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The Children in the Pit

by Denise Shelton about a year ago in fiction
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"Their skin was green as a lettuce leaf, green all over."

The Children in the Pit
Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

Long, long ago in the village of Woofpit, so-called because it was ringed with holes to trap ravening wolves, a man named Richard was out walking one evening at harvest time. He was enjoying the pleasant weather before winter blew in to rattle his bones.

As Richard approached the river, he heard a strange, mournful keening, as if someone were weeping from a broken heart. Soon a second voice, weaker and more sorrowful than the first joined in, creating a captivating harmony. Richard looked around.

Ahead was the river, but the sound was much closer. Suddenly, Richard remembered the wolf pits. Villagers knew to avoid them, but perhaps some strangers had fallen in. He began checking each one. All were empty, save for the bones of the hapless wolves who had stumbled into them.

Suddenly, Richard heard the sound quite close. He looked into the nearest pit as the sunset cast a mystical glow on the scene before him. There they were. The keening stopped, and in the waning light, he could just make out the faces of a little girl and boy at the bottom of the hole.

He would need a ladder to get them out. “Hush, now. Don’t be frightened,” he told them. “I’ll get help.” But the children did not seem to understand and set to wailing once again.

Richard ran to the nearest farm and roused his friend William who was smoking a pipe in the yard. “Hurry! Two children fell in a pit,” he said. “Get your ladder!” By this time, William’s wife had heard the commotion and was already grabbing blankets from their bed. By the time Richard returned to the pit, half the village was tagging alongside.

It was dark now, but someone brought a lantern. William held it aloft as Richard descended into the pit. One by one, he lifted the children to safety, and William’s wife Martha quickly bundled them in blankets. They were no longer crying, but they were unable to communicate with the villagers. “Who are you? Where are your kinfolk?” The children just stared at them.

The elder of the two, the girl, tried to speak, but they couldn’t understand her. “Enough of this. They must be starving,” Martha told them. “Everyone, go home. I’ll feed the sweetlings and put them to bed.”

In the morning, Richard awoke and started towards William’s place to see how the children were doing. He was surprised to see William hurrying toward him. “How are our foundlings?” asked Richard. William looked at Richard uncertainly.

“You’d better see for yourself,” he said.

When Richard entered William’s cottage, there was a washtub filled with dirty water on the hearth. The children stood in the corner wearing grain sacks, while Martha stirred something over the fire. She didn’t acknowledge Richard’s greeting. “Is something the matter?” asked Richard.

William picked up the little boy and brought him outside into the morning sunshine. The girl trailed behind. “Richard,” he said. “Look at them. Look at their skin.”

Richard gazed upon the children in amazement. Their skin was green as a lettuce leaf, green all over. “Are you sure it’s not from some plant they rolled in? Maybe they fell in a dye bath before falling in the pit.”

William shook his head. “Martha scrubbed and scrubbed. They’re green everywhere, their eyelids, their armpits, even between their toes.”

“Could it be some kind of sickness?” asked Richard.

“I don’t know,” William replied. “And here’s another thing. They’re starving, but they won’t eat anything. Not stew, nor cheese, nor bread. Martha is right put out by it. She doesn’t want them in the house. If they do have some kind of sickness, we can’t have our little ones getting it. They’ve got to go, Richard. Today.”

“You can’t mean for me to take them,” Richard replied. “My wife and children are dead. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

“You found them,” said William. “They’re your responsibility.” He went back inside his cottage and slammed the door.

Richard looked at the children. Their solemn eyes blinked back at him.

“What am I going to do?” he asked. Shaking his head, he took one small hand and then the other, and started home.

Along the way, Richard stopped at the hut of Old Betty, the village wise woman thinking perhaps she could advise him. Old Betty examined the children and said, “Bad food has weakened their blood. Feed them fruit, vegetables, and bone broth. They’ll soon be fine. You owe me a chicken. Now get going.” Richard hesitated.

“Martha and William said they wouldn’t eat anything.”

“Ha!” Old Betty exclaimed. “I’m not surprised. Have you had Martha’s cooking? Just keep trying different things. They’re probably foreigners not used to our food. When they get hungry enough, they’ll eat. Now go! And remember to bring me that chicken.”

Richard took the pair home. He dressed them in his dead children’s clothing. He still didn’t know their names, so he called the girl Willow and the boy Bean.

At first, he had trouble getting them to eat, but then he had an idea. He set some flat green beans before them. Their eyes lit up, and they gobbled the beans greedily. He went to his neighbors, asking for any green food he could find. It worked. Lettuce, cabbage, green beans, and even green apples delighted the children, and they ate their fill. He put handfuls of spinach in bone broth, and that too they drank.

Willow thrived, and soon, her skin was like everyone else’s. She even began to speak a little English, but Bean, although his color too was fading, was still sickly. When the first cold blast of winter came, he fell feverish and died.

His sister laid a bunch of leeks on his grave. She looked up at Richard, and with great dignity, said, “His name was Zelen, Prince of the Fey. He withered in your world, but I will not. I am Rocha.”

fiction

About the author

Denise Shelton

Denise Shelton writes on a variety of topics and in several different genres. Frequent subjects include history, politics, and opinion. She gleefully writes poetry The New Yorker wouldn't dare publish.

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