based on the tale “The Water Sprite” by the Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time, there was a 15-year-old boy named Charles and his younger sister, Judith, who was 13. The year was 1942, and World War II was in full swing. Both brother and sister had dropped out of school to join the wartime work force. Even though Judith had to technically be 14 in order to work, her father had obtained falsified papers stating she was older, and she was sent off to work alongside her brother at the mill.

Every day, they walked together to the mill, and they walked past a well. Judith skipped in front of her brother, and she looked down into the well. “Hi, pretty lady!” she said.

“What are you doing?” asked Charles. “If we don’t get to work on time, Mother and Father will be cross with us both.”

“But there’s a lady down there!”

Charles started into a run, not questioning his sister. If it had happened several years back, he’d be more skeptical, but the war had changed everything. The whole world had gone mad.

When he reached the well, he peered in, and sure enough, there was a very beautiful woman standing at the bottom of the empty well. Her skin was blue, and she wore a shimmering blue evening gown. Her flowing black hair hung down below her shoulders.

“It’s a water nixie,” said Judith, “like in the fairy book that mother reads to us.”

“Come to me, children,” said the woman in the well. “There are tunnels here that lead to a magical land.”

“We have to go to work,” replied Charles.

Judith batted him on the shoulder. The lady waved her hands and a ladder appeared before the children, leading to the bottom of the well. Judith quickly climbed on and began making her way down.

“Hey, wait a minute!” said Charles, but Judith continued on, unimpeded.

Judith reached the bottom of the well, and called up to Charles, “Are you coming?”

So Charles climbed onto the ladder and also descended. As he reached the bottom, he saw a labyrinth of tunnels, leading off to unknown destinations. From here, he could see that the water nixie woman had sharp, angular teeth. She cackled into the sky, and said, “Now I have you, and now you will have to work diligently for me,” as she led Charles and Judith away with her and the ladder disappeared in a shower of sparkles.

“It doesn’t matter who we work for,” said Judith as she took the nixie’s hand and was led down a hall to a simple room with two beds and a door of bars. It was little better than a jail cell.

“Here is your room,” said the nixie. “And you may call me Lady Schism. I’ll give you your work assignments in the morning.”

Charles and Judith walked into their shared room, and Charles waited until the lady had moved on to another corridor before he started inspecting the door, trying to find weaknesses. It was locked shut, but there was no keyhole. That night, they slept uneasily, and then woke at daybreak.

Lady Schism gave Judith dirty wool to spin for hours, and then it was her duty to fill a bottomless barrel with water from another barrel that was constantly full, using only a ladle. It was meaningless busy work, and Judith quickly grew to hate it. But it was at these times that she wasn’t locked in the room, and every once in a while, she could even venture down the other halls a short ways. Charles went out with a leg shackle into the forest, and Lady Schism had him try and chop down a tree with a dull axe until his hands ached.

“I hate her,” Charles confided to his sister, biting into a rock-hard dumpling that was brought by one of the water-sprite’s children, a troll who brought the dumplings and a pitcher of water every evening. The troll’s name was Grark, and he was short, green, and wore a gold nose-ring. He had a bright orange mohawk. At the moment, he snoozed against the bars of the cell.

“Hey, troll,” said Charles, poking him through the bars. The troll woke with a grunt and then glared at Charles angrily.

“Human. What you want?”

“I just want to talk. Hey, have you ever had chocolate?”

“Mmm…no. Never have chocolate. What be it?”

That’s when Charles pulled out the small, individually-wrapped chocolate that he’d kept under his pillow all this time, waiting for the day they’d escape. The day they’d arrived, he’d been planning to give it to Judith before work started. Now, he gestured for the troll to put out his hand, and then pushed it into it. “Eat it,” he instructed. Grark popped the chocolate into his mouth, foil and all, and chewed. A look of delight spread across his face.

“I know Lady Schism doesn’t pay you anything. But in the world above, you’ll get paid for doing work, and I know a guy who will pay you so much you’ll be able to buy one of those every day.”

Charles knew it was a long shot, but it seemed to be working. Lady Schism always seemed to go to sleep early. Surely she’d be in bed by now. If he could just convince Grark to open the door, they could all make their escape before the water nixie suspected a thing.

Grark nodded. “Me like. Sound good.”

“Okay, so I’ll need you to open the door, and then if there’s a way to get out of the well, I’ll take you right to the mill and tell Mr. Hopper what a great worker you are.”

Grark nodded again and clinked his two wrist bracelets together. The cell door swung open and the three made their way to the well entrance, where Grark tapped his bracelets again and made the ladder appear. They all climbed out of the well and walked off together toward the mill as free folk.