The Lorelei Signal
Written by Amanda Vincent / Artwork by Marcia Borell
The moon was new and absent, the stars stolen by clouds. The pool of knitted shadows mirror the sky in desolation, but she was in no hurry for company.
The rope ladder hit her cheek, its rough, frayed fibers scratching her day-burnt skin, then dropped to the water with a pitifully weak splash. A frail ripple caressed her body, and a lantern flared. Colin peered down, his beautiful face framed by crumbling stone and curving darkness.
Light and shadow slashed his skin, aging and revealing.
He vaulted the edge of the well and climbed down in smooth, hand-under-hand motions. Nerves and disgust bubbled up, tickling the back of her throat, and she recoiled, cracking her skull against the bricks. The shock sent a tremor running from her body to her ankle chain, a small wave that rode the metal all the way down to the anchor and drowned.
The stagnancy of the well killed everything.
One hand on the ladder, one hand firmly on her jaw, he shoved a dirty copper coin through her tightened lips. It scraped her teeth and burdened her tongue, filling her mouth with the pungent taste of blood and sweat.
“I wish for Jenny,” he whispered hoarsely. “I wish her for my wife.”
I thought I was Jenny.
That was what he had named her, when she was still Nameless and free, ruling the lake that was the heart of the woods. When he was lost and frightened, and she helped him find his way.
I thought I was your wife.
That was what he had told her, after months of sweetness and promises, when he brought her to the forest’s edge. Before he turned and threw her down into the crumbling well, owning and abandoning her all at once.
Long fingers on a smooth, unblemished hand flattened her lips. Chapped skin flaked against his palm as the pressure increased. The penny sizzled on her tongue, and she saw the Jenny he meant.
Golden Jenny, the girl with fleecy blonde hair and dainty gowns. The one that ran through the brush and overgrowth to take refuge by the lake, refreshing it with tears wrought from paternal woes and a volatile home. That wished for a swift death and freedom from her father, but never threw the coin.
Her stomach lurched and she gulped, swallowing the wish.
It had enraged her to give him his fortune, his neighbor’s land, and his cousin’s prize stallion, but it hadn’t hurt her. Not like this. Her skin prickled with the sting, and the water heated and boiled around her.
She lunged forward to bite his face, with teeth sharpened on the edge of so many coins.
One hand grasped her throat as the other smoothed her sweat-damp hair. Green and stringy like lake grass, sprouting from a body of algae and sand. Not golden like sunshine, crowning ivory clouds. “No need to be jealous, Jenny-in-the-well, you’ll always be mine.” He blew a kiss, then took the ladder and the light.
~ * ~
The pond was dying. Algae bloomed like bloodstains in the once-clear water. Her refuge had become a reminder of life’s decay and filth. A reminder of the life she’d never escape. Jenny sunk to the ground, sand grains and flimsy weeds clinging to her skirts. Her golden hair curtained her face and hid the tears. Strong hands, damp and smelling of copper, pushed it away.
Her bleary eyes met his, and she hated him—just as she had since they were children. So cocky and sure. So boorish and patronizing. Violent under it all, she was certain. Like Father.
Their eyes met again, and she loved him. So strong and self-assured. So beautiful and tender. Sympathetic under it all. He’d be the one to save her from Father.
He held out a hand.
She took it.
Maybe this was the granting of her secret wish.
~ * ~
The world had gone dark again. A full cycle of the moon came and went without a wish or a visit to the well.
She’d given Colin everything he’d ever wanted.
She’d expected to be freed, not forgotten.
She always was wrong about him.
~ * ~
When the moon was a slit in the night’s eye, Colin returned. The lantern light came first, sending a swarm of light and shadows like bats down the hollow well. He seemed to have grown, or maybe she’d shrunk. Dangling casually from the rope ladder, he filled the well.
She was slime clinging to its walls.
“Miss me, Jenny-in-the-well?” The grin was almost affectionate. “My Jenny’s been keeping me busy, now that she’s overcome the shyness that kept us apart. No more mumbling and scuttling away. Now…thanks to your wish, she’s overcome her natural timidity and revealed her true feelings.”
