The following is an excerpt from A Green and Ancient Light, an unpublished collection of vignettes which I wrote in the summer of 1990.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!