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What Is It For?

by Rebecca L. Brown

“I don’t want to talk to you! Please; why won’t you just leave me alone?” She shook her head, trying to dislodge the thoughts which sliced through her head, sharp little moments of questioning which punctuated her own thoughts.

What are you doing?


What is it for?

“Leave me alone!” She screamed, their questions withdrawing from her as she scrabbled across the dust and ash on her hands and knees. She didn’t know which way they came from. She didn’t even know which way was home any more. She pressed her hands over her face, squeezing her eyes shut. The dust on her palms mixed with her tears to make a paste, smearing across her face.

When she first arrived, this had been a beautiful place. She remembered the dark green canopy of trees, glowing in dappled patches where the sunlight broke through. Their house had been in a clearing, just enough room for the buildings and a small meadow. The trees had pressed in around them, companionably close. She remembered there had been a stream full of quick little fish; she used to cup her hands under the mud, wait for a while and then lift them up suddenly, feeling their fishy bellies wriggling over her fingers as they hurried away.

Why did you do that?

“I don’t know! I don’t know why!” Her shoulders shook from sobbing. Her throat ached.

She had come here with Maxwell, just the two of them. She could barely remember a time before it was just the two of them; her, the older sister, nurturing the younger brother. Him, the man of the household providing sustenance for them both (she remembered laughing when he called himself that; the man of the household. Half a man maybe, she had teased him, pinching his skinny sides). Things had been tight once in a while, but they had always managed to make ends meet somehow. She had earned a few pennies here and there, just mending clothes and cleaning houses. He had always been good at setting traps so there was always meat on the table and usually a few coins hidden under her mattress. He used to set them a good half day’s walk from the house…

Why did he do that?

She opened her mouth in a silent scream, the corners of her mouth stretching as her jaw cracked. Her fingers dug down into the sterile soil, nothing solid meeting their tips. The ash simply parted to let them through, slipping out of their way.

The first time she had heard them, she had been confused but not afraid. The world could be full of people hearing strange mind-voices and she would never have known; it had never occurred to her to ask anyone about it before. She vaguely remembered her parents telling fairy stories, though. Stories where anything could be waiting just out of view and reach. They had never told her those stories weren’t true, she had only assumed that they weren’t.

For her entire life, she had lived in the corners and the edges of civilisation, on the divide between the wild places and the tame ones, the known and the unknown. These are the kind of places where anything could be true, she told herself. If anyone was going to hear them, it would probably be someone like her.

Back then, that first time she had heard them, she had been kneeling in the long grass behind the barn. There had been a gentle breeze, just enough to stir the grass into one long, curling whisper. She breathed in the fresh damp scent, then exhaled slowly. On these warm, Summery afternoons, she often came to sit here for a little while, enjoying the vivid colours of the flowers, the trees and the grass itself. There was something very beautiful about these stolen moments of peace. Something blissfully wonderful.

Maxwell would probably be out setting traps or hanging up meat to cure. He always seemed to be working on some project or another recently, his keen mind flitting from moment to moment like a cricket. Sometimes he joined her, although he could never sit still for very long. He would rock on his gangly legs, twisting the long grass around his hands and whistling tunelessly to himself until something caught his eye. Then he would go charging after whatever poor bird or creature he had spotted, his frizzy cloud of long blonde hair streaming untidily behind him. In Summer, his freckles always made him look younger than he was; people usually assumed he was fourteen or fifteen, tall for his age but with all the skinniness of teenage boys. He didn’t seem to mind. If anything, he enjoyed fooling people. Ever the trickster, she had thought to herself, even now he had grown up; in years at least.

She tilted her chin towards the sky a little more, enjoying the soft tickle of the breeze across her face, the worries of her day-to-day life forgotten for a little while; moments like this made everything worthwhile.

A pale green bug had landed on her bare leg whilst she was daydreaming and she had herded it absent-mindedly with one hand, watching it scuttle back and forth between the grooves of her fingers.

What are you doing?

