The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2023 Winners Anthology, Enter the Imaginarium here.
“The Wellerman’s Gift” by Keiko Weible, Spencer Butte Middle School
Honorable Mention, Middle School Level, 2023
The Wellerman’s Gift
Spencer Butte Middle School
Singing. Believe it or not, one song is responsible for everything that happened in those two days all those years ago. As well as sand (and lots of it), a stupid magically-sealed manhole, and, of course, my friends. Oh, and water. Lots and lots of water. I remember it all as if the events I am about to explain just happened. Hold onto your hats (and heads!). Things are about to get interesting.
Those two days and every day before them, things were absolutely normal (until they weren’t). Me and my friends were living life as we always had, picking fruit and fishing to keep up the business our parents had created and just being average thirteen-year-olds. OK, more like thirteen-year-olds who did crazy things. We were living with no real appreciation for how easy our lives were. We were just kids being kids.
Every day we went and raced down the sand dunes near our home. Since we lived on an island, those weren’t hard to find. Legend had it that a pirate had used this island like a base. Of course, we didn’t believe in things like that.
Anyway, we headed out to a place that was steeper than our normal spot, which we had been dying to try out. We flew down the sand, going as fast as comets. My friend Hollow was in front and, about halfway down, she did a spectacular 360-degree head-over-heels flip. I half scrambled, half slid to a stop and helped her up.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I tripped,” she replied.
The boys caught up to us. And yes, I have friends who are boys. They can be quite annoying.
“Hollow! I had no idea you could be so graceful and so graceless at the same time!” Jasper said. Hollow gently punched him, but a smile was on her face. They had been acting differently recently, and I had a hunch that they liked each other. Felix and I looked at each other and smiled. I thought he had the same thought as me.
“So,” I said, breaking the moment. “What did you trip on?”
“Not sure, but it wasn’t a rock.”
“Sure wasn’t,” Felix said. He had slipped away and started digging. He was (and is) very good at sneaking places. Like, sneak-up-on-a-cat-without-getting-clawed sneaky.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It looks like a manhole, but I can’t open it.”
“A manhole you couldn’t open. That’s a first.”
“All right, I’ll help.”
Hollow cleared her throat.
“Fine, we’ll all help. Sheesh.”
We all started to try to pry the manhole open, but no matter how we tried or how much leverage we used, the metal wouldn’t budge. I started singing under my breath. I was singing this old sea-shanty called “The Wellerman.”
When I was little, my mother sang it to me when we picked fruit or when I had a nightmare. Of course, she’s dead now. She died in a storm four years ago. My father died of grief a couple years later. My friends are the closest thing I have to family now, and they know the song by heart, too.
Hollow heard me and knew I was thinking of my parents. She started singing as well. Soon all of us were quietly singing in remembrance of my parents who had treated all of us—since we were babies—as part of the same family. Even after so long, it was still painful to think about them and I shed a single tear. It fell onto the manhole and the metal started to turn. Jasper and Felix grabbed it and ripped it away from the sand. A hole, just barely big enough for one of us to fit, was revealed. Felix opened his mouth to say something, but the sand under us started to give way and whatever was going to come out of his mouth was lost, as we plummeted into the darkness, headed toward only God knew what.
There was a scream. I’m not sure if it was me or my friends or both. After free falling for a while, I saw a glint of water. I quickly flattened out to slow my fall. The others saw and followed suit. Since I’m the best swimmer, they trusted my judgment. Just before I hit, I tucked into a ball and sucked in a breath. I hit the water feet first.
The water was cold and the current was strong, but I kicked to the surface. Wiping water out of my eyes, I saw my friends come up and breathe with me.
“Swim with the current!” I yelled over the roaring of the water.
I started to swim, trying to keep my head above the water. I wasn’t sure if the others were following behind me, but I had to trust them not to do anything stupid.
We swam for what felt like forever. My muscles burned and I was losing strength fast. I knew that my temperature was dropping. Pretty soon it would get dangerously low, and I’d be risking hypothermia. I saw a dim light and moved toward it.
We came out into a large cavern. The light I saw came from lanterns. Off to my left, I saw a . . . ship? I used my last little bit of strength and swam closer and there on the stern, written in gold, was its name: The Victor.
I was spent. I knew I was. Even there, bobbing next to the ship I could feel my energy fading. Dimly I was aware of my friends beside me. I thought I saw a net being lowered from the ship’s rail. That was the last thing I saw before I sank under the water.
When I came to, I was lying on the ground, next to the mast of the ship, facing the bow. My friends were in front of me, all chained together. A thump came from behind me, followed by more. THUMP. THUMP THUMP. A person stepped in front of me. It was the captain.
“So,” he said. “I see you found our little well-kept secret.”
“Not by intention,” I replied, glaring at Hollow. Hollow gave me a look saying, What did I do?
