~ Eric Witchey
Slinky’s best friend lived in the well behind the barn—the one with the rusty iron plate on top and the four locks at places around the edges like a compass. When someone hit her or took her toys or made mamma think she did a bad thing, she ran away from everyone and hid with her friend.
She had to be careful to run into the woods then circle back so nobody would know she came back and sat against the cold stones talking to Emmet. If anybody knew, especially Tilly who’d tattle a lie ‘bout it, they’d likely try and kill him. They’d get theirselfs all excited and call him a water monster living in the poison well.
That’s what everybody called Emmet’s well—the poison well.
Even though all the sweet grass growin’ tall around the poison well smelled more alive and tasted sweeter than anyplace else, nobody drank from the well. The farm had three other wells. Two were way far on the other side of the barn, the house, and the chicken field. Those were stone like Emmet’s, but they didn’t have tops and locks on them. The other well was pretty new and up next to the house and just a long pipe that went way down deep and deeper into the earth until it could suck up sweet water for the house and for keeping animals alive and all. That’s the one they used the most. It was the one with a windmill that lifted water up into a tank on top of the house, and it was the one that put water in the troughs and sometimes even the pipes out into the corn-n-gourd fields when they got thirsty.
Emmet called that one a dead well because, “Nobody could live in a well that narrow. For good living, you need a deep stone well with a proper width and maybe a cave at the bottom.”
She’d been sitting all quiet with Emmet a while after Tilly had done some mean thing to her when it occurred to her that maybe she didn’t remember what Tilly had done. It wasn’t tearing the head off her raggedy doll. That was last week. It wasn’t hitting. She’d remember that because Tilly left bruises. It wasn’t tattling a lie because if that had been it, she’d have heard her mamma calling after her, “Sylvia Jane Millicent Lancolm you get your ass in here, and you bring a switch with you!” Then, after some time of yelling for her, she’d hear, “Slinky! Come on in, Honey. It’s okay, Baby. Come on back now.”
Of course, she wouldn’t. She’d never been that dumb since she was maybe three years old. Now she was eight, and she was practically all adult now. No way she’d be so big a fool as to go back until after dinner when Mamma would think havin’ no dinner was enough for a stupid child who didn’t know to take her lickings.
She chewed some sweet grass stems, tossed some pebbles at the barn, and named some cloud animals, but she just couldn’t remember. “Emmet?” she said.
“Did I tell you why I come out here to sit with you?”
“No. You did not, Slinky. Would you like to?”
“I can’t ‘zactly remember.”
“Maybe you just wanted to talk a bit with a friend.”
She said, “Might be. You’re a good friend.”
“As are you, Slinky. If it weren’t for you, I’d be terribly alone in this well. I was alone for a long, long time before we chatted the first time.”
They sat in silence for a while. Slinky pulled a new stem of sweet grass and chewed the juice out of it. Finally, she said, “Are you a water monster, Emmet?”
“Don’t know,” he said. “Might be.”
“How can you not know?”
“I’m not like you. That’s for sure. I do live in the water, so that’s a part of it. I’m probably not the one to say if I’m a monster.”
“Well, somebody sure wanted you to stay in that well. They wanted it hard.”
“Somebody sure did,” he said. “They must have thought I was a monster, so maybe I am.”
“I don’t think you’re a monster, Emmet.”
“Me either, but I have to allow it might be true. They did go to some trouble to make sure I couldn’t get out.”
“Do you want to get out?”
Emmet was quiet long enough that Slinky wondered if he had something like sweet grass to chew on for thinkin’. Then, he said, “I think I’d like to look up and see the clouds again, and I think maybe I’d like to go in some different wells and maybe even a pond or a river. I think I used to like rivers a lot, but that was a long time ago. Now, this is my home. I don’t think I would like to leave it for long.”
“Some days, I think I’d like to leave home,” Slinky said.
“Where would you go?”
