The Old Well

The following is an excerpt from A Green and Ancient Light, an unpublished collection of vignettes which I wrote in the summer of 1990. It has been slightly edited for readability.

The Old Well

Nothing can keep a secret like a well. Nor is anything or anyone half so skilled at dropping hints of the most sinister nature.

You stand in a closet, and everywhere you see light pouring in, seeping through the slatted door. But the old well lets in darkness. The well is a starless universe in the shape of a shaft. A peek inside it is a peek into the Coke-bottle eyes, the tin-can fangs of the Thing That Lives Down There. You see the concave wall of bricks from above. That Thing sees them from below.

He’d be delighted if you’d fall in. That’s what he’s waiting for. He’s sizing up your house, too, or at least the little bit of it he can see framed behind your tiny head when you move the stone. Maybe someday your house will fall in; it’s possible.

You and your best friend take a kind of morbid delight in watching that covering stone from day to day, because you know — you know — it moves periodically. It slides just the smallest fraction of an inch during the night, during the dew hours. When you find it, that cover is allowing just an insinuation in, just the merest shadowy film of darkness up along the corner of the stone. Just enough darkness for the slugs to see by as they slowly, methodically measure your house after moonset.

Where do slugs go in the daytime? Whom do they work for? You and your friend get three guesses.

You keep moving the stone back into place whenever you can; you always peek down there, and that Coke-bottle glitter never bats an eyelash. The Thing sees you whenever you come. He has nothing but time. He waits.

Boy, are you and your friend relieved when your dad decides to fill in the old well. You’re relieved, and a little sad. A ton of bricks, a half-ton of earth rains in and closes the door, closes the shiny glass eyes forever. The irrelevant capstone is the last to fall.

You walk back and forth over all that’s left of the Thing’s pit: a shallow depression in the grass, just at the corner of the confident new sidewalk. This hollow will never cave in, not ever, because it’s packed full and tramped down hard.

You’re old enough to help plant the flowers that grow over his grave.

Your legs are too long to let you hear his last whispering sigh.

 

Fun, huh? By the way, not long after I wrote this, I discovered an old Algernon Blackwood story called “The Other Wing,” which develops a similar theme — growing up, crossing the threshold out of childhood, and the bittersweet losses that brings. I highly recommend Blackwood’s story, along with Steven Millhauser’s “Flying Carpets” (same theme again), which can be found in The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories.

Here’s another invitation to unlock the treasure-vaults of your own tales and memories, dear readers! Share with us, if you will, your descriptions and recollections of those nooks and crannies in your childhood that didn’t feel quite right to you. Was it a closet? — a back stairway that always seemed a little too dark? — an attic, perhaps? — a lonely stretch of road? Was it a time of day? An abandoned house two streets over? We’ve still got more than half a year till Hallowe’en — let’s all do our part to tide one another over!

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11 Responses to “The Old Well”

  1. Eunice Says:

    My church, when I was a kid, had a large new sanctuary on the same sprawling grounds as the older sanctuary/parsonage, which was still in full use as chapel, teacher’s apartment, church office, and Sunday School classrooms. Different renovations and remodelings had left the older building full of mysterious nooks and rooms with shifting purposes. (My first Sunday School classroom had once been someone’s bedroom!) To the left of the chapel altar was a door that was no longer in use. Beyond that door was another door. Beyond that . . . an unlighted spiral staircase that led to nowhere! The other end of the pitch-dark staircase was boarded up. Where did it lead? Why was it there? What secrets were behind that boarded-up door? The mundane truth (which I’ve never learned) could never have compared with the imagination and wonder of exploring children!

    Two summers ago I had occasion to visit again. Now the top door to the spiral staircase is also sealed off. The spiral staircase is no longer accessible from either side, and probably few even know of its existence anymore.

  2. Jedibabe Says:

    Something about the haunting solitude drew us back weekend after weekend. The dust-covered cacti, random, hidden palm groves and occasional stunning wildflower displays were the playground and peril of my childhood. The infinite expanse of turquoise above them gave me solace, while the ghostly history of the place held me captive. We were the only people within miles and the nights rang with the forlorn cry of coyotes. My Dad called this place “the badlands”. This was the place my family frequently spent our vacations.

