Down the Well by Priya Sridhar

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~For Dyanne, who blogged about real Viking wells

Down the Well by Priya Sridhar
Illustration by Sue Babcock

JT was a small child with bright, keen eyes and a tiny mouth; she made it a point to keep secrets. Mom and Dad would watch her unchanging face, and gently prod her with questions.

“What did you do today, JT? Come on; tell us about your big adventure.”

JT would smile—she was missing two teeth—and shake her head. Mom and Dad rarely yelled, because they believed in positive reinforcement. So she kept her secrets.

JT’s eyes shone when she packed her small purple suitcase and Dad shoved it in the trunk. They were going on an archaeological dig in Scotland, and it meant she’d have lots of time for exploring.

#

Crying in pain and shock. A blade jabbed into his chest and shoulders several times as he tried to scream. Useless cries.

He banged the stone walls, his voice weak. They had tossed him down here and left, talking to themselves. He lay on a mountain of corpses, all matted with dried blood. The sky glittered from above, stars glimmering like cruel, indifferent beacons.

He flailed his arms, as if underwater and chained to an anchor at the bottom. Drowning in his blood, writhing in the stink of decay.

#

This dig was by a small Scottish town built on Viking ruins and surrounded by forest. Mom and Dad boarded in a cottage on the outskirts; the rest of the crew found homes to rent in the town, or drove two hours from the nearest hotel. During the day Mom and Dad would drive to the dig, since it was about an hour’s walk away, and drive home in the evening with Indian takeout.

JT had a room the size of a broom closet, and she shared it with four black cats. They stared at her but didn’t scratch, unless she tried to pet them.

One day JT was out on the porch, poring over a short chapter book. She heard footsteps. JT looked up from where she was sprawled. The boy and girl wore matching white sweatshirts.

“Hi there,” the boy said, with a guttural, low Scottish twang. “I’m Marco and this is Leanne. Are your mommy and daddy home?”

JT stared at them. Marco wore red and green sneakers with dirty laces. When he talked he stretched his vowels and at times his voice dove into low ranges, as if it were an earthworm.

“Are you social workers?” she asked in a suspicious tone.

The boy Marco stared at her, surprised by her hostile tone. Then he laughed, and the laugh made his face break into a grin.

“Of course not, kid. We’re not social workers. How old do you think we are?”

“Old,” JT responded. She resumed reading her book.

A few seconds later, she looked up. Marco and Leanne were still there, waiting with eager faces.

“This is my reading time,” she said. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“You don’t have to talk to us,” Marco said with irritation. “Just tell us where your parents are.”

“That’s talking.”

Marco gave a little grunt of frustration. Then he took a deep breath.

“Can you get someone who can talk to us then?”

“I could . . . “JT said.

Leanne pulled out a large bar of chocolate. She placed a reassuring hand on Marco’s arm.

“This is all yours if you get someone,” she said, with a similar Scottish accent. “Okay?”

JT considered. She stared at the bar of chocolate, which was bigger than her hand, and then she stared at Marco’s red face. Then she nodded, still looking suspicious. Stretching out with an effort so that she got to her knees, and then her feet, she barged into the house and screamed for Harriet, the owner. Harriet came rushing down, red-faced and very put out.

“For heaven’s sakes, Jasmine, they aren’t strangers!” she snapped, clutching her side. “If you’re looking for her parents, they’re at the dig! They couldn’t bring her along because she’s not fourteen! Not like you are!”

“What a bloody shame,” Marco said.

That started Harriet on, as she lectured Marco for using coarse language in front of a small child. Harriet had stringy white hair and a round face. JT took the opportunity to close her book and sneak back into the house.

While strolling on the path outside the house, listening to this conversation after sneaking out the back door, JT remembered that Leanne had offered her a chocolate bar. She then remembered advice from policemen that visited her classrooms: Never accept candy from strangers.

Marco and Leanne made her skin prickle, despite Harriet saying they weren’t strangers. Of course, there was the other thing people would sometimes say: “Innocent until proven guilty.” They often talked about that when referring to criminals, however.

JT decided to keep watching them. Big people with strange, old books who wanted to talk with Mom and Dad, while saying “mommy and daddy,” made her suspicious.