She had looked around, half expecting to see Maxwell peering out from the taller grass near the trees; he loved to scare her, jumping out when she least expected it, a lop-sided grin spreading across his face. Usually, she spotted him before he jumped out and pretended to be shocked (she wouldn’t want to disappoint him but he wasn‘t very good at hiding).She couldn’t see him though and the voice didn’t sound like his. In fact, it didn’t sound like anyone’s voice at all, more like the way she sounded in her own head only echoing as if from several places all at once.

What are you doing?

There it was again, voices like her own thoughts, only subtly different, rattling around in the back of her mind. It was a little quieter this time, a little weaker, as if the effort of speaking had been almost too much. She looked around again, frowning.

“Where are you?” She whispered.

What are you doing?

It seemed she wouldn’t get an answer until she gave one herself. Perhaps that was fair, after all she had been asked first.

“I’m playing with a bug, that’s all.” She said. This time she spoke softly, patiently, as if speaking to a child. There had been something intangibly child-like about the voices, as if they were new to speaking aloud.

What is it for?

She frowned. “Nothing; it’s just a bug, that’s all.” She felt rather than heard it this time, a sensation like being pressed in the back of her mind. Strangely annoyed, she brushed the bug (with a little more force than was strictly necessary) from her leg into the grasses.


Then they were gone. For a moment, there was a sense of emptiness, a tiny space within her mind which had been abandoned, then her thoughts rushed in to fill it. Oh well, she thought, there’s more important things to worry about then strange voices asking questions. She pushed herself to her feet, brushed the soil and sharp little rocks from her legs with both hands and headed back towards the house.


It was a few weeks before she realised she hadn’t seen any bugs for a while. Nothing insect-y at all, for that matter. Not even those little black ones which always clustered around the trees and buildings when there was going to be a storm. Maxwell said it was because she wasn’t looking properly; there were always bugs. Anyway, why was she complaining? They were nasty little things! Good riddance to them!

Maxwell didn’t like bugs or crawly things of any kind, not since she had gotten her own back on him a few years ago. He’d been worse back then, a real nightmare of a little brother. Although you wouldn‘t know it to look at him, people always said; back then, he had one of those angelic little faces and of course he used it to his advantage.

He was always plotting something back then, usually at her expense; she would come home, see that familiar twinkle in his eye as he stood outside their house and go rushing into the house. He would follow her, giggling in anticipation. One time, back when they used to keep animals, he’d let two of the goats into the kitchen and shut the door. By the time she’d found them, they’d munched their way through pretty much everything they could find. They flew past her into the yard, big, bleating clouds of floury mess, rushing to find more mischief to get into. Another time, he switched the sugar and the salt around and stood watching gleefully as their guests pulled faces over the salty little cakes she’d baked. They had been too polite to say anything; she had only realised once they’d left when she tasted a leftover cake herself.

Anyway, that one time she decided she had had enough. She didn’t remember now what he’d done in particular to deserve it. Probably nothing special; it was more the accumulation of things that any one incident, she thought. It was bad enough she had to look after him, she had muttered to herself, he could at least learn to be decent. Marching out into the yard, she had gathered up all of the little bugs she could find into a jar, watching as they squirmed against the glass sides. Then, she had gone to his bedroom, opened the jar and tipped them all into his bed. Pouring herself a glass of water, she had settled down in front of the fire and waited for him to go to bed.

The screams had been unbelievable. He’d had nightmares for weeks! It was almost worth putting up with all the ways he took his revenge (although she did feel a little guilty, she admitted to herself afterwards).

She missed the bugs though. She loved watching them scurry about, rushing to finish off whatever business they had in mind. She tried to remember the last time she had seen one but she couldn’t. It played on her mind like a little grain of sand rubbing inside her thoughts. If only she could remember, she knew she would know where they had gone.


The next time she heard them, she wasn’t so surprised. In fact she was almost expecting them, although she wasn’t sure why. This time she was carrying two of the buckets out to the stream which ran underneath the trees, collecting water to clean up the house. Maxwell had been busy again, wading through the house with mud-caked boots then scuttling off to one of his hiding places. He wouldn’t be back until she had finished cleaning it up. At least, not unless she waited until after dinnertime to do it.

What are you doing?

