approx 2200 words, ~18 min read time
Father’s searching the house again. He clomps across the floor, flinging open cupboards and wardrobes then slamming them shut. You’re in the cellar, searching also, though he says there’s nothing there. Just oil-soaked rags, empty paint canisters, the skeletal frame of a sofa, its fabric long since eaten away, shelves and shelves of dusty cans, and half-empty boxes of strychnine beside small bottles of chloroform. And in the corner, under a stack of old canvases, a lid of damp plywood with a circular ring of rot where it meets an old well. The well’s stone lips are cracked at the edges. In the right light—not that the light is ever right in the cellar—it might look like it’s smiling. It’s all mouth and throat and stench of decay, not unlike your great aunt with her teeth out.
She sits with you in her old bedroom, grabs your arm with a withered hand and tells you about the well, how the houseboys can no longer draw water from it. There’s a girl who drowned, she says, forgetting that there haven’t been houseboys in decades, forgetting the name of the girl, or that she only pretended to drown, that she didn’t come out from her hiding spot until after a mob killed the one boy who used to play with her. It’s only later that she says, She was hiding in the attic the whole time. Came out skinny as a rake with those big fishy eyes, looking just like you. She pulls your arm closer, leans close and whispers, But the well, the well. There are bones in the well.
Your father avoids your great aunt as he rummages through closets and pantries. He still hasn’t forgiven her for forgetting where she hid her jewels, the gold bars she used to talk about, her rare coin collection. Hidden, all hidden, she once said, waving her hand airily about the kitchen, as if they might suddenly appear behind the chipped and dusty china. Now she only smiles secretly whenever he blusters about, pulling out drawers and taking a hammer to them, searching for false bottoms. When he finds nothing, he stalks from room to room, muttering, cursing your great aunt, turning off lights she’s left on, then more cursing about the cost of electricity and how the house costs so much to heat. Already, October winds blow through gaps in the siding, claw at the shingles, leave the windows fogged over, leave you shivering in the Salvation Army sleeping bag your father unfurled atop your great aunt’s old bed.
Your father says he’ll take you someplace warm. As soon as he gets enough money for a boat, you’ll sail up and down the Caribbean, just the two of you: fishing, looking for old shipwrecks, discovering new islands. He, the captain, and you, his first mate. But what about pirates, you ask, and he touches his nose and says you and he will be the pirates, afeared across the seven seas. Then he tells you to keep searching and sends you into the attic. You climb in and out of the lattice of beams, your father at the ladder holding an oil lantern aloft. Strange shadows stencil the sloping roof, catch on bony shards that are nothing more than broken chair slats. There are dead mice and rotting wicker baskets; a wire-framed bird cage and a stack of window shutters; a rocking horse with a missing eye; a single ice skate, leather, with missing laces. You find a shoebox covered in dust, but there are no coins inside, no treasure maps or jewels. Instead, yellowing photos, too hard to make out in the lantern’s dim glow.
You spread the photos across the bed. I don’t remember any of these, your great aunt says and squints at the pictures of men and women in stately dress, in fur coats and sequined gowns. A pony in a gleaming saddle. A line of uniformed staff, all white gloves and aprons. In each photo the house stands proud and sentinel, sometimes beneath an almost black sky, other times the sky as silvered as the faces beneath it. Wait, she says, and her eyes linger on a photo of two girls: one with hair pulled back, the other narrow-chinned with large serious eyes; they each have the same broad foreheads, the same furrowed brows. The tall one’s left eye droops like your great aunt’s does now as she says, See, she looks just like you, and she traces her finger across the smaller girl’s taut smile.
Pale winter light streams into the kitchen as your father hunches over the kitchen sink, opening a tin of beans for you. You show him the photo of the girls. He frowns at it, lets out a grunt, then turns his attention back to the can opener. His hands work slowly; his knuckles are still bloodied from where he punched a wall. But that was at night. Now he’s showered, shaved, his eyes small and lucid. Your grandmother, he finally says. As batty as her sister. You ask him if she really pretended to drown in the old well. What do you know about that? he asks, his eyes narrowing. He passes you the opened tin and a spoon. You forget about it, it’s dangerous. You hear? You eat and mumble, yessir. Your great aunt sits in the corner, not eating. When you ask your father if there are bones down the well, he says he told you to forget about it, and he better not catch you playing down there again. His hands shake, his shoulders too, as he picks up his hammer and turns to leave. Your great aunt watches him, humming tunelessly, her lips stretched into a wide, toothless smile.
You lay on your belly by the well’s mouth, wondering about what—or whose—bones are below. Your great aunt says they’re hungry, that they sometimes climb out searching for something to eat. You searched also, but the cellar shelves were bare but for some canned peaches tucked away beside an open sack of lye. You ate them greedily, drinking their syrup and savoring the sticky sweetness. Father promised he’d walk to the store soon, but that was three days ago. You hang your head over the edge, feel a breath blow against your cheek, a whisper curling into the whorls of your ear. I’m hungry too, you whisper back.