#

Bastards. They told him to meet at night for some evening “fun.” She had kissed his cheek, told him to be there on time, no sooner, no later. Of course, he had arrived late.

It hadn’t even been his fault; they told him to walk since none of them had a car, and he always had a terrible sense of direction. He ought to have given up after the first wrong turn and stayed at home. Home was safe. Home was warm blankets and tea on a rainy night.

He scraped at the slippery wall, trying to find a handhold. The edge above was too high, too far out of reach. Had to get there. Had to climb his way out, to get to the stars-

Had to make a pile, to reach that edge.

He fell back onto the corpses, scrabbling among them. He pulled them as best as he could, hearing horrid snaps. Build them up, pyramid of people.

Get out, get out now.

#

Marco and Leanne visited Mom and Dad daily. They arrived home with Mom and Dad from the digs, talking excitedly about what the grownups had found. Harriet tried to shut down the conversation, turning green in her cheeks, but Dad told her to have a lie-down.

JT listened from the top of the stairs, holding her jump rope from home. Mom and Dad were explaining about Norse dry wells, including the well they had found.

“What happened was that in those days it was harder to care for a handicapped infant, and it was believed that they would have a miserable life,” Dad was explaining. “So the Norse children would be tossed down a dry well that had long run out of water. The fall would usually kill them, so that they would return to the gods. If a well wasn’t present, they’d leave the baby on a hillside.

“Sometimes, though, the Norse parents had no excuse,” Mom interrupted. “If they had a healthy child but couldn’t take care of it, they could easily send it into fostering with another family. Some parents decided to go for the dry well option, since it was faster.”

JT shivered. She tried to imagine a great fall, like Humpty Dumpty, and hugged herself.

“But I thought that all Vikings wanted to go to Valhalla,” Leanne said. “If the babies were killed in such a way, not in battle, they’d go to Helheim. Wasn’t that like hell?”

“No, actually not,” Dad said. “You have to read between the lines to figure it out, but Helheim wasn’t a terrible place, as long as you weren’t a terrible person.”

“It’s just that Norse would find an afterlife without battle extremely boring,” Mom said. “Valhalla promised glory and eternal loyalty to Odin, as well as endless mead and celebration. Helheim was supposed to be a dark realm, in contrast, and made to keep all the extra souls that didn’t make it to Valhalla, due to sickness or accidents or old age.”

There was a silence, one that made JT squint at the bottom of the stairs. She clutched the railing.

“How many skeletons have you found, Professors?” Marco sounded impatient. “How many were tossed down?”

“A fair amount. Enough to make any parent queasy.” Mom made another sound; this one sounded like a sob. “I’m sorry; it just touches a sore point . . .”

“JT was diagnosed with Asperger’s when she was two,” Dad explained. “The doctor didn’t think she’d ever be independent.”

JT wrinkled her nose. She didn’t remember that doctor’s first words, but she remembered later visits with him. He had tried to recommend JT for a special school because she preferred not to read aloud and liked to cover her ears when people tried talking.

“That explains a lot,” Marco said, a bit darkly. JT stuck out her tongue, even though Marco couldn’t see her.

“Hey, that’s my kid you’re talking about,” Dad told him. “She just doesn’t like talking to people. That’s why she was so difficult with you.”

JT groaned and leaned back against the stairs. At this rate she was never going to forget the first meeting.

“Would the Norse have dropped her down a well?” Marco asked.

“Marco!” Mom exclaimed.

“Idiot,” Leanne said.

“They’d have to rip JT from my dead arms before I’d let anything happen to her,” Mom said in a cold voice.

“Sorry, Professors. It was curiosity, nothing else.”

JT thought that Marco didn’t sound very sorry. She crawled back to her room and hid under the bed sheets, pondering his words. A cat joined her, but she didn’t move or push him off the bed. He curled beside her and started to purr, as if understanding why she was shaking.

#

Hand scrabbling an inch below. He reached for the stars, and then for the slimy edge. Wailing scream of frustration.  

Wind rushed from above, wailing with him. He screamed again, against the pain and the numbness in his fingers.

The cold was coming in. Not snow, not yet, but cold rain and sleet. It would bury, drown and freeze him at once. He would be another body in the wall, another corpse with snapping bones.

