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Fiction

Things You Can Buy for a Penny

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“Don’t go down to the well,” said Theo to his son. So, of course, Tim went to the well. He was thirteen, and his father told him not to. There was no magic to it.

To get to the well — and not the well in the center of the village, because everyone knows where that well is, and no one has any stories about it except for whose grandfather dug it and how soon it’s going to go dry — you’ve got to go around behind the butcher’s, to the bottom of the muddy slope at the edge of the wood that the butcher says he doesn’t throw his offal down. Everybody knows the butcher throws offal down the slope so the wet gentleman will eat that instead of crawling up to eat the butcher’s daughter.

At the bottom of the slope, look for the bones of the burnt cottage in among the willows, then look for the moon. You know this only works at night, don’t you? The wet gentleman won’t come out during the day. Walk towards the point halfway between the moon and the cottage, and eventually you’ll come to the well.

Tim sneaked from his father’s house with a penny in his hand and his dog at his side, a dog that he loved because it would never lie to him or trick him, that he would play with even when the other children invited him to join their games, because when he told the other children to follow him, or wait for him, they would laugh and run away, but not his dog. When his father tucked him in to bed, it was his dog he asked for a last kiss goodnight, its cold nose snuffling at his cheek, because his dog never told him what to do, or sent him to bed without his dinner for not minding, because what do dogs know? Maybe if Tim had been a king or a god he could have loved the other children, or his father.

What happened to Tim when he went to the well? You must know how the story ends — or rather, that it never ends. Surely you’ve heard about the others who went to the well, like Ma Tathers.

When Ma Tathers went to the well, she got just what she paid for. She heard about the well because of what happened to Miser Horton, so she knew the wet gentleman lived there and would grant wishes if he were paid a penny. Miser Horton went because he knew the story of Little Susanne, and both of them got just what they paid for, too.

The story says Ma Tathers was so old when she walked the path between the moon and the burned up cottage that her dugs dragged in the dirt. That’s not a kind way to describe a poor old woman, but stories are seldom kind, especially to a poor old woman in a tattered housecoat, which was her only coat, which she wore thinner and thinner as she sat day after day patching up other people’s clothes for pennies. Her eyes were milky, and she had to bring the cloth and the needle right up to her mottled nose to see what she was doing. Her grandsons, who she was raising because their parents had died, would say to her, “Don’t stick that needle so close to your eye, grandma. You’ll poke it one day, and it’ll fall right out.”

“That’s no trouble,” Ma Tathers would say. “I always got the other one.” What she meant was, “If my eye were worth a few pennies, I’d sell it right from my head.”

Even though Ma Tathers had heard the stories, the same stories you’ve heard, and knew better than to think she could trust the wet gentleman, she did not know what else she could do. She would never take charity, even when it was offered, as though some bone in her body, maybe her fourth rib or her left shin, was so stubborn or proud it made her shift her ponderous breast, lift her swollen leg, and turn away from any helping hand. Without charity, and with her eyes going, and her grandsons getting bigger and needing more to eat every day, Ma Tathers didn’t see where she could afford to buy what she needed but from the wet gentleman.

The day she decided she would go to the well, Ma Tathers worked as fast as she could, the needle fleet in her crooked fingers. She stitched up every shirt and every pair of pants she could coax from the villagers, but that night she had fewer pennies than she’d earned the day before, just four dull coins sitting on the rough wood of her bare table. Spending one that night would mean three pennies for the next day’s meals, and while the boys might not complain, their stomachs would grumble mightily. Of course, their stomachs would never grumble again once Ma Tathers got what she paid for at the well.

So she walked the moonlit path, and she dropped her penny down the dark, stone mouth of the crumbling well. Instead of the ringing of a coin hitting stone, or the plop of metal falling into swampy muck, Ma Tathers heard the squelch of wet silk and the pattering of dripping water. The wet gentleman emerged from the well, top hat first, eyes hidden, shadowed from the moonlight by the flat brim. His face was long, home to a wide mouth that turned down at the corners. His suit was fine silk, his shoes shined even in the night, and he leaned on an ivory cane. All his raiment was soaked through, and water ran from all the creases, and a puddle formed at his feet. He was very tall, very thin, and Ma Tathers had not really expected him to exist.

The wet gentleman spoke with a voice deep and cold as his well. He said, “How does this night find you, madam?”

“I am tired,” said Ma Tathers, who always answered plainly.

The wet gentleman said, “You are tired? I have been down this well since the first brick of your village was laid, soaking in cold water, waiting for the nights someone drops a penny on my head so I can crawl out and grant them a wish. But I forget myself, a gentleman never complains. Do tell me more about your troubles, miss.”

“Is it true?” asked Ma Tathers. “What they say about Miser Horton, and about Little Susanne?”

