“Let not your child succumb to idle hands. A young one cannot be where they should not if they have not the time.”
Old Brenarian Proverb
Hannah winced as she slipped and skinned her knee. Sitting up, she examined the scrape. Long streaks of crimson flowed from the deep cut and stained her once immaculate spring dress. Tears welled up in her eyes. Hannah’s knee hurt but she cried for the dress. The yellow and white fabric reminded her of the wildflowers that bloomed on the mountainside near her home. Her mother spent weeks sewing it for Hannah’s seventh birthday. Hannah, her mother and her little brother Ethan celebrated with a carrot cake earlier that afternoon. Carrot cake was her father’s favorite. He had died earlier that year when a mine shaft collapsed, claiming his and several other miners’ lives. Ever since then, Hannah had adopted a love for the cake. She truly preferred chocolate but every bite of carrot cake made her feel closer to her father.
Hannah huffed through more tears. If her dog hadn’t have run off, she would have still been playing in the yard with her baby doll and Ethan.
Suddenly, Hannah stopped crying, stood up and wiped the tears from her green eyes. She was a big girl now, crying was for babies. Spinning around, facing uphill again, she looked for any signs of where Jasper might have gone. Then a low bark from some nearby bushes startled her. She relaxed and turned her attention in that direction.
Tiptoeing to the bushes, Hannah spoke Jasper’s name like a dove cooing. There was no movement. Hannah drew closer.
“Jasper?” she whispered, her hands shaking. Something nearby snapped.
Her muscles froze
Then Jasper sprung from the bushes with a happy yelp and a wagging tail. Hannah shrieked, very nearly tumbled downhill. After regaining her footing, she scrambled upright, her pulse racing.
“Look what you made me do,” she said with a furrowed brow and one hand on her hip, the other pointing to the bloodstain. Jasper tilted his head and panted, his shaggy gray fur mottled with mud and twigs. The dog’s ears perked up and his head pointed to a shadowy, wooded gorge.
“Did you hear something?” Hannah asked, brushing her strawberry blonde hair over her ear. Listening for a moment, she heard nothing. She blocked the sun with her hand, attempting to see through the grim, dark forest below.
Without warning, Jasper shot down the stony hill and into the thick evergreen tree line. Hannah scrambled after him. The crumbly hillside gave way with each of Hannah’s rushed steps, threatening to take her all the way to the bottom.
“Jasper,” she called sharply. Hannah tried to mimic the way her father would command obedience of Jasper, but the dog had disappeared into the tree line. Her frustrated voice echoed eerily against the gorge walls. A muddy stream stretched out in front of her and widened into a stagnant pool that filled the bottom of the gorge. The gorge walls were steep and the other side of the pool did not seem too far off. Maybe if he was not acting so strangely, I could find a way around, she thought. Hannah huffed, inflating her cheeks and stepped forward. Cold water rushed into her shoes and she gasped. Trudging onward, Hannah rushed through the water to get it over and done with. When she reached dry soil on the far end of the pool she kicked her feet in an attempt to shake the water out of her shoes. Wet paw prints made the dog easy to follow through the west of the winding stream bed.
The tracks stopped at the mouth of a dark cave. Hannah paused and looked around as if someone would be there to help. The cave seemed to breathe as if it were a large creature lying agape and dormant. She called Jasper’s name gingerly. It was answered by an echoing bark. Hannah clenched her fists, took a deep breath and entered the cavern.
Beatrice worked the pump handle and cool water gushed from the well’s spout and into her bucket. When it was full, she set it on the ground and dried her hands on her dress as she surveyed her cozy farmhouse on a hill. A slight smile curled the corners of her mouth as it always did when she looked out over the rolling forest and the small port city on the eastern shore. The air was so clear and still that evening that the western shore was visible as well. A rare occurrence. The island was truly beautiful that day and the evening even better. The sun dipped low on the western horizon bouncing red and orange rays off the sparkling water.
On her way back to the house she glanced at the front yard, lined with a picket fence. Her son sat playing with tin soldiers but where was her daughter? Scanning the area around her husband’s gravestone, her stomach churned.
“Ethan, where is your sister?” Beatrice asked, setting the pail down and resting her arm on the flaking fence.
Ethan pointed to the closest of two snow-capped peaks.
“Jasper ran off again?”
Ethan answered his mother with a short nod and continued playing with the soldiers, making gunshot noises.
Beatrice popped inside and hurried out with a coat for Ethan and two shawls; one for Hannah and one for herself. She shook her head. Hannah was always running after that silly dog. She frowned. It would be dark soon.