Three pebbles at the barn later, she said, “I’d like to see Paris some days. I hear it’s s’posed to be real nice.”
“Is that a well maybe you’d like to visit? Or a river?”
Slinky chewed another piece of grass and flicked a pebble. “I guess it’s probably more of a river than a well.”
“That’s nice,” Emmet said.
Dinner that night was pretty good because Tilly weren’t there and Mamma and Uncle Ralph and their baby, Reek, were all really quiet. Nobody yelled at her when she came back, so she figured they didn’t remember any better’n her what Tilly done.
When she finished mopping up some gravy with her bit of bread, Mamma said, “Slinky, I need you to wash up tonight.”
“Ain’t it Wednesday? That’s Tilly’s night.”
Mamma’s face got pinched up like she wanted to yell a bit, but then it got smooth like it was too tired to stay scrunched up. Mamma said, “The doctor is coming for Tilly. I need you to pick up some chores so me and Uncle Ralph can talk to him.”
“Tilly sick?” Slinky asked.
Reek made a wet sound like he always did, and Slinky thought maybe a water monster lived inside him, and then she almost laughed at the idea of Emmet inside Reek trying to talk through his belly button.
Mama said, “Real sick, Honey. Scary sick.”
Real fast, Slinky said, “Okay, Mamma,” because that was when she remembered why she’d run out of the house. When Slinky was scrubbin’ the kitchen floor, Tilly called her “Chore Girl,” so Slinky sassed her sister. That’s when Tilly fixed to smack her with a fist again.
Slinky jumped up and backed off close to the back door. “I hate you!” Slinky yelled. As soon as she said it, a hot feeling came right into her feet and climbed up her legs. Scared worse, she screamed, “You’re sick!” The hot snaked up over her hips, marched up her belly into her right arm then spit itself out the finger she pointed at Tilly.
Just like a shot squirrel, Tilly dropped on the clean floor and commenced to puking her guts out.
Slinky saw that, and she ran out the back door fast as she could. No way she was gonna stay around and get blamed for Tilly getting sick. It weren’t her fault, and she weren’t gonna clean that floor again nohow. She spent the whole afternoon hiding out with Emmet.
The next day and the next, the doctor came back. On the third day, the doctor told Mama he weren’t coming back. No reason to. Nothing to be done. “The girl is past helping,” he said. “Best to pray now.”
That’s what Mama, Reek, and Uncle Ralph all did, too. They commenced to praying like the devil had come to tempt them to sell their souls. Slinky seen them in the big room kneeling at the fireplace like it was an altar. Mamma reached out a hand for Slinky and said, “Come and pray for Tilly with us.”
“Come on, girl,” Uncle Ralph said.
Reek made a smell that made Slinky pretty sure a water monster really did live inside him, and that smell and all them scared eyes lookin’ at her was enough for Slinky. She cut out for the woods, circled back, and settled to sit with her back against the cold stones of Emmet’s well.
Without even plucking a stem of grass, she said, “I think Tilly is dying.”
“Ain’t no other Tilly here abouts.”
“I suppose not,” Emmet said. “What’s killing her?”
“I don’t know. We was fightin’, and she took sick.”
“Did you call for the doctor?”
“’Course we done.”
Emmet kept quiet until Slinky said, “The doctor won’t come by no more, and Mamma and Uncle Ralph and even Reek are all in the living room knee-beggin’ to God.”
Emmet stayed quiet. He was good at that. It probably come from bein’ alone so much in the bottom of a well.
Cloud animals danced across the summer sky.
A couple of mourning doves darted from the barn and across the open yard to the woods.
Finally, Emmet spoke. “Before your Mamma’s Mamma was born, and back when I could still go around to other wells and ponds and rivers, your Great Grandma, Selene, grew up here.”
Her Greatgram’s name made Slinky go all stiff. She looked around for some calamity comin’ their way, and when she dint see nothin’, she whispered, “Hush. We ain’t s’posed to talk about her never, not ever.”
