Around the Well

This short story is meant to be read in conjunction with All the Yellow Posies.

Chapter 29—it’s the end of 1924. While Dane and Lou are smitten in Paris, planning their Christmas Eve trip to Notre Dame, nearly five thousand miles across the ocean, we find ourselves once again at the Thompson’s dinner table…

Marceline was tired from the company and tired overall. She’d enjoyed catching up with Jamie and Carolyn and listening to jolly conversation around the roasted chicken that night—though she’d caught herself more than once turning her attention to the wind blowing the branches across the glass window and to the empty chair seated to her right, brought back to the present only by the flutter in her stomach. What would they all think of that—that nearly six months in, she was still startled by the presence of her own baby? A child that should, in theory, be as healing for her as it was for the rest of her family.

The tinseled pine tree with its familiar ornaments stood at attention in the corner, as it had every Christmas since they were children and every year that Holden had been away from home. The only difference was that no one talked about him now like they did when he was fighting in the war. Still, for someone who was never acknowledged, his unspoken memory still clung to the halls of her parent’s house like a phantom, overshadowed only by Jamie’s career success and the excruciating wait for the first grandchild. If someone would only say his name. Then maybe she’d be able to pretend he was still away—she could pretend he was off causing trouble with Dane in Paris—she could be upset at him for not coming home for Christmas, and that would be the extent of her grievances with her older brother. Then maybe, she could enjoy her dinner. 

“Honey?” She turned to see her mother looking at her expectantly, accompanied by a stroke of Arvin’s fingers across her hand resting in her lap. “Is everything okay?”

Realizing she’d let her mind drift off again, Marceline’s gaze circled the table, meeting each pair of curious eyes with a polite smile. “Of course,” she assured. 

“Pondering names?” piqued Carolyn happily. 

“Yes! How’d you know?” She laughed her most convincing laugh and glanced over at her husband to see that the corners of his mouth were turned upward just slightly. He knew the Christmas tree was a sore reminder of times past. He knew her birthday was complicated. He knew that every time she looked at her mother, she remembered that Holden had been a baby once, too, and now he was gone. 

“We’re undecided for the time being,” Arvin chimed in. 

“Not to worry,” added her father. “You’ll know when the time comes. Won’t they, dear?”

Arvin patted her knee as if to say you’re doing just fine, as Marceline watched her parents talk back and forth. They’d inquired about the name only once, back when she first told them she was expecting. Her parents had nonchalantly mentioned that Holden was a family name, and if she wanted to use it, she could. That was the only time they’d spoken her brother’s name in almost a year, and at the time, she hadn’t the heart to tell them how much she hated him. Of course, she still had plenty of reasons to resent him as she sat there that night, but the anger had diminished, and she’d started to soften, leaving nothing but a bitter emptiness, colder than the winter solstice itself. 

Arvin continued on, redirecting the conversation back to the new house they’d recently purchased on Edward Street, and Marceline again focused on the side window of the dining room, allowing her thoughts to slide backward. The old willow tree had come down a year after Holden had died, which to her, had felt meaningful. A lightning storm had cracked its hundred-year-old trunk in three places, and by some miracle it had missed hitting her parents’ house. There was only a broad stump to keep the old well company now, and the era of shaded childhood pleasures in the backyard was long gone. 

She looked to Jamie, who was chattering away, wondering if he ever thought about how they all used to play together outside. He’d been younger than she and Holden, yes, but not by too much—surely he’d remember if she brought it up, but she knew she wouldn’t. Marceline had convinced herself long ago that he was only interested in moving forward—in his niece or nephew or his newly opened practice—and so, much like with Dane, she felt oceans away from what felt like her last remaining sibling. Jamie’s relationship with Holden had always felt both complicated and strained, and she loved them both equally—for all of their differences. But it was Holden that was there to welcome her into the world and hold her hand when she first began to walk; it was him she climbed into bed with when thunder shook the walls of their house late at night. 

