The Well Man T. J. Butler
Three weeks after the well ran dry, I fed a man to the hogs.
The kitchen faucet drip had stopped. It had been a metronome companion, marking solitary kitchen chores, mending, morning coffee. I held the empty kettle, twisting both knobs. The tap spat, then nothing. I listened to a faint hiss where there should have been water.
The well was dry.
I’d been alone the whole time Sawyer was away. I’d kept up our place. The animals were healthy. I had sows with piglets to sell. There were no weeds in the garden. I’d done the repairs just like he would’ve if he hadn’t been on the state corrections road crew, saying “yes, sir,” and “no, sir,” to guards who thought he was lower than the dirt on their boots.
A big red X on the Sears calendar marked every day for four years. January this year, I flipped almost to the back of the new calendar and drew a big red circle around Sawyer’s coming home day. Back then, I counted months until the circle.
The well was dry. Sawyer’s voice told me to call a man out. I could mend fences, unsqueak hinges, put up a season’s worth of canning, but I could not find water on my own. I could not dig a new well.
I called a man out who could find water for cheap, dig a new well. He was passing through on his way west. He was guaranteed to bring back the watery pulse of sound in the kitchen until Sawyer would come home and fill the room with a voice in my ear saying, “I’ve missed you, my girl.” He’d never have to say “yes, sir,” or “no, sir,” again.
For three weeks I waited for the well man. I drove the Ford into town to buy water. I filled the bed with five-gallon jugs, drove home slowly on the rutted dirt roads. I conserved water. I stood in the tub and bathed with a teacup and water heated in the kettle. I told the vegetables to drink slowly, sending them thoughts of soaking deluges after the well man came. I told the hogs to drink slowly, letting them drink their fill. I stroked the dog’s fur, whispering that I would walk into town barefoot and carry water by hand if she wanted more.
When the well man arrived at sunrise, there were only two red Xs left to draw on the Sears calendar. The man had a horse in a dented trailer. I was on the porch with the dog. He led the horse into the dirt of the yard, called out that he spoke to God through the horse. God showed the horse water, and the well man would dig the following day. The dog whined.
The man yelled into the horse’s ear. He slapped her face with a forked branch, an old west divining rod. The horse’s eyes bulged, showing their whites. She didn’t move. “God,” the man bellowed into the horse’s other ear. “God directs you to water!” He slapped her face again, barking, “God shows you water!”
The horse was still until she was not. She stepped away from the man who was brandishing his rod, looking skyward. In a breath, the horse’s back leg struck out. The man fell, exhaling his God in a furious rush of air as he landed in the dirt. Neither moved. The man’s forehead was a deep, crushed crater. The dog and I backed into the house. I inhaled, exhaled, watching the man and the horse through the screen door for an eternity. The man was still.
I couldn’t drop this in Sawyer’s lap. He couldn’t know there was any more trouble than driving into town when the well ran dry. I couldn’t let him come home to a dead drifter, a pack of lawmen sniffing around our property who’d look down on him when he was a free man. Everyone in the county already knew he’d been away. I had secrets on this land, too.
The horse walked toward the house, stopping at the porch. She knickered, tossed her head, blinked at me. I was not afraid. I stepped onto the porch, extended my palm, crooned small noises to say I have a different God, now you do too. She sniffed my palm. I stroked her forehead, whispering, “I will be the one to find the water now.”
I led the horse into the barn, thankful for the empty stall Sawyer always said he’d use one day. I stroked her nose again, didn’t think of the extra water I’d need. The hogs grunted as I passed. I was grateful the well man had arrived before breakfast.
I’d kept Sawyer’s ax sharpened, kept the woodstove going for four winters by myself. I’d gotten good at cutting pieces to fit the stove. The hogs would be like the hungry woodstove that disappears my labors into smoke, heat, ash.
I took my dress off. There wasn’t enough water to wash this away until I went to town again. I could burn my underthings when I was done. The ax was light in my hand, fierce and focused. I did not stop. I had Sawyer’s coming home day to think about.
I was splattered, half-naked, sweating with the exertion reserved for filling woodstoves or bellies. The hogs will not be hungry for dinner. I will give them extra water tonight, and I will not tell them to drink slowly. Now, I would walk barefoot into town and carry water by hand if they wanted more.
I drove the well man’s truck into the barn. He was only passing through. I will know what to do with it before Sawyer comes home. The animals do not have the language to say the well man was here. The well man and I will keep this one a secret.
Originally published in Barren Magazine, February 2019. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
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