“That wasn’t the wish. She never loved you before.”
Not like I loved you.
Colin put his dimples away, and his mouth hardened. Boots curled around the bottom rung, he lurched forward and grabbed the back of her neck. Long fingers dug into her flesh as he pulled her from the wall, crushing her to his chest. He forced her chin up, commanding her eyes, and shoved his coin into her mouth. His hand covered her mouth and nose, filling her nostrils with copper-scented sweat.
“I wish to be a Lord,” he whispered roughly.
She pushed the coin back out with her tongue, but his palm pushed back harder, refusing to lose the wish.
“Damn it, you wicked thing. I said I wish to be a Lord. Do you hear me? I wish it. Now make it happen.”
His arms surrounded her, and his hands held her lips. She kept the coin on her tongue, determined not to grant. The blood-sweat taste coated her mouth with a rancid film. With her tongue, she ran the coin along her teeth, sharpening them against the metal.
Colin tightened his grip, pulling her as far from the wall as the shackles would allow. “Please,” he murmured, running a finger gently over her lips. “You said you’d make me happy. Remember? You promised…”
A rage-soaked sob burned her from stomach to throat. She choked it down, and the coin with it.
~ * ~
The secret madness had settled deep within the Lady Jennifer Adair. Beneath crawling skin, it gnawed on delicate bones and filled her belly with the weight of confusion. Her pendulum mind swung, ticking off tortured minutes in extremes.
When Colin was near, she loved him. Craved him. Needed him.
When Colin was gone, she remembered all the reasons she hated him. Loathed him. Feared him.
Jenny liked the hating better—it was the only thing that felt real. Unlike the ever-expanding house that grew grander each week, the jewels that multiplied in her ever-increasing drawers, and the title that crowded her world with muddled obligation.
She wished he’d let her be.
Enough was enough.
~ * ~
Boredom filled the well, replacing the despair. A listless chill had soaked her skin and filled her body until there was nothing else.
Lantern light no longer drew her eyes, shuttered with tired lids that preserved the darkness.
The coin slid easily between her thinning lips, scraping her throat before cramping her belly like a lost child.
Let him be an Earl. Let her be a Countess.
Just let me be.
He’ll never let me be.
Enough is never enough.
~ * ~
The house grew again. Colin denied it, laughing at her pretty delusions and childlike wonder at the life he’d provided. So much more than she’d had at her father’s, wasn’t it? Sweet Jenny, always so surprised by her good fortune. But, really, child—houses can’t grow.
Only there used to be a garden, small and full of herbs, just behind the kitchen. Cook cultivated it herself and guarded it fiercely. Jenny’s were the only hands, beside her own, allowed to tend her plants. She loved that garden for its quiet straightforwardness. Colin never went there, preferring the convoluted shrubbery maze of their lawn or the obscurity of the night-soaked woods.
But now, it was gone. The house, a great gobbling beast of oaken floors and velvet curtains, had swallowed it up. Not satisfied with the garden, it devoured the peaceful knoll behind it, stopping just short of forest’s edge. Two weeping willows bookended a crumbling well with stones half-devoured by moss.
Cook didn’t remember a garden. Only that she’d always wished for one… Would the fine lady speak to the master about it?
Golden Jenny promised and fled, tripping down unfamiliar steps and landing on a narrow path. Not a blade of grass or smudge of dirt marred the pristine, untrod stones. She followed the trail to the willows that stroked her arms with long, slender finger-leaves. The trunks curved inward, as though the trees had their heads together in thought or caress. Beneath their canopy, she studied the ancient well, certain she’d never seen it before. Perhaps it had dried up.
As she leaned in to check, sharp fingers grabbed her arm and stole her breath. Spun roughly beneath iron hands, jagged stone scraped silk and skin from her back.
“What are you doing?” Colin’s eyes were narrowed, bordering sharp cheekbones flushed with red fury blotches.
“I…” The world folded in on itself, and her vision blurred to double. Her skin burned with hatred and revulsion, emanating in waves from where his fingers gouged her arms. She clenched her fists, wishing she could let them fly.
But inside, her heart raced, and the passionate butterflies overtook her stomach. She licked her lips and wished he would kiss her.