“I’m fetching water from that stream; are you going to come out and give me a hand?” She asked. She wasn’t expecting them to answer her but you never get if you don’t ask. Unexpected help would have been a bonus and she could have scrubbed up the floors in half the time.

What is it for?

“What is what for?”

What is it for?

She glanced around, trying to see what they might mean.

“The stream?”


She thought about it for a moment; she had been about to say that it was for fetching water from, but if she was honest that wasn’t true. After all, the stream would be there even if she didn’t need the water, wouldn’t it? Even if there were no animals to drink there, the stream wouldn’t just go away.

Finally, she thought she had an answer.

“It takes water to the sea.” She told them. There was a pause, a sense that they were contemplating her answer. Whilst she waited, she filled both buckets and settled them over her shoulders, testing their balance so that she wouldn’t tip out the water. She was half way back to the house before they asked their next question:


The buckets rubbed against the moist skin of back as she walked, chafing the skin against the fabric of her shirt. Impatient now, partly from the Summer heat and partly by their demands for attention, she snapped at them “I don’t know! Are you going to help or not?”


She felt the pressure lift, a cooling sensation flowing through her mind as she carried the buckets back to the house. The space they left this time felt a little larger, a little deeper. She exhaled, only then realising she had been holding her breath since she last spoke.

In the morning, the stream was gone.

It hadn’t dried up as such, although the soil still bore the grooves and marks the water had left. Maxwell said it had (in that gruff authoritative voice he liked to try to use sometimes) but somehow she knew that he wasn’t right. Or, at least, not wholly right. If it had dried up, there would be some moisture at least, some trace of what had been there the day before. At the very least, the earth would be muddy where the water had soaked into it. She ran her fingers over it the soil, feeling for herself that it was bone dry, as if the water had never been there.

Maxwell had told her not to worry, that there would still be plenty of water. He had dragged a second barrel outside to collect rainwater, busied himself checking it was still watertight and making a shield to keep out leaves and the bugs. Somehow, she knew that there would be no bugs to fall into it.

Something inside her tightened. Now she was afraid, although she didn‘t know why.


This time, they waited only a few days before they spoke into her. It seemed that each time they came they did so a little sooner, a little stronger. Their voices had begun to become more distinct from each other, taking on timbres other than that of her own mind-voice. She could distinguish at least five of them now; at least two of them were male, two women. The fifth seemed to lie in the range between the two, unable to make up its mind one way or the other.

She had been in the house that third time, cleaning up after another of Maxwell’s pranks. He had filled a little paper twist with flour, balancing it carefully over the kitchen door. There had only been a little flour in it, but when it had fallen onto her when she walked in, she too had fallen, knocking a tray of freshly-made jams off of the kitchen side with one outstretched arm as she tried to stay upright. Jam still dripping from above, she slithered in the sticky mush, struggling to get to her feet.

What are you doing?

“What does it look like! Uch!” Distracted, she slipped forward, sprawling face first into the mixture as another blob of jam hit the floor with a heavy splat.

What are you doing?

“I’m trying to stand up!” She shouted impatiently. She gripped the handle of one of the cupboards, pulling herself to her feet in a series of clumsy, slippery movements. Her hand stuck to the handle, squelching as she pulled it away.

Why are you doing that?

“Can’t you see? Because there’s jam and flour everywhere!” She brushed a sticky hand over her scalp and cursed vividly as more floury jam smeared across her hair, gluing her fingers in place.

Why is it there?

“Maxwell put it there! When I catch him, I’m going to…”

What is he for?

Despite the strangeness of the question she didn’t pause, too upset to take the time to consider it, “He’s for causing problems, that’s what he’s for! Maxwell, when I find you there’s going to be trouble! You’ll wish you’d never been born; euch! There’s jam and flour everywhere! And this voices trick of yours isn’t funny anymore!”


She rubbed her hands down over her face in frustration, growling as the mess pasted over her forehead and cheeks.


By the time it started to get dark, she was more worried than annoyed. The mess was long since cleared up and no real harm had been done after all. He must think I’m really angry, she thought, missing his dinner and his supper like this. She couldn’t remember the last time he had skipped more than one meal in a row; he had always been the hungriest person she knew. She chuckled quietly to herself, a subdued smile flitting across her lips, as she remembered him stuffing the little bread loaves she baked into his mouth whole.

