Now its blue-grey rocks were pocked and waterstained, and a wooden board covered the opening.
Auntie Rose’s was the perfect place for an eleven-year-old to find adventure. Her house was all flaking wood and lichen-covered tiles and those little stained-glass panels beside the door that distorted the world into yellow and red. Mum would bring one of her famous teacakes and Auntie Rose would tell her about her new council project, and I would roam the backyard.
The garden was sporadic, a mess of trees and shrubs and flowerbeds. “Be careful around the old well!” Mum would yell, and I’d shout “Yes Mum!” as I bounded out the back door.
But I was more curious than careful, and as soon as I was out of sight I’d duck behind the wispy pines and creep up to the well.
Years earlier—perhaps centuries, to my mind—it must have looked exactly like the sort of thing you’d find in a fairy tale. Now its blue-grey rocks were pocked and water-stained, and a wooden board covered the opening. The bucket, frame and winch were long gone. Sometimes I found blackened splinters in the grass, and I wondered if they were all that remained.
I didn’t get too close at first. Mum had warned me if I fell in I might break my leg or my neck, that it was so deep I wouldn’t be able to climb out. I imagined myself stuck down there, withering away until I was only a skeleton. So instead I’d grab the longest stick I could find and poke at the well-stones from a distance. The mortar was starting to crumble away, and if I poked the right spot I could send insects scrambling for cover—millipedes and shiny beetles and little brown cockroaches with questing antennae.
Over time, I’d get closer, creeping forward to brush my fingers against the stone, then skipping back. I dared myself to touch them for longer and longer, counting one-cat-and-dog, two-cat-and-dog before darting away. The stone always felt cold and damp, even when it was scorching outside. One day as I counted five-cat-and-dog, fingers pressed against its cool surface, I swore I could hear water dripping in the well.
When I went inside, I asked Mum and Auntie Rose about it. “You didn’t go near it, did you?” Mum asked accusingly, and I shook my head, even though I could still feel the well-stones’ imprint on my fingers. “Course not, Mum,” I said. “Just curious.”
Rose patted my arm. “It’s all dried up, Kaia,” she said. “No one uses it anymore. The couple I bought this house from had a superstition. Told me to never use the well, but never demolish it either. Said they heard something whispering down there.” I must’ve looked horrified, because Mum shot her a stern look, and Rose hurriedly offered me a slice of teacake.
The next time we were there, I knelt by the well, hands and chest pressed to the well-stones, and tilted my head over the wooden board. Drip. Drip. Drip. I dropped my head lower, rough wood brushing my ear. Drip. Drip. Drip.
There was another sound beneath the dripping noise—a sort of rustling. Or perhaps it was like Auntie Rose had said—a whispering. But it wasn’t quite a whispering either. It was something else.
I scrambled back from the well until I crashed into one of the pines. You’re just hearing things, I told myself. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something down there. And for the first time, it had noticed me.
If a well-creature did exist, I determined to let it know I meant no harm. So I went to one of Auntie Rose’s flowerbeds, and broke a flower off at the stem, a purple pansy with a ring of white on each of its petals. Back at the well, the wooden board was stuck firm over the opening; I shoved it hard, just enough to make a tiny gap. I let the pansy fall from my fingers, watching it disappear into the blackness. It suddenly felt as though the dark opening went on forever. Heart pounding, I hefted the board back over the well, and hurried back inside.
From that point on, each time I came over to Rose’s I delivered a gift to the well. Most were found in Rose’s garden—a white-and-yellow daffodil, a shiny acorn, a long sprig that smelt strongly of pine. At school I found a lorikeet feather, half-green, half-yellow, with tiny wisps of grey. I placed it carefully between the pages of my English book, and carried it the whole way home. The next time we went to Rose’s, I watched it drift down into the well until it was swallowed by the inky black.
Summer arrived, and Rose’s gerberas had begun to flower. I picked two—one a warm orange-red, the other a sunny yellow. I made my way to the well, cradling the flowers against my chest with one hand so I wouldn’t crush their fragile petals. With my free hand, I pushed at the board. It wouldn’t budge, so I dug my feet into the ground, pressing my whole forearm against the board and shoving, shoving, shoving with all my might.
The board gave way, and I tumbled forwards, plunging into the dark, flowers spilling from my hands, clutching empty air and falling, falling—
“Kaia!” I heard Mum’s voice, felt grass beneath me, opened my eyes. I lay under the pines, several metres from the well. “Oh sweetheart, you’re alright!” Mum said. “We heard a crash, and I thought…”
Auntie Rose peered over at the well. “Cover’s fallen in. It must’ve rotted away.”
“Good thing you weren’t too close,” Mum said, pressing a hand to my cheek. “You must’ve fallen asleep out here, huh?”
Blinking, I went to push my hair out of my eyes, and my fingers bumped against something soft. I realised something was perched on my head. “It looks lovely,” Mum smiled. “I never knew you were such an artist.”
I struggled to keep the confusion from my face as I lifted the thing out of my hair. It was a crown, made of the twisted sprig of pine. There was the acorn, perched prettily beside the daffodil. On the opposite side was the lorikeet feather, the two bright gerberas spreading their petals beside it. And in the centre was the purple pansy, as bright and fresh as the day I had picked it.
Auntie Rose frowned. “I thought the pansies had stopped blooming by now,” she said.
“It’s the well you should be worried about,” Mum said. “You should really get it filled in.” She looked at me with a gentle expression. “And we should get you home. You must be tired.” They began walking back towards the house, beckoning me to follow.
I took one last look at the now uncovered well, clutching the crown in my hands. “Thank you,” I whispered, “for saving me, and for the crown.”
The wind stirred, a whisper in my ear. “Thank you,” I heard, “for your gifts.” I smiled, turning towards Mum and Auntie Rose. The wind stirred again, cool against my cheek.
“And thank you, Kaia, for setting me free.”