An Orchard at the Center of the World
Only one of the three boys who disappeared down the well returned to us that first day. It was nearly seven months after they were declared missing and presumed dead. One morning, though, during the magenta haze of dawn, the boy crawled up along the sides of the well like a spider, propelled himself over the crumbling rocks, and set foot on our earth once more. He was clutching an orange in his hand.
He stumbled along the unpaved roads, kicking up dust to announce his arrival. Thinking that it was still early winter, as it was when he left, he had expected the townsfolk to be awake, opening the doors to their shops, boiling water for strong coffee, and telling the neighbors of their dreams. But when he didn't hear the familiar chatter, didn't smell the smoky coffee, he realized that it was actually the middle of summer when the days were long and the nights were longer. In those hot months, we slept until noon, staving off the scorpions who were frightened away by our thundering snores.
The boy followed the bestial sounds into the center of town, where most of us lived. He felt a pang of loneliness, realizing that he was the only person awake, and so set off in search of the house that he had once lived in with his parents and sisters. He had trouble recalling the exact address and all of the houses looked the same with their low weathered roofs, the rough pink walls, and the torn lace curtains that hung in the windows. After a few minutes, he stopped in one yard and thought that he recognized the way the earth sounded, like crushed bones, beneath his ragged boots. Thinking that this was his home, he climbed through the window into an empty bedroom and collapsed on the hard cot. He stowed the orange in his shirt, the smooth rind sticking to his damp skin, and, waiting for the town to wake up, fell asleep.
Of course, he had been wrong. It was not his home but the home of the widow whose only son had been drafted into the war and had not written to her in two years. She awoke just before noon to the sound of an unusual snoring coming from her son's bedroom, a wispy and mellifluous sound, like the notes of a tin whistle. Frightened and armed with her pot of boiling coffee, ready to scald the intruder should he prove a threat, she opened the door to the bedroom and peered inside. My God! she exclaimed upon seeing the boy presumed dead and, in her excitement, dropped the pot on her toes, the boiling water tearing at her skin, leaving only raw, red blisters. Though those burns would never fully heal, she was too shocked to notice any pain at the time.
She threw open the door and fell to her knees, whispering prayers to the Madonna and believing this to be a miracle. Naturally, she assumed that the boy had risen from the dead so one can imagine her disappointment when she picked him up expecting him to be cold and light, but found instead that he was warm and heavy. Nonetheless, she cradled him in her arms and, with the grace of a mother who too knows the agony of losing a son, returned the boy to his own mother, who lived just three houses away. The boy didn't wake once.
When the mother first saw her son, she held him to her breast and wept, out of joy, but also out of pain for all of the mothers who would never be so fortunate to see their lost child again. The boy's father, usually so stoic and reserved, hung the national flag in celebration and did somersaults in the street, dirtying his freshly pressed white linen suit. The two sisters ran immediately to the cemetery and scratched out their brother's name from the tombstone that had been erected in his memory, while loudly singing the old folk songs to which they always forgot the words.
The boy awoke shortly thereafter to the smell of sweat and the music of a brass band. His parents and sisters were bent over him, studying his features as though dubious of his actual identity. The mayor stood beside them, and the local pastor too. The band, huddled in the corner, played amateurish renditions of old swing standards. There were people in the house whom the boy had forgotten in his absence, like the grocer who had always given him free caramels and the rug dealer who had let him build forts in his store when business was slow (and it always was). The house was so crowded that our parents were lined up outside with the hopes of eventually paying their respects to the boy who had defied death.
Everyone wanted to shake his hands, kiss his cheeks, run their fingers through his hair as though he belonged to them. This boy was a symbol of second chances, we thought. He had fallen into a starless abyss, but had returned, reborn, again innocent and pure. And so, everyone felt that they could confide in the boy, that they could shower him with their troubles and that he would absolve them of their sins. They told him of their secrets and anxieties, of their pleasures and pains and, when the boy didn't answer, they left, disappointed and embarrassed. In reality, though, the boy hadn't even heard them. He had become so used to the serenity and stillness that he had found inside the well that the crowd's voices and the shrill notes of the music sounded like the hum of hungry mosquitoes. He was soon dizzy and disoriented, the voices becoming faceless and the music empty. He tried to stand up, to escape, but instead vomited. He's dehydrated, the physician announced, forcing the boy to drink a glass of murky water.
We climbed on top of each other and perched our bodies on the windowsill, watching the scene, our hands and faces pressed up against the glass, straining to see the silhouettes through the curtain. We watched as people came and went and we noticed that there were only two people from the town who were missing—the parents of one of the other boys who had also disappeared.
