A haunted well is the only chance of survival for a child lost in the desert.
By Omar Al Jadhee
(“A Well No One Can Reach” is a folktale relayed by the Saudi Arabian writer Omar Al Jadhee. In a land that is parched, there is an infamous well, guarded by jinns and beasts; no one can attempt to draw water from it without losing life or sanity. But the water in the haunted well is the only hope for the survival of a four-year-old child, writhing in thirst and hunger. The child and her family are lost in the desert, chasing the dream of arriving at a better home than the one they left.
“A Well No One Can Reach” is the story of a miracle; its mystery can be resolved only in parts, but it holds within it the amplitude of a community’s memory.)
No one knew who had dug it or who took care of it, but it was well known that people were wary of it. Everyone, town dwellers and nomads alike, avoided it. Traveling caravans didn’t stop there; shepherds didn’t draw water from it; parched people didn’t take refuge there. Even the camels came to understand the humans’ frequent warnings to each other about this well, so they hastened their pace and increased their harrumphing whenever they were urged past the well at a distance.
It was guarded night and day. The night guards were most vigilant, the day guards most persistent. Scorpions guarded the well with their tails all day long, and they would sting a man before he even got down off his camel. The night guards were described in various ways by the people of the nearest village, who were best acquainted with the well. Some were convinced there were four jinn guarding it every night without taking turns; one of the villagers swore that he had twice seen wolves emerge from inside the well, howl, and then return to where they’d come from. He wasn’t sure how many there were, due to their large number. First he said there had been six, and the second time their number was ten.
Latifa never tired of reminding and warning her husband, Shafi, about them:
“May God keep you, Abu Layla.”
He did not take his camel, so she might be saved if something dreadful should happen at the well — he feared his camel might go mad in front of his eyes just as much as he feared for his family.
Latifa went on watching her husband as he walked until the sandy mountain stopped him. The well was behind the mountain, and people used it as a guide until they turned away from the well. They called it Well’s Mountain and feared climbing it.
Latifa was left with nothing save their two camels carrying their few possessions, an empty waterskin, and in her lap their daughter, Layla, who was exhausted from the pain.
“There were a lot of wolves, and they breed.”
“Don’t worry; it’s the daytime.”
“And the scorpions?”
He didn’t reply but set out in front of her, seated on his camel.
She went: “You don’t believe it?”
“Layla’s thirst is beyond belief or limit — it doesn’t care about jinn or scorpions or wolves.”
Most of their provisions had run out, and they had fallen behind the caravan they were following on their journey; their skins were empty of water. Their two mounts had endured days without water and would have to tolerate two more until they reached their new village. They themselves would also hold out until their arrival, for the winter sun made their thirst easier to bear. Yet their four-year-old daughter was writhing with hunger and thirst, and she did not stop screaming. The hunger was manageable, since the dates they had brought filled the hole in her stomach, but water was scarce and precious.
Shafi made the two camels kneel down and helped Latifa and their daughter, Layla, dismount. His wife refrained from scolding him; she knew that the only water here was in that well. Shafi picked up two waterskins and started walking.
“I leave you in God’s hands.”
When they had left their village, they had promised their daughter they would enjoy the riches of a farm her father would nurture beside a river that would never run dry. They had broken their promise before they had even arrived.
The sun was close to setting, and Latifa thought about what might come out of the well. The scorpions would be at rest, since the day was ending, and the jinn or wolves would not yet be awake for their watch. Maybe they could take advantage of this period of calm to fill the two skins, if the well’s water wasn’t fetid.
Among all the stories about that well, she hadn’t heard a single one where someone had fallen into it. Those it had harmed, the well had immobilized next to it, wounded and bleeding, or they had gone crazy and lost their minds and fled from it. The well hadn’t swallowed anyone.
The sun’s disk continued to prepare to disappear and surrender its command over this world to the darkness. Well’s Mountain was still sunlit; it was the last thing to go dark. Latifa would not surrender her cause to the darkness. She got up and took the empty skin.
She followed her husband’s tracks, lengthening her strides to match his steps. Every footprint she stepped into was deepened, the grains of sand spreading farther than before.
Latifa wound her way around the mountain, and this side was darker than the other. She saw her husband in front of her and the well far behind him. When she came closer, she saw it more clearly, with stones arranged around it and a crossbeam above it with a swinging rope.
Shafi hurried in her direction when he saw her. Then he broke into a run and gestured with his hands.
She didn’t understand what he meant; maybe he had already gone crazy. The two skins in his hands were empty, and there were neither scorpions nor wolves behind him. Maybe the jinn had driven him mad.
She didn’t stop, but instead continued her steps unhurriedly. Then her husband’s voice reached her: “Go back, go back! Where’s Layla?”
“Where we left her.”
He stopped in front of her and clutched her arms. “We have to go back.”
“And the well?”
“I couldn’t get close to it.”
He loosened his grip, and she extricated herself, resuming her march. She walked faster, with Shafi following closely and calling out to her, but she didn’t listen.
When they had covered a longer distance, she began to see the well more clearly. It was working and functional. Whole, unbroken stones surrounded it; the winch was intact and still moved; the rope rose and descended by itself.
Suddenly the air stopped Latifa. She was not able to walk any farther.
Her husband said: “This is as far as I got.”
“Nothing. We go back.”
“And the water?”
“You won’t reach the well.”
She didn’t listen and instead tried walking, but the barrier of air stopped her — air that pushed her back. She turned her body so that she might cheat it by walking backward, but it was no use. The air was steadfast, like a wall, blocking any breach. She had changed her trajectory to try and pass through the air from the other side when her husband stopped her: “I tried all directions, and I couldn’t get through.”
She lost hope at the stubbornness of the well that was withholding its water. She screamed while she threw the skin in front of her, toward the well. It hung in the air, neither falling to the ground nor floating up, instead remaining suspended.
What they saw astonished them. This was not the doing of scorpions or wolves.
“Come now, Latifa! We’ll die if we stay.”
“And my daughter?” She fell to her knees, weeping.
Her husband shouted: “Layla will die here with us!”
“She’ll die if we return without water!”
In that moment, the movement of the rope quickened, and the waterskin hovered in place, no air moving it.
Shafi lost the will to retreat, or he simply could not. Latifa waited and stared at what she was seeing.
The skin began moving in the direction of the well, as if being pulled by someone, although no string was dragging it, nor was anything pushing it. They saw the skin plunge into the well and emerge again — inflated, with water trickling down from it. It then returned to them with the same speed.
Shafi seized it before it could fall to the ground. Water dripped onto his dry beard and dusty cloak as he tightened his grip around the skin.
Latifa stood, laughing through her tears. She helped him with the waterskin so it wouldn’t drop and spill all the water. The miracle would not be repeated — this was Layla’s miracle.
When they returned to her and found her sleeping peacefully, they woke her and showered her mouth with drops of water, more and more, until her thirst had been quenched.
Translated by Leonie Rau.