The witch in the well would take your life for a coin, or so everyone in the village used to say. As a boy Jack hadn’t believed it, filing the story away with Bloody Mary and Jenny Greenteeth, and every other urban legend he could think of. But now he was twenty-eight years old and leaning over the mossy rim of that stone-throated void Jack felt sure that there was something, stirring down there in the dark.
At least, he hoped that there was. Jack had trudged for three miles over sodden heath, rain trickling down his anorak, merely on the off-chance that he’d stumble upon the well, having long-forgotten exactly where in the scrub of woodland it was. He’d struggled to leave his own home for the past decade, let alone revisit his old haunts, yet how easily the well had seemed to yield itself to him, jutting like a squat, beckoning finger from the mire of grass and country mud.
It almost seemed as if it knew that Jack was looking for it- as if she knew, the witch at the bottom of the well.
Staring down into the moist gloom Jack heard something shifting around, but he supposed that it was only rats, or dripping rainwater, perhaps. Plenty of his childhood friends had claimed to have seen the witch, however; they would throw stones instead of coins to make her angry, drawing her up out of her squalor. Jack very much doubted that any of these anecdotes were true. He’d never put any stock in spirits, Gods, certainly not witches- yet here he was with a two pence coin in his pocket, trying to muster the nerve to throw it in.
He hunched his shoulders under the anorak, ruing that he’d reached such a pathetic point in a life of countless lows. It seemed to Jack that he was always going to end up at the well, somehow; he’d thought about it almost once a month since he was nine years old, the impulse only growing stronger as time went on.
Having been a lonely child, awkward and peculiar, Jack had become an even more peculiar a teenager and, later, adult, burned out from academic over-achievement with very little reward. It didn’t seem to matter how good your grades were if you couldn’t talk to people, and now- well, what did he have to show for it? A mouldering apartment on which he could barely make rent, parents who only remembered to call in on him once every few months despite living in the same small village. Friends who’d slowly stopped reading his messages, fading listlessly away like breath on a windowpane. Few hobbies or talents kept up for more than a week or two.
Overall Jack’s life was a bland sort of embarrassment rather than a tragedy, and that somehow made it all the worse.
It had always seemed histrionic to think of suicide, but Jack had wanted it so often that it felt like an impossible dream, like owning a mansion or eloping with some famous beauty. He had considered the pills in his cupboard, a clean razor, walking headlong into one of the few busy roads in the area, but consider was as far as Jack went, too inert even to put an end to his disappointment.
But somehow the well was different. For once it had been easy for Jack to tug his shoes on and make the hike, reaching his destination without changing his mind and retreating back to his stale bed, as was his habit. Perhaps it was the lack of responsibility- Jack might be the one to throw the coin, but it would be the witch who’d finish it all, folding him gently into death like a soft black sheet.
But would it be gentle, that blackness, or painful?
The stories Jack remembered never specified how it was meant to be. Some of them seemed to be scrapped together from old local history: a desperately poor family had drowned their youngest daughter in the well, only for her to cling to life with some vestigial magic, granting any visitor who asked the mercy of a death she’d never had. Alternative tales were rather more mysterious, telling of a well that appeared on the moors overnight, only the routine deaths of its visitors betraying the intent of its enigmatic resident.
Either way, the manner of killing was never described, and that had always been alluring, too, the facelessness of action. Now as he looked into the shaft Jack felt a dual thrill of nerves and grim desire, and he knew that he would not be leaving without his two pence striking the bottom of the well.
Jack let out a shuddering laugh. He was sure that he must look stupid, a six-foot man gangling over a mound of dirty stone like a child playing some carnival game, but he didn’t care. If there wasn’t a witch- the likeliest option -then Jack had at least gotten a bit of exercise, fresh air and the first taste of adrenaline he’d known in recent memory. But if there was-
Rain shook from a thin canopy of twigs overhead, the droplets tumbling into the shaft. Far below Jack heard a rustling movement again, and he leaned over the lip of the well, balancing on his toes to see into the depths. He wasn’t afraid, then, because what the children had said lived down there couldn’t be real, but when the darkness shifted and leapt at the side of the shaft Jack nearly lost his footing.