Later that evening, after all of the commotion had subsided, the boy sat down to dinner. Since the feast was celebratory in nature, his parents served a soup of black melon seeds and roses and a large jug of thick milk. When the last drop of milk had been drunk and last spoonful of soup swallowed, they were all still hungry, though they knew better than to complain.
The town, it must be said, was quite poor at the time. Much more so than it is now. Our ancestors, unfortunately, had settled on a skeletal and useless piece of land that yielded no vegetation and bred only centipedes and scorpions. We, as their children, were condemned to call this place home. The boy, of course, knew this too, but, in the well, had grown accustomed to eating until his stomach had nearly split open. Though he had returned to the land of the living of his own accord, he was overcome by a furious hunger that could only be satiated by one thing. He removed the orange from beneath his ragged shirt and placed it in the center of the table. His parents and sisters exchanged skeptical glances but, overwhelmed with their own hunger, cut the robust fruit into segments and ate.
The boy chewed his slices slowly with a knowing pleasure, but his parents and sisters gasped in surprise when they took their first bites. The taste was full, like cream, and honeyed. The bright, sugary juice trickled down their throats and settled in their stomachs, glowing, bringing back memories of their first kisses and childhood dreams. Even the rind and pith were fragrant and sweet. They ate in silence and, when there was nothing left to eat, they licked the juices from their fingers and chins. After his father had cleaned his beard with his tongue, he turned to the boy and asked him where he had found the orange, for he immediately wanted more. From the bottom of the well, the boy answered. You mean to say that you found an orange at the bottom of that dried up, good-for-nothing well, his father sneered. Yes, the boy responded, there's a whole orchard down there with more fruits than there are people in the world. At that moment, the father stood up and took off his belt, angry that the boy would dare lie. But he then thought better of it and patted his son on the head, thinking that the boy had been dehydrated and hallucinating.
By the next evening, we had gotten used to the idea that the boy had returned. We invited him along as we traipsed around the town looking for something to stifle our boredom. In the end, we sat outside the laundromat, throwing pebbles at the crows that flew over our heads. We all wanted to ask him about his adventures in the well, but the boy was quiet and we became nervous at the idea of starting a conversation with him. So, we played in silence until someone emerged from the laundromat. It was the mother of the other boy in the well, the one who had snubbed our friend the day before. She walked past us, humming to herself, and brought her eyes to ours, offering a faint smile. It was then that she spotted the boy. Her face became a ghastly white and she dropped her clean laundry onto the dusty street. We blushed at the sight of her lacy underwear. She stepped over her clothes and, with the daze of a somnambulist, walked to the boy. When did you last see him, she asked in a whisper, when did you last see my son?
The boy, frightened, took a step back. The summer air felt heavy and oppressive, like at any moment the sky would fall onto the earth, crushing us in its destruction. The boy must have felt it too, for he looked frightened, his eyes wide and hands trembling. No matter, for the woman continued to inch toward him, spit foaming at the corners of her mouth like a rabid dog. Tell me, she demanded, tell me that my son didn't die a painful death.
At this, the boy stopped shaking. His expression swiftly shifted from one of fear to one of confusion. Your son's not dead, he said, I saw him yesterday. The woman's eyes narrowed, studying the boy with uncertainty. You mustn't lie, she scolded, what would your mother say if she heard you? It's the truth, the boy protested, your son is in the orchard at the bottom of the well, playing in the trees. The other boy is there too, I swear. The woman looked into the boy's eyes, saw his pupils burning brightly like coals at the center of a blue-gold fire, and knew that he was telling the truth. Upon this realization, she fainted.
You can imagine the uproar this caused in a town as small as ours. Two beloved local boys, trapped in a well for months, still alive. Everyone crowded around the well as though it was a circus. It was late in the evening, stars pricking the neon sky and a chilly summer wind tousling our hair. We huddled together, watching as the mayor sent down four young men to retrieve the boys.
The men descended into the well, clutching a thin rope held in place by our fathers, and steadying themselves on the rocks that jutted from the well walls. They ventured further until the world above was just a small cylinder of pink light and, then, even that disappeared. The well soon became dark and dank, the walls slippery with the warm smell of mold. After what seemed like hours, a dim glow from below appeared, so faint that the men each thought it his imagination. The rope came to an abrupt halt, refusing to descend any further, and the men became scared that the orange glow beneath them was the raging fire at the center of the earth. They stayed in the narrow well, dangling from the rope, unsure of how to proceed, until they heard something, a muffled tap, tap, tap from down below, followed by a child's gentle snigger. The boys are down there, the men cried and, in unison, they let go of the rope, tumbling toward the soft orange light and landing with a dull thud on the pulpy earth below.
