For all the wells which his father’s servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth. Genesis 26:15
Damn, I hate August. . . hot, humid, stinking dead days entombed in boredom. Dead summer, an armpit-perspiring stink. Worm fodder doldrums. August here is a burning pisshole.
Discussed with the family when Pop suggests —as he suggests many projects—that we dig out the old stone well in the back yard. Enthusiastic, I am for it this time, it fits me. For one, I like to dig holes, and then, it keeps me out of trouble to go along and do whatever.
Don’t go down to that place, I say inside, but I can’t help myself. My earliest memory of Pop we are at the kitchen table eating and we are joking and laughing and he throws a washcloth at me. You can say it happened then and not now, it is the past and over, and I should not talk like it is happening right now, but whenever I remember, it is just like it is happening all again, I’m afraid inside and want to escape. The cloth strikes me in the eyes and I laugh. I throw it back at him. It is a worn brown washcloth thin with holes and slightly damp with his hand sweat. It strikes him on the mouth. I throw it back at him, laughing at our game, like he has thrown it at me with the force of a child. Not funny. Pop swings with the back of his heavy arm and hits me in the head. I am knocked out of the chair onto the floor. I am not allowed to cry. A strong boy never cries. I hold my lips, they want to break.
Desperate for two wells. Pop argues. The house well beneath the garage is hardly good for one shower per day. We cannot use the new Kenmore dishwasher without waiting an hour to flush the toilet, before and after. I’m sick of washing dishes in the sink, my chore. No labor saved, we are thirsty half our lives. With budget we could have a well drilled hundreds of feet deep through gray mud and boulders to the aquifer above the clay line. (Money, who has money for sensible stuff? We live on onions, kidney beans and ground chuck. We collect food in the woods like it was a convenience store. He buys a Cadillac.) Drill a well for good water, more of what we already get, or. . . run into sulfur water like our neighbors. Sulfur. A stench all year of bad eggs, drill a well and then sulfur.
Depression. August. At the homestead well ring near the garden, fat Pop splays in his lawn chair. Nearby, I cut brown sod, repeating an old beginning. The stones uncovered look like a fire ring, the opposite of the water ring that these stones are. I struggle, with my ratty sneakers slipping on the shoulders of a shovel blade. I jump up and sink down, alternately swatting black no-see-ums that want to sting my eyeballs. I do not know what Pop is thinking, straining the nylon strapping of the chair, diddling around with a recent copy of Clutch wrapped in Popular Science.
He says, “Son, you have to lean into the shovel when you break ground.” I lean my very hardest, and break a skinny wind.
Down we dig, then dig more, and dig again. The sun recedes into a radiant halo above my head, a 40W light bulb slowly diminished by a rheostat, or a candle sputtering as the wick sucks up the very final drop of wax. Dimness of lost light. Everything burrows down to darkness, while Pop explains stuff. Pop, his mind wandering into the fading sun of a dead August wind, drones on camped there, describing amazing wonders of the modern universe. Above me the last gasp of an aperture to the 4th dimension. I burrow. More days pass digging. I am clumsy with tools. I want to dig with my hands and sharpened sticks, claw the deep blanket of earth with my teeth. Just me and solid ground.
Days go subterranean, burrowing into the coolness of earth. Progress slowly downward day by day into a mayfly cocoon of stone. In dimmer and dimmer light I scratch mud and fibrous roots from within the circle of glacial-deposit boulders. As if they were here, those pioneers that planted our apple, lilac and quince trees, I join them in this digging.
Drops down the ladder, every morning. I climb down. Pop pulls the ladder back up. I dig with a rusty trowel, a hammer, and a Chock Full O’Nuts coffee can. Earth beneath bare feet, cold feeling to squiggly toes. Crouching in this shirtless hole, abysmal. Then mole farther downward. Fill the coffee can with loosened earth—with it, crouch over and fill a tin bale bucket. Pop, when he is there at the top, pulls the clothesline rope. A tin din is echoed off the sides of the stone tube as the bucket weight rises. Some dirt escapes from the bucket and filters down through the dim light, landing on my head. A centipede crawls on the back of my neck.
