By V.J. Holbrook
In my town, sitting outside my house and precariously close to the road, is a small granite milestone. In the days before GPS and Google Maps, it marked how far a traveller was from the old city of Boston. These days, you can barely read the inscription carved into it. Back then life was harder, closer to the bone; the inn across the street from the house had once denied a weary George Washington a room. Now, the town is nothing special. Just another little grouping of houses, tiny town center, car dealerships, and three profoundly bad restaurants. When the first colonists arrived in Massachusetts, they found an entirely different world from what is there now; the land was forested, cold, inhospitable; and there were already people living there. People who didn’t appreciate a hostile takeover, predictably. If the colonists were pilgrims, who had endured months on the freezing, choppy sea searching for somewhere to lay their bones to rest, they had found no shrine at their destination to welcome them. Many lacked the skills needed to survive in this unexpectedly harsh environment; many starved, or succumbed to the bitterly cold winters. It is hard to imagine the sheer, grinding hardship of their lives.
My house was built in the 1830s, but its site is much older. In the time of the early colonists, it had been a bakehouse; the marauding allies of the Wampanoag chief commonly called King Philip had destroyed it, along with the rest of the tiny village of Mendon, in 1675. The only original part of the house which dates back to the early settlement is the well.
The well no longer serves any purpose. The water is not safe to drink. Bacterial levels, or something like that; the house gets city water piped in. The well’s position has been terminated in a streamlining effort. And yet it remains. Covered by a sheet of plywood, if you push it aside, you can stare into what feels like an abyss. The water is deep, and very clear; but the reflections on the surface obscure the bottom. Looking into the well is like staring through the layers of a milky, malevolent eye.
Today is the kind of day which seems to foretell a bad winter coming on, one of those which would have so challenged the place’s early inhabitants. It’s a cold November evening; it has been raining for three days. Pouring down rain. So much it has knocked out the power today, and I have to go down to check that the basement hasn’t flooded; high water table, it’s always been susceptible to it. I take my flashlight with me.
It’s dark. The basement is flooded with black, churning water. It pulses and flows, bleeding out of the well as if it were a great, old, hardened artery. The thin, white membrane I had stood on all my life has been cut away, revealing the living animal below. As I shine the thin beam of the flashlight into the darkness, it catches on the edge of something dark – as if the light were pulled into it, the shape of a moving-something emerges. A rhythmic, electrical pulsing emanates through the room and through reality; I don’t know if it’s the sump-pump or my heart. Suddenly the house above seems flimsy, liable to be blown away in the violent wind which rattles its dry fragile planks and screams through the trees outside. The cold water rises above my ankles, beats around me more violently, like the freezing tide in the winter months; I feel the floor slipping from under me like sand. An undertow drags me toward the well; hands, pulling me in, cold and grasping at my ankles.
Image credit: Louis Eilshemius via Wikimedia Commons