Old Witchmare is a small village perched on the side of a hill, where a wide valley opens. They call it the Witches’ Cauldron because of its shape of a semicircle east and west of Mount Crescent. The river Slithe once sprang from the mountain and carved the valley with its many streams, digging deep gorges and caves. Since the 1790s, hundreds of mills multiplied in the valley, making its inhabitants wealthy and its textiles admired all over Europe. However, the river mysteriously dried up around 1880, all the channels turned into stony ditches and the mills were shut. Their wheels still hang today over the empty canals like huge, broken toys. Old Witchmare is picturesque, with its crooked, old buildings made of timber and chalk, of two or three floors, with large bow windows, projecting dormers, and fantastic faces carved on the projecting beams. The locals are friendly, and the oldest pub in the village, Stork & Lamb, always spreads a delicious smell of stew. Like every other place, though, this lovely village has its specks, the first of which is precisely its name. When the hamlet was founded in 1625, the plague had emptied London, and rumour spread that witches and wizards roamed the land unchecked, anointing the walls with venomous concoctions. In the county of B., it was known to everyone that the valley of the Slithe was haunted by witches. Thus, to avert a wave of collective violence, the government authorized the foundation of a military outpost at the mouth of the valley. Within weeks, a square, fortress-looking settlement had been built, with wooden barracks for troops all around the central courtyard and a few shabby buildings made of brick and timber for the officers of the Health Tribunal, the jail, and the canteen. There is no record of what happened there in those years because Old Witchmare was sieged and destroyed by Cromwell’s army during the Civil War when the archive was lost in a fire. What we know about the dark origins of the village is the matter of folktales and gloomy legends of massacres, torture, and executions of many unfortunate people who had found refuge from the plague in the valley, only to be arrested and burned alive as worshippers of the devil. The anonymous chroniclers report that the flames of the stakes were visible every night from the main road that connected London to Bristol. However, those creepy stories have permitted the village to get back on its feet because it is thanks to them that tourists visit the Witches’ Cauldron year-round.
Some years ago, I read about Old Witchmare in the book Witchcraft Legends and Folktales, published in 1948 by celebrated ethnologist Waldo Percival Barnstormer. More interestingly, though, I stumbled once again on the name of this village a few weeks ago as I was attending a geology conference in Lancaster where Dr Brian Jackson delivered a fascinating paper about sinkholes in the Witches’ Cauldron. After the talk, I asked Brian to tell me the rest of his story, which he agreed to do at dinner. Never the saying “curiosity killed the cat” was more appropriate to the context, albeit tragically, as I eventually found out.
The visitors were lucky to explore the Witches’ Cauldron with Jacob Forsyth. He had explored nearly every gorge and cave in the valley and knew all the dark stories about the witch hunt. At the end of every tour, he enjoyed telling one or two anecdotes he rearranged following the inspiration. In his fifties, solitary and shy, he lived alone with his beloved cat Horatio in his house built for a wealthy family of pharmacists in 1670, of which he took care with devotion and for good reasons too. Ancient as it was, it required attention as an elderly lady, the beams creaked and groaned from time to time, and the wooden frames of the windows felt the weight of the centuries. Jacob’s secret refuge was the back garden with its mossy stones, roses, lilies, hydrangeas and daffodils. When evening came, Jacob would sit on the porch with Horatio on his knees, admiring that small corner of peace.
And there he was, at the beginning of this story, sitting in the breeze of a mid-summer evening, smoking his pipe, his heart at peace and his mind clear, for he felt that everything around him was just right. He was smoking lazily with his eyes closed, and when he opened them, he caught in the dim light a small, dark spot on the kitchen floor. Horatio looked half asleep, but his wagging tail revealed that he had noticed the thing too.
“What is it, my love?” Jacob asked.
The thing in the kitchen sprang forward and stopped again. Now it was perfectly in sight.
“What the hell is that? Horatio, won’t you go have a look-see?”
The cat didn’t move. When the dark thingy zoomed and vanished under the cupboard, Horatio jumped off Jacob’s lap and trotted into the kitchen. Jacob stood up, the daydreaming was gone, and a feeling of irritation remained. Horatio had slipped under the cupboard, and only the tip of his tail stuck out.
