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Deep Subject

June 24, 2008

The boy has learned to fish without catching, an evolution from catch and release. The technique involves reeling the lure back to himself furiously after the cast, faster than the fish can swim. He explains that this way he can see them jump and chase, but doesn’t have to face the daunting task of releasing them from the barbed hook.

While he casts and reels, I tell my brother-in-law about my extra well. I am still new to this property. I know where my new well is, out behind the house, with its clean white stem protruding from the ground. But there is another well, west of the garage, covered with planks. A month ago a friend and I pried a board up and with the aid of a flashlight peered into the circular brick structure reaching down into the dark. The flashlight beam reflected back up to us from the water’s surface.

My brother-in-law was raised here, born into a family that has owned the land nearby for over a century. He tells me this was the old well, probably hand dug during the early part of the twentieth century and abandoned when it ran dry or went bad. It poses a problem. Under normal circumstances, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides would be filtered by twenty to fifty to seventy feet of soil before joining forces with the groundwater, but an open chute offers a straight shot. Old wells should be capped.

Peering down from the top, we can’t see how deep this tunnel reaches. The water’s surface, maybe fifteen feet below us, reflects the surrounding brick walls. At his suggestion we get a chain from an old porch swing, and tie it to a brick. I hold the light while he lowers the brick, hand over hand, down the well shaft and into the water. He reaches the end of the chain and the brick has not reached the bottom. We add on a rope, and then a second rope, before it does.

His son comes up from the pond as we put the board back in place. We know what it would mean to fall into a well in this remote valley, where one cannot be seen from the road, a road on which few vehicles travel anyway. Even if you could swim, there would be no place to swim to, with the surface of the water several body lengths below the rim. We warn the boy away from the danger.

My husband says his father told him men in the bottom of wells could see stars in the daytime. My brother-in-law has heard this, too, that the walls of the well block out sunlight sufficiently to make stars visible. It’s a story with a long reach, recorded by Aristotle.

Later, I tell him and his son a poem called “In the Well,” about a boy being lowered down to the water to retrieve a dead dog. It’s dark now, and the whip-poor-wills are calling. The boy and his dad head back over the hill for home. My nephew’s desire is to fish but do no harm, and I am not sure I can bring myself to seal this circle of stone. Maybe after it has been drained, when I can climb down into it, I’ll see something from the bottom that wasn’t visible in the brightness of daylight.

by Kelly Madigan Erlandson

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  1. June 25, 2008 at 6:06 am

    Loved the fishing without catching bit. I had heard of the men in wells being able to see stars in daytime. Seems likely.

  2. Michael Milligan
    June 25, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Wonderful vignette– I am particularly taken with seamless connection between the fishing/not-fishing and the closing/not-closing of the well. Somehow the sense that one can stand in the well and see the stars makes the well a living presence.

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