The Well Dwellers
In a small village just outside Bathurst, it is a common occasion for the villagers to gather in the evening to tell stories, sing songs, eat, and share company. One of the tales that is commonly circulated is that of the Well Dwellers. The story goes that the people used to draw their water from the old well just outside of town, but the well has been boarded up for nearly 100 years. Some of the younger generations would say that the water was poisoned, or tasted like sulfur. Some parents would say that the well ran dry and that they boarded it up to keep children and other animals from falling in. That the stench from the dead animals would sometimes carry into the village and make it hard to breathe. But the old ones knew the real reason. Every so often, on nights when the moon refused to rise, they would tell the children.
The well had been made in a miserable place. A place which intersected with tunnels leading to the underworld. The forging of this well gave passage to horrors they had no ideas of previously. A hundred or so years ago there were beings that dwelt low in the side of the well within these crooked halls. Evil wairua, (spirits) or something like them. They were known as the Nookotou. It is said that sometimes you could hear them if you went to get water from the well. “Te kai me te mate.” (“Food or death”) “Inu ranei toto’ (“drink or blood”). Their voices faint, echoing like rocks scratching at a pits side. If you went to the well at night, you would often see a glow reaching out, searching for the spirit of a misfortunate passerby. They took refuge inside the wells chambers to hide from the sun. At night, they used to ascend from the well and reap death upon the villagers’ children, livestock, and pets. Remains were always found on the edge of town near the well. The legend goes that one day the village woke up to find many children missing. When they went searching for them, there were parts of twelve children scattered and gnawed next to the well. Thirteen were missing. It is for this reason that the well had been boarded up.
It is on one of these strange moonless nights that a man emerged from the woods as the villagers were making their merry meal. He was a tattered shell of a man. A log broke on the fire, and the flame subsided into ember glow. “Te kai me te mate,” he repeated, pounding his staff into the ground as he came near. “Inu ranei toto.” It was difficult to make out his face, but he was old. His face looked scarred as if it had been burned before. The villagers quieted as he began to speak, circling through the crowd. “I am Ajani. Long ago the Nookotou took me, my brothers, my sisters, and many other children because the sacrifice they demanded was not met. I am the only unfortunate survivor. I was made to live with them as a slave. They have sent me here as an emissary to warn that the Nakoutoo again demand your offerings.”
“You have made a dire mistake in thinking that those rickety boards would contain them,” he went on. “They have been napping, that is all. And I have been made to nap with them. Now that they are awake, they are hungry, and they are angry that you foolishly tried to contain them. If you go to the well, you will find that the boards have been broken open. The Nookotou will feast on your children, your pets, and your livestock if you do not heed my warning.” His face, though difficult to make out, was visibly stressed. “I urge you. Save your selves. Save your children from a fate such as mine. Begin to make extra food which can be left at the edge of the well, so that the Nookotou may eat their fill and resign you to the lives you imagine you may have. Be sure it is well prepared, because if it is not they may pass up your sacrifice, and you may incur a greater one. This is the only way to protect the ones you love.” He placed a weathered hand on one of the children as he said this.
With this, the man took up his staff and disappeared into the shadow of wilderness, a ghost himself.
The fire was nearly out by the time he left. Those gathered worked to rekindle the embers as they conversed. Many of the villagers disputed this message. “He is a madman,” they said, “he is only a wanderer trying to scare us.” Still, when the light from the fire returned, upon the child’s shoulder there was a trace of crimson. A stain of blood.
This child’s mother was disturbed by the omen placed upon her son, and she asked another of the more superstitious mothers to go with her to the well.
That night, in secret, they went, because they did not wish to be laughed at by the disbelievers. Together, they carried a few rations to the side of the well and left them, hoping to protect their children. When they arrived, they found the wood that covered the well had been splintered upward, and it looked as if blood had seeped along the edges. They ran back to the village and to tell those who were still awake. “It is true! The boards have been split open. The man was not lying!” the women exclaimed as they returned. “We saw the light reaching up from below.” A great crack and an unsettling squeal echoed from the direction of the well.
The next morning one of the villagers’ pets was found dead in the main path. Its head and skin were intact, but some of its bones had been laid out to spell “INU” (drink). Word spread. The entire village was ill at ease. That night the villagers prepared extra food to bring to the well, along with wine.
There was a warm glow of fire coming from the depths of the well. Blood dripped down the edge of the well’s outer structure. Because of this, most were too afraid to get too close. Even the warriors. What if their Tapu, their essence, was stolen, or worse: compromised? They did this for several nights in a row. Every night a glow could be seen reaching out from the earth’s opening. Strange sounds wafted up with the light: a shriek, a scratching, a rustling. Sounds they could not place.
One day a man declared that the price had been paid. “We have given enough,” he said. “Surely the price has been paid. We have given all of our best. The Nookotou will be satisfied.” The villagers agreed, and that night no one went to the well.
The next day three of the animals were found with their legs missing. Their bodies lay motionless in the main path. Those with children hurried to find them. Their hearts returning to their chest as they did.
Ajani returned from the shadows to the village that night, slamming his staff into the ground. “Why do you not make this offering? Are you stubborn, or stupid? It is a manageable way to avoid heartbreak. Do you not care about yourselves?”
“But, we have given our best for nearly a week. We will go without ourselves for the sake of this wretched sacrifice soon!” One of the men cried out.
“If you truly value anything, you will continue to make this sacrifice, until the fire in the well goes out. Only then you will know that they have gone to sleep again! What will you eat when the moa are gone, when your animals are dead? When your plants have died? Then you will know hunger. You will know sorrow too. What if your child is taken?” Ajani paused and looked at the man. “It would be far better for them” Ajani glanced at the younger ones, “if you killed them yourself with haste.” Ajani turned, and though old, again melted into the shadows as if he was part shadow himself. A mother cried out to him, but he was gone. The villagers not wanting to lose any more than was needed, resumed the offerings.
For many years after this a glow could be seen coming from the well in the contrast of night, and indeed for many years the old vagabond ate and drank his fill of the finest food and drink in the region. Given freely by those who gave credence to the tales of the elders. Even now that the fire in the wells’ corridor has long been put to rest, the story lives. Periodically a worrisome mother will still bring food and drink to the resting place where the old man’s body eventually gave way to the astral divide, to soothe her worries that something down there may one day awaken.