    “The Badlands”, he used to tell me, were called that because of all the old miners that had died in this seemingly endless maze of cliffs and canyon washes. The history here, thousands of years of it, was visible at every fissure of the earth. As a child I was frightened enough of the place to render me bound to our camp by an invisible tether. Despite the countless weekends my family spent there, I knew that if I strayed too far I was certain to become irretrievably lost, like the miners in my dad’s tales, just another story in the Sonoran Desert’s eerie history. But, perhaps because of all the time spent bound to camp in a fear induced state of meditation, I developed a great reverence for the place. Now that I am grown, I return to experience those terrors on my own. The caverns and mines and wind tunnels still hold their own enduring intrigue, but now the thrill of discovery and the peaceful solitude is part of the reason I go. Perhaps that is when you know you’ve left childhood, when your fears become your fuels.

  3. Gabe Dybing Says:

    When I was growing up, my grandmother lived in an old mill that had been converted into a house. It was ridiculously huge! It was most fun to play in the attic, which actually had THREE stories, and the topmost story was a tiny room like a tower that the light got into during the day, and it must have been, when humans weren’t there, a home to birds, for their droppings and stuffy smell were everywhere.

    In the basement, a piece of wall could be removed – in the TOY ROOM, of all places – to reveal yet more house, rooms and rooms of unfinished, unlighted, dirt-floor house. None of the cousins wanted to play in there. It wasn’t as fun as the attic.

    Outside there was an abandoned barn that was falling in. An ancient stone silo had in it the bleached bones of rats or other things that had fallen in and evidently hadn’t been able to get back out. It was hard for us kids to get back out! We had to find an old sturdy timber and prop it up along the side to the door. In the rest of the barn, there were all sorts of rusting or corroding tools left over, rings of skeleton keys, pitchforks, that sort of thing, and there were holes in the floors of the upper story, and great ropes tied to the rafters from which we kids swung over the holes like we were Indiana Jones. One time a young cousin – he was nicknamed “Bumpy” because he was still wearing diapers by the time his #2 had really solided-up – fell through the hole and, on the ground floor, had just missed falling on some kind of spikes. It might have been an old thresher. One time, in that barn, I stepped on a nail. It sunk right through the soft rubber of my slip-on canvas shoe. I remember the slippery feel of the blood filling up my shoe, the impossibility of walking, the drive into town to get a tetanus shot. For years I could show off that scar with pride. I think it finally cleared up. I haven’t checked in a while.

    Further along, past the pumpkin patch – and man Grandma grew some large pumpkins – past the willow tree that we played in, made bows and arrows out of, and fell out of plenty, there was a small white house, a large oak tree, and a tire swing hanging from one massive branch. None of us kids were brave enough to go ride that tire swing, probably because I had made up a story about a dead kid that used to ride it, night after night. I can’t remember all the details of the story, it probably wasn’t very good, but my cousins assure me to this day that that story – and many others I told – had left a lasting impression on them.

  4. Chris Says:

    Two words: Salton Sea

    Amazingly creepy, haunting, abandoned and inhabited all at the same time.

    A hypsaline “accidental sea” created by a fine combination of weather and human accident in 1905. Huge. In the middle of the desert out here in SoCal.

    They tried to make it a vacation destination back in the 60’s but plans didn’t work out, leaving a strangely haunting landscape of abandoned vacation bungalows and motels.

    The place smells awful owing to the massive fish die offs. I’ve heard tales of beaches in which, when you look closely at the “sand” is really little more than just huge masses of fish bones.

    There’s discussion around the general safety of the water owing to land-use run off and various other potential contaminants.

    For fun sometime check out: “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea”, a documentary narrated by John Waters about the place and its history.

    I’ve driven out to it twice and it simultaneously repels and attracts me to see it. Kind of like having a giant 12-mile wide “haunted house” down the road from you.

    (Some people still live in the area around there, which adds to the human face it can maintain, but still seem ever so weird.)

  5. Jedibabe Says:

    Chris, you are so right about the Salton Sea being a creepy place! My Dad’s airplane ended its days in the Salton Sea after my Father sold it to a rental agency and someone crashed it in the big puddle’s briny, odorous depths. Every now and then my family desert vacations took us out to the Salton Sea, and each visit increased my general loathing of the place and its foul stench. I may return to Anza-Borrego when occasion permits just to enjoy reliving that sense of solitude that scared me as a child, but I have yet to be drawn back to the Salton Sea. It’s just too genuinely gross and dead to be nostalgic!

  6. I remember HP sauce Says:

    Hey, if you want lifeless and dead, check out Iowa (hee hee).

