Skip to main content
Updated date:

The Well: A Short Story

This story is dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman who gave my heart a home.

the-well-a-short-story


THE ORPHAN

Anon. (first century B.C.)

translated by Arthur Waley in 1918


To be an orphan,

To be fated to be an orphan.

How bitter is this lot!

When my father and mother were alive

I used to ride in a carriage

With four fine horses.

But when they both died,

My brother and sister-in-law

Sent me out to be a merchant.

In the south I travelled to the “Nine Rivers”

And in the east as far as Ch’i and Lu.

At the end of the year when I came home

I dared not tell them what I had suffered—

Of the lice and vermin in my head,

Of the dust in my face and eyes.

My brother told me to get ready the dinner.

My sister-in-law told me to see after the horses.

I was always going up into the hall

And running down again to the parlour.

My tears fell like rain.

In the morning they sent me to draw water,

I didn’t get back till night-fall.

My hands were all sore

And I had no shoes.

I walked the cold earth

Treading on thorns and brambles.

As I stopped to pull out the thorns,

How bitter my heart was!

My tears fell and fell

And I went on sobbing and sobbing.

In winter I have no great-coat;

Nor in summer, thin clothes.

It is no pleasure to be alive.

I had rather quickly leave the earth[

And go beneath the Yellow Springs.

The April winds blow

And the grass is growing green.

In the third month—silkworms and mulberries,

In the sixth month—the melon-harvest.

I went out with the melon-cart

And just as I was coming home

The melon-cart turned over.

The people who came to help me were few,

But the people who ate the melons were many,

All they left me was the stalks—

To take home as fast as I could.

My brother and sister-in-law were harsh,

They asked me all sorts of awful questions.

Why does everyone in the village hate me?

I want to write a letter and send it

To my mother and father under the earth,

And tell them I can’t go on any longer

Living with my brother and sister-in-law.

Hades.


Li Jing answered the doorbell of her storefront acupuncture clinic located in the heart of China Town in San Francisco and ushered the young Hispanic woman in.

The young woman had mailed in the intake form ahead of time, and Li Jing looked it over.

“How long have you been trying to conceive?”
“A year.”

Li Jing looked at the form again.

“You live in the Mission which is quite a distance from here. There is an acupuncture school there. They charge on a sliding scale. Why did you come here?”

“The acupuncture school had only Americans as students. They wouldn’t understand.”

“Understand what?”

“What it is like to leave.”
“Why did you leave?”

“There was so much crime and poverty in our village, so many drugs.”
“It is better here?”

“Yes and no. Yes, because there isn’t the same crime and poverty and drugs. But also no: we are all so desperate here, traumatized and nearly floundering every day in a new culture and new language. That’s another reason I came here.”

“Why?”

“I feel the baby who is not yet conceived. I feel she won’t accept being conceived in that atmosphere, but she’ll listen to you.”

Li Jing motioned for her.

to lie down on the treatment table and proceeded to scan her body, holding her hands three inches above the surface of the woman’s body. Tightness in the feet. Ice cold in the uterus.

She moved towards her heart where a significant amount of heat was generating from an area the size of a small square.

“Do you have something on beneath your top?”
The young woman reached in and showed Li Jing a medallion of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

“Who is this?”

“The Virgin of Guadalupe. She is our mother.”

++++


Li Jing did an acupuncture treatment and mixed some herbs to drink as tea.

“And the medallion: keep wearing it and sometimes try to rest it on your abdomen.”

+++

Li Jing closed her office and went upstairs to her apartment.

She made a supper of vegetables, tofu, and rice and reviewed the next day’s paperwork while she ate.

After cleaning up the kitchen, she threw the coins to consult the I Ching before practicing her nighttime Gi Gong exercises.

Hexagram 48: the well.

She thought about this. The digits of forty-eight added together equaled twelve which, when added together equaled three: a number of expansion.


