For Halloween, here’s a short ghost story.
A Ghost Story
Henry liked the sound small rocks made when he dropped them into the well. It had been there for a very long time, this well, with a stone wall encircling the opening and stone half walls on three sides to form a shelter around it. Finding pebbles and chips of stone to drop into the water was easy.
He never dropped many stones at a time, though. It seemed to Henry that were he to keep dropping the stones, one day he would fill the well, and he knew that everyone in the great house needed the water that the well provided. His father had told him so. The well was deep, reaching down to a river of water below the rock of the mountainside. There were not often wells on mountains. His father had told him that, too. Henry imagined that some of his stones were washed along under the earth, carried down to the sea in a river that never rose above the ground.
The great house was his home. They had come to the castle when Henry was very small, and he had explored every part of it, but he enjoyed being out here more. Every day he climbed the wooden beams of the shelter over the well and clambered out onto the slate roof. The house was enormous, and there were stairs and hiding places, but nothing compared to sitting on the roof of the well and looking down over the valley that stretched away below. If it rained, Henry needed only to slip under the shelter and listen to the raindrops landing on the slate tiles above him.
He was standing by the well itself, looking down into the dark circle that was like an eye in the face of the mountain. It watched him, not unkindly, as he weighed two small stones in his hands, trying to decide which one to drop first. Something moved, and Henry turned to see a girl walking toward the well. She was about his age. A wooden bucket was in her hand.
“Hello,” he said. She stopped a few feet away and watched him. Her skin was pale, made even more so by her dark eyes and hair. Henry remembered seeing her on other nights, coming here to draw water for the kitchen. She was quiet, much more quiet that the other people who came. Henry had not even heard her footsteps. He could not remember her voice, but he was sure that she had come to his well on other nights.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice was a little more than a whisper. Her clothes were clean, always clean, he thought. He had not learned her name, or could not remember it, which bothered him.
Henry glanced at her empty pail. He turned and took hold of the well bucket and let it fall into the water. They heard the splash far below, hushed by the stones. The girl stepped up to the stone wall beside him, and they both looked down into the dark circle although there was nothing to see but the rope trailing down until it disappeared in the blackness. The well was so deep that one could only see the circle of the water at midday when the most light found its way into the opening. With only the moonlight, there was no chance at all. If you fell in now, in the dark, there would be nothing but blackness at the bottom and the cold water flowing under the mountain. They watched together anyway, as though the light might change, and after a few moments Henry began to turn the winch handle.
The rope came taut, and he put more effort into winding the rope and raising the bucket. Neither of them spoke. He realized that they seldom spoke, and he wondered how long it had been since he last saw her. The night before? Longer? And he could not recall their words.
It was not that he did not wish to speak to her. He did. He could tell by the way that she stood by him, near enough that he could reach over and touch her, that she did not mislike him. When the bucket reaches the top, he thought, I will ask for her name. It is only courteous, after all, so surely she would not take it amiss, he told himself.
He could see the top of the bucket now. A few more turns of the winch and he reached out and pulled the water bucket to rest on the stone ledge. He knew that the girl was watching him.
“Henry,” he said. “My name is Henry. I mean, I just realized that I don’t even know your name. Mine is Henry.”
It was difficult to see her face in the moonlight. It seemed to him that it was always hard to see her, but that must be because they always met at night. They had always met at night, hadn’t they? Henry could not remember seeing her in the day. Perhaps she works at night. They must have cooks to work in the night, keeping the kitchen fire going and kneading bread for the next morning, that sort of thing. He did not often go to the kitchens.
“What is your name?” he asked. For a moment he thought that he had frightened her. He could see it in the way her eyes widened, and it seemed that she would turn to go. She didn’t, but she held tightly to her pail with both hands.
“Marguerite,” she said, her voice no louder than it had been before. “But you may call me Maggie. It is what people call me.”
“Alright, said Henry. Then, not knowing what else he might say, he reached out and took her pail. Her skin was so white that he could almost see the handle of the pail through her skin. “Here, let’s get you some water.”
