It was a beautiful day and looking back I curse myself for allowing a blue cloudless sky and the comforting presence of other dog walkers to lure me into a false sense of security. We believe that the unexplained can only happen in the dark, that forces beyond our comprehension choose only to interact with us when there is no chance of being revealed to the rest of the world, and I cannot begin to articulate how wrong that is.
They don’t fear us. Despite our innate craving to believe in the spiritual and the supernatural we are sceptical creatures, and though at least three other people were present that day all their testimony has done is fuel the legend.
I spent most of my life living in a valley and thus both sides of the town were shielded by high rolling hills the tops of which were pretty much on a level with the rest of the county. We were prone to flooding and so the higher entrance to the valley was capped with a dam and reservoir. The town itself had a complicated drainage system of pipes and storm drains that carried all of the excess water downhill and dumped it in a huge river situated at the base of the valley.
From time to time animals would wander into the storm drains, and more than once their putrefied corpses would have to be pulled out of manholes on the high street by sewage workers wielding great hooked poles. The drains were as old as the town, but though leakages occasionally occurred their only pervading fault was frequent blockage. The architect or architects simply hadn’t factored in the possibility that animals could easily wander in and anything larger than a dog could cause serious problems due to narrow piping, tight corners and iron bars that intermittently appeared along many of the tunnels.
I had taken my two Labrador/German Shepherd crosses (brothers from separate litters) for a long walk right to the top of the valley one clear summer’s day with the intention of meeting a friend at a country pub situated a little beyond the summit.
I had taken a popular route, a series of gravel paths and stone steps that ascended the steep side of the valley in a manageable sidewinding fashion. But the dogs were young and restless and so I made the decision to deviate from the track and scale the hillside directly. I don’t get as much exercise as I probably should and so a brisk climb no doubt made the promise of cold beer seem that much sweeter.
I hiked hard for about quarter of an hour into a wooded region that I had never been to before, and was both surprised and pleased to feel the gradient become more manageable and eventually even out completely. I knew in relation to where the path was that we still had quite a way to ascend beyond this mystery plateau and so I kept on going, my curiosity deepening with every step.
The area was incredibly overgrown, but beneath the chaotic undergrowth I could just about make out a tight cluster of structures and rusted machinery the size of two or three houses. Judging by their state of disrepair they must have been out of commission for decades and I spent a long time walking around and amongst them trying to figure out what they were actually for. I only found a single door, and it was welded shut and covered in thick vines that I would need more than my pocket knife to cut through.
The dogs seemed somehow agitated and in hindsight I understand why. They were simultaneously skittish and excited, bouncing amongst the ruins with a curious trepidation not entirely unlike my own. I hate to think in terms of ‘vibes’ and ‘bad feelings’, but something didn’t seem entirely... right and I became very self conscious of how quiet the world had become. Even the birds chirping in the surrounding trees sounded so much more distant than they realistically should have done. The sun continued to blaze and I could see for miles out over the valley, but that feeling of seclusion was like nothing else.
I continued on my journey up the hillside, constantly reasoning with and berating myself the entire time. I eventually rejoined the path and stuck to it all the way to the top where I joined my friend at the pub and finally began to feel like myself again. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and thus spent almost an hour discussing our lives, our jobs, our families, and times gone by. After two pints I was contemplating the long (but thankfully downhill) trip home and in passing mentioned my discovery which seemed to greatly intrigue my friend. I asked him if he knew what I had found, and he told me quite gravely that it was a station designed to aid the drainage of heavy rainfall. Apparently water building up on the small plateau had caused mudslides in the past, and so a direct conduit had been built linking said plateau to the town’s own drainage system. I asked him why it had been shut down, and though he didn’t seem to know for sure he was cagey about divulging his suspicions.
As my friend was driving he consumed no more alcohol and left soon afterwards. I was a little drunk and it was still early, so I resolved to stick around for a spot of lunch and quiz the regulars a little more intensely. Most seemed eager to talk at first but were similarly noncommittal about what they thought had happened there, if anything had happened at all. I eventually asked the landlord himself, a heavyset fellow with a big grey beard and a permanently furrowed brow. He knew more than most I could tell, but he was even more reluctant to talk. I grew frustrated at the apparent mystery surrounding this drainage station and made a passive aggressive comment of some sort. The landlord asked me to leave, but as I stood outside in the sun and smoked a cigarette to calm my nerves he came and found me, and invited me into one of the pub’s back rooms.
What he told me set me on edge.
Apparently the drainage station had housed a skeleton crew of three men who both managed the machinery and acted as security in a time before CCTV and electric fences. One day during a particularly fierce storm there was a power outage at the station and all three of them disappeared without a trace. Their friends and families in the neighbouring village suspected the worst and sent word to my own town, but no blockages were discovered and no bodies were fished out of the storm drains. Almost three decades later, a forensics team searching for a discarded gun in the river beyond my town discovered some grisly remains, namely bone fragments, teeth, and an old iron coin that the wife of one of the men confirmed belonged to her husband.
I wondered how I had never heard of such a discovery, and the landlord explained that the remains were so badly eroded by the time spent in such fast flowing water that they were initially believed to be of Roman origin. The presence of the coin was discarded almost immediately and in fact served to solidify the Roman theory as ultimately more likely. The men’s families were reminded that nothing as big as a human being could fit through the storm drains, and thus the discovery became archaeological to most of the world.
I told the landlord that I vaguely remembered the discovery of Roman remains, but that the story had dried up very quickly. He agreed, and as I looked into those sombre eyes I realised that there was far more to it. I remembered that the fragments had been thought to have been from more than three bodies and again he concurred. He added that only two of the bodies were confirmed to be men, and within a quarter of a second a whole new sequence of events arranged themselves before my eyes. I realised that a body could have made it from the station to the river if it had been dismembered, and if only two of the bodies were male then surely whoever had survived had to be the killer.
At this point the landlord became reluctant to continue, explaining that such a theory was common knowledge in the surrounding villages and was a bone of contention amongst the families of the deceased. The families were convinced that one of the men was a murderer, but refused to consider the possibility that it might be their relative who had done the killing. At this stage I could only assume that one of the men had been a prolific serial killer of women who used the station as a means to dispose of his victim’s remains and at some point his co-workers had grown suspicious or otherwise invoked his wrath. He had killed them, cut them apart, flushed the pieces down the drain, and disappeared never to be seen again.
I couldn’t believe it. I asked if the authorities knew about this theory and the landlord shrugged it off as irrelevant, the trio had disappeared almost forty years beforehand and the discovery of the bones was relatively recent. A plucky young detective wanting to crack open a big case had started an investigation into the rumours, but real life proved to be nothing like the films. He hit several brick walls in quick succession and was forced by his superiors to give up and move on. I asked if the detective was still around at all, but the landlord shrugged the question off and told me quite gravely that actively pursuing the story was a futile effort, and a potentially dangerous one at that. I told him that I was merely curious, and though he relaxed a little he made his excuses and showed me the door not long afterwards.
When the dogs and I set off down the hillside it was early afternoon and the charm of the forest was completely blotted out by the number of families out walking. The amount of screaming children coupled by my recent consumption of alcohol darkened my mood and got me thinking about the landlord’s story. It angered me that the authorities were aware of a plausible murder theory but had no interest in pursuing it. Fuelled by my hatred for injustice and armoured in the confidence provided by the sunny day and the presence of so many other people, I resolved to return to the station.
What happened next makes little sense, but I swear on everything that I hold dear this is what I remember. As I said at the beginning of my story I’m a sceptic by nature and under normal circumstances would doubt my own sanity before believing said events, but other people saw what I saw and heard what I heard (admittedly from a distance), and every time I have been called a liar I simply close my eyes, remember their testimony and tell myself that I’m not crazy. This is not some second hand musing full of gaps, this is a detailed account of what I experienced.
At around three in the afternoon I reached the station again and something was immediately different. The long grass that had surrounded the edges of each building was trampled flat, and a foul smell that was both earthy and oily covered the entire plateau. If the dogs were skittish before they were downright terrified now. I should have walked away right there and then and under normal circumstances I would have, but again my confidence levels were sky high and I was determined to examine the buildings in more detail.
I walked up to a squat concrete hut and noticed a peculiar object buried in the ground to one side. It was a gnarled and yet highly polished wooden pole maybe five feet in length with a great curled hook on one end, and from the hook hung an old oil burning lantern. For a second I thought that must have been what was producing the smell, but it was too strong and pervasive to be coming from something so small. At this point I distinctly remember looking over to my right and seeing two dog walkers walking through the woods. The nearest who I estimate was maybe fifty or sixty meters away was facing me at the time of the scream and like me saw everything.
It came from inside the hut, and I could tell from its timbre and volume that the riveted door was now fully open though I couldn’t see it from where I was standing. The scream was low and drawn out, but fierce and desperate at the same time. As cliché as it sounds I can only describe it as animalistic to the point of being inhuman. It was as though the sound was forced from a respiratory system larger and physically more powerful than anything capable of existing within the human species.
Both of the dogs yelped and bolted into the forest and I watched them head straight for the nearest dog walker who like me was rooted to the spot. I saw her shield her eyes with one hand against the glare of the sun cutting through the canopy, and with the other hand she pointed seemingly disbelievingly. A second after the scream faded I felt the use of my legs return and I stumbled backwards. I wanted to follow the dogs along their trajectory straight into the forest, but as crazy as it sounds I knew that such a route would bring me level with the door and I couldn’t look upon whatever was inside, I just couldn’t. I felt the heat on the back of my neck fade as something blocked out the sun, and despite my paralysing fear I instinctively turned my head to see what was there.
Even now I don’t know what it was, but those fleeting images will haunt me forever.
It had antlers or horns, either adorned to its clothes or physically protruding from its head I have no idea, but they curled right out over both shoulders and were draped in so much foliage that I could barely see the face underneath. It was shaggy, bearded, and covered in a thick weave of mosses and vines that gave it the appearance of great size even though its long arms were incredibly emaciated, bordering on skeletal. It was very tall, or at least I thought it was. It whispered something and I ran, cupping a hand over my left-hand peripheral vision as I passed the hut. I can’t describe my feelings in that moment, but despite seeing what I had just seen something told me that whatever was in the hut would be worse, so much worse.
A second scream rang out and the second dog walker who was much further away turned his head. I neared the first dog walker and though she called out to me the creature’s words were all I heard. I stumbled on a buried root and tried to right myself, but fell into a pile of leaves and somehow rolled into a half seated position facing the hut. As I had surmised the door was open and now that I was directly facing it I couldn’t turn away. I took great comfort in how impenetrable the darkness was and though I know that whoever or whatever lay beyond was looking directly at me I’m grateful that I didn’t have to see it.
Normality returned almost instantaneously as the dog walker approached me, and I distinctly remember feeling foolish for reacting like I did to what must have been a tree or maybe a park ranger in uniform.
‘Are you okay?’ she asked me. ‘Who is that over there? What did they say to you?’
And the fear came crashing back. Over her right shoulder in the spot where the lantern had hung hovered a willowy creature enshrouded in green. Beyond the green I could make out the wet snout of a bovine face. and above it two dead black eyes caught the sun and shone like polished leather. Where its legs should have been tatters of filthy cloth were entwined with pale roots and vines. I saw no legs, and to this day I can only assume that it was either holding onto something or was actually levitating above the ground.
Concern coloured her features and she slowly followed my gaze.
‘Oh my god...’ she said quietly and simply. ‘Oh my god,’ she said again, louder this time with more urgency and a hint of desperation.
The second dog walker called out and we both turned our heads in reflex. When I turned back the creature was gone and the door to the hut was sealed tightly shut. My dogs sniffed at the surrounding bushes and chased one another as though nothing had happened, but that heavy oily smell remained for several long moments before slowly fading away.
I got up and went home without uttering a word to anyone and several days passed without incident until somebody from the local paper knocked on my door and asked me about the “wild men of the well”. I had never heard the name before but of course I knew what he was referring to. Of the four people confirmed to have seen the hovering creature first hand I was apparently the hardest to track down and would therefore be the last to comment should I choose to. The female dog walker had told the reporter that I was briefly in close proximity to the creature and she had been convinced that it had spoken to me.
I didn’t want to fuel a fire of conspiracy and conjecture, but the reporter was wilier than I had been expecting and exploited my own curiosity by supplying me with titbits in exchange for portions of my own testimony, in hindsight it’s clear that he gave me little in the way of actual information and what he did tell me I could have later read in his article, but we live and learn. I outlined what I saw, but didn’t mention my meeting with the landlord or his theories on the bones discovered in the river. He asked me what the creature had said and I told him.
‘Why don’t they listen?’ it had whispered, its voice dry and indistinct like the rustling of autumnal leaves.
The reporter left soon afterwards and as he drove away I noticed a man with an unkempt black beard stood watching us from the other side of the road. I could tell from the dark blue coat and telltale glint of a badge that he was a police officer and I wondered if he was the same officer that had tried investigate the landlord’s theory all those many moons ago. I never saw him again.
I hesitantly scoured the internet for anything that I could find on the wild men of the well and was both surprised and relieved to find nothing. I hunted through local libraries and still nothing. Two or three weeks after the article was published I telephoned the paper asking to speak to the reporter, but according to the senior editor he had unexpectedly resigned and moved away only a few days earlier. I asked about the other witnesses and was given the home address for the female dog walker who had been with me during that climactic moment, apparently she had left instructions for them to tell me where I could find her should I make such an enquiry.
I went to her house but nobody answered. The curtains on one window to the rear of the property were open, and as I peered inside I could see that every piece of furniture was covered with clear plastic sheeting. There were no smaller household items to be seen either. Though it was clearly abandoned I saw no ‘For Sale’ sign in the front yard.
When I returned home I stood at the back porch and lit myself a cigarette. It seemed like a strange coincidence that everyone with the slightest bit of interest in what happened had disappeared seemingly without a trace, but what did I know? My resources were frustratingly limited and I didn’t have the will to start breaking rules. Maybe I had gone to the wrong address or maybe her move was weeks in the planning and I’d simply left it too late to visit.
I stood there for a long time looking up at the hillside as the descent of twilight slowly stained it black and just as I exhaled in defeat and pushed the door open behind me, a tiny orange glimmer flickered between the trees. The lantern moved slowly, disappearing behind the foliage for dozens of agonising seconds at a time before swelling back into life and reaffirming all of my fears.
Who are the wild men of the well and what are they doing up there? How are they related to what happened to the trio of maintenance engineers all those years ago and are they responsible or somehow affiliated with the bones found in the river? What did the floating figure mean when it said ‘Why don’t they listen?’ and who exactly are ‘they'? I finished my fifth consecutive cigarette and tore my eyes away, praying to any god that would listen that those questions would forever remain unanswered.
It’s important to note that I have no idea where the town in which this happened is and when I asked him he got incredibly agitated. He has always been a very secretive man and the nature of his job has him travelling all over Europe, often for months at a time. Wherever he lived before now, none of the family ever visited him there.