I live in a well. I live like smoke in the well. Like vapor in a stone throat. I don’t move. I don’t do anything but wait. Overhead I see the cold stars of night and morning, and I see the sun. And sometimes I sing old songs of this world when it was young. How can I tell you what I am when I don’t know? I cannot. I am simply waiting. I am mist and moonlight and memory. I am sad and I am old. Sometimes I fall like rain into the well. Spider webs are startled into forming where my rain falls fast, on the water surface. I wait in cool silence and there will be a day when I no longer wait.
From ‘The One Who Waits’, by Ray Bradbury
I fell in love with Ray Bradbury’s writing early, in my tweens or early teens. My dad was a fan, and he passed that on to me. There were several short story collections by Bradbury on the bookshelves at home, and one of those collections was ‘The Machineries of Joy’. In it, you’ll find ‘The One Who Waits’ which is one of my favourite short stories of all time. It’s also kind of the gold-standard for me as an example of how you can craft an excellent short story.
Even when I read it now, when I have a lot more reading and writing experience under my belt than when I first read it, it still blows me away. It might not be as famous as other Bradbury short stories, like ‘The Veldt’, or ‘The Small Assassin’, but to me, it’s a masterpiece.
Why? Well, let me tell you some of the reasons why…
1. An excellent beginning
“I live in a well. I live like smoke in the well.”
I sometimes think the importance of the first line is somewhat exaggerated, and that it’s really the first paragraph or even the first page that is important. But it is true that a good first line can be the barbed hook that pulls you down into the depths of a story. It doesn’t have to be something astonishingly original, but it should tell you something that makes you want to keep reading. Bradbury’s opening line and opening paragraph for ‘The One Who Waits’ is beautifully constructed, making it a shiny, sharp, and deliciously baited story-hook.
2. A tight POV
Bradbury picks a very tight, very limited point of view for this story, and that is a story-telling technique I usually prefer to any kind of omniscient, above-and-outside POV. Even better, Bradbury picks a strange and alien narrator, one who isn’t even human. This choice immediately gives the story an unsettling and evocative vibe: Who is talking to us? We don’t know, and the narrator isn’t sure either.
3. Beautiful prose
Bradbury can occasionally be pulpy and sentimental, but when he’s at his best, he is a stunning craftsman of prose. Those lines: “Like vapor in a stone throat.” “I am mist and moonlight and memory.” It is so very Bradbury and so very beautiful: poetry intertwined with prose, striking imagery, and that sense of both wistfulness and unsettling creepiness. (Also: spiderwebs in a well on Mars? That’s a sure sign of Bradbury right there.)
4. Slow-building creepiness
Bradbury is a master of effectively building up the creepiness level of a story. He slips in that feeling of wrongness, of danger, that shiver of fear or horror just beneath the surface, and then twists and turns it expertly until he’s got the cold shivers running up and down my back. That is precisely what he does in ‘The One Who Waits’:
“What’s the matter, Jones?”
“I don’t know. Got a terrible headache. All of a sudden.”
“Did you drink the water yet?”
“No, I haven’t. It’s not that. I was just bending over the well and all of a sudden my head split. I feel better now.”
Now I know who I am.
5. It’s short and sweet
‘The One Who Waits’ is just over 2,000 words. Of course, a short short story isn’t necessarily better just because it’s short, but what I do admire is how much Bradbury packs into those 2,000 words. It’s lean and taut, it’s contained, and every word serves a purpose. There’s no bulky exposition, no big backstory. Bradbury gives us just enough facts and hints to understand and infer what is happening, and not a bit more. Perfection.
‘The One Who Waits’ was originally published in The Arkham Sampler, in 1949. It then appeared in ‘The Machineries of Joy’, published in 1964. If you Google it, you might also find it online.
- The Machineries of Joy: Short Stories at Amazon.