“Did you find it, darling? What was that?” Jacob asked. Then, he moved the cupboard enough to look behind it but saw just a little dirt. At a closer look, he noticed a small, barely visible crack. It started from the floor, crawled upwards for a few inches, and was just one millimetre wide. Jacob didn’t like that some roach came out of the wall and planned to plaster the crack tomorrow. For now, he just stuck some paper in the gap, but no sooner had he touched the wall than the plaster crumbled all around, revealing a much larger cavity. Jacob quickly withdrew his fingers. He immediately prepared some stucco and closed the hole as if treating a wound. When the work was done, he pushed the sideboard back against the wall and thought no more about it.
The rest of the week passed as usual, but on Sunday, while he was making breakfast and listening to the news on the radio, Jacob saw the black spot on the floor again. Even before the word formed in his mind, his full attention was on the intruder. He stopped scrambling the eggs and slowly turned his head. Horatio, too, was sitting motionless next to the insect, looking down at it. Jacob expected to see his fat cat catch its prey any moment now, and he thought that he could crush the roach under his foot, for it was only a step away. But that thing was big and dark. Jacob looked at the antennae waving in the air and wondered how he had made it through the plaster. Yeah, cockroaches can dig, but that stopper was thick. He stood there with the bowl in one hand and the spoon in the other and watched in horror at the insect. Suddenly, he could see its head as if magnified and its great pincers clacking as if trying to reach some prey. The vision faded and left Jacob paralysed, for he knew the stucco dam could not resist those crushers. Suddenly, the roach zoomed and disappeared under the cupboard.
“You fat bugger”, Jacob whimpered, “why did you stand there like a sucker and do nothing? You must have grown a little too picky. I’m cutting your food, let’s see if another time you’ll eat that lousy roach. Actually no, it ain’t gonna happen again, this thing stops now.”
He moved the cupboard and froze. Feeling as if a heavy, cold ball had descended into his belly, he stared at the wide crack that crawled along the wall up to his chest. The plaster was spread in crumbles.
“What the hell?” Jacob exclaimed in a panic. His heart was pounding, and his throat was dry. It was like looking at the marks of a hideous disease on a friend’s face. A friend, of course! It was then that he called me. He sounded upset, so I told him there was nothing to worry about, for old houses play such nasty tricks. However, I popped by and had a look at the damage. I have seen much worse in old buildings, so I prepared a bucket of cement, and after half an hour later, we were looking with satisfaction at the filled crack. I wouldn’t say it was a fine job, for the line was still visible as a grey, ugly scar. Anyway, the cupboard hid the wound. I left Jacob, who went out for his usual Sunday walk, but despite the sunshine and the warm summer breeze, he could not relax. As he roamed the fields, he thought, for the first time in his life, that the absence of water in the Cauldron was disturbing. He looked at the marks the water had left everywhere, scarring the hills. Jacob stopped suddenly, for a crazy image had formed in his mind. He could see the Cauldron from above as if he was a bird – so he told me – and a complicated web of cracks crisscrossed it. He got back to reality, amazed and scared. Above his head, he could see the branches of a dead tree that drew an intricate pattern of cracks against the blue sky. Cracks, cracks everywhere! He thought about his living room, but even that peaceful image came with disturbing background noise, like a feeble crunch. With the eyes of his mind, he saw the floor move and wriggle as thousands of roaches were vomited from a large crack in the wall.
He looked around, sweating and feeling dizzy. The walk was ruined, and the weather was getting sulky, so he made up his mind to go home. When he arrived, he flung the door open and stood on the threshold listening. Without taking off his boots, he went into the kitchen holding his breath. Everything was silent and still. He even moved the cupboard and saw with relief that the cement was dry and solid. After lunch, the rain began to pour down. Jacob was sitting in the living room with a book, but the dull light entering from the window made him uncomfortable. Not even Horatio was there to comfort him. Despite the rain, the sucker was hanging around. Maybe, he was now sheltering in someone else’s house, the traitor. Jacob decided to go to the pub, where he could at least chitchat with the bartender and me, for I usually spend my Sunday afternoons there. Before leaving, he only glanced into the backyard, in case Horatio was there, but nothing. Instead, she noticed that the rain had formed a large puddle in the corner of the garden between the roses and the hydrangea.
