The Pool and the Well By Jean Graham
(First appeared in "11 & 2" #2, January 1987)
Mosquitoes were already breeding in the new well. Napoleon
could hear them whine when he leaned over to drop pebbles into the
water. He knew that the splash took a long time because Kansas
water tables were low in the summer. His father had explained that
last week, when the well had gone in. He wondered now how the
mosquitoes had found the new water so quickly, and whether most of
them would end up becoming frogs' dinners.
He peered over the newly-smoothed concrete rim and listened
again, but the insects were quiet, the well dark. He couldn't even
see where the wall ended and the water began because the sun wasn't
high enough yet. But when it got to just the right place in the
sky, he should be able to see his reflection.
The noise of an engine approaching drowned the chirping of the
mockingbirds in the nearby tress. Just past the gnarled fence,
dust clouds signalled the arrival of an automobile. That would be
his father returning from Topeka. Napoleon ran to the rail fence,
vaulted over, and stood kicking dirt clods at the side of the road.
The car that shortly came into view surprised him: it was long,
black and shiny-new, with a rocket-shaped hood ornament that
glinted in the bright summer light. He recognized his father
behind the wheel as the big car lurched to a stop on the uneven
road. A man Napoleon didn't know sat in the front seat beside him.
"Hey, Napoleon!" His father turned the humming engine off and
got out to capture his son in a welcoming hug. "How do you like
the wheels? Isn't it a beaut?"
The boy's eyes widened. "You mean it's ours?"
"It will be." His father tipped a felt hat to the man who had
emerged from the passenger side of the big car. "This is Mr.
Auburn. He's drawing up the papers."
Mr. Auburn touched the brim of his own silk-banded hat. "Hi,
son," he said.
Napoleon circled the car to inspect it from every side. In
glittering chrome script, Lincoln Custom was emblazoned across the
front grill and all four hubcaps. He could see himself, bent like
in a funhouse mirror, in every rounded curve, although a fine
coating of dust from the road had already settled over most of the
car's shiny surface.
"Sorry we couldn't make her a '42," Mr. Auburn apologized.
"But this mess in Europe's got everybody spooked. We can't get the
new models till the plants are convinced they won't be gearing up
to build tanks instead."
Napoleon's father shook his head slowly. "The more the
President promises we won't go to war, the more it looks as though
we will." He met his young son's curious stare, and evaded the
unspoken questions by changing the subject. "You been watching the
new well?" he asked.
Napoleon nodded anxiously. "Soon as the sun's high enough, we
can see how far up the water's come."
With one hand to his hat brim, his father gazed up at the
clear sky. "Mm," he said. "Should be about right by now. Shall
we take a look? You mind, Mr. Auburn?"
The car dealer smiled. "Not a bit. Plan to put in a new well
myself some time before winter."
Napoleon jumped the fence and raced back to the well. The two
men followed at a slower pace, climbing the fence awkwardly in
their business suits.
The sun was almost directly overhead now. Napoleon could see
a round blue patch of sky at the bottom of the well, and his own
reflection peering back at him. In a moment, two more heads
appeared beside his own.
"Ah," said Mr. Auburn. "Now that's a fine well. A real fine
"Shell come in higher in the fall," Napoleon said proudly.
"After the first rains."
"That's right." His father placed a strong, affectionate hand
on Napoleon's shoulder. "What's so fascinating to you about this
well, though?" he asked. "Shouldn't you be off tadpole fishing
with Billy Winchell? Or didn't you finish those chores your mother
had lined up for you this morning?"
"I finished," Napoleon answered truthfully. "I just wanted...
Well, I wondered... He cast an embarrassed glance at Mr. Auburn.
"I wanted to ask you that question. You know."
"Question?" His father pretended not to remember. "What
question was that, son?"
The boy shrugged one shoulder, a half-denial. "I asked you
last week when the well was going in. You said you'd tell me
later. And you said there was a story Grandpa used to tell that
was about a well. Remember?"
"Mm," his father said. "Now, you wanted to know whereabouts
the well would come out if you could dig it all the way through the
Napoleon nodded. "Billy Winchell says China, but I think he's
His rather and Mr. Auburn exchanged amused smiles, expressions
not lost on Napoleon. "So where would it come out?" he asked
His rather dropped a pebble into the bright blue pool of
water, waiting for the splash before he answered. "I suppose it
would depend entirely on your angle. You see, if you aimed that
way..." He pointed to a spot on the well's rough-hewn wall. "...
you just might come up in China. Then again, you could angle this
other way and come out somewhere in Europe. Straight down... I'd
figure that for someplace in the Indian Ocean. And that way...
Well, that way's Russia." He thought for a moment. "I don't
suppose you'd want to go there just now."
"Why not? What's in Russia?"
"Hm? Oh, Russians mostly. Say, I thought you wanted to hear
Grandpa's story about the wells."
His father grinned, and got that look of something-long-ago in
his eyes. "See, he used to sit with me, when I was about your age,
by a well like this one, only they were wood in those days. And he
used to say that on some days in summer, wells could be magic. I
believed him, too. Even if I never did see them."
"See who?" Napoleon was all ears, eager for any story about
his grandfather, who had been an admiral in the Great War.
"Faces. The faces of people in those other countries where
the well would come out if you could dig clear through the Earth."
His father laughed, aware that even Mr. Auburn has settled on the
well's rim, paying rapt attention to the tale. "You have to watch
at just the right time on just the right day," he went on. "And
some time, when the magic is right, you'll see someone from over
there. Someone who's looking into his well, maybe. Looking for
you. The trick is, though, you've both got to be looking at the
same time. I guess maybe that's why it never worked for me.
