This is a fairy-tale story of love and deception. Throughout the story, the narrative style meanders slightly (eg from fantasy to serious descriptions of human emotion), which I quite like, although I suspect it is a negative thing really
Picture a place not so far away but which is so well hidden that it may as well be of another universe. In a forest clearing there is a small well heaped with heavy-headed flowers; wisteria droop over the moss-lined wall, daisies and buttercups are everywhere and ivy clambers lovingly around the wooden frames of the well. Layer upon layer of flowers recline luxuriously throughout this heaven. Imagine a beautiful young woman whose entire life has been spent here. She has slept on the flowerbeds, drunk from the well and eaten the herbs. She has never been any other place than this small tree-bordered clearing nor met any other human being.
But one morning she woke to find a book beside her. It didn’t take her long to learn how to read, for she was a very bright girl, and soon she was reading about the heights of emotions - wonderful stories of friendship, love, courage and sacrifice. Oh, how the story made her heart yearn! How she prayed to meet a dashing man, or to have a friend with whom to share her feelings. The animals of the forest all had mates and it had never occurred to her to wonder why she alone had no companion. But now she had the idea that there was another world somewhere, peopled with heroes and heroines living amazing lives with each other. What did these people look like? She met her reflection in the water and stroked her long hair. All the men in the book had been described as having short hair. What if she were to cut hers, would she be a man then? How did the old lady of the book get the wrinkles into her skin? Melissa frowned but could barely force even one wrinkle into her youthful forehead. And what, she asked herself, was a mother? There was so much she didn’t understand! Like who had put the book here, and why did they not rescue her? Perhaps they all knew she was here and she was being punished for something. Maybe it was a test. Such was Melissa’s state of mind at the beginning of our story, with a newly awakened sense of confusion and curiosity.
Many years ago, while Melissa’s mother was herself young she lived with her sister and their father, the General. He often entertained the men from his regiment and there was one soldier who, falling in love with Melissa’s mother, came as regularly as he dared - uncertain whether his suit would be accepted, he said nothing. But perhaps he tried too hard to hide his feelings, for his sweetheart’s sister began to believe that she was the reason he came. And although she had no intention of saying yes to him, that didn’t stop her crowing over her conquest. However, the soldier’s secret was found out and all was admitted to the general. The kind old man smiled and nodded, for he saw how happy the couple were.
The sister was of course jealous, but hers was a humiliated sort of jealousy that could find no outlet. When the happy couple were married their sister awoke to find nine grey hairs, newly grown. As her bitterness festered her hair became greyer and greyer. Her transformation to a bitter hag was complete when she heard about the expected baby.
Finally now, however, she was at least able to talk of her consuming jealousy. She went to her sister, blooming at the cusp of motherhood, and openly swore revenge. My lady little believed the whirling words of her sister and did no more to protect herself than pouring a cup of tea. The woman went away even more embittered than before, as you may imagine.
But a terrible tragedy struck the young girl. Her husband was killed in battle. Now it may be believed that the envious sister had engineered this event through magic - for what would a bitter relative be without that useful power at her fingertips? Oh, yes, she did have the secret of magic locked away in a gilt box, for their mother had been a great and powerful woman. But whatever her intentions had been, time and the enemy got there first.
A few months later the widow went to her sister’s house, her belly large in front of her. The two girls were alone now - their father had died recently. She finally believed in her sister’s hatred, and although she didn’t understand it, had come to make amends.
The evening went badly; the pregnant woman became distressed. And it will come as little shock to hear that she felt a kicking, a stirring into existence deep within her. I will not speculate as to what happened between the two females before they became three, but the facts are these; no doctor was sent for, and no tears were shed by the sister at the widow’s funeral.
The strangest fact was that there was no baby to be found anywhere. And the answer to this mystery I can explain. The mother-to-be, in the throes of her agony, saw the hatred in the other’s face. And she understood that thing would always be her enemy. Reasoning was useless, hers had become a life of negation, growing strong from hatred. The now-a-mother’s maternal instinct came uppermost; while she in her innocence would place herself in another’s hands trusting to their good will, she could not leave her child to such an uncertain fate.
The glint in the other’s face loomed hideous in the candlelight, as she stretched her talons to the defenceless infant. Without a moment for thought the dying lady uttered a spell, for she too had inherited her mother’s power.
