The Ghost in the Well
The war was bad, but there were worse things roaming the countryside. Curtiss worried with more than casual intensity as he rode the bouncing, swaying wagon north on the twin dirt ruts. He was anxious, as always, to get home to Grace. She would be waiting with something delicious after his monthly trip to Lynchburg, maybe some good food too. The day was beautiful in the worst kind of way. Curtiss wanted to enjoy it; he simply could not. Bright afternoon sunshine splitting the crisp autumn air set a halo of light around his mule team. The pair, whimsically known as Alpha and Beta, clopped a gentle rhythm through the dust. Normally, Curtiss found the sound soothing. Today, it was torture.
Something was wrong, nagging at his gut, but Curtiss let the mules set the pace. He knew well enough that pushing the old critters would tempt them to stop dead in their tracks and refuse to move until he provided proper incentive in the form of tasty treats. Yes, his mules were spoiled, like every other living thing under his care. Even his crops were overindulged, which is why he could command good coin from old Jack for the corn he had hauled south that morning. He felt the weight of the Northern gold in his vest, and thought lovingly of the case of aged whiskey in the wagon behind him. Curtiss had happy plans for that smoky brown liquid, but for now, he could only worry and drive his team.
The first rational hint of trouble billowed black on the short, wooded horizon. Curtiss made a groaning sound and, ignoring his own rule, cracked the reins to compel more speed out of the mules. They humped along with their jagged gait for almost half the distance home. As soon as they reached the last patch of oak trees, Alpha decided that the shade was the perfect place to rest. Beta had no choice but to play along, and both mules came to a halt, hooves skidding as the weight of the wagon pushed them just a bit farther. Curtiss was edging towards panic, but he knew better than to waste time with the mules. He set the brake and leaped from his perch, legs already running before he touched the ground.
Curtiss was old, but he was tough, and his young wife was in trouble. The half mile sprint didn’t do more than fill him with adrenalin, which fed his fear and made him run faster. As he broke through the woods, he saw flames shooting from the Becker place, just east of his own little cabin. He allowed himself that split second of relief until he got a clear line of sight on his home. It, too, was in flames.
He leaped over the little picket fence that Grace had wanted. He knew it was useless when he built it, but it made her happy, and that was enough reason to listen to the other men laugh at the delicate white border. The cabin was built of heavy logs. The fire would take it, sure enough, but the wood was putting up a fight. The roof edges were burning in open flames, and the middle of the roof was leaking smoke through the seams in the split shingles. A column of flame was literally blasting out of the tiny east window as a shrieking wind was drawn through the open front door. The walls still held fast.
Curtiss took the porch in a bound and hurled himself through the gray smoke curtain inside the door. Grace was lying unconscious on the floor. It was hard to see much of anything, but in a horrible stroke of luck, she fell right at the border of the impenetrable haze and the fast flowing river of sooty air feeding the east window. Curtiss could feel his face cooking and smell the hair crisping on the right side of his head. Any second, he imagined that his woven straw hat would burst into flames and leave him scorched and bald. He jumped over his wife, grabbed her under the armpits, and started backing for the door. He lived the next fifteen seconds in one of those running dreams. He must escape, but he could only move ever so slowly. Whatever was after him would surely catch him before he got away.
In what felt like an hour later, Curtiss was dragging his beautiful wife across the dry grass. He was beyond thought now. He lacked the mental function to decide how far was safe, but a stump decided for him. The backs of his boots caught, and he rolled over the stump and back to his feet in a single motion. By chance, Grace was resting her head against the base in a manner that looked almost comfortable, if he could ignore the blackened cotton dress, the clumps of burned hair, the masses of blistered skin, and the inexplicable blood. The ragged edges of conscious thought returning, Curtiss glanced at the cabin, where the heavy log walls were beginning to burn in earnest. He decided Grace was far enough to be safe from the fire.
Curtiss dropped to his knees beside her and called her name, softly at first, then louder. Finally, her lashless eyelids flickered, and she looked up at him with the last expression he ever expected. She smiled weakly and reached for his hand. He took it and almost winced as he felt the crispiness of her once-milky skin.