Dirt, I love dirt. Snuff of dirt. Sucking out the brown-caked crust under bloody fingernails between dry lips. Sifting it through the hair, scratching my head. The funk smell of dirt clogged in my nostrils. Any time, digging well or no well, I suck and squirm and roll and bathe in dirt. When Pop is not there to pull up the bucket I wait alone and am happy with the dirt and imagine. There are no productive discoveries in an imagination frozen with fear of life, but a constant returning to the same aborted hole.
Thirst of life. Digging past everything, all the scenery down there. I look upwards to the sunlight, and Pop sits there in his regal paternity talking to the hole in the yard. On occasion he remembers to let down the wooden ladder. I ascend. Drink raspberry bug juice. “Piss in the woods, Son. Save on the well.” Pop spreads his weight and basks in the lawn chair, sweating in his shorts, and gives educational pronouncements to the hole in the yard. “I killed a man in Korea. I was lying at night in a hole I had dug, freezing in the cold, when this Chinese came out over me to kill and I stabbed him with the bayonet. We were just there on the land with nothing and we dug a hole.”
Destination eternity. I’m no longer sure what direction to go in, like a beaver trapped in an amusement park cage: eternity. At Bible class they tell us about God the Father and Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, a trinity. Quite a big project, this beginning and end of everything. I quickly learn not to say what I think. I do not want to blow it. I learn from Mrs. Meyers in Bible class that God may speak to you, but you don’t talk back. You never throw in the towel with God. Are there times when nobody gets the complete message? Or am I alone? Even when you are sitting at the table for the chicken dinner in the church basement and people are easy with each other and laughing, you behave yourself and take a small glass of water when the pitcher is passed. Reaching out, there is nothing but pain.
Digging a hole. Whenever I surface, the smelly neighbor kids tease, “Esek is digging a hole to China.” I don’t know where China is, but now I want to be there if that is where the hole goes. With all Pop’s other projects on the property, I also hear about Orientals. Pop says, “In China they would put one hundred coolies on your job. It would be done in one day.” Pop says he knows torments that I will never know. Hiding in the well I am one alone. There are only so many days in August. In time I will escape, though the velocity of pain is forever.
Down past the layer of worms. Remnants of a rusty hinge and a broken medicine bottle, things that I finger and turn over and examine before sending the fragments upward for further scrutiny and classification and the comment, “Keep digging.” Down past my own height. The earth towers over as I reach out from side to side, not quite able to stretch fully, confined within the tube of boulders, some larger than my belly, some
smaller. I will find this water. Down I dream, and down I dig in dreaming to the core of the world or beyond, downward in search of muddy water. Like any other immigrant to here, I am mud-hogging the stone lining of a dark womb. After a lengthy silence Pop shows up. “How does it look down there?”
Dark, divining thoughts. The ladder hardly reaches this day’s work. There is no clue as to how deep this well will go or how deep it will have to be to give up life and find us water. The digging continues. Pop is distracted: we are too close to success, and success is to be avoided at all cost. He goes back to the house to watch an Abbott & Costello movie on the new color television. He does not stay with any one project for very long. If we do not arrive soon at the end of a task, he changes direction. When I follow him we are always going in circles, like the circle of the stone in this darkness. We never know when we will find water, or food, or money—but we keep on in this searching.
“Death and taxes,” is what Pop says. Yet some of us keep digging. Some of us go off in the woods looking for another hole to talk to. Some of us wander around looking for a hole that will deliberate, that will respond when spoken to, that will give up answers. Some of us keep digging despite the fact that all we find is a replenished source of dirt and murky water.
Diverted to another search, Pop comes back in the afternoon and tells me about this atomic scientist, Edward Teller, talking on the television. I do not know who Mr. Teller is. Pop says he blows things up for a living, like dynamite, but I know “atomic” means that. All the kids know about the bomb. I wonder, listening to Pop speaking from the top of my hole, how many days Mr. Teller would spend digging his well whether Mr. Teller hates August as much as I do. Does Mr. Teller wash his dishes by hand in the kitchen while looking out the window above the sink and dreaming of escape? Pop says we can turn the well into a bomb shelter if we do not find water. I go back to picking, with a piece of broken tree limb, at the pungent soil compacted in the spaces between boulders of sandstone and gneiss, feeling with my fingers the coldness of laid stone. I wonder how old this well is.
