The Dry Well
“ A well “, my father said, “ A dry well. Need to dry out that wet spot under the maple when it rains. Need you to dig it. Do you good. About four feet wide and five feet deep, with some good size stones for drainage. There’s stones out behind the garage ought to fill the bill….and make sure to keep the hole even all the way down. “
“ Why ? “ I asked.
“ Needs to be done, that’s why. “ he said, sucking his bitter, too hot tin pot coffee over his teeth and giving me that flat mouthed look that let me know debate was not an option.
I made a lazy circle with a stick, but I don’t remember the first push of the spade into the hard packed, worn spot under the maple’s first low branch; the branch I’d hook my leg over to start my climb up that much clambered tree.
I do remember the cicadas zinging under the trellis in the heat of that arid, deep summer day. The grass in our yard had gone all brown and toasted like shredded wheat and potato bugs swarmed the wild roses in clusters so thick they made my skin crawl. Hot breath furnaced in my nose and throat as I began to dig and a small mound of earth grew beside the beginnings of my well.
I fell into a rhythm. A solitude and savour of spade tip, push, lever and toss. The smooth wood of the shovel’s staff burned my unmarked hands and muscles pinged and pulsed in my arms and chest.
“ Do you good, do you good, do you good “, I chanted to myself. “ Do ya gud, doyagud, doyagud, doyagud. “ A bitter determination doyenned within me.
Crang ! The spade bounced and jittered off the first of many smooth, ovoid New England rocks.
Not boulders, more glacial eggs. I felt the shock in my teeth and spine but I soon learned to find their sucking edge and pry them out like toughened yolks. Each would reveal surprised small lives when popped free of its’ half sleeve of earth. A fat crawler contracting in the sudden sunlight, a red ant colony suddenly frantic, maddened, flailing on itself. An aging scarab dulled with dampness rocking on its’ back, its’ barbed legs waving in surrender. Each was a small battle, a small victory; these went into their own pile. These would become the heart of my well.
My shirt was off now and I felt larger somehow. The way the veins in my arms swelled stirred my vanity and libidinous energy pleasured my core. A dim but satisfying awareness of new manhood overtook my labor and the hole became a mission. Up to my waist now, I had to lift and toss each spadeful further. Sweat dripping from my nose, my mind was becalmed by my body’s effort.
“ Doyagud, doyagud, doyagud”, I hummed without rancour. Irony overtaking resentment. So lost was I in the swing and release of my work, my thoughts so untethered and expansive, that my mother’s knock on the kitchen window jolted me with a start.
“Lunch ! “ she mouthed, with a grin.
My hands buzzed and stung as I carried my sandwich and orange soda back out to the yard. As I ate I surveyed my well. A surge of queasy pride swelled in my throat and I was mortified to feel my eyes fill as an unfamiliar clot of feeling rose in my throat with an aching suddenness. Hot irresistible tears plopped from my eyes and stained the the dusted skin on my wrists like rain ending a drought. My groin throbbed and hardened and I laughed out loud at myself as I looked skyward, wiped my hand over my eyes and tried to blindly feel my way back to the place the tears and come from.
But it was gone. Washed down my throat with the last of my soda. A foot or so left to dig, I leapt almost chest high back to my task eager to have it completed for my father’s return. Earth flew and shadows lengthened as I dug. Always careful to “ keep it even all the way down”. At last I was ready to heft the rocks from behind the garage to add to those I had freed. They would be the still and silent engine of my well.
I smelled the smoke from my father’s cigarette before I saw him round the corner of the house and turned to face him as I dropped the last of the cool, pale stones with a crack onto its’ brothers. Shards flew as my father looked up and blew smoke from his nose. “ Watch your eyes “, he said, picking a bit of tobacco from his tongue as he assessed my work.
“ How deep from the rocks down ? “ he asked.
“Five feet “ I said. We stood without speaking until he crushed his Lucky Strike and kicked the butt into the hole. “ Good work “, he said. “ now fill it in “. He squeezed my arm, turned and walked into the house, the screen door whacking shut behind him.
It was cooler now, and the skin on my face was taut with grit and sweat. A light mist began to fizz from the sky and when I picked up the shovel again it was heavier than before. The earth went back in easier though and when the mist turned to rain and the encroaching lightening shocked the dusk sky, I finished filling the well.
That night’s midsummer downpour was as fine a torrent as any I recall. We watched from our front porch as the lightening strobed our street and water sheeted into the sewers.
The next morning broke sunny and humid with the lawn and driveway moated with broad puddles. I took my tea and muffin out to the back yard to inspect the area under the maple.
The ground was muddy and littered with half drowned worms, pale and dazed from the flood, and a garrison of grackles plucked and flung them about like a confetti of meat.
But there was no swamp under the maple. My dry well had worked. The hole had settled a bit but the usual small pond that appeared after previous storms was not there.
The thirsty, cobbled hearth under the worn spot had been quenched.
And for the remaining years we lived in that house a faint but persistent knot would rise in my throat when my father would point the ground beneath the maple after a rain and announce to no one in particular,
“ Dry well’s done the trick again “.
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