Emmet said. “She was like you.”
“You take that back!”
“I ain’t like her.”
“You take the time to talk to me just like her.”
Slinky calmed down a mite. Nothin’ bad had happened, and Emmet lived in a well, so he likely didn’t know a lot of stuff. “Emmet, I don’t know how to tell you this, but she was a witch. They come for her in the night, grabbed her, and burned her up.”
“Somebody killed her?”
“I said she was a witch. She was hexin’ people.”
“What’s a witch?”
It was Slinky’s turn to be quiet. How do you explain a woman what fornicates with Satan to a thing that lives in your well? Finally, she said, “A witch is a woman with powers—a bad woman who hurts people.”
Emmet said, “Oh. Then she wasn’t a witch. She was always helping people. Once, she pulled water up from my well and boiled it to help a woman having her baby backwards.”
“Really?” Slinky sudden-like felt bad asking because Emmet never lied to her, but everybody knew Selene was a witch and got burned for it. “She never hurt nobody?”
“Not that I know of. Once, she told me she pulled up some healing from the earth to fix a foal’s leg. Another time, she said she had to touch a man who went stupid after his mule kicked him. She said he got mostly better.”
Emmet said, “She said that men can be pretty stupid whether they’re mule-kicked or not.”
Slinky smiled, but it didn’t change the fact that Greatgrams had been doin’ some hexy stuff. She said, “Them there’s all powers, Emmet.”
“Sure, she had some power,” Emmet said. “But she wasn’t a witch. She didn’t hurt anyone. She only helped them.”
Emmet didn’t lie about things, and he didn’t say stuff that didn’t mean something. Slinky thought for a while about Greatgram Selene and how maybe some stories weren’t so true as she been told. After some grass chewin’ and some pebble plinkin’, she said, “I wish she was here now. Maybe she could help Tilly.”
Emmet answered quick—so quick Slinky thought maybe he’d been waiting for her to say just that. “Maybe there’s somebody a lot like her who can help.”
Slinky squinted at a cloud that looked a lot like a horse with wings. After deciding it needed more legs to be a horse, so it was more like a hawk, she said, “Who?”
“When you were fighting,” Emmet said, “did you get really hot in your feet then the rest of you?”
Slinky didn’t like to say so, but she said, “Yes.”
“Then you,” Emmet said. “You have the feeling in your blood like your Great Grandmother.”
“Yes. That’s why we can talk. That’s why you can go in the woods and nobody can follow your trail. That’s why even if they look right at you from the barn, nobody can find you sitting right here next to me.”
“Hidin’ ain’t hexin’.”
Emmet ignored her and said, “And that’s why Tilly got sick.”
Slinky jumped up and ran away. She wanted no more of Emmet telling her she might be a witch and get burned.
After dinner, she saw her sister wide-eyed scared and near to dying in her cot. That’s when she started to thinkin’ maybe she might listen to Emmet a bit more. Slinky cleared the table and did the dishes real slow so Mamma, Reek, and Uncle Ralph got settled by the fireplace for Uncle Ralph’s smokin’ and thinkin’ time.
Slinky slipped out to talk to Emmet.
Under the paintbrushy splatter of stars across the sky, she rapped on Emmet’s iron plate. “You awake?”
“I’m here. Are you okay?”
She tried not to let him know she was half cryin’. “Tilly’s real bad sick.”
“Yes,” Emmet said.
“Can you tell me what to do? What I did? I gotta make it right.”
Emmet said, “Close your eyes.”
“Feel down through your toes right through the grass and into the ground. Like a big old oak tree, root your heart down into the warm rivers of life flowing in the earth.”
She remembered how it felt when she got mad and pointed—all that heat running up her body like a river. Wiggling her toes, she reached with her feeling heart down and down and . . . and there it was, down in the ground, down where the blood of the world flows and moves the livingness all ‘round the earth.
She wiggled her toes again, and the warm come right up into them like she was standing in a yesterday’s storm puddle under hot August sun.
