By Alice Rosenberg & Kendyl Kearly
“The Fountain” explores the fear of aging and being forgotten through the eyes of Lilian, a 74-year-old New Yorker who makes a surreal discovery on one of her countless boring afternoons.
The years had chipped away at the fountain, so the stone was patched green and the edges of the basin were crumbling away. They barely enclosed a dirty pool of water that was thick with mud in some places. A sprightly Cupid teetered over on his platform, and his arms lay on the grass embracing each other.
Made in 1942, the monument had been brushed by 4,287 hands. Six men laid the stone and wired the pipes, 32 used it as a makeshift bench to tie their shoes, 16 paused to take a picture, often soon deleting them because the light in the courtyard was usually poor. One couple got engaged there during the fountain’s better days. Thousands of people had seen it before Lilian, but none had been as excited by the silver wishes inside.
Once again, Lilian had skipped the book club meeting that Gail and Bobby had signed her up for. They hadn’t even bothered to ask if she’d be interested—they just assumed that a 74-year-old woman would find it the thrill of her rotting life. She couldn’t tell you what the novel—something silly about a lifeguard and a mermaid—was about, but after that afternoon of hooky, she knew exactly how many books took up the romance section of the store that sold it (652). She’d also visited every department of The Met (17). Even though her left toe hadn’t stopped throbbing since she banged it into the elevator that morning, she still wasn’t tired.
When Lilian stumbled upon the residential courtyard, she couldn’t believe she’d never seen it before. As a lifelong New Yorker, she’d of course scoffed at the tourists who staked their happiness on the fountains at Bethesda Terrace and City Hall, but she had never seen anything like this. Thousands, maybe millions of coins littered the bottom of the fountain, which was much smaller than the famous ones. All of the American coins, plus euros, pounds, pence, Canadian dollars, toonies, loonies and a few Lira stacked thick so the basin below barely showed through. Lilian thought it might all total to a small fortune. But more than that, they were lovely—so many years there, so many different people hoping for a bit of luck.
She fingered the rough surface of the fountain’s edge. No one was looking. The pretty businesswoman to her left was engrossed in a paperback, and the mother with the baby clearly had her hands full. I’m being ridiculous.
But still, Lilian poked a hand into the water, colder than expected. Freshwater soaking her sleeve, she blindly reached in and touched slick algae. More to the right. There. She closed her hand around the change and examined the wet haul. Sixteen pennies and a nickel.
Thousands of people had seen the fountain before Lillian, but none had been as excited by the silver wishes inside.
She would have to be better than that. Scoop after scoop, each preceded by a furtive glance around, she managed to fill her coat pockets, making the most wonderfully heavy sound.
Picking the dirt and algae from under her fingernails, Lilian surveyed the courtyard. It was beginning to rain, just enough to dapple her dark gray bob. Bobby and Gail had already said goodbye to her for the week, so no one would worry about her.
When she stood up, Lilian heard it, the jingle of her money falling from her pocket and rolling into the new puddles. No! She’d forgotten the ripped seam of her coat.
There were plenty of people who would probably help. The young mom had started to look over. But she couldn’t let them touch the engraved faces and realize that she was a thief of stupid little wishes; no better than the crazy lady in the park who talked to pigeons. They would realize, correctly, that she didn’t really need the money. Lilian lowered to her knees—oof. But once she put her joints through it, she might as well scoop up the coins that she could.
Uncountable ripples formed in the water by the second, each creating its own tiny whirlpool. When Lilian looked up, everyone else had gone. Despite the melting sky, Lilian relaxed; no one was there to send worried glances her way or offer to carry her bags or ask if there was someone waiting for her. She could stop being the nice old lady and instead just be.
The coins on the ground, each flashing when a streak of lighting hit, called back her attention. She’d get there eventually, but for now the hours of exploration were catching up with her. She needed a rest.
If Lilian had had a watch, she would have shrugged back her layers of sweater sleeves and gasped at how much time had passed. If she’d been able to tell how late it now was, she would’ve turned back to the money and frantically grabbed as much as she could. She would’ve stayed fishing up to her elbows in the fountain because she didn’t have anyone waiting for her, she didn’t need help getting home, and she definitely didn’t need these coins. But Lilian didn’t have a watch, so she waited alone at the fountain as the hours rushed by.
In starting this project, Alice and Kendyl were first inspired by a nursery rhyme about the omens behind seeing crows (“one for sorrow, two for joy …”). They decided to collaborate on a collection of short stories, one for each of the numbers. “The Fountain” represents “five for silver,” as the protagonist, Lilian, becomes fascinated with a fountain full of coins. This initial idea seemed from Alice’s response to a writing prompt, and she and Kendyl finessed the idea into a contemplative tale of aging. They each wrote multiple sections and stepped back with an editor’s eye to make sure the writing styles matched. Over the course of their many, many revisions, the main character evolved from Lyla, a 16-year-old teenager, to Lilian, a 74-year-old woman who doesn’t know what to do with the rest of her life and struggles to make her free time worthwhile.
Alice Rosenberg is a 14-year-old writer who keeps track of all of her ideas in one of her many, many notebooks. She loves rainy days, poetry collections and forget-me-nots. Her bedroom walls are filled with magazine cutouts and other paraphernalia she has collected over the years. Her favorite word is "opia," which is the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.
Kendyl Kearly is a writer, editor and journalist hailing from the Knoxville, Tennessee area. She's currently an emerging news editor at The Baltimore Sun and has worked with Esquire, New York Magazine, States Newsroom, Bustle, Afar, Manhattan magazine, San Francisco magazine and many more.