Keep piling, keep scrabbling. Reach for that ledge. Rinse, repeat.

Someone please find me, he pleaded. Help me.

#

JT didn’t leave her bed for four days. She clutched her stomach and moaned every time her parents tried to get her out.

Harriet tried four different types of tea, with varying levels of milk and sugar. JT after drinking black tea started running around the room and talking in a high-pitched voice about Nancy Drew. Mom had to sit JT down with a chapter book and read with her until the caffeine wore off. Harriet after that used lemon balm tea.

“Tastes sour,” JT commented with her usual tact, but she drank the tea with liberal amounts of honey. Somehow it eased her stomach pains.

“It’s a shame,” Dad said cheerfully. “You know if we were home your abuelita would make you get up and help her with the dishes, or something.”

“JT, are you really okay?” Mom asked, face tinged red with worry. “You don’t have a fever or anything of the sort?”

JT shook her head and filled her mouth with lemon and honey tea. She was not going to admit to her nightmares of finding herself at the edge of a well, with Marco ready to toss her in, any more than she was going to admit that she had been using her binoculars to spy on Marco and Leanne through the window.

On the fourth day, Mom and Dad took the day off from the dig. That made JT’s stomach knot harder, but then they told her it wasn’t because of her. A local boy had gone missing, a bright-eyed fourteen-year old named Sam Garwick.

“He’s a small chap, but full of energy,” Harriet told JT when Mom and Dad had gone out with a search party. “Likes to drop by to sample a few of my chocolate biscuits. I should’ve realized something was wrong when he didn’t show up.”

The knots in JT’s stomachs turned to ice. She took the breakfast tray from Harriet’s arms and started nibbling on the toast. It was buttery, warm and crisp.

“When did he stop coming?” she asked, her voice squeaking a bit.

“About two days ago, before he’d come as often as Marco and Leanne did, while you and your folks were out.”

JT nodded. The minute Harriet had left, she brought her knees to her stomach.

Mom would’ve called this a “ridiculous conclusion.” Dad would’ve patted JT and told her not to be “so paranoid,” and use other big words that she’d have to look up later on.

JT slid out of bed. She rubbed her belly, winced as it gave another lurch, and then dug into her suitcase. Green Play-Doh in the tub fell out; she put it back in.

A few minutes later, she was standing in front of Harriet’s tool rack, a map of the town in her hand. She studied Harriet’s array of screwdrivers thinking that she’d return one when she came back.

If she came back.

#

So long. So much struggling. He leaned against the slippery wall, feeling tears in his eyes. The cold was making him shudder and shake.

“Help,” he croaked to the evening wind. “Please, help me.”

“Hold on.”

His head whipped up. A pair of eyes stared at him, belonging to a round face. The round face had short, dark curls and a curved nose.

“Who . . . how . . .” he started, only to find a rope tossed over. It was a purple rope.

“Can you climb? I tied it to this metal ring attached to the well because I’m too small to pull you up.”   

He grabbed the rope with both hands. It was thin plastic, but it seemed to hold.

“Double-knot,” he croaked.

“What?”

“Double-knot the rope. Please.”

There was the sound of hard plastic hitting stone, the knobs of the jump rope; then she said the rope was double-knotted and tied securely. Once he heard that, then he started pulling, bending his knees. Just a few inches, one last leap . . .

#

Made it. His hands grasped the edge of the well. He grasped and braced his feet against the stonewalls, swinging his legs over. Rolled onto the grasp, half-sobbing.

“Get up. You need to get up.” It was a girl, a young girl with dark skin. “Sam, right? I’m JT.”

“Sam,” he repeated. “Help me.”

She passed him water, opening the bottle, and pressed it to his lips. He managed a few sips, trying not to think of his clothes covered in blood. His blood.

“How . . .” he started, “how . . . how did you . . .?”

“The only well in town was here, in the woods. We have to go.” She grabbed his arm and slung it around her small shoulders. “Come on.”

He tried his best, because he wanted to live. He badly wanted to live. Sam staggered, managing something between a stagger and a crawl.

“No,” he whispered.

Marco and Leanne. Sam had known them since elementary school, but he had never known the casual indifference in their eyes, the poisonous glares they shot at his rescuer.