“Now,” Emmet said, “take hold of the South and East padlocks on my lid, one in each hand.”
She didn’t dare open her eyes cause the river of livin’ might disappear, so she fumbled until she gripped the two locks.
“’Good, Slinky. Now, let the flow move into those locks so they know what you want.”
The river of heat come up her legs and belly. It moved like water through her arms into her hands and into the iron locks.
Those locks remembered that before the forge they was sand in the ground, and they snapped themselves free and fell away like Uncle Ralph had hit them with a sledge.
Her eyes snapped open, and she looked at her empty hands. On the ground at her feet, the locks melted away into red sand that just sank down into the earth and was gone. “I broke ‘em,” she said. “Oh, God. I broke ‘em just like I broke Tilly.”
“No, Slinky,” Emmet said. “You helped them go home. You helped me, and you’re going to help Tilly.” Where the locks had been, the near edge of the iron plate bulged upward, bent a bit, and lifted. Two brilliant yellow cat-slit eyes caught starlight.
Slinky jumped back.
“It’s okay,” Emmet said. “It’s just me.” A flat, glistening red-black head pushed outward. A four-toed hand pulled on the edge of the well. With a pull and wiggle, a long, flattened, glistening body and tail followed until the whole slick Emmet plopped down on the grass between the well and Slinky.
A little afraid and a little curious, Slinky touched a finger to Emmet’s head. Her finger found cool, damp skin. She said, “You ain’t no monster. You’re just a real big salamander.”
Emmet chuckled. “I’ve been in the well a long time.”
“Should you be out? Folks might gonna notice a slick salamander big as a panther slitherin’ round.”
“Yes,” He said. “But I’m your salamander just like I was Selene’s.”
“I’m not sure that’s so good an—”
Emmet lifted a four-toed front foot to hush her. “A nice thing about being your salamander is you can make me look like whatever you want.”
She remembered the scared and maybe gonna die look on Tilly’s face in the cot, and she decided that helpin’ was maybe better’n arguin’ just now. “Well, we gotta do somethin’ if you’re gonna help Tilly.”
“You, Slinky. I’m going to help you.”
She put her hands on her hips like Mama and wished she had her a wooden spoon, too. “You mean help me help Tilly. Right?”
“Of course.” Emmet lifted his broad, flat head and fixed his yellow starlight eyes on her. “What do you think I should look like?”
“Maybe a boy my age or a dog or somethin’ that fits in ‘round here.”
Before she could think of something else folks wouldn’t notice too much, Emmet stood up on his hind legs and commenced to melting all over and to twisting like he was made of chink mud and to shifting some and lifting some and stretching some until he was a barefoot boy a bit taller than Slinky and wearin’ an old-time Sunday suit with a tall hat, a string tie, a split-tail coat, and a silver watch chain. Even though the suit crumpled up on him like it was hands-me-down from an older brother or cousin, it seemed like a fittin’ in thing for him to be wearin’.
His smile went all wide and starlight bright and full of joy and life. His big yellow eyes sparkled like shooting stars. “Thank you, Miss Slinky. Thank you ever so very much.” He took her hand in his four-fingered boy hand and kissed it like she was a lady in a story.
Slinky jerked her hand back. “You Satan?” Sayin’ it, she knew she kinda hoped so ‘cause she figured she knew enough stories to figure out how to sell her soul to fix what she done to Tilly. She hoped she didn’t have to fornicate with Emmet’s salamander self.
“I am certainly not,” Emmet said.
Slinky relaxed a bit. “Then what zactly are you?”
“I am part of that living earth feeling you can touch, and you decided to see me like this.”
“I did not. I would not turn some old salamander into—”
Emmet’s deep laugh interrupted her.
She stared at his all-happy face in the starlight.
When he caught his breath from laughing, he said, “We’ll talk the how and what of things later. Right now, listen to me if you’re going to make Tilly right.”