She’d spent the whole drive home silently staring at the dark sky, thinking of how appropriate it was that even the moon had gone into hiding on the longest day of the year: the eve of her birthday. Arvin had gone to bed shortly after returning from dinner, leaving her to her own devices with a kiss and a promise that he was there if she needed anything. She smiled sweetly in that way she always did—earnest eyed and tightlipped, as if to say I’m fine, really. Always. “I’m just going to sit up for a while,” she’d told him. “Go on ahead.” When he was down the hall and out of sight, Marceline returned her awareness to the lit candle at the edge of the dining room table. She picked up the brass chamberstick and walked into the house’s large, mostly barren front foyer. It had been just shy of two months since the Stanleys had bought the massive brick residence on Edward Street, hoping to fill it out eventually with a family of their own, but the house felt foreign as she stood in its palatial entrance. The room was lit by unsteady candlelight, and her eyes followed the crown molding, eventually meeting herself in the mirror that hung above the heirloom piano.   

Marceline had acquired the piano from her maternal grandmother and her brother’s namesake—Mary Holden—years ago, when she was a girl. The first of the M names of the family, Mary, had the piano brought over from Ireland, and to Marceline’s dismay, she’d never learned to play it as well as she should’ve. Even though Holden couldn’t read music and she could, he’d still managed to play it better, even if only by ear. One December he’d taught himself to play “Paddy’s Lamentation” as a Christmas gift for their father—inspired by the stories he’d heard about Grandfather Thompson in the Irish Brigade. He’d practiced incessantly, filling the house with earsplitting notes, always shushing her and Jamie so he could focus. And when he’d debuted his performance on Christmas Eve, he nearly brought the whole family to tears. That was just like him, though.She set the chamberstick on the top and grazed her fingers across its familiar keys. That was the version of her brother she remembered most—that impeccably talented eleven-year-old boy on the piano. Even now, she couldn’t think of December without envisioning the Union troops gazing up at the northern lights, their future unknown. 

Her nostalgia was interrupted by the flame flickering for a moment, as if it were to be blown out and she was quick to pick up the candle. She’d certainly never forget the men of the Irish Brigade now; not when her lavish house stood over so many of their graves. She met her eyes for a second time in the tarnished mirror and was overcome by a sudden chill. Feeling unsettled and filled with a desire to reminisce, she tiptoed to the kitchen door, unlocking it quietly. Bundled in her shawl, she hurried across the veranda with her sights set on the north wing. 

The library was still unorganized from the move, with books piled maddeningly in every direction. Marceline set the candle down and scanned the room. It only took her a moment to locate the small trunk of Holden’s books in the corner of the room, and she sighed in relief at the sight of it. She’d been afraid for a moment they might’ve disappeared, and she’d have nothing left of her brother. She unfastened the latch and reached inside, pulling out a red pocket-sized publication she’d never heard of titled Damain. Probably one Dane had sent him. Marceline set it aside and rummaged through the trunk until she was surrounded by various titles, all worn and marked up. It was only appropriate that the book she’d sought out was at the bottom, and she smiled as she lifted it and blew off the dust. She opened it and read the first line.

Marley was dead.

“Oh,” she murmured, feeling movement. She laughed a little, bringing her hand to her belly. “You like Dickens, do you?” she asked. The baby was unresponsive. Still, Marceline talked on. “Holden—your uncle Holden—he used to read this to me when I was little. Do you know that?” No movement. She accepted the moment of bonding with her child had passed, and yet, felt compelled to continue. This was new for her. She’d spent the majority of her pregnancy feeling detached from the life inside of her, and it was only tonight that she felt a flutter of connection. “Perhaps I will read it to you, then,” she suggested, again picking up the book. “’There was no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Old Marley was dead as a doornail.’” She whispered the words by candlelight, reminded of the times she and Jamie would gather late at night by the fire to listen to Holden recite A Christmas Carol. He read of spirits and magic—subjects that both fascinated and frightened her as a girl—as passionately as Dickens himself, and for a time, she wondered if her older brother was some sort of wielder of worlds, who understood the workings of everything underneath. She was too young to see, of course, that he was just a clever storyteller, dedicated to playing the part. At least that’s what she told herself, sitting on the floor of the library that night. 

When Marceline was satisfied and tired enough to attempt sleep, she made her way back across the veranda, leaving the blown-out candle and book on the edge of the piano before heading to her bedroom. She recycled old memories of Holden as she laid her head on her pillow, waiting impatiently for slumber to wash over, knowing that at the stroke of midnight she would surpass him in age at last. And with only twenty minutes to spare, she finally drifted off into her dreamworld, Arvin sleeping soundly at her side. The sleep wasn’t a restful one though, much like most of her pregnancy. She found herself tossing and turning through the night, her sleep dotted with various visions and fragments of times past, freshly reignited after years of dormancy. 

