The Whistling Well (A Short Story)

Several months had passed since Jeremy lost his wife. The house felt empty, and his mood was sullen. A shaft of light filtered down into the room where he sat, from the skylight above—light the color of whiskey. It was cool to the touch, as he rolled it across his tongue and then swallowed; but his whiskey burned as it went down, and it brought him no joy.

It was fall, the season of their joy—in times past—when the amber light of late afternoon would illumine their faces, capturing the essence of their souls, drawing each into the depths of the other. He had loved swimming in her depths.

He looked out the window now, and cast his glance across the yard, hoping to find her standing among the dahlias—her afternoon pleasure this time of year, when the light had just this quality, when each bloom caught afire, like one hundred tiny suns; and a breeze would stir up and catch hold of these flowers, moving them in orbits about her body—and why not, she had been the center of his universe, so why wouldn’t she be the center of theirs as well?

Today it was the breeze that called to him, coaxing him out of his chair and into the yard. He stopped briefly beside the dahlias before continuing down the path towards the forest behind the house. At the forest’s edge was an old barbed-wire fence in disrepair—twisted wire rusting quietly, and wooden posts crumbling into the grass—which he stepped through, as he placed his whiskey glass precariously on one of the rotting members, and left it there.

As Jeremy continued into the forest the breeze calmed, and the light fainted, but the sound of his footsteps on the gravelly path grew louder, and filled the space between the earth and sky. The canopy above him was a mix of firs, alders and maples; the forest floor was scattered with ferns, trillium and broken branches. He found one, suitable for a walking stick, and broke off what wasn’t needed. That’s what life is about, he thought to himself, getting rid of what’s unnecessary, and walking on. Which he did.

But what about when life takes what is necessary? This thought made him smile a wry sort of grin, and he spat impulsively, as if to expel the bitterness of this idea. He began walking again, a little faster now, to put some distance between himself and that last thought, hoping to leave it behind—unnecessary. His walking stick gave him confidence and made him feel stronger, which he liked.

Moss and fallen needles gave flesh to the bare bones of the gravelly path as he made his way deeper into the forest; so that the scratch and crunch of his footfalls slowly gave way to a squish, and hollow thump as he stepped upon the flaccid green skin. Squish, thump and then silence…and then silence…and more silence. He closed his eyes to hear the silence better. He stood still now, to feel the silence better. Yet in the silence he heard a whistling, or a wheezing; or was it a hum? He wasn’t certain which it was that he heard, only that it wasn’t silence.

In the half-light he saw a small clearing, and a grove of birch trees up ahead. The sound came from up there. He followed the hum. At the edge of the clearing, nestled against the birch trees, stood a clump of ferns. It came from in there, so he approached the ferns. Setting his walking stick down upon the mat of moss which covered the clearing, he leaned over and peered down into the ferns; and there, in the midst of them, was a well.

Here was the mouth of a small round well, situated within the ferns, wreathed by them; and the stone of the well formed a ring, like a crown, he thought. Against the side of the well was a low stone shelf, at just the right height for kneeling and peering inside. So he knelt and peered. The light from the sky above cast onto its stone walls, but not far; within the first few feet the stone began to fade, and then disappeared into darkness.

Jeremy was fascinated by something in that darkness, but he was perplexed as he looked more intently into the depths of this round, black emptiness. But the light, the stone, the dark all seemed to play tricks with his sight, causing him to perceive that the darkness had substance, and that perhaps, it even had being. There was something strangely comforting in the darkness of this well, and he enjoyed looking into it.

As he continued to gaze down into the well, it reminded him of his departed wife, or more accurately, it reminded him of the void of life without her. Visually, this black shaft, represented, in a tangible way, the ineffable idea of her absence. It gave form to what was formless, and this comforted him. He relaxed and felt the tension of the past few months drain out of him. Breathing deeply within this comforting darkness he felt a touch of emotion, or an energy, that was unfamiliar to him; it felt like gratitude.

