5 Men, a Sack of Beer and a Forest With a Magical Well

It is Adnan who volunteers, of course. He will go in and get it. Can’t have their last week’s wages go to waste. The others aren’t so sure. The well is wide, its stones are smooth, polished by some prehistoric mason’s hand, or by the sea, or rubbed imperviously by heaven — it can’t be climbed. Adnan is not a spider. So lower me then, he says, it’s only water. Serious, somber, ready. His face, as any enlisting man’s might be, is on the brink of something. He picks the rope, puts it around his waist, threads it through his legs and round his balls. Laughter. Jokes about opera, and doesn’t he want children? No, I want a beer, he says, before the army dries me out. Fair enough, who wouldn’t.

He climbs across the wall, clings and braces. His friends take up the strain. The rope goes taut. He tests it, tugs and bounces, faces the dark tunnel. Hazirim! Then, hand over hand, the boys release their burden, and down goes Adnan. Heavier than a pig! Jokes about ravioli. How many pieces has he eaten? One hundred? Laughter. And the gold, he calls. Gold, comes up the echo. What’s that, captain? Gold, gold! The rope sings uncertainly against the wall, its strands begin to struggle. It was me, he shouts. Me. Me. I got the coin. The coin. The words come up from nowhere, like a confession from a dungeon. The others cheer and send flocks of birds fluttering from the treetops. Hand over hand, steadily, they send their friend into the world below the world above. The rope is running out, fraying and unraveling — get a move on, boys. He must be nearly there, about to secure the beer, a hero for the day, if not the century. The borehole swims in darkness; there is no light inside this wound. The unreflecting surface seems to wink. The rope, by choice or by collusion, breaks, and Adnan is released. The men fall back and over, one on top the other, scrambling to get up and calling out and calling down. Adnan! Adnan! Tamam? But there is only silence. Strangest silence. Silence, like the spirit’s worst suffering. And in their dreams across the years, they’ll never hear a plunging cry, a shout for help, not even one small ripple, as if that fall is endless.

MEANWHILE, WHERE ARE the women? Still no sign. They are not riding those noble steeds bred from Arabian horses, bowing low under the heavy trees. They are not weaving through the forest, one behind the other, like wolves, taking turns to flatten down a path. They are at home. They are sitting around Halime’s table, perhaps discussing their lives and their children, the children they would have or the men they might marry, the roads out of the village or the wars their grandmothers endured, the usual things.

No. Not this time. Tonight, as the moon rises above the roof of forest, they are sitting quietly, holding hands. They have, on the table, an unopened bottle of raki, glasses, a jug of ice water that will charm the solution milky. They have, on the table, a coiled length of rope. Good rope, fit for any purpose, salvage, cattle, the binding of wives and daughters by an uncivil army, the hanging of those who will not change their names. Who sees? Who pays? Always the women. They have agreed. If one of them breaks hold of her sisters’ hands, they will all stand, and they will go immediately, as fast as they can, into the forest, as if late for a party or an accidental rescue. It is hard. One of them is his cousin. They played together when she and he were small; she thought that it was play. How can the weight of a single man go on to break a country? How can knowing be unseeing? Their grip is tight. Their knuckles white and risen. Fatma, half-handed, death-signed, daughter of the last violence, says to them, do not, do not ask to be forgiven.

And in the Well of Souls, the water is so cold that it can shatter bones; it can sting the brain and seize the heart within a minute. It is so clear that it can strip the body of all reason, rob the mind of all possession and ambition, stop those who are, as if they never were, so they will never be. Extraordinary, intolerable, uncorrupted water. Water, born from the middle of the earth, that pure and secret place no sun or human hand has ever warmed. Water, come from the past, in one form or another, rain, river, sea, thoughts like tears in clouds, as old as it is new, designed to serve no purpose other than its future.

Retouching: Anonymous Retouch. Photographer’s assistants: Karl Leitz and Caleb Andriella. Set assistants: Adam Kenner and Hannah Black