By Michele Shaw
After Momma got sick, I took over most of her chores. I became a decent cook, learning to use every part of the game Daddy brought home. I did just fine cleaning, too, with our homemade tools and Momma’s solutions. Most importantly, I fetched water. My arms grew stronger from hauling buckets day after day.
I took to borrowing Momma’s coat, warmer than mine, for daily treks to the well. Nearing fourteen, I stood as tall as her, and the worn sleeves hit my wrists just so. I used her special combs, too. They kept long strands of hair from blowing in my face on windy days.
Daddy always said we were to drink only from our well, never trust another, and he knew best. His barrel arms and broad shoulders made me feel safe, but his mind, oh, how his mind worked. That’s what really kept me safe. I longed to know all he did, nightly begging for stories by the fire. Sometimes he obliged, and I listened. I obeyed.
Until the well ran dry.
I didn’t want to tell him. Lately, his eyes had grown tired. With daylight shrinking and animals burrowing in for the winter ahead, food graced our table in smaller quantities week by week. The woods held its shrinking bounty of meat, berries, and nuts like a selfish hag.
No. I couldn’t tell him. Water was my job. Curing the lack of it fell to me. Alone.
After he left for the day, shotgun in hand, arrows sheathed on his back, I laced up my worn leather boots. I secured the combs, buttoned the coat’s two remaining buttons, and stuffed a crust of bread in my pocket.
This trip, longer than usual, required something for my hands. Momma’s light breathing in even spurts meant she slept—like always. I quickly rifled a drawer by her bedside, snatching a pair of wool socks in need of darning. I cut small holes for my fingers and grabbed another pair to wear on top.
The fire needed another few logs to keep her warm in the cabin. I arranged them on top for a good long burn before I slipped out.
Wind nipped at my face as I closed and latched the door. I grabbed buckets from our splintered porch and balanced the handles in the crook of my arm. I knew where it was, the next closest well. No one used it.
Might even be dry. No, no, don’t think it.
The crisp air carried the scent of snow, though none fell, and the cloud-filled sky looked wrong. Swirling gray puffs moved too quickly, unnaturally fast. A nice knit cap would have helped, but Momma didn’t knit anymore. Not that it mattered. We had little wool to knit with.
I should have walked past, but I stopped anyway, a butterfly of hope fluttering in my heart.
I had to check our well one last time.
“Please,” I yelled into the hollow tunnel. The tear escaping my cheek provided the only water at the bottom. My voice echoed up, and I threw my socked hands over my ears to muffle it.
The air stirred and I turned to whistles through the pines. Rustling leaves. Movement.
“Hello?” I called.
I wiped a drip from my nose and started for the path, remembering the way. Daddy showed me once, but only as a warning of where not to go. That warm day, so beautiful with wildflowers blooming and warm breezes tickling my skin became a tour of the outlying area. He set my boundaries for play and work—where I could go, what I could touch, what we were allowed to eat. Daddy’s good nature made the day fun, while I understood the purpose of everything he said.
I figured he never expected the well to run dry. Neither did I.
But it did.
More light crept across the sky, struggling to break the billowing waves of clouds, but our thick tree cover fought to keep it out completely. I worked with the path, moving through openings, turning sideways when needed, and gently moving branches to leave it as undisturbed as I found it.
A song floated through the treetops. A bird? But what a strange sound it made. Lovely soft notes, closer to a child’s voice than that of a bird. As I moved in further, a small parting of branches above allowed a sliver of sky to drift into my vision. The bird flew past, not once, but twice, cooing the song, almost as if dropping it down the hole in the trees to only me. I shivered, taking five more steps.
And there it was.
I stayed back a good ten feet, unsure why I didn’t walk straight to it. The bird, black as pitch, circled overhead and lilted his song again. I knelt and rested the buckets on the ground. I removed one of the socks, sifting dry grass and brush for a pebble until a brown speckled one appeared. A light toss landed it in the center, and a plop echoed up. My taught shoulders eased as I imagined the small ripple—tiny waves forcing one after another to the sides.
