I’ve come across a treasure trove of folklore recently that involved water-dwelling creatures. Nymphs, naiads, selkies, and mermaids have been represented as everything from graceful goddesses to sinister serial killers with variations found in cultures across the globe. I was inspired to work on this short story that is still undergoing revisions, but I thought I would share the first third. Feel free to leave any constructive criticism.
If Eddie Dobbs hadn’t fallen down the well and broken his neck no one would have known she was down there.
The cobblestone well was only there for decoration now that the city had extended the water mains to the reach the lake houses and condos across Clairmont Cove. The trailers at the Wheelwell Trailer Park were arranged in a figure eight, and the well sat at the top of the hill in the lower loop. There was only ever a few inches of water at the bottom, the accumulation of what slid through the holes in the termite-riddled roof. At the bottom was a collection of broken bottles, paper trash, and the occasional coins from the local children when they were feeling fanciful. The landlord’s wife thought the well was cute, but thanks to the occasional mice and moles rotting in the inch or so of runoff a putrid smell of roadkill hovered around it.
It was Fourth of July weekend. Eddie and his friends staggered up from a lake party held off someone’s rented pontoon boat. He was drunk and unsteady on his feet. The combination of too much alcohol, an empty belly, and the sudden smell of decomposing rodent sent him lurching toward the well to throw up. When the side of the wall crumbled his friends didn’t have time to catch him before he fell in headfirst. There was a loud crack when he hit the bottom like a stick snapping across a knee. His friends immediately sobered. One called 911 while the other ran back to the party for help.
Sam Scott heard the story for the fourth time where he stood next to the horrified teenagers behind the waiting ambulance. Between the police officers, firefighters, and EMT workers someone had draped blankets around them and pushed coffee-filled styrofoam cups into their hands. They had been standing there for going on three hours. By now their parents had arrived, but the boys refused to leave until Eddie was rescued. No one had the heart to tell them that it was more a recovery than a rescue.
The well was deeper than expected—at least twenty feet to the bottom. While the hole had about a three-foot diameter, there wasn’t enough room for a rescue worker to rappel down and bring the boy up without doing more damage—on the off-chance he was still alive. They brought in a drill to cut a new channel down alongside the well shaft.
Between the drilling, the flashing red, blue, and orange lights, and the wailing of Mrs. Dobbs, none of the residents dared get any sleep. A few set up lawn chairs to watch from their front yards. They set out coolers filled with sympathy beers.
Sam volunteered to go down. He was only 5’5″ and two summers ago he had rappelled down to two hikers who’d fallen from Freedmont’s Bluff, so he was the most experienced person for the job. One of the drill operators gave him a yellow hard hat with a headlamp buckled across the front. Grim-faced, Sam let himself be lowered down the twenty-foot tunnel. The walls were wet and rough, and mud smeared along his legs and arms as he descended.
It wasn’t enough just to get to the bottom, however. There was still the matter of bridging the new shaft to the well shaft. The team had done their best to drill them as close together as possible, but Sam guessed there were still about three feet to go before he could reach the boy. He unclipped his harness and got out of the way so they could drop a bucket and trowel. He got to work immediately, but it was slow work.
After half an hour they sent a second man down to speed things up. John Reynolds came equipped with a shovel and two bottles of water.
“How much longer, do you think?” asked Reynolds after fifteen minutes. Sam had created a whole about three feet in diameter. Sweat poured off him and the earthy dankness filled his airways with flem. Despite the flashlight, his eyes strained.
“It shouldn’t be much farther,” he said. He tapped the dirt wall with his trowel and struck stone. “That’s got to be the well wall.” He wiped his face on his sleeve. This was the part he wasn’t looking forward to.
Crawling forward on his stomach he put his mouth near the wall and called, “Eddie, if you can hear me, we’re about to break through.” He felt silly. Everyone topside knew the boy was dead. Even if the fall hadn’t killed him he’d been unconscious now for too long. Still, Sam held out a faint hope that he was about to witness a miracle.
Using the butt of his trowel he hammered on the rock wall as hard as he could. Surprisingly, it didn’t take nearly as much force as he’d expected for the weakened caulk to give way. The round stones broke loose and spilled across the bottom of the well with a muffled clatter. They made a soft flump when they ran up against the body.
