She went to the well every morning. She, and every other girl in the village. Every morning to the well to gather the water necessary for washing, cooking, drinking, brewing — all of which she would also do. Every day. Every morning she went to the well in the village common. But not this morning.
This morning she turned left at the garden gate and took her yoke and jugs in the opposite direction of the village center. Because this morning was different. This morning was just for her. This morning marked one year since her mother had died. This morning was an anniversary of solitude. And so this year she wanted to be alone.
There was another well. A well on the edge of the wood. A well overgrown with briar, ivy and honeysuckle. A well hidden by green hawthorn and ash, by mossy oaks, by smooth grey beeches and yews like deep green fountains. A well of solitude.
It was a longer trip, particularly for the villagers that lived on the other side of the common. Which was most of them. Only a few households lived on this side. So there was that deterrent. But it was also a well of rumor. There were tales of strange doings and enchantments at this well. Things it were best to shun. Especially in the daily rush of doing. No time for mystery in the morning.
But mystery protects the reclusive. And so she ventured the hidden well.
The path along the wood’s edge was rank with mustard-weed, bracken and sedge. No one had need to travel this way and so the footpath was vanishing under riotous spring growth. On either side hedges bristled with hawthorn, gorse and blackthorn, though the bright flowers lent an air of blowsy gaiety. A gaiety she did not feel.
Before the path left the valley, climbing to heights she would never see, had no desire to scale, a break in the hedge revealed a small trail that wove into the wood. As woodland trails will, this one twisted and turned with no apparent objective. She trusted that the well was more than a rumor in the wood and plodded along the wayward path.
Finally she came to a place with oak, ash and thorn trees in a ring around a deep, stone pool. The well, she supposed, though it was less well than spring. Still, it would do to fill her jugs. She bent and scooped water into her hand. It was very cold but sweet and clear. Yes, it would do very nicely to fill her jugs. But as she reached for them, she heard a cough.
Spinning around, she saw an old woman by the oak bole, nearly as brown and wrinkled as the ancient oak itself. The girl was taken aback because she was certain there had been no woman there when she approached the well. But she recovered herself and greeted the old woman with good cheer and reverence.
The old woman smiled, toothless and trembling, but her eyes were bright and canny and kind. The girl had not felt a warm glance in a year and immediately was drawn to the crone. She was also a generous and considerate child. She offered whatever assistance the old woman might need. The old woman produced a large cask that needed filling, but, said she, she could not bend so far to do it herself. The girl gladly obliged. She drew water to fill the flask for the old woman and then filled her own jugs.
Then they sat on the smooth rocks near the well and talked for a while of everything and nothing. And the girl confessed her grief, her loss. She missed her mother. What’s more, the woman her father had married, so soon after her mother’s death, was cruel. The woman laid every burden on the girl and favored her own daughter, even contriving to supplant the girl in her own father’s affections. All this the girl bore without complaint, amiable and compliant in all things. But it wore her down.
She had never dared whisper her woes to another soul. Well, who could she tell? She wondered at herself, telling a stranger her close-guarded soul secrets. But the old woman was attentive and understanding, encouraging even. And there was a release in the telling, a relief from a burden the girl wasn’t entirely aware she’d been carrying.
When she came to the end of her tale at the edge of the well, a silence fell in the wood, as if after a collective exhalation. The old crone gazed down at the well, nodding to herself. The girl sighed and looked into the waters, seeing a glimmer of hope for the first time since becoming a motherless child.
With that vision she remembered herself. Surely she’d let too much time pass at the well. She would be castigated when she returned, behind in all her daily tasks. She gathered her skirts and stood, then turned to help the old woman to her feet.
“I must return, Grandmother, but may I carry your flask for you? Do you go to the village now?”
As she asked this, the girl realized the strangeness of a stranger in her very small world. She’d never seen the old woman. How was that possible? There were no strangers in the village. And yet surely this woman could not have traveled far on her own, passing through the mountains from the villages on the far side. The girl noticed for the first time that the old woman carried very little for being so far from any home. What drew her here?
The crone must have read some of this in the girl’s face and she smiled kindly again.
“I need no assistance home. I live not far down the lane. But it is out of your way, and I have kept you long enough already.”
This puzzled the girl for there were no cottages beyond the well as far as she knew. And it seemed rather that the old woman had indulged her in listening, not keeping her from her tasks. But she had no time to puzzle it out. She needed to hurry.
But before she lifted her yoke she embraced the old crone, placing a gentle kiss on the wizened cheek and thanking the woman for listening. The old woman seemed surprised but gratified.
She said, “You are a good child, my dear. I wish to give you a gift.”
So saying she passed a hand over the girl’s lips, promising that the girl’s kind words would always carry their own reward.
The girl smiled and respectfully bowed her head in thanks. Then she lifted her yoke and hastened home. She was surprised to find that the trail that had seemed so long took her very little time on the way back to the village path. And then in no time at all she was back home and emptying the well water into the cistern.
Suddenly, a sharp voice cut through the morning.
“And what was the cause of your dallying this time, you slothful child?”
Her father’s new wife stood in the doorway, scowling. The girl set down her empty jugs and began to apologize for her tardiness. But no sooner had the words started to flow than gold and jewels began to fall from her lips as well. For a moment she was frightened, but then she laughed remembering the old woman’s gift — a reward for kind words, indeed!
The wife demanded an explanation, so the motherless girl told of going to the hidden well in the woods and meeting an old woman who gave her this gift. All the while more riches poured from her mouth, and the wife became greedy. She took all the gold and jewels from the girl and set her to the daily rounds of toil. Meanwhile the wife called to her own daughter.
Now, this child was as different as could be to the motherless girl. Haughty and cruel like her mother, lazy and stupid, and though lovely in the way of all young girls, the sneering set of her mouth and the cold spite in her eyes gave her an ill-favored mien. The mother told her daughter about the woman at the well, instructing her to go and receive a similar blessing.
With reluctance and ill-will, the daughter set off for the woodland well, bringing a stable boy to carry the water jugs and complaining loudly the whole way of mud and weed and the long walk in the heat of the day. When she came to the well, she found not a crone but a lovely young queen, arrayed in purple finery and silver thread, her hair set about with hawthorn blossoms and pearls in a sweetly scented coronet.
The daughter rudely ordered the boy to fill the jugs. She did not offer to assist the queen, did not even offer greetings. Nor did she refrain from asking what gifts she would receive for her efforts.
The young queen smiled enigmatically and promised what the old woman had promised. The daughter would be justly rewarded for her words. The daughter smugly turned and pushed the stable boy down the trail before her, flouncing away with nary a nod of thanks.
But as she and the boy tried to leave the well in the wood, the trail became longer and darker and she became vexed, blaming the boy.
“Hurry up, stupid,” she screeched at the innocent servant. Whereupon a large worm fell from her lips. She shrieked in fear, and a torrent of cockroaches poured out.
At that she clapped her hands over her mouth and ran for home. All the long way, involuntary complaints and insults were followed by unpleasant creatures — slugs and toads, wasps and beetles, rats so large she gagged on her words. By the time she got home she was frantic with fear and rage. She came to her mother and tried to explain, but all that came out of her mouth was a giant serpent. The snake fell to the floor, hissing in anger. It turned and bit the girl. And then the mother for good measure.
And from venomous words they both died that day.
But the motherless child lived with rich words all her long life.
It is not said what happened to her father.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021