The other sock came off with a tug and I picked up the buckets. Plenty of water and not much farther than our well. Not so far that I couldn’t make it, and one less worry for Daddy.
Though the bitter day numbed nearly every part of me, the walk left me thirsty. When I leaned at the edge of the well, a small ladle hanging from a string threw off a glint from its silver surface. I glanced up, catching the hurried clouds closing a gap of sun that had opened for less than a second. I studied the ladle again, then jerked around, pricked by the...nothingness.
No bird. Winds stopped. Clouds immobile. Pure quiet.
Fuzzy thoughts floated around me, falling away when one sharp desire choked them—water. My chapped lips longed for liquid, the ache in my throat creating fissures that snaked down my chest.
Still thirsty. So thirsty. Why am I so thirsty? One drink, then fill the buckets. Plenty of time before Daddy gets back.
Daddy. The thought stopped me; I hadn’t heard a single shot since he left. But thirst overtook my unease.
I tied the rope to a bucket and threw it in. Pain seared my mouth and up through my nostrils, a dryness worse than any I recalled from the hottest summer day. The bucket clanked the stone walls, finally breaking the surface. I waited five seconds, then ten before pulling hand over hand. The bucket’s weight soon grew beyond my strength. I couldn’t understand it, a single bucket feeling so heavy. One of the combs loosened from my hair and fell, clicking twice against the stone before hitting the water. I briefly mourned the loss, but I needed to drink. Grunts and sobs spewed from me with each painful yank.
I paused, breathing in short gasps, trying to ignore the burn strangling my arm muscles. Resting my head to my wrist brought the images.
Momma would go first, then me, then Daddy. Weakest to strongest, but all succumbing. Dehydrating, starving…dying.
I straightened, one final burst left. The bucket swayed and scraped the wall, halting when I hoisted it to the ledge.
For the first time in weeks, I smiled.
Beautiful, clear water, glistening like a mirror, gathered in the bucket. My sallow complexion reflected back. I took the ladle and dipped it full. Though it weighed little compared to the bucket, my spent strength made lifting it a chore.
Midway, a forearm’s length from my mouth, the ladle moved as though pushed from beneath. Effortless. My wilting arm no longer mattered. I tipped the first drops and they splashed my tongue, exploding moisture down my throat. Warming sensations oozed outward; clear to my frozen fingers and toes. I gulped, finished the ladle, and filled it again.
I blinked, a sudden energy overtaking my blood, pulsing it with force.
My strength returned, but different. Not renewed—better. I searched my reflection again. Me, yes, but healthy, beautiful—glowing. I wanted to run, jump, dance.
But I needed to get this water to Momma. Maybe she could heal. Maybe with this water we didn’t even need food. The strength, the power it gave me, surged like none I’d ever known. I lowered the second bucket, this time with ease. It came back up in seconds with the slightest tug.
I wanted another look at my reflection, my perfection. Wanted proof I hadn’t imagined the change. The water stilled and I gasped. A hideous creature with eyes of burning yellow and fangs meant to maim glared back. The hairy gnarled hand that touched my cheek sent a spark over my face.
A hideous reflection, but suddenly second in worry to my thirst. The yearning returned, yet altered. This pull, aching to the tips of my new hairs, came as a deep longing—uncontrollable. It required more than water. It lusted for bones, flesh, and blood.
The black bird circled once more, its song changed. A mournful tune trilled as its spiral flight came lower and lower. I turned, watching it dip and collapse at my feet with a final, strangled chirp. I knelt, wondering if the small creature could be the first to quench my need.
I reached for its feathered head, and a crack shot up my back, forcing me forward on my elbows. Blood dripped from my mouth, dotting the bird’s frozen eye. My limbs went numb. Life was draining from me; I felt it cascade outward on a swift, but gentle current.
“Cassie,” he said. I searched out his voice with my eyes, the only part of me I could move. My crumpled body shook without permission. “Oh, Cassie,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “You drank. I told you never to drink....”
I squinted through the gun smoke wafting into the sky and growled. But the creature departed me as I exhaled one last breath and whispered, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”