We began feeling sick after the rains abated, and the backyard remained a slick muddy mess where the grass hadn’t grown back, and the foundation for our new in-ground pool filled to the height of my shins even though the concrete hadn’t yet been poured. Dad wanted us to accept that the illness was a cold we all happened to contract around the same time. I believed him, at first. Then my older brother reached a point where he’d vomit nearly every hour, and couldn’t even keep water in his system. No cold could make you do that, I thought.
When Mom started puking all the time, too, Dad called in a doctor. She suspected we all suffered from arsenic poisoning. That something contaminated our water supply. Her suggestion didn’t make a lot of sense—we’d lived at the house for years without a problem before—but we were in no condition to disagree.
We were brought to the hospital at the doctor’s insistence, but they didn’t find any arsenic in our systems. We didn’t even have a vitamin deficiency, or any of the usual poisoning symptoms. No viruses that they could spot; no bacterial infections; nothing.
Maybe the hospital air did us some good, because we had recovered in less than a week. We were a little thinner than before, obviously, but otherwise healthy. They discharged us by the weekend.
Back home, Mom forbade us from drinking tap water. We didn’t protest. Even though Dad had our well tested not long after we returned, and the results showed no arsenic or mercury or anything.
I was still skittish despite the test’s findings. I wouldn’t dare drink the water from our faucets. I wouldn’t even wash myself in our house if I could avoid it. I’d opt instead for the mildewed, stall-less group showers in the school gym in the morning; failing that, I’d clean as much of myself as I could at any free sink in a bathroom.
The rest of my family contracted the sickness again within two weeks of our hospitalization. The vomiting intensified. They started to lose track of the time or the date, and seemed confused if I engaged them in conversation. None of this happened to me. I remained relatively healthy, albeit less clean than I’d have liked.
The water had to be the culprit. Nobody believed me. But I knew it had to be the water.
One evening, I stood in the backyard to escape for a little, while the retching sounds that had overtaken the house’s usual quiet. I planned to call an ambulance for my family later that night if they didn’t show any improvement. It was the right move, but it felt futile nonetheless. The hospital would find nothing medically wrong with them; they’d recover in a few days; they’d return home to repeat the cycle. Who knew how many times they could endure that? Probably no more than a few, if I could barely stand it even once. If my family were to survive, I had to figure out what was the matter.
But I didn’t have a clue. I was as baffled as the doctors—if not more. So I waited in the yard, collecting my thoughts in the relative quiet of the outdoors, where the sound of someone’s disgorging stomach wouldn’t scatter them. Thick mud choked what scant vegetation grew from the land around me, and only the balding pines at the edge of our yard showed any sign of vitality. Brown water hung stagnant in the basin of the unfinished pool. Winged insects skirted its surface, their faint wakes quickly fading.
I felt the entire yard was diseased, and I imagined that my lungs drew in tendrils of miasma with each breath. I couldn’t stand being there. It didn’t clear my thoughts; it simply replaced them with a different kind of nausea. I decided I’d take a walk in the woods. Anywhere would have been better than where I was.
When I came near enough to take a closer look at the pines, they seemed even less healthy than I’d first thought. They seemed blighted, their branches drying and collapsing from the bottom up. They weren’t alone—none of the plants I saw seemed in good health. Tiny saplings bent over themselves, rotting in their middles. Old oaks stood as barren as telephone poles, their broken limbs amassed at their feet. Out of morbid curiosity, I followed the decay where it seemed most heavily concentrated, and wended my way through the woods along a path of dying plants.
Before long, I reached a clearing in the trees. Nothing grew there except for a brittle grass that crunched and snapped like glass beneath my steps. Near the clearing’s edge, I spotted a small, triangular structure that resembled a poorly-tended doghouse. I went over to it. The structure turned out not to be a doghouse, but rather, a stone well. A wooden roof, now in a state of collapse, camped over it. A rather enterprising weed curled around its side, borrowing what little support the disintegrating wood could offer.
I looked around for a bucket, but found none. Then I realized that the well had been lidded. Dense wooden slabs boarded the well, although they, too, had decomposed heavily. They sagged in the middle, beneath the steady pressure of a large stone. At first I figured the stone had been placed there to keep the slabs in place, but then I thought that the cover must have been quite weighty enough back in its day to stay in position of its own accord. With such an odd setup as this, the well only became more intriguing the longer I considered it.
After scrutinizing it for a while, I thought I saw some kind of markings on the stone. Did it carry an inscription? I couldn’t read it from my angle; for that matter, I couldn’t tell whether the markings were English words, or even Latin characters. I walked around the well, leaning in for a better view. I steadied myself against the ruined boards. They felt slimy against my bare palms.
They were also far more slippery than they appeared.
I misjudged my angle, and my hands slid out from under me. My chest thudded against the boards, and I heard a wet, arthritic pop as the aging wood gave way. I felt myself toppling forward, downward. The illegible stone splashed far below me, invisible in the inky black of the well. I scrabbled for a hold on something—anything—but the well’s damp inner walls afforded no grip.