Magic's funny that way."
Napoleon looked down at their rippling reflections in the
water and heard the mosquitoes hum again. "Maybe it'll work for
me," he said.
"Maybe." The strong hand released his shoulder. "But don't
you sit here all day hoping, or your mother'll work a little magic
of her own on the seat of your trousers."
Napoleon nodded, but never took his eyes from the water as his
father and Mr.Auburn headed back to the waiting Lincoln.
"I have enough in the bank for a good down," he heard his
father say, "if you can carry a paper for, say, thirty a month at
four per cent interest..."
Their voices faded, as shortly did the sound of the car's
rumbling engine. Napoleon, oblivious to the stinging sun, buzzing
insects and the threat of an irate mother, stayed to watch the
reflection that stared back at him from the well. He waited for it
A sound that was not thunder woke Illya Nickovetch from a
fitful sleep. He turned over beneath the coarse woolspun blanket
and listened. Over the uniform breathing of the other young boys
in the dormitory, the far away rumble came again, an angry giant
pounding furiously at the gates of Kiev.
There was another sound, softer and much, much nearer. It
came from the anteroom beyond the door of the sleeping quarters: a
low, muffled sob, almost like the mourning or some poor, lost
Only Illya did not believe in spirits.
He sat up in his bunk, pressed bare toes to the wooden floor,
cold, even in summer, and searched with one foot until he had found
the shoes left under the bed after 'lights out.' His fingers found
the wall, its shelf and the single peg from which his coat hung.
He slipped into coat and shoes at the same time, and padded
silently across the dark room past twin rows of beds identical to
his own, until he'd reached the door. It opened soundlessly,
admitting him to the moonlit chill of the anteroom. Before the
tall, vaulted window, Valentina Marinova Vdovushkin stood, a shawl
pulled tightly around her quivering shoulders. She was their
teacher of languages, and was most often addressed by her full name
as befitted her age. But in the nearly three years they had spent
here together, Illya has never before seen her like this.
"Uchitsinitsa1 Vdovushkin," he said gently, "are you ill?"
She did not appear startled at his presence. Instead, she
turned tear-swollen eyes on him and said, "It is very late, ditya.
You should be sleeping."
"I... I must go out for a few moments," he said, ashamed of
the lie but certain he could not have deterred her wrath in any
other fashion. "When I awoke, I heard something like... like
thunder. Far away. Only it was not thunder."
She turned back to the window, and shook her greying head
slowly. "You heard nothing," she insisted. "Hurry on about your
task, Illya Nickovetch, and go back to your bed."
The distant rumble came again before she'd finished speaking,
and in the west, half-hidden by a copse of bereza trees, a flash of
light had flickered on the horizon. Illya stepped closer to the
window's leaded panes.
He stared out at a cloud-strewn night with a moon that hung
one-quarter-full above the empty school courtyard. The swelling
crescent was mirrored in the small reflecting pool that lay just
beyond the dormitory's concrete steps.
"The armies have come, haven't they," Illya said to the
window. "The soldiers and the guns..."
"What talk is this? You are too young to know of such
things!" The older women scoffed. "If there are armies to come,
then we shall send armies to repel them. But this... This is only
thunder. The zernitsa,2 that is all. It is nothing to fear."
In Valentina Vdovushkin's stern voice there was no longer any
hint of the plaintive sobbing Illya had heard from inside the
sleeping quarters. She might have been giving him a French lesson,
except that her eyes betrayed her terror each time she looked back
toward the bereza grove.
Illya's own fears evoked a half-whispered question. "What
will they do to us, Uchitsinitsa, when they have come here?"
Valentina made a strange gesture, touching forehead, chest and
each of her shoulders in turn. "Spare me from Germans and
ingenious children," she murmured, then gave him a small but hardy
shove toward the outer door. "Go, ditya, and be quick. I will
wait for you here."
Illya drew his muslin coat closer together as the dormitory
door clicked shut behind him. He made his way slowly down the
steps, thinking that Valentina Vdovushkin made a far better teacher
than actress. Her lips professed strength, but her eyes spoke of
The sound, deep and ominous, came again from the west as he
knelt beside the pool. The shadowy image that looked back showed
him a face with unkempt blond heir, high cheekbones, and eyes that
in a better light would have been bluer than the water. He reached
out to dab at the reflection, watched it dissolve and flutter and
slowly come back into its whole with the moon reigning high above
The still night, void even of insects or straying winds, was
broken by another explosion of the distant guns. Out here, in the
night air, they were much louder.
Illya stared into the pale young face in the water and
wondered what the soldiers would do to Kiev, to her people, to
Valentina Vdovushkin and the children in the school. There had
been stories, whispered tales and rumors, of Leningrad and Minsk.
All denied. But perhaps, also all true.
He touched the face in the water once more, stirred it
vigorously, and when it had at last reformed itself, asked it
silently if it could be as brave as Valentina Marinova Vdovushkin.
He wondered what it felt like to die.
For a moment, a drifting cloud obscured the moon, and turned
his image in the pool a muted grey. The crescent travelled quickly
out again to shine as brightly as before, and Illya blinked at his
reflection, puzzled. For just the briefest of moments it had
seemed there was another face, another boy -- with dark hair and
startled eyes showing clearly that he had seen Illya in the same
instant that Illya had seen him.
But it was gone now.
An illusion, of course. There was only his own face in the
water. And Illya Nickovetch did not believe in spirits.
Lights flashed beyond the trees.
Staring into the pool's silent water, he waited... and
listened to death marching toward Kiev.
2 Summer thunder