The sun was shining brightly when she opened her eyes again, and she was on the edge of her parents’ yard. Unsure of how she’d ended up there, she looked around, taking in the flap of each butterfly wing, the buzz of each spring bumble bee, and the familiar loamy smell of her youth. She’d been here before.Of course, there was the obvious—it was her childhood home. But it was somehow more than that. She’d dreamt about being there before, always unable to remember it the next day, the vivid evocation quick to fade with the sunrise. She looked toward the willow tree, its branches swaying in an unhurried breeze, as if time wasn’t quite the same in this place. She saw the stone well waiting beneath and smiled to herself, gathering the bunched trails of her nightgown. She ran toward it—her hair long and loose, its fiery blonde strands flowing behind her. It was the familiar mirror, engraved with an M, that sat on its edge, or rather, the sunlight reflecting off of it, that caused her to cease in her tracks. 

“What do you see, Marcie?” Holden asked, as he and Dane held her over the well, face up. 

“It looks like water…” 

“Grab on to her dress,” Dane directed. “Make sure you’re holding her tight.” 

Marceline couldn’t see either of her brothers, but she was sure Holden had shot him a look of irritation—as if he’d ever let their sister fall into a well.It was a childhood game they’d all played before, except for Jamie, who was just a little too young for such a dangerous excursion. 

“What about now, Marcie?” asked Dane, shifting her a bit. “Is that any better?”

Marceline squinted up at the mirror against the bright summer sky, trying to focus on the inky water below her. “What am I looking for, again?” she asked. 

“Shapes, pictures, anything really.”

“Well?” Holden asked impatiently, his voice fading into the background. “Do you see anything?”

Marceline snapped back to the present, standing before the mirror. She never hadseen her future at the bottom of the well as a child, not that summer or any other—perhaps if she had, things would’ve been different. For all of them. Still, for old times’ sake, she picked up the looking glass, tucking her long hair to the side. She situated herself at the edge of the well, looking intently at the reflection, trying out the old wives’ tale a last time for good measure. 

At first, the water was as she remembered, but then she saw the lining of a cloud—or was it the top of the willow tree? She’d started to analyze the picture more closely when a flash ripped across her vision, and she nearly dropped the mirror into the well. “Oh!” She gasped, sitting up to catch her balance. “You nearly scared me senseless,” she said lightheartedly, sighing at the bluebird that had taken up on the branch above her. The bird tilted its head as if it were listening, which made her smile.  

Marceline brought her attention back to the mirror in her lap, holding it up to study its edges. It, too, had belonged to Mary, and for her mother’s sake she was all at once relieved it hadn’t fallen in the well, dream or not. But then, something—someone—caught her eye in the reflection of Mary Holden’s mirror. There, behind her, was a shoulder. She tilted the glass, revealing a pair of suspenders and dark hair. Marceline dropped the mirror in the grass at her feet, standing urgently and whipping around to see the apparition for herself.  

Holden didn’t move at first as he sat on the opposite edge of the well, elbows resting on his knees. Then, he looked up at her over his shoulder, nearly stopping her heart with his familiar blue eyes. She tried to say something, but all that came out was a small gasp. He turned around to face her—looking as if he might speak—as if he might say, Jesus Christ Marcie, can you ever forgive me? But he must’ve known she’d say no, because he lost his words too. 

Holden was dead.

There was no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the undertaker, and the chief mourner, and yet there he was—sitting in front of her with that stupid look on his face—the one that always got him out of everything. “You…” She’d rehearsed what she would say to her brother if she ever saw him again in this life or the next, but it all flew out the window when the opportunity actually came. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” she said. He raised his hands and stood up apprehensively. He was right to be afraid of her. “Well, Holden? Do you?!” 

“Marcie—”

“Don’t,” she pleaded. Her voice was tinged with rage, and by the look on his face, he knew her anger was valid. “I don’t want to hear it…I’m too tired. Do you know what people told me when you died? The people I confided in?” Holden opened his mouth like he was about to speak, but she plowed ahead, her face turning as red as the tint of her hair. “They all told me you were going to Hell—isn’t that lovely? You look perfectly content though, don’t you, while the rest of us wrack our brains trying to figure you out. You know Lou, right? She left—all because of you—I lost my closest friend because of you.” The tears in her eyes froze, as if they wouldn’t fall until she’d said all she wanted to say to him. “And you know that with Dane doing God knows what and Jamie as absent as ever, that I’ve been asked to bear the brunt of this, don’t you? It’s me that has to hold our family together—didn’t you care at all?”