Horatio did not come home that night. Jacob stayed up late waiting for him and left his bowl on the porch, but nothing: apparently, the cat was gone. When the hours got small, he began to worry seriously, although he knew there was nothing to do but wait – cats are like that, especially in spring. They smell a female in heat and take off. “He’ll come home – he said to himself – he’s not that stupid.” And to bed did he go.
The following morning, he got up early for work. He immediately ran downstairs and opened the kitchen window. Horatio was in the garden! Happy as ever, Jacob stepped onto the porch to welcome his friend but stopped with wide-open eyes. Horatio was sitting in the same corner of the garden where the rain had formed the big puddle the day before. Now, the water was gone, and the cat was staring at a wide crack in the ground. Jacob couldn’t take his eyes off it, as if that crevice had swallowed every other thought. The cat lifted its head and meowed softly. The air was still and silent, and not a bird was heard. The whole village seemed fast asleep. Jacob didn’t know what to do with that crack, but it was already late, he really had to go to work. He decided to lock Horatio inside, but as he tried to grab him, the beast leapt and disappeared over the fence. Jacob cursed and stopped looking at the crack. He picked up a twig, and when he scraped the dirt on the edges, some clods disappeared in the dark with a muffled sound. Jacob thought of moles or something like a hedgehog or even a badger, but he knew they wouldn’t crack the ground like that. He wondered if the heavy rain had maybe carved that ditch. Yes! That explained why the water had disappeared so quickly and why the hydrangea and the rose bush seemed slightly lower than usual. The water had formed a stream of great power, and God knows how much damage it could have done if it had not stopped.
That night Jacob returned home quite late after an endless dinner with his colleagues, and on his way back he had found the only road leading to the Cauldron blocked. The cops said that someone had gone off the road and died. When the police finally lifted the blockade, the line of cars moved slowly and like a funeral procession passed by a car smashed in a ditch. The lights illuminated a trace of oil that crossed the carriage like a long crack in the asphalt. Jacob shivered and began to brood and mumble that cracks were opening everywhere, the world itself was cracking, and someone should have done something with that. Suddenly he felt the need to check behind the cupboard again. So he parked his car, got inside, rushed into the kitchen and moved the heavy furniture. The cement was there, an ugly grey scar. He opened the back door and called for Horatio. The garden was quiet, and the moon shed a pale light. With a shiver of horror, Jacob saw a dark shape crouching in the garden that resembled, he told me later, a child. The thing sat on its heels beside the crack in the cold, damp darkness. And then the most terrifying of metamorphoses occurred. Two small lights shone in the centre of the head, and then the being stretched slowly and began crawling rapidly across the courtyard. Jacob nearly screamed in terror as he recoiled and fell on the porch steps when the creature entered the cone of light meowing.
“Horatio! You scoundrel, bloody traitor! D’you wanna see me dead? Nice way to say hello to daddy, you bum!”
The cat seemed in a good mood, but when Jacob stroked him on his back, he noticed that the fur was all caked with mud.
“Where the hell have you been?”, he said again, but Horatio leapt into the night and disappeared again.
The next day Jacob called work to say he was sick and would not be going. He had had a restless night and felt like lying in bed a little longer than usual. However, morning laziness is a joy one can appreciate only with a free mind and a light heart. Jacob didn’t like changes, let alone surprises. Since he had started seeing those incomprehensible cracks everywhere, an unpleasant feeling had built in his guts. Now he could hear them run from the roof down to the bottom of the house. Half asleep, he thought he could catch some ominous creaking in the silence. Then, he fell asleep again and dreamed that the crack in the garden was opening into a chasm, out of which monstrous creatures with flat, long, pale faces and hollow eyes emerged. Jacob woke up very frightened only to discover that the ceiling of his room was crossed by a long crack. He leapt to his feet and gave a high-pitched scream that echoed through the house. His neighbours told me later on that it was awful to hear. I think that the worst crack opened right then in the head of my poor friend, as it were, one that couldn’t be filled.