Her put her pail on the stone wall that went around the mouth of the well, being careful that it did not tip over into the opening. The water sounded cool as he poured it from the well bucket. When the pail was full, Henry took the ladle that was always left hanging on the winch post and offered a drink of the cool water to Marguerite. The water shone in the moonlight, but she did not taste it.
“Thank you,” she whispered, “but I am not thirsty.”
Henry looked at the water and the way it swirled in the ladle. “Neither am I,” he said, and he poured the water back into the well. As the last of the water was pouring out, he lifted the ladle high in the air and brought it down again, once, twice, three times, so that the water looped on itself in the air before falling down into the shaft with a distant splash. Both of them laughed, more amused than seemed possible by the simple splash of water.
As Henry turned to place the ladle back on its hook, he noticed a man walking with a boy through the courtyard. The man had not glanced at Henry and Marguerite, but the boy was looking at them. Henry waved, wondering who the boy might be and whether he could play with them, but the father was leading him into the great house. The boy did not wave but only stared at the the well.
“Bedtime for you, my boy,” the father was saying. “We can see more stars tomorrow evening.”
The boy said nothing. Just before they entered the main hall of the castle he turned to look at them once more, and then he vanished inside. The great door closed and the light that had poured out onto the paving stones was gone.
“Where does the light go?” It was just a whisper in the night. Henry realized that Maggie was still beside him. She pointed to where the light had poured from the open door. “Water would still be puddled on the stones,” she said. “Where does the light go?”
“I don’t know,” said Henry. “I never wondered that before.”
Henry stepped out from under the roof of the well and looked up into the sky. The stars and moon filled the sky except for where the castle blocked his view.
“You should not look at them,” said Marguerite, beside him again.
“What?” asked Henry. “Why not?”
“People look at the stars, and then they rise and are gone,” she whispered. “You must keep your eyes on the place you wish to stay.”
Henry looked at her, then he smiled. “You are teasing me,” he said. “No matter. Here, I will help you with your pail.”
He stepped back under the slate roof to the well and lifted her pail. Walking toward the great house, he saw that Marguerite lingered. He held out his other hand.
“Come on, Maggie,” he said. “I don’t bite, and you will help to balance me out against the water.”
She lifted her hand and placed it in his. It did not feel like Henry had thought it might, but then he had never held hands with a girl before this night. He was surprised at how the idea had come to him, as though he offered his hand to ladies all the time. Maggie’s hand was not like he remembered his mother’s hands being. Maggie’s hand was soft, like the softness of his favorite blanket when he was little, but not so warm as his blanket. He could have been holding a handful of damp cotton or a part of a cloud, but what did it matter? Maggie could be his friend now, and Henry had few of those. None, he realized.
“Will you be my friend, Maggie?” he asked as they walked toward the house. “I can come and help you fetch your water every evening, and we can play around the well and tell each other stories.”
For a few steps the girl said nothing, but then she answered. “Yes, I would like that. I will bring the pail, and we can fetch the water each night.”
Her voice was as quiet and soft as her hand, but Henry thought that both were firmer now. Still her hand remained as cold as the water and the night air.
Henry pushed open the door to the castle. The entire structure was built of stone and wood, with wooden floors and great fireplaces in the large rooms that flanked the entrance. There was light in the hall, much more light than the moon had given them, and Henry saw that Marguerite’s clothes seemed grayer and softer in the house light than they had under the moon.
“We are going to the kitchen?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Marguerite. “We can go this way.”
They went along a hallway wide enough for them to walk together, Henry carrying the pail on one side and holding Marguerite’s hand on the other. They met no one. It was late, and Henry supposed that the rest of the people in the household had retired for the evening. That was how his father had always said it, that it was time to retire for the evening. He remembered that he had not seen his father and wondered where he might be.
Ahead they heard voices and the sounds of kitchen work, knives chopping and the rattle of pans. They walked in, Marguerite leading the way to a large trestle table where a woman stood kneading bread. The woman did not even glance at them, which suited Henry fine. He put the pail of water on the end of the table where Marguerite pointed, and they walked back toward the kitchen doorway still holding hands. They paused, Marguerite holding back a little, and Henry looked down and shuffled the toe of one boot across the stone floor where it left a wet mark. His clothes were damp. He supposed that he must have spilled the water when he poured it, though it did not seem that he had. Marguerite still held back holding to his hand, and he knew that she would need to remain in the kitchen for her work.
“Bless my soul,” came a voice near the table. They looked back to see the woman who had been kneading bread. She was standing away from the table, one floured hand held to her chest like a ghost. With her other hand she was pointing at the pail.
“See that,” she said. “It’s that girl, she’s brought the water again in her pail.”
Henry looked around to see two other women walking over from their tasks. He had not seen them earlier. He had been following Marguerite’s lead and taking care not to spill the water.
The three cooks stood together, back from the table, and they looked up from the water pail to gaze around the kitchen. It seemed to Henry that the women looked straight at Marguerite, but they did not notice her or speak to her. Perhaps they are looking for someone else, he thought. After all, he and Marguerite were young, and grownups seemed seldom to take notice of children.
“It may be as we should use the water,” said the youngest of the women, though her hair was already as white as the first woman’s floured hand. “The child brings it to us, perchance we should use it.”
“I would not,” said the third woman. She was the oldest of them, and Henry saw her glance at Marguerite and at him as she spoke. “Let it be, since she brings it, but do not use it to cook or pour it to drink. Leave it for those as brought it. Come morning it will be gone.”
Henry thought her words were odd.
“Why will they not use the water?” he asked.
Marguerite only smiled and squeezed his hand. It felt as though he were touching the soft wool of a sheep, cool and damp from having been under the moonlight all night. She leaned forward and kissed Henry on his cheek.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice a little stronger than it had been beside the well.
“We are friends, then,” said Henry.
“Tomorrow evening, come to find me by the well. Bring your pail, and we shall fill it and bring it once again, whether these ladies like the water from the well or not. It is great fun.”
“I will meet you,” she whispered. “At the well.” Then she took her hand from his, and with a small wave she turned to walk back into the kitchen. She did glance back at him. Henry had waited to see, then he turned and walked into the hallways of the old castle. He whistled to himself as he walked, and he stopped at one of the great fireplaces to enjoy the warmth. There was little heat from the fire, he found, and he remembered how his father always said these old castles were open and drafty. Though they were made of stone, the walls may as well be dry leaves for all the cold they kept out. The heat must be going up the chimney, he thought. It may be that the moon will get some warmth from it.
Then he remembered that he had not asked Marguerite where she stayed. She might have a room in the servants’ hall of the castle, or perhaps she lived in the village below. They could play in the morning when her work was done, he thought. It would be warmer than in the moonlight, and they would be able to see the water at the bottom of the well, though it made him uneasy to think of it.
When he reached the kitchen, Henry was astonished. The women were gone, and their cooking fire was out. Even the ashes were cold. There was no sign of the bread they had been making for the morning, no pans or pots out on the tables. Marguerite herself was nowhere to be seen.
“Maggie?” he called. “Maggie, where are you?” There was no answer, but her pail was still placed on the trestle table. Henry peered inside, but it was empty.
“They found a use for her water after all,” he said aloud, to no one. The old women must have been teasing her, he thought, though it did not seem very amusing to him. He did not understand how everyone could have vanished in such a short time, with even the fire burned down to ash.
“I must have lingered longer than I knew,” he said. His voice was like Marguerite’s whisper in the huge kitchen. “Father always tells me I stay so long by the well that he fears I will fall in.”
He wandered through the kitchen, touching the spoons that hung on the wall, letting his hand run along the edge of the tables. At the window he saw that there was a pale grey light, and Henry realized that it was nearly sunrise.
“I have been up all night again,” he said, once more whispering aloud to himself. He turned and walked out of the kitchen, back along the hallways to the main rooms of the great house. He followed a stairway up to where the sleeping chambers were found.
Some of the halls were bare, he noticed, as though no longer used, doors drawn shut against the cold. There were not so many people living here as when his father ran the castle, it seemed to Henry. This part of the house, though, did seem to have more life to it, more signs of people. In the hallway that led to his room he saw that someone had placed fresh flowers on a table. He touched them, and a petal fell away.
Henry stopped. Something small and furry was staring up at him from the floor where it joined the wall. It was a stuffed animal, he realized, a small bear. Henry picked it up, wondering where the child might be who dropped it. The fur was much warmer than Maggie’s hand, he noticed, but then this bear had not been out drawing water from the well in the moonlight. Perhaps it had fallen from the table.
He took the bear and walked down the hallway to his room. When they had come to live here, his father had let Henry pick out any room he liked in the entire castle to be his own, and he had picked this one. From the window he could see the well in the courtyard below and the village beyond it. Everyone who came and went had to enter the courtyard through the gate in the wall, and Henry could see them all. He had his own fireplace, room for all of his things, and a sleeping space in an alcove in the wall.
When he entered his room, Henry was surprised to find that a young boy was sleeping on the bed, in Henry’s alcove. He stood for a few moments and watched the boy sleep. Henry knew that he should be angry that someone had taken his bed, but he did not feel angry, and the boy was so small. No, Henry decided that perhaps the boy was new and had been afraid, and this was the best place in the castle to sleep after all. Besides, Henry had met a new friend at the well tonight, Maggie, and he was not going to let anything spoil that.
Remembering that he was still holding the stuffed bear, Henry realized that the toy must belong to this child. A toy wolf and fox were in the alcove with him. Perhaps the bear had been left to guard the passageway? Henry stepped over to the alcove and placed the bear next to the sleeping child and pulled the covers up to the boy’s chin. Henry remembered being cold when he was that small, especially when the fire had burned low in the night.
The light coming in the window was a little brighter now. The sun had not risen, not in the valley, but daylight was already creeping over the hillsides to lighten the windows of the castle. Henry stood looking at the light reaching the highest treetops and roofs. Yawning, he turned and looked again at the child sleeping in his alcove. Henry let him sleep, and instead lay down on the soft rug in front of the fireplace.
Something hard and sharp pressed into Henry’s back. He felt underneath the rug and found a small red thing, shaped like a tiny brick with small raised circles on the top. Looking around the room, he saw piles of the tiny bricks of different shapes and colors, making strange machines. There was even a toy castle made entirely of the same pieces.
Henry reached over and put the tiny red brick on top of the castle gate. Small holes on the bottom of the little box fit neatly onto the circles of the bricks beneath.
I will bring Maggie here tomorrow, he thought, and show her this castle. There were plenty of other bricks, and they could build a well like the one where he played, with walls and a roof, where one could draw up water in the moonlight. It was Henry’s room after all, and this boy would not mind.
Thinking about the well and the cold water and Marguerite, Henry lay back down on the rug and slept.
A little while later, as morning was just beginning to brighten the walls of the room, the boy sleeping in the alcove woke up. He found his bear beside him, and he rose on an elbow to look at it. He was sure it had not been here when he had gotten into bed. Looking around, he saw another boy, a little older and dressed all in grey, asleep on the rug by the fireplace. It was the boy from the well, he knew, the one he had seen when his father had brought him inside from gazing at the stars.
The morning sun poured into the room, the light flowing across the floor. The young boy in the alcove sat up with his bear and watched the sunlight wash across the rug. The shadows faded, and then he was alone with his animals. The rug was damp where the other boy had been sleeping.
“Perhaps he will come back tonight, and we can finish the castle,” he said to the bear. He saw the red brick on top of his castle gate, and he knew that the other boy had put it there. And he did not mind.
He did not mind at all.