As promised, here is the first of what I hope are many more stories to come. I promise to one day write the complete story of Little Mary.
Sarah Jessup began going out to the old well on the far end of her grandparents’ farm when she was 7 years old. Though her mother and grandmother would have preferred the young child stay away from the disused well so far into the forest, most family members felt the strange, bookish child was probably best left to her own devices.
So it was, whenever young Sarah would finish her chores or had homework to do, off she’d go to the well, which was shaded by trees and a good place to get away from the bustle of the shared family farm. It suited her quiet nature.
No matter how old Sarah grew she continued to visit her well in the woods. When prodded about her fascination with it, she would simply shrug and reply that she visited the old witch that lived in the well. She would smile, grab her book and walk out to her favorite spot.
Younger siblings and cousins steered clear of the ‘haunted well’. They claimed they could hear voices and whispers coming from within. A voice that begged them to remove the well cover. The voice made all sorts of promises but always began cursing and crying when the child refused to remove the cover. The adults laughed off the wild tales but Sarah had nothing to say on the matter.
When Sarah was old enough to keep her own house, she asked her father and uncles to build her a little cottage near the edge of the woods. She said this way she would no longer be taking up needed room for the growing families but would be near enough to continue helping on the farm. The home would be her pre-bridal gift from the family.
Sarah got her home, but never seemed to find a suitable husband, to the surprise of no one. Over the years, she allowed the forest to engulf her modest home until even the other members of the family were reluctant to visit. The little ones believed Auntie Sarah to be a woods witch and steered clear of her patch of the family land.
For her part, Sarah joined the family less and less as the years passed. Once it was clear her help was no longer needed, she simply stopped coming. She never asked for any of the produce of the farm after she daily chores but some members of the family still sent provisions with the braver of the children, who never went further than the front door and rarely knocked before putting their package down and running back home.
When Sarah’s eldest brother finally passed on, an adult niece, Rebecca, took it upon herself to venture to her Auntie Sarah to tell the woman of the passing and bring the monthly provisions.
It wasn’t much of a journey, but one that still made Rebecca uneasy. The woman crossed the little used path through the woods to the moss covered home with little difficulty, armed with provisions and her news.
The home was still in good condition, as Sarah had been able bodied enough to keep it up, without the aide of her family. Rebecca knocked timidly on the door. It had been many years since she had seen her aunt and tried to shake off the trepidation of meeting the odd woman again.
When she received no answer, Rebecca pushed open the door to the cottage. The inside was as neat and orderly as the outside. Everything was worn, but serviceable. Rebecca saw various herbs and wild plants drying around the kitchen area and could smell a rich stew simmering in the large pot over the fireplace.
“Auntie Sarah?” Rebecca’s voice came out in a whisper as she continued through the small house. Part of her worried she would stumble across her aunt, long dead.
The bedroom was made and clean, showing signs of long use. Nothing seemed out of place, but her aunt was still not to be found.
Rebecca placed her basket of provisions on a table near the fireplace and walked through the backdoor. She knew of the old well out back that her aunt had loved to visit as a child. Rebecca had visited the place only once, but her childhood fancies had made her believe she heard the witch of the well and had scared her off.
Rebecca chuckled to herself over this dilemma.
“Am I afraid of the witch in the well or the witch who visits it?” She cleared her throat as she shook her head. She knew it was unchristian of her to think of her aunt as a witch. Her aunt was simply an old woman who had long ago decided to live alone. It wasn’t unheard, but it was still considered an odd thing.
Rebecca walked along a well-used path in the direction she remembered the well to be. As she moved further along, she could hear humming. It was a familiar tune, a lullaby her own grandmother used to sing to the grandchildren.
Rebecca walked into a lovely clearing to see her aged aunt sitting in a rocking chair near the well as she hummed her song. The old woman’s eyes were closed, and she was unaware of her niece’s arrival.
Rebecca took two more steps into the clearing and stopped, a chill running down her. The humming was not coming from the old woman in the chair, but from the well. Rebecca’s breath caught in her throat as she saw the lid of the well was partially uncovered and the old familiar tune was indeed coming from the depths of the dark hole.
Trying to retreat, Rebecca stumbled on a tree root and fell hard on her bottom. Her aunt’s eyes opened instantly and took in the sight of the woman on the ground. Sarah shifted in her seat, smoothed her shawl and smiled at her niece with full recognition. The humming had stopped.
“I believe you to be Maybell’s oldest.” The woman rose from her chair, showing little signs of her advanced age, and walked towards Rebecca. “Though I admit it’s been a dog’s age since I last saw any of the children. Not that you could still be called a child.”
Rebecca scrambled to her feet. Rising, she was face to face with her aunt. The rich wet earth brown of her eyes, a color shared by many of the family, echoed from her aunt’s time worn face. Those eyes were kindly but had the sharp edge of wit behind them. There was also something else in them, a searching that frightened Rebecca.
