The sandcherries and chokecherries are in full blossom in their ordered rows along the boundaries of the set-aside and in irregular swathes branching into the grass, erect blossoms at full attention to the sun and the bees at them sluggish with pollen. They have brought shovels and hoes and are at work clearing the ditch and digging in corrugations for first water, Delia and Sloan and Herb bent silent to the work with Alexa walking along a hedgerow, trailing her fingers in the flowers, loosing petals and sending bees aswarm. These crawl over her hand and arm with abdomens pulsating, leaving minute trails of pollen but not stinging. They started at the headgate at dawn and are working their way down the hedgerow. They came alone. Dad is asleep on the floor in the spot where Delia covered him with a blanket when he fell from his chair, putting a pillow under his head as he curled up like a child cringing from nightmarescapes. If such nights were not yet habitual they’d become regular enough and as Dad offered no explanations they ceased to think of asking. In previous years come June first water would be all he could talk about but this year he has said nothing. Nonetheless first water would arrive on the same day this year as others and they everywhere observed their neighbors making preparations so maybe it was like Herb said, that he just wanted to see if they’d do it on their own. So they went out that morning to work. It is surpassing strange to be without him.
The ditchrider passes by on the far side of the ditch. They wave and he raises a finger from the steering wheel and crosses the wooden bridge a quarter mile up and returns to their headgate. Drags a clanking chain from the pickup and runs it through the T-bar and is clasping the padlock through the links when they get to him, breathless and Herb still holding a hoe.
“What are you doing?” says Delia.
“Locking this gate,” says the ditchrider, spitting tobacco juice neatly through the gap in his front teeth.
“It’s our gate!” says Herb.
“So it is.”
“You can’t lock it! What are you doing?”
The ditchrider rattles the padlock to make sure it is secure then straightens his back and tries to crack his neck. “Got a work order.” They remain staring, unimpressed. “There’s a mistake the landowner can take it up at the yard.”
“It’s a mistake,” says Delia. “Why would you be locking our headgate? Can’t you see what we’re doing?”
“I saw,” says the ditchrider. “But I got the work order. I can show it to you if you want.”
“Did you talk to Dad?” says Herb. “Did you?”
“I didn’t talk to anyone. I just read the work order.”
“How about our other headgate?” asks Sloan.
“The one across the way there?”
“Yeah. With the willow growing beside it.” He points.
The ditchrider eyes it. “That one goes, too. Look, I just get the work orders.”
They rush back across the set-aside, leaving their tools scattered though Dad has said a hundred times they are not even to get a drink of water at home before the tools are properly stowed. They have to pull Al along bellowing. She was drawn to the chain, fingering the links that lay coiled about the headgate like a skeletal python around prey it can neither subdue nor release. Dad is sitting crosslegged on the floor, tasting the dull morning air, jaws gummed with the accretions of slackjawed sleep, head resembling a timpani attacked by a malicious mallet-wielder.
“Dad! Dad!” yells Herb. “The headgate! They locked the headgate!”
He blinks at the children gathered round him, each keening in their own way and Alexa scraping the floor with barefoot soles, bellowing and twirling, outlandish actors in a farcical minstrel show.
“They put a chain right around it, Dad,” Delia says.
“Figures this would be the one thing they’d be efficient on,” Dad says.
“What?” says Delia.
“What do you mean?” says Herb.
“I didn’t lease the rights out but three days ago,” says Dad. “You got a problem on your ditch, it might take them three weeks to see to you. You close down your headgate, now, that’s a different story.”
“You leased the rights?” says Delia.
“What does that mean?” asks Herb.
“It means someone else will be using our water. And we’ll get a check for it.”
“Who?” says Sloan.
“Whoever bids on it,” says Dad.
“I don’t understand,” says Herb.
“What it means is no irrigating this summer.”
“There’s not going to be any water?” says Herb.
“There’s not going to be any water. Hey now. Come on. Don’t you all look at me that way. Come here, Al.”
But she will not come. She is bellowing as her foot scrapes the floor, looking at it as though it is a foreign member. She pushes Sloan and then Delia away. Dad gets to one knee and shakily rises.
“You’d think I’d just given you more a load more work,” he says. “You’d think you’d be happy. You should be thanking me. You should be running around happy.”
“Is it forever, Dad?” asks Delia.
“No. It’s a five-year deal. Option for five more. If we want the water back we can get it then.”
“What are we going to do all summer?” asks Sloan.
“Whatever you want,” says Dad. He smiles and grunts and gently tousles their hair. “That was the whole point of the set-aside and everything to start with.”
“That’s it?” says Herb.
“You sure it’s going to be okay, Dad?” asks Delia.
“I’m more than sure. Now go on. Go run around like you ought to.”
Court Merrigan has been published widely.You can find links to his writing here. He lives in Wyoming’s banana belt where he works at Eastern Wyoming College. This is his second story in Fried Chicken and Coffee. Here is the first.