I threw a rock down the well. It clattered against the walls as it bounced from one side to another. I waited, straining both ears. No indication that it had reached the bottom.
“Hello?” I whispered tentatively in a low shaky voice as I peered down into the darkness, my eyes unable to penetrate its inky depth. My voice was reverberating against the sodden ancient walls, lessened to a discordant choir of echoes that was harassing the stillness of the enclosed darkness within. Something felt off. I was not supposed to be there. It had taken up most of the evening for me to gather up my courage to make my way across the barren land alone before entering the Heathenberry Forest. Jamie Coldon’s words had been echoing in my mind all the way to the clearing.
“If something answers you, just make sure you don’t tell it your name,” he had warned me the day before as we walked across the edge of the forest adjacent to an old dilapidated train tunnel due North.
“Why not?” I had asked him. “And what will answer me?”
He had been staring at the reddening summer sky, his pale blue eyes sparkling with mischief and amusement.
“You ask too many questions, kid. Stupid questions. Just don’t fucking do it, alright? Not too many people know where to find that stinkin’ old well. They go there to be told if they are going to be successful or not in their lives. You toss a dime over for each question. Make it quick. Never ask questions whose answer you don’t want to know. Most importantly, never tell it your name! Or it will steal your soul away.”
I had gasped and cringed at him because I had never heard any kid my age use that kind of harsh language before. But Jamie had always been one to act cool and older than his actual age for attention. Besides, he was much older than I was.
“You’re kidding, right, Jamie?”
“The only reason why I am here talking to you now, is because I feel sorry for you. Your father was a good man. He helped my family a lot. I’m not doing this for you, cretin! Kathy and I will leave for the city next week. Don’t tell anybody I told you that! We’ve got everything figured out already. Her friend has a place for us somewhere. We’re getting married as soon as we leave this stinkin’ village. We’re not coming back. Her father will skin me alive if he ever sees me again after running away with his only daughter.”
His pale round face had been contorted into a mixture of determination, hope, but also anguish as he continued.
“If you’re smart, you get out of this place as soon as you can before you lose your mind as well. These people are hopeless. Or go to that well. Whatever. If that makes you happy. I don’t care. Wait until the clock strikes midnight. Make sure nobody follows you or knows where you’re going. You have to do it alone. Or else it won’t answer you. You see that hill over there?” He pointed to the west at a dark bluish hill looming over the plain in the distance. “There is a small trail on top of it. Follow it. It will lead you due south into the forest. As the bush grows thicker that you can barely smash through it, you’ll arrive at a small clearing in the middle of the forest where you can weave easily through the trees. That’s where the well is. Don’t follow the trail West beyond the clearing. There’s marshes. People have drowned and died trying to make their way across the godforsaken plain.”
And he had been right. The air had been chilly when I emerged from the treeline. I had found myself walking at a small roughly circular clearing which was devoid of anything taller than knee-high dandelions. And there in the middle of the mini savanna, almost hidden in the darkness from probing eyes, I had seen a small dilapidated stone mound, its structure black and sunken.
“Hello?” I called out again louder but still as hesitant, my whole face tensed hard. This time a dreadful silence was filling up the well. There were no echoes, as if the well had just swallowed my voice whole. Confused, I bent down to pick another rock off the ground.
“Hello?” A voice suddenly rose. I gasped in horror and cringed away only to trip over my own feet. I fell backward and landed hard on my buttocks. As I sat there in the cold hard ground and waited, feeling convinced that the devil himself was going to rear up from his subterranean tomb to get me, something flashed across my mind. A cautionary tale Jamie had told me earlier today before he left for the apple farm where he had been working for a few years.
“You dare to summon it, you have to finish your business there. Never forget to say thank you and goodbye when you’re done, otherwise it would think you’re not done and follow you around, watching you in the shadows everywhere you go.”
I struggled to rise to my feet and stood gazing intensely at the derelict stone mound, frowning at the ancient-looking symbols etched into its rough surface. My chest was heaving rapidly with fear and uncertainty. That voice had aroused something in me that I had never known I had. This primal fear of the unknown. Of what awaited beyond the darkness.
“Hh-hello?” I chirped.
“Hel-lo …,” it drawled with a contemptuous voice that suggested disguised danger. It sounded warm but also distant at the same time. There was an unnervingly familiar tone to it I realized. It almost sounded like my own voice, only distorted, much deeper and feline-like.
“Don’t be afraid. Come closer …,” it hissed almost inaudibly.
“What … what are you?” I stammered.
“Well … I’m a wood-fairy.” It let out a gleeful chuckle.
An image of tiny winged-human with pointed ears and delicate features drafted through my head instantly, which did not match the malicious voice from below.
“Yessss …,” it hissed loudly, as if blowing air through gritted teeth. “You see those symbols? They are called Ogham Inscriptions, an ancient magic spell to keep me here. I can neither hurt nor touch you, even if I wanted to.”
