Photo by cbenjasuwan, courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net
The boys all gazed into the well. Somewhere behind them the sun was dipping; the clouds tinted with a fiery glaze.
“It doesn’t look that deep” someone said, but no one answered.
They were staring into the darkness, looking at the broken ladder coated with mildew.
“It’s getting a bit late now, should we maybe come back tomorrow?”
There were mutterings. Yes, it was late now, they might be missed, there would be trouble if they weren’t home in time for dinner.
It was all because of Joseph’s brother, because he had gone off, but then that was a year ago, and no one talked about it anymore.
“I say we should come back tomorrow-”
“No” Joseph shook his head. He was paler than the other boys, leaner and dirtier. There was already earth under his fingertips from days of scrambling up hillsides and hunting for worms to dissect.
He loved the old farm more than the others. Most of the other boys just found it creepy. They found him strange too, though no one would admit it.
“This farm used to belong to our family, a long time ago,” he would tell the others proudly; it was always Joseph who persuaded them to go on adventures into the abandoned plot.
Now they were at the lip of the old well again. They had stumbled across it weeks before, but it was always too late, or too wet or too cold.
“Let’s leave it and come back another day” someone would always say.
But Joseph shook his head this time.
“No, I want to see what’s down there”
Without waiting to hear the disapproval of the others, he approached the ladder. He turned his back to the sickening sun and grasped the metal. It was cold and slippery under his hands, and as he descended, Joseph could feel a cool wind rising up from below as if to grab him him by the ankles.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” asked the eldest boy.
Joseph pretended not to hear and continued his way down the ladder. Soon he was just a pale, bobbing shape.
“Do you think we should wait for him?”
There were anxious looks exchanged between the boys above the well, they could all see how low the sun was sinking.
At the bottom of the ladder, Joseph drew in a long, damp breath. It was dark, a thick, roiling darkness that shifted before his eyes and contained a variety of mouldy, earthy scents.
The light from above seemed so far away, he could just about make out the shapes of his friends, leaning over the well mouth, peering down at him.They were anxious to leave.
The well was very deep, and its floor was a pool of stagnant water laced with algae and small, moving things, but not much else. Joseph felt a strange wave of disappointment. There had been stories, tales about an old man who had died very rich, whose wealth was never been found.
Those were only silly stories for children though. Joseph placed his hands on his hips and kicked at the well’s sides. The sound it made rang out like a bell. It was louder than he had expected, it startled him and made him slip and fall into the water.
The boys above strained to see what was going on.
“What was that noise?”
“Is he alright do you think?”
“What if something is down there after all?” the youngest boy asked, stepping back a little from the edge.
“Oh don’t be silly Tom it’s just an old well. Has your sister been telling you those daft stories again?”
The young boy grew red-faced and his friend laughed at him.
The eldest boy was growing agitated, he called into the well.
“Joe! Are you alright?”
There was no reply. Joseph was staring straight ahead where a glowing light had formed out of the darkness.
He was going to shout out, he had meant to when he saw the light, until beside it appeared a long thin finger, drawn up against thick, rubbery lips. The hand holding the source of the light extended a green, mossy fist, the fingers slowly curling back to reveal the glow. In the slick, wet palm sat pieces of gold, sparkling, and blood-red rubies, burning like hot coals.
The sun was now just a streak above the land, the night was stealing in across the hills, sending chilly tendrils out and around, cooling the earth.
“Can you see him? Is he still down there?”
“You know I thought I saw a light for a moment, perhaps he’s lit a match.”
“I can’t see anything now, but he must be down there.”
Only silences greeted the other boys as they watched for movement at the bottom of the well.
“Do you think he’ll be OK? I mean, I would wait for him but I’ll catch hell if I don’t get home in the next half hour.”
There were nods and worried looks, and for the last time someone shouted into the well.
“We’re going Joe. So why don’t you come back up, you don’t want to get in trouble do you?”
There was no reply.
“Blast him then” said the eldest. “Come on Tom.” He took the youngest by the hand and led him away, followed by the other two who cast nervous glances over their shoulders.
“You don’t think-” Tom started to say, but the elder boy shot him a look and he shut his mouth.
Night fell, and sound of voices receded into the distance.
Down in the well, the small figure nodded at Joseph, at his wide eyes still fixed on the treasures. The finger beckoned him on into darkness.
Just as the boy slipped into the tunnel behind the beckoner, he glanced down as the light it held briefly illuminated a pair of well-worn shoes that had once been quite smart. The laces were now limp and frayed. Gnarled toes poked out from the rotten black leather.
For an instant Joseph remembered his brother, standing at the door of their house in his new school clothes.