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Contemporary Fiction

She was falling. That was always how it began—with her falling. That was how it had to begin because the act of falling was the only way she could feel alive.

She hadn’t jumped into the well, but because the well existed, it was inevitable that she would fall into it.

Let her start from the beginning again.

There was a well in a clearing deep in the woods. Some woods. Any woods. Green leaves, rustling wind, tall trees, deer and birds and game, a creek trickling somewhere within.

The well was deep and old and out of use. It was cylindrical, built from gray stones with a wooden roof and supports. Like all old wells, it had a bucket and a rope for fetching water.

She remembered these things now, at the bottom of the well.

But the first thing she remembered was falling.

The air was damp and cool, the water cold on her skin. There was a quiet dripping all around her, and light streaming in from a hole thirty feet above her. She shifted as she became aware of fragments of wood beneath her: the bucket. It must have been brought down with her as she fell. It was a miracle that she hadn’t broken any bones.

Getting to her feet, she surveyed her surroundings, watching the pool around her ripple as water streamed from her clothes. The space was roughly ten feet in diameter, and the water looked murky in the shadows. The walls were slimy with mold and built somewhat haphazardly; many bricks jutted out in regular chaos.

They didn’t seem hard to climb at first, but she quickly discovered that slimy was perhaps an understatement. If she could get past the first layer and the slickness of the water, then she could probably get out.

But that would require some form of step or ladder—or for the water to suddenly swell.

She was unlikely to attain either of those, given the shallowness of the water at its current state and the lack of materials at hand. All she had was the remnants of the bucket, a length of frayed rope, and the clothes on her back.

Her last option was to call for help and hope someone was nearby. But she was fairly deep in the woods; if anyone were near enough to hear her, it would be nothing short of a miracle.

Then again, she had no other option. If she kept trying to climb out, she would most likely just end up injured. If she simply did nothing, she would die of starvation before anyone came for her.

She was all alone. Not just in the well, but in life, too. She didn’t know, not really, she didn’t remember because all she could ever remember was falling and the well, but she felt like she’d been alone all her life.

Alone, always alone. The words felt right and they hurt because they felt so right. Something foreign began to broil in her chest, red and burning and tight—anger? The thought, the word, the name, like a spark, brought to life a blazing fire in her, all destruction and no nourishment, sudden and all-consuming.

It was strange, too much and too fast, as if it were not entirely her own emotion. There were layers far beyond merely falling into a well and being alone.

But the anger was greedy, and she couldn’t dwell on anything without first tending to the flames.

So she poured her energy into yelling for help, screaming out curses, thrashing about in the water, pounding and clawing at the walls until her voice was hoarse, her throat was raw, and her hands were stinging and bloody.

And then, as she slouched against the damp wall, the anger faded as quickly as it came, leaving her exhausted and ashamed. She was just wasting valuable energy, venting an anger she didn’t fully understand and yet was hers nevertheless.

She didn’t remember ever being that angry, didn’t remember feeling any sort of spite because she was alone.

And yet here she was, sitting at the bottom of a well, abandoned by everything and everyone—even her newly-acquainted anger.

As if someone had heard her thoughts, her chest began to tighten once more, but with a different pressure. It was heavier, more suffocating, like drowning. It was blue where anger had been red, it was… sorrow.

Again, like flood gates opening, an intense sorrow came pouring into her, sweeping her away into an ocean when she had not a speck of energy left in her to swim.

But she knew that sadness was easier than anger, so she didn’t bother to try. She allowed the current to take her and her mind to slip into that hollow-eyed, empty form that such great sorrow could sometimes take.

Loneliness, sorrow—she was used to them, even if she pretended not to be.

It was strange. She didn’t remember pretending. She didn’t remember being lonely or sad. Not exactly, at least. But the words felt like her own, and they felt as if they rang true. She felt like she could remember, if only—what?

If only what?

If she tried to unpack her sorrow, she would be able to, she knew it. But it wasn’t her sorrow yet. Not entirely. If she tried to unpack it, it would come out in someone else’s words but then become her own.

And yet, were they not still someone else’s words? Was it not still someone else’s sorrow? How could they be so entirely given to her, so that she felt them as deeply, so that she understood them down to her bones?

Night had fallen, and the moonlight hazily broached the surface of the deep shadows in the well. She couldn’t see the stars, but she knew they were there. She could still hear the trees rustle in the wind.

She wanted to see the stars.

It was abrupt and powerful, this sudden desire of hers, this wish that sprang up inside of her like water from a dried out well.

And yet it was different from the anger and sorrow of before.

There was this sense of breaking from a mold, of refusing to lie down and take whatever was given to her. She was going to get out of this god forsaken well one way or another: by climbing or by dying trying.

She wanted to see the stars again. She wanted to live again. She wanted to stop falling and finally land. She wanted to not be alone anymore.

So she started to climb again, over and over, clinging to handholds and footholds with all her strength. Hand over hand, foot over foot, yard by yard she progressed, getting right back up whenever she fell.