All the while the faint whistling continued; emanating from someplace within the well, or around the well. Suddenly, a crack sounded from among the trees at his side. He turned about but saw nothing. Looking into the well again he was frightened; he saw no comfort now in its darkness, but only foreboding. He felt alone and bewildered.

He no longer felt safe in these woods as the night was approaching and the light had faded to an obscure haze. Quickly getting up from his perch beside the well, he fled from the clearing, making his way back along the mossy, then gravelly trail, across the twisted, rusted wire with the rotting posts, past the dahlias, now dull in the gathering gloom, and back inside his house. He locked the door, and stood in the hallway for a moment, until he caught his breath. He felt agitated now, not at peace like before, but rather, how he usually felt lately; anxious and afraid.

In the hallway was a large mirror against one wall. He felt compelled to look into it. How old he looked. He was surprised how much the past year had aged him. He half-smiled at his image in the mirror, then snorted a wry little laugh at himself, or maybe it was a grimace; then he brushed his teeth, and climbed into bed.

The following day, the image of the well persisted within Jeremy; and its faint whistling pervaded his thoughts. The fear he felt the previous night had gone, and in its place was curiosity and desire.  The day unfolded as most days did, with the usual cavalcade of telephone calls, emails and meetings, which made up the business of his life, however, today there was a difference, as the presence of the whistling well infused him with a strange excitement.

He felt it was calling him. He heard it humming to him, through the whirr of the air-conditioner in the office next door; and he nearly jumped out of his chair, when it practically screamed at him, in the braking of a truck on the street outside. And the rhythm of his own breathing sounded remarkably similar to the music of the well. He counted out the hours and the minutes of the afternoon—a long procession which tested his patience—leading slowly but inexorably to the end of the workday, when he could return to his well.

Gazing into its depths with its corona of dimly-lit stone, Jeremy felt peace again. The rush of the day’s activity melted away as the palpable silence emanating from the darkness below washed over him. Jeremy wasn’t a religious man, but he felt something stirring in his soul, as he communed with this silence.

He noticed water droplets falling, catching and reflecting the sunlight briefly as they dropped, before vanishing into the darkness of the well. It must be raining, he thought to himself, as he continued watching the drops as they fell. They appeared to him as little messengers flying into space, taking with them thoughts or feelings, to be shared with whoever they might meet in there. He felt his body convulse, and only then discovered he had been crying. His tears—little diamonds—he offered to the well, and the well received them.

Jeremy returned home later that evening happy and at peace. As he walked past the mirror in the hallway he stopped to look at his face. He appeared neither particularly young nor old in it tonight. His face wasn’t smiling, but it wasn’t frowning either. It seemed equanimous; and he felt strangely indifferent to it. Bored, he went to bed.

As morning follows morning, and as day will follow day, Jeremy returned to his well again and again. It became something like a friend to him, if that were possible, and he came to trust it; it became his confidante, and the one to whom he poured out all of his thoughts and emotions. The more of himself he gave to the well, the happier he felt.

Time spent with the well was changing Jeremy, he was certain of this, but he couldn’t fathom how, or why. And the well itself was changing too. As the seasons passed through winter, spring, and into summer, the sun, higher in the sky now, sent its rays penetrating deeper into the well, exposing more of its depths to him. He knew the physics of this, and understood this must be the case, however, his eyes still played tricks on him when he gazed down into the depths because, if he didn’t know better, he would have to admit that the additional light actually came out of the darkness itself, not at all from above.

The darkness itself seemed to be light, he thought, though that sounded like foolishness to him; or, it was as if the darkness radiated light.

He left pondering these things, for it made no practical difference to him how the light came to be in the darkness.  What mattered to him was the gratitude he felt now, and the joy he experienced in connection with his well; and, from it came an energy that filled his whole being, that he could only describe as love.

Yet even this description—the word ‘love’, and what this represented to his mind—became immaterial to Jeremy. It was unnecessary, he decided, to give a name to this experience, because the experience was enough. In actuality, it was more than enough, he thought to himself—it was all that he needed.

The End

~FS

 

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