Nymphs of Wood and Nymphs of Shore
Gods of all things good and pure
Help me save my baby tender
See her, love her, hold her, send her
To a forest far away
Where she can in safety play.
A warming clime, but not too hot
With dewy flowers to line her cot,
With gentle earth for when she crawls
And springy turf to catch her falls.
Give her a well for granting wishes,
This is the present that I give
That my daughter should learn to live
And not yearn for a mother’s kisses.
Gentle spirits, take this child,
Save her from this woman, wild
With anger and with jealousy
Take my babe away from me,
And around the place that you have sent her
Cast a spell so none can enter
If they mean to do her harm.
Please fulfil this mother’s wish -
Take my child. But first one kiss
And now my mind is calm.
Her voice is soft and hypnotic for she is dying. No, look at the impenetrable gaze on her pure lips! She is dead!
Yes, this daughter, sent out of all harm’s way, was our beautiful maiden of the well. Of course, her aunt must’ve found her. But never could the old lady find a gap between the tree-lined border big enough for her to pass. She pondered on the problem until she remembered the words of the spell. Cast a spell that none can enter if they mean to do her harm. She could not go in, while intending to hurt the girl. Well, if she couldn’t kill Melissa in her hiding place, she would make the girl come out to her.
As Melissa finished rereading her book with hungry eyes she leaned against the well in a flood of tears – for the book had made her hate this once perfect life. Why was she alone singled out to live this unreal existence? But, so oblivious to an outside world was the girl that it never occurred to her that freedom was mere steps away. To her, life ended beyond the trees. Two things happened simultaneously: a tear, perfect and huge, fell down her cheek into the well; and she wished she could be anywhere but here.
You may remember that the spell included a magic wishing well. And this well required no money to grant wishes, feeling that the single tear was payment enough to whisk her away to a distant village.
Melissa lay unconscious and shivering, for outside her little bower it was the height of winter. Her short story might well have ended here, but she was discovered by an old lady out collecting nuts. She roused the girl and, questioning her, received polite but evasive answers. A minute later she had impulsively invited the girl to stay with her.
So, was this lady a thorough Samaritan who gave her keys to any helpless stranger she met? Well, no. She was concerned for the girl, however her frozen limbs possibly wouldn’t have been enough to explain the old lady’s charity, and a cynical onlooker might’ve suggested that those limbs would have been left in the snow if they hadn’t been such shapely limbs, attached to such a lovely face. For the old lady had a son, beautiful both in looks and temperament. Kind, gentle and as strong as an ox, and of such an age for marriage that the whole village waited for some maiden to claim him. But nothing happened. The young pretties had all tried a go at him, but they all realised that kind as he was, he was too elusive. So maybe it was the old woman’s idea that this girl shivering in her summer dress would be the one to capture the lad’s heart? Looking at her flushed cheeks and rose petal lips, you would be tempted to suggest that if he couldn’t find love for such a creature then he had no heart.
And Melissa? She had met her first fellow human being. She was finally living the stuff of books! Oh, she was happier than she had ever thought possible! Melissa wished that she might reach out and feel the dry, textured skin that fell in lines around the old lady’s eyes. She wanted to run her fingers through the coarse hair and feel its stubborn curls to contrast against her own silken hair. This was certainly the real life that her reading had promised her.
If the sight of the old lady (who had requested that Melissa call her ‘Mother,’ as was the custom) had filled Melissa with joy the cottage left her speechless. It was by no means luxurious, indeed it was rather small and shabby, but despite this the house seemed wonderful beyond her dreams.
As she walked in the first thing to greet her was the smell of freshly cooked dinner. The candles that lit the parlour each gave off a star’s flicker of light in the darkened room so that Mother’s face shone pale moon-white with eerie shadows passing over her like midnight clouds. And in the middle of this scene Melissa thought she saw had found the sun itself. For a golden haired man stood beside the hearth, and turning round to greet Mother almost dropped his glass in surprise.
The two young lovers simply stood and stared at each other. Melissa had no maidenly cunning to hide her astonishment, while Peter was rendered speechless with a new sensation of love. Mother helped the couple out by making introductions and bustling around the room to give them time to regain their composure.
