Harold never liked his name.
Ever since he could remember, he was trying to convince people to call him “Harry” rather. Or “H” even.
Anything but Harold.
And some would listen, and it’d be good. For a while at least. Because then some stupid teacher would go and use his full name when checking class attendance or when scolding him, and all the kids would go back to teasing him. The nickname they gave him, they thought it was like the biggest joke ever: Harold the Barrel.
One of the mean girls had even turned it into a sing-song to keep time as she jumped rope. “Ha-rold the Ba-rrel!” she’d chant, ponytails leaping, “Wi-shes he was Ca-rol!” He’d hear that echoing from the playground as he walked home after school, making him tighten his grip on the small fishing-net he kept close on hand.
It had a wire handle coated in green plastic, that led up to fine white netting, by now mottled and brown. It was his reminder of the one thing he looked forward to each week: going to catch frogs. Big and small, he’d find the little buggers. Some he’d let go free, to warn the others he liked to think, because the ones he didn’t free, they were less lucky. It all depended on how he’d been treated that week. He liked to leave it up to luck to decide the fate of his catch that week. But the fattest, bug-eyed frogs he caught never did fare too well with him most weeks.
Harry took his usual path home through the nearby woods, hoping to have an even better catch after the rains earlier that day. He was so preoccupied by the satisfaction from watching his school-shoes as they squished in the mud that he walked headlong into a hard fleshy mass. He looked up in shock and his smile dropped abruptly.
“Well what have we here?!” the overwhelming shadow standing before him spat.
It was Marc. The strongest boy in class grinning at him. He already been held back like two years or something and had no talent other than terrorising those younger and smaller than him. Harry’s eyes widened, his skin grew clammy as he realised how vulnerable he was out there in the open, ready to be picked apart like some cornered creature.
“You lost, Barrel?”
Harry backed away trying not to make his retreat as obvious as his mind was urging him to.
“Come to think of it, it’s been a while since we had you roll, Barrel,” Marc made a circular motion with his finger as he started towards Harry.
Harry’s survival mode kicked in and he bolted towards a thicket on his left, ignoring common sense and well-trodden pathways altogether.
“Yeah you better run bitch!”
Moments later Harry’s burning lungs forced him to duck into a woody undergrowth. He held tightly to the fishing net, shielding it from becoming twisted as he dug in.
When finally he came to rest in the damp expanse, he battled his wheezing chest desperately trying to hold his breath as tightly as he could, pricking his ears to any noises around him that may betray his hunter’s approach.
After a few minutes that felt more like hours, he allowed himself to gasp in the cool air deeply. Regaining his senses, he began to take in his surroundings. He’d happened upon a sunken area of the woods, a place he’d never been before. It looked like a small abandoned garden for a house that no longer stood. It was easy to miss, covered as it was in moss and overgrown creepers. Down the short flight of stairs, past the dank cobble stones was the brown stone fountain.
Harry hobbled towards it, his small round glasses fogging up from his heavy breathing that was soured by the condensed milk he had gulped down just a short while ago. The fountain had a large trophy-looking bowl set atop a wide water basin. Or at least what passed for water. It was more a tar-like sludge with twigs and dead insects floating atop that were swept round like figure-skaters whenever a breeze took flight. Harry set down his satchel nearby so that he could better marvel at the strange finishings on the fountain. Adorning the base, sculpted leaves reached up while tall thin figures peeked from inbetween. As he stood, he spotted the surface of the water tray ripple slightly. The corners of Harry’s mouth tightened, his mouth was dry. He gently slid the net below the water, watching as it was consumed by the sludge making it look as if he were fishing in the night sky. Sweeping the net was surprisingly difficult, like stirring cold porridge. And then he felt the net tug, spurring him to hoist it up quickly from the abyssal mass.