+++

Li Jing was adopted at age ten by two Chinese citizens who were naturalized Americans.

Her mother and father were Freedom Swimmers, young people who swam from Mainland China to Hong Kong. At age 25, the young couple swam with a large group of others, all tied together by a rope. Some died of exhaustion along the way and others were attacked by sharks. Her parents survived the perilous journey.

They spent the next fifteen years in Hong Kong, first surviving and learning English and then pursuing degrees in law.

In 1983, they immigrated to the United States, settling in San Francisco. After procuring citizenship, they both took the bar exam and set up a legal practice to help other Chinese immigrants become citizens.

Such a life was not conducive to starting a family, but, at age fifty, they felt established enough and wanted to help at least one child from China to have a better life.

Their advanced age and their desire to help those who otherwise would not be helped, lead them to seek an older girl. Li Jing was ten when they arrived at the orphanage and sickly.

They brought her to the States, teaching her English and hiring tutors for her other schooling while she regained her health.

While they were not averse to Western Medicine, they held a firm belief in the Traditional Chinese Medicine that they were raised with and took Li Jing to a TCM practitioner.

He had her lie on her back on the treatment table, and he scanned his hands above her body, not saying a word, though sometimes nodding his head.

He looked up at her parents and said, “She is a healer.”

He prescribed an acupuncture and herbal routine and offered to mentor Li Jing without remuneration.

+++

Li Jing worked as his assistant until age thirty, and then he told her she was ready to open her own clinic.

And then both her adoptive parents died within two months of each other. They were only seventy, but their difficult years in China and Hong Kong, both physically and emotionally, left lingering detrimental effects on their entire being.

+++

Li Jing was an orphan for a second time, and her feelings of vulnerability threatened to incapacitate her.

Her mentor told her sternly that she must open her own clinic, both to share with the world her gift and because healing work heals both the patient and the healer. In deference to her vulnerability, he suggested a clinic only for women.

+++

Her mentor was right. The purpose her work gave here was nearly an explosive fuel, propelling her forward through the darkest of days.

Her deep pain and isolation created an opening in her. She knew it was popular to speak of “empathy” and “compassion”, and she grew tired of the slick advertisements for “retreats to develop compassion” full of saccharine smiles that she in the publications where she advertised. What she was experiencing was beyond empathy and compassion, though these were elements. The healing she administered flowed through the gash in her heart and mind.

+++

Remaining in Chinatown wasn’t helping. It was her identity and language and culture. It was also a constant reminder of the harsh life she left in China and a constant reminder of the life she had with her adoptive parents which was now gone forever.

Her I Ching reading said The Well. The I Ching never lied, but sometimes it made her look hard for the answer, feel deeply, open wide.

+++

There was a Friday in early July when she had no appointments. This never happened, and she didn’t know how to face such an expanse of unscheduled time.

She decided to go to the Mission District, something she had never done, to see and feel for herself the things her client had described.

Since she had a lot of time, she decided to take the bus, a slower route that would give her an opportunity to see parts of the city she had never seen.

+++

She got out on 9th and Mission and began to walk down this street, crammed with people, crammed with shops that were crammed with a lot of cheap things. Small grocery stores spilled out onto the sidewalk. People were selling their belongings set out on blankets on the sidewalk. Others were grilling tacos to sell.

And the Virgin of Guadalupe was everywhere: painted on the side of buildings, displayed in windows and on t-shirts and on candles sold on the sidewalk.

+++

She walked down the side streets, each reflecting a different aspect of the neighborhood: thrift shops, hair salons, money changers. There were a few spotty signs of gentrification – non-immigrants grabbing up cheap property.

Li Jing returned to Mission Street and sat on a bench in front of a store, watching the sea of humanity, feeling their determination and trauma, their fear and displacement and bewilderment.

Looking beyond these qualities, she saw the eternal human spirit.

She got up to find some image of the Virgin of Guadalupe again to try to understand her.