    For the first two years of my living on Cherokee St. (age 5-6) remnants of the Old Oak St. Elementary School still stood. They took the old school itself down shortly after we moved in (I recall watching, transfixed, as a crane swing the wrecking ball and I stained my cutoffs from the mulberries I devoured). But for at least an additional year an old, heavily padlocked storage building (the size of a large garage) still stood, and it terrified me, thinking of some poor student, long forgotten, forced to endure endless schoolwork while being fed gruel by evil school marms in the middle of the witching hours.

  7. Chris Says:

    Jedi,
    Anza-Borrego is amazing. My wife and I take family who come here to visit out there to see the flowers in Spring. My favorite view is from Sunrise Highway on the west side as you come down out of the mountains and you get a view across the vastness and flatness of the area. It’s amazing.

    Got my car stuck in the sand out there once just off the road a bit while out taking some pics of the desert. Kinda scary to realize that it’s possible to find places that are so “uninhabited” and trackless.

    Sometimes the scariest or strange places are the most well lit!

  8. fsdthreshold Says:

    Thank you all! These are great descriptions of some intriguing, fascinating, and unsettling places. Hey, H.P.–did you know that you can buy H.P. sauce in the Chicago area? A friend up there gave me some last summer. Another friend found me some in Pittsburgh–so we don’t have to depend on a certain Canadian grandmother for our H.P. connection any more! 🙂
    Anyway, Chris and Jedibabe: that Salton Sea sounds like a great place to set a horror novel–a barren, desolate, toxic environment with the decaying remains of boardwalks and tourist shops, hotels, etc.–and occupied homes of the few strange folk who still inhabit the region, guarding their secrets….
    H.P., I remember hearing of the Oak Street School, but I didn’t live in that neighborhood, so I don’t remember the building itself at all.
    Gabe and Eunice, I love your tales of architectural oddities. Yes, there’s something really creepy about “mysterious nooks and rooms with shifting purposes”–good phrases! Growing up, I stepped on my share of rusty nails, too. I was always getting tetanus shots.
    And the Badlands: proof that you don’t need a ramshackle building for creepiness. In some of Algernon Blackwood’s most famous stories, he presents the idea that nature’s unmasked face — the vastness and isolation of remote places — is a terror beyond human tolerance.

  9. I remember HP sauce Says:

    Fred,
    The Oak Street school was at the end of the alley from my house, on the NW corner of Oak and Shawnee. The bell at North School, as I am sure you know, as the original bell at OSS.
    (and I will definitely check for H.P. when I am in Chicago in July! hooray!)
    I remember as a youngster always being freaked out by two oddities at the Book Center: 1.) the broad door at one end of the basement
    2.) the closed off door and descending stair outside the back door.
    One late night in junior high a bunch of us were riding our bikes downtown and I pulled into the parking spot behind the Book Center (it was already closed) and I remember peering into the glass to see what I could see. At that moment, Mike Schuyler silenty came up from behind, and when I saw his shadow (from the alley light) on the glass I nearly pissed myself!
    And Chris, Jedibabe: If I am ever in the area the Salton Sea is a definite destination! Wow!

  10. fsdthreshold Says:

    H.P.–Yes! For those of you who don’t know what he’s talking about: my parents owned a bookstore when we were kids. We rented the old building it was in, and a lot of businesses had occupied it before we did, so there were odd pieces of furniture remaining from what must have been a candy shop at one time and some kind of a sewing/dressmaker’s shop. Anyway, at one end of the large basement, there was a walled-off section. In the center of this wall was a HUGE door–in my memory, it was about twice the size (in height and width) that the average human being would require. There were some open, square windows beside it, through which we could peer into utter blackness. Sometimes we would open the door a few inches, though we half-expected some gigantic presence to lunge at us. Light never seemed to penetrate very far into that black space.
    I remember venturing in every now and then, feeling each step with my toes. There was a place not far inside where the floor dipped, possibly falling away. We imagined a bottomless pit. (Years later, I found out it was a drain with an iron grate.)
    That dark room with its giant door was intriguing and disturbing. It was our own childhood’s version of the great wall on Skull Island. That wall must have been built for a reason . . . and the door must have been that big for a reason. . . .

  11. Miles Stone Says:

    I recently found the remains of an old well in Manchester, Connecticut where two men once died. The place is truly a treasure. It is a quite place I refer to as The Well of Troubled Souls.

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