Storytime: Well.

September 23rd, 2015

This is my fault, so you know. I woke up and I was thirsty. Terrible mistake.
So dad told me, as you do: “Son, light of my life, fruit and veg of my loins, why the hell are you bothering me then? You know your family’s buried in this land. Your great-great-grandfather, Kindly Elijah, fought it with his bare hands to clear it, day in and out, because he believed there was room here for a real and good community of friends and neighbors that treated each other as such. Your great-grandfather, Simple Clay, ploughed it with his teeth when his horses died, so’s to feed his family. Your grandfather, Charitable Johnny watered it with his blood in drought, out of pity for that that was less than him. And now it’s mine, and what I say is that you can stand to walk out and do one thing by yourself. Go out to the well and have a drink.”
Which I was not best pleased with, on account of our wellpump being infested with ghost goblins and ghoulies. I knew this because my brother Daniel had carefully warned me of them.
But I was thirsty. So…
Now I could just barely muster the wit and will to speed out there, crank the pump three times like a madman, jam my face into the flow and sip what I could before running to bed with chipmunk-bulged cheeks and sweat-slicked feet. On most nights now.
But that night I got out there, took three pumps, drank air, tried again, and again, and again, and again, and again and I was sure a goblin must be up to something now because damnit the well was dry. Bone dry.
“Son,’ said my father from right behind my left ear, “my heir, my promise, my once and future child, why on earth are you making such a clanking racket that is fit to bring me out here and question it?”
Then he took the pump in hand and wrenched it once, twice with the might I knew outmatched my own, and on the third one the handle came off.
Man, I got a sore backside for that.

The dowser came the next day. He was saggy and baggy in all the wrong places, except his chin, which was sharp as an arrowhead. His head bobbed when he walked, too. I felt nervous around him; if he looked in my direction too quickly I was sure I’d lose an eye.
The dowsing rod emerged from his truck in loving inches; old, palm-greased oak. “It’s a good solid one,” he said. “It’ll sink home and stay there. It’ll get you damp strong and true.”
“Bertram, my valued asset, my welcome aide, that sounds righter than rain and three times as wet,” said my father. “Now you go out there and get my fields moist.”
So we followed the dowser as he bumpitied across my father’s fields, humming and whistling and clucking to himself. Sometimes he stopped to nod and beam benevolently at the air.
“Sorry,” he said, when he saw my father’s look. “Just making conversation.”
But he made less of it after that, and at length the length in his hands trembled and hopped and popped right out of them and slid to a stop right in the middle of my father’s turnip patch.
“Right here. Water’s here,” he said. “True as a weasel and three tights as tight.”
“Bertram,” solemnly intoned my father with a hand-clap atop the dowser’s shoulder, “my employee, my salvation, my savior, that is truly the worst thing I’ve ever heard a man say aloud to me and I pray tell I will beat you senseless should you ever repeat it in my hearing. Now take your pay and skedaddle.”
Which the dowser did, so fast that he left his rod there in the dirt. We used it as a marker, and then we started digging. Nasty work, shovels until we were past our heads, then our father’s head, then the tip of the ladder. And once we were twice as deep down as that, father threw the ladder out and climbed out by his fingertips. His pants were soaked and his shoes squished with trickling, cool laughter.
The pump was placed, the first drink was had – the most delicious ever – and we were in for the night.

The next morning, I pumped the handle and the well croaked at me. Then it chuggarumphed at me. Then a big, fat toad crawled out onto the handle and looked at me crosseyed and I am not too proud to say I just about lost it all the way back to the door.
“Son,” said my father when he saw me, bucketless, “the child of my wife, the bane of my existence, I am positive that I told you to fill that bucket.”
“It’s full of frogs,” I blurted out in such distress that biology deserted me. This earned me a well-deserved thump and my father went out to investigate things for himself.
I watched from the window as he pulled the handle. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk-croak-squash.
When he walked back in his face looked pretty nasty, and the frog bits didn’t help it any. “Son, light of my dawn, jewel of my pearls, get me the phone. I’m calling Johnny down at the reserve.”

Johnny picked up on the fourth ring. “Hey,” he said. “Hey there. How you doing. What’s up? You alright? I’m okay. Now how about your family? Mine’s okay. Is the weather nice? I think so. Well, nice to-”
“Johnny,” interrupted my father with serene rudeness, “my compadre, my co-conspirator, my aide and most trusted person in all things, would you kindly tell me if I have built my farm on a graveyard or something? Because my well appears to have frogs. And you know what they say about Indian graveyards.”
Johnny sighed at volumes to be heard from the next room, and I could tell he was a bit put out his clever strategy of having a whole conversation with my father where he didn’t have to talk to him was spoilt. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t know. What about them?”
“Curses and so on and so forth,” said my father impatiently. “For shame, Johnny. Children know these things. Now, would you bestir yourself to lift as many fingers as you can spare in my aid?’
“Oh, fine,” he said. “Not sure, really. I’ll ask around. You know, just ask around. Nothing better to do. On a Saturday.”
“Excellent,” said my father. And he made to hang up.
“Frogs or toads?” said Johnny.
“Pardon?’ asked my father.
“Frogs or toads? Frogs are smoother and leap, toads are lumpier and hop.”
My father ran a palm down the dripping side of his face and examined it.
“Toads,” he said, frowning. “Why?”
“You’ve gotta get these things right,” said Johnny. “C’mon man, kids know this stuff.”
And he hung up. And my father, after a moment or three of bad words that I was thrashed severely for learning, made to call another number.