Slinky went quiet.
Emmet said, “I’ll lift up the well cover a bit, and you draw out some water.”
“We can’t slip a bucket under there. It’s too tight.”
“We don’t need a bucket. Just a bean tin and a long bit of baling twine from the barn.”
Slinky kenned him right away. She ran and gathered up the stuff then they dipped up some water.
Slinky, holding that bean tin full of well water like it was made of liquid gold, let the frumpy-suit Emmet boy lead her toward the house with him whispering in her ear all the way.
A few days passed after Slinky life-warmed that cup of water from the poison well and gave it to Tilly. Come a mid-afternoon, Slinky ran away ‘round through the woods to the well. Of habit, she set down with her back against the circle of stones, knowing true that Emmet had gone on and away after they healed her sister.
Slinky was bustin’ to tell him Tilly was all fixed now and a lot nicer, and she had to tell somebody she felt a little bad about that ‘lot nicer’ bit. She worried maybe the hexin’ made Tilly a bit not who she used to be.
“She is.” Emmet’s voice near scared her dead even though it come right up from the well just like always. Slinky jumped away and twisted around until she was on her hands and knees starin’ at the iron cap and the stones.
Emmet said, “Now, she just knows better than to hurt you.”
“You came back!” Slinky crawled across the grass and hugged the stones of the well, and she was pretty sure she’d’a hugged Emmet himself even if he come up out the well as a slick-skinned, panther-sized salamander.
Emmet said, “Took a long walk is all. Visited the river and the pond. Looked in on the other wells.”
“Just like you said.”
“Of course. I told you this was my home.”
“Yes. Yes, you did.” Her face heated up a bit, but not full of the living heat, just with the embarrassment of forgetting that Emmet never lied to her.
“Would you mind breaking off the other locks and taking the iron cap off a while so I can see the sky?”
“Sure enough, Emmet. Right now.” She come close up and grabbed the North and West locks, one in each hand, and commenced to conjuring up some livin’ and lock rememberin’ from the earth.
“Don’t break them so much as the other ones,” Emmet said, “We’ll want to put the lid back on and hang the locks like they aren’t broken.”
She kenned him quick and slowed down her conjurin’ to make sure the locks didn’t get too excited about bein’ sand again.
Once she slid that lid off, she sat down against the stones. Emmet come up out the well enough to get his wide, flat head up on the stones by her shoulder. Quiet and happy, they watched the clouds together.
Eventually, Emmet said, “In a few years, I think we should go to Paris.”
Slinky smiled. “I’ll be growed all up then.” She watched a cloud goose chasin’ a tick hound across the sky then said, “You think you’ll grow into that suit of yours?”
“If you want me to. You think I should wear it to Paris?”
“Yup. I think it’s just the thing.”
Emmet asked, “How far will we have to swim to get there?”
Slinky plucked a stem of sweet grass and chewed it for a while. Eventually, she come to think maybe she should explain about Paris being a city and not a river or a well. Instead, she said, “If we was clouds, we could fly.”
Emmet said, “There’s a lot of water in clouds.”
Slinky smiled, wiggled her toes into the grass and dirt, pulled up some life into her toes, pointed up at that ‘ol dog-chasin’ goose, and pushed and pulled the conjurin’ on that goose just enough to get her wings flappin’.
Satisfied, she let the goose go on across the sky after the dog. In a couple years, she’d about have flyin’ figured. That was plenty of time to explain Paris to Emmet. Slinky sucked in the lazy smell of summer heading on toward harvest and pulled herself a stem of sweet grass to chew.
Eric Witchey has sold stories under several names and in 12 genres. His tales have been translated into multiple languages, and his credits include over 160 stories, including 5 novels and two collections. He has penned dozens of writing-related articles and essays, has taught over 200 conference seminars, at 2 universities, and at a community college. His work has received recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer’s Digest, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award Program, Short Story America, the Irish Aeon Awards, and other organizations. His How-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines.