The Fishing Well
For forty years John had scratched out an unlikely living as the simpleton in a certain town. He had no family in the area, nor could anyone now living remember how he had come to it. Not that anyone bothered to ask. Year after year, he was just the town fool.
The town thrived on a stretch of fertile ground claimed from a swamp, surrounded by ponds and streams and a wide lake teeming with fish. Despite their good fortune, however, the townspeople were a sullen, sharp-eyed lot, always on the lookout for someone behaving oddly or not doing his share of work. Anyone judged to be a misfit was soon run out of town. By rights, then, John should have been long gone, but his brainlessness was so absolute that his neighbours marvelled at it as they would a natural wonder. Sometimes they even rewarded his hare-brained schemes with a coin or two, just for the amusement they afforded them. And with these tossed bits of change, along with scrounged food and cast-off clothes and other oddments, he managed a meager living in a lean-to under a bridge.
One day, John decided to go fishing in an abandoned well at the edge of town. He’d seen people cast lines and nets in every body of water more than two feet deep, but never in this one, so it stood to reason that any fish in it would have grown to huge size and be hungry to snap.
He had a length of line and a rusty hook from his scavenging, and with his hoarded coins he bought an earthworm from the baitseller’s son, paying for the price of two, since cheating John was something the town’s children learned long before they entered school.
Perched on the edge of the stone well, he whistled as he unrolled his line with wriggling worm down into the depths below. Meanwhile, the baitseller’s son had nudged his father, who had nudged his neighbour, and so on, and now a small crowd was watching from behind John, holding in their laughter for the present. One of the boys whispered that it would be fun to push him in and let him flounder awhile before they hauled him out, but his father wanted to wait first and see how long John would sit whistling over his empty pond.
Soon, however, to the amazement of everyone—except John, who merely grinned—the line gave a couple of sharp jerks downward. John set the hook and hauled up his fish. It was small and thin and pale, with sickly mottlings and ragged fins unlike those of any of the local fish. Still, it was a fish—a fish pulled somehow from a nearly dry well—and John would have a few fried morsels to go with his crust of bread tonight.
That is, if John did the sensible thing—but in any situation that was just the thing John was incapable of doing. Instead, as the villagers, more of whom had gathered, watched incredulously, John lowered his fish back into the well in the hope of attracting a bigger one.
Sure enough, he did. A longer, plumper, stronger-looking fish than before came twisting up the line. It squirmed free of John’s hands and leaped into the grass beside the well. None of the villagers was smiling now, and not a few were frowning. Idiocy that brought onlookers laughter was one thing, but idiocy that brought the idiot profit quite another. One stout man, Otto the blacksmith, advanced from the group to tell John to be off with his prize, which was flopping about as John tried clumsily to unhook it. Otherwise, he would be the first to kick John down the well, and the last to help him out of it.
John looked up with his gap-toothed grin, and then did something that stopped Otto short. He’d finally managed to work the hook free of the fish’s mouth, but had torn its lower lip in the process. After scratching his head a few moments, he pinned the fish against his chest and pushed the barb through the base of its dorsal fin—squinting and chewing his lips in concentration all the while—and then lowered the fish down the well again to swim about and hook an even bigger companion.
Scowling, Otto rejoined the crowd, which had grown as the news had spread and now included most of the town’s citizens. They all, even the children, watched John in glowering silence. After a few minutes, a furious tug on the line almost yanked John into the well. He had a tough time getting this one up to the top. When he’d heaved it over the side, the citizens saw a fish as long as the well was wide, or not much shorter than John, fat and sleek, its huge pink gills opening and closing like bellows. Fish enough to satisfy even the greatest dolt, and though the townspeople begrudged John his catch, which would feed a family for days, they were glad at least to see the end of the episode. Grumbling, they prepared to disperse.
Except—John didn’t shoulder the fish or take out a knife to clean it where it lay. He stood over it scratching his head, raising raw welts in the patches of scalp between his straw-tufted hair. He was wrestling with a problem his weak mind couldn’t solve: how to use as bait a fish of this length and girth, which he had barely managed to hoist from the depths. He chewed his pulpy lower lip until it bled. Just then, the dying fish gave a retch, and out of its mouth slid the previous fish it had swallowed. John was back in business.