The top hat bowed as the wet gentleman looked Ma Tathers up and down. “Surely you didn’t spend what must be one of your few pennies to hear a story?”

“No,” said Ma Tathers. “I came because my grandsons are hungry, and I will not be able to feed them for much longer.”

“So you wish to be young again,” said the wet gentleman, and he took her hand. Music came out of the well, pipes and strings.

“No,” said Ma Tathers, but the wet gentleman spun her, and ice-cold water ran down her arm, and her feet felt light, and her joints did not ache, and her back was straight, and she knew the steps to the dance he led her on.

“For selfless reasons,” he said. “So you might live long enough to care for them until they can care for themselves.”

“No,” said Ma Tathers, but her hips swayed, and did not pop or creak.

“How much easier would it be to raise two young men if you no longer hurt just from standing? If you could wash a pan and not feel like lying down and sleeping for a week, after?”

“No,” said Ma Tathers, and she broke his grip. Her body sagged as the weight of years fell upon it again and pain settled back in her bones. “I know your tricks and I know your bargains, so whatever the price for my wish, it must be laid on me and not on my boys.”

Even though he had been out of the well for some minutes, and even though he had spun with Ma Tathers, the water dripping from the gentleman’s clothes had not slowed. The wet gentleman said, “Tell me, Joanna Susanne Tathers. Tell me your wish.”

“Make sure my grandsons are fed. They can figure out the rest. I’ve taught Theo to sew, and the house is mine, and theirs when I am dead, the sole property of my family. Make sure they have enough to eat until they are able to earn food for themselves.”

“And what price do you think I will ask? Have you not paid me my penny?”

“You will weave spells full of deceit. You will make something good into something evil by your trickery. Instead, I say you can take anything of my body. A meal for a meal. I have heard of your appetites, how the butcher leaves you offal so you will not eat his daughter.”

“Some stories are just stories,” said the wet gentleman. “But very well, I will feed your grandchildren, and I will not ask any payment of them for those meals.” He held out his hand, “Do we have a deal?”

She took his hand, and shook it firmly, and then she quailed, and began to shiver. “What,” she said, “what will you do to me?”

The corners of the wet gentleman’s mouth twitched upward.

When Ma Tathers wandered back out of the woods in the morning she could not recall the village, or her house, or her grandsons, or even her own name. The wet gentleman ate all those memories.

Her grandchildren brought her home and asked her if she felt ill, but when she opened her mouth all that came out were stories about the wet gentleman who lived in the well. The boys fretted and cried, uncertain and afraid, and hungry from only having three pennies worth of food that day. But then a knock came at the door, and when they opened it they found a basket full of brown bread and hard cheese and cured sausage and even two apples. With a meal in them, and with a few morsels coaxed down their grandmother’s throat, the future seemed ever so slightly less frightening.

The boys went on, as people do, and ate their meals, and cared for their grandmother, who did nothing but tell stories about the wet gentleman until she died.

One of the stories she told was the story of Miser Horton, a man so mean with his pocketbook that when he went down to the well, he stole the penny to pay the wet gentleman from the shoe of a boy who had left it behind to climb trees with his friends. Miser Horton strode through the woods holding up the hem of his cape so it would not get dirty and need to be cleaned, or snag and tear and need to be mended. The cape was velvet, and very old, taken as partial payment for goods Miser Horton had sold decades earlier. He would proudly tell you the story of that deal if you asked, and maybe even let you touch the cape in question.

Miser Horton knew Little Susanne’s story, but he, like all the rest who have heard stories and have followed the moonlight path with pennies in their hands, did not expect the wet gentleman to climb out of the well. Miser Horton recovered quickly from his shock, thanks in part to his immediate disdain for the wet gentleman’s lack of care with his clothes. Did the man not know what water did to silk?

“How does this night find you, sir?” asked the wet gentleman.

“Jealous,” said Miser Horton, getting directly to his business.

“You are jealous?” said the wet gentleman. “I have been down this well since the oldest tree in these woods was just a sapling, in the cold and wet and dark while above me people live in warmth and dry comfort, and I only get to visit when someone drops a penny on my head. But I forget myself, a gentleman never complains. Tell me more about your troubles.”

“My wife has made me a cuckold,” said Miser Horton. “Me. Even though I gave her a house and an allowance and children, she has been sneaking out of my bed when she thinks I am asleep.”

“So you would like to be handsome,” said the wet gentleman, and he reached out to place a hand on Miser Horton’s shoulder. Horton stood taller, his stomach receding while his chest and arms strained the seams of his shirt. His scalp itched, and thick locks of hair drooped down over his brow. From the well came the voices of women, calling to him, sighing his name.

“No,” said Miser Horton.

