Short story: The Wishing Well


To my father’s utter horror, a starling pops its head through my window to visit. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it ensures a good mood for the entire day. This story was inspired by that little bird.

I originally wrote this for someone, but now it’s here. Thanks to Helen for helping my little birds fly.

The Wishing Well

Faith always believed that when she fell in love, it would be forever. Her very name meant that hope was an essential part of her nature. And so she would meet a boy, believe him to be the man of her dreams, and invest all of herself in that blossoming romance only to see it fail. She wondered how many bathtubs she had filled with tears shed for unworthy suitors. So she resolved to never fall in love again, unless it was with that one person she knew was completely right for her.

There was an old tumbled down wishing well in the town that hadn’t been used in over a hundred years. The mother’s wouldn’t let their children near it. The old gossips said the last time the well had been used was to drown a witch. A witch in Ladismith? She thought in disbelief. Faith didn’t believe the old stories, but she did believe in wishing wells.

On a dismal afternoon, with a cold wind hurrying everyone indoors, Faith made her way to the overgrown nook behind the church and approached the well. Its walls were thick with climbing weed and moss, and many a brick had fallen with the passing of time, but the shape was still recognisable. The wooden beam across the top had rotted away, so Faith had to hold on to the sides to peer into it. She was certain she could make out the faint glimmer of water and a distant plop.

She took a coin out of her pocket and held it tightly in her fist. Then, checking to make sure no one was within earshot, she recited a rhyme she had learned as a child, the words forming in her mind as if by magic.

“Wishing Well, oh wishing well, grant my wish, and hear my spell,
I wish to meet my one true love
One with heart and soul of dove
He who is brave, and true and just
Who will never look at me with lust
Beautiful in both body and mind
But most of all he must be kind
From out my dreams from whence he dwells
Oh wishing well, grant my wish and hear my spell.”

With those words, Faith dropped the coin into the well. The splash echoed a few seconds later, causing a flock of jet-black starlings to escape into the air around her. She spun on the spot, as the noisy black mass encircled her, once, then twice, before soaring into the sky like one solitary bird.

She walked home with a skip in her step, relishing the abandoned streets, empty except for the starlings, who had scattered themselves over the lampposts and awnings of the shops. The cold wind was whipping up chocolate wrappers and leaves into colourful whirlwinds that danced across the streets. Faith laughed out loud, glad that she was the only one outside to witness the spectacle.

It had darkened quickly, so she hurried home. Once she was safe inside, she was surprised to see a starling was perched in her open window. It peered around the room curiously.

Faith was delighted by the intruder.

“Did you follow me home?” she asked the bird.

The bird cocked its head towards her, although its eyes seemed to go in all directions at once. And as if in reply, it whistled.

Faith couldn’t resist and whistled back. The bird emitted a low haunting call, then hopped to the edge of the window and flew away.

That night Faith dreamt she was a little black bird that flew across the skies. It was a wonderful feeling, experiencing the glorious freedom of the tight air beneath her wings as the village got smaller and smaller. The air was crisp and clear in her throat. She flew for hours, feeling neither tired nor bored, relishing this new sensation of flight. She could see the other starlings hovering above the church below, and a voice within told her to stay close to the group, but she was feeling rebellious and wanted to go higher. What was the harm? One of the birds had flown up beside her, calling for her to come down. It looked like the same bird that had appeared at her window. It was more fun down there, it said. She was having too much fun up here, she replied. The bird swooped below her, then up again, taunting her, and she couldn’t resist the game. She pursued the starling downward, toward the church, and they zoomed in and out of the tower like bullets. She had never had so much fun.

Faith woke up feeling wonderful. Unlike most of her dreams, she could remember this one vividly and could still feel the exhilaration of flight. She decided to walk to work, in the hope of reproducing a tiny fragment of that feeling, but it was a fruitless exercise. She felt as if the starlings watching her from the rooftops as she skipped down the pavement had laughter behind their marble-jet eyes.

Faith worked in Ladismith’s only flower shop for Mrs Fowler, one of the local biddies. The old woman was wealthy enough not to have to work, but the shop afforded her the opportunity to gossip as much as possible with the local women.

Faith entered the store and smiled at the proprietor, who was settled behind the counter wrapped in a knitted blanket.

“Morning, mam,” said Faith, setting down her bag behind the counter.

Mrs Fowler’s eyes narrowed into slits.

“You took off frightfully early yesterday,” she declared.

Faith froze. “I had an errand to run,” she stuttered.

“You didn’t pass by the post office or the superette while on that errand.”

Faith sighed. The one thing that had always bothered her about working for Mrs Fowler was the woman’s incessant need to know her business. She could also make the most innocent activity sound like a cardinal sin.

“I didn’t go by either of those places,” Faith replied. She picked up a handful of lilies and began sorting them into a vase. It was Mr Chapman’s funeral later that afternoon, and Faith was determined to send the old man in to the next life among the loveliest flowers she could arrange.

“Mrs Marks said she saw you creeping around behind the church yesterday afternoon. I said she must be mistaken, a responsible girl like you wouldn’t do that.”

Faith met Mrs Fowler’s eyes and raised her head haughtily.

