Volume VI, No. 1, Fall 1978
by Ralph Gray
Often in my thoughts there comes back to me the memory of the wells on the farm in southwest Missouri where I grew up. Yes, wells. Those indispensable sources of water made a deep imprint on me as a child.
I remember my first encounter with a well very clearly. I am with Miriam and Harold in the Big Pasture. Gathering blackberries, we had crossed a dry branch and were working our way up through the underbrush toward a higher grassy area. Suddenly my older sister and brother yelled a warning. "Look out! There's an open well there!"
A dread note in their voices stopped me stock still. "How come there's a well here so far from the house?" I wondered.
"There used to be a house here, right up there where the grass is growing,'' said Harold.
He carefully felt his way through the vines and weeds, and said, "Here's the well. Come on and look." And while he gripped one of my legs and Miriam the other, I stretched out my full five-year length, with my head over the water, and looked down for the first time into another world, the nether world of wells.
A mystical feeling came over me. My skin tingled. First of all I saw my reflection, as though a watery counterpart of myself lived in the well and was staring up in surprise at me. Then I was able to look through the reflection into the inner mysteries of the well itself.
This well was about three feet in diameter, lined neatly with small rocks as far down as the eyes could reach. Indeed, a trick mirroring of light made the circular rock wall seem to go down forever. The well suddenly became a passageway from the everyday sunlit world above to unknown, fearsome realms below. A slip, and I would break that shiny looking glass of water and sink down. Down I would slide--past the place where frog, newt and salamander live, beyond the haunts of giant snakes blindly moving through the ooze, into the kingdom of the dead where octopus like spiders with eyes on stalks keep watch to see that you never return to daylight.
And yet, as I shifted my body for a different angle (accompanied by renewed viselike grips on my legs), I suddenly saw the sky reflected beneath me. Clouds of intense white floated through the bluest of blues. Now I was looking into the eye of heaven. The stygian nightmare of the moment before was gone.
Thus the vision of life's impossible mix of horror and beauty, good and evil, came to me early while looking down a well. But something of harder reality was born there, too--a sense of archeology. Harold's comment that there was once a homesite just up the little hill from the well was almost as intriguing as the well itself. Who were the people who built a home here, who farmed "our" farm, who lived and died and left no trace but the well? We never knew, but this spot always seemed slightly haunted.
Strangely enough, in a region that had only begun to be settled about eighty years before Papa bought "The Wayside" in 1903, there was still another abandoned homesite on our 160 acres. It was closer to our own house, in a small field. Its only traces were a straggly cottonwood that finally gave up the ghost, a few shards turned up as Harold and Papa plowed the field, and--a well.
Actually, it was probably a cistern. It went down only about twelve or fifteen feet, was about ten feet in diameter, and was absolutely dry. In fact, the bottom was filled with junk deposited by our predecessors. Before my sense of archeology had developed enough to burrow among these artifacts, Papa announced one day, "I'm tired of plowing around that hole, and I'm afraid you kids might fall in it. Let's fill it up."
With a crowbar he attacked the sandstone slabs that formed the circular wall of the cistern and tumbled the top two or three courses into the pit. Poor dirt, then good top soil finished the job and Papa had established a precedent that would be followed several times later when he bought two other farms with abandoned homesites and useless (and dangerous) wells staring at the sky.
But this homesite, the one where the lonely cottonwood stood vigil so long, did leave one other trace. Part of the house had been moved to our barnyard where it served as a granary. It finally sagged to the ground and was dismantled for its lumber when Harold was in high school. He retrieved some of its walnut timbers for his carpenter shop assignments and made bookends, vases, and other objects still in use.
Near the granary was the third well I will speak of. It is still there, its waters still covered by a slight film of oil. We did not know it then, but underlying our farm is Mississippian sandstone impregnated with slight amounts of oil. Above this well, Papa built a rather fancy concrete well curb enclosing a long handled steel pump. In my memory, that pump never worked and Papa left it that way because of the oily water.
Instead, Papa, who was a mover and doer all his life, embarked on a grandiose water supply scheme that still serves the barnyard and household needs sixty years later. He built a big new barn and beneath its floor installed a huge concrete cistern. The roof caught enough rainwater to keep the cistern from going dry, except for one scare during the droughts of '34 or '36. A gasoline powered pump and an air pressure tank drove the water through underground pipes to the house and other outlets.
A couple of times when the cistern got low, Harold and I, with our younger brother Vernon, laboriously dipped it dry and cleaned it. Bucket after bucket, the final inches of water came up. Then one of us would enter the great caisson by ladder and, with a scoop shovel, fill more buckets to be raised. Finally the inevitable layer of silt at the bottom would be scraped up and the cistern readied for another decade of service.
When it came my turn to work inside the tomblike tank, the old creepy feelings would come back. Though I knew better, I looked warily around for the underworld monsters of my childhood. I glanced as often as possible toward the reassuring eye of daylight offered by the one porthole entrance.
The old superstitions lived again when my brothers and I cleaned the well at the corner of the house. This was the original well for this homesite. It was a half-cistern, since runoff from the house could be shunted into it. A giant slab of sandstone safely covered it.
