The Well, D. Avery
They were very pleased with the place, such a deal, it was all they had wished for, despite the rundown condition, despite the lack of power and water, toting drinking water in for now with a plan to maybe later dig out the old well.
They went down to the well and dropped a rock, then another and another, listening in vain for its landing in the dark below, hoping for a splash, but hearing nothing at all, not even the tunk of rock on dirt.
But later, when returning to the well for her forgotten sunglasses, she thought she heard a gurgling sound, and another dropped stone sounded a very clear splash, though very far down. When they checked the next day the water level was visible and they rigged a rope and bucket that they might draw water, planning on having it tested later for potability, but for this trip they were now motivated to start scrubbing and cleaning the long unused cabin.
Lying in their sleeping bags that night she remarked how strange the change in water level seemed, but he tiredly mumbled reassuring words about water tables and springs and how they simply didn’t hear the splash at first, and they both were soon asleep after a good day’s work.
They woke at dawn’s light, which shimmered on the water that was up over the hood of the car, and that now lapped over the top step and under the door of the cabin on the little rise of land overlooking the submerged well.
Rushing from their beds to the front porch, standing in water up over their knees, they were shaken not just by the unfathomable water, but also by the silence, by the absolute absence of birdsong, of breezes rustling grasses and leaves, of any sound, save themselves. Except for the steady rise of water, all was still; even the spread of dawn’s light had stopped, arrested low on the tree topped horizon.
“How can this be?,” he queried, scanning in vain for the car, though it clearly would offer no escape.
They looked at each other with a hope of relief when the water, up to their waists now as they clung to the porch posts, seemed to cease its rising. Then they felt a shaking, a profound tremor, and the water pulled at them like a rushing tide that swept them off the porch and swirling helplessly into a whirlpool that finally disappeared into the old well, now visible in the wet and matted yard. At the end of the rutted lane, beyond the dripping car, the for sale sign that they had neglected to remove listed in the sodden ground.
“The realtor, what was she, like somewhere between eighty-five and four hundred years old, what was it she said about this place being a vital link to the town’s history? She was kind of cryptic, if not down right creepy.”
“Oh, the old woman is just desperate for a sale, probably hasn’t sold property since the time of Noah, that’s why she encouraged us to stay here, see if it suits us.”
They had driven as far as they could up the brush-arbored lane and now walked towards the cottage that rested on the rise of land like weathered driftwood, taking in the railed front porch, the rusted old car a raft among the weeds, and further down the hill, what appeared to be an old well, its stone toothed maw muzzled with vines.
“There’s something about this rustic old place that I find appealing, especially that old style well.”
“Yeah, let’s get the sleeping bags and set up camp; after all what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Engine cut, kickstand down, she stretched off the motorcycle, removed her helmet and took in the silent, empty Main Street that was the frayed thread of the tired old town. Feeling eyes on her, she turned, and peering at her through the dust-speckled glass of a storefront real estate office was a woman who appeared agelessly ancient. She waved weakly, and after swigging her bottled water from her bag, she remounted and continued, eyeing her gauge, uneasy now at the dearth of traffic, questioning her choice of road less traveled.
Familiarity made her more confident when she rolled through the next afternoon, now backtracking to avoid road construction on the busier roads that she had finally come to, and she again pulled over in front of the real estate office to stretch and snack. As she tilted her head back to drink, she noticed what appeared to be foggy mist over the trees outside of town, though everywhere else appeared dry and clear, the sun high in the sky.
“Well, well, well, you’re back”, she heard, and, lowering her water bottle, she turned, taking a moment to discern that the middle-aged woman smiling knowingly at her from the doorway was in fact the same woman she had seen the day before.
“There’s people there now, but I’ll clean up after them, check on the well.”
Johanna couldn’t believe her fortune in finding a special remote location for her “gang” to base their retreat ride.
“I’ll take the tractor out there and brush-hog the meadow and grade the lane so you ladies can get in and set up your tents. My, having visitors does keep us young.”
“Okay”, smiled Joanna, reaching for her helmet, “We’ll all be back next weekend, it sounds great, like a dream come true.”
“Yes”, said the older woman, her eyes gleaming, “It’s a dream come true.”
Though it was dusty and empty in the early morning, Nancy recognized the timeless little town from Joanna’s description, in which she had referred to the few inhabitants as ‘a small coven of ancient women, average age two hundred, but being very welcoming to a coven of forty-something motorcycle mamas’. Detained by work, Nancy was now riding solo to belatedly join Joanna’s retreat, almost two days after the others, and looking forward to breakfast with the gang.
Dawn rose a ragged overripe peach nestled in the mist over the treetops. Had it rained here, Nancy wondered; the dirt lane that she now navigated was slick and damp; then in the bowl-like meadow she had arrived at she saw rings of camping gear and debris, even motorcycles, strewn like strands of seaweed showing tidelines; finally she noticed Joanna crouched and shivering on the roof of the cabin that dripped on the far side of the meadow, up the slope from the well that was in the center.
