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The Stone Well

ISSUE:  Summer 1997

Six feet from the rim the old vertigo begins.
In the tall grass flattened and gone to seed.
In the white glare of the October sun.
In the murmur of insects, in the smell of stone.
What’s hunger but a smell of stone.
Come here] Closer.

This is the well so deep there’s no bottom.
This is the well your grandfather’s father drilled through rock.
This is the well that once had a wooden bucket, and a crank to
 turn, to lower the bucket.
This is the well once struck by lightning in a midsummer storm.
This is the well of the family snapshots against which you posed.
This is the well ablaze in sunshine.
This is the well in whose loosened stone garter snakes coil hidden.
This is the well of which you dream when you have no dreams.
This is the well of terror and of solace.
This is the well of stammered syllables.
This is the well of memory, and memory’s tricks.
This is the well of time crumbling like rock.
This is the well of brackish odors not to be named.
This is the well of oblivion. Your inheritance.
This is the well into which you fall, inconsequential as the
 translucent husk of an insect.
You never did exist.

Five hundred miles, and thirty years.
 ”—losing her way—”
 ”—well, it was his time—”
 ”—made her peace—”
 ”—always loved you—his favorite—”
Uncle’s voice lifts urgent, quickened by whiskey.
The war in Korea, his war. Nobody remembers! Gives a damn!
Starving, dysentery, his weight down to one-thirty, he’s
 a walking skeleton. Mud, rats. The siege of Seoul.
 How he’d prayed—him! Those fifteen days in solid rain
 driven along the Han River like cattle, the Communists
 killing stragglers with butts of rifles, knives, you died
 in the mud and were left behind like garbage and he’d
 half-carried in his arms a lad from Depew, farm kid
 like himself, wounded in the groin and the flesh bloated,
 festering with maggots.
Jesus, the things I seen. . .
I mean, you kids. . .what do you know?

So many times he’d tell his story, the words got worn smooth
 like old coins. The thinnest copper pennies.
(Always in Uncle’s story, the kid from Depew survived.
You were twenty years old when a relative said scornfully
no he hadn’t, he’d died in the POW camp, and when your uncle
went to see his family, expecting he’d be welcomed, they
hardly invited him inside to sit down, never offered him
a drink, and he never got over it, it’s the kid from Depew
he’s mad at, telling that pathetic story every time
he gets drunk like there’s some point to it? it’s maybe going
to turn out different, told another time?)

Your grandfather was the joker of the family.
Grabbing you beneath the arms—how the armpits hurt!—
 carrying you, a child of four or five, to the well
 to toss you in!
Laughing drunk on Four Roses, unshaven, in a good mood.
You know Grandpa loves you, crazy about kids.
Lifting you over the well’s rim, legs kicking, you’re sobbing
 clutching at the stone, your fingers bleed, nails tear.
Just teasing, you know how he is. Don’t be silly.
In the collapsed shed, the 1948 International Harvester
 tractor bought the summer before his death.

To live a life without premeditation.
Without theory.

As far as you dare you lean over the old stone well.
This harsh sunshine dispels memory.
You’re all right. You’re fine. You’re here,
 and in control.
Of course, the well has a bottom. Twenty feet down.
But the water has dried up, now there’s a tarry muck.
Thick rotten compost of leaves, tree branches, skeletons
 of mice, birds—
The stink of ancient damp stone.
A glimmer down there of something blue, broken glass?—
 plastic?—incapable of rotting.
Looks like forever.


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