Ch 5: The Witch’s Well

She sulked in the yard for a minute before running up to the West tower and watching him ride off. She had never been this high before. It made her imagine mountains.

The house was quiet, only the ticking of a clock floors below. A coolness struck Lizzie’s stomach and began to spread, though her hands felt hot.

“I’m alone.” She said. Her ears buzzed. It was the strangest feeling, and she half-wondered if she had dashed up the stairs too fast; it was a bit like heatstroke. She shook her head and the buzzing cleared. She looked around the circular room. It was about twenty feet across with six evenly spaced windows. There were no glass in any of them, but no birds flew in, nor was there evidence that any had ever been inside: the floor was bare and clean. The house sees to itself. She shook her head again and took a few slow breaths.

“I’m all alone. In my house.” She waited. “This is my house,” she tried again, listening to the echo of her voice on the stone walls. Her stomach lurched, as if she were astride a leaping horse clearing a jump, or missing a step on the staircase. She giggled, then turned sober and stood up, bare feet on the bare floorboards. She lifted her chin and shouted. “This is my house!”

There was no one to hear it, but for the moment it didn’t matter. She threw her arms wide and crowed the truth again and again: that little Lizzie Borden, raised in a crofter’s cottage, poor as potato dirt, belonged to all this.

A wife belongs with a house. She stopped her crowing and wrinkled her nose. Immediately, her mother’s face swam in her head: Defiance, Lizzie, you must give it up! Unless you have money or are a man, no use comes of it.

Lizzie turned to the east-facing window and leaned far out so that her head and back were flooded in sunlight. “It does some good, Mother! Look at me now— look at me here, in my fine, fine house! While your back aches and your fingers grow red from washing and you taste naught but spuds, I sit here like a queen perched on a throne!”

The red rooftops and sun-dazzled lawn said nothing in reply, and Lizzie sank down with a scowl on the window ledge, bare legs hung over the edge. The golden hairs on her calves gleamed.

She waved her hand to shoo her mother’s voice away. She was sulking and she knew it, knew how ridiculous it was, too. Hadn’t she made a blind wish at the old well for things to change? And hadn’t they? The scene returned to her; she closed her eyes wearily and gave in to it.

It was because of Robert Thornton. Or because of the Reverend. Or because of the rules that said that sixteen was high time to be married.

But everywhere Lizzie looked, it was more of the same. She couldn’t imagine anything else, but still, she had enough sense to believe with a kind of blind faith that there was something else. That marriage to one of the village boys would only mean a different patch of earth to scratch at, a different cow to draw milk from, a different boss— not her mother but her husband. Lizzie wasn’t dumb.

She wasn’t the wishing kind, either, but after overhearing the talk— the speculation of who the last remaining Borden child alive (as if her brother’s long absence meant they had left this world altogether and weren’t loyally serving the king) would be parceled off to, she was seized with a stubbornness.

So she had taken the long way home, cutting through the copse and the old stone foundation of the house the children said had once belonged to a witch. Lizzie didn’t believe in witches; they certainly had no play in her life. But it was a brooding place, all overgrown and shadowed and home to an owl or two. It was a good place to sulk, and sulk she intended to do before going home and putting on a dutiful face for her mother who was bound to talk to her about young master Thornton’s intentions.

The place had an old well. She had almost gone in there once as a child. One of the older boys had dared her, saying there was a bucket of silver at the bottom and that she, being the smallest and bravest, could reach it and be rich. Some stray adult had caught them before she could do more than swing her bare feet over the side, and both she and the boy had been whipped, he for tricking her, and she for being so stupid as to believe such a story.

But on this day, Lizzie came alone and willingly. She pushed the cover off the well and looked down. It was nothing but a circle of darkness and a rush of chilled air.

“Hello?” she shouted.

“Hello?” echoed the whisper.

And she had poured her heart out. What an odd thing to do— Lizzie Borden, such an indelicate girl, more suited to a hoe than a poet’s pen— but there she was nearly sobbing but fiercely holding it back and turning red in the face, bargaining with she knew not who:

“Send me someone else. If I am to be a wife and be bossed the rest of my life, at least send me someone else. Someone exciting. Someone different.” She grasped at an idea. “Someone with money. If I’m going to be bossed forever, at least don’t let me be poor. I won’t.

Down in the well something had rattled and Lizzie had jumped back. She didn’t even pick up the cover, just turned and ran, heart pounding in her ears. “It’s just a loose stone. Turn around, go back,” she told herself, but her feet kept running.

She had only half-heard her mother’s admonitions when she arrived late and dirt-streaked (after a stumble). The news of Robert Thornton and his family’s unofficial inquiry had blown past her like so much wind in her ears. At last her mother had put a palm to Lizzie’s forward, exclaimed that she was coming down all hot, and sent her to bed with a cool towel and a garlic compress. Not a week later the strange man with the startling beard had ridden up and carried her away. Who did she have to blame for any of that?

Lizzie snuffled, then scowled, then swung her legs back up so that she sat sideways in the window. She turned her gaze to the empty tower room. Twenty feet wide and not a thing in it. It got her wondering. She told herself she would explore the other rooms. That she was curious about the doodads and gewgaws and trinkets and treasures that were now hers, poor Lizzie Borden’s. But in the back of her mind, in the small curled shell of her ear, she heard that voice, the one that had whispered from the bottom of the well: she was going to open the North Tower.


READER RESPONSE:

Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose

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Ch 5: The Witch’s Well

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