The Crawl

Photo Credit: Harry Swarth

The Crawl

🕔Feb 17, 2018

The Crawl story by Patrick Williston


Through narrowed eyes, face to wind, she stared at the sea and into unknowing. Rain needled her face. This was the first moment in a long time she had considered the future in terms of days rather than minutes or hours, and this on its own was promising. On this tiny vessel she would be guided to a new beginning by her sister, whose confidence she could not understand and did not share.

She scowled at the rain and wrapped a damp wool blanket tightly around herself as small waves slopped against the sailboat gliding slowly, purposefully toward a place on the horizon where the cloud was split by a canyon of sunlight. She did not feel well; her sea legs had been lost years ago. Or was it something else?

Her sister, dressed in heavy raingear, sat wedged in the stern with the tiller under her arm. She was smiling to herself, a habit she had developed for when the going was rough and she felt assured it would soon get better. She knew how to read the weather and anticipated the warmth of late afternoon sun. She could feel insincerity in the rain. Of course, she could be wrong—it had happened often enough. As for where exactly they were going, she was not concerned. Years of roaming around these parts had provided her with the tools to make the best of nearly every situation, even with another person aboard—which did not necessarily make things easier.

“Want to know how I found you?” asked the sister at the helm.

The sister in the bow woke from her thoughts. “Yes. How?”

“Message came on the wireless.”

“You have a cell network?” It seemed impossible.

“No, no. ’Course not. Shortwave. I know a techno out here with a radio. He told me someone named Mole sent an encrypted message. Took him a whole day to figure it out. Said you would be waiting by the narrows beyond the iron cranes. Those cranes were stripped and scavenged years ago, but how would you know? I got the message nearly a month ago and sailed by quite a few times before you showed up. Thought I might have missed you.”

“Oh,” she said quietly and examined the white painted circles on her fingertips. Her other hand slipped to her pocket where she felt for the broken plant stem. She twirled its square edges back and forth and looked back at the sea. The future won’t be easy, she thought,  but it has possibility.


“Mole!” Drenched in sweat and misery, he stomped his boot on the floor. “Get up here you useless parasite!” He stomped again. It shook the windows and caused a cup to jump from the table, its contents spilling across the floor. “Somebody get that useless sweeper up here,” he growled and waved a revolver haphazardly around the room, causing everyone to stir. Bullet holes in the ceiling gave the gesture authenticity. Only last year one of his stray bullets had taken his eldest daughter, an accident that had rendered immutable his self-loathing. Dank air swirled, a grotesque mist of stale sweat, bush beer, and filth.

A man raised himself unsteadily from the carcass of a couch and lurched toward the door, his hand wrapped in a blood-caked cloth. The screen slammed behind him as he stumbled into the sunlight and down the stairs to the small, wooden door set in the foundation of the house. He knocked on the door of the crawl. A youth appeared, squatted on his haunches.

“Yes?” said the youth.

“He wants you,” replied the bleeding man, and turned and lumbered toward the nearby forest.

The youth ducked back inside the crawl and reappeared with a pail, some rags and a coarse brush. He set the pail down, squinted at the sun, then turned to the towering mountain beyond the trees—Stekyoden, the mountain that stands alone—black and brooding, and magnificent.

He brushed the brown hair from his eyes. Above his lip he wore a trimmed moustache—an effort to obscure the appearance of his relatively few years, though it did the opposite and made him seem even younger. Taking the pail, he straightened and limped up the stairs, knocking quietly on the screen.

“In!” yelled the stomper. “Get in here and clean this disgusting cesspit.”

“Yes,” Mole replied, and he went to work, starting with the bathroom, which he knew would be the worst. It was.


“You think I’ve got it made, don’t you?”

Mole knew this to be a rhetorical question and did not answer. He was used to rambling soliloquies from his houselord, though rarely were they delivered this sober.

“Truth is, we’re all just a little bit broken. Some more than others, of course. It may not look like it, but I’ve got my problems. Lots of people around here want to get rid of me. And who am I suppose to complain to? I’m complaining to you, Mole. You should take this as a compliment. But unlike you, I’ve sowed seeds. Lots of them. When I’m gone, you’ll still find my shadows everywhere. You’re never going to have that, Mole, you poor, miserable sweeper.

“You think your mama was the only one who wanted to rebuild the hanging bridge and unite the villages? Don’t look so surprised.” He looked carefully at the sweeper. “And you are going to help me, Mole. You’re going to make me that bridge.”

The houselord nodded, cradling his temple in an outspread hand. Temporarily lost in thought, he swept crusted rheum from the corner of his eye. “It’s not time for that right now,” he said quietly to himself. “We have certain challenges ahead of us.”

Mole listened intently, leaning on his good leg and giving his wounded foot a rest. This was the first he had heard about the houselord’s ambitions.  Mole had never heard him speak about rebuilding the bridge—that kind of plan was uncharacteristically farsighted.  What would be the implications? And what were the challenges that were coming?

“Go, get your accordion. I’m feeling sad right now,” the houselord said after a thoughtful pause.  “Go get your accordion and play us something.”

Mole wrung his rag into the pail. The place still stank. It was not possible to remove with a damp rag the stench of years of desecration, not from punky particleboard and sodden gyproc, but at least now it was possible to recognize the wood pattern in the laminate floor. He took his cleaning things with him outside, dumped the pail at the forest edge, and went to the crawl to get his accordion. On his way back out, he grabbed a handful of mint leaves and stuffed them in his shirt pocket—something to mask the stench of the main floor.

