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The Well Wisher

by Ron Van Sweringen

No one really knew her, or cared to. The rusted metal signs nailed to her fence said it all: “Private Property — No Trespassing.” And if you couldn’t read, the dogs read for you. Three large shiny black Dobermans surrounded the old woman like a lost legion of the Devil’s Brigade, warning the world to stay away.

That’s what Hansel Morgan found, the August afternoon he pulled his truck up the overgrown gravel driveway, in one hundred and ten degree heat.

She stood on the porch of the old Texas farmhouse, in a shady black hole created by the dilapidated roof. The sun’s glare was so bright he hardly saw her at first.

“Howdy, Ma’am,” he finally managed through a dry throat. “Name’s Hansel Morgan, from Walker and Sons well-drilling company. Got a message on my pager that you had an emergency out here.”

“That’s what I said and that’s what I got,” she rasped, stepping forward with the aid of a sturdy cane. “We got no water,” she continued, emerging into the sunlight. “None that’s fit for drinking that is.”

He was shocked at her appearance as she came closer, dragging one foot in the sand. He had heard people in town talk about her. He knew she lived alone and it was assumed she was a widow, because she always wore black. The kids even joked at Halloween that she was a witch.

None of the gossip prepared him for actually meeting her. A small wisp of a thing shrunken into herself. Her face was like bleached leather, with deep spiderweb cracks running over it and down her neck. Her eyes were covered with the milky haze of cataracts and the evil smell of decay emanated from her mouth when she spoke. A thick tangle of matted grey hair crowned it all and caused him to wonder what vermin lived in its depths.

In the bright sunlight, he hoped she hadn’t read his mind or recognized the disgust on his face. He felt guilt that he could not summon up any feelings of compassion for the creature standing before him.

What he did summon up was an uncontrollable desire to be gone from this place as soon as possible. “Suppose I take a quick look at your well?” he half-heartedly volunteered.

“Suppose so,” she replied, “it’s out back behind the house.”

He couldn’t help thinking what a weird set-up he found there. A heavy-duty, chain-link fence completely enclosed the perimeter of a small house; it was barely five feet high, in the middle of the back yard. Even the air space above the roof of the house was enclosed by the fencing, and there was one padlocked door leading in or out.

The old woman’s breathing was heavy as she labored to stay close behind him. “It’s to keep my children out,” she said, pointing at the dogs after noticing the questioning look on his face. “The well is inside,” she added, “I wouldn’t want one of them to fall in and drown.”

Whoa, he thought, this is getting really strange.

The old woman opened the padlock on the chain-link gate and swung it open. “Be careful now.” She motioned for him to enter. “We don’t want any accidents, do we?”

He had half a mind to tell her to shove it, but then he thought about what he’d have to say back at the office when he presented them with a ‘no charge’ ticket. “Hell,” he said under his breath, “get it over with.”

The well had to be about sixty years old, he guessed. It was brick-lined, nearly four feet across and approximately thirty to forty feet deep. The updraft from it was not foul-smelling, and he let the hanging bucket down on its rope. When it was full, he pulled it up slowly until the clear water splashed over the bucket’s edge onto his hands.

He tasted it tentatively, only to find it cool and sweet.The uncomfortable feeling he’d felt before now magnified itself to the verge of panic as he heard the padlock snap shut on the chain-link gate.

“Ma’am,” he yelled turning to face the old woman and her three snarling dogs. “What’s going on here? Your water’s fine.”

“Yes, young man,” she answered with a toothless smile. “That was just a little trickery on my part to get you out here and into your cage.”

“My cage!” he repeated in a puzzled tone, grasping the heavy metal gate and shaking it as hard as he could.

“Open this goddamned thing and let me out, you bitch,” he screamed, anger and fear in his voice.

“If you insist,” she replied. She turned to the three snarling and drooling dogs surrounding her. “Now don’t make a mess for me to clean up this time, children,” the old woman chided. “The way you did with Gretel.”

Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen

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