“As a matter of fact, I did go behind the old church. I went to see if I could find the old wishing well.”

“You did what?” spluttered the old woman.

“And I made a wish too. And I don’t care whether you think me childish or stupid, what’s done is done.

Faith turned her attention back to her work, hoping that she had stumped the old busy body by being honest.

Mrs Fowler turned white. “You… you don’t know what you’ve done. That place shouldn’t be trifled with.”

“What place? The wishing well?”

Mrs Fowler crossed herself.

Faith scoffed, “Oh don’t start with that old hogwash again. My mother used to feed me those old wives’ tales when I was a child. They’re meant to scare children so that they don’t fall in the well. I won’t listen to a word of it.”

She pointedly ignored Mrs Fowler for the rest of the day, despite the woman’s efforts to bring up the subject of the well. She busied herself with arranging tasteful bouquets for the handful of weddings, garden parties and funerals that made up their business. The old woman eventually gave up, and sat scowling in her ancient rocking chair, only leaving her station when Mr Sands, the butcher, stopped by for a chat.

Faith was grateful to leave the shop to deliver the flowers for Mr Chapman’s funeral. She had not known the elderly man very well, but after the death of his wife, he had not lingered much longer. She wished that one day she would meet someone who would be that devoted to her, like the pairs of starlings that she noticed around the town that were never without each other. The cemetery was shadowed by a black cloud, but the wind of the previous day had passed. Mourners, stooped with grief, were huddled outside the funeral home. Faith tore her eyes from the cemetery gates, where a row of starlings were perched, and hurried inside. The service was small and traditional, and members of the Chapman family spoke about John and Mytrle as a young couple. Halfway through the service, a pair of starlings flew inside the room, and zipped amongst the rafters, chirping to each other noisily. Faith found it hard to concentrate on what was being said after the interruption, and found herself falling back into her dream from the previous night.

She hadn’t realised she had begun walking home until she had reached the gates of the cemetery and the gentle rustle of the trees woke her from her trance. She looked back uncertainly. She didn’t know what had come over her, but knew that she felt the nagging compulsion to experience the dream again.

Back at home, safe under the covers she closed her eyes and drifted effortlessly back into the dream, as if she had never left it.
She flew from her bedroom window to the churchyard where the other black shapes were assembled in the branches. Her playmate from the previous evening flew out to meet her, and together they took to the skies, twisting in and out of each other’s paths as they rose higher and higher. He didn’t seem to want to chastise her this evening, but allowed her to feel the freedom of the skies as the ground grew smaller below them.

The hours disappeared.

As morning neared, he looked at her sadly and turned to fly away. She followed. He admonished her with a squawk, but she flew on. He flew towards the cemetery, through the dark curtain of trees towards the bed of graves. She didn’t understand why he would come to this sad place. He landed on a headstone that was crawling with ivy, and fluffed out his feathers irritably. She hovered in the air, not understanding. The faded letters on the stone named the occupant as Robert Ulstead.

As the first rays of the sun showed above the treetops, she woke.

The next night played out exactly the same way. The pair frolicked throughout the night, swooping in and out of the church roof, and flying higher than any of the other starlings dared to fly, but when the pink horizon of morning neared, her companion turned away towards the cemetery and was gone.

Faith spent the afternoon at work arranging flowers into an autumn wreath, but her fingers were half-hearted. Her eyes kept darting to the window where pairs of starlings zoomed past every few minutes. One lonely starling that didn’t have a partner was loitering at the doorway, peering inside.

Faith smiled at the bird.

“Bah, filthy beast. Get out!” shouted Mrs Fowler.

“Mrs Fowler, stop it. I think he’s lovely. Look how brave he is, coming inside.”

“He’ll give us all lice is what he’ll do.”

“Oh please. That’s just another one of your tales. He’s beautiful.”

The appearance of the starling at the door reminded Faith of the bird in her dream, and an idea struck her.

“Mrs Fowler, does the name Robert Ulstead mean anything to you?”

“I do indeed, and it’s a sad story best not repeated. What’s it to you?”

“Oh please Mrs Fowler. I saw the name somewhere and I thought you might know it, since you’ve lived here so long.”

“Young lady, it’s not for me to be telling stories.”

“It’s not a story. Please Mrs Fowler.”

Mrs Fowler sat back in her chair and smiled smugly, knowing that she had the girl beneath her ancient thumb. But the old woman couldn’t resist a good gossip, especially when she had someone so keen to listen to her.

“Fine, I’ll tell you, but don’t you dare repeat it.”

“I swear I won’t.”

“Many years ago, when I was a girl not much older than you, there was a young man in the town named Robert Ulstead. All the girls admired him. He was a fine-looking boy, with a good head on his soldiers, too. Smart as they came. While the other boys were taking up farming, his father sent off to be an engineer in the city. He was seen out with all the prettiest girls, but he never met the one he wanted to marry. So even though he had every opportunity, he was a very lonely young man.”

“What happened to him?”

“He drowned, like many of the men of the townspeople that year, during that terrible storm when the river came down in flood. Such a tragedy. My own father died that year.”

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Fowler. What year did you say that was?”