“To win back your wife,” said the wet gentleman, “or make her jealous when all the other girls throw themselves at your feet and beg to take her place in your bed.”

Miser Horton said, “No,” and knocked the wet gentleman’s hand from his shoulder. He sagged, his chest and arms draining into his belly, which expanded until his belt cut into it, and his scalp crawled as the hair slid back under the shiny skin. Miser Horton brushed at his cape, hoping the water would not stain the velvet. He said, “What good is being handsome? No one pays to look upon a pretty face.”

“Yet you have paid to look upon mine,” said the wet gentleman. “Let me earn your penny. Tell me your wish.”

“Punish whoever stole my wife from my bed,” said Miser Horton. “Make him poor, make his family poor. Make any children he may have poor for the rest of their lives, and their children, too, with nothing to their family’s name but the meanest sort of shanty for a home until the end of his bloodline or the day of reckoning, whichever comes first.”

“Very well,” said the wet gentleman, and he offered his hand.

Miser Horton regarded it suspiciously. “This is no small service you offer me. What price must I pay?”

“You have paid me my penny,” said the wet gentleman. “If I cannot deliver, you will have only lost the penny you already threw down a well, and you may find some other way to punish the man responsible for your wife’s infidelity.”

Miser Horton took the wet gentleman’s hand, and then felt a chill on his shoulders. He reached up to pull his cape close, only to discover it was gone, and his shirt had turned from fine cotton to rough wool.

“What have you done?” he asked, and looked into the wet gentleman’s face, where he saw the corners of that wide mouth flick upwards.

“Do you not see, Horton Tathers?” said the wet gentleman. “You are responsible for your wife’s infidelity, you with your petty jealousy and greedy character. Now go home to your shanty and tell your children the cost of doing business with the wet gentleman in the well.”

Horton did just that, and one of the stories he told his children about the price you must pay the wet gentleman for a wish was the story of Little Susanne. Little Susanne lived in a cottage in the woods near the village with her mommy and daddy and her cat, Tugs. She loved Tugs very much. When Mommy and Daddy filled the cottage in the woods with terrible shouting, Little Susanne would pick up Tugs and take him outside and lean against a willow and hold him and pet him until he purred, then press her ear against his chest so all she heard was his warm, soft rattle and not the terrible shouting.

One day her daddy threw a chair at her mommy and it missed and hit Tugs instead, and Tugs yowled, and scrambled about with his front legs, his hindquarters dragging on the floor. Daddy grabbed Tugs by the neck and took him outside, and when he came back he didn’t have Tugs with him. Little Susanne asked where Tugs had gone, and Daddy said he’d tried to help Tugs but Tugs had run off into the woods.

After crying for a week, Little Susanne decided to go to the wishing well. Maybe she knew about the well from even older stories, or maybe from exploring the woods, from taking children’s paths over the ground and through imagination. Maybe you would know about the well too, even if you had never been told.

Little Susanne took a penny from her daddy’s coin purse while he was snoring, and tiptoed through the door, careful not to let it creak or slam, and walked down to the well. She threw the coin in, and almost screamed when the wet gentleman’s top hat poked out over the edge, followed by his shadowed eyes and wide, downturned mouth.

The wet gentleman bowed to her and said, “How does this night find you, miss?”

“Scared,” said Little Susanne, being truthful. “And lonely. And sad.”

“I understand,” said the wet gentleman. “I have been down this well since your holy books were only dreams and firelight tales. That is a long time to be lonely, and sad, and scared.”

“You’re very wet,” said Little Susanne. “Would you like me to bring you some clothes? My daddy has three shirts, and he might not miss one.”

“That is very kind of you,” said the wet gentleman, “but it would only get wet again, because I must go back down the well once I grant your wish.”

“Oh,” said Little Susanne. “If I don’t make a wish, can you stay up here?”

“That is not the way the story goes, Susanne Joanna Smyth,” said the wet gentleman. “I must tell you that a gentleman never complains, and you must tell me your wish.”

Little Susanne tucked a toe into the dirt and mumbled something under her breath.

“You are scared, I understand that,” said the wet gentleman. “Would you like to be grownup, so you can be brave and sure like your mommy and daddy?” He knelt down in front of her and took her hand in his and she grew, and her hips and breasts swelled, and she stood looking down at the wet gentleman, kneeling and holding her hand.

“No,” she said.

“You can leave your parent’s home and find a man to marry and live with him and never be lonely or scared again.”

Little Susanne felt something else. She felt a stirring inside of her that was hot and safe and terrifying and awesome and hopeful and fearful all at the same time. From the well came the sound of a babe, crying for its mother. “No,” she said, and she pulled her hand free. She shrank back into childhood until her eyes were level with the kneeling gentleman, water dripping from his hat and from his jacket, and the corners of his mouth twitched downward even further.