They quickly fell into a routine. While Mother pottered around the house, Melissa collected berries, mushrooms, nuts and whatever else was ripe in the forest. Then she would take Peter’s lunch to the fields where he laboured. Seeing her standing timidly, basket in hand, he would wipe the chaff off his forehead and run over joyfully.
In the afternoon Melissa read, borrowing as many books as she could and devouring the stories with even more delight than before now that she had some point of comparison. Her life now was devoted to learning new things, experiencing everything that she could, to answering every last question that the books had raised. After almost a year of living side by side with this happiness, Peter made the great decision to ask Melissa for her hand. So one day he ate lunch with her as usual, but then instead of going back to work he waited until she had turned into the forest then followed intending to surprise her.
Now, through the forest runs the Wendle, a deep, fast flowing river, arched with weeping willows. As Melissa walked she noticed a beautiful rose on the river bank. Stepping forward on a tentative foot she reached her arm out and... splosh! in she fell. She went under, and swallowed a mouthful of water. Spluttering, her head broke the surface, but then down again, as the malevolent weeds tugged insistently at her petticoat. She soon realised the danger she was in. Her lungs ached, her strength was weakening. She opened her eyes and looked about herself as she lay suspended in the water, her body floating lifelessly as though she were already dead. The water was an eerie, slow moving green slime at this depth. The long, strong weeds waved gently in the water. She closed her eyes and thought confusedly of her wishing well, of her old home as it had been before the temptation of the books, and she gave herself up to death.
The next thing Melissa was aware of was strong arms and a stubbled cheek nuzzling against her. For, of course, just like the happy, but unlikely coincidences that colour her favourite stories, Melissa’s trailing lover, hearing her cry had saved her. Melissa gave a cough and turning her head to one side ejected a little bit of the Wendle. At this Peter gave himself up to a frenzy of happiness. They clasped each other’s hands, and rubbing their foreheads, chins, cheeks and noses against each other whispered tender words of love and promises that by the time the warm sun had quite finished drying her clothes out, Melissa was engaged to be married. Tenderly, Peter carried Melissa home and, laying her on her bed, reluctantly left her to the ministering hands of the old lady.
Peter came home one day with his head bowed.
“I went to church today and the vicar said that he won’t marry us unless we pay him one gold piece.”
“What? We can never afford that! Oh, what will we do?”
The couple jumped as one when a bony hand was placed on each of their shoulders, but turning around they saw that it was just Mother.
“I couldn’t help overhearing you, so I may as well give you your wedding present now. It’ll help you no doubt.” Mother took them to her room, and both entered it for the first time. She pointed to a huge gilt box and Peter opened the lid. Melissa gasped. This was more money than they would ever have expected to see in their lifetimes and Mother was insisting that all of it was for them. Too choked for words, they hugged her and kissed her wrinkled cheeks and cried, until she was quite overcome. She didn’t tell them where the money came from and Peter was too respectful to ask, assuming it had belonged to his father, whom he had never met and Mother never spoke of.
The morning of the wedding has finally arrived. Peter and Melissa meet in the corridor and solemnly gaze at each other. Melissa is rather tall for a girl, although Peter is naturally taller so she still has to tilt her head to look at him. Both have blue eyes, although Peter’s are above ruddy, dimpled cheeks, while Melissa’s rest upon a maiden’s blush. The sun which streams through the window picks out the golden highlights in both of their hair equally, bathing them in the same glow. Their hands touch, entwine, so that they seem like one entity split in two - a pair of angels meeting for the first time.
Melissa goes out to get some fresh air, she has not been sleeping well of late. She has never told Peter but most nights she wakes up to strange sounds: scratching of windows, moans in the night and long mournful howls. Of course every one of these noises can be explained away naturally, but Melissa’s grandmother you will remember, was a witch and Melissa, like her mother, has a diluted version of those powers. Melissa could tell, just knew, that there were malignant forces prowling round the house.
I am sure that it is obvious to my readers - her evil aunt must’ve found her! But she is an old lady now, and no match for young Peter. As long as Melissa stays near Peter, she will be safe. For the rest of the day, she will be beside him and no one can hurt her while he is there.
And speaking of Peter, what has he been doing for the past hour?
Peter has searched the house for Mother but he can’t find her. He goes to her room.
He knocks on her door and there is no answer, he feels slightly nervous. He knocks again, and this time he hears a rasping sound. He calls out but there is no response. He throws himself at the door, which opens easily against his weight.
