It was a tale as old as the town itself. No one knew how the story of the monster in the well first came about. All they knew was that the well in the woods behind Southcote Farm was said to be home to an immortal being with a rather unusual way of feeding. Instead of food, the monster supposedly fed on the unsavoury opinions of those who visited the well. Of course, most people didn’t believe it, but that didn’t stop parents from using the story as a way of teaching their little ones to watch their words.
‘You don’t want to feed the monster in the well, do you?’ became the go-to refrain whenever a child was in danger of saying something unkind. The obedient ones would immediately fall silent and shake their heads, but there were always those mischievous children who would loudly proclaim that feeding the monster was indeed their intention, before proceeding to shout whatever hurtful words their parents didn’t want them to say.
Of the six twenty-somethings who congregated around the well one mild July morning, four had been proud members of the latter group. One had been completely unfazed by the tale, considering herself to be above such petty things as urban legends even as a child. The other had been so scared by the story that he burst into tears whenever anyone mentioned the monster in his presence. Years later, most of them agreed that the tale was a unique part of their town’s history, but nothing more than that.
‘It looks smaller than I remember,’ Ollie said, peering down into the well with his hands on his hips. The others had noticed too. What had seemed like a vast circular opening in the ground when they were children was actually no more than three feet in diameter. Green ferns were growing through cracks in the brickwork, much of which was obscured beneath a layer of spongy moss. The water itself had all but dried up. Just a few inches remained in the bottom, clogged with dead leaves and bits of twig. It didn’t look like the kind of place to have an urban legend attached to it, and it certainly didn’t look like the home of a monster.
‘Did any of you ever try it?’ Vic asked. ‘Dropping a stone into the well and saying one of your truths out loud?’
The others shook their heads.
‘My parents wouldn’t let me,’ Natalie shrugged.
‘I didn’t know that’s what you were supposed to do,’ said Will.
‘That’s what the tale says. You probably started crying and ran out of the room before anyone got to that bit.’
Everyone laughed, including Will. It was a running joke that, despite being the biggest and burliest of the group, he was easily the most faint-hearted.
‘Seriously though,’ Vic continued, ‘you must have wondered if there was any truth in it.’
Again she was met by shrugs and nonplussed expressions. To the others it was just a silly childhood tale. A myth. An urban legend. How very wrong they were.
Turning her back on the well, Vic cast around for a stone and found one a few feet away. The others watched in silence as she threw it up and caught it, as if that were her way of testing its suitability. Apparently satisfied, she approached the well with slow measured steps and held out her right arm. Adopting her most reverential tone, she recited the words from the story-the ones she had known by heart since she was five years old.
“What juicy secrets will you tell
The aged monster in the well?”
The others were looking at her as if she’d gone mad. Will was frowning, Natalie and Zara kept exchanging glances, and Tyler and Ollie looked to be on the verge of cracking up. Vic paid them no heed.
‘I’ll go first then, shall I? I look at some of the people I know and I think if they were my child a part of me would forever be disappointed.’
The moment the last syllable left her lips, Vic let go of the stone. There was a two-two second delay as it plummeted the length of the well shaft, followed by a satisfying plink when it hit the water. For a moment all was still and quiet. Then, from the depths of the well, came the beginnings of a low rumble. Faint at first, it rapidly grew in volume until it sounded like a small aircraft gearing up for take-off. The ground shook and Vic’s ribs rattled in her chest. Soon the rumbling was accompanied by a series of loud thumps and scrapes, as if something large was scrabbling its way up the brickwork. Then, with a great roar and a rush of wind, the monster burst up out of the well.
He looked like a fallen log come to life. His whole body seemed to be made of gnarled wood, with mushrooms erupting from his shoulder blades and branches protruding from his head. Two intense black eyes smouldered in his crudely carved face, and his limbs and extremities were coated in moss. To the uninitiated, he must have looked terrifying, towering above them with his knotted wooden muscles. But Vic knew there was nothing to fear.
‘It’s OK,’ she called to the others. They had scattered like chickens when the rumbling started and were now huddling together some twenty metres away.
‘He’s perfectly friendly, he just likes to talk.’
Ollie was the first to conquer his nerves. Slowly, he began edging his way back a few steps at a time. The others followed at a distance, their expressions ranging from mildly cautious to unbridled terror in Will’s case.