He was probably in one of his hiding places, she reassured herself. He’d come back when he was ready.

Only he didn’t. He didn’t come to breakfast and his bed hadn’t been slept in; she would have known if it had been, he was incapable of making it for himself. As the hours passed, images of him hurt or lost flashed through her mind. What if he’d fled from the house, from her shouting, and fallen? He could be out there too weak to call out for help. Packing the breakfast food into a sack, she hurried out to look for him. He would be hungry, she knew he would; they could eat together when she found him.

It was around noon when the voices came again.

What are you doing?

“What have you done to him?” She asked, turning to try and catch a glimpse of a figure hiding amongst the trees.

What are you doing?

“Answer me!” The pressure lifted all at once, the voices slipping away from her as if afraid. She screwed her eyes shut and waited, not knowing what to do next.

A few hours later they tried again, their prying touch within her mind gentler this time as if more tentative, even a little afraid perhaps.

What are you doing?

“I’m looking for my brother.” The words were emotionless, as hollow as she felt.

Why are you looking?

“I just want him back!” She had tried to stay calm, but the words turned into a wail. Tears sprang into her eyes and she slumped to her knees on a carpet of leaf mould.

What are you doing?

They asked her again. She stared into the distance, no longer caring whether they stayed or left. Maxwell was gone.


They came more often then, as if her emptiness had opened the gates to them. They asked her so many different questions, but whatever they asked, her answers never changed:

“Nothing.” She told them. “It is all nothing. Nothing matters anymore.”

How could she have known she would miss his pranks almost as much as she missed him? Without him, her life was leeched of colour; she slept when she was tired and ate when she was hungry. Nothing else. Through two cycles of the moon she sat in the long grass and waited for him to come home to her, even though she knew he never would.


More a breath than a word; each time they learned a little more, moved towards an understanding of the emptiness of the world, it echoed in her mind.

Around her, unnoticed, her world began to fade away. One breath at a time.


Their questions buzzed in her ears constantly now, questioning every sound, every movement. They wanted to know, wanted to understand. Eventually, when she stopped answering them, they took their answers straight from her thoughts. She felt them pressing around her, their desperation to comprehend, to know.

The previous day (in as much as there had been a previous day or would be a following one), she woke to find herself on a bed of ashy greyness. For the first time since she had lost her brother, she truly opened her eyes. Ashy grey dust covered everything, a dimly-lit, uniform landscape stretching as far as she could see. There was no sun, no moon or stars. The sky was a uniform paleness; it could have been dawn or dusk, there was no way to know. She ran her fingers through the ash, leaving deep grooves, then lifted a handful and let it float almost weightlessly back to the ground.

What are you doing?

She didn’t know what to tell them; what had she done?


They were quieter now, as if out of respect, more gentle. They sensed her fears and frustrations as readily as any other part of her, learning from her about emptiness and suffering; that was all they had left her to teach to them.

What are you doing?

“I…I don’t know… Where am I?” She asked them. The words sounded rough and hoarse, grating from her damaged throat. Somehow, though, she knew that she was where she had always been. They had taken everything from her but she no longer felt anger towards them; it faded out from her like a lost moment. In a way they were like children, groping within her mind to learn the secrets of the world around them. How could they know when she had never shown to them?

What are you doing?

Eventually, she answered them again: “I’m sitting. I suppose I’m waiting.”

What are you for?

“I think I am here to remember; to remember everything that used to be here. Yes, I am here to remember.” She told them, closing her eyes to focus inwards on her mind, her memories. Nothing had been destroyed, she told herself, only taken away. All of it had left marks inside her, grooves in her memory like the runnels where the stream had been. Yes, everything was still here, still here inside here. She could re-create it all in a moment, in a flash of thought.


“Because that is the right thing to do.” She told them. She felt them reaching back into her mind, searching for the thoughts which would help them to understand her purpose, her definition. She felt them withdraw, pushing away from her. She heard them respond as if from a distant place:




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