First Water, fiction by Court Merrigan


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.


That’s it.”


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 wide​ly​.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

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3 Responses to First Water, fiction by Court Merrigan

  1. Pingback: “First Water” is live at FCAC « Court Merrigan

  2. Court says:

    Thanks, man. Makes me hap­py to see her out there, too.

  3. Brad Green says:

    Well done, Court! Glad to see more of Delia.

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