Bogleech.com's 2019 Horror Write-off:
The Holy Well
Submitted by Irving Parker
My friend Adam Kemp loved nature. I met him shortly after I came to Boston for college, where we were part of a small but close circle of friends. He was a man entirely out of his time, a flamboyant aesthete whose feelings about nature were very much in keeping with the Romantic tradition of Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley, though they also owed something to the counterculture of the sixties. He dabbled in Wicca and other more radical branches of Neopaganism, and often invited us to participate in various rituals and traditional observances. We generally obliged him, not without enthusiasm.
Once, a few years after we had graduated college, he invited myself and our mutual friend Noah Callaghan (we three being the only members of our clique still living in and around Boston at that time) to his house to celebrate Beltane, the Wiccan May Day festival. In college this had been an annual tradition, and we accepted out of a sense of wistful nostalgia.
We gathered on the eve of Beltane. Noah and I met up at Park Street Station and took the Red Line to its terminus at Braintree. Adam was there to meet us, parked in the low concrete garage opposite the station. He drove us the rest of the way—about forty minutes—to Contee, the town where he lived and had grown up. It was one of those small, dreary New England farming towns, rendered superfluous by the decline of agriculture in the region. Having neither industrial nor historic importance, and lacking in any discernible charm, Contee was a forsaken and impoverished place. Its small, cheaply built houses already showed signs of decay, despite their relatively meager age. Driving through Contee, one was assaulted by a sense of isolation and hopelessness, which Adam had never hesitated to affirm.
Adam’s house was invisible from the road, being set off from it by a long, winding dirt path and surrounded by trees. It was a handsome and spacious lodge-style house, contrasting starkly with the general dilapidation of the local architecture. In actuality the house belonged to Adam’s parents, but they spent much of the year abroad, so he had the place to himself most of the time. We parked in the gravel-strewn driveway and went inside.
After we had shed our bags and jackets, Adam fixed us cocktails in tiki-themed mugs and we retired to the sitting room to discuss plans. Noah and I were staying for the weekend, and Adam, in characteristic fashion, had planned out a full agenda for us. Once we finished our drinks, we headed out into the yard to see to the first item.
Adam had a broad backyard with a small toolshed near the edge, where it bordered the woods. At Adam’s direction, we brought out the maypole from that shed and erected it in the middle of the yard. It was a fairly plain wooden pole, with a handful of long, colorful ribbons streaming down from the top. It had been part of our Beltane celebration since the first one. The first time we had danced around it had been frankly ridiculous—we had skipped in a kind of weird slow motion, like we were pretending to walk on the moon, and had repeatedly collided with each other. Over the years we’d more or less gotten the hang of it, but now Noah and I were decidedly rusty. Between our clumsiness, and the inevitable loss of grandeur we incurred by having only three participants, our dance around the maypole this Beltane was something to be sneezed at, though we stayed at it and eventually managed to enribbon the entire pole.
Afterward we felt tired and slightly foolish, so we went back indoors to sit down and reinforce our last round of cocktails. We lounged and talked and let time get away from us. It was nearly 5:30 when one of us next bothered to glance at a clock.
“It’s getting late,” Noah said. “Should we start dinner?”
“Wait!” Adam exclaimed. “Not yet. We’ve got to get our tents up before dark. Wait here."
He disappeared and returned a few minutes later, carrying three large bundles and wearing a bulky pack. We followed him out into the yard, and then on into the woods. Like the maypole dance, the first time we attempted to sleep outside on Beltane had been disastrous, but we had refined the practice with later Beltanes. Our habit was to find a spot not too far from the yard, but where the forest was thick and deep enough to create the illusion that one was really inside some vast wilderness, instead of a glorified thicket in a Massachusetts backwater.
We pitched the three small tents, again somewhat clumsily. After correcting our mistakes, Adam gave a nod of approval and declared the campsite satisfactory. Noah and I made to return to the house, but Adam raised both arms and we halted.
“Hold on. There’s just one more thing we need to do, before dark.”
Adam knelt down and opened his pack. He produced several articles, placing them on the ground beside him. There was a small leather satchel, a rolled garment, a faded hardcover book, and a stack of neatly folded towels. The final item that Adam removed from his bag, a horned crown of ivory branches, he placed directly on his own head.
