Thursday, 1 May 2014

Short story: 'Rochele in the Well'

Copyright ©2014 James M. Russell 

It was an amazing kick for a kid.
Solid, on target, and arcing just the way Rochele liked it – up, up, up – then down, so there was no way a goalie could have blocked it. There was, however, no goalie because Rochele was playing by herself in her backyard. And there was no goal other than the three metre span between two Maple trees that served as goal posts. But if there had been a goalie, and a real goal, she would have scored for sure. That is if the ball hadn’t brushed a tree branch and dropped into that abandoned well that her mom was always warning Rochele to stay away from.
Peering down through the rotted-out boards that used to cover the well’s entrance, Rochele didn’t think that it looked all that dangerous. And it couldn’t have been very deep because Rochele could sort of see her ball at the bottom. So, she decided badly – as kids sometimes do – and set her right foot on a solid-looking rock about a meter down and began lowering herself ever so carefully into the well.
Rochele was doing fine until the second rock she chose suddenly broke away from the wall and she plummeted nearly five metres through the stale, damp air. Fortunately the waist-deep water, although slimy and black, at least cushioned her fall. The first thing Rochele noticed after struggling to her feet and wiping the water from her eyes was that the air smelled bad, kinda like something had…
Just then, a large bubble of air raced up her left leg and burst on the water’s surface – not with a "pop."
“Liiiite” the bubble seemed to say.
      But Rochele hardly gave the bubble any notice as she began to explore the walls with her hands – only to find them a slippery, gooey mess. She was happy however when she discovered nice, thick pieces of light-grey-coloured wood sticking out the wall at odd angles. Perfect for climbing, she thought. But the first piece of wood Rochele grabbed broke off as soon as she put a little weight on it, as did the second, and the third. It seemed as if climbing to the top was going to be a little more difficult than she had expected.
      Rochele considered shouting for help. But that would have alerted her father, or worse, her mother, to the fact that Rochele has broken yet another stupid rule for which the punishment would almost certainly be grounding. Rochele's brain was busy formulating an alternate plan when she thought she heard a woman moan.
“Who’s that?” Rochele demanded, then laughed at herself and mumbled, “Silly. It was just your stomach growling stu…”
But Rochele’s sentence fell short when, through the darkness, she noticed something that looked kinda like a bunch of sticks move through the wall.
      The ‘something’ seemed to have arms, legs, and a body but it was covered with thick, black mud so it was hard to tell for sure. So, Rochele decided to touch it. Sure, she was a little afraid but in the murky darkness, she had to know if this ‘something’ was just her eyes playing tricks on her or…. which was impossible because Rochele absolutely did not believe in ghosts.
      Rochele’s hand was only a few inches from the wall when she heard a baby cry as if it was in terrible pain.
      From somewhere behind, a raspy voice shouted.
      “Shut that kid up, I'm trying to enjoy the light!”
Rochele twirled left, then right, and then left again, trying to see where the voice came from. Suddenly a woman's smiling face bulged through the mud wall directly in front of her. Rochele jumped with fear when the woman began to speak in a hollow voice that drifted listlessly through her gaping, toothless mouth.
“Jack, we talked before about that kind of language. Hello little girl. Sorry if we frightened you. What’s your name Sweetie Pie?”
Rochele answered without thinking. “Rochele,” then noticed that the mud woman was holding a tiny mud baby in her arms.
“Rochele, that’s a lovely name. My name is Henrietta and this is Thelma. Thelma dear, say hello to Rochele. Rochele has come for a visit.”
            Henrietta caressed Thelma’s head then turned toward Rochele.
             “Your light scared her, but that’s OK.”
            Rochele paused, not sure whether she should even speak to this strange woman. Finally, she stammered, “L..light?”
            Just as Henrietta opened her mouth to answer, another woman called out from somewhere deep in the wall behind Rochele.
            “Henrietta, do we have company?”
            “Yes Mrs. Felsen, a little girl. Come out and meet her. Her name is Rochele.”
             Rochele wasn’t sure that she wanted to see any more of these mud people, so she was glad when Mrs. Felsen replied in a cracked voice, “Oh I can't, I'm not dressed. You see I wasn’t expecting… let me just have a peek…oh my, she’s so bright. It’s so nice to have light down here after so many, many years.”
            Henrietta held out her bony hands toward Rochele, as if warming them by a campfire, then smiled, “You Surface People give off such a wonderful light and yours Sweetie Pie, is especially bright.”