She was two women married to two men.
Or maybe he was always the same, and she was the binary.
A tear dropped and nestled in the hair on his knuckles, and his grip loosened. He gathered her up in his arms and stroked her golden hair.
“That well is poisoned, remember? That’s why I always tell you to stay away. The fumes can be overwhelming. No wonder you look confused, poor dear. Come to the house and let me put you bed.”
A laugh like spilling water trickled from the well, then dead-ended in a sigh.
Jenny sighed with it. She didn’t remember him warning her about the well. She’d never even seen it before.
But he was so sure.
And she was not.
She rested her head on his shoulder, and he tenderly carried her home.
~ * ~
The sun set, and the ladder fell, splashing angrily. The rungs swung beneath Colin’s noiseless, fuming stomp.
“You shouldn’t have put the house so close. Why did you build right up to the well? Are you dense?”
She shrugged, a slow ripple of exhaustion. “You wished bigger.” Her withered voice drizzled the words like rain.
“There were a thousand other ways you could have done it, Jenny-in-the-Well. Don’t you get smart with me.”
“I’ve never been smart with you.”
The coin entered her mouth with a force that chipped her tooth. “I wish Jenny will forget about it. I wish that no one will ever come near this well, but myself. Ever again.”
Eyes, green like a froglet’s skin, rolled towards the rising moon. With emphasis, she swallowed, then opened her mouth for inspection. Her tongue lay empty, caged by teeth cracked and pointed. Malachite fangs wrought from months of forced coppers and wishes.
Colin recoiled, then laughed. “Well, now, that’s frightful. Close it up for me, will you? There, that’s better. More a proper little nymph that way.” He patted her cheek gently before climbing away.
His head popped into view one last time as he retrieved his lantern. “Good night, Jenny Greenteeth. Dream of me.”
Once his chuckles faded, Jenny shoved a bony finger down her throat. Her stomach contracted obligingly as the coin traveled from her scratched throat to her waiting hand. She threw it. The copper caught and released the moonlight, flashing as it arced from the well to the soft, seeding grass.
~ * ~
Colin was asleep, which meant Jenny was wide-awake, despising him. She was always herself when he was sleeping.
She threw off the covers and sprung from their bed. A quick glance in the moonlit mirror reflected spun-gold hair and arms dotted with constellation bruises. They didn’t make her sad now, just curious.
She went to the well.
The worst it could do was kill her.
A circular indentation cut the moss on the stony ledge, and Jenny placed her lantern there. She sniffed the air for noxious, deadly fumes, and smelled nothing but earth and water. A petulant splash rose from the depths, as if someone had slapped the surface in pique. Jenny leaned over the edge, and her glistening lantern-lit eyes met the shadowed slits of the woman below.
Darkness, flame, and water battled for ownership of the fey little face in the well, and it wavered and changed. A tug of war between despair, rage, and pity contorted features that should have been beautiful.
“Are you…alright?” Jenny’s stomach roiled, and her voice traveled in shaking waves down the well.
“Are you?” The retort was sharp—an arrow flung carelessly towards her heart. It pierced deep and honesty bled. The creature’s eyes met hers, holding them with a stark intensity that would suffer no lies.
“No,” she said, her voice barely audible. The truth only comes in whispers.
“I can see that. I can also see there’s something you want. Something you want very badly. Something you’ve always wanted. What is it you wish for?”
Jenny’s skin prickled, the hairs on her arms raised by an eerie magic tinged with hope. In the absurdness of this moment, no wish was too absurd. Her voice husky with want, she told the frightening nymph her secret longing, “I want to be free.”
“Don’t we all?” The all echoed, bouncing of the sides of the well. Once it was silenced by the night air, the voice from below continued. “Wish me out of here and you will be.”
“How? What can you do?”
“I’ll take care of it. Trust me. The worst I could do is kill you.”
Jenny smirked. That’s not the worst thing. “Alright. I wish you were free from the well.”
An impatient scoff bounded up the walls. “You have to throw the coin, Golden Jenny.”
“In the grass.”