As he stood, Adam took the rolled garment and unfurled it, revealing it to be a cloak of thick green cloth. He threw it over his shoulders as he rose and tied it below the neck, leaving it draped over him and trailing (despite Adam’s immense height) on the leaf-strewn forest floor. On anyone else, the ensemble would have been comical. But, knowing Adam as we did, and particularly in this place, it struck Noah and I as majestic and ominous in equal parts.
Adam gazed at each of us in turn. “Bring the rest,” he said, “and follow.”
We instantly obeyed.
Adam was an exceptionally tall and thin person, and there was normally something distinctly gangly in his aspect. Yet now, as we passed beneath the towering oaks, his proportions came to seem more and more natural, and Noah and I seemed uncommonly squat in comparison. Even though I knew that we were only a stone’s throw from civilization—if Contee can be called that—I still felt like an intruder in a foreign and unwelcoming landscape.
At last Adam stopped and indicated what I at first took to be a hole in the ground, filled with water. Closer examination, however, revealed it to be a low stone well, nearly overgrown with vegetation. The water itself still looked reasonably clear, despite the well’s dereliction in all other respects.
“Do you know what that is? It’s a holy well. At least I think it is. I’ve found mentions in my texts of such a well. I can’t be sure that this is the one, but look here...”
I looked at the ground around the well that Adam had indicated and saw for the first time that there were a number of small objects scattered there, almost completely hidden by the overgrowth. Clearing aside the brush, Adam picked up some of them and held them out for us to examine. There were a few carvings of animals and symbols, some carved from wood and others, clearly older, carved from what might have been bone. There were also dozens of dirt-encrusted coins of varying provenance, the most recent having been minted in 1972.
“Offerings,” said Adam. “And these are just a sample of those that have been given over the years. Others would have been burnt or buried or drowned. Now it’s our turn.”
Adam produced three small sketchpads from the satchel and handed two of them to Noah and I, along with some pieces of drawing charcoal, and told us to draw something “Beltane-y”. With this succinct but vivid piece of direction in mind, we set to work.
After a few minutes I had managed to produce what I felt was a fairly respectable vignette of the forest around us. In lieu of drawing something, Noah had folded a very competent origami fox, which Adam was more than satisfied with. Adam himself had drawn a detailed and realistic portrait of a stag which I somewhat cynically suspected he had been practicing for. We consigned the drawings and the origami to the well, watching as the pages floated momentarily on the surface of the water before soaking through and sinking to the bottom.
After that I thought we might go back, but Adam took out five candles from the satchel, arranged them around the well as if they were the points of a pentagram, and lit them all. He then picked up the hardback we had brought, opened it to a bookmarked page, and began to read some kind of incantation in what I could only assume was Gaelic. Once that was done, he set the book aside and, without a word of explanation, proceeded to strip his clothes off until he was left standing in nothing but his crown. Before either Noah or I could recover our wits enough to question him, Adam removed the crown, set it gingerly on the ground beside him, and lowered himself into the well.
The water only came up to Adam’s chest, but he bent to submerge himself completely for several seconds. After coming back up, he quickly pulled himself out, being careful not to extinguish any candles as he did so, and began to towel himself off. All the while Noah and I just watched him, totally dumbfounded. We were even more thoroughly gobsmacked when, having dried himself off and restored his clothes, cloak, and crown, he instructed us to bathe in the well as he had.
“Come on,” he said, when we failed to promptly comply. He had broken character, momentarily dropping his portentous delivery. “What’s the matter? Don’t you want to do the ritual?”
“What ritual?” I said.
“It’s for Beltane,” said Adam.
“It’s kind of weird,” Noah said.
“That’s the point,” said Adam, exasperated, as if he were having to explain something very simple to a small and stubborn child. “It’s weird. It’s dramatic. It’s spooky. That’s why it’s fun. Come on, it’ll take ten seconds.”