Careful to put her kickstand down on a level rock, Nancy then hurried over to help Joanna find her way down a porch post, all the while wondering about the others, absent in the eerie silence that blanketed this place. Joanna, still shivering uncontrollably, had no explanation other than to babble about the well, the well, the rising water, the whirlpool disappearing into the well.
With Joanna now bundled into one of her sweatshirts and clutching her from the passenger seat, Nancy slowly and carefully skippered the motorcycle up and out of the meadow, down the muddy lane, then motored on until pulling over at the real estate office in town where some young women were now sitting on benches outside.
“My dears, is anything the matter, we weren’t expecting to see you… so soon.”
“There’s got to be an explanation, maybe you can tell us, my friend says something about the well…”
“Oh, isn’t that a lovely well, very old, on the same aquifer as the town water.”
“We were just wondering how you ladies were doing, and I was even inspired to start up my old Indian. How about we take a ride back up to the cabin and see what’s going on?”
Despite the circumstances, Nancy couldn’t help but admire the red Indian motorcycle that the real estate agent rolled up on. “Wow, what is that, like 1915, is it original?”
“1917, and yes, it’s all original, in fact, I am the original owner.”
Suddenly Joanna roused herself and spoke in a tremulous voice from behind Nancy, “You, you are all so young!”
“Why thank you”, said one of the women from the bench, smiling cunningly, “It must be something in the water.”
Nancy’s heart skipped a beat as the implications of the woman’s response finally registered.
There were entertainments, of course, at the arenas. Relentlessly the Trump Youth rooted out books and paintings that still polluted many of the buildings. These fueled their great bonfires after the Feedings. Artists were kept on hand in miserable cells until a show at the arena where the large animals from the forsaken zoos would finally get to satisfy their hunger. The writers were the first to go. Not just the journalists, but all writers, even poets and songwriters.
All eyes were on the pouncing tiger. Only the poet saw the single ashy page fluttering aloft on the wind.
Sprawling from the impact of the tiger, the poet grasped at more loose pages from a half burned book of poetry among the bone littered ash. The tiger nudged and pawed her. The bloodthirsty spectators thundered with taunts for the poet to get up and fight. Knowing that fighting for her own life was futile, the poet would fight for theirs. Even as the half starved tiger ripped into her flesh, delighting the crowd, the poet stirred and clawed at the ashes, releasing ninety-nine ragged edged poems unto uncertain winds that carried them over the walls of the arena.
The artist had witnessed many fires, many Feedings. Peering through the crack between two stones, he watched the poet stride purposely to where just the night before there had been a tremendous blaze of paintings, books, and the remnants of bodies.
Then came the tiger.
He had seen many struggle desperately for their lives, but this poet was much stronger. She conjured hope to rise up from the ashes.
He would go out in a blaze too. He prepared for his exhibition. Finding a small sharp rock, he began an outline of a phoenix on his chest and torso.
“Did you enjoy the Feeding?”
Marlie straightened, startled. “Yessir.”
“Disappointing, the lack of fight in that cowardly poet.”
“Oh, yessir, very. Disappointing.”
“Well, Marlie, you’ve got cleanup detail tonight.”
The officers weren’t supposed to call Youths by their first names.
“I should patrol outside the arena as well. Wind took some litter from the stands.”
Hoping the lieutenant hadn’t noticed her anxiousness, Marlie began methodically clearing the bleachers of dropped napkins and cups.
She worked her way out around the gate, gathering litter, steadily edging her way towards a singed piece of paper lodged against a bush.
Beneath the bleachers, Marlie furtively looked at the paper. Clumsily she sounded out, “Die Ged-an-ken sind fre-i…”
“Die Gedanken sind frei. It’s German.
Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!
And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart: Thoughts are free! ”
“It’s so beautiful.”
“Yes, it is”, agreed the artist.
“What’s this?” The lieutenant tore the paper from Marlie’s hand.
“It’s mine”, said the artist. “This Youth took it from me.”
The lieutenant looked from one to the other.
“Yessir”, said Marlie. “I heard this one reading and confiscated his poem.” She wondered that the officer did not hear her heart pounding. “I was about to burn it.”
The lieutenant looked relieved. “Yes, we should burn it. And this pathetic artist here will be the next Feeding.”
The lieutenant watched the flaming paper curl into smoke. “Ha! Your precious poem is gone.”
Marlie noticed the artist’s blood etched shirt. They exchanged knowing cautious smiles.
Thoughts are free.
“It was good work, Marlie, but you aren’t supposed to be down here.”
“And you should not call me by my first name. Sir.”
The lieutenant stammered and blushed.
“Sir, I was wondering. I would really like to work with the cats.”
“It’s dangerous, Mar- It’s dangerous… usually done by older, male Youth.
“How I’d love letting lions into the arena.”
“I’d worry about you…” The lieutenant’s soft eyes never left Marlie’s face. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll have to get you a set of keys, get you trained with the gates…”
“I would be so happy.”
The artist had stopped his work when Marlie approached. He was shirtless, little droplets of blood magnifying the added details of his phoenix, the blood tipped shard of stone in his hand.
“What are you doing?”
“I think you know. What are you doing down here again?”
“The lieutenant feels the animals are too dangerous, so he let me guard the artists and writers instead.”
The artist smiled. “But we are a danger to society. Aren’t you afraid? Of me?”
“You’re to be in the arena tonight.”
Marlie unlocked the cell.
“Come with me.”
“Okay.” Marlie didn’t hesitate. “Come, this way.” Before leading the artist away down the opposite corridor, she sent the keys clattering against the bars of a cell. “There’s a back way out.”
They squeezed through a narrow passage and waited. They would still need to go through a small opening and then out past the gate where a growing throng was filing in to see the Feeding. Suddenly there was chaos. People were screaming, turning and pushing back desperately through the crowd. Gunshots sounded from the bleachers. The big cats had been released from their pens.
“Let’s go. Now!”
They easily got absorbed by the crowd, which swept them out into the parking lot. They kept moving, breaking away from the crowd as they got to the fringes of the lot. They looked quickly about before climbing the fence and scrambling into the bordering scrubby woods. Here they finally stopped to catch their breath.
“The key… I didn’t think they’d let the cats out!”
“I told you artists were a dangerous type.”
“Well thank goodness for the distraction.”
“I’m Adam, by the way.”
“Where we going, Marlie?”
“The last Feeding… those pages…”
“We’ll follow the wind then.”
Lingering day gilded the trees.
“And shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn?”
“More”, entreated Marlie.
“So, you like Gibran.” The artist continued. “Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?… It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear off with my own hands. Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst.”
After straining the rust, he combined their gleanings. His children had become experts at extraction, at syphoning gas and oil from the abandoned and decaying automobiles. Their specialty was in finding smaller machines that others overlooked, lawnmowers, leaf-blowers. Today they found almost five gallons of gas, three of oil. It was good, but what was the current rate?
“I’ll be back.” His voice was husky and raw. Trading was dangerous. And necessary. His children watched him go.
He hoped for a good rate. The last time they were only giving a quart of water for each gallon of fuel.
Heavily laden trailer in tow, he pedaled more strongly than he felt, until sure that he was out of sight of his children. Then he slowed, wavered on the inclines. Finally he allowed himself a rest and a conservative sip of water.
“Drink it all, I’ve got water for you.”
His heart leapt. Thirst and hunger were making him careless.
“Are you with the Water Boss?”
“No. But I have good water and we’ll give you a better deal. 1 to 1.”
He licked his dry cracked lips. “Okay.”
Lumbering behind, he hoped this wasn’t a trap.
Along narrowing trails he labored behind the other man, load jostling. Dismounting, they pushed their bikes. Finally they stopped and waited. Other men arrived, emptying the trailer and carrying the jugs of fuel through the undergrowth. He followed behind, carrying his empty water jugs.
Finally they came to an encampment in a clearing.
“Ever wonder why Water Boss trades for fuel?”
“Nope. I need water. He wants fuel.” He watched as the man poured the fuel into an open metal barrel then lit a match. The barrel flared and was empty.
“I trade for it so that he can’t.”
“You still don’t trust us,” observed the tall man as the water jugs were taken away.
He said nothing.
“We have far more reason to be wary of you.”
“You have children? Yeah, trailering that amount of water. They find the fuel? Do they ever have it stolen from them? It’s a dangerous thing, extraction.”
“What’s it to ya? Gimme my water.”
“Ah, here it is. Fresh. 8 gallons. But that’s heavy. Leave some, come back with your children for the rest.”
“Why are you so interested in my kids?”
“Because here kids don’t have to extract gasoline.”
His youngest was asleep, curled up in a blanket in the corner of the shed while his girl kept watch. Her eyes grew wide at the amount of water on the trailer. It was more containers than he had left with.
“I met a new dealer.”
The two oldest returned just then from extracting. They didn’t have much.
“Dad, we may need to move on. There’s nothing left around here.”
Moving to a new territory was very risky, with everyone competing for the same things; water, food, shelter, and trade fuel.
“Drink up and pack up. We’re heading out.”
“We’re going to the water trader? Isn’t it dangerous?”
“I don’t think so. They didn’t point guns. And they were generous.”
“We barely have anything to trade.”
“It’s okay. You won’t be extracting anymore.”
“What’ll we do?”
“Adam says you can learn to garden.”
“And read. And write.”
His eldest son stopped, a look of apprehension on his face. “Dad, that is dangerous. That’s never been allowed!”
“Not in your lifetime. Yet.”
When they arrived, Adam was pulling on a fresh shirt. They all glimpsed his scarred torso.
“It’s a phoenix”, laughed a young woman. “Welcome. I’m Marlie.”