“Curtiss,” she whispered.
“Yes, My Love. I’m here.” Tears began to roll from his grit-filled eyes.
“Grace! What happened?” He leaned forward and instinctively tried to span the distance to her retreating spirit.
“Brigands,” Grace said, coughing away the last of her strength. “Seven men.”
“No.” Curtiss felt the darkness reaching upward through him.
He shook himself free of the dreams of vengeance. “Yes, My Dear?”
“Let me go. Let me…” Grace shuddered and her spirit broke free.
No. Curtiss called out to his friends, his Gods, anything he could pull inside. His sympathetic friends had problems of their own. The fire was leaping high enough to catch the canopy of the trees, and the buzz of panic was loud in his head. He asked anyway. He could fix this, with some help. He tried. He pulled energy from all around him, and focused it on the task of putting his wife back inside her body. The undergrowth trembled and rippled in concentric waves. A two-toned drone surrounded both ends of the roaring fire, and Curtiss caught her, held her. He strained with everything he had learned in a very long life, but there was not enough left. He could not pull her back into her body. She would go.
Still holding her tightly, he looked to the sky. Just a little more, he said to God. As usual, God was too busy to talk. As Curtiss dropped his eyes and prepared for a real goodbye, he spotted the well. It was out in the grass, just beyond the patch of woods he called home. He had built a storybook top for his well, with white painted sides, and a perfect pitched roof. The whole thing was glowing to his eyes, calling, telling him something. Maybe God was paying attention. Then he had it. He could not bring her back to life, but he could keep her with him. He carefully connected Grace’s spirit to the well. She would stay.
Curtiss knew he was successful. His friends told him that much. Grace, on the other hand, said nothing. She was angry.
The cabin smoldered for a long time. Before the ashes cooled, Grace’s body was lovingly buried in her favorite flower garden, and seven men were left to rot in the open countryside.
Keith Glover knew exactly what to do for Halloween. Living way out in the country left little opportunity for things like trick-or-treating or costume parties, but there was one thing that everyone knew. There was a ghost at the old well. Keith had never actually seen it, unless he counted rare glimpses of a blurry light near the wellhead at night. His parents always blamed it on lightning, or gas from the well, but they knew. Everyone knew, except for Keith’s cousin, Charles.
Keith was like most seventeen-year-old boys. He was reckless, aggressive, and just smart enough to think he knew everything. The first thing he knew was that his cousin was a Yankee, and therefore dumb as a fencepost. Keith’s aunt Betty lost her husband in a factory fire in Michigan, and her sister had done what families did during the Great Depression. They pulled together and made do. Betty and Charles had come to live with the Glovers in early September, and they were still coping with the loss of a husband and father, along with the hard culture shock of moving from city life in Detroit to a raw country existence in the South. Keith’s mother had given him the usual speech about being nice to his cousin, and Keith had spent most of his time trying to maneuver around the mandate.
Here was the perfect opportunity. Keith would look like he was being nice, entertaining his cousin on Halloween, when his real plan was to scare the living daylights out of an ignorant Yankee. Keith imagined Charles’s pinched voice screaming in terror, and smiled with evil glee. Even with no ghost, Charles would be scared senseless out by the shoddy old well at night. After a clever round of excuses, Keith dragged his reluctant cousin out the front door and into the Halloween night. A prefect red moon loomed in the chilly night air.
Keith took his time building the event, telling imaginary stories of people who had visited the well and never returned. He even told a story about a little girl who had met the ghost. By his telling the girl came home with gray hair and never spoke again. By the time the teenagers laid eyes on the well from across the field, Charles was ready to bolt for home. Keith was beginning to feel skittish about the whole plan himself. The boys watched for a long time before they approached the wellhead. There was no sign of a ghost.
Keith finally grabbed Charles’s arm and pulled him out of the bushes. They walked the dewy grass slowly, alert to any kind of movement. When Keith reached the well, he was fighting to maintain his air of bravado. He made a bold move to look down into the shaft of the well, although he almost expected something to burst out at him. Charles was standing on his toes, two cautious steps behind. Nothing. Still, when Keith pulled his head back, he bumped it on the dangling bucket. The thump and rattle of the windlass almost sent him into a sprinting retreat. He held his ground while Charles began to make tiny noises in his throat. Keith listened for a few moments and decided that his cousin was saying some kind of prayer.
