Shading her eyes against crystalline morning light with her free hand, Hattie makes her way to The Well with her wicker-sleeved jug. The woven basket handles are generous and would make for comfortable carrying even if the jug was full, which it never is.
Hattie has acquired the habit, as others before her have done, of referring to The Well with a particular emphasis, as though the word was a proper noun.
Instead of catch-basins closer to the edge, farther back a’ways, there are wells. Some are productive enough. There is, however, only the one capital “W” Well, and it’s maintained with a vigilance resembling a military installation.
Located in what might be called a plaza at the roughly defined center of town, The Well remains sealed against the elements in a manner to discourage unauthorized access. Not that anyone in Woebegone would ever avail themselves of the good water beyond their allotted ration.
Distribution is a daily ritual following a rigid, one might say an uncompromising protocol, established over time by the meager flow and sparse reserve of the precious resource. This protocol is overseen by the one individual whose personal nature could also be considered uncompromising, an obvious asset in this case, given the good water to be a treasure beyond price, one to be protected at any cost.
Four women are gathered at The Well when Hattie arrives.
Poor Reena Ledbedder, large with twins and miserable today, shifts her weight from one foot to the other behind Shea Buford, hugging her jug.
Shea waits with almost catatonic patience for her allotment without so much as a look or grunt of acknowledgement in Hattie’s direction, or any other. She’s still new hereabouts and the turning’s been hard with her.
Beautiful Ruthie Mallory, on the other hand, bless her sweet, child’s heart, cannot wait to tell Hattie about a dream she had the night before.
Velma Hawley’s features are pinched into a familiar grimace.
There is a smoldering hatred in the gray eyes of the self-appointed Water Mistress that refuses to be restrained. It boils out expansively and without selectivity. She seems to dislike everyone with equal fervor. How sweet, doddering old Pete could stand the lemon-sucking old bat is beyond Hattie’s ken.
The people some people choose.
That their only child is an equally unlikable, oversized, combative road-apple is no unsolvable mystery, however.
The Water Mistress has continued to measure the good water into their individual containers. Now, she’s stopped.
“Mizzy Pruitt, I heared you had a visitor come in out the blowin’ sand last night.”
“Drifter. Doody brought him to me. He was in terrible torment. I gave him some good water and he quieted right down.”
“Well, that was generous of ya. You use yer share however ya want, ‘course, but I ain’t able ta give ya any extra ‘cause of it. Tell me, though, did he look tasty?”
Hattie suppresses the scowl that would only serve to further perturb the Water Mistress, no doubt influencing the measurement of her ration for days to come.
“He looked haunted.”
The clatter of Jamie Mallory’s buckboard being drawn up the main street by Jamie’s two mules, Sister and Sarah, intrudes. Heads turn toward the noise.
Jamie, lounging against the bench seat’s padded backrest, lifts his little cap and waves to the women with a grin. “Marnin’ to ya, foin laidees,” he hails in passing and, to Ruthie, a doting, “Hoy, dorlin’.”
Ruthie and Hattie wave back. Reena’s raised hand awards her a tiny kick in the abdomen. Shea stares into the distance.
Velma heaves a resonant sigh. “I don’t have all day, ladies.”
Newt, bent over the traces, peeks out from under the brim of his hat and winks at Hattie. Her sweet man, even yet. She winks back.
The wagon turns off the main street toward the Stores. It’s tracks in the dirt look deep, suggesting a heavy load underneath the buck’s oilskin cover, but the only outward indication of the success of the outing is a pair of big, rough-looking dogs trailing close behind on heavy leads.
Velma, watching the dogs round the corner out of sight, licks her lips.
Shea Buford shuffles away, hugging her bottle of precious liquid to her bosom.
“Ruthie,” Hattie says, “why don’t you tell me about your dream, honey?”
Ruthie’s eyes slip from Hattie to the Water Mistress. Velma has resumed metering her allocations.