Mama didn't like the bland taste of the cistern water, so it was my little sister's chore to keep the family supplied with drinking water. Lowering the gallon bucket to the water, she would give the rope an experienced flip so that the bucket hit the water upside down and filled. One day Papa said, "Why don't you boys empty and clean out the old well at the corner of the house?"
When we lowered ourselves through the small circular opening, we could see that this well was shaped like a jug. As the water level fell lower and lower, bucket by bucket, we discovered that elm roots, as fine as the hair of sacrificed virgins, had burst through the rock walls and were waving with each movement of water as if alive. We were glad finally to have all the water out and the roots hanging limp and dead and free of myth.
We scraped the roots off the walls, and cleaned all the crevices in the masonry and in the solid rock at the bottom, twenty-five feet down. This well was alive and well, for two or three seeps on the floor accumulated water almost as fast as we could fill a bucket with a dipper. Vernon and I, who finished this three-day job, looked up often at the eye of heaven above. Bending again to our work, we cherished the golden circle of light that moved backwards, from west to east, across the floor of our world as the sun went its accustomed way in the upper world.
As time went on, Vernon and I became inseparable buddies and discovered a lot about the world, and ourselves, together. We explored the limits of courage, and occasionally found the beginnings of fear. One such time involved an abandoned well on the Horn 80 just north of our farm. Papa had stopped keeping dairy cows of our own, so Vernon and I walked the mile round-trip each day to buy milk from old Mrs. Horn.
About two-thirds of the way through the fields stood a rusty pump on sagging boards that covered a rectangular cistern, about twelve by eighteen feet in size. In the past there must have been a barn or shed here that directed rainwater into the underground compartment. On our errands we often, on impulses or dares, clattered across the cistern on the loose boards.
One time we decided to lift one of the boards and look in. A slab of sudden sunlight shot ten feet down to the bottom where, in a foot or two of water and banked earth, a writhing mosaic of snakes big and small slithered and twisted. We were transfixed. The snakes covered the entire bottom, seemingly several layers deep. Some were fighting and eating each other. Some were trying the corners, and two were twisting their way up the pipe leading to the pump.Dante's vision of hell could not have outdone what we saw that day. what if the boards had broken as we gaily tripped over them? What if we now lost our balance and fell in? From that moment on, we never again presumed that we were immortal. Struck with fear, we carefully edged our way off the boards and put the lifted plank back in its place. We never said a word about this living hell so close to our world. We avoided the place like the plague.
As things turned out, Papa eventually bought the Horn property. In our absence at school he hired local men to make one large wheat field of it by taking down all fences and outbuildings, transforming the house into a granary, and--filling up wells and cisterns! These included a well practically inside the Horn cottage where Mrs. Horn often refreshed me with a brimming dipperful on my frequent visits and a pasture well where Mr. Horn watered his dwindling livestock, and the snake-pit cistern. When I returned to the farm from school, I criss-crossed the area where the evil crypt had descended and could find no slightest trace of it.
"Why did you fill up the two good wells?" I asked Papa.
"A well is like anything else," he said. "It's only useful as long as it is used. You don't need a well in a field of wheat. It's just in the way."
All the same, putting out those two eyes of heaven saddened me almost as much as the nearly concurrent deaths of the elderly couple they had served so long. The well-springs of life lay buried in marked and unmarked graves.
Mama accused Papa of being land hungry when he bought the Truskett 80, the last of his land acquisitions. "I'm not land hungry. I just want what joins mine," he said in a time-tested retort. Vernon and I, who were in college now, were given the job one summer of clearing this one large field preparatory to sowing it to wheat. It had lain fallow for years and was blanketed with weeds shoulder high in places and spotted with occasional volunteer thickets of pawpaws and persimmons.
But the biggest part of the job was clearing the old homesite on a hilltop. The house on this site had stood vacant in all my memory and had in recent years burned down. Neighborhood lore had it that the Truskett house had been a station on the underground railroad before and during the Civil War. Now only sandstone foundations remained, outlining a shallow basement where runaway slaves may once have hidden.
Nearby was a well and a barn's foundations, all overgrown with locust saplings up to six inches in diameter. Papa's idea was to obliterate everything so that our tractor pulled five bottom disc plow would go right over the hilltop without a snag or a hitch.
Vernon and I did the job, all right. The final step, one blistering August day, was prying the foundation stones loose and dumping them down the well. The top four feet we filled with good soil. Shades of yesteryear! It was sad when the plow later went over the site of the well without the slightest dip of acknowledgement.
More time passes. I am married and I return to visit the old home place with my wife and children. The kids and I go down to the Big Pasture to see the well where it all started. I would hold their city-bred legs while they peered one by one into the nether world of wells.
With high expectancy we made our way to the never-to-be-forgotten site. I looked and looked. The well was gone! The original eye of heaven had been put out!
Papa had struck again and I was irritated. Why couldn't he have left this one relic of the past? ... But the feeling didn't last long. I was grown up now. I could again hear Papa saying, "A well is only useful as long as it is used. You don't need a well in a field of wheat."
When he first said that, Papa knew what I only now understood. We had lived through a revolution--the revolution of the American farm. Now one farmer produced more food than twenty used to. Tractors and machines had taken the place of livestock. Farms had increased in size from around 80 acres to 500 or more acres. The former small farmsteads with their outmoded sources of water had become "just in the way."
The wells of my father were victims of the revolution.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.