If she could just get past the slickest part of the wall—

It was odd when she finally made it to the top. Anticlimactic, almost. There was no fanfare or rush of gratification.

Just a girl, covered in cuts and bruises and grime, crawling out of a well into a small forest clearing.

At first she merely sat and rested, gathering her breath as she leaned against the protruding part of the well that might have been her tomb.

Then she remembered the fervent wish that had gotten her to claw her way out, and she turned to look at the sky—and its stars.

But there weren’t any. It was a starless night, a black velvet sky devoid of all things but the moon. Her first instinct was to laugh at the irony, but then her mind interrupted with the thought that such a thing was too strange to simply accept. After all, it wasn’t as if the stars could just all simultaneously go out. There didn’t appear to be any clouds either, unless they had formed a perfect circle around the moon.

It was almost as if, like her anger and sorrow, only the moon had been written in, and not the stars.

She began to examine her surroundings; indeed, the well was in a forest clearing, circled in by trees—but the shadows were so thick beyond the clearing’s borders. She couldn’t see anything past, as if…

As if the rest of the world didn’t exist beyond this well in this forest clearing, which seemed to be all clearing and no forest.

She pulled herself to her feet and staggered over to the edge, limping through a single layer of trees to an impressive wall of darkness. Gingerly, she lifted her hand and reached forward, nearly flinching back when her fingers met no resistance and were merely swallowed into the shadows.

If she chose, she could probably enter into the darkness. But then what? Would she cease to exist as well? Or would she end up somewhere else?

She looked back into the clearing, back at the well where she had been born falling and from which she had just painstakingly dragged herself. There were no stars to look at and no world to return to.

She took a few moments to steady herself and then stepped into the dark.

She reemerged in a room, warm and homely. Sunlight streamed in through the slats of the blinds on the windows, casting an orange glow on the bed, night stand, wardrobe, desk, and bookshelf strewn about the room. It was safe and strange, foreign and familiar all at once.

At the desk sat a laptop, open to a document. On the screen there was a poem, not complete and yet not incomplete either:

“The Well”

Dark bricks and old wood

Amidst the greenery of a forest—

A well dug long ago

Whose rope has frayed and broken

So that nothing from its depths

Can be pulled back up again:

Bucketful after bucketful

Of water that once was clear and

Full of promise but now is

Stagnant and murky because

There was a girl

Who fell in one afternoon;

She came crashing into that water

With the bucket caught in her fall

And crushed at the bottom.

The water was still clear, then,

And it splashed up all around her,

This fallen being of light,

Now caught in a place of darkness.

There was a girl

Who had no one to call out to,

And she, having fallen into a well,

Now realized

How utterly alone she was,

There in the dark, cold water

Down at the bottom of a pit,

Where neither sun nor moon

Could reach.

And as time passed,

She went through stages

Like grief or the moon:

When the shock wore off,

The anger came,

Red and all-consuming, 

Burning in a way that,

When gone, only left her colder 

Than she had been before,

Cold and desolate

In the ensuing sorrow,

The tears of a shadow creature

Mingling with the well water

As it became murkier and murkier

And grew stiller and stiller

Like a dying animal.

But then the sorrow faded and

Became but an old ache

Alongside the anger that had once

Burned so brightly but now

Couldn’t even keep her warm.

She decided to accept the well as home,

To leave the yelling and crying,

The thrashing and screaming,

The futile attempts to climb out that

Only left her with bloody fingers

And twisted ankles.

She was alone and forgotten,

Forsaken by the world;

She would die unseen,

Buried alive in a cylindrical tomb—

And somehow that was okay.

Somehow that was easier

Than being angry, or

Wallowing in sorrow, or

Trying to make it to a better life.

This was good enough for her,

She told herself,

As she sealed away the part of her heart

That cried out for more.

This was enough.

It was her. Or it had been her. She didn’t know if it still was because she had left the well. She had decided not to settle. It was hard to say what the author would decide.

She leaned over the keyboard and typed: (But it never really is.)

Then she turned on her heel and walked over to a door leading out of the room. She didn’t know where it would lead, but it didn’t matter.

After all, she only existed as a metaphor, nothing more.

And nothing less.

July 27, 2023 20:08

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2 comments

Mike Rush
23:16 Jul 31, 2023

Sarah, With two submissions, I guess Welcome Back to Reedsy is appropriate. I don't know how many folks come here and are one and done, so congrats on a second submission. I so get this piece! It's amazing, really. I've read a few pieces in response to this prompt, and this is the one. The girl at the bottom of the well is so clearly, so very clearly at the mercy of her author. This is the line that seals the deal: If she tried to unpack it, it would come out in someone else’s words but then become her own. That's exactly what happens...

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Sarah Xin
23:42 Jul 31, 2023

Thank you so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and respond; it's always awesome to hear what people think about one's work. I've noticed that I tend towards more meta work, so when I saw the prompt I knew I had to write something. I'm glad it turned out well. Hopefully I can live up to your expectations! I'll try my best, and it really helps to motivate me knowing there are people who would like to read what I write. Thanks again!

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