“Well, I believe you owe us something.”
“Since when do I or any of my friends owe you anything?”
“If we hadn’t pulled you out of the water, you would be dead right now.”
That was a very good point I had not considered, but at that moment I was more worried about the rest of the crew, all of whom were closing in around us.
“I would consider our offer if I were you,” he continued, a hint of malice in his voice.
“And if I refuse?”
“Then I will use other methods of . . . persuasion.”
I stayed silent. I didn’t want to do whatever the captain wanted me to do.
“Your silence is answer enough,” he said and flicked his wrist. One of the crew members shoved Felix forward and grabbed the whip at his belt. I had barely a moment to think before the whip snapped through the air and slashed my friend’s back. Felix cried out and, in that moment I almost felt the same pain he did. The whip came down again, this time on Hollow.
“Stop it,” I whimpered.
The whip came down again and again each time with a sharp thwap.
“ Stop it,” I said, more firmly.
“I said stop!” I yelled. The captain turned to me, a grin on his face. My friends all had wounds on their backs and I knew the pain must be unbearable.
“Whatever twisted thing you want me to do, I’ll do it. Just leave my friends out of it.
For the first time, I saw an emotion on the captain’s face other than malice or anger. What I saw there was sadness, pure and true.
“We don’t want you to do something evil. We just want to be free. We’ve spent years down here, cursed to never leave until someone sets us free. We just want to see the sun and the sea again.”
“Then why be like this? Why be evil?”
“It’s the only form of life we know now. At heart, we just want to be free.”
After hearing this I was shell-shocked. As much as I wanted to say that it was a lie and a trick, somehow I knew it wasn’t.
“All right,” I said. “What’s the plan?”
The captain grinned and laid out his plan.
A few moments later, I found myself ready to jump back into the freezing water. I had a rope tied around my waist so I could be pulled to safety if necessary.
“Be careful,” Felix said.
“When am I not?” I asked.
Before he could answer, I jumped off the side of the ship and into the water. My first thought was, What on God’s green earth made me agree to this? The water was freezing cold and the added weight of the rope made my life all the more difficult. Somehow, maybe out of sheer force of will, I made it to the far end of the cavern. There I saw a narrow passage. I decided to leave my rope where it was, since it would just get in the way, and squeezed through.
On the other side of the passage was a small cave, just as the captain had said there would be. As I took in my surroundings, I noticed the human bones. It looked as though others had tried and failed. I tried not to be sick. In the middle of the cave was a stone pedestal and on the pedestal was, not gold or gems, but a note. The note read:
In this room a test is set. Pedestals will rise before you. You must make the right choice but be wary, the wrong one can be deadly. Remember that a warrior with a coward’s heart will run at the first sight of death, but a common man with a courageous heart will not be afraid to look death in the eye.
As soon as I finished reading, two more pedestals rose in front of me. On one sat a bow and arrow. On the other sat a dagger no more than six inches in length. I knew inside me what the question was: would you stand at the edge of the battle and kill your enemies from afar, or would you stare them in the face knowing that you might die? My hand reached for the dagger.
I grabbed it and words formed, ghostly white in the air. “Well done,” they said. “You are not afraid to look death in the eye. The curse will be lifted so long as you seal the vow that when death comes for you, you will not run from it but instead go with it, for all mortal life must come to an end.” The words faded, and I slit my palm just enough to let a drop of blood fall to the floor. A rumble shook the cave. The dagger glowed golden, and I knew I had done the right thing.
I left the cave to hear the sound of joyful shouting. The Victor came toward me and I caught a rope that swung down from the bow. I clambered up as the ship left the cavern and the light of a new day greeted us. The captain’s eyes were full of tears, and I knew I would find a place on the ship and had a feeling my life was about to get a lot more interesting.
My name is the only thing I have not told you, dear reader. I am Yarrow, and you have now heard my story. I’ve been living on The Victor for seven years. In that time I have seen many things and been to many places.
Felix walks into the cabin where I write this story with our adopted daughter, the perfect pirate child. We all go up to the deck as the fog clears and I look upon the island where this all started. My home. I see the dunes, the forests of lush apple trees and other fruit trees, and bushes of the best blackberries you will ever taste. My daughter squeezes my hand. She is young but she realizes that this is a special moment for me. It occurs to me that my roots are on this island but my heart is with the sea, and wherever The Victor goes, I go. I have not forgotten my promise to Death, but I hope that in writing down my story, someone might find it one day and remember adventures that may have been forgotten.
For now though, I’ll spend my remaining time with my friends and family.
Best wishes to you, your family and your friends. May your luck never run out and I hope that you have or make friends as good and loyal as mine.
“Skyline” by Natasha Dracobly, South Eugene High School First Place, High School Level, 2020 Skyline By Natasha Dracobly South Eugene High School “I think friends…