When I was a little girl, I was curious. Always the one asking, “Why? Why not? What will happen if I do the exact opposite of what you say?” That curiosity nearly got me killed.
Daddy had a fear of water. Well, of drowning, really. He’d tell us to stay out of the creek. Don’t go near the well! Be careful, you could drown on as little as a teaspoon of water! Fear was instilled as hard and heavy as the alcohol content of my uncle’s homemade brew.
I wanted to learn to swim. I could doggy paddle. I learned by being disobedient and mimicking the neighborhood kids. But I wanted to swim. The creek near the farm wasn’t deep enough to do either. Solid rock in the bottom, the shallow depth spoke of slippery steps and bruised bottoms, when your feet left the surface to become airborne.
I followed the meandering stream from the edge of our property, barefooted, gingerly picking out stones upon which to make my perch. I moved small branches, stopped to catch a crawdad and threaten my little brother with it, paused to pick the touch-me-nots off of jewel weed, but kept moving until I crawled through the culvert under the bridge.
Here, the water gathered a little deeper. The current moved a little faster. It was like the pressure of all the water flowing down the creek came to a culmination and waited to dump into this little pool. The neighborhood kids swam in it. Well, played in it. There were so many of us that we couldn’t all be in at the same time. But we waded, and sat, and splashed and jumped off of the giant oak tree who’s branches shaded our playground.
Each day I’d watch carefully to see how they moved their arms, held their breath as they played games of daredevil and marco polo. I’d watch them flip their legs like little fins and push off from the sides of the creek bed. I filed each movement in my mind, categorically and logically thinking that I’d use that information when the time was right.
Summer came and went and I still didn’t learn to swim. Mom told us stories of her childhood and being tossed in the creek to learn to swim the hard way. I didn’t want to learn like that! My friends all took classes at the local pool and would come back to school in the fall brown as biscuits from having spent their days frolicking in the blue waters of the park. I came back to school red and untanned. My Irish skin never let me brown like the others. Their hair was bleached from the water and sun. Mine, it bleached out too, but it turned red where theirs turned blonde.
Fall came about slowly, creeping in like fog in the valley and early one morning, I got up to help with chores and worked up a terrible thirst. I went to the well and climbed up the steps to reach for the dipper hanging off the bucket when my foot slipped on the wet wood and lurched me forward. I gasped and grappled for a hold on the bucket but it slipped loose from the rope and the dipper went up while I went down.
I tried to remember my friends holding their breath when hitting the water. I tried to remember to let myself relax and push from the bottom with my feet while using my arms as propellers. I tried, but I failed. The water was so cold. Bone chilling, breath stealing cold. I hit with a splash and a yell that was quickly drowned out by the gurgling sound of my lungs filling with the fresh water we used in every day life on the farm.
You know that moment that people talk about when they say their lives flash before their eyes? I was six. Not much life there to flash, but what I did have, came to me. Learning to cook with Mom. Hand me downs from my older sisters. Stealing my aunt’s eye shadow and convincing myself that it couldn’t be seen although it was a shade of royal blue against my pale, bone skin. I had vivid memories of waking up warm and toasty on cold winter mornings and greeting the day with biscuits and gravy and home-canned blackberry jam. Of playing in the barn with the baby goats that jumped and ran with excitement when we opened the gate to let them out to play.
I saw golden sunsets while relaxing by the pond and watching daddy shoot the heads off of snakes that swam and came up for a breath of air. I heard the pigs squealing when their time on the farm came to an end and the acrid smell of their blood permeating the frigid air. I saw myself sitting curled in daddy’s arm while he held his bible with the other, reading to us before bedtime prayers.
I heard his prayers for us, of protection, for wisdom, for grace and mercy.
And so I prayed. I prayed for mercy. For grace. For protection. To learn how to swim. I prayed with all the passion my little soul could muster.
I could feel myself sinking into the murky depths of our well and my lungs crushing as the oxygen left them completely. My mind cried out. Please. Help. Me.