‘He won’t hurt you, I promise,’ Vic assured them. ‘He just looks intimidating.’
‘You…you’ve seen him before?’ Natalie managed to stammer.
‘Loads of times.’
‘Vic’s been coming here for years,’ said the monster in a voice that was surprisingly light and jovial. People always expected him to have a deep, resonant boom, and were invariably taken aback when they heard him speak.
‘She can always be relied on to give me something tasty. Speaking of which.’
Everyone except Vic jumped back as, with much creaking, the monster settled himself on the rim of the well with his legs dangling over the edge.
‘I’m listening. Go on.’
‘I don’t mean to be horrible,’ Vic began, ‘and perhaps it’s an odd thought to have, but I do just look at some people and wonder how I’d feel if I was their mother, and I can’t honestly say I’d be happy.’
‘Do you want children in the future?’ the monster asked.
‘But you worry what the result will be?’
‘Yes. In a way it’s the ultimate gamble, isn’t it?’
‘It is indeed. It’s an awful lot of dice to roll in one go.’
‘Don’t get me wrong, I’d love any child of mine to the ends of the earth, but if they turned out like some of the people I know, I’d honestly feel like I’d failed. Do you ever look at some people and wonder how they could possibly have been the fastest sperm?’
‘All the time,’ said the monster with a throaty cackle. ‘I think that of half the people who turn up here, to be honest. They stand there yakking away and I’m thinking surely there were better candidates than you.’
‘On a serious note though,’ said Vic, ‘I do worry that I’ll mess it up somehow.’
‘I think you do yourself a disservice. The fact you’re even thinking about it says a lot, and having met you many times now, I would say your dice are favourably weighted.’
The monster’s words coaxed a smile from Vic, just as she knew they would. He always knew precisely what to say in order to assuage her doubts, and not once had he made her feel like a bad person when she came to him with her truths.
Sensing that his job with Vic was done, the monster looked around at the others and smiled.
‘Who wants to go next?’
Once again, Ollie was the first to volunteer. He offered up his secret with little hesitation but a distinct touch of sheepishness. It wasn’t that he lacked conviction in his opinion, but he knew that in order to render it more palatable he had to appear to do so.
‘I think people should have to pass a test before being allowed to vote,’ he said, not meeting the monster’s gaze. He expected to be lectured, scolded, or at the very least dismissed, but the monster merely blinked and said, ‘Well you’re not the first and you certainly won’t be the last.’
‘No. In fact I’d say your viewpoint is remarkably common. Just last week I had a woman here ranting that the general populace are far too stupid to understand politics and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to vote.’
‘That’s not what I said,’ Ollie was quick to point out.
‘No, but the sentiment isn’t all that different, is it?’
Ollie didn’t reply, and Vic noticed the appearance of two scarlet triangles just below his cheekbones.
‘What kind of test are we talking?’ the monster asked.
‘Nothing too difficult. Just enough to make sure they know the basics.’
‘Who their local representative is, a rough idea of their voting record, what the main policies of the party they’re voting for are. And there should be a written task where they have to explain in their own words why they’re voting that way.’
‘And how would you judge their efforts on such a task?’
‘There would be a mark scheme with list of acceptable answers and they’d have to get a certain number of them in order to pass.’
‘OK, and who would decide what constitutes an acceptable answer and what doesn’t?’
Again Ollie didn’t reply, but the scarlet triangles advanced a few more millimetres in all directions. The monster smiled, but it was a kindly smile as opposed to a gloating, got-you kind of smile.
‘You see the problem, don’t you?’ he said. ‘I understand your reasoning, really I do, and there is merit to your methods up to a certain point.’
‘But in real life it’s unworkable,’ Ollie concluded.
‘I’m afraid so, but I appreciate your honesty. Thank you for sharing.’
Tyler went next, with a secret not entirely dissimilar to the one Ollie had just shared.
‘I don’t think we should try to preserve all human life indefinitely.’
The monster considered him for a few moments, his face registering neither surprise nor judgement. Tyler held his gaze, unflinching, until the monster bid him, ‘Explain.’
‘I just think that once people reach a certain age, they should accept that they’re not long for this world instead of trying to prolong their days for as long as possible.’
‘I see. You think they should all go gracefully with the Grim Reaper.’