Ordinarily we were happy to join Adam in his esoteric rituals, and often we enjoyed them thoroughly, even if we didn’t understand or appreciate them on quite the same level as him. But they had never involved getting naked in front of one another and bathing in strange wells. Still, after the initial shock of the proposition wore off, we found we didn’t object to it all that much.
Noah insisted on keeping his underwear on, which Adam accepted without complaint. I had no such compunctions about my own modesty, but I did refuse to put my head underwater, having mistrusted obscure bodies of water ever since middle school, when I read about a fatal case of Naegleria fowleri. Adam was significantly more resistant to my condition, but I would not budge on it, and he eventually relented. He read the same incantation over each of us that he had done before his own immersion.
After we had dried and clothed ourselves, we stopped back at the camp to drop off the ritual accoutrements before continuing on to the house. By the time we made it back inside, the sun was already vanishing behind the near trees. As we prepared the ham and vegetables for dinner, the gently lit kitchen seemed quite cozy, for beyond the windows we could see a backdrop of total darkness, of the sort which occurs only in the country.
We enjoyed the meal at a leisurely pace and spent some time afterward relaxing, but we still had the dishes cleared away too soon for my comfort, as there was nothing left to do after that but equip ourselves with flashlights and venture out into the night to find our campsite. After some fumbling in the dark, we found it as we had left it and retired to our respective tents.
It wasn’t easy to fall asleep. Even though this meager stand of trees could hardly be called “the wild”, there was still enough unseen life around us to produce all manner of mysterious rustling noises and nocturnal calls. I tried to take comfort in the noise—as far as I knew, an active soundscape meant there were no predators around—but even if that was right, it didn’t keep me from seizing up in fright at every new sound. Though I had suffered through it for past Beltanes, I never did get used to sleeping outdoors. Eventually I did manage to drift off, and when I reawoke, a bad night’s sleep would be the least of my worries.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself staring not at the inside of my tent, but at the open canopy far, far above. The scale of the trees momentarily dizzied me. As I regained consciousness in gradual increments, I became aware of a faint, high-pitched bleating sound from somewhere immediately nearby. I sat up, my bare feet scraping sharply against the rough ground, and turned to face the source of the noise.
It was Adam, hunched over and facing away from me. As I watched him he seemed to convulse almost rhythmically, and with a sudden shock it occurred to me that he was laughing. Only then did it register for me that Adam was stark naked, and a moment later I realized that so, in fact, was I. Turning, I saw that Noah lay on the ground a few feet away, still asleep and clad only in his underwear.
It had not yet occurred to me to wonder at any of this. In my dazed state I think I assumed that our camp and clothing had been stolen, as implausible as that would have seemed to a more lucid mind.
The absence of our belongings was not the only discrepancy in our surroundings. Looking around, I noticed that the forest around us looked almost entirely unlike the thicket where he had set up camp the day before. Despite our efforts to pick the deepest spot we could find, it had still been possible, if one were trying, to see to the edge of the thicket from our campsite. Here, though, I could see no end to the trees, which were also much taller, broader, and closer together than I remembered the trees around our campsite being.
I looked back at Adam, still convulsing with laughter, and called his name. At my call, Adam froze mid-laugh and slowly turned to face me. His face was twitching, his expression vacillating between a grimace and a grin.
A dozen questions flickered on the tip of my tongue before I settled on, “What are you laughing at?”
Adam straightened, rising to his full, imposing height. “It’s kind of funny,” he said. “I just assumed that our stuff would come with us.”
“Come where? Where are we?”
“That’s a very complicated question.”
He was being deliberately unhelpful. Frowning, I turned away and made another survey of the forestscape. The hugeness of it was nauseating; I felt shrunken down, like I had stepped into a world made for giants. I was sure that there were no woods like this in Contee. Maybe not even in Massachusetts. I had the idea that I might have been dreaming, but then I doubted I’d have thought of that if I were.
The awakening of Noah interrupted my train of thought. Watching him look around groggily, I could see each new detail of our situation register on his face as he took it in. By the time he lowered his eyes from the canopy overhead, I could see my own confusion, fear, and directionless anger reflected in his expression. As eerily sympathetic as I felt to him just then, I did note bitterly that at least Noah still had his underpants.