A store selling religious paraphernalia had the Virgin’s image on display in the window.

What struck her most was the halo that surrounded her whole body. All her energy centers were open and alive.

+++

The Well: Hexagram 48. She now understood. The bucket going down to the well may crack. The string lowering it may break. But the well is always there.

Like the eternal human spirit.

Her work helped people to mend the bucket and the string, so they could regain contact with the eternal human spirit.

Her work kept her connected to the eternal human spirit, too, and, sometimes, helped her to forget that she was an orphan, helped her to feel that she belonged.

She remembered the young woman in her office saying, “The Virgin of Guadalupe is our mother.”

Li Jing knew what she had to do for them and for herself.

+++

She walked up and down Mission Street, looking for buildings for sale, writing down phone numbers and noting addresses.

+++

Her storefront office in Chinatown with the apartment above was the building that her parents had used for their law practice, and she had inherited it. Real estate was less expensive in the Mission District. She could sell her building and buy one on Mission Street with enough money to begin a new business.

When she met with a realtor, he suggested she apply for a small business grant from the city.

The city office helped her with this and suggested places she could seek out funding from the private sector.

Since her objective was to provide very low-cost health services to an underserved population, the money was forthcoming.

When questioned on her ethnicity and that of the population she aimed to serve, she said, “I spent the first ten years of my life in an orphanage in China, was never adopted because I was sickly, and then was brought to a foreign land. I understand. ”

+++

Her parent’s property sold. She moved from the apartment she had lived in for twenty years and emptied the storefront that was her office and that was, at one time, her parents’ law practice.

It took her two weeks to settle in to the apartment above the storefront that would be her new clinic in the Mission District and to set up the storefront as a clinic.

The actual treatments would happen in a back room. The front room would be a waiting area.

She hired a receptionist who knew both English and Spanish and began learning Spanish online.

+++

As it was all taking shape, she knew something was missing.

She walked the length of Mission Street, going into one shop after another until she found what she needed.

Coming back to her new place, she hung a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe up in the window and, on the counter of the reception area and on a corner table in her office, she placed small statues of the Virgin.

+++

Eleven months later, her receptionist told Li Jing that there was a woman with a baby in the waiting room. They did not have an appointment but asked, nonetheless, to see her.

Li Jing went out into the waiting room and saw the young woman who had come to see her in Chinatown, unable to conceive.

She beckoned them into her treatment room.

“I wanted to thank you.”

“It took a while.”

“It did, but the day I saw your office open, I looked in the window and saw you. I conceived that month. We wanted to find a name in our language that was close to yours to honor you, so we named her Liani. Would you like to hold her?”

Li Jing took the baby in her arms, feeling the baby’s hopeful energy, a baby loved and wanted. She looked at the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe and felt her full body halo surround this tiny human.

She remembered hexagram 48, The Well: despite broken vessels, the eternal well of the human spirit was, indeed, eternal.

Holding the baby to her heart, she wept for the first time in her life.


The End


PRUNING TREES

Anon. (first century B.C.)

translated by Arthur Waley in 1918


Trees growing—right in front of my window;

The trees are high and the leaves grow thick.

Sad alas! the distant mountain view

Obscured by this, dimly shows between.

One morning I took knife and axe;

With my own hand I lopped the branches off.

Ten thousand leaves fall about my head;

A thousand hills came before my eyes.

Suddenly, as when clouds or mists break

And straight through, the blue sky appears;

Again, like the face of a friend one has loved

Seen at last after an age of parting.

First there came a gentle wind blowing;

One by one the birds flew back to the tree.

To ease my mind I gazed to the South East;

As my eyes wandered, my thoughts went far away.

Of men there is none that has not some preference;

Of things there is none but mixes good with ill.

It was not that I did not love the tender branches;

But better still,—to see the green hills!


© 2021 Karen Beaumont

Related Articles