‘That’s one way of putting it.’
‘Preserve their dignity.’
‘Save time and resources.’
‘That’s not my main reason.’
‘But it is one of them.’
Tyler’s silence was all the confirmation the monster needed.
‘So what age would you have as your cut-off point?’ he asked.
‘Seventy, maybe seventy-five.’
‘And after that no more treatment?’
‘Well, it depends.’
There was that kindly smile again.
‘If you don’t mind me saying, yours is an easy viewpoint to have when you’re not yet thirty and in perfect health. But I suspect that as you get older your attitude will change, especially if your health or that of someone you love proves to be less than robust.’
There was nothing Tyler could say to that, other than, ‘I suspect you’re right.’
‘I’m not judging you,’ the monster assured him. ‘It’s common to hold one viewpoint in theoretical circumstances and an altogether different one in practice. My feeling is that if you were presented with real people and real lives, you would find you don’t actually believe your own words at all.’
The monster then moved on to Natalie, whose admission was of a more personal nature.
‘I hate my sister’s boyfriend,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘I’ve always thought your partner should bring out the best in you, enhance you in some way. But he diminishes her. When she’s with him she becomes selfish and obnoxious, and on her own she’s neither of those things.’
The monster nodded knowingly, an indication that he was well acquainted with the type.
‘Bit of a jock, is he?’
‘His whole family are if I’m honest.’
‘But he makes her happy?’
‘He seems to.’
‘And he’s good to her?’
Natalie grudgingly nodded her head.
‘Was it always so?’
No nod this time.
‘I see,’ said the monster, ‘and you haven’t forgiven him.’
‘I don’t have to.’
‘That’s right, you don’t. She does, and it sounds to me like she has.’
‘So I just need to tolerate him for her sake,’ Natalie surmised.
‘For as long as the relationship lasts, yes. If at some point they break up, then you can tell her your real opinion.’
By now only Will and Zara were left. After a brief back and forth Will agreed to go first, but it was clear from the way he fidgeted and avoided the monster’s gaze that he wasn’t happy about it. He dug his hands in his pockets and kicked at a patch of grass in a blatant attempt at playing for time.
‘Come on,’ said the monster. ‘Out with it.’
Will heaved a sigh, and then said in a deliberate mumble, ‘I’m only attracted to slim girls.’
Silence. The monster stared at him, unblinking and clearly unimpressed. Vic, Natalie and Zara were all glowering, while Ollie and Tyler were merely astounded that he had admitted it out loud.
‘Everyone has their preferences,’ said the monster at length. ‘That’s perfectly natural. But tell me, is it a preference or a prerequisite?’
Will didn’t answer. Instead he looked confused, which the monster found perplexing, as he did not consider his question remotely difficult.
‘Ok, let’s try a different question. What else do you like besides slim girls?’
Again Will didn’t answer, and this time the monster met his silence with a deliberate and very noticeable eyeroll.
‘Funny girls? Intelligent girls? Witty girls? Or are we judging women solely by their weight?’
‘Well, not solely by their weight,’ Will protested, ‘but physical attraction is important.’
‘I’m not disputing that, but let’s say for argument’s sake that you meet this amazing girl. She’s funny, she’s clever, she’s kind. She shares your interests, brings out the best in you, you get on really well. But she’s a bit heavier than what you imagined, so is she a write off?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Because if you were to judge women on such a superficial level, then surely they would be justified in judging you the exact same way.’
‘They would,’ Will concurred, ‘which is probably why I’m still single.’
The monster’s mossy eyebrows contracted and his crooked mouth pursed. For a moment he looked like he was biting back some sassy retort, but then his expression softened as he mastered his impulses.
‘I’m going to tell you a secret, young man,’ he said, leaning towards Will and lowering his voice. ‘Ugly men get laid all the time. Every second of every day, all over this world. They manage it because they’re good people, because they’re fun to be around, because they treat their partners well and connect with them on a fundamental human level. Most of the time, looks have remarkably little to do with it. You understand me?’
Will nodded, looking both chastened and grateful. The patch of grass was now reduced to nothing but a muddy scuff, but at least his turn was over. The monster now turned his attention to Zara, as the only member of the group yet to volunteer her truth.