            Mrs. Felsen laughed with delight, “Oh, how it warms my old bones.”
“That’s Mrs. Gladys Felsen, born January 3, 1797, died February 24, 1880 – wife of Jack Felsen, devoted daughter of John and Edna O’Flattery.”
Henrietta pointed her bony finger toward the opposite wall, “Old sourpuss is Jack Simson, without the “p”, born 1764, died 1864, loving, although some doubt it, husband of Mildred.”
“Ahh, are you all dead?” Rochele asked with both caution and curiosity.
The ferocity of Jack’s laugh hurt Rochele’s ears and made her stomach tighten with fear.
 “Most people buried in graveyards are, dead that is.”
            At that point Rochele decided that she had had quite enough of this dream so she closed and opened her eyes several times, each time hoping that she would wake up to find herself lying in her bed. But Rochele remained in the well.
            “It’s a dream, right?”
            Henrietta spoke in a calm, kind tone. “I’m afraid not. Sweetie Pie.”
 “Is our visitor going to stay for tea, Henrietta?” Mrs. Felsen shouted as if everyone was as hard of hearing as she.
            “No! Thank you. I have to go home. My parents will be worried. Sooooo, could you help me to the top, please.”
              But Henrietta didn’t seem to be listening. “You have such a wonderful light. Couldn’t you just stay a while? It would do all of us so much good. Then, after your light fades, you could join us. We’re a friendly bunch.”
            Jack agreed, “So that settles it, finder’s keepers."
            “No!” Rochele shouted, “They taught us in kindergarten that you have to put things back where you found them. It’s rule number three.”
            Mrs. Felsen answered immediately, “OK, how about this? First spend a few days then go home. That’s rule number four. Share everything."
            Rochele responded angrily “Who says!”
            “Sweetie Pie, Mrs. Felsen is a kindergarten teacher, retired of course. She would know all the rules.”
            “Rule five. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you." Rochele countered.
            Then Jack, clearly a man who loved a good fight, added mischievously, “Now which number is, ‘all things die, so do we?’ "
            Rochele answered immediately, “None of them! Not one! Besides, I’m a kid.”
Just then a large bubble burst to the surface, only this time Rochele distinctly heard a tired, breathless man grunt the word “Girl.”
            “Who was that?” Rochele gasped but her question hung in the air for the longest time before Jack finally whispered, “The Below People.”
            “Jack! You know the rules. We mustn't speak of them.” Mrs. Felson shouted angrily.
            Jack, however, could have cared less. “Nonsense, old woman. I’ll talk about whoever I damn well want to talk about.”
            “Who are the Below People?” Rochele asked Henrietta.
            “None of your concern” Jack retorted.
            “Lean closer Sweetie.” Rochele moved closer to the wall and listened as Henrietta whispered.
             “They passed away many, many years ago. Mostly pirates, escaped convicts, gypsies and the like. Not nice people.”
            “Now that they know she’s here, they’ll want her for sure.” Jack said bitterly.
Rochele saw a small section of the wall tremble for a moment then bulge. The old man’s face, the lower half consumed by a mud caked beard, emerged from the wall of mud and turned toward Henrietta.
“But they can’t have her. The light is ours. We found her first,” he proclaimed.
Just then Rochele thought she felt something try to brush across her leg.
            “That’s very real interesting," Rochele said nervously, “but you know it’s getting late and I have school tomorrow so if somebody could just help me up.”             
The water surrounding Rochele heaved and several bubbles burst to the surface, each containing one word of the demand…
            “Send! Us! The! Girl! Send! Her! Now!”
              Jack shouted angrily at the black water.
               “Over my dead body!”
              And at that moment the water erupted with a million bubbles.
               “Oh dear, now you’ve got them angry,” whispered Henrietta as the water level began to rise again.
Rochele decided that she had had enough so she crouched down in the water then sprung as high as she could and dug her fingers into the muddy wall. From there she managed to climb perhaps a metre before she slipped, fell back into the water and sank beneath the surface.
            “Damn it, the bastards have got her now.” Jack shouted.
Henrietta just sighed and was about to turn away when Rochele suddenly resurfaced. After struggling to her feet, Rochele slapped her hand on the surface of the water.
“Hey, play fair!”
            The water erupted again and didn’t stop rising until it nearly reached Rochele’s chest. Jack was amused by the poetic justice of it all.
              “Well, well, look who's talking about fair. Do you think that it’s fair that our headstones were knocked over and covered with dirt just because some Surface Person…”
            “A developer” Henrietta interjected.