Silence enveloped him as we watched at the thrashing of the net. He peeked inside: the creature was about the size of a small mole, but it was like no animal he’d ever seen. Grey with blue veins, hairless, and large lidless eyes. It had stubby arms with webbed paws, and instead of legs a mis-shapen lower abdomen that it rolled around on as it made faint noises that sounded like the creaking of a door. As Harry leant closer, it hissed, exposing a wide mouth filled with teeth. Caught by surprise, Harry dropped the net, which landed with a damp SPLOTCH sound the stone floor, amid the overgrown roots. Harry backed away slightly, transfixed at the sight of the creature wrestling free from the net. It looked almost like a tadpole that had grown to the size of a toad but hadn’t changed its shape. It was like something you’d see on one of those Weirdest Creatures mutations videos that did the rounds every now and then on the Internet. The horse with two heads. The dog with no legs. The frog with a tadpole body.
It dragged itself towards his satchel, sniffing the air as it approached. He watched it disappear into the satchel, making it contort as the creature wormed its way around, presumably looking for somewhere dark. But then the movement stopped, and the garden went quiet from mutated creaking sounds. Harry held his breath for what felt like minutes, straining to make out any movement. He had to take his satchel, it had his homework. He opened it gingerly and in the shadows could just make out the shape of the creature chewing on Harry’s pre-dinner ham sandwich. His favourite meal of all. And Harry couldn’t help but smile, feeling like he’d made the unlikeliest friend there in the unlikeliest of places. He reached in and carefully gripped the sandwich so as not to disturb the frog-tadpole, taking both out of the satchel in one motion. Harry cradled the hind-quarters of the creature in his left hand as he held the sandwich in his right from which it kept chewing. The fat kid nursing the fat mutation. But his arm wasn’t used to lifting such weight and he had to shift it slightly, enough to rile the creature. It turned with surprising speed to bite his open palm. Harry was shocked out of his mesmerised state and inadvertently dropped the creature, this time falling back into the fountain. He was overcome with disappointment as it swam back under the surface.
He wanted to dip his hand directly into the water and grab it but on glancing at his wound he thought better of it. Harry stood there sweeping his net through the sludge while day turned to night, but all he caught was fallen leaves.
He was back at the fountain the next morning – his eyes muddy and hazy from not sleeping the night before. He kept replaying in his mind what he had seen, haunted by the sight of that creature. He had ditched school today to get an early start on trying to fish it out. For good measure, he brought two sandwiches this time.
So there he stood in the morning sun, intermittently breaking off a piece of sandwich and throwing it at the fountain waters, like someone feeding pigeons in a park. He watched as the pieces of white bread would soak up the black water and slowly slip beneath the surface, sinking ships of wheat and meat. This had better work he thought, because he sure hated to waste good ham with his stomach grumbling. Sure enough though, the surface stirred again, slightly at first but soon a small whirlpool began to form as if something underneath was gulping down the offerings floating on the surface. Harry shuffled closer, the anticipation of seeing the creature again caused him to break out in an excited sweat. This was not like catching frogs or lizards, this was something different. He dipped the corner of the one sandwich into the whirlpool and soon felt the weight of something latch onto it. Like he’d done yesterday with the net, he slowly lifted the corner of the sandwich out of the water to see the mutated tadpole suckling on it.
And when he spotted another creature emerge, all Harry could do was blink repeatedly. It looked just like the first and was sniffing at the air above it, obviously blind in the sunlight but able to smell the fatty meat on offer. Harry twisted the other half of the sandwich down so that the second creature could take hold of it. Never in his life had he been this tender with anything. But these were his creatures, this felt like his fountain, a place only he came to visit away from the world, a place where he didn’t feel like the weird one.
He knew that it was impossible these were mutations, it had to be some sort of species. The second creature finished the piece of ham it had and pounced upon its brother. Harry had learnt to be quick in his reflexes around these creatures and pulled his hand away in time to see the flurry of sludge and urgent creaks, as the creatures tried to rend each other, their blood a yellow, pus-like substance. They were likely cannibalistic Harry thought, it was the only way animals could survive in such dank surroundings with limited food supplies. That much at least he could remember from Biology class.
Harry sat down nearby and unwrapped his other sandwich. Just there in the sunken garden he would chew while watching the creatures fight it out.
He had to find out what these things were, his mind was pre-occupied with them, with this secret place he’d discovered. But he knew he couldn’t ask anyone, then it would no longer be his place. So Harry found himself in the school library.