“I’m through!” Sam called over his shoulder for Reynolds to relay to the rest of the team. He crawled forward again and tried to peer through the fist-sized hole he’d made to get a better idea of where he was in relation to the boy. He reached up to aim his flashlight into the gloom.
A wide, green face looked back at him. It let out a hiss like a cottonmouth before spitting black venom into his eyes. Sam screamed as acid seared his eyeballs. Reynolds grabbed him by the ankle and hauled him backwards. His questions turned to shouts of horror when he saw the red angry sores covering Sam’s face.
“Water! We need water down here quick!” he shouted up the airshaft. But Sam already knew it was too late. He could feel the skin bubbling around his eye sockets. He scrubbed at his face with his gloved hands, not caring about bacteria or infection, desperate to get the poison off his skin. A lump of melted flesh stuck to his leather glove and peeled away from his cheek. He screamed again.
A bottle of water thumped to the ground beside them. Reynolds tore off the plastic cap and emptied it over Sam’s eyes, but it wasn’t enough. He murmured a string of reassurances punctuated by occasional swearing at the shock of what he was seeing.
“Where is it? Don’t let her touch you!” Sam scrambled blindly in the direction he hoped was away from the hole. Reynolds grabbed the neck of his shirt to stop him from running face-first into the tunnel wall.
“More water!” he shouted.
She was on them before the second bottle fell.
Her skin was the dark green of an algae-choked swamp. A milky film coated the round, flat eyes. She blinked horizontal lids against the glare of their headlamps. Her hands were wide and webbed as she reached for them. Where fingers should have been were white cartilage tubes that ended in sharp points.
She surged through the hole with the speed and force of water bursting a dam.
Reynolds shoved Sam in front of him and covered his face. Sam staggered and fell, but he felt the wet slap of her seaweed hair slap his cheek as she moved past him. He grabbed her from behind and stabbed his trowel deep into the side of her neck.
Thick, gooey liquid oozed over his hand. She gave a rasping screech as her head arched back. A spitting sound came from the embedded trowel like a wet log thrown on a fire. She flopped three times before she slumped sideways and lay still.
Wheezing, Sam collapsed, exhausted with agony, confusion, and fear. He left it to Reynolds to call for the harness. Reynolds shook uncontrollably, keeping up a steady murmur of denial under his breath about what had just happened. He couldn’t fasten the carabiners because his hands were shaking and he couldn’t stop looking at the dark, motionless shape.
Sam suspended in a haze of red agony. There were gasps when his head appeared above ground.
“Get back! Everyone, back! Get him out of there!”
“There’s something down there,” he panted. “A monster….” He gave himself over to the hands that undid the harness and ushered him onto the stretcher prepared for Eddie. More water poured over his face. Questions flew at him from every direction but his mind swum. Already his mind tried to rewrite the attack into something normal, but there was no veneer of normalcy that could explain away what he’d seen. Trying was only making his brain shut down.
“Stand back. Give him space! Where’s Eddie?” There was a flurry of activity when Reynolds came up next instead of the boy.
“I’m not going back down there!” Reynolds shouted. “She can have him for all I care.” The rescue team tried to get him to calm down, but Reynolds would not—could not—be pacified. It took two firefighters to restrain him long enough to get his account of what had happened.
Stunned silence followed his story. One of the teens craned his neck to peer into the well. His mother caught him by the elbow and pulled him away. There was the rapid tread of feet backing away in the churned up earth. They might not believe Reynold’s story completely, but they only had to look at Sam’s face to know that something evil had been lurking at the bottom of the well.
“What about Eddie?” shrieked Mrs. Dobbs. “You can’t just leave him down there!” She lunged for the well, but one of the drill operators caught her by the shoulders and kept her back. Her face crumpled as though the bones simply disintegrated. She wailed, demanding they save her son.
Everyone looked at the two traumatized men. Sam didn’t hear what happened after that. By then he had been bundled into an ambulance and felt the blissful relief of a morphine drip inserted into his arm. The glistening skin of his eyelids would not close, but his eyelids rolled into the back of his head and he sank into an oblivion he did not expect to escape.