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Dowsed

by Michael Credico

 

My father dug a well in the backyard. There was nowhere else the water was going to come from. We let buckets down, length by length of rope. The buckets clanged against the stone walls, came up empty every time. I complained about the smell emanating from the well. It was like dead fish. My father said it must be that we are close to the water. But suppose the fish were dead because they were out of water too. I looked into the well. Its insides were fuzzy black and filled with dust. I started to cough. My father gave me his handkerchief, stiff from dried sweat. I wiped my mouth. It scratched my lips. I tasted dead fish. When my father was not looking, I wadded up the handkerchief, dropped it down the well. I listened for it to hit bottom. Nothing.

“Dust,” my father grunted. He couldn’t understand it. “A well is a well is a well.”

My mother called us in for dinner. She set five glasses on the dining room table, each filled with vodka. She told us to pretend it was water.

We said grace, our hands around the glasses. I asked for something to tuck into my shirt collar. My father patted all his pockets looking for his handkerchief. He swallowed his vodka. My mother swallowed hers, then mine. She sighed. Her breath made my nose tingle. She told us about the neighbors. They had lost their boy.

We were lukewarm on the neighbors. We each went, “Oh.”

My mother was upset there was no word for parents who had lost a child, no equivalent to widow, widower, and orphan. “Bereaved,” she said. “Imagine living the rest of your life modified like that.”

My father reached for one of the two remaining glasses.

My mother slapped his hand away. “I invited them to dinner.”

“Who?”

“The bereaved neighbors,” my mother mocked.

By time the neighbors knocked at the door, the vodka was gone, and my parents were passed out beneath the dining room table. I answered the door. I asked them if they were thirsty. They examined the empty glasses on the dining room table, the stains my parents’ lips left on the rims.

“I am sorry for your loss,” I said.

“The bottomlessness,” they cried, knocking the empty glasses off the dining room table.

When suddenly we heard crying coming from the backyard. The well.

The neighbors stuffed me in a bucket, let me down. There was a bottom to the well, but here things get fuzzier and fuzzier. I told the boy the bucket couldn’t carry us both. Looking up at the pinprick of light that was the opening of the well, I told him to go first. He felt through the black for my hand, gave me the handkerchief.

Later, my father called down and asked if I was wet.

“No,” I said. “I need the bucket.”

“Are you sick?”

I told my mother the boy wasn’t dead, the neighbors weren’t bereaved, and the well really was a well was a well was a well. She wasn’t listening. She was picking pieces of glass off the floor, tasting them. My father held up the empty vodka bottle. He called this his divining rod. He told me he would teach me to dowse. He pointed the bottle at my mother. The bottle shook. My mother cut her tongue on a piece of glass. I gave her the handkerchief. She tied it around her tongue. When she talked, we couldn’t understand it. But when she talked, I think it was: find me.

 

Michael Credico is the author of *Heartland Calamitous* (Autumn House Press, 2020). His fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, New Ohio Review, Puerto del Sol, and others. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Dowsed”?

I remember in the early 1990s it seemed like every day a child was getting lost inside a well. I was a child, too. I knew of dowsing at an early age, probably from a gag in Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry. Whenever I saw a Y-shaped twig, I’d pick it up and pretend it was vibrating. There were no wells where I grew up. Sometimes we’d drive to the country and I’d look for them the way others might look for cows, sheep, or pigs. There are more fracking well pads than anything else. In the Ohio Valley, folks rightly believe they’re being poisoned. Elsewhere in Ohio, you might as well be drinking from a lead straw. Despite how often vodka appears in my writing, I don’t really drink, and when I do, it’s gin.

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