Delivered as fifteen days for fifteen years, on the afternoon it is about the sixth hour of digging, as when Isaac’s servants came and told him, “We have found water.” It springs up suddenly between my toes. At first I am not sure what is happening. I see brown water mixed with mud. Then I am excited, an everlasting spring. It appears slowly between two stones and then rapidly increases in flow to fight for clearness, to be free of mud. The heel of my foot is now wet. The well is deep, and without the ladder I have no way to climb out. I yell for Pop. My ankles are muddy, and the water is cold. I call for Pop some more. There is no answer from above. My knees are shivering. I’m screaming, for no answer. The water is cold, around my waist. Praying, I think about floating to the top. I think about climbing the stones. I am thirsty and wet, all at once. There is nothing more to dig, as the water ascends. Now my shoulders are shivering. Pop finally sets the ladder down.
Drenched, I climb up. My hair is wet, and my breath is labored. He shows me a puffball mushroom that he just found in the woods. Cut open, the inside looks like white brains. He says that when it is fried in bacon fat it tastes like hamburger. I pay attention and wonder what the lesson behind all this is going to be. He is an artful cook, learned it in the Army. I tell him about the water. “Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.”
Disengaged, Pop leans over toward the hole and says he is worried. “It smells like shit. Too close to the septic tank. I think we should fill it in. You did a good job, though. I’ll say that. You dig well. A real good job.” I stoop perplexed next to the well hole, basking in the depth of my accomplishment and Pop’s pride. I want to slam a rock into his head. I’m no longer sure what direction to go in, like a beaver trapped in an amusement park cage. Trapped. Sometimes I think it is just not good to follow too close to Pop. Silently I want to slip away behind him into the woods and take a leak, then climb a pine tree to the top and watch the wind above the world, from one of those places where he cannot follow. Holding to the topmost crown, the last limb, with pitch stuck to my hands. I will never come down, until supper.
Pissed, I stick around and help Pop pull up the ladder, and then I begin to fill the hole. The trowel and coffee can, my digging tools, are left down there, to await a future excavation. The wood tools float on the surface, rising, fake battleships, which I pretend to explode and drown by dropping shovels of earth on them. The sound of a released dirt storm splashes and echoes within as it is dropped from the spade.
I do not dig a hole to China. There is no climax. I do not explode. I go inward. The dumb motion of work takes me.
Pop goes off somewhere into the basement to play with the wah-wah pedal on his electric guitar. Oddly, shoveling the dirt back into the well does not take me enough days to notice. I work mornings and evenings to avoid the heat. I take little notice that the midges have gone to sting other eyes.
On some days there are thunderstorms, lightning and rain striking the earth around us, and the air chills, though only for short snaps. Pop decides to trade for a cheap horse, a black stallion that will let nobody but Pop ride him. We stable it in the garage above the good well.
In time I pretend it was not such a bad thing to fill in the old well. I went down behind the first diggers until I found water, and now I follow others in the act of refilling the well once again. In the Bible they stopped talking about digging wells and giving them these really weird names once everyone had their fill of drink. I’m still thirsty.
Today Pop talks about building an experimental airplane, but I am not so interested in crashing. I’m learning to shovel horse manure and lime it. We still take care to not flush the toilet and run the dishwasher at the same time.
September is a cooler month.
Gabriel Orgrease dug out the well in Besemer, near to Brooktondale, near to Slaterville and Caroline, NY. If you check on a map that is up north for Appalachia that thereabouts is pronounced different than in the south. It is like almost another place but it still has rocks, cricks and woods and hills. He likes to play with stones. He now lives on Long Island very close to the Atlantic. When it rains heavy or snow melts his basement floods without his having to do any work. Though he does not love flat land he has got a bit used to it.