“I didn’t, you silly child. It was 1958.”

Faith’s imagination had given her years of joy as a child. She wondered now if it was perhaps more of a curse than a blessing. That starling that been following her around couldn’t possibly be Robert Ulstead, could it? Just harbouring the thought made her feel ridiculous. She looked towards the doorway, but all she saw was the dead stalks that she had dropped earlier.

“What are you goggling at, child?” snapped Mrs Fowler.

“Oh, nothing mam, just thinking.”

“Well don’t think for too long, you have deliveries to make.”

The first delivery was for another funeral. The village had seen a rise in deaths; good business for the flower shop, but bad luck for the village.

Faith deposited the wreaths and vases in the main hall of the funeral home and then made her way into the cemetery. The village cemetery was impossibly foreboding. With no caretaker to take responsibility for its upkeep, the weeds and grasses had taken over, not to mention the village’s seemingly endless population of starlings, who nested in the towering trees. In her mind, there was one way to determine once and for all if what was happening was her imagination or not, and that was to find Robert Ulstead’s grave. She had visited the site twice in her dreams, so she had a vague idea of where it was located. She passed line after line of gravestones and headed towards the centre of the cemetery where the trees were thickest. The headstones were completely encased in shadow, so she could barely read the names etched on their fronts, but she seemed to know this place from her dreams.

She knew she had found the right headstone from the ivy that grew over the headstone. She sat down before it, and pulled the thick tendrils aside to read the name clearly.

Robert Ulstead.

Just then, a starling flew down and landed on top of the stone.

“This makes no sense, little birdie,” she said, brushing her hand across the cold headstone.

The starling cocked its head and blinked at her and Faith laughed, realising the absurdity of the situation, but also the truth of it. Everything that was happening was real.

She reached out her hand towards the starling, but he hopped away in fright.

“I suppose I’m not a bird, am I?” she said sadly.

On her way home, Faith stopped at the local library, which employed many of the village’s resident biddies. She was hoping that one of the elderly librarians could help her locate a newspaper from the time of the great flood, but towards the back of the library she found a memorial of sorts. A collection of stark black and white photographs adorned a portion of the far wall, where the victims of the storm stared out at the locals as they perused the musty shelves. Faith studied the spidery captions carefully, obviously written by an ancient and shaky hand, until she found the one name she was looking for. He was as handsome as Mrs. Fowler had said, with fair hair, and a sweet smile. In the picture he was standing with his arm around an elderly man that must have been his father. Faith was stricken as she stared at the picture, feeling grief that she didn’t understand.

A noise made her turn around. There was a flurry of activity behind her; one of the librarians was waving a broom above her head. The source of her irritation soon became clear. Faith’s starling had entered the library and was perched on the chandelier above her.

That night when she fell asleep, her starling was waiting for her at the window. But they didn’t fly towards the church yard like every other night. Tonight, he led her in another direction, towards the river. It made her sad to see the river when she was with him, knowing that it was where he had died. When she was with him, she wanted to play and fly and have fun. But he was flying lower and lower, and she had no choice but to follow. He was so low now, that his wings skimmed the water. She was not as experienced a flyer as he was, but she flew as low as she could, frightened by the rushing water. The odd game over, they returned to the others at the churchyard, where they played together until the morning.

The next night the ritual was repeated, and the next.

Faith realised with an iron certainty that her starling was Robert. She didn’t know how and she didn’t know why, but she knew that her days were miserable without him, and her nights were too short with him.

The flower shop had never done a busier trade. There were two more funerals that week, which was unheard of. Faith found that she didn’t have a moment to spare during the day.

Eventually, she couldn’t stand it any longer. Ladismith was infested with the birds, and her steps were haunted by them. Everywhere she went, their beady eyes followed, every moment was interrupted by their call.

“I need to run an errand,” said Faith, throwing down a bunch of roses in exasperation.

Mrs Fowler looked up suspiciously.

“Where are you going?”

“Out!” replied Faith, already through the door.

She walked down the cobbled pavements, watched, as ever, by a row of starlings on the telephone line above. She passed the church, where weeks before she had made a wish in the ancient wishing well to meet her one true love, a wish she had long forgotten. She made her way to the river, which rushed past in a torrent, and carefully made her way down the banks to the edge. Towerkop loomed above her, its ominous peak supposedly split by a witch. She wondered if it was the same witch who was killed in the well.

A solitary starling flew above her head and landed on the opposite bank. Taking the bird’s arrival as a sign, she hitched up her skirts and jumped into the ice-cold water, which stabbed at her arms and legs. She waded to where the water was deep and the current was strong, finding it difficult to keep her balance as the water had reached her waist. Still, she continued, until her feet could no longer reach the ground. Soon she began struggling to keep afloat, and her heavy skirts pulled at her body. She swam towards the deeper water, until only her head was left above the surface.

“Robert,” she called out, as the water pulled her down.

The last thing she saw was her starling on the bank before the icy water engulfed her. She didn’t struggle, but calmly waited for the world to turn to darkness. Her true love came for her then, and she threw off her human form to fly with him once again, and together they rejoiced that morning would no longer separate them.

SA Partridge

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