When he went to the kitchen, Jacob tripped over an uneven tile. He looked more closely and saw in amazement that the floor was oddly wavy, and a long crack ran up the wall to the ceiling. The fissure started from behind the cupboard, and Jacob knew all too well that whatever was pushing from the other side, there was nothing he could do to hold it back. It was only a matter of time before those things would come out. He dialed my number and told me everything, as I accounted for. He still sounded lucid but there was a note of excruciating tension in his voice, as if something in him was about to snap. I was out of town for work and could go to him only in the early afternoon, unfortunately too late. Jacob welcomed me with feverish eyes, wearing his pyjamas. Almost stuttering, he kept telling me that some creatures living under his garden had kidnapped Horatio. He was convinced that those things were trying to bring his house down. I tried to cheer him up and checked out the cracks in the kitchen, and I told him that the damage could be fixed but that we had to act immediately. I promised him that I would send someone to check the hole in his garden, but I dared not suggest that he should send for a doctor too.
The following morning, the County Council sent an engineer to inspect the site, but Jacob insulted him and rudely sent him away. He reported that some madman was barricading himself in a crumbling house, and the matter passed directly into the hands of the police. The house, meanwhile, had begun to lean dangerously towards the backyard, where the crack had spread. I begged Jacob to let in the engineers and firefighters, but he refused to open the door. Everyone in Old Witchmare said that Jacob had lost his wits, and that was no surprise after all, for everyone knew about his sudden episodes of daydreaming when he zoned out only to return some moments later as one who has been abducted by the aliens. His head was full of cracks, everyone said, just like his old house.
While the police chief argued with the firefighters and the prosecutor about whether to break the door and drag Jacob out, I climbed over the fence and immediately noticed that the chasm was literally sucking down the garden. I could see the plants slowly move towards the hole and I had to run away not to be swallowed. In a few minutes, the house fell apart and sank into the hole without leaving a single nail behind. The news spread, journalists came and the lawyers with the insurance agents. Some geologists appeared too, who climbed down a well not far from the village. Their report left us speechless. The underground of the Cauldron is a gigantic anthill, an incredible labyrinth of caves and galleries that has grown over the millennia. The leader of the expedition explained to me that the cavity that had engulfed the house had opened up due to a larger and deeper landslide, which had set off a chain reaction. He said that the water of the Slithe and all the streams of the Witches’ Cauldron must have been sucked into the depth of the earth after some catastrophic collapse. They found the water, deep down, streaming dark and cold. And so, the mystery was explained. The ground was then consolidated and the other houses were declared sound and safe.
The empty space left by Jacob’s house makes me melancholy. What bothers me is thinking that Jacob was inside when it happened. And there’s something more. The geologist who had signed the report called me a week after the collapse. He had sent for a solicitor and wanted me to see something too.
“I’m glad you came”, he told me when I arrived. “We were about to close the well, when we found something that might be worth seeing. You know, you’re an expert and I could use your qualified opinion about that.”
“Ok, let’s see it then”, I said, both curious and reluctant.
He took me to the well and down into a side gallery. Below us, the hole was dark and deep, and the sound of distant water came from the depth. As we entered a half-collapsed chamber, the man explained that this was the epicentre of the collapse. With his lamp, he showed me two dozen skeletons wrapped in rags and stretched out in two parallel rows. Perhaps, this chamber had once been a tomb where they hurriedly buried those bodies. I believe there is some truth to the witch hunt legends for which the Cauldron is famous. In fact, all the bones of the limbs and necks were broken. Those poor devils were broken on the wheel and hanged, maybe as anointers or witches, who will ever know? When we emerged to the light, the solicitor ordered to seal the well and no one objected. Maybe, one day, someone will come and dig into its secrets. For now, it’s best to leave the past and its mysteries alone because the population is still quite shaken and doesn’t need any more scares. Besides, there is something that makes me wonder. In a remote corner of the chamber that I explored on my own, the debris formed a niche, and a white speck attracted me. It was Horatio, lying there, with his neck broken. Have you ever heard of any cat breaking its neck for falling down a well? I did not, but one never knows.
Gianluca Cinelli lives in Italy and is a scholar in Italian and Comparative Literature, editor of the Close Encounters in War Journal, and author of fiction with a taste for the weird, the spooky, and the uncanny. When not writing, he loves building wooden ship models and playing the bass guitar.
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