The Boy in the Well

Poem by Shaune Bornholdt


The crows’ beaks slide in so easily
As if my cheeks are milk-soaked bread.
It does not hurt. Their black eyes look at mine.
One cocks its head.

I have been in the well four days,
Three nights. I am twelve years old.
If I am dead, do I have an age?
I wish I had told

My brother, when I crawled out from the quilt
With my birthday spyglass,
That I was coming here, through woods, five hills over,
To where the grass

Pushes up, frosted, from frosted ground
And makes a space to see the stars.
The near full moon came up. I set my sight on Venus,
Then on Mars,

Stepped back and swung the glass
To find the archer. I didn’t think, there may be a well.
Cold ground opened
And I fell.

Father forgive me, the spyglass is broken.
An owl winks back at lantern glass in mud.
My hands are covered with old
And newer blood.

I clawed and clawed
At the well’s mossed sides,
I sucked the stones
I could not climb.

I heard the searchers’ cries,
Far off.
My whistle hung at bedside
In our warm loft.

Lying in mud
I smelt udders, straw, warm dung—a milking dream.
I let the open well mouth
Be my scream.


I dreamt the well my spyglass, I the eye,
The hole a lens that pointed up to show
A bird, a cloud, gold-white, blue, orange, dark rose,

Then black. No stars and a wind rising,
Shaking the sky’s black silk, a fierce song sung.
In blacker black, I dreamt a fire point formed,
White light flung

Back into time. It grew, it grew,
Piercing sphere on sphere,
A swelling rush of light, huge,
Blinding, near,

Filling the sky, then bursting—
Trailing a thousand sparks
Circling, wheeling
In the great dark,

Circling down and down around me,
A funneled whirl of light,
Whirling me up, up, out, great wheeling wheel, tilting,
Huge, upright,

And I upon it. I clung with many others to this wheel,
Sweeping moon’s pure fire, its motion slow,
Arcing down to earth. Some rose up high and laughing.
I swung low

With all who moaned, mangled, young and old.
As I looked up I saw my brother rise
But I stayed low,
My low cries

Lost in the wheel’s slow grinding.
Lost in self and soul, forlorn,
I begged release, till moonlight’s mercy took on flesh
And human form—

A young-old woman, tall, wrapped in light. She lifted me
From Fortune’s Wheel, touched my face…
Cheek’s skin on breast and the warm blood rising,
Remembered place

Of even older heaven… “Yet not the first,” she whispered.
“Recall Love’s forge, white hot,
And be recalled to Light that came before
Dark throb and clot.”

Wrapped in her robe, rocking near the moon,
I drank sweet cream. A warmth like honey filled
My heart in hers. I rested and looked down.
The night was still,

Dark, clear. First light touched Earth.
Masses formed in seas.
Rivers glistened. Paleness brushed mountains, frost
On cedar trees.

The woman’s voice was breath:
“Come. This time-being world is past.
Come with me now to changeless Light,
Held ever fast.”

Oh, breath in breath enfolded!—
All wishes in one Name.
I felt an awful straining,
Shadow towards Flame,

Yet turned once more to see
Half-glow and Earth
Where sweep of quarter-colored light
Gave shadows birth.

I leaned. I looked.
I saw a clearing shaded with a stain,
Five hills, our barn, the sheepfold near the stubbled fields,
The half-lit lane

Where searchers’ lanterns dimmed and swayed.
I saw my mother’s lamp.
“I want the Wheel,” I said. “I want the well,
Stones and damp.

Give me the changes!
I want to climb, or try to climb, be found
Or not be found
On that cold ground.”

The woman wept. She brought me down
To those five hills, this clearing, and the well.
“I will come back,” she said. She kissed me, and
Again, I fell.


Tell my brother wear my whistle, bring a pail.
Murky, groundwater and deep
My body is a well of words,
Awake, asleep,

All listening and speaking.
My father knows I did my chores.
The plow is sharp. The ram was with the ewes.
Tell how the stars

Burned in the glass. Orion’s belt
Hurts no one, Father. Listen to pain.
Late, I called out.
She never came—

That dream. Here, something will be found.
The searchers will look up to see the sky
Thickening with birds.
Black crows’ cries

Will lead them down
To sump water, ooze that bleeds
Into the ground. Here, we know
How bodies feed

On one another. Daily bread. My mother knows
My hair will line the nest.
I told her how, once, a crow shrieked, rose, then
Settled to rest

On brown-blotched eggs. I did not tell
My brother. The tree I climbed that day was tall,
The branches far apart,
And he could fall.

Listen. Spring water rising,
Well into well. In the dark
A star makes a new star in water.
Is this spark

Nothing? Like my mother’s gift,
It is flickering, but bright—
Speech is all that I have against silence
And huge night.

Tell how together
We first realized the flame,
The moment when Desire
Knows its name.

Now: Straight down.
Through the wet ember—
Words quicken in slime—begin—

Dark. A touch. A flash. A wanting.
Her gift a sound: “Light!” Blink and shudder.
“Light.” I spoke the word. It lit the lantern’s glow and
Held my mother.

Tell my brother.


American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2007, Volume 27, Number 2