Johnny Maunder Came to the Well
Christmas morning. The path down from the Tor was deceptive and hoary. Johnny Maunder planted his bare feet irregularly, scaling down, his head blurry with the night’s terror, the human filth, and a blizzarding hangover from the mushroom tea. The stench coming from the pelts strapped to his legs was rank. He rubbed at his eyes, fearing the globs of blood that had sprayed into them would creep out and make their home forever beneath his nails.
On the opposite path, Brother Thomas tripped along, both careful and hurried, chewing away at his thoughts. Why was it always he would be made to fetch the water on the coldest of mornings, nose burning from the frost and his little eelskin shrivelled up between his legs? And for what? The only difference between this water and the water at the Abbey was that this water was a lot further away. A spring from the Lord’s tears, right here in swampy old Glastonbury? My rump, he thought. The whole town knew the well had been called the White Spring for as long as anyone could remember, and no-one had ever connected it with these silly myths. That was until, by complete coincidence, the coffers of the Abbey had started to run dry, and the stories had started to abound, drawing credulous pilgrims to the town, spilling gold from their purses as they trudged between the sacred sites.
At least on Christmas morning the usual band of maniacs that crowded the spring were all safely shut indoors feasting. Brother Thomas had been up since the mercifully late dawn, his head resonating with the mead that the Abbot had allowed them after communion to mark the end of the advent fast. Thank God for a quiet morning. Thank God for a mild frost. He was cheering himself up, almost ready to begin humming a little ditty.
But now he could see Johnny coming towards the well. To Brother Thomas, Johnny seemed a huge creature, with wide, furry haunches, his top fresh to the morning breeze and very like a man’s lean torso, albeit seamed with grime. Brother Thomas hung back to allow this man-beast to approach the spring before him.
Johnny Maunder didn’t even take account of the little monk. They were everywhere, like little pigs, like little woodlice, swarming the town, only locking themselves up at night for the necessity of population control. Johnny’s face was obscured by the grimness of the night. And the sleeplessness that had come from the moment a few days ago when Old Jack had told him that he must be the one to find the girl. Thank God he hadn’t been the one chosen to put the knife in. It was all he had been able to do to hold the poor thing’s wrist. He knew as he approached the well that the filth of the festival could never be washed from him. The ritual was clotted in his mind – Modranicht, the Mother’s Night? How could it be when it meant that they must take a womb from the earth? And for what? Some fairy prince. Gwynn ap Nudd, Gwynn ap Nudd they would chant on the Tor, summoning the ruler of the fair folk. It was for him that they tuned their whistles and sharpened their knives. Gwynn ap Nudd. The name would ring around his own mother’s teeth as she grinned and danced about their tiny scullery.
‘He will free us my little Johnny,’ she would trill. ‘On the night he comes from the Tor and snatches us up and we will dance the long night with the fair folk. None of this fuckery for us in that time my little one. None for us!’
She would boast that Gwynn was Johnny’s father. But in the town they told that Johnny was merely another of the old Abbott’s bastards.
He knelt. Even if the water touching him would scar him, turning him into one of those foul faces that haunted the Abbey gates, he would accept it. And even if his flesh burned, it was worth it to rout the leeches sucking on his soul and expel them forever. He glanced up at the tiles behind the spring, set together to show the Grail. For those tears to touch him, to mix with the salt from the girl’s eyes that had covered him as she had howled and sobbed before Old Jack had made the cut. It wouldn’t be nothing – it couldn’t be nothing to bathe in those tears.
Brother Thomas waited by the well, tapping his foot lightly, watching what he could see now was certainly a man. What was he doing? There were letters painted onto his back, the same dark symbols that the monks were forever being sent to wash from the Abbey Walls. And what were they drawn in? Blood? These pagans, always massing whenever the Bishop came to visit the Abbey, occasioning tuts as he had to picked his way through the accumulation of chanting hysterics between the gates and the grounds. They never looked very happy, always rather serious in Brother Thomas’ opinion. He was surprised that their fantastical faith didn’t cheer them. Imagining the Tor filled with a swirling, sparkling faery kingdom should surely occasion more delight than picturing it full of the Lords tears? This one was taking ages. Just kneeling there. Brother Thomas was going to miss morning prayer at this rate.
Johnny touched his finger hesitantly to the waters in the well. That first drop alone swept out poison from his clogged veins. He pushed his whole hand underneath the waters, into the cool balm of deliverance. Reaching by his side for his hollow wood flask, he thrust it into the well, and then slowly stood. Stretching himself out, he tipped the waters from the flask over his head. He wept, and now his own tears, and the Lord’s, and the girl’s all combined. Johnny heard a promise whispering through the well: that forgiveness was hard to find when you had played a part in such an act, but that now he was cleansed, the Lord’s power would keep him from any more festivities, any more revels.
He stepped away from the well sodden with hope.
Brother Thomas waited for Johnny to be enough of a distance away to not have to smell him when he approached the well. He took a deep sigh as he dipped his canteen, hoping none of the painted blood from the man’s back had mixed in with the waters. He shrugged as he pulled the full vessel from the pool and corking it, bound it to his waist, before pushing another in. Sighing as he tied the second vessel to him, he began to trudge along the path, remembering the strain it always put on his old hips to haul this phoney juice all the way back to the Abbey.