“Adam,” he said in a shaking voice, “where the fuck are we?”
“We’re in the woods,” Adam replied.
“But where? Contee? New England? The planet Earth?”
“Possibly none of the above.”
Noah and I glared at him. Obviously he was talking nonsense, but we had to reserve the full force of our anger until we could determine whether he was simply toying with us or if he had actually lost his mind.
As calmly as I could, I asked Adam what exactly he meant by that.
“I mean we could be anywhere,” he replied. “Why don’t we take a walk and see if we can find out.”
Before either Noah or I could protest, Adam stalked off at a brisk trot and we were obliged to hurry after him.
As we picked our way over the rough terrain, our ontological questions were quickly superseded by more practical concerns. Walking barefoot through the forest was agonizing, and the breeze was uncomfortably chilly—though not unbearable—on our bare skin. All three of us were covered in dirt and shallow cuts from lying on the ground, and Noah and I were constantly rubbing and scratching at our little wounds as they festered, uncleaned and untreated. Only Adam showed no sign of discomfort, walking along as gracefully as if he were strolling down Newbury Street on a day of shopping. Noah and I shared a glance, a silent affirmation of our mutual belief that Adam had, indeed, gone mad.
There was no sense of time in those woods. The canopy was so dense that the entire forest was submerged in a kind of murky half-light. There was an architectural quality to the forestscape. The trees were as straight as stone columns, and the uneven canopy resembled a vaulted ceiling, so that we might have been passing through a dimly lit cathedral. There was indeed something almost religious about our procession. It was as if Adam were a wayward prophet, and Noah and I his hapless disciples.
After what must have been hours of seemingly aimless walking, we complained to Adam of hunger and thirst and he finally deigned to pause in his relentless march. We canvassed a small area and eventually happened upon the fallen limb of one of the enormous trees. Adam mounted the bough and began stripping away the bark with his fingers while we watched, simultaneously impressed and disturbed. Eventually he invited us over and handed us long, thick strips of the pale inner bark. It was tough and bitter, but Noah and I were desperate enough that we each ate several strips as long as our forearms, and Adam wolfed down his generous portion with apparent relish. Once our gnawing hunger was satiated, Noah and I made another attempt to wring answers out of Adam. He took this as his cue to get up and set off again, and we were left with no choice but to follow.
In all the time that we walked we never saw any animals. No birds, no climbing or burrowing mammals, just dense brush, creeping vines, and those huge trees that seemed to go on forever. The situation was so surreal that the actual hopelessness of it was difficult to grasp. Noah was more keenly attuned to it, as more than once I heard him tear up and begin to sob before regaining his composure, all without breaking his stride. I think I was still clinging to the vain hope that I was dreaming. It was all that I could bring myself to consciously accept. My rational mind rebelled against every possible and impossible alternative.
At last we came to what passed for a clearing. There was a broad space of clear forest floor, and the canopy was thin enough to admit more than the usual amount of light, so that the thing in the middle of the clearing seemed to be cast in a heavenly glow. It was a pond with a small island in the center. The shore was lined with close-set rocks that could only have been placed deliberately, and I was reminded of the scant masonry of the holy well.
Adam waded into the pond, and we hesitated only momentarily before following him. As we drew closer to the center, we could see that the island was not an island at all but a mound, a pile of detritus rising up out of the water. In the mess of objects I made out broken farming tools and axes, shattered furniture, waterlogged books, and corpses. Dozens of corpses, some clearly of livestock and woodland creatures, some perhaps of household pets, and others still that I was unable and unwilling to identify, lay there pierced and slashed and drowned. Noah covered his mouth and I gagged as the stench of decay reached us. These, I realized, were offerings—a hoard of offerings.
Noah and I stopped in our tracks, but Adam continued on to the mound undeterred.
“Hey, stop!” Noah cried, coughing. “Adam, what the fuck are you doing?”
Standing at the foot of the mound, Adam turned back to us. He saw us standing there—knee deep in the pond, bent double and gagging—and scowled.
“What am I doing? What are you doing!? We can’t stop now! We’re this close!”
“Close to what?”
“To finishing the pilgrimage!” He turned back to face the hoard. “To meeting our host.”