The dorsal fin was tattered now too, so this time he hooked it through the tail and lowered it down that way. When he’d got it rigged up, he turned and gave a hearty wave to the people watching. This was his fishing wave, the one he always made from shore to fishermen poling through the marshes or rowing on the lake. They answered it with shouted jokes or curses, depending on their luck—sounds which wind and distance tore to lusty shreds that made John smile. No sound returned to him now.
This time, he had the sense to plant his feet outside the well and brace his elbows against the stone rim. Which was fortunate, for the bait fish was no sooner lowered than the citizens saw John yanked over the edge and halfway in. No one moved to help him as he righted himself with difficulty and began hauling, the tendons in his arms popping, his face turning purple. He hauled and he hauled and he hauled. Grunting and panting, he would gain a foot of line, then lose half of it when he paused to take a breath. The struggle seemed to go on forever. Finally, an enormous, goggle-eyed fish cleared the top of the well—or its head did, for try as John might, hugging the fish around the head with both arms, he couldn’t raise it further.
Now, at last, some of the town’s men, led by Otto, rushed forward to help. Not for John’s sake, but simply to preserve this miracle that their fool had managed to snag. One pulled on the line, another hugged the fish from the other side, linking his arms with John’s, and two others pushed their fists inside the enormous gill slits. They all strained upward, cursing and grunting and panting as one human winch. And they budged it an inch or two higher—just enough to ensure that it was wedged there immovably, a giant fish’s head filling the mouth of the well, so tightly it couldn’t be raised further or pushed back down.
The fish opened its gate-like jaws, gasping in the unwelcome element. The other men stepped back a pace at the gargling rasp the monster produced. John stepped forward and peered into a black space like a cellar staircase. Somewhere down there was his bait. Climbing onto the rim of the well, he dove in headfirst and slid down the fish’s giant gullet. It was slippery and slimy and putrid-smelling, but no more so than the marshes in July near his lean-to.
At the bottom of the gullet he landed in a dry oval space littered with papers and lined with books. John couldn’t read, of course, but he’d seen offices before. This one was lit with a soft greenish glow pulsing from the fish’s innards which were arranged in neat parallel coils across the roof of the little room and down its sides. Whirring devices that John had never seen before hummed in the four corners, blowing the air about to keep the place dry, which also reduced the fishy odour a little. At the back of the chamber sat a man in a top hat and frock coat, a silk cravat knotted at his throat. He was peering intensely at a book, so preoccupied that he hadn’t noticed John’s thudding arrival, nor, seemingly, the upward-hauling commotion that preceded it, which had tilted his chair back steeply and scattered his books and papers. Finally, squeezing his strained eyes between thumb and forefinger, he looked up.
“John!” he cried. “My God, it’s been ages. How long exactly, do you reckon?”
“I haven’t a clue,” John replied. He was using some of the papers to wipe off the gluey gullet slime. Filthy to begin with, patchy-haired and blotchy-skinned, wearing cast-off rags, he seemed to share no features with the man rising excitedly from his chair to greet him. But if he could have enjoyed a bath and the long attentions of a barber, plus a month of good eating to fill him out, he would have seen a face not unlike his own, though at least twenty years younger and not worn down by rough living. Not that John had ever owned a mirror, or wanted to.
“I’ve been waiting forever for this day,” said the well-dressed man, pumping John’s hand. “What took you so long?”
“I don’t know,” John said.
“Well, how are you?
“Same as ever.”
“What have you been doing with yourself?”
“Nothing,” answered John.
Hoarse shouts drifted down from above, followed by gleams of light that played over the fish’s gullet without quite reaching the chamber where they stood. The man in the top hat frowned up at them.
“I wish we had more time, so I could explain a little better. But those louts won’t wait. I’ll tell you what I can do. Here’s something that will distract them and buy you some time.” He went round behind his desk and rummaged through some drawers, returning with a nut that he pressed into John’s palm. “Here. This should keep them busy while you get away. Set it in the town square and then stand back and slip away.”
“Go?” John said, staring at the nut in his palm. It was about the size and shape of an acorn with its top off. His stomach grumbled, and his first thought was to pop the nut in his mouth.
“No time...no time....,” muttered the frock-coated scholar, and he gestured at a rope that had dropped down the fish’s gullet to dangle behind John. “John! JOHN! GRAB HOLD!” the voices bellowed from above. The gentleman pushed a vial into John’s trouser pocket. “This will straighten you out. I wish I’d made up more. Drink it a bit at a time. But not before you’re clear of the town. D’you hear? Not before you get clear!”