After helping Ethan with his coat, she lit a brass lantern in the waning light. The orange light radiated onto his furrowed brow. She smiled at him to expel some of his worries and rubbed his arms.
“Let’s find your sister before it gets too dark.”
With a dainty hand on the cave wall and the other feeling the cold, musty air in front of her, Hannah moved through the unknown. She could see less and less as she continued until she could see nothing at all. A faint whine came from a short distance ahead. “I’m comin’ boy. Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly.
A glimmer of light lay up ahead and she picked up her pace, stumbling over what felt like rocks but sounded strange. Whatever they were, they made a hollow tone when they struck the floor or each other like dowels made of hardwood. Drips echoed all around, amplified by the tunnel walls. Turning a corner, she entered a large chamber. A hole in the ceiling dropped a pillar of pale, blue light onto a solid stone shelf.
“Jasper,” she called sharply as the dog clambered onto the shelf. Jasper once again ignored her stern summons. She sighed, hanging her arms loosely at her side and throwing her head back in a huff. She crossed the dimly lit chamber and began climbing the shelf.
Poking over the edge, she saw the dog sniffing around the base of a strange cylindrical structure. Heaving herself over the edge, she stood and paused. It was a well. A thick stalactite dripped water into its top, disrupting the dark surface. Each drip threatened to spill over the rim of the overfilled vessel. Hannah wondered who would build a well in a dark cave. The light reflected off the surface and danced on the wall behind the well where something strange caught the girl’s eye. Hannah leaned closer, the darkness causing her to strain her eyes. Several round pale objects sat in pockets in the stone. She rubbed her eyes and leaned further when Jasper brushed against her leg. He had something in his mouth. Hannah crouched beside him and grabbed the long stick-like object. It had a texture like driftwood. One side ended with a bulbous waxy dome. The other was jagged like it had been broken. The splintered end poked her fingertips as she brought it to the light. She gasped and dropped it immediately. On the cave floor in front of her lay a long bone that had been broken in half. Scattered around the rest of the floor more bones filled the space. Hannah breathed rapidly, wide eyes fixed on her gruesome discovery. She had been stepping on them and hadn’t even realized.
She spun around and looked at the well, catching the angle of the light just right. The circular construction was made up of bones. They had been stacked meticulously and mortared together. Hands shaking, Hannah peered at the back wall again. The round objects in the wall were skulls, human skulls. Hannah fell backward, tripping over a crumpled pile of ribs. Rolling over she grabbed Jasper by the scruff on his neck.
“Let’s get out of here, boy,” she said panting and trying to figure out how to lower the dog to the cave floor. Then a faint hissing made her freeze. She stopped breathing and tilted her head to listen. She was not alone. No. That was ridiculous. It must be nothing. Then, that sound returned and chills spread all over her body. Barely audible at first, like air moving through the cavernous rock. Terror flushed over her as she could discern voices in that sound. Whispers seemed to fill the room, growing louder until they unified into one voice.
“Hannah,” whispered a shivering voice, riding on a breath that brushed the back of her neck. “Do not be frightened, child.”
Hannah turned around again, but there was no one there. Just the well of bones. Her heart fluttered. Her eyes watered. Her legs started to weaken. Her stomach turned onto itself and the taste of birthday cake and bile rose in her throat. Every ounce of her being wished she could run but something kept her still; something familiar and strangely comforting.
“Hannah,” the voice said softly as she approached the well, “I know you miss your father very much. Would you like to be with him again?” Hannah took a sharp breath. She gulped back her terror.
“Yes,” she said looking into the black water, “I want him back.” Ripples reverberated around the bone and mortar rim, revealing Hannah’s father standing behind her. She spun around but there was no one. She turned her attention back to the well.
“What kind of trick is this?” she asked. Her piercing eyes searched the well for anyone to blame for the deception.
“I can bring him back to you,” the voice said in a breathy, soothing tone. The sound of those words warmed Hannah and she smiled. She didn’t know why she believed this strange voice. She had no reason to. “All I need to bring him back to you, your brother, and your lovely mother is a drop of your blood.” Hannah blinked for a long time. “Just a drop, Hannah.”
Something inside Hannah screamed for her to run, but she couldn’t resist. The image of her father’s face stayed strong in her mind. Reaching to the cut on her knee, Hannah touched the coagulating blood, then held her fingers over the well. Her eyes glazed over and she gazed blankly through the dark depths to the bottom of the well. A drop of her precious blood lingered on her fingertips.