“I want Tugs back,” she said. “I want him to purr to me and keep me company until I die. And . . .”

“Yes?” said the wet gentleman.

“And I want Mommy and Daddy to stop fighting.”

“Two wishes?” said the wet gentleman, standing so that he towered over Little Susanne. “Have you brought two pennies?”

“No,” said Little Susanne. “Do I have to choose?”

The wet gentleman tilted his head back and considered the stars through the leaves of the trees. “You do not have to choose,” he said at last. “One wish will be yours, and one will be mine. You shall have your cat, and your parents will fight no more.”

“Thank you,” said Little Susanne, and she hugged the wet gentleman round his legs, which were stick thin and hard as rocks inside his suit, and she got all wet up the front of her nightclothes.

“Thank you,” said the wet gentleman, “for the penny. Now go home.”

As she walked home, Little Susanne saw a flickering orange glow through the trees. She heard a roaring, a snapping and popping. She smelled wood smoke, and something else, something oily and black, like when Mommy burned the bacon. Her house was on fire, and the heat singed her hair and dried her nightclothes. As she watched the house burn, Tugs stalked out from the woods and twined himself around her legs. She picked him up and held him to her ear, but even though she could feel the shudder of his purring, all she could hear was the fire.

That’s how the villagers found Little Susanne when they ventured into the woods to investigate the fire. A family took her in, and she grew up in the village, always with her ageless cat at her feet or in her arms, and she married a good man with kind hands and a sharp mind, and one day she felt the stirring inside of her, and remembered looking down at the wet gentleman on his knee at her feet, and knew she was pregnant.

She had many children, and told them about the wet gentleman in the well, that he was very powerful, and very dangerous, and not to be trusted, except maybe sometimes, because after all, Tugs stayed with her and purred for her until she died, whereupon he climbed onto her still chest, turned around three times and curled up and died as well, and was buried with her.

Her family’s fortunes rose over time, until Horton Tathers inherited the estate. Then the family was poor. But the family never stopped telling stories about the wet gentleman. Horton told them, and Joanna told them, and Theo listened to his grandmother but did not believe her, at least, not until the day Theo and his wife could no longer pretend she was anything but barren, and Theo went into the woods.

He took the path between the moon and the burned up cottage, and he threw a penny down the well, and the wet gentleman climbed out of the well and said, “How does this night find you, sir?”

The wet gentleman said, “You are troubled? I have been down this well since before you people learned to bake bricks.”

He listened to Theo’s troubles, and said, “So you would like a new wife, one who is young and fertile.”

When Theo finally refused him, the wet gentleman said, “No? Very well, tell me your wish.”

And the wet gentleman said, “I see you’ve paid attention to the stories. But you mustn’t worry, all I really want is a penny now and then, and I know I’ll have another soon enough, when your son comes to visit me.”

Theo went home, frightened, doubtful, half-convinced it had been a dream, and in a few months his wife woke up ill and felt the stirring inside her. When their son was born they named him Timothy, and Theo told Tim the story of Little Susanne, and of Miser Horton, and Ma Tathers. Theo told his son these stories to warn him, so the boy would know better than to ever go down to the well.

Tim said, “Why did none of them simply wish for the wet gentleman’s power? You could do whatever you want, and you’d only ever owe yourself, and you wouldn’t ever do anything bad to yourself, or trick yourself.”

And Theo took hold of his son’s hands and said, “Don’t go down to the well.”

You already know what will happen next, and you can leave this story while Tim sneaks down past the butcher’s, his loyal dog at his side and a penny in his hand. You can leave while the wet gentleman waits in the place that exists beneath the mouth of the well, his face split by a grin. You can leave this story while the wet gentleman thinks about the many pennies he has gathered, pennies that are copper, pennies that are bronze, and some that are small shells or glittering stones, and how long, how long it has been since he went down to the well, a boy clutching something that, once upon a time, stood for a penny. He has grown so much since then, and worn the finery of so many different ages, and through all that time he has remained a gentleman. Soon, soon he will be a boy again; a boy who will very much hate taking baths.

And you, you who get exactly what you pay for, there may always be some wet gentleman waiting for you to throw your penny into the well, but you can leave any time you want. There is no magic to that.

Will Kaufman

Will Kaufman

Will Kaufman’s work has appeared in Unlikely Story, Unstuck, Daily Science Fiction, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among other places. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Utah in 2011, and attended the Clarion Workshop in 2013. Currently, he is working on a collection of short stories and a novella. You can find Will online at www.kaufmanwrites.com, or in real life in Los Angeles, CA. If you’d like to follow Will, please do it on Twitter (@specwill), and not in Los Angeles.