“I … I need your help. Will you help me?” I was afraid of engaging myself more with this disembodied being, but I knew it was the only way for me. Nothing else would work.
“What is it?”
“I miss my father.” I started to sob. My shoulder shook vigorously as I rested my face down on the cold rugged stone surface, feeling hopeless and defeated. And very soon I was overwhelmed with a sense of indignation and outrage again. I was not paying attention to my surroundings. The forest around me had fallen silent. The psithurism of the trees in the wind had ceased all of a sudden, as if the whole land was holding its breath in anticipation.
“What is it?” it asked again. Colder and more demanding.
I lifted my face off the stone and stared into the darkness below, feeling slightly confused. As I narrowed my eyes to concentrate on trying to catch a glimpse of the slightest movement, I felt like the forest was closing in on me, disintegrating into shadowy walls that were pushing me incrementally from all directions towards the inky depth, to answer to the call of the void.
“Hello?” I leaned over the mound and arched my body to peer down.
“Tell me, what is it?”
“What would you like me to do?”
I opened my mouth but could not find the words to say. I retreated thinking maybe it was not a good idea. Maybe I should just go home immediately and never return to this blasted heath.
“You can tell me. What is it you want? I can help you,” it said coyly.
“Can you bring him back to me?” The words had escaped my lips before I could even stop myself.
There were a few seconds of silence that almost made me turn on my heels and take off, not wanting to hear any more of what it had to say. It felt so wrong talking to something you could not see because it was hiding in the dark, the embodiment of darkness itself. I toyed with the idea of what was real and what was not. But even then, I knew that I was trespassing the border of reality.
“Of course,” it said.
“R-rreally?” I asked.
“Would you believe me if I told you that your father was down here with me, looking up at you? And all you had to do was jump over to be with him.”
“Uhm, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” I took a step away from the well, rubbing at my face. For one, I knew exactly where my father was. Six feet under the ground at Roccocherry Cemetery a few miles due west from the outskirts of town where we had had him interred a few weeks before, not in the bottom of an old dilapidated well. The concept of death was something I was still struggling to get a grasp on. For all I knew he could be somewhere else as well, waiting. I was only a kid and there was only a hint of skepticism flashing across my thoughts as I considered its words. Will I survive the fall when I can’t even see the bottom? Is it telling me the truth?
A cold high-pitched laugh rose from below, devoid of any emotion. It sounded hollow and insincere.
“You’re one smart kid.”
“So, can you really …” I hesitated.
“Yesss. I will bring your father back to you. Will it make you happy to see him again? Surely it will.”
“What … what’s the catch then?” I asked him cautiously. “What do you want from me?”
“Very bold of you to assume I want anything at all from you.”
“Then … what—”
“What is your name, dear?”
I opened my mouth to answer but then Jamie’s words the day before flashed across my mind again.
“I am not allowed to tell you my name”
“Why, now that’s a lie. Who told you that?”
“Well, what do we know about this funny friend of yours? Isn’t he as huge and slow as a grazing bovine on a summer day?”
“Everyone knows the rules. We can’t tell you our names.”
“Well everyone doesn’t want to bring their father back from the dead, now do they? But you do. You’ve been missing him a lot, haven’t you? And it’s killing you. This is a very huge favor you ask of me. Besides, I only want to be your friend. Aren’t friends supposed to know one another’s name? Or at least we can stay on a last-name basis if that’s more convenient for you.”
“Isn’t there any other way th—”
“Oh yes. There is.”
“What is it? Please tell me!”
“I need human sacrifice. Blood.”
“W-wwhat … did you just say? Bb-blood? Human blood?”
It burst into a mirthless laugh that sounded unpleasant and cold.
“Wouldn’t it be much easier if you just told me your name, my dear boy?”
Then I decided that it would be worth it to just go with it. All I had to do was tell it my name and my father would return to me. It was not rocket science. I opened my mouth but whatever instinct had kept me from doing so for the last twenty minutes or so, suddenly caught up to me again.
“Yes, friend? Your name. Tell me your name,” it said reassuringly. “And you and your dear father will be reunited. That’s all it takes.”
It took a power of will to break my silence. But between heaving breaths and gritted teeth, I finally relented. It was the right thing to do. That night, I stumbled onto the truth about Heathenberry Forest as it spoke to me of things beyond my comprehension.
Katherine Deanshaw’s eyes were puffy and red when I saw her the following day in the village. She seemed troubled and unhinged. She was looking in my direction for the briefest moment in such a way as if wanting to ask me something, which under different circumstances, if only things had been different, I would have been more than happy to tend to. She had always been a nice girl. She waved at me and smiled confusedly, then walked away with John Clearwater, the son of the richest man in the village with whom her father had always longed for her to be involved. It pained me to not be able to help her. It genuinely did.
But I needed to disengage myself from any responsibility that was not my own. I had been looking forward to subsequently seeing things fall into place; My father’s return. It was the only thing that mattered to me. I was only fourteen after all.
Credit : Eoghan Ferguson
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