To cover his own quaking fear, Keith announced, “Well, sorry cuz. No ghost tonight.”
Charles breathed an audible sigh of relief and turned to walk away. His motion was interrupted by a loud, wooden knocking noise sounded from the trees nearby. The boys froze. The knocks were followed by a blood curdling howl from the same direction. Charles grunted as if he had been struck. Keith was preparing to run when he saw the faint blue light. Then he couldn’t have moved if he tried. The light meandered out of the trees, heading directly for the boys. As it approached, it began to resolve into a recognizable human form. They were transfixed by the sight. The light became a young woman, a beautiful woman with blonde hair, showing blue, but bright enough that it could only have been golden in life. She had large eyes and an oval face that came to a rounded point below a full mouth and smallish nose. She was wearing an ankle length, old fashioned dress with puffy shoulders and an intricate pattern stitched down the front. By the time the ghost arrived, she was perfectly clear to the eye. Without the bluish glow, they could have been looking at any woman on the street.
That is, until she walked right through them and took a casual seat on the edge of the well.
“Hello, boys.” The voice sounded normal. Keith was sure that ghosts only spoke in moans. He at least expected an echo.
Charles spoke first, out of well-trained manners. “Uh. Hello, madam.”
The ghost smiled at him, and his fear changed to something more akin to a crush. Then she turned to Keith. “What brings you out on a cold Halloween night?”
Keith could not speak.
She answered for him. “Let me guess. You decided to bring your young friend out here to scare him for your own mean-hearted entertainment.”
Keith’s mouth dropped open, but no sound came out.
The ghost waved her hand in a spontaneous circle. “Oh, it happens all the time. Boys about your age like to prove themselves by meeting the ghost.”
“They do?” Charles asked, openly amazed that he was having a normal conversation with this ethereal creature.
“Oh, yes. Sometimes even girls try it. There are some very mean young ladies in the world, but I’d have to say it comes more naturally for boys.” The ghost frowned. “There’s one small problem.”
“There is?” Charles took an involuntary step backwards as he asked the question.
“Imagine you were eating supper around your dining table. If I were to suddenly appear, uninvited, you would call that inconsiderate or even rude. No one likes unexpected visitors, especially if they happen to be dead. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Well, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, I suppose I would,” Charles replied.
“For obvious reasons, boys, I don’t have a dining room, but I could fairly say that you two are standing in my living room, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I don’t remember inviting anyone.” The ghost took on a stern expression.
“We’re sorry, ma’am. I can’t speak for my cousin, but it would never occur to me to think of a field as a living room.” Charles had almost forgotten he was addressing a ghost. He was speaking as if he had been scolded by a particularly attractive teacher.
“Your apology is accepted, young man,” the ghost said with a sharp nod of her head, “But it’s not that simple. You see, I’m just a spirit. I can only frighten you. I can’t harm you or affect you in any other way. It was never me you needed to worry about.”
“It wasn’t?” Charles felt a cold shiver. “Who…”
“Oh,” she said, raising her hand to point behind them, “Just my husband.”
The boys turned in comic unison. They saw a wild-haired old man standing ten feet behind them. He was holding a shotgun and accompanied by the biggest black dog they had ever seen. The dog pulled his lips back in a snarl and growled with a bass rumble that was more felt than heard. The old man racked the shotgun and grinned silently with a purely insane expression in his eyes.
Charles yelped and moved first. Keith’s instincts finally broke through his locked mental machinery, and he began to run as well. The boys disappeared in seconds, but could still be heard screaming for quite some time.
Curtiss turned to his wife, still smiling, but without the crazy eyes. “That was a good one, My Dear. Well played.”
Grace returned his happy smile. “Happy Halloween, My Silly Old Man. I know how you look forward to it every year.”
They dissolved into helpless laughter while the big black dog panted with contentment.
Happy Halloween! Thank you for reading.