Jenny knelt, weaving her hands through the blades and scraping the dirt. Night crawlers and beetles skittered over her ivory fingers, but she pushed on until she found it.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”
“Good. Throw the coin. Commit.”
“I wish you were free,” Jenny said, flipping the coin.
The woman in the well caught it, heads up, in her palm. She smiled, licked it up and swallowed.
Moments later, she stood in the grass, droplets rolling from her flesh, beating a steady tattoo on the ground.
The nymph shook out her hair, like lake reeds cascading down her back. Even in the orange glow of the lantern, her skin was soft and verdant, encasing her elfin form. Beautiful was an understatement.
Until she smiled. Broken teeth, sharpened fangs, peppered with a mottled green that was a garish contrast to the daintiness of her lips.
The smile stopped.
“Hide.” The nymph ordered. She’d melted into shadows leaving only her voice. “He’s on the way. He saw the lantern. Douse it and hide.”
“Jenny! Are you out here, Jenny?” Colin’s barks, punctuated with heavy mouth breathing, cut the air. He glanced about him as though hunted, then subsided into murmured curses. Bats flittered, wolves howled, and the grass dampened, but not once was he acknowledged.
“And what about you, Greenteeth? Are you ignoring me now, too? Where’s my wife?” He threw the rope ladder over the edge and hooked it carefully into place, climbing down with angry foot thrusts.
Emerald hands that glittered with water and moonlight rested lightly on the edge of the well. Her fingers gripped the stone, cutting broken sweaty trails in the moss. She’d barely felt her heart in months, but as she watched the broad back and smooth curls swallowed by the dimness, it lurched back to life. Beats of rage, love, humiliation, fear, longing, and pain cycled through her chest and hammered her veins.
A shuddering sigh escaped the green teeth, and he looked up. His cheekbones caught the last bit of moonlight in the well, but his eyes remained shadowed.
A sob choked her throat, but she refused to swallow it. She forced it out and spit into the well. The wish was done. It could not be undone.
It was the wish she wanted.
With aching lungs and trembling fingers, she unhooked the ladder. The thump of skull and stone filled her ears, followed by an ungraceful splash. A bit of bubbling.
So much silence. It filled the well in a way she never had.
“You can come out now, Golden Jenny.” Her voice was ice, cracking with a slight thaw at the end. “You’re free.”
Jenny emerged from her perch behind the willow, dew damp and soil stained.
“Thank you.” She meant it, and she knew what she meant. No ambiguity. The world was her own again.
“You’re welcome. I am going home now. To the heart of the woods, to the bottom of my lake. Don’t follow me. You can keep the house and title—everything. I’m sure you’ve earned it.” The proud form stalked towards the forest, then paused. Over her shoulder she spat a warning. “But if you allow your father to move in to ‘manage the estate,’ I promise you, I will burn it all down. There will be no more crying on my doorstep. There will be no more wishing and begging for freedom. You do this on your own.”
“I will. I promise.” Perfect white teeth nibbled rosebud lips. “Thank you…?”
“Jenny Greenteeth.” Curving fangs rested like algae atop her lips. A smirk to bury all that had died inside.
“What do you wish for, Jenny Greenteeth?”
“I wish to be left alone. Can you grant me that, Golden Jenny?”
~ * ~
Beware, or Jenny Greenteeth’ll get you.
Walk too close, and she’ll drag you down. Beneath the algae, the duckweed, and the lily pads. She’ll bind your ankles with reeds and hold you there ‘til you drown.
She’ll suck the last air bubbles from your lungs, pricking your lips with sharpened emerald teeth.
Jenny Greenteeth has love for no man.
Stick to the forest’s edge. Leave her lake to the frogs and toads.
The Countess has taken every precaution. She has built a fence to protect the young and posted signs to remind the grown. She has spread the word far and wide.
Beware Jenny Greenteeth.
Leave her be.
Amanda Vincent is a reader, writer, and sunflower grower from the Southeast. She resides in a house of awesome and magic with her husband, children, doggos, kittehs, and lots and lots of faeries.
Her short fiction has appeared in The Centropic Oracle, Manawaker's Flash Fiction Podcast, Youth Imagination Magazine, and elsewhere.