In the evenings, Father sweats and sips his medicine. He squats by the fireplace and prods the flames with an iron poker. Sparks fly up from the burning remains of your great aunt’s chifforobe. You sit by the hearth trying to rub warmth back into your hands now that the November frosts have come. Your father paces and drinks and asks you to list all the places you looked again, asks if you checked inside the toilet tanks, then yells at you when you hesitate. He slashes the air with the poker before letting it clatter to the floor, his body following, as if his bones gave way all at once. He moans, says, We’ll find it, won’t we, and you squeeze his hand, feel how hot he is, and tell him you’ll find everything.
It’s past midnight when your great aunt shows you the secret cache, a small box hidden behind a loose piece of moulding your father hadn’t yet taken a hammer to. Inside, a coin so dull it doesn’t reflect the moonlight. It’s probably worthless, and besides, she makes you promise to keep it safe, keep it secret. Save it for just the right wish, she says. You hold the coin to your ear, try to listen to the hum of its metal, but you only hear your father’s ragged breathing from the room next door.
Above you, the wallboards are pocked with fist-sized holes or are gone altogether, leaving only rib-like beams and skeletal plumbing behind. And there’s the incessant clomp of your father’s boots, the smashing of hammer through wood and plaster, the splintering of bed frames, of cabinets. Each night more furniture goes up the chimney, and your father smells of smoke and sweat—a sour, metallic stench that coats the back of your throat. The air is cleaner down here, by the well, where you lie on your stomach, fingering the coin, feeling its weight. You peer over the edge of the well’s lips, ask it what you should wish for, but the well holds its breath and says nothing.
Your father stares into the fireplace and shakes as you finger the coin in your pocket. Your great aunt leans next to you, perhaps reading your mind. It’s your wish and not for him, she tells you. He won’t be able to use it. Look at him, he’d just ruin it like everything else, she says, and you wonder if your father is right, maybe she is an evil, old bat. Crazy and senile. Sir, you say, your hand out, the coin catching the light of the fire and holding it. Your father looks up with a start and notices your reflection in the soot-streaked mirror above the fireplace. He straightens his shoulders and wipes spittle from his mouth and shouts at you to stop your staring. He doesn’t see your outstretched hand or your great aunt’s malevolent smile. Instead, he takes a swig of his medicine and kicks at a bedpost—your bedpost—that’s half out of the fireplace, and you know you’ll have to sleep on the damp, warped floorboards tonight. I said, stop your staring, he snarls before slumping back to the floor, his fist loose about the throat of his bottle. Behind him, his shadow flickers, chased by other shadows, and your great aunt is gone.
When the ice storms come, there’s no more furniture to burn, and the house shivers with cold. Your father no longer shaves. His hair’s grown lank and oily. He fries stale bread in a pat of lard for you, but he eats nothing, says he only needs coffee and holds a mug in a trembling hand. Your great aunt clucks her tongue as coffee sloshes over the cup’s rim. Stay away from her, your father murmurs, and you can’t tell if he’s talking to you or your great aunt. He tries to take a sip, but he can barely hold his cup, and he looks so, so tired. When you rise to help him, he shouts at you to keep away and grabs for his hammer, shaking it up and down until your great aunt tells you to come, to leave him be, and you follow her into the destroyed remnants of her bedroom.
You move your sleeping bag to the cellar, lay it on a bed of rumpled oil cloths. It’s cold, but not as icy as the rooms upstairs. Your great aunt watches the well with you and tells you more about the sleeping bones, how they miss their body, how when they wake, they’ll clamber hand over hand up the well and grant your wish. Save your coin; it won’t be long now, she says, and from the well there’s the faintest stirring, a damp breath of air that smells of peat and lye. You say you only wish Father would get better, and your great aunt smiles her terrible smile and says, Oh, child, he was never well, don’t you know that?
Father’s searching the house again, this time for you or your great aunt or for the hungry bones, you can’t be sure. His bare feet slap down the cellar stairs. His hammer scrapes the bricked-over wall. He’s shirtless and thin; his ribs are shadowed beneath his sagging chest. In the light of the cellar’s bare bulb, he looks translucent, like a burned down candle. Here you are, he says and leans heavily against a shelf, almost knocking over its boxes and bottles. When he sees the glint of metal in your hand, he totters forward, renews his grip on the hammer, and half-whispers where, where, where.
Then he squats, the mouth of the well between you and him. He rubs a hand across his jaw, opens his mouth and cries out like some poisoned animal, gums at the words until you make out give it to me, but you clamp your fist shut and tell him you can’t, you can’t, it’s for a wish, and he shakes his head, lolls it back and forth as if maybe he hears them coming, the boney fingers clawing at the sides of the well.
And now he’s raising his hammer, it’s so heavy in his hand, and maybe he wants to throw it at you, or toss it down the well, or smash the bones climbing upward, or swing it through your great aunt who sits almost touching him, who nods to you that it’s time to make your wish, that the bones will make it come true. So you shutter your eyes and throw the coin and make your wish, even though you know your great aunt’s a liar, that wishes never come true, and you dare not look. You hear the coin spin, hear the hammer clatter to the floor, hear the hollow whisper of bones. And you dare not look.
Joshua Jones Lofflin’s writing has appeared in The Best Microfictions 2020, The Best Small Fictions 2019, The Cincinnati Review, CRAFT, Fractured Lit, SmokeLong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Maryland. Find him on Twitter @jjlofflin or visit his website: jjlofflin.com
Photo by Stephanie Watters Flores on Unsplash