“Brat,” Marco said. He hadn’t even wiped the blade he was holding now, pointed at them. Leanne was holding an identical blade.

“Monsters,” the girl retorted. She dug a hand into the backpack she was carrying.

“No one will find you, and no one will care,” Marco said. “The search parties are in the far north, and your parents are there too, JT.”

“Bloody off,” JT said, and Sam wanted to laugh at how she used the swear wrong.

Marco actually did laugh. He was weighing her with his eyes, seeing how small she was. Leanne was standing there, with concern, but saying nothing. Her expression was indifferent.

“JT, we’re not going to hurt you,” she said. “This was just a game we were playing with Sam. Isn’t that right, Sam?”

“Bloody off,” JT repeated, and Leanne’s indifference broke. She laughed as well.

“You’re so adorable!”

“Crawl as fast as you can,” JT whispered to Sam, putting him down gently. “I can run, and fight. You can’t.”

She took out a small hammer, a butter knife, and a paintbrush. Leanne and Marco laughed harder when they saw the butter knife. They didn’t laugh when JT rushed them and banged the hammer into Marco’s knee.

“Crawl!” JT shouted, banging Leanne and Marco alternatively with the hammer, as if she were playing Whack a Mole.

Sam should’ve stayed. He knew that a tiny girl wouldn’t stand a chance. But he couldn’t lift his body. He could only crawl, and dig into her backpack.

Pink whistle. Old and scratched, with a dent in the end. He pressed his lips to it, and blew. Shrill sounds pierced the air. Sam kept blowing, as best as he could, against the angry night.

#

 

She had pulled Sam out, or at least given him the means to get out. And she had managed to fend off Marco and Leanne long enough for Sam to whistle for help — thank goodness she had thought about the whistle– and for her to scream as well. That had brought the searchlights, the dogs, and the people.

By the time things were sorted out, JT had required five stitches for a large gash in her left leg, while Marco and Leanne needed X-Rays for their bones.

Sam . . . Sam needed multiple surgeries, but he was alive. The doctors called him a fighter and commended his swimming stamina for keeping his heart rate steady. He had lived to tell the tale that Marco and Leanne had stabbed him after luring him to the woods behind the townhouse and dropped him down the well. Why, he didn’t know, but JT had an idea. Her mom and dad had been racked with guilt.

“This is all our fault,” Mom was saying. “Apparently Sam was born with hypotonia, so he was ‘imperfect.’ The sort of baby a Norse parent would toss down the well.”

“It wasn’t our fault, honey,” Dad said, though his voice was also constrained.

“JT shouldn’t have tried to confront them alone.”

“No, that was stupid. If we hadn’t gotten up to the townhouse in time . . .”

There was a silence. Dad poured himself a drink. JT was listening from the stairs as usual, without the stomach pains from before. Her stitches stung, but it wasn’t terrible.

“People find reasons to kill,” Dad went on. “You saw all those bodies; those were from the past year. Police said they were runaways, homeless kids from nearby cities. Marco and Leanne just wanted an excuse.”
“They’ve had a busy year,” Mom murmured. “Why didn’t we see the signs? Why didn’t they have evil grins or an obvious lack of empathy? They were so polite, and they were going to hurt our baby.”

“Hannibal Lecter was also polite,” Dad said.

“We should probably head home early,” Mom said. “I don’t feel safe, leaving JT here in the town while we go to the dig.”

JT groaned. If she had told her parents, they wouldn’t have believed her. People were missing the point that she had saved someone’s life. She was going to visit Sam in the hospital tomorrow, to see how he was doing.

“I know what I did,” she whispered to herself. “And I did the right thing. Even if I hurt all over.”

JT got up, groaning as her stitches strained, and crawled into bed. She didn’t move when a cat crawled in to join her, instead looking at the ceiling.

She turned on her side and rested, waiting for sleep to come. Her mouth closed, to hide all her secrets.

 

BIO: Priya Sridhar has been writing since fifth grade, a year after her mother forbade her from watching television all day. This led to several published short stories, one of which made the Top Ten Amazon Kindle Download list, and Alban Lake publishing her novella Carousel. She invites readers to read her blog a Faceless Author at http://pseudonymousfictionwriter.blogspot.com.