The Well

John Kinsella

It was late in the day and we sat there, on the
crumbling edge, dropping small stones into the deepening blackness.
Do you find wells sexual? she asked. A pair of twenty-eight parrots
arced by, racing the sounds of their own calls. Crack, crack. I
don’t know, I replied. We’ll have to head back soon. Let’s stay
just a little longer, she whispered.

An evening in late summer when the sky is electric
and pink and orange, is something of the soul. It pours whole languages
into you that are never spoken, but are stored and residually inform
all you do and think from that moment on. When I was a kid, she
began, I believed that if you jumped into a well on one side of
the world, you came out in a well on the other. My mother told me
stories of wells in Wales and England that were spiritual and held
special healing powers. Saint Winifred’s was one, I remember that,
though I can’t remember the story behind it. Or maybe I can, and
just don’t want to tell it.

I looked at her in the dying light. She was inward-looking,
wistful. We’d been friends for thirty years and yet I realized then
that I barely knew her. Her hair, silver in the sunlight, was gray,
even ghostly in this light. She seemed brittle, though she was much
healthier than I was. I mentioned the dogs barking up in the houseyard.
We really should be getting back, your friends will worry.

She’d come up to the farm for the day, with some
friends from the city. Just catching up. She’d lived nearby as a
teenager. We’d gone to school together. Wells are different here,
she said. They’re unforgiving, they turn salt, they tell us we shouldn’t
be here. Maybe they say that in England and Wales as well, I added.
Maybe . . . she said, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

I found myself thinking about her “sexual” question.
I felt uneasy. We’d had one of those friendships where it had come
so close so many times. Neither of us bought the cliché that a friendship
is over when sexual consummation takes place. It was for other reasons—loyalties
to partners, fear.

Suddenly she got up, skillfully pushing herself
back from the edge as she did so, climbed the fence, and started
walking back. In my struggle to catch up, I found myself slipping
slightly on the edge. She called back over her shoulder, Be careful,
it’s winter in Wales. I scurried after her, taking pleasure in the
knowledge that I’d been doing this most of my life.

As we approached the now-bright lights of the
house, the rustle of the grass growing duller with the slight evening
moisture, she said, Would you mind if we stayed overnight? Of course
not, as you know I’ve plenty of spare rooms. I thought I’d invite
her into my bed, both of us being without partners. I like the smell
of the air around here . . . always did, she observed. And I’d like
to walk down to the well at dawn with you, if you don’t mind.

I’m at my best in the morning. Always up at five,
be it summer or winter. I moved carefully, so as not to wake her.
No, it’s not what you think. We did sleep together, we had done
so many times over the years, but not in a sexual way. Head to toe.
We kissed each other’s feet. We had a genuine monogamous foot fetish.
We knew each other’s toes, and heels, and insteps, and ankles. We’d
traced the veins in each other’s feet time and time again. We’ve
watched and felt and smelt each other age through the feet. Such
is friendship.

She woke as I moved, but she was pleased. I want
to head down to the well as soon as possible, she said. We dressed
and had a light breakfast and marched out into the crisp dawn air.
It felt invigorating. We stretched our limbs, and praised nature,
and laughed at our childishness. We almost jogged through the dank
stubble and burrs and gently crumbling clods that made up the firebreaks.
I’ll start burning off in a month, I said.

Be careful, I warned, as she dangled her legs
over the edge. The well was usually covered with railway sleepers
but I had left it open because I was about to start work renovating
the “mouth.” I’d placed the fence around it to prevent stray sheep
wandering into its jaws. It looks less dangerous, at dawn. Yes,
I replied, that’s true, but be careful nonetheless, it’s deceptive.
It’s over seventy years old and the stone-walling is unstable in
parts. Been like that for over twenty years—the earthquake
did it. It went salt after Meckering but I retested it a year ago
and discovered that the salt levels had dropped to almost nothing.
Must be the trees we’ve planted over the years that’ve made the
difference Repairing the damage, replacing the fences . . . she
said. Yes.

Do you feel you belong here? she asked. No, probably
not. And that was the truth. I didn’t elaborate. The sun was up
and already had some warmth in it. It’s going to be a hot one. .
. .

She toyed at the edge. She pulled back, took her
shoes off, and moved back to dangle her feet in the hole. I can
feel it, she said. It is both a nice and an unpleasant feeling.
My skin is tingling. And though the water is twenty feet below,
I feel like it’s just touching the tips of my toes, that it’s coating
my nails. It is cold and metallic. Its life-giving qualities aren’t
available to me. I don’t know what it’s saying. My flesh doesn’t
know how to communicate with it.

Do you think your feet would be “cured” if bathed
in the waters of Saint Winifred’s well? She smiled and faded away
from me.

• •

I discovered years later, going through her diaries
that came to me on her death, that her first boyfriend had fallen
into a well while taking a shortcut through a neighbor’s paddock
on the way to see her one night. That it was a long while before
his body was recovered. That it bore no resemblance to the boy she’d
known. That for her it was someone else . . . someone who’d made
the journey from a well on the opposite side of the world; the same
well, no doubt, that her boyfriend had emerged from to start a new
life in a new place where the sunsets had their own languages and
well water held restorative and divine powers.

You might also enjoy:

John Kinsella • The True History of the Lyrical Self

John Kinsella • Edge-Effect Requiem for Tom Bigelow

Andrew Grace • On John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy

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