This story is by Terry Lynn Tuttle and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Once upon time there was a mountain in dry land, not a very high mountain, but tall enough to attract snow clouds in the winter. A rather thin river flowed down the side of the mountain. This river watered fields of along its banks. Just above the fields was a village. A path wound away from the village up the side of the mountain to a stone well. During the heat of the summer, the people of the village would climb up to draw water from this well when the river ran dry.
No one remembered when the well was first dug, but the family who tended the well lived in the cottage beside the well. The well was deep and every day they pulled up a bucket of water. If the water tasted odd or if it was full of silt, a member of the family would climb down and dig the well a little deeper. They would carefully line the walls with stones so that mud did not ooze back into the water.
Now it came to pass that a boy who was not destined to be a well digger was born in the cottage. This boy’s head was too big and his feet were too itchy to remain on the mountain caring for the well. When he decided he had repaid his parents what he owed them for his childhood, he gathered his things and went wandering. He wandered many places for many years.
While the restless boy wandered through distant lands, the village experienced a long period of abundance. The snows fell regularly on the mountain and the rains sprinkled fell gently on the fields. The river flowed freely. The village people did not have to climb up the path up the side of the mountain to draw water from the well. The parents of the restless boy who tended the well died. Soon the shepherds were the only ones who wandered by the deserted well.. They drew water occasionally from the well, but they stopped this practice as the water became murky and silty.
When the boy with itchy feet grew into an old man, he returned to the village. He did not return alone. Another man came with him. This man’s skin was a different hue and his hair was an unusual texture. The stranger was deaf and he could not talk with his mouth. He could however talk with his eyes and his hands. When the villagers discovered this, they were appalled and disgusted. They considered him unworthy of their company and feared he might have been cursed by a god.
The old man and his companion moved into the house of the well diggers and began to tend the well. They worked together to haul debris out of the well and dig it deeper t find clear water. The old man descended into the well to dig and to repair the stone walls. His companion stood at the top of the well and hauled up the bucket after bucket filled with muddy water and unsatisfactory rocks. Eventually the well once again provided sweet clear drinking water
One year the winds changed as they are prone to do and the mountain had difficulty attracting snow clouds during the winter. It also had difficulty calling the gentle rains to the valleys. Soon the mountain could only convince the skies to send heavy thunderstorms in the hot summer. The river became skinny once again except when thunderstorms caused the river to rush over its banks and flood the village crouching at its edge. The river could not be trusted to bring water to the villagers. The people pleaded with the mayor to go to the cottage of the well digger and ask him to dig them a well down near the river.
As it happened the day the mayor started his trek to the deserted village, the rope used to haul water from the well broke. The water in the well had become gritty because of the drought. The old man was down in the well digging it deeper and putting the wet mud in the bucket. His companion hauled up the bucket. The rope frayed on the stone edges. The frayed rope snapped. The bucket went hurdling down and smashed the old man on the shoulder. It was very painful and he cried out. The companion who did not hear the cry of pain, nor could he see to the bottom of the well. He shook his head in frustration at the broken rope, coiled it over his shoulder and walked back to the cottage to find another length of rope.
The companion had not heard the old man cry out, but the town mayor did hear him. He hurried up the mountainside as the old man called from the bottom of the well, “Help! Help!”
The mayor could not imagine why a person would be at the bottom of a well. He thought the old man had either fallen into the well or been pushed. The old man was raised beside the well, thought the mayor; he is too wise to simply fall. He must have been pushed. The evil stranger who will not speak must have pushed the old man down the well and now he was injured.
The mayor looked around for some means to help the old man out of the well. He did not see the rope or the bucket. He yelled, “The wretched stranger has pushed the old man into the well and taken away the rope I need to rescue him! What an evil day! What a horrible man!” The mayor hurried away to get help.
As the mayor ran down the path, the companion came out of the cottage with two lengths of rope that he had tied together. He secured one end to the dead tree close to the well. Holding the rope around his waist he lowered himself carefully down into the well. At the bottom of the well, he gently embraced the old man and felt his injured shoulder in the very dim light. The companion tied the rope around the old man’s waist. He gently assisted him on the ancient climbing stones that had been carefully worked into the stone wall.