Before we could demand elaboration, the ground rumbled violently beneath us. Past Adam, objects began to fall out of the hoard, rolling off the sides and tumbling down into the water. As the clutter fell away, it revealed an opening in the hoard, like the mouth of a cave, just beyond where Adam stood. It gaped blackly, and something impossibly far inside, further in than the depth of the hoard could seemingly allow, glittered faintly.
Adam took another step up toward the opening, transfixed by the faint light and movement in its depths. I wanted to shout out to him to stop, to get away, but my voice caught in my throat. Noah and I stood perfectly still, as if by doing so we might escape notice. What we were trying to escape the notice of, neither of us knew.
Adam had reached the opening. He stood poised on the lip, balanced precariously on the edge and gazing in. For the first time since the hole had opened up, he turned back to look at us and I caught his eye. I risked a small shake of my head, but this gesture only seemed to confuse Adam. He opened his mouth, and for a moment I thought that he was going to say something, then his eyes shot wide open, his arms flew back, his feet slipped from their perch, and he toppled back through the hole in the hoard, vanishing instantly from sight.
There was another tremor, even more violent than the last, as the entire hoard began to sink into the pond. Soon we realized that it wasn’t just the hoard. The floor of the pond was dropping away, starting in the center and moving out, and Noah and I suddenly found ourselves up to our necks and struggling to tread water. The feeble light filtering through the treetops began to fade, as if night were falling over the forest. Noah managed to grab my arm just before we were plunged into pitch darkness.
Weakened by the hardships we had already endured, we didn’t manage to stay afloat for long. My strength failed first. Noah tried to hold me up, but he couldn’t keep us both above water. I slipped through his fingers and began to sink,
too weak even to struggle as the water closed up over my head and dragged me down, faster and faster, into the abyss.
When I came to I was lying in my tent, wearing my own clothes. I crawled out into the early morning sun and saw our campsite just as we had left it, in the middle of the narrow, patchy thicket in Contee, Massachusetts. Noah emerged from his tent a moment later. We looked at each other and broke into identical grins. We were both giddy with relief, because in that moment we believed that the whole thing really had been a dream. But that didn’t square with our mutual recollection of it, or the fact that we were both soaking wet, scratched and bruised, and streaked with mud beneath our clean clothes.
We still weren’t ready to accept the truth of what we had experienced. There was sure to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for why we were both soaked but our clothes were (or until just recently had been) perfectly dry. Adam must have played a prank on us. Drugged us somehow, filled our heads with spooky stories about endless forests, and then dunked us in the well. That was sure to be it. But we could find no sign of Adam in his tent, nor in the house when we returned there, though his car was still in the driveway.
As we collected ourselves at the house, we saw on our phones that it was the day after Beltane. We had no memory of Beltane itself, unless we were to accept that we had spent it trekking through an impossible forest with our friend who was gone.
We reported Adam missing to the police later that day. In our official account, we claimed that we had spent Beltane at the house, gone to sleep in our tents in the woods, and awoken to find Adam vanished. It was as close to the truth as anyone would believe.
Noah and I spent much of the next year trying to make sense of that what had happened that day. I appropriated Adam’s collection of esoteric texts and combed them for references to the well and the ritual that Adam had performed there, but the books held no answers to my questions. Most of my questions were about Adam personally. Why did he bring us to that place? Was he naive or depraved to be so at peace there? When he fell into the hoard, was he sacrificing himself so that we could go home? Or to appease his otherworldly patron? Or had it simply been a pointless accident? He took the answers to those questions away with him, wherever it is he went away to.
I don’t see much of Noah anymore. He went back to live with his family in Maine, while I moved to Brooklyn, where it’s easier to avoid the sight of trees. We still keep in touch, and while we try not to talk about that Beltane, it becomes unavoidable in the late spring, when the dreams start up again. We both get them. In our sleep we return to the forest, the pond, the hoard, and the well. Noah says he hates going back to the hoard the most, but it’s the well that really haunts me. In my dreams, I follow the path from our campsite to the well and back, my eyes fixed on the muddy ground. I see three sets of tracks leading to the well, but only two sets leading back.