He tried to find anything he could about fountains, and the types of animals that inhabited these, but all the books so far were myths about the fountain of youth, and various famous historical European fountains. So many cultures had stories about things that inhabited wells and fountains. The Russian Vodyanoy, the Greeks had the Crinaeae nymphs. But Harry’s creatures weren’t myths, they were real damnit! Not finding much success in the history section, he turned his attention to Natural Sciences. He scanned the large tomes about insects and amphibians, mutations of any of them but saw nothing that looked even remotely like his creatures.
“Harold the Barrel!” Harry winced as that familiar voice pierced the air around them.
Marc stood at the entrance, being shushed by an overly-concerned librarian but completely oblivious to her nagging as he grinned knowingly in Harry’s direction. Slowly, he spun his finger in the air again causing Harry’s stomach to tighten.
Harry glanced over both shoulders quickly, when he spied the door to the fire escape. Harry capitalised on the few previous moments he had while the lecturing librarian commanded Marc’s attention. After a short flight of stairs and the longest sprint Harry could muster, he waddled uncomfortably towards his familiar woods. He knew Marc would not give up so easily this time and it was only a matter of moments before Marc was upon him.
“I wanna roll you down the hill, Harold!” Marc’s voice was perilously close to a screech, which Harry would have found funny if it were anyone else. But right at this moment, that screech felt deadly real, and caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand at attention. He had ducked under the bushes when he first heard Marc’s footfalls running after him, he must have followed him after detention today. Now he had Harry cornered here near the sunken garden, feeling every second as if it were the only moment of his life. Marc would soon find him here, it didn’t offer much in the way of a hiding place for a boy of his stature.
The fountain. The reminder of it suddenly gave him an idea and before his logical mind could dissuade his foolish courage, he thrust himself up and made a beat for the sunken garden nearby, running down the stairs as fast as his stubby legs would take him.
“Wow look at that Barrel roll!” Marc whistled.
Harry reached the fountain, his wide chest heaving and sweat pouring from him.
“You’re so fat, you know that Barrel?” Marc sauntered down the stairs towards him.
Harry put a hand up, trying to buy time for him to regain his breath.
“Wait…Marc, just wait…I want to…show you something.”
“If it’s watching a fatso run, I’ve already seen it,” Marc spat, “And it almost made me puke.”
“No it’s in the fountain,” Harry pointed behind him, “People put coins and stuff in there. You can take as much as you’d like.”
Marc hesitated slightly, but curiosity soon got the better of him: “Let me through.” He elbowed past Harry towards the fountain and leant closer towards the black water.
“I don’t see anyth…”
Harry grabbed the back of Marc’s head with both hands and thrust the bully’s face hard against the fountain with all his Barrel heft. Marc’s face smashed against the large stone bowl atop the fountain, causing the bridge of his nose to break and forcing some of his front teeth out of their gums.
“Wha..tha…” Marc mouthed through the blood that gushed across his face, drops falling into the murky waters. He turned to look at Harry, shaking his head of the growing dizziness, his eyes aghast as his hands tried to stem the tide of bleeding all across his face.
Harry’s hands were shaking from the brashness of his actions, the courage he had found in the moment, but more in anticipation of the spectacle that was about to unfold before him as he saw the waters stir ferociously behind Marc. Then like some slow motion ballet, he watched his fountain friends leap from the water upon Marc, clutching at his face and nose, wherever the blood was thickest. Biting and chewing. More creatures soon appeared from the black depths. Harry lost count after five, it was difficult to tell where one began and another ended. The ballet swirled colours of white froth and black sludge and red torn flesh. The corners of Harry’s mouth tightened, his mouth was dry.
They seemed to enjoy Marc much more than the ham sandwiches. And there was so much more of him to go around.
Harry stepped a few feet back, so that the blood wouldn’t splatter his clothes. Amid the shouts and gurgles from Marc, Harry was trying to think how he could get his mom and dad to come visit this place. Maybe a picnic nearby and then he could ‘happen’ upon the fountain and show it to them, just like he’d shown Marc. Later, he’d invite Ms Cartwright to see some of the local “wildlife” – yes that’s what he’ll call it. Somehow he’d lure that stupid hop-scotch girl out here one day too. And anyone who ever called him Harold again, he’d bring them to the sunken garden in the woods. He felt safe showing people this refuge now, because he knew his friends would take care of them.