From his mother, before she was killed, Mole had learned the art of pottery. She also taught him reading and mathematics, rudimentary dentistry and enough techno to be considered both dangerous and useful. About his knowledge of techno, he told no one. There is no question that the other gifts had kept him alive. The accordion he had learned on his own, and it is likely that this had kept a bullet from his hand, and from his head. When a paranoid houselord with a penchant for guns learns to appreciate the aspirated lament of an accordion, he shoots the foot.

A stool had been set in front of the kitchen counter and Mole made his way through the gathered mob, children and adults in varying disrepair. He sat down and closed his eyes, hoping for his nervousness to dissipate. The crowd took this as a sign to hush and the room grew quiet.

He played the traditional tunes of the region, old songs about cars and towns, things that hadn’t existed for decades. The songs had outlived their subjects, becoming as much a part of the land as the black mountain and dark forest. At times, people furtively sang along. Other tunes, he played alone.

His last was a song he rarely played, Mari’s Dirge, a tune Mole had written for his mother after she had died. It started soft and low, the notes telling of the famine years and early re-establishment of the village.  It soared as it celebrated his mother’s exploits as clan leader and her taming of the houselords long ago.  Mole looked confidently over the audience. He was temporarily in control but he knew he was pushing his luck—the houselord could end the tune, or his life for that matter, at any moment.

He noticed someone watching him from the doorway—a woman, maybe 10 or so years older than him. She was not from the village; she belonged to the coastal clans. Strong and sinewy, distilled by hunger and hardship, her dark hair was woven in a way that told of another place. She had been brought to the village a few years ago. Mole had never spoken a word to her; it was forbidden of sweepers or anyone living in a crawl. She watched him with eyes the colour of split cedar. She was clearly indifferent that her unguarded attention might cost their lives.

The music spun toward hopelessness, a crushing phrase repeated over and over, first loud and then soft. Here were the years of grieving Mole endured. This went on for a long time, and several in the audience shed tears. Finally the song ended with a long, slow hiss, as the accordion bellows were brought to a lasting close. Mole sat for a moment examining the exfoliated flooring. He waited—perhaps for a bullet. The houselord sat back in the big chair, hands folded behind his head, and stared wistfully at a constellation of ceiling mold in rare contentment.

Mole got up off the stool, the accordion still strapped to his chest, and stepped lightly toward the door. The crowd gently parted. At the door, he felt the brush of skin on his forearm—how rare the touch of another’s skin! With a darting glance he saw the coastal woman look away, her lips drawing a scarcely perceptible breath. Mole crossed the threshold, hurried down the stairs into the darkness and dove into the safety of the crawl, his mind whirling.

Later, he lay awake staring at the plastic sheeting and floor joists just above his head—only these separated him from the woman upstairs.


Mole kept out of sight for several days. He busied himself in the crawl, organizing and reorganizing his few belongings: a small number of books, his tools for pottery and dentistry, the accordion, bundles of mint and other dried herbs, and his small assemblage of rudimentary techno that he kept well hidden in a hollow dug into the dirt floor. There were three solar cells, an assortment of batteries, a finicky wireless, headphones, coils of wire and coaxial cable, a dynamo, a string of LEDs, and a container of salvaged odds and ends. His was not a proper techno lab, but it was more than anyone else had in the village, at least as far as he knew.

He swept the dirt floor, and in an unexplainable outburst of domesticity, painted white the plastic sheeting that covered the joists and insulation. For paint he mixed egg whites and water with minerals he normally saved for pottery. It had an immediate effect on the crawl, making it appear clean and bright—a remarkable transformation for a soil hovel completely lacking windows.

That night he stayed up late listening to the wireless. Skirmishes were being reported inland—it was possible that they would soon reach the village. He could faintly smell the smoke of distant fires. This was the challenge that the houselord had mentioned—a raid. In the smallest hours of night he heard a rustling at the door and he hurried to conceal his techno. Then he crept to door of the crawl with an oil lamp. It was the woman from the doorway.

“Come in, quickly,” he beckoned, and she ducked into the crawl. He gently closed the door behind.

Trembling, he studied her face in the dim light of the lamp. Her steady eyes looked straight into his. The encounter was unthinkable, and yet she was all he had thought about for days. She reached out and took his hands and brought him toward her.


As they lay nested in the crawl, she looked around the tidy space with appreciation. It smelled of mint. Her hand strayed to the ceiling to touch the shiny white plastic. Her curiosity was recorded in delicate fingerprints—the paint had not yet dried. She whispered, “I must go.”

“Yes,” replied Mole. “But where? You can’t stay in the village. You should go soon—they won’t hunt for you while there’s risk of a raid.”

“I’ll head for the coast,” she said. “Tonight. I know it’s far and it’s been a long time since I was last there, but I still remember the way. My clan is there. At this time of year my family fished for crabs at the narrows by the iron cranes. I’ll go there. When I was taken in the raids, my mother and sister had been at sea. Maybe they’re still alive. If they are, they’ll find me.” She paused and looked down for a moment. “But what about you? When they see that I’m gone, will he come for you?”

“He might, but I don’t think so. He could have gotten rid of me a long time ago. He has something else in mind.”

“Come with me.”

“I can’t. My foot—it’s impossible. There’s no way I can cover ground like you can. I can’t even make it across the river.“

“I can help you. Please come,” she pleaded.

All that he wanted was to follow this woman wherever she was going, and yet he invented a reason to stay. “This village, these people—these are my people,” he said. “We’re waiting for the time to call my mother’s clan. It could be soon. Change is coming. I can’t leave.”

“Of course,” she said, drawing a breath. “You’re needed here.” She placed her hands on his face and kissed him, marking his memory with a deep and lasting wound. Tears moistened their lips.  Then she pushed him away and crept from the crawl, pausing at the door to take a handful of mint that she placed in her pocket.