At the top of the well, the old man pointed to the stones in the wheelbarrow. He used his hands to explain that they must use the stones to line the well. The companion helped the old man into the cottage to rest. Then he returned and began tossing the stones down the deep shaft.
The mayor and several men ran up to the well. The mayor shouted, “Stop, demon! Pushing the old man into the well was not enough? Now you’re throwing stones on him?” The mayor leaned over the well and called. When no answer came, the mayor pointed a finger at the deaf man. “Murderer! You killed our kinsman!”
Using sign language, the man tried to explain to the mayor.
“Evil beast! Horrible demon!” the mayor shouted in fear. “Look, he’s casting a spell on us!” The mayor backed away from the deaf man. “Justice, justice! The murderer dies the same death! Throw him into the well.”
The men from the village swarmed toward the wildly gesticulating companion. “Demon! Murderer! Evil foreigner! Spawn of a wicked god!” The companion backed up as the people ran at him raging in anger. He caught his foot on a stone as an angry man pushed his chest. He tumbled backwards into the well headfirst. Someone picked up a stone and threw it into the well. Suddenly all the village people were hurling stones into the well. The thuds and thunks of stones hitting the body of the deaf man were not audible above the shouts of the angry mob.
The old man pushed through the crowd. He grabbed at arms picking up stones. “Stop, stop!” he pleaded. “What are you doing? Stop!” The men in the crowd stared at the old man as he lay down on the ground calling the name of his companion into the well. No sound came from the well. “What have you done?” asked the old man looking over his shoulder at the village members. “Oh, what have you done?”
“You were in the well. You were hurt. The foreigner pushed you in,” explained the mayor.
“I climbed into the well to dig it deeper,” explain the old man. “I wasn’t pushed.”
“Why didn’t your evil lover tell us you were not at the bottom of the well?” demanded the mayor.
“He is deaf. He speaks with his hands” the old man said quietly, as he sat up.
The mayor spat out, “He lives in our country now. He should speak our language!”
“He is deaf. He speaks with is hands,” repeated the old man.
“It is not our fault he was deaf. He’s dead now,” sneered the mayor.
“It is not your fault,” agreed the old man looking at the mayor as an adolescent boy helped him to his feet. “You do not understand. You do not know what you do.”
“You remember that, old man,” said the mayor. “You remember that before you bring another foreigner here.”
The mayor turned away, calling to the villagers, “Let’s go. We’ll find another well digger.”
The village members followed the mayor. Some muttered angrily. Some cast sad looks over their shoulders. A couple touched his shoulder as they left.
The old man sat back down. The boy who had helped him up earlier sat down beside him. The two sat in silence for a very long time.
“Are you afraid of heights,” asked the old man.
“No,” replied the boy.
“Are you afraid of the dark?”
“Are you afraid of the dead?”
“Have you enough courage to enter the presence of the dead anyway?”
“Can you go to the bottom the well and check that my heart is truly dead?”
The boy stood up and looked into the well.
“Do you see the footholds in the stone wall?”
The boy nodded.
“Here, tie this rope around your waist,” advised the old man. The boy did as the man suggested. He lowered himself into the well.
In a very short time, the boy emerged from the well. “I am sorry, grandfather,” he said. “Your friend is not breathing anymore.”
“Thank you,” whispered the man. He began to drag the heavy wooden cover over the well. The boy bent down to help. He did not speak nor did he make eye contact with the old man.
“I am sorry,” the boy said.
The old man nodded. He went into his cottage. No lights were lit in the cottage that night. Before dawn, the old man exited the cottage with a small pack of possessions, food and water. He pulled the door closed behind him. He looked up and found the eyes of the adolescent boy who stood on the far side of the well. The old man cocked his head inquiringly.
“I want what you found, grandfather.”
“It is a long journey.”
“Then you will need a traveling companion” replied the youth.
The old man turned towards the west. The boy followed. The sun rose up over the eastern edge of the mountain. The mountain sensed the movement of the feet, the warmth of the sun, the thirst of the land. It began to call to the clouds.