Mother is stood in the dark corner, looking… evil. Even Peter has to admit that there is no other word to describe how she looks. He tries to think rationally.
“Hello, Mother, what are you holding?”
The scene has a feeling of a final denouement that Peter is dreading. It also feels horribly familiar.
“A vial of blood.” She holds it out to him, but he backs away. “Well, there is no need to look like that, it’s only animal’s blood.”
“Mother, what are you doing with it? Where did you get it from?” He is praying that her answer will explain everything.
“Mother, what are you doing with it? Where did you get it from?” He is praying that her answer will explain everything.
“That’s not really important. Where’s Melissa?”
“She’s gone out for a walk,” responded automatically.
“That’s good. Sit down, I think we need to have a talk.”
So he sits down, cross legged on the floor. Everything is so strange that he decides he is having another one of those dreams that have plagued him throughout his life.
“Would you like a drink?”
“Yes.” He would desperately like a drink.
“That would be lovely thank you.”
“There you go, drink it all up.”
He does; he doesn’t question where the milk came from, he just drinks. He doesn’t question why it is in a vial either. He is in a trance.
“Close your eyes and open your mouth – I have a surprise for you.” So he does.
She drops something in and he gags. The action almost draws him out of the trance.
“What is going on?” He demands
“Do you know why you couldn’t love any of the girls that you walked with?”
“No, I tried to love them. I believe now that I was saving myself, without knowing it, for Melissa.”
“You don’t remember coming here to me, whenever you got a new beau? You would eat anything I gave you, like the good boy that you have always been. Really, you oughtn’t to be so trusting.”
He feels something slithering up and down the full length of his throat.
“You’re a witch?”
“Very perceptive of you.”
“You stopped me from falling in love? Why?” And before she can answer; “just tell me this, did you make me fall in love with Melissa?”
“Of course not. How could you help but fall in love with her?”
“So you made her fall in love with me?”
“No. Equally, how could a girl not adore you?”
“Do…” he falters, the question seems so absurd “do you intend to hurt her?”
“Oh my son, so many questions, I have no intention of laying a finger on you or your bride.”
“Ah, then I can bear anything, Mother.” He speaks with such an earnest tone that the old lady is silent for a second.
“It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past, what matters is that we love you and forgive you anything.”
“Would you like to know who you are marrying?”
“I know as much as you, and I am satisfied that I am marrying a good and lovely woman, I defy you to say otherwise.”
“Melissa is my niece.”
“Even if it were true, that makes no difference to me – there is no law against marrying cousins.”
So she tells the story of her elder sister, of how they had argued and she had died, how Melissa had been whisked away by the spell uttered with her dying breath. How…
“I’ve heard enough. Get out of my sight.”
“But there’s more. Aren’t you curious what my plan was?”
He doesn’t move.
“Can you guess what I am going to say? Don’t you know what happened next?”
“Yes, Melissa’s mother died too soon…”
“Congratulations. Maybe you have always known.”
“…if she had died a few minutes later…”
“The two of you do look very similar after all.”
“… she would have been able to save me from you as well.”
“When they came to take her body away I hid you, no one seemed bothered about finding a child anyway. After the funeral I inherited all her money. I bought this house miles away so that no one knew us and posed as a poor widow woman. And aren’t you impressed that I have managed to keep up the appearance for so long?”
“In all these years, you never loved me? It was all a pretence?”
The old lady looks at him with entreaty in her eyes, but it disappears so quickly that he wonders if he imagined it.
“Well, I’m sorry to say that you are going to have a pretty poor revenge. Melissa and I have been saving ourselves in a state of innocence until our wedding night – not so much as a burning kiss has passed between us. I believe that we could continue to live as brother and sister without any difficulty. Had you told me this after we were married things may have been different, but now, we shall just go on living as we are. You, however, will leave this moment.”
“But before I go, practise on me what you will say to her. Pretend that I am her.”
He knows he oughtn’t to, but he can’t help himself.
“I shall say, Melissa, I cannot marry you. I don’t love you.” It hangs in the air.
“Wait, that’s not what I said! I find you repulsive.” He puts his hands to his throat in mounting despair. “This is some trick of yours? What is controlling me like this?”
But the old crone has left.
But the old crone has left.