The shape of some skeletal thing was staring up at him from the water below, twitching and flinching from the thin sphere of light filtering into the gloom. It was as slight as a woman, but its limbs were flattened, overlong, creeping along the brickwork like black mold. Clinging to its body from head to foot was what looked like a filthy black sheet, obscuring the being’s features and flapping violently in the wind.
As Jack shouted in alarm the creature’s head snapped upwards and he glimpsed the face, or what passed as one: yawning eye and mouth holes cut jaggedly into the fabric, expressionless, and yet hungry.
Jack staggered backwards, his heart banging in his chest like a closed fist. His logical mind knew that he should simply leave, forget what he had seen, write the day off- but he felt in his fear suddenly and acutely alive, and that held him there, his fingers fastening over the coin in his pocket.
Screwing his eyes half-shut against the rain Jack edged towards the well again. Looking down the thing- the witch -was still looking up at him, crouched like an emaciated rat in the water. It made no move towards him, only watched him with its hollow stare. Gazing back at it Jack felt something like a religious fervour, realising that his one chance at death was waiting there under that foul sheet.
He pulled the two pence coin from his pocket, wiped fluff from its perimeter, and held it out to the light.
What now? Was he meant to talk, give the witch his sorry reason? But looking at the withered, fleshy roots of its arms, the abyssal tear of its mouth, Jack couldn’t speak, his tongue locked to the roof of his mouth with revulsion. Instead he only outstretched his arm and opened his palm over the pit, allowing the coin to fall into the murky water below.
The reaction was immediate. A sound like water blown through a punctured lung emerged from the well, and the ragged sheet of the witch’s skin fluttered outwards like the wings of some lunatic moth towards the light. Jack didn’t wait to see if it would come after him. He pushed himself away from the structure and headed across the boggy fields in lolloping strides, too encumbered by panic and disbelief to enter a proper run.
The witch didn’t seem to have followed him from the well; he would have heard its gurgles, its appetite wetted by the lush copper of his offering. But Jack thought he could feel it staring at him through the lashing rain, and that sensation persisted long after he’d thrown himself into the house and huddled, shaking, under his bedclothes.
All night Jack waited to die. He kept thinking that his clattering heart would squeeze to its cessation, that he’d swallow his tongue in the night and suffocate without even knowing it. Once he scrambled up to look outside, certain that the witch would come blowing down the street through the dark like a balloon full of rotting air, fingers poised to pluck out his lungs.
But it didn’t come then, nor the next night, nor the one after it.
The sense of dread never lifted, keeping Jack so highly strung on paranoia that when he returned to work his colleagues asked after his health with what appeared to be genuine interest. It was the first time anyone had expressed something like concern in so many years that Jack had come close to telling them the truth, but stopped himself, not wanting this newfound care to be spoiled by some question as to his sanity.
After all, everyone knew about the witch, but no one believed in it anymore. There were probably thousands of people who’d dropped coins into that well and lived happy lives well into their eighties- but they would have only been joking, whereas Jack had really meant his wish.
The desire to die was still in him, stronger than ever now that every waking hour was fraught with nervous expectation. He wanted the witch to end it, get it done with- but day after day trickled by, and still Jack felt as alive as he always had, not that it meant much, to him.
After another long day of jittering in fruitless anticipation Jack came to the conclusion that he’d better start living each day as if it was his last rather than merely waiting for the inevitable. After all, perhaps something about the myth was wrong, and he wouldn’t die after all- a daunting thought, and one Jack didn’t think worth trifling with.
He began by visiting his parents for the first time in years. Jack had always been in limbo, waiting for some call or visit he’d privately considered himself beneath receiving, but to his surprise his welcome at the doorway was enthusiastic, even emotional. His mother, weathered and arthritic and five-foot-two, practically swung him off his feet with teary eyes, and Jack’s father shook his hand and held it for a long time, as it he might never touch him again.
They had simply thought him too busy to see them, they said, giving him space, waiting for the moment he’d have time for them again. This information came as such a surprise to Jack that he didn’t even realise he was crying until his mother dabbed tears off his cheek with the end of her cardigan sleeve. How foolish that the pair of them hadn’t spoken up sooner, that he hadn’t thought to ask what was going on – but it didn’t matter now they were all together under one roof, as if no time whatever had passed.