My feet caught the lip of the well, and my ankles strained to support a weight they were never meant to carry. I tried to remain calm, and devise a means of escaping my precarious situation. I couldn’t move too sharply, as I relied solely on my unsteady balance, and whatever protuberances my shoelaces might lasso if I fell any further.
The blood rushed to my head, and my vision swam. Down below, the snapped wood jutted from the darkness like a shipwreck. As my eyes began to adapt, I could detect liquid motions throwing back the reflection of the light above. I couldn’t tell how deep it was, but it didn’t matter—I couldn’t bank on surviving if I fell in.
Between the masts of broken wood, I glimpsed a disturbance in the water. It began to grow round and smooth. Something was surfacing. An indistinct gray mass bobbed into sight and floated on the water. It seemed devoid of features.
Until it flipped under its own weight, and revealed its bloated face.
It had eyes, a mouth, and a nose, but all of them had swollen horribly, and seemed more humanoid than human. Its pallid skin stretched and shone, tight from the years of fluid it had absorbed. Wispy silver hair trailed like lily roots from its scalp into the dark water. Its arms hung limp at its sides. It wore no clothing.
I had never seen a dead body before, but somehow I knew that no corpse could surpass the revulsion this one instilled in me.
Then it moved.
Righting itself in one slow, rigid motion, it stood in the center of the well. Water ran from its body. Its head lolled, as if its neck could not carry the burden of its waterlogged skull. Its viscid, sopping eyelids peeled back, showing two dark, liquid spheres.
They stared at me. Into me. Or perhaps past me. I held my breath, hoping it was blind, or at least that it hadn’t noticed me.
At the thought, the thing’s jaw fell open, and a sticky, rasping noise escaped. A cold, putrid wind swept past my face, and I retched. The air had grown noxious. My aching legs screamed for oxygen.
It was too much. I lost control of myself. My arms began to flail, and I lost my tenuous hold on the well. I tumbled forward, banging my head against the stone wall. More out of reflex than volition, I stuck out my arms and legs. Suspended like a starfish above the yammering creature, I could see it reaching toward me. Mercifully, some distance still separated us.
So as not to drop myself into the thing’s outstretched hands, I carefully guided one foot up the well’s wall. Then I did the same with the other. My palms followed them. I would not chance more than half an inch with each motion. The creature seemed to recognize my intent. It let out a foul cry, and as it subsided, I watched the fallen boards begin rotting at a swift rate. I heard the sounds of small pebbles falling into the water. When one struck me on the back of the head, I realized that the well itself was decomposing around me.
I doubled my pace. Soon my fingertips felt the mouth of the well, and I hoisted myself up, too frightened to look behind me. As I hurled myself onto the anemic grass, the wooden roof above the well collapsed, crashing into the basin with a sound like falling trees. Had I taken any longer, I thought, that sodden hole would have been my coffin.
Exhausted and nauseated, I staggered back to my house. I felt filthy, but I wouldn’t dare shower. All I could think to do was to call the police. I wouldn’t tell them my full story—they’d never believe me. But I had, without a doubt, discovered a corpse. Surely it was worth alerting them to it. I told my parents what I told the police after placing the call. They were too fatigued and sickly to do anything to comfort me.
Over the next couple of days, I brought the police to the well, and watched them extract a gray, bloated corpse from its depths with a pulley. The body seemed thoroughly inanimate. They couldn’t identify it, as its face was too deformed to match any of their missing person's files.
The coroner’s office disclosed some pretty troubling findings. Apparently, the body had died long before it was deposited in the well, as its skin had been preserved through some chemical process. Some routine analysis revealed high concentrations of arsenic in the corpse’s skin. Apparently, embalming bodies in arsenic solutions used to be a common practice long ago. As such, the coroner suspected that the body was from the Civil War era. Perhaps, he suggested, this was where the arsenic poisoning came from?
I started to wonder whether I had hallucinated my encounter. Nobody else had seen what I did. And a level of disconnection from reality is not uncommon in cases of arsenic poisoning.
But how had the body ended up in the well? Furthermore, why had somebody sealed it inside? And what had been the purpose of the marked stone? Neither the coroner nor the police had answers for me. Then again, maybe I wasn’t asking valid, lucid questions.
They interred the body in the local cemetery at the outskirts of our city. Its headstone remained blank. For a corpse that old, that far past identifying, they could not have done anything more.
For many years thereafter, the burial marked the end of my story.
Recently, though, I returned to my hometown to indulge a pang of nostalgia. Although I have no family left in the area, I paid it a visit to retrace the routes of my childhood. I saw the old house, under new ownership for several decades. The pool remained pristine. The lawn grew lush and green; the trees flaunted a verdant canopy. No evidence remained of the damage the plagued corpse had wrought, except for the images I held my memories.
When I returned to the site of the decaying well, however, I was startled to notice that it rested at a lower elevation than the old house. A gradual downhill gradient ran from my former home to the well. No contaminant could have traveled upward via the natural forces of gravity and runoff.
And when I went to the city’s outskirts to inspect the blank headstone, I found that nothing grew around it. Not even weeds. The earth in its vicinity remained brown and bare. I walked away in a daze, watching my steps to keep myself upright.
As I stared at the ground, I spotted a path of arid dirt snaking from the grave toward town.