            “Quite right. A developer wanted to build a bunch of insipid town houses.”
            “Which were never built.”
            “Exactly Henrietta, never built, but that’s how you Surface People left us. Our identities denied. Our final resting place obliterated.”
            “Rochele doesn’t know what ‘obliterated’ means and in all honesty Jack, that whole thing happened years before she, or her parents were even born.”
            “Stop apologising for them Henrietta! Don’t you think they could have righted the wrong? Many generations could have cleaned up the mess their ancestors made, but no, those Surface People couldn’t care less. It’s a crime the way they treat us.”
              “He has a point, Sweetie Pie. Clean up your mess, it’s rule number six I believe.”
            “But I always clean up m..”
            Suddenly a torrent of bubbles, each containing an angry, muffled word, burst from below, cutting Rochele’s sentence short. When the bubbles stopped the water had nearly risen to the little girl’s neck.
              “Poor dear, they’re to take her” Mrs. Felsen sighed.
            “No! They can’t! I want to go home!”
            “Oh, stop it. I’m sick to death of all your whining.” The old man shouted.
            Jack paused for a moment to reflect on his words then cackled, “Sick to death? I said ‘sick to death’” and he began laughing and laughing. Mrs. Felsen soon joined in; meanwhile, the water began to rise again.
            Rochele began treading water, just like she learned in swimming class, but was having trouble keeping her body high enough to prevent the bitter-tasting water from pouring into her mouth. 
            “Help! Mommy! Daddy! Help!” She gasped. 
            Eventually, Jack and Mrs. Felsen’s laughter faded into exhausted chuckles and Henrietta took the opportunity to speak.
            “I really am quite disappointed with the two of you.”
           “Oh fiddlesticks. You have to admit that ‘sick to death’ is pretty damn funny.”
            “I do not have to admit anything of the kind.”
            “Yes, you do.”
            “No, I don’t.”
            “Yes, you do.”
            “Well, being a mother myself, I say we let Rochele go home to her parents.”
            “I say NO!”
“Then Jack,” Henrietta announced loudly, “Perhaps we need to call a Ruling Council Meeting to let everyone decide.”
            “You can’t do that damn it. You can’t call a Ruling Council Meeting without Elder Authorisation.
            “Just watch me.”
            Suddenly, the walls began to writhe with furious movement and the dank air filled with a dozen voices, each speaking louder than the other – each demanding to be heard.          
            As Rochele continued to tread water, she suddenly noticed a bone sticking out of the wall above her head. Normally she wouldn’t have considered touching it but her right leg was beginning to cramp so she reached out, only to discover that the bone was just beyond her grasp. Rochele needed more height and she could only think of one way to get it so she slapped her hand on the water surface and shouted angrily, “HEY! PLAY FAIR!”
            The water bubbled then rose and rose, lifting her just high enough to grab the bone and pulled herself about halfway out of the water. Then, using a nearby tree root, Rochele raised herself even higher. Jack, Henrietta, Mrs. Felsen and the others were too busy yelling at each other to notice Rochele making her escape.
            The arguing continued for several minutes. Nearly the time it took Rochele to inch her way to the top.
            Rochele’s upper body had just emerged into the fresh air and warm afternoon sun when a cold, bony hand grabbed her left leg with an iron grip.
             “I really do feel terrible about this Sweetie Pie,” she heard Henrietta say apologetically, “But the Council has decided.”
{{ }}
            Rochele’s mother dabbed a little more antiseptic lotion on the ugly red scrape on her daughter’s left ankle then tucked Rochele in and reached to turn off her bedside lamp.
            “Can I at least play video games?” Rochele murmured from beneath the covers.
            “No video games, no TV, straight home after school – that’s what grounding means. You’re lucky your father found you when he did, he said you looked like you were slipping back into the well.”
            “Mommy?” Rochele asked just as her mother was about to close her bedroom door.
            “Yes dear.”
            “Are big people allowed to knock down the headstones in a cemetery then cover ‘em up with dirt?”
             “That’s an odd question?”
             “Can they?”
            “No, there are rules against that.”
            Rochele thought for a moment then admitted with a sigh, “I guess rules aren’t always so bad.”
            “No, they’re not Rochele.”
            “What is it Rochele?”
            “Can I call Uncle Henry tomorrow?”
            “Baby, Uncle Henry is a very busy lawyer; he may not have time to….”
            “Can I?”
            “Yes Rochele, you can call him, now go to sleep.”
The End.

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