At the bottom of every well, there dwells a mystical little creature with large bat-like ears and big round eyes the colour of charcoal. Its skin is the dark brown of moist loam, and between little fingers and little toes, skin webs across, giving its limbs the appearance of fins. The Luo people of old called it the machodugo, and it was said to be the Moon Goddess’ servant, beholden to her to provide clean water to her faithful subjects for eternity.
In the quaint village of Odravu, west of the Albert Nile, the machodugo named Aasi lived at the bottom of his well in a beautiful little house carved into the rock, illuminated by the glow worms, the fireflies that came at night, and the reflections of the sun and moon’s light in the water. There, around his home, the most resilient of the mosses and the ferns grew, their leaves the darkest greediest green, snatching at every ray of sunshine they could. The naughty plants which ventured into the water Aasi uprooted every morning and ate. This way, he kept the well’s water clean and clear.
For many years, Aasi had served the people of Odravu well, his hands always ready at the bottom of the well, the unseen unknown helper guiding the pail to the parts where the water was clearest and sweetest. His reward lay in the tinkering laughter of the villagers and the benevolent smile of his goddess when the sun set. He would have continued to serve the villagers for many years to come if he had never set his big black eyes on Philomena Andrua.
Philo, her friends called her. A goddess amongst women; a nymph, surely, a runaway from the forests in the east. In his long life, Aasi had seen many beautiful women, but none whose skin was so smooth, gleaming like the black oil flowing under the ocean floor. None with a face so delicate he feared her laughter, as she leaned over the mouth of the well, would shatter her features. None with a voice so ethereal and sweet it made him forget the melodious hymns the oceans sang to the Moon Goddess.
When the pail descended into the well, Aasi rushed to it, webbed feet pattering against the mossy ground. For her, only the clearest water would do. Only the sweetest water, the water which tasted the last tendrils of the moon’s kiss every night.
He dived into the cool water and swam to the bottom of the pool. There, water bubbled from a crack in the rock bed, still warm and fresh from the earth’s core, the perfect offering for the girl he was sure he loved. Above him, the impatient high-pitched voices of Philo’s companions tried to goad her into abandoning the pail.
“There’s a natural spring just a few minutes’ walk away,” one of them said, her English twisted by her strong Lugbara accent. His Philo laughed and spoke in the crisp accent of those city kids who came to the village for Christmas, her tongue curling around r’s and drifting over t’s so that they sounded like d’s.
“I want this water,” she said. “Dede Atte told me it’s sweet.”
And no matter how much her friends pleaded and threatened, moaning about how the sun would set before they all filled their buckets, she refused to leave, leaning over the lip of the well with a bright grin and shining eyes and exclaiming with delight when the metallic pail rose toward her at long last, so full its contents sloshed over its rim and fell on the machodugo below.
Aasi watched with his breath hovering in his throat as he listened to the familiar sounds of palms cupping water and lips slurping up the liquid of life. There was silence, a delighted little sigh, and Philo’s accented voice breathing, “It is sweet!”
His little heart swelled in his little chest, and he felt a heat in his veins – a rush more intense than all the love he had ever felt for his goddess. It was as if someone finally saw him, a grain of sand among millions, identical to the rest, but still unique in his own way. He felt appreciated. He felt cherished.
Her companions grumbled under their breaths in Lugbara. The water is not sweet. You see this one with her city tongue. I thought they said we were the ones with the village excitement. Pretentious town girl.
One of them dropped the pail, and Aasi scuttled away to the bank of the little pond at the bottom of the well. Let them fetch their own water, he thought to himself. Let them see if it will taste as sweet without the guidance of my hands. The pail ascended again, and a girl cursed with feeling.
“Aka! For the city princess, the pail returns full, but for me, it’s not even halfway full!” she cried. Her companions laughed at her and told her to try her luck again. The pail dipped into the pond again and again, and Aasi sat before his little house in the light of the glow worms and the setting sun’s rays reflected in the water and watched it rise half empty, every time. Yes, he wouldn’t serve these ungrateful villagers who took the sweet fruits of his work for granted any longer. He would serve his mortal goddess alone and exult in her appreciation.
And so it was that the machodugo in the well in Odravu village stopped serving the other villagers, catering to the whims of one girl. No longer did the pail arise from the well with clear water brimming in it. No longer did the villagers carry their cups to drink of the well’s sweet water. The water was not clear anymore, and it tasted like the water the NWSC taps brought to the village – empty. Only the pail Philo sent down came back full. Only the water Philo took home tasted sweet. All the girls wanted to go with her to the well. The whispers ran riot through the village. Was Korobuga’s daughter a sorceress? Or did she have some sort of city technology which made the well bend to her wishes?
Philo took pleasure in the well’s predilection toward her. She patted the well when she visited it, spoke to it, and crooned praises which Aasi soaked up like they were whispered in his ear. Good well, beautiful well. You serve me so well. Your devotion pleases me.