Emboldened by the experience Jack’s next step was to contact various friends and acquaintances, meeting them for drinks in the local pub, inviting them over the flat for takeout dinners or games nights. Again he was startled that many of them agreed, although not all, and the handful that did respond were company enough that Jack found himself almost busy, a word so unfamiliar as so to be foreign to him.
It occurred to Jack that this wave of good fortune was some side effect of the wish, a bittersweet collateral to enjoy before death swept it all away. Jack took it gladly. He wasn’t bitter that life had waited so long to reward him, for he’d never been significant enough to justify it before. It merely made him wistful that only with death on the horizon did he have the confidence to pick up a phone or draft a simple email when it had it seemed so frightening, so challenging, before.
The depression was still there, of course, heavy and stifling and threatening to wring every joyous moment dry. But it had relinquished a little of its grip, and Jack began to experience something like happiness again.
Two months after the wish had been dropped into the well a woman started working in Jack’s office out of the blue, short, blonde and slightly overweight with a crooked smile, a smile she showed often and warmly. It was easy to talk to her, to make her laugh, and so Jack compelled himself to do so as much as possible. They kissed some months later not at a work’s party, as half the office had apparently wagered, but at the end of a mutual dog walk, a sudden, clumsy, giggling clash of teeth neither of them regretted.
After that it was easy- perhaps too easy, Jack sometimes thought, as he became more and more comfortable in his changed life. But by that point he’d begun to pretend that the witch had been an imagining, some hallucination born of desperate sadness, and there were whole weeks at a time that he even believed it. It seemed to matter less and less, anyhow, and the afternoon at the well was quickly forgotten.
Two years later Jack and Maura were married at a local church, followed by far too many drinks with their small circle of friends, laughing as if for the first time in their lives, or the last. Jack’s little flat was still enough for the couple, for a while, but when Maura began complaining of morning sickness they mutually agreed to start looking for a house.
The night they were quite certain they’d found their perfect home Jack saw the witch again.
He was standing at the back door of the flat, trying to a smoke a joint against the rain. Maura was already in bed, snoring like a small warthog, and Jack was doing his best not to wake her, although the rain was bouncing off the tarmac behind the building like shrapnel. Jack eased the apartment door closed with his foot and walked around to the small plot of land where some of the residents grew flowers and vegetables, or tried to; someone was always stealing something, not that there was much to pilfer, at this time of year.
The night air smelled like mildew and approaching frost, and Jack could feel the rain soaking through his jeans. As the joint burned down beyond smokability he looked around for a plant pot to stub out the roach. It was only as Jack reached down between a scrub of bushes that he realised there was something in the garden with with him, lying in a dirty fishpond to his right.
Jack let the joint burn his fingers, afraid to move in case the witch realised that he had seen it. It lay on its belly, the wet, mossy swathes of its limbs floating like pondscum on the water. Its head was half-in, half-out of the pond, and Jack could hear liquid rattling through the mouth and eyeholes into the lungs far beneath.
Cramping terror spread through Jack’s sides like a stitch as he realised that it was watching him.
How long had it been there? Had the witch crawled out of the well to observe him before? Jack had certainly never noticed it, and in any case he was certain that he would have smelled its sodden decay, heard the bubbling growl of its breath. This was the first time it had shown itself to him since the day he’d given up his coin- yet it did nothing but stare at him, its empty eyeholes quivering like the leaves of a malignant plant.
Jack backed away slowly until the witch was nothing more than a malignant blackness against the dark, until he could pretend again that it had never existed to begin with.
Three days later Jack found blood in the toilet bowl after his morning bathroom routine. He’d been feeling tired and lethargic for some weeks now, but he’d simply put it down to the excitement of the new baby, house-hunting, perhaps not eating as well as he should have been. Maybe it was nothing, a strain, an embarrassing thing that would be quickly forgotten.
Jack didn’t tell Maura about it, solidiering quietly on until a pain in his side tore at him so suddenly during a meeting at work that he was unable to do anything but sit, tears pouring down his cheeks, waiting for a polite opportunity to leave.