“Well, okay. I was havin’ a picnic momma made for me, sittin’ right by this nice little crick. There was all sorta good things in the li’l basket. I was real happy.”
The Water Mistress gives a derisive snort. Hattie keeps a look of vexation sheathed.
“But then the water in the river it becomed all icky… thick like porridge, an’ there was a fog comin’ offn it, like it was steamin’, or maybe smokin’. I couldn’t tell which it was but it made the trees an’ grass all wilt an’ die an’ I ‘member my skin sorta felt funny whur it touched me.”
Ruthie swallows hard.
“I was ‘fraid ta breathe it in an’ I tried to get up to run away, but I seed there was somethin’ on my arm like a little animal, ‘r maybe a big kinda bug thing! It had feet with toes an’ it held onta my arm with ’em an’ its head…”
The girl tremors twice, the memory vivid. Her voice is too loud.
“Top its head was awful, Auntie! Long, like a… a knittin’ needle. An’ sharp! It scared me sore much I ‘member I screamed an’ tried ta shake it offn me an’ ‘at’s when it… it smiled at me, Auntie Pruitt! A wicked, hateful smile. Then it sticked its head right inta my arm an’ it hurt sore fierce that I woked up.”
Ruthie’s eye are huge, staring into Hattie’s.
“I thunk fer a minute it was still on me! But Momma came runnin’ cuz I was cryin’ an’ weren’t nothin’ there. She tolt me be still cuz it was jist a dream, but…”
“But what, Honey?”
“But when I tolt her what happened, I seed she looked sorta funny her own self. Then she jist tolt me it’d be awright an’ sent me ta fetch water an’ not say nothin’ an’ here I am.”
Ruthie raises her arm and lifts back the sleeve of her frock. Her forearm is discolored, purple-black with a long welt at the center of the bruise. Hattie takes the youngster’s arm and probes the site with delicate attention.
Ruthie flinches, draws back with a wince and whimper, pulling her sleeve down.
Hattie’s concern for the girl’s injury balances precariously in the moment with the memory of her own similar dream not so long ago, the recollection of it grown perhaps imprecise, but the description of the little creature could not have been more intimate. She had forgotten about the smile.
The recollection sends a prickly wave under and over her. How very, disturbingly evil, it had seemed then. She happens to catch Reena Ledbedder’s eyes and sees the look of consternation in them. She knows that look.
The thing that used to be Velma Hawley braces her fists on her hips and produces an impatient harrumph. “S’prised atcho, Mizzy Pruitt.” Her voice drips condescension. “S’prised you ain’t seen such b’fore, you bein’ th’ new ‘n’ better witchy woman here ‘n’ all.”
“Instead of me,” is the part Velma did not say aloud and Hattie reminds herself that no response could be in any way helpful at this moment. Velma is in teaching mode, teaching Hattie a thing or two.
“Simple fact is, the child must’ve started her red days recent.” She fixes Ruthie with a sharp stare. “Ain’t that right, Missy?”
Ruthie looks at her shoes.
“Thought so. Them’s the times, girl. Nice hot comfrey poultices’ll take it right down inna day ‘n’ that’s that. Nothin’ ta git yerselves all worked up over.
“I’ll tell you this too, D’kin Remert sez to me th’other day the needle-head thing people keep sayin’ they seen is jist some kinda lergic reaction to somethin’ in the vironment. He sez he’s figurin’ it out.”
This last Velma has directed toward Reena, the most likely to go into a faint at the troubling thought of the needle-headed dream creature being somehow—sweet Jesus, though we’ve all gone an’ forsaken ya, please don’t let it be, you know… real.
And Hattie knows the older woman’s been speaking to her all along.
She wants as much as anything to ask Velma what it all means, knowing before she does so, she’ll get no satisfaction there. Instead, she offers a sincere, “thank you” for the unsolicited advice and hoists her jug with disappointing ease.
“Come along, Ruthie. Let’s take care of you,” she says and starts off up the street toward the Stores. “But first let’s see what the men brought back with them, shall we?”
◄ ~ ~