With each day that passed, the machodugo’s infatuation with the pretty city girl grew, so consuming in its intensity that he forgot his duties and let the ferns flourish in the pond at the bottom of the well and darken the water to a green so revolting the people of Odravu cursed the well and threatened to put a lid over its selfish mouth.
One day, while he lazed in his little house, dreaming of his goddess Philo, Aasi received a visitor. It was his cousin Amaru. She had travelled from the well in Ombaci, by the underground rivers which connected all the wells. She looked just like him; big ears, big eyes, and little webbed feet; but where he was bald, she had a crown of wiry black hair on her head.
“What kind of machodugo are you?” she demanded, setting her bag aside to yank the weeds from the pond. Aasi shrugged and carried her bag inside. When Amaru finished clearing the pond, she followed her cousin into his house and sat across from him on a tiny stone chair with her shoulders hunched and her small mouth downturned.
“The rivers are whispering about you,” she said, her large eyes narrowed so that she resembled an old chameleon, “They say the villagers have complained about your neglect, and the Moon Goddess will hear their cries.”
She leaned forward and poked Aasi in the chest with her webbed hand. “Do you want to turn into sand? Don’t forget that the Moon Goddess preserves our lives in exchange for our service.”
The next day, Amaru left. The pond was clear once more, and Aasi served the villagers with a grumpy face and an unwilling heart, sending them pails which were just full enough to warrant their awed praise. Their cheers clanged in his ears like the gongs of betrayal, and he drove away the glow worms so that his home was plunged into darkness as miserable as he was.
It was only when Philo’s voice floated down to him that Aasi’s disposition lightened. He scrambled to catch the pail before it hit the water and dived to the bottom of the pool, giddy with the prospect of pleasing his mistress. Her words came to him like a distant song, sad, disappointed.
“I hear you’re now giving my clear sweet water to the villagers, you unfaithful well!” she scolded. Aasi swam up to the surface and saw her face in the flickering light of the sun as the clouds rushed across the sky. Her beauty was twisted by her anger into a grotesque ugliness which made Aasi cover his eyes and whimper.
“I thought you were loyal to me alone,” she said. The pail rose toward the well’s mouth, and Philo pouted and said, “I don’t feel special anymore.”
The pail tipped and poured its contents all over the little machodugo in the pond, making his ears lie flat against his head. Philo’s head disappeared, and the receding sound of her footsteps made Aasi think of nails and coffins. With a heavy heart, he dragged himself to his house and buried himself in contemplation. His love was angry with him. He had to make amends. Would he stop serving the people of Odravu? But the threat of death hung over his head like a weak branch requiring the smallest provocation to fall. But still… wasn’t the anger of his love a worse fate than death? He nodded to himself in the dark and made his decision. He would serve Philo alone.
The cries of the villagers rose up to the Moon Goddess. From her perch in the night sky, she heard the sorrow in their tears. One of her servants wasn’t carrying out his duties. The well in Odravu spat up green bitter water for all but one girl. The Moon Goddess was furious. A machodugo dared to love another over her? Her jealousy scorched the people’s eyes when she shone with full force that night.
In his well, Aasi cowered under the all-seeing eyes of the Moon Goddess. Try as he did to hide in the shadows, her rays touched him and made his skin burn with the shame of betrayal.
“You dare forsake me for a mortal’s love?”
The goddess’ voice was an ultrasonic boom in the night. The village dogs barked, the cats mewled and ran under the beds, and the bats in the trees squealed. Aasi covered his ears and dropped to his knees under the force of his goddess’ fury.
“Your well will run dry!” she decreed. She directed the oceans in her thrall to tell the underground rivers that they would feed the well in Odravu no more. The rivers flowed away from the well and took the water with them, and the machodugo of Odravu, his sole purpose taken from him, lay dying on the moist ground next to his little house, illuminated by neither the fireflies nor the reflection of the moonlight in the water.
The next day, Philo and her companions came to the well, chattering loudly in that manner of young unmarried girls with no worries and laughing in high-pitched voices. They dropped the pail into the well, and gasped when they heard the unmistakeable thud of metal against sand. Philo’s well had run dry!
“Oh, Philo,” one girl cried, “what shall you do now that your well has dried up?”
“My father is going to put piped water in our house,” Philo said, a careless shrug in her voice. “It was just a well.”
And the last pieces of the machodugo’s soul, lingering in the hopes of seeing his love one final time, shattered into nothingness.
Innocent Acan (@) is a 20-year-old – soon to be 21 – Ugandan receiving a mental beating at Makerere University in the hopes of attaining a Bachelor’s degree in Medicine and Surgery. She loves to read and write in equal measure and is especially intrigued by the fantastical and the unknown. In an alternate universe, she’s a coffee-drinking cat lady by day and a superhero-esque vigilante by night.
Related country: Uganda
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