“You’re right, Marcie.”

“Unless you really are as selfish as everyone says. Because you had to have known that…” She trailed off. “What did you say?”

 “I said you were right.” Marceline only stared at him. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d let her win an argument, real or otherwise. “You’re right. About everything.”

She studied her brother’s face, hit all at once by the admiration for him that she’d tried so hard to fight off. “Then why?” She stepped closer to him, looking upward at his height. “Why didn’t you say goodbye?”

When she would’ve normally expected him to deflect her question, he didn’t. Instead, he inhaled and turned away, situating his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t know how to.”

“Do you have me?” Holden asked, looking at her and Dane for confirmation. Marceline held her brother’s right arm as he leaned back with the mirror; she watched as his eyes traced various shapes, the crystal blue color widening at something. “I can’t see it completely…hold on to me,” he directed, leaning further over.  

“Holden, no!” Dane scolded, his hold on him slipping. Marceline clutched on to his shirt with a death grip, nearly lifted off her feet. Realizing he was one fall away from a watery grave, Holden snapped back to reality and grabbed on to Dane’s forearm. “I’ve got you,” Dane promised, pulling him up with all the strength he had. Holden was out of breath by the time he was completely upright, and Marceline, a mere nine years old, was almost in tears. 

“How could you do that! You almost died!” she shouted, shoving him angrily. “I thought I was going to lose you forever!” 

“I just wanted to see, Marcie—that’s all,” he argued, taking her in his arms and rocking her. “I’m okay, see? I’m just fine. It’s all right, it’s all okay! You could never lose me forever.” 

“But I couldn’t hold on to you!” she cried.  

“Of course you couldn’t.” He took her chubby cheeks in his hands and stared into her eyes. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to—what if you’d fallen in with me?”

When Marceline came to, he was squeezing her just as he had when they were young. His arms were bigger as they locked around her neck, his voice deeper, but she still felt like the same little girl. “See?” he reiterated. “It’s all okay.” She sniffled, unable to remember the last time he’d hugged her that way—even before he died. “I promise, Marcie,” he mumbled. “I promise I’ll tell you everything one day.”

“And what good does that do me now?” she asked, finally permitting a tear to fall. “You’re going to be an uncle—at least you would’ve been. Now you’re just a memory, a ghost—” 

“No,” he protested, pulling away from her. 

“What do you mean, no?”

He looked at her more seriously than she could ever remember. “I’ll make sure she knows me,” he clarified. 

The pair stared blankly at each other before Marceline finally spoke. “She…?”

He grinned a bit, as if she should know. “My niece.”  

Someone whispered in her ear, and Marceline startled awake. Looking around, there was no one to be seen but Arvin fast asleep next to her. Still, she felt as though she were being watched. The baby wriggled in her stomach, causing her dream of Holden to flood back to her all at once, and she felt both soothed and unnerved by it as she tried to calm the little one. Consumed by her brother’s words and his prediction of a daughter, she laid her head back down on the pillow, only to hear the faint sound of a piano as soon as she closed her eyes. It was both in her ear and in the walls, a melody so somber and familiar—like standing on the fringe of a Christmas Eve long departed. 

The notes of “Paddy’s Lamentation” echoed down the hall, and for a moment, she wondered if she might still be dreaming. This notion vanished when she stepped barefoot onto the cold wood floor. Why it’s by the hush, me boys, and that’s sure to hold your noise, she hummed along. Marceline inched her way to the bedroom door in her white nightgown, hoping to investigate the music, which dissipated as soon as she entered the dark, narrow hallway. But her attention was soon caught by something else—a dim light splashing up and down the walls of the foyer. The house felt thinner somehow—and she, lighter—as she followed the wall toward the mysterious glow. Marceline was no longer afraid of ghosts, not even when she saw the dancing flame of a lone birthday candle, even though she was certain she’d blown it out. She simply closed her eyes and smiled.  

“’I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future,’” Holden recited to Jamie and Marceline as they lay on their stomachs in her memory, cheeks resting in their palms and their faces bright with wonder. “’The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me,’” she finished with a whisper. 

And no sooner had she spoken the words, the flame extinguished itself, leaving behind only a trail of smoke.