‘I don’t have any unsavoury opinions,’ she said, crossing her arms and making a face which could only be described as prissy. The monster regarded her for a few moments, blinked once in a lazy, cat-like way, and said in a voice that was deceptively cool, ‘Liar.’
Zara looked affronted. She opened her mouth to protest but Vic cut her off.
‘Don’t lie to him, Zara. If you lie to him he’ll curse you. You’ll be forced to tell everyone your honest opinions on everything for a week. Just think of the damage it could do.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ Zara scoffed, ‘he can’t do that.’ But her indignation was rapidly giving way to doubt.
‘I can do that,’ the monster assured her, though his tone was more matter-of-fact that threatening. ‘I’ve done it many time before, and I’ll do it again if you don’t tell me a truth.’
‘Come on Zara, we’ve all done ours,’ Ollie urged her.
‘What is it you don’t want to tell me?’ asked the monster. ‘It’s not something indefensible, is it? You’re not a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe?’
‘God no! Nothing like that.’
‘You’ll think I’m silly,’ Zara muttered, doggedly avoiding the monster’s piercing stare.
Realising the monster wasn’t going to let up, Zara took a deep breath and began reciting the line she had been mentally rehearsing for the last five minutes.
‘My younger sister is having a baby and I don’t know how I feel about it.’
She forced the words out as quickly as possible and then braced herself for the monster’s judgement-for him to tell her that any reaction besides unbridled joy was petty and ridiculous. When he didn’t say anything she chanced a glance at his face and was astounded to see that he was smiling at her.
‘I think you do know how you feel about it,’ he said, perceptive as always. ‘But you don’t want to admit it because you think your feelings are somehow incorrect. Am I right?’
A single nod of the head confirmed his suspicions.
‘You can tell us,’ said the monster gently. ‘You’re among friends here. Friends who know you well enough not to judge you for speaking your truth. So, your younger sister is pregnant. How does that make you feel?’
‘Jealous,’ Zara said, this time without hesitation, ‘that she has reached this huge, exciting milestone and I haven’t, despite being four years older than her. I feel like I’m lagging behind, like she has someone beaten me at adulthood, and I can’t quite believe that out of the two of us she is the first to have everything sorted out.’
‘Does she have everything sorted out?’ the monster asked, ‘Or was she just the first to stop using contraception?’
Zara was stunned. She had never thought of it that way, and she certainly hadn’t expected the monster to ask such a pointed question.
‘It’s an easy assumption to make,’ he remarked, ‘but it’s rarely true, and if you asked your sister does she feel she has everything sorted, my feeling is she would probably say no.’
The monster was right-Zara knew it-but something was still needling away at her conscience.
‘Does feeling this way make me a bad person?’
The monster considered her for a moment, the wood around his eyes and mouth creaking as he smiled. Then, in his warmest, most grandfatherly voice, he said, ‘No, it makes you a human.’
That evening, the monster went to bed more sated than he had been in a long time. It wasn’t often he received such a large group of visitors, nor ones with such varied and interesting truths to share. There had long been a misconception among the townsfolk that he fed off their unsavoury opinions. Many came to him with their ugliness, their prejudice and bile, believing he would thank them for it. He did not. He listened, because to hear them out was important, and sometimes he tried to persuade them of their wrongness if he thought there was any hope of getting through to them. But for the hopeless cases-the ones so stubbornly entrenched in hatred they had no interest in changing-his only course of action was to roar at them until they fled. He had had enough of those people to last him a lifetime.
This group was different. They were self-aware, open to discussion, and most importantly, they were able to admit when they were wrong. What they believed were their deepest, ugliest truths were actually just human emotions. Complex, nuanced, sometimes problematic. But that was OK, so long as they were able to recognise it in themselves and choose their audience accordingly. That was his purpose, to be a soundboard for people’s truths-the ones they couldn’t openly admit for fear of judgement or hurting others’ feelings. Years of listening to people had taught him that those who were most willing to shout their truth from the rooftops were the ones who should really keep it to themselves, while those who were most reticent to share had little to no reason to be. It had always been the case, and would continue to be until humans ceased to exist and there were no more truths to tell. It was the monster’s lot in life to understand far better than he himself was understood, although it was really very simple. He was the truth monster, part counsellor, part town gossip, and he fed not on ugliness, but on honesty.