Walt Green was out in our fields that afternoon. Walt Green, five foot nothing by four foot two. Walt Green, clutching a dowsing rod that was basically a sapling. An undernourished, over-heightened sapling. A sapling with delusions of treehood, in altitude if not girth. Put together, they looked like a pepper-seed holding a toothpick.
“Thanks for calling me out tonight, m’boy,” he mumbled between his four teeth. Walt always mumbled from between his teeth. Sometimes he had to shuffle them around to do this. “The water’s singing today.”
“Walter,” boomed my father, head bowed, eyes averted, “my hallowed champion, my erstwhile Christ, please, take all the luck of the angels upon you as you do this thing. And the devils, too, because I could really, really use some water.”
So we followed Walt. This took longer than it had with the other dowser; for one thing Walt’s legs were shorter, for another he moved them slower, and finally he only found something when he fell asleep standing up and his rod fell over. It landed on dad’s foot like a twelve-foot whip.
“Wussat?” asked Walt, jerking upright. “Water? Water! The wails of the sirens, beneath our feet! The howls of Poseidon and leviathan!”
“Walt,” managed my father. “My friend in weather fair and foul, my pal, would you kindly get off my personal land before I put that stick in your last real tooth?”

This well got dug a lot faster, mostly because of the way my father did it. Mostly, it was with his fists. There was a real anger in it, and occasional spittle. We stayed back out of his way and busied ourselves getting the pump ready, so when that hole was dug – in less than three hours – we were right there, right ready to seal it.
Water came out. Pure, delicious, juicy water, fresh as daisies and fifteen times tastier.
“My family, my spawn, my ever-flowing rivers of joy, get to bed and don’t get up until I’m ready,” said my father. Then he whacked us one, just to make sure we paid attention.

Another day, another dawn. Another glimmer of moisture on the spigot. Another bucket in the bowl, another pull of the crank, and another angry buzzing sound fit to emulate Beelzebub’s breakfast bell.
“Um,” I said. And then, because I was a stupid child, I pulled the handle again. This time, bees came out.
“Son,” sighed my father, one hand covering his face. “My eternal burden, my precious cargo. What the hell has happened out there this time?”
“Bees,” I mumbled. He shook his head in sorrow and smacked me right in the stingers.
“Son,” he said fondly, “my charitable case, my mushroom-headed mushmallow: those are yellowjackets.”
I could’ve corrected him, but knew better. Instead I held the guttering torch as he marched out with smoke and smouldering rags to bring death to the hive that was our well. And I stood well back out of sting range, but close enough to learn a few more swears.

That afternoon, my father took down the shovel and broke off its blade and held it aloft and walked the fields alone, swearing and cursing at most of us and all of us, because only he could get the job done right. He strode the crops alone, he waved it alone, he fell alone, and he stood up and swung it down at the dirt alone and yelled: “THERE IT IS!”
“Want me to get the blade back, dad?” I asked.
“Son, son, SON,” he admonished me firmly, slapping out one of my baby teeth onto the tilled soil, “this is a man’s job. And there’s no men in all this damned county but me. Not Bertram, not Johnny, not Walt, not you or your big fat idiot of a brother, and not you in a million million years. Now get out of here and stay indoors, I’m having a drink if it kills me.”
So I sort of wandered indoors in loops and staggers – took me four tries to guess which one of the four front doors was real, bless my silly soul – and I was just in time to pick up the phone.
“Well you’re just in time to pick up that phone,” said Johnny. “I was about to stop calling. Hey, is your dad there?”
I looked outside. My father was smashing at the dirt with the shovel handle, but moving downwards surprisingly quickly.
“Sort of,” I said, which was kind of true in a way maybe I guess. “Why?”
“I finished asking around. Nah, we never had a graveyard there. Not even close. I don’t think anybody even lived on your family’s place, back in the day.”
“Was it cursed?”
“No, just sort of shit.”
“Oh.” My father had sunk below my sight now, only the long wooden shaft of the shovel handle waving in the air to mark his place.
“I found out something else though. There was A graveyard, just not one of ours. Your family’s been planting itself out with its turnips for a while now, kid, from your great-great-grandpa on down.”
I was only half-listening at this point, because the shovel handle was wobbling at just the edge of my vision now. Another inch. Half-inch. Less. And it would be gone.
“You think there’s any chance your dad might’ve done anything that would piss them off?”
I thought about Kindly Elijah and Simple Clay and Charitable Johnny and tried to consider this question, but the pain in my mouth was still pretty strong and I had a devil of a time focusing.
After all, I was just a stupid child.
“Dunno,” I said.
Johnny sighed. “Well, just let me know if anything else pops up. And kid?”
“Have a nice day, eh?”
I hung up and considered this advice. It sounded pretty good to me.
And there was a head start already: the field was empty and silent, the shovel gone for good.

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