John backed away and grabbed hold of the rope end. With so many arms pulling at once, he was whisked up the gullet so fast that he flew out of the gaping mouth, clear of the well, and landed, stunned and winded, on the ground a distance from it. His fists sprang open and the nut he’d been clenching rolled free.
The townspeople crowded around him in a circle of tense faces, obviously expecting an accounting of all they had witnessed, forgetting for a moment what they knew of John’s mental powers. Angry men, sullen women, surly older children and sly younger ones—all the faces of the place he knew whirled and loomed above him, like storm clouds in a threatening sky.
Then, just as he was wondering how he might squirm away between their legs, their eyes widened, their mouths dropped open and they drew back in awe.
A few feet away, the nut that had rolled from his hand into the dirt, was sprouting. In a few dazzling moments it became a flowering bush, dense with leaves and thorny stalks in its middle. Spiral blooms of amber and rose began as the whorled lower parts of women, and opened out into flushed pink faces draped with coiling tresses of black and brown and honey hair, revealing in places the swell of breasts below their pale necks.
For some moments, the citizens stood in shocked silence, gaping at the marvel in their midst. But the stillness didn’t last long. When the men saw what was on the bush, they shouldered to the front of the crowd. The children, sensing passions that could inflame to danger, fell back. Some of the women tried to hold their places, but as the men pressed forward, they too gave way, melting back with muttered curses and warnings.
Otto, the blacksmith who had wanted to kick John down the well, was married to his second wife, with a large brood already underfoot. Yet he stepped forward now, his face red and sweating, and snapped off a bloom from the bush of women. It grew quickly in his hand, so quickly that even his strong arm could not hold it up. She fell to the ground, her lower legs crushed and bleeding where Otto had wrenched them free. Otto stepped back, alarmed. Several of the women rushed forward to help the woman on the ground, now life-sized and moaning piteously. One of them called for a blanket to cover her nakedness, but this was unnecessary, as her skin from shoulders to calves began to alter, extruding an outer layer of fabric in soft-coloured folds and flounces. Within seconds she had in all respects the appearance of a decorous bride, albeit one crippled by rough handling below the knees.
Now that they saw how the magic worked, the other men were anxious to take their turn. A gardener stepped forward with pruning shears to show them the correct procedure, snipping the stem well back of the bloom, which left a tiny stiff tail that might be later removed or, if desired, left on.
Men, single and married, pressed forward urging their rights. Arguments sprang up, which were decided not by marital need but by physical size and status within the town. In the welter of raised voices, and plucked and forming girls, John saw his chance to slip away. He slunk back unnoticed, and when he’d reached the rim of the crowd, turned on his heels and hurried as fast as he could toward his lean-to under the bridge. It had been a confusing day, one that had addled his weak mind more than usual. He’d lost his fishing line and hook, and somehow given up fish that would have fed him a week. At the same time, he’d seen marvels, but marvels that turned quickly into horrors. He couldn’t hold so much spinning circumstance in his mind, and it all resolved into a simple desire to escape, to run away from the town he’d never thought of leaving before. Wherever he ended up, it was time to clear out. He’d grab a sack and a few things from his pile and be on his way before anyone noticed.
He’d only gone a short way, though, when familiar shouts and curses reached his ears. “John! JOHN! Where the HELL’S the fool gone to?”
With a sigh, he turned and trudged back.
The scene around the flowering bush was wilder than ever, with knots of arguing men and shyly courting couples threaded with crying children and cursing mothers, and disappointed men and women wandering away with slumped shoulders, like drab trickles spilled from a brimming pool.
When the crowd caught sight of John, they shouted at him to hurry, waving him on excitedly. They parted to let him through, and he saw what had them so worked up. The bush was badly mangled, as if the suitors had ignored the gardener’s instructions and had snatched at it in a frenzy. Most of its leaves lay scattered on the ground, its branches snapped off or half-snapped and dangling. Inside, at the middle of the wreckage, stood a woman, full-sized and of middle years, her nakedness poorly covered by her hands and the scanty screen of thorns and leaves, her slack breasts scratched, rivulets of blood running down her belly and thighs. Neither did her face have anything in common with the faces of the graceful brides. She had large protruding pale eyes, each of which seemed to goggle away to the side, a low brow, rough skin, big fleshy lips that made her small mouth pucker, and, under her chin, two long wiry hairs, like the whiskers of a catfish or sturgeon. She clutched herself miserably, shivering and afraid.