When they came to, they could hardly believe the bounty in front of them. Hundreds of trees, rooted in the earth, stretching like cobwebs from the dirt to the rock above, lit only by the dim orange light emanating from beneath the ground below. Rotund fruit hung from every branch, all of it giant and glistening: apricots, plums, cherries, figs, apples. The fruits were so heavy that they caused the branches to twist and bend like a grandmother's hand. The men heard a rustle above them and, when they looked up, saw the two boys in the highest branches of a towering pomegranate tree, their lips stained with purple juices.
Come down, the men shouted, we've come to take you back above. The larger of the boys, the one with the face of a boiled potato, cried, no, thank you! The men sighed and asked if the children would like to see their parents. The boys responded with an apathetic shrug, and split open a pomegranate, its blood spraying their clothes. As the men watched the boys gobble the fruit, they recognized their own hunger and asked the boys if they could eat as well. Of course, the boys replied, this is for everyone. The men picked the biggest peaches from a nearby tree, ones that smelled sticky with ripeness, and ate. With their first bites, a flood of forgotten pleasures swelled in their hearts as they remembered the purity of their childhoods and the first time that they saw the ocean.
After they finished their peaches, they moved on to the plums, then the apples, and so on, continuing to eat with fervor until they felt sick. Then, realizing that no one above would believe their tales, they stuffed their pockets full of fruit to give to their neighbors. They asked the boys once again if they would return home, but the boys shook their heads and scurried onto the branches of a nearby cherry tree. So, the men shrugged and began to climb up the well wall.
We watched with our friend, the boy, as the scene unfolded. The men emerging from the well, relaying their experiences, and giving us each the most magnificent fruit we had ever tasted. The townspeople were so hungry that they decided to forgive the men for failing to bring up their children. As we ate, we asked the boy why he had left that incredible orchard below. Because I wanted to hear a bedtime story, the boy said. And which bedtime story did you hear? we prodded. None, our friend responded, there were no stories when I returned.
After that, the town changed. Our fathers and brothers began descending the well in crowds, devising a pulley system that allowed them to transport buckets, full of fruit, to our town. Our mothers and sisters drove the bushels into the surrounding villages, and eventually had to make the six-hour trek to the city, since the fruit was in such high demand. The mayor and pastor both took to wearing gold chains and rings, and the men wore new bowties, even when working in the well. Our families could now afford fine cuts of steak, which we ate for every meal, throwing the offal that we used to eat into the streets for the rats.
One night, five months after the men discovered the orchard, the two boys climbed up from the well. Why would you ever leave? we asked, if our parents let us go down there, we would never return. The boys shook their heads. There's nothing down there anymore, they said, it's all gone. We decided to look for ourselves and so snuck out in the middle of the night. We had never been in the well, had only heard stories, so our friend, the boy, led the way, calling out which rocks to step on so that we wouldn't fall.
In the orchard, the orange light still glowed dimly, but, it was true, the trees were all bare, skeletons of what they once were. The trees, once voluptuous, were now emaciated and gnarled. At seeing this, the boy began to cry and then we cried too. We sat down there, weeping, until the next morning, when our parents came to fetch us, pulling us back up the well by our ears.
After that incident, the boy stood by the well every day, looking deep into the darkness. Come play with us, we'd say, but he would just shake his head, losing himself in his memories of his time in the orchard. The townspeople, too, were upset upon realizing that the trees had become corpses and would no longer sprout their succulent fruit. After less than a year, everyone in the town had spent all of their newfound wealth and went back to eating unsatisfying soups. (Though the pastor still wore his gold rings.)
Then, one afternoon, the mayor announced his plan to seal off the well with cement, so that we could forget our bitter memories of the orchard and our futile dreams of what could have been. Upon hearing this, the boy walked home and locked himself in his room as a futile protest. The next day, our brothers poured the cement deep into the well, until it reached the very top. Once again, the whole town gathered to watch. We did not see our friend, the boy, at the service, so we then went to his house to offer our condolences. But he was not locked in his room, as we had thought. We ran back to the well, to the boy's mother, to ask her son's whereabouts and, when we did, she looked at the well and wept because she knew what had been done, and that this time her son was gone forever.
That was the day we lost our dreams, sealed off forever at the bottom of a well. On some days, when we feel nostalgic and contemplative, we go to the well and try to imagine a beautiful orchard below, one that sprouts new fruit, just as luscious as before. And, on some days, if we listen hard enough, we can still hear the muffled laugh of our friend, the boy, below.