“Hello, Auntie Sarah,” Rebecca tried brushing the dirt from her clothing and straightening her hair. It took every ounce of her self control to not look at the open well. Unfortunately, the concentration meant she could only fumble and continue to smooth out various parts of her dress.
“I know you’re not here to pay your respects,” Sarah continued passed her niece and into the house. Rebecca gave one final look at the well before following.
“I’m afraid that is true, Auntie.” Rebecca hurried after her aunt. “I did bring you some provisions from the farm but mostly I’m here to tell you some sad news.”
"Who died?" Sarah's voice held no sadness. She went to the basket on the table and began to unpack it. "You don't seem sad enough for it to be your own father. I'm going to guess it was Peter. Old sod finally decided to stop being so belligerent and die?"
Sarah laughed a deep chuckle. She didn't notice or didn't care that her joke shocked Rebecca. The younger woman cleared her throat and tried to think of how to respond.
"Don't bother being upset, girlie." Sarah began putting away the items Rebecca had brought her. "Surely they've told you this old witch has a heart of stone."
Sarah put the small basket of eggs on the counter and turned to regard Rebecca.
"When you get to be my age, child," Sarah continued in a more kindly tone, "you come to expect the loss of family. Can't say I'm surprised one of my kin has died. They're probably equally surprised to hear I'm still alive."
Rebecca took a deep breath to steady herself. Being around her aunt was unnerving her.
"It was Uncle Pete that passed," the younger woman finally managed to say. "I was asked to come tell you the news. The funeral will be on Saturday, but you are welcome to come back with me to visit until after the service."
Sarah shook her head and continued to unpack the basket.
"I thank you for the kindness, but I will not be joining you." Sarah handed the now empty basket back to her niece. "Though you think you are extending the hospitality of the family, it has been too many years and very few want me to grace the old homestead again."
Rebecca wanted to argue, but knew it would be pointless. What her aunt said was the truth. While it was acknowledged they had to inform Sarah of her brother's passing, no one was particularly keen on the odd woman coming to visit. Most assumed she would not attend the funeral, as she had missed many in the past, including those of her own mother and father.
Rebecca accepted the basket and followed her aunt to the front door. Not another word passed between the two women.
On the walk back, Rebecca's mind kept returning to the open well and the humming that had come from inside. She tried telling herself that it was a trick of her ears, that the humming echoed from her aunt to the open well.
She was reminded of the one time she had visited the well as a child. It was a dare set to her by her older sister and cousins, all who had been teasing her to tears.
They told her of the witch in the well and bet she wouldn't dare venture to it after dropping off their aunt's monthly provisions. Of course, Rebecca had to go.
As an adult, Rebecca couldn't separate what actually happened that day versus what she had built up in her mind, added to by the stories of other children.
"I heard a voice that day," Rebecca whispered the words, realizing she feared her aunt overhearing her. "A voice cried and asked me to help her escape. I know I heard a voice."
Like today, the child Rebecca had been scared by the voice and had run away upon seeing her aunt emerge from the woods. Rebecca had not been out to her aunt's house since that day.
Rebecca didn't believe in real witches. She believed in men and women who were closer to nature and could read the ways of the woods. People who understood about herbs and could ease the pain of childbirth or soothe a cold. That kind of witch made sense to Rebecca.
She didn't believe there was a witch in her aunt's well.
"If it's not a witch, then..." Rebecca stopped walking as her voice trailed off. The sudden realization that hit her was as if she had been slapped.
If not a witch, then...who?
Rebecca turned and faced the path back towards her aunt's home. Her father said she was too curious for her own good. Once she had a question or a problem, she would worry it like a dog with a bone. Rebecca knew she should get back to the others, but she couldn't go home until she had eased her own mind.
The only problem was she didn't think her aunt would welcome her questioning. If anyone knew the secret of the well, it was her Auntie Sarah. It was a secret in all the years she had known of it, Sarah had not wished to share. Rebecca did not think her aunt would be willing to divulge it just because Rebecca asked politely.
To this end, Rebecca decided she would have to find out for herself without her aunt knowing. She was certain, if she needed to, she could outrun and old woman.
Rebecca started back down the path. Before she got within sight of the house, Rebecca stepped off the path and continued around, using the woods as cover.
It didn't take her long to reach the edge of the clearing. Her aunt's rocking chair was unoccupied but the cover was still off the well. The humming Rebecca had heard earlier had started again.
Rebecca edged up towards the well, keeping an eye out on the path that lead to her aunt's home.
"Hello?" The humming stopped and the single word floated from the depths of the well. "You're not Sarah. I can tell."
The voice sounded old, exactly as a child might think the voice of a witch would sound.
"Have you come to save me?" A mad cackle echoed over the stones, making the hairs on Rebecca's neck stand on end. "Finally let me out after all these years?"
"You think you can save me from her?" The cackle continued. "She'll never let me go, not as long as she lives. Never, never, never."