“Go on, John!” jeered an onlooker. “Go claim your Fish-Wife!”
Ignoring the hooting and laughter that followed this—he had long moved through the citizens’ clamour in a trance of protective deafness—John took off his greasy coat, and holding back the thorny branches, pushed it through. After the woman had covered herself, he beckoned her out through the alley he’d made. She emerged hesitantly. He put his arm around her shoulder, trembling still with fright or cold, and they made their way off down the road.
Jeers and taunts followed them—“Fool and his Fish-Wife! Mr. and Mrs. Fool-Fish!”—and sticks and pebbles struck them in the backs. John moved partly behind the woman to shield her, though he had to keep supporting her with his arm, for she wobbled unsteadily. The taunters behind them soon turned back. John had counted on them doing so. They couldn’t stick with anything long; it was part of what kept them on the lookout for signs of shirking in another. John didn’t understand it in quite this way of course—he was a fool through and through—but living among them all these years, he knew the citizens’ shifting moods the way an animal senses turns in the weather long before they occur.
The same ingrained sense steered him down another road away from the lean-to, which the citizens were bound to visit soon in search of more fun with the new couple. They wouldn’t be happy to find their sport gone, so he hurried the woman as best he could along the road that led out of town.
After a long stretch of walking, harder on her than on him, they stopped to rest in a cave across a gully off the road, its mouth half hidden by a bramble bush. Ushering her in first, John stopped to listen. The road was silent behind them.
Inside, they fell into wordless rhythms as if they’d been living together for years. The woman fashioned a broom from some twigs tied at their base with a length of vine and began whisking the spiders and earwigs and other vermin out of the corners. John found a place where moss grew around a trickle of water. Pulling out a clump of the moist green, he paused her in her work and dabbed at the scratches on her hands and face and ankles, signing to her to open his coat and swab her private parts herself. Meekly she turned and began doing so. Meanwhile, John, seeing that she was still shivering, looked about for something that might fortify her. The damp rocks around the moss were covered with a lichen that he knew was edible if very bitter. Opening his rusty knife, he scraped some off, and put the olive-brown shavings in the hollows of some walnut shells an animal had left nearby. He added some water to one and drank it down. The mixture had gotten him through many lean times, but its bitterness still made him wince. He didn’t think she’d stomach it without spitting it out.
While he was scratching his empty head, his hand strayed to his pocket and found the vial the gentleman scholar had given him inside the fish. In the frantic commotion since he’d fogotten all about it. Now he took it out, unstoppered it, and added a drop to a half shell of lichen shavings and water. Whatever it was, it could hardly make the concoction any worse. He tipped another drop into the shell and tasted it. A faint sweetness leavened the bitterness. He added two more drops, swirled it with his finger, and took it to her.
She looked at him questioningly, but drank it down, not wincing but actually licking her lips to catch all of it. He crossed the cave to mix up another little dram, and by the time he’d turned, a wondrous change had begun spreading over her. Her skin looked smoother, her eyes brighter and closer together, and her chin whiskers a little finer and shorter. She reached for the second shell and gulped it down. As John watched, her whiskers disappeared entirely; her brown eyes sparkled out at him; her brow rose straight and high; and her mouth widened. All her misshapen features rearranged themselves, pinched or stretched like putty, and she straightened her spine with relief and abandon, like a young girl stretching herself in the morning.
“It’s Martha, John,” she said in a low, loving voice. “I don’t know how you managed it, but God bless you! Quick, mix up another batch for yourself. We’ve got to make plans quickly, and who knows how long this will last.”
Now, John’s wits were already a little sharpened by his first taste, just enough for him to have an inkling of what Martha was getting at. He knew there was something he’d known, and needed to know again. Swiftly, he mixed up two shellfuls for himself, working so hastily he slopped out some of the liquid in the vial. At the first draught, his brain begin to tingle and hum, and after the second it was surging with thoughts and memories. Some of the memories were bitter, so bitter they made the lichen seem like honey; but some of them were very sweet, and he turned to face the sweetest of these, his wife, Martha. Halfway across to her, the thought of his own hard-used, wretched appearance made him pause in shame, but she sprang across the space and they clung to each other tightly.
She led him by the hand to a flat rock outside the cave. There, sitting in the sun with a clear view of the road, they reviewed the strange vengeful history that had brought them here. Martha started off, quickened by the potion first, but John soon caught up to her and they were trading pieces of the tale they’d lived and suffered through together.