“That’s it, Hannah, just a drop.” This time it was her father’s voice.
The drop fell into the well, swirling into the black water.
“Hannah,” Beatrice called into the thick forest with Ethan on her hip and a lantern outstretched into the night. She wrinkled her brow as she scanned the underbrush for any sign of her eldest child.
“Mommy,” Ethan’s mouse voice crackled a little as he twirled a finger around her brunette hair, “I’m cold.” Beatrice set the lantern on a mossy, hollowed log and rubbed her son’s arms. “We’ll head back soon. We must first find your sister and Jasper.”
A faint whimper in the direction of a nearby streambed caught her attention. She picked up the light and held it out again. “Hannah,” she called, hopefully.
“I’m here, Mother.” Hannah sounded exhausted as she emerged from behind a steep bank with Jasper at her heel. Beatrice sighed and relaxed her tense shoulders. She rushed to her daughter, throwing the shawl over Hannah.
“Your dress is filthy, sweetheart”—her eyes stopped searching as Hannah’s bloody leg became clearer in the dim light—“and you’re bleeding.”
Hannah hugged her worried mother tight and began sobbing again. She explained that the dog ran off and she tripped and hurt her knee but said nothing about the cave or the well.
A thick mist rolled in that night as the family slept. Hannah’s eyes opened. She sat up next to her sleeping brother, stone-faced and eyes forward. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, her bare feet touched the cold wooden floor. The moonlight, muffled by the fog, peered in through the window, casting a blue shadow on Ethan.
He stirred as Hannah replaced the quilt over him. She wore a white nightgown that hung loosely almost to the floor. It billowed as she moved to the front door silently on the balls of her feet. She turned the handle and waited, listening for movement before opening the door. The air was cold and moist. She shivered and hugged her arms as she stepped down onto the cold ground. She went out the picket gate into the fog and knelt on her father’s grave. Her cut opened again, releasing blood into the black earth.
She picked up a handful of dirt and tossed it aside. She scooped up several more before she stopped as if to listen to someone whispering in her ear. She looked around and discovered a rusty spade leaning against the house.
Beatrice woke to the sound of a distant screech, a child’s scream. She sat up slowly and listened to be sure she wasn’t dreaming. There it was again. Hannah had experienced night terrors in the past but it had been several months since her last incident. Regardless, she could not have her waking Ethan. She sprung from her bed and darted through her dark room. Her heels thumped on the weathered floorboards as she moved across her home. Opening the children’s bedroom door, she saw Hannah standing at the window in her nightgown, covered in mud. Hannah had sleepwalked: an even rarer occurrence lately. Beatrice’s eyes darted to Ethan’s bed to make sure he was still asleep, but his bed was empty.
Beatrice spun Hannah by the shoulder to wake her, but the girl didn’t flinch.
“Hannah, where is your brother?” Beatrice’s lips were tight, her eyes wild.
Hannah’s eyes gazed right through Beatrice. The girl frowned and answered, “Father took him.”
“Sweetheart.” Beatrice’s eyes filled with tears. She stroked Hannah’s hair. This usually woke the girl from her dream without a start. “Your father has passed on. He’s not here anymore. I need you to wake up and tell me where Ethan is.”
Hannah calmly turned in her mother’s grasp and pointed out the window. Beatrice looked into the fog toward their well. A tall dark figure moved through the mist. Beatrice blinked and it was gone. Perhaps she imagined it. Hannah turned back to her mother. Her eyes were focussed on Beatrice. She was awake and her eyes were full of tears.
“I didn’t mean it, Momma. I didn’t know he would do that.”
Beatrice raised her eyebrows and her lips parted. She realized Hannah had been awake the whole time.
She shook Hannah and asked firmly once again, “Where is your brother?”
“He threw Ethan down the well.”
Beatrice’s mouth dropped and she let go of Hannah when she could see the truth in her daughter’s face. She couldn’t catch her breath until she stood, then started running. A long, loud lament rode on her exhale. She slammed the door open, pounding the ground with bare feet.
The cover was off the well.
She slid to a stop, looking inside. She placed a shaking hand over her mouth as a river of tears flowed down her burning cheeks. Deep in the well, a little boy floated face down in the water. She called Ethan’s name and it reverberated back up at her. There was no answer and the body did not stir. She called again, and again, and again. Nothing. She braced herself on the well’s stone rim as she thought she might faint. She did not notice the tall and masculine figure emerging from the fog behind her. She did not notice the rusty spade in his cold pale hands.