Rebecca looked worriedly at the path again. Despite the noise and the cackling, her aunt did not appear. Knowing she might not have much time, Rebecca raced to the well.
She pushed the lid off completely with much effort and stared down. A gasp escaped her as she saw the malformed old woman at the bottom of the well. Her legs, long healed at strange angles, had clearly been badly broken in a fall. Her scraggly hair hung over a naked and emaciated body.
It was the sight and smell of the woman that made Rebecca back away, but only momentairly. She still had to know.
"Who are you?" She called down to the woman. "How did you get here? How can I help you?"
The cackled died down as the woman looked up at Rebecca. There was only a ragged breathing from the woman whose glazed and milky white eyes looked unseeing at Rebecca.
"You smell of him" the old woman spat the words. "His blood. His kin."
"Are you talking about my Auntie Sarah?" Rebecca felt rushed, unsure of how much time she still had before he aunt came out. "Did she put you down there?"
More ragged breathing as the woman sniffed the air.
"Please, let me help you," Rebecca begged as she glanced around for a rope. "Tell me who you are."
"Me?" The cackling began anew. "Did no one tell you story of little Mary? Mary the devil's daughter? Mary who was damned by God himself? Did he not tell you of me?"
Rebecca, having found the rope, dropped one end down to the woman. The old woman promptly tied a foul smelling bucket to it and moved away. It was with horror that Rebecca realized the woman had probably done this many times in all the years she had been down there. She did not see the rope as escape but as a means to remove her refuse bucket.
Rebecca backed away, feeling sick and helpless. She had wanted to know, but after finding the old woman in the well, she knew even less than before.
"I always wondered when one of you would be brave enough to look," said a quiet voice behind Rebecca. "To be honest, I'm surprised to have kept her a secret this long."
Rebecca turned slowly to see her old aunt sitting in the rocking chair, face placid.
"Wh...who is she?" Rebecca felt her legs wobble and sat on the ground before she could fall there. "Why do you keep her in that well?"
Sarah rocked in her chair, regarding her niece.
"She smells of him!" Rose the voice from the well. "You can't trust her blood. Can't trust her kin!"
"If she smells of him, then she smells of you," retorted Sarah, raising her voice to be heard. "And that would be because she is your mother's granddaughter, your niece as well as my own."
"Her...?" Rebecca's head was swimming. Nothing made sense and she could barely piece together what her Auntie Sarah was saying.
"That is your Auntie Mary down there," Sarah said as she continued rocking. "Your paternal grandfather threw her down there after finding out she wasn't his child."
Rebecca stared, unable to utter a word.
Sarah shrugged her thin shoulders.
"Stories say your grandmother was a witch and begat Mary during a Sabbath," Sarah's voice was as nonchalant as if she were simply talking about the weather or a recipe. "Probably not the whole truth but your aunt did come out looking a little different than her older brother or her father."
Sarah waited a few moments to see if Rebecca would ask any questions but continued when it was clearly the younger woman could say nothing.
"One day, from what Mary told me, the man she called daddy said he would take her on a special trip in the woods. He brought her here and threw her in." Sarah smoothed her shawl. "He knew our family didn't bother with the old well any longer and he truly believed Mary had died from the fall. I found her just a few days after he threw her in."
Mary cackled from the well.
"And she got him for me!" The woman in the well yelled with glee. "Sarah was my friend and she got him for me!"
Sarah smiled and shook her head in indulgence at the interruption.
"Her daddy died not long after I found her," Sarah said noncommittally. "Heart attack, or so they say."
Rebecca took in a deep breath and tried to steady herself.
"Why didn't you tell anyone?" Rebecca's voice came out high and panicked. "Why did you leave her there all these years?"
Sarah rocked for a few moments, regarding her niece. A low keening sound rose up from the well.
"Because, child, if I did, her father, her real father, would take her," Sarah said quietly. The keening from the well continued. "Her daddy blessed the well before he threw her in. No evil can get in and none can get out."
Rebecca looked from the well to her Auntie Sarah in the rocking chair.
"Even at age 7, I knew the devil shouldn't get what he wants," Sarah continued. "I've kept Mary safe and will continue to for as long as I live. Should her father get her out, I can't say what will happen to the world but it won't be good."
Rebecca swallowed a lump in her throat. "So there is a witch in the well?" Her voice was very quiet, almost drowned out by the keening noise.
"Indeed there is," Sarah said. "And it takes a witch to keep a witch. I wonder..."
Rebecca looked back at her aunt in the chair who was again regarding her with a searching look.
"Have you ever thought of becoming a witch of the woods?" Sarah asked. "I can't live forever and it would be good to know one of the family could carry on the tradition. After all, it's in your blood."
Instead of feeling horrified at the suggestion, felt a calm wash over her. Didn't all of her kin say she were odd? Didn't she always feel she didn't belong on the farm?
She looked back at her aunt and smiled. "I think I would like that."
Where I tell you things you may want to know.