what she had done, but no one ever came, definitely not her parents.
"No one is coming. My parents are dead."
She crawled out and went downstairs to get the kitchen knife.
Upstairs Claire removed the sheet from Clarence’s head and placed the point of the knife against where she thought his neck was.
"You ate my parents like you ate my teacher."
Clarence said nothing.
"I can’t let you live. I can’t handle you."
He looked down at her with his large brown eyes.
"I made you and I’m sorry."
Claire pressed her hand against his chest which went up and down as he breathed.
"I can’t, you’re alive now. I can’t."
She dropped the knife and shook her head.
"From now on it’s just you and me and the kitten."
And there they stayed, eating food that Claire drew for them and the occasional passerby who walked too close to the house.