Even before the results came back from any doctor Jack knew that it was cancer. An advanced bowel cancer, in fact, as a specialist later informed him, riddling his innards like rot through a tree. No treatment would touch it, nor remotely alleviate the oncoming pain, unless Jack wanted to spend the last of his days swimming in a morphine haze, knowing nothing and no one.
Although rare in such a young person the news shouldn’t have thrown him, not after yearning for death so fervently and for so long, but somehow it did, the shock pulsing in nauseating waves. Clammy-palmed and choking on gorge he excused himself from the pristine white clinic and found the nearest restroom, leaning weakly inside a cubicle until he felt like he could stand upright again.
If Jack had known the witch would be so cruel, that it would wait so long, he never would have thrown that coin into the well. He would have found some other way to commit suicide, or else blundered drearily on with things. That he might never have had the courage to speak to Maura without death lighting a fire beneath him wasn’t lost on Jack; his happiness was in direct correlation to the witch, and he had known that, elected to ignore it, and now here he was, his own cells eating him alive.
As soon as he arrived back at the village Jack hiked out to the well again. It was even simpler to find, this time, as if it knew that he was coming and made the path easier for him. It stuck out of the earth like a septic wound, its very appearence a taunt. Jack clung to its stone rim, wheezing and dizzied from the journey across the moor. He thought of his unborn daughter, his wife, his parents, his friends, and screamed into the well’s black depths, a hoarse, wordless cry of self-pity.
Nothing moved at the bottom of the shaft. Nothing spoke to him. There was only the distant wink of a hundred coins in the pit, turning slowly green amidst murky water.
Wracked with anguish Jack bent down to pick up a rock from the grass and dashed in against the inside of the well, watching it ricochet from one side of the other before plummeting into the darkness.
“Take it back, you old bitch!” he yelled, slamming his fist so hard against the grey brick that his knuckles split open. “Take it back!”
Jack hadn’t expected any kind of response, but it came immediately, the disgruntled, tidal roar of something awakened from sleep. The dun water churned, and as sunlight glanced across the well Jack saw the the witch rise up, the black membrane of skin torn away from a creature only barely recognisable as female. It stood, a thing made of oily rotting flesh and moss, and began to claw its way up the side of the well, the gaping holes in its face resembling the same pit it spawned from.
Jack thought about letting the witch take him, trawled down into that hungering yawn for the sake of a quick end. But his instinct to fight would not let him. There were many trees by the well, fallen branches and broken logs sticking up like snaggleteeth from the muddy earth. Bending down Jack seized a branch the size of his arm, cursing as the pain in his right side reached new heights, and lifted it in a clumsy swing as the witch surged to the top of the well shaft.
The branch connected with its mangled face, knocking the creature’s head back at a sick angle, the neck cracking on its joint. Yelling with triumph Jack struck it again, forcing down a mouthful of vomit as the stink of putrefaction rose up from the witch’s maw. The thing snarled a pained cry, its limbs scrambling for purchase, and again Jack hit out at it, beating again and again until his vision was so clouded with pain he couldn’t see whether his blows were even landing anymore.
At last Jack dropped the branch and collapsed onto the wet ground, twitching with the convulsions of tears. He lay there for some time, thinking amidst the quiet how strange it was that he was still alive. Eventually, wincing, he sat up again and opened his eyes. The witch was gone, and there was no sign of her anywhere around the well, nor within it, when Jack gathered the courage to look.
All that was left to suggest what had transpired was a single two pence coin, gleaming in the grass as if it had merely tumbled from Jack’s pocket.
He didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed unlikely that the witch would allow him to live after what he had done. Perhaps it was merely biding its time again, waiting to follow Jack some wet night and remind him of what it owed. But there seemed no point in agonising over it anymore, not when his pregnant wife was waiting for him at home, no doubt wondering why what had been a ‘dental checkup’ had bloated into a four hour disappearance.
If Jack was going to die then it would simply happen, and he had to resign himself to that, as everyone else did.
After pocketing the coin and dabbing ineffectually at the mud on his jeans Jack began to walk back towards the village again, the fug of moist decay still lingering around him.
It was only when he was halfway across the heath that he realised the ache in his right side had ceased.