The church bells pealed for noon. As the minutes passed, feet shuffled in the pews, people coughed and muttered. Fifteen minutes were almost up when he arrived.
He had intended to take her to one side and tell her that they couldn’t marry, beg her not to ask for a reason, but to trust that everything he had ever told her about how he felt, remained - and would always remain - true.
But seeing her standing there… looking as beautiful as a flower, delicate and simple, untouched and trusting! His resolution remained strong – oh, he knew that the dream was over and that he couldn’t marry her – and yet he couldn’t bring himself to tell her. At every moment he told himself that there was still time before they were irrevocably married, why break her heart until the very last minute? And so, because he could find neither the voice nor the words, they were married.
Still, it wasn’t too late he told himself, he could give her a chaste kiss and despite the vows spoken before God they could live as brother and sister. Things would be as well as they could be, as long as they didn’t kiss.
“You may kiss the bride.”
‘Brotherly kiss, on the cheek. For your sanity and hers.’
Lifting her veil, she tilted her chin to him. She smiled and closed her eyes, as she had read to do.
On the cheek.
Her lips parted ever so slightly, and between their velvet red he could see a hint of whiteness from her teeth and a hint of moistness from her tongue. Peter groaned. He turned his head and stared at the stone floor.
Melissa was surprised by her husband’s lack of desire to take what was his. She stepped up quite close to him with eyes tender and coaxing, blushing at herself, but letting him see, nonetheless, how willing she was.
Peter, though fighting valiantly against himself was, after all, a man. In the face of the agonising seduction shown by her in her unenlightened simplicity, he betrayed a man’s weakness. Since it had come to this – that Melissa was asking him to show her that he loved and since he could demonstrate this all too willingly - he gave way to the temptation, notwithstanding that he knew her perfectly well to be his twin sister.
But at the end of this passionate kiss he looked down with such a look of profound sorrow that she clung to him some more. Gently disengaging her arms he took a step back, as if to distance himself from what he had just done. The entire congregation watched Melissa who in turn gazed expectantly at her husband.
Peter coughed. He stared upwards in supplication. He coughed again. He stumbled to the font, hunched over it he coughed and coughed until there was a sound so horrible that it sent a shudder through the entire congregation and caused the vicar to genuflect over the young lad. Melissa stepped over to her husband to see what he was staring wild-eyed at. There, twisting and turning in the water like a figure of eight was a long and muscular eel. That it had come out of Peter was at once both obvious and horrifying. They stood watching it and like two little children their hands met beneath the bowl of the font. Peter turned to his sister, he had to tell her now.
Looking into her trusting eyes, he was speechless with guilt, over and above his previous sorrow. How he had abused her trust he could not yet believe himself, never mind speak of. With the feeling of his cruelty mounting higher and higher he turned his face away, hardly able to refrain from tears.
Maybe it was the bond between twins, or perhaps the equally real bond between lovers, but somehow as Melissa looked up at Peter’s face she understood. She nodded at him, a simple nod to show that she understood and far from simply forgiving him, she thanked him.
Before anyone thought to move Peter kissed Melissa softly on the forehead, then ran to the back pew. Shrouded in darkness sat the woman they had both called Mother. She seemed strangely deflated. Flinging her over his shoulder he ran out of the church. Melissa was the close behind him, followed by the entire congregation.
Standing on the bank of the Wendle Peter lifted the shrivelled creature above his head then unceremoniously threw her in the water. She went straight under without a cry. Her body was never found.
As the congregation stood staring, open-mouthed, Peter walked into the river. At each step a little more of him was lost, until there was just a pelt of golden wavy hair floating on the green surface. Then that too disappeared.
And poor Melissa? She stood erect and stared, dry-eyed, as the vicar pushed his way to the water’s edge, reciting the service for the dead.
There is an old lady, she wanders the countryside. Her clothes are torn, her hair is wild, and she is covered in scratches. She says she is looking for a place that she left long ago, before she was born. She thinks he might be waiting for her there.
She cries. The tears fall continuously. After a while there are enough tears to make a river. As she cries and cries her life away, the river dances across the countryside. Finally it comes to a clearing. The well sparkles just as brightly as always. A tear splashes out of the river as it meanders boisterously past and lands in the wishing well. Although the tear is many years old, the wish with which it was shed is still granted.
Melissa’s eyes open, she has found the place that the books all promised her.