At one time, long ago, they’d been the leading citizens of the town—John its founder and mayor, and Martha his beloved wife and helpmate in every respect. Working together, they’d raised the town up from a squalid hamlet, stirring its inert inhabitants into productive life. It was John who’d figured out a system to drain the marshes and create solid ground, portioned into rich plots irrigated by canals. He planned the dams that kept the fish ponds full, and designed the mill over the waterfall that ground the local grain. At first the townspeople had been grateful, acclaiming John as mayor for successive terms, pressing the humble couple to build a grand house on the best plot of land, with craftsmen donating their time and skills to improve it with graceful touches. Those were the great, lost days—of improvements freely offered and gratefully accepted. But gratitude turned, as gratitude will—especially when the need that occasioned it fades—to dull resentment and rancor. John and Martha were said to be getting above themselves, becoming petty tyrants who lorded it over their peasants—accusations never remotely true and ridiculous now, when John spent his days in his study and workshop, and Martha kept their house and tended their large garden. In short, to slake their jealousy, a group of the wealthiest citizens, their purses fat from businesses John had started up, hired a magician from a distant town. This scientist for hire mixed up a potion that he sold them for a high price. The vengeful citizens left baskets of jams and sweets on the couple’s doorstep at holiday season, offerings laced with the magician’s poison.
“Poison to rob you of your beauty and your speech, and me of all my brains,” John said through clenched teeth, pounding a fist on his thigh. “Those bastards took whatever gifts they resented most, whatever put their own pitiful talents in the shade.”
“...pi-ti-ful...,” came a thick murmur at his side, and he saw that Martha’s portion of the antidote was wearing off. Her fish-features were creeping back, and dumbness was clogging her nimble mouth. A fog was beginning to steal between his own thoughts as well, a half-enjoyable emptying, as if a soft round scoop were clearing spaces in his head. He hurried back inside the cave to mix up two more portions while he still had his wits.
When they were themselves again, John held the vial up in front of them. Sunlight shining through the yellow glass showed the level down to almost half.
“If I take it all at once,” he said, “it should give me a few hours. More than enough time to wreck their drainage pumps, their mill, their dams and sluicegates. I designed them, after all. I’ll get to as much as I can in the time I’ve got. Those clods will be left stumbling in black swamp water, too lost even to light a torch.”
“And where will we be left?” Martha said softly, laying a hand on his arm. Her touch calmed John, and they shared a look of quiet recognition. This had always been their secret covenant. John would race ahead with his schemes, sometimes far too far ahead, and Martha, slower but more sensible, would restrain him from his wildest fancies.
“We will lose the little we’ve gained. Far worse, we’ll be lost to each other again, perhaps this time forever.”
“What’s to be done then?” said John, holding up the half-depleted vial.
“You’ll drink it all,” Martha said. “Just as you planned. But not right away, and not here. And not for something as useless as revenge. Once we get to a safe spot, use it sparingly, as you need, to keep yourself thinking long enough to find the recipe, or else another way to undo what has befallen us.”
“But you’ll...,” he began, but could not finish the thought.
Martha’s voice was firm. “Think, John. I cannot give you my beauty, nor would it help us if I could. For as long as you are wise, however, there is a chance you may find us a cure. In the meantime, I will have as fine a protector as I could want. That is”—and now a quaver came into her voice, and her chin trembled—“if you will stick by an ugly and speechless hag.”
He took her hands between his own and pressed them tight. “You look better now, it’s true,” said honest John. “But you looked good enough to me before. Whatever separated us for so long, I won’t let happen again. I will not leave you.”
A silver tear appeared at the corner of her eye. He put his lips to it, and felt his brain quicken. Perhaps he could get them to safety without using another precious drop of the potion.
Vile hollerings, like the brayings of beasts, told that the citizens were on their trail.
“Come,” John said. “Quickly, now,” as he pushed the vial deep into his trouser pocket. Martha, her portion of revival now worn off, stared at him blankly. Her features began to slide back toward the magician’s curse.
Putting his arm around her, John led her away from the cave and, with his fast fading wits, took them down one path, and then another, narrower one, and then down one so faint and overgrown it was clear no human feet had found it for a long time nor were likely to. By now the jeers and whoops of the citizens, which had been fading steadily, were gone, and the pair found themselves alone together in the stillness of the deep forest.