I heard a deafening sound, water filled my ears, my eyes wide open seeking help from any available source. The bucket descended into the well, weighted with a large rock and I grabbed on with what strength I had left. Slowly I ascended out of the well, shivering and coughing. I was pulled to side of the well and leaned up against the post. Between sobbing and vomiting, I scarcely noticed who’d pulled me from the well. I expected the strong arms of daddy or the softness of mom but found neither. There was no one there. I sat in the shadow of the well house and wondered who saved me. I stood up, dress dripping and hanging half off my body, goosebumps covering every inch of my skin and searched for my savior.
Gathering my strength, I started back towards the house and finally spotted someone way down the road past the farm. He was wearing bibbed overalls, a faded shirt and an old engineer’s hat and walked like a man on a mission. I didn’t know him. I knew everyone in my neighborhood, but I didn’t know him. I wanted to run to him and tell him thank you, but my sense of self preservation took over and I knew if I got caught outside soaked head to toe, I’d have more hurting than what already was.
I made my choice in that moment to live with my secret. That was, if I could sneak back in and get changed before being missed. I made myself as small as I could and crept back towards the house, bypassing the kitchen door where mom was standing at the stove stirring eggs for breakfast.
I tiptoed through the dew soaked grass, picking up mud on the hem of my dress along the way. I ran then, chills taking over my body, I ran with a fervor of the guiltiest man alive. Not caring who saw me, I ran to the back door and into the mud room and shucked off my wet clothes and grabbed an old coat from the hook and threw it around me.
I wrung out my clothes as best I could before wadding them up and hiding them in the mud room. I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain a wet dress to mom now. I dried and changed and sought the welcoming heat of the fireplace and warmed my tired body until I was comfortable again. Not long after, mom called us all to breakfast and the family came from each assigned chore to break fast together while saying grace for the food we were about to receive. Mom had poured us each a glass of milk, except for daddy who preferred tea.
We ate breakfast, chattering about our chores and what the day would hold for us when dad asked for a second cup of tea. Mom went to get the tea kettle from the back of her old wood cook stove and realized there wasn’t quite enough water to make tea. She moved around the table to the counter where the galvanized steel bucket sat with our drinking water and let out a heavy sigh. “Bub, do you care to run out to the well and draw me a half bucket of water? We can get the rest for dishes after we finish eating.”
Bub did as asked but came running back in with a perplexed look on his face. “Where’s the water?” asked mom.
“The bucket and dipper are not at the well! Neither is the rope!” he exclaimed.
Acid curled in my stomach like a dog circling his bed for sleep. I could feel water sloshing as the room grew quiet and dad asked, “What kind of joke is this? Is someone playing a prank?” Each of us vehemently denied being a jokester and dad got up from his meal to go investigate the disappearance of his bucket and dipper from the well house.
He searched high and low, looking in obvious places to see if someone was just pulling an ill-timed prank. Finally, he started moving further away from the well house towards the perimeter of the yard. Down the yard about thirty or so feet, sat a flower bed that mom lovingly worked each year. Filled now with the ghosts of former beauty, cloaked in icy dew and looking dilapidated in its current state rather than that of its glory from late spring to early fall with the fullness of daffodils and jonquils, bearded irises and lilies. Walled with rocks lovingly picked from the creek bed, the garden was a place of refuge for mom. Her garden gnome, a gag gift of sorts from all of us for Mother’s Day one year, sat proudly on the edge of the rocks, as if he had all the time in the world and was just enjoying his stay. Beside him, nestled almost up against him sat the water bucket, dipper and rope, all nicely organized as if placed there intentionally.
One could clearly tell that dad’s hackles were up and fear tinged his long lashed eyes. I’d seen this look before when the fox got in the rabbit cage and ate our future barbecue or when the black snake swallowed our chicks and eggs whole. Dad was furious. He didn’t like facing loss or having tricks played on him.
He reinstalled the rope over the pulley at the top of the well house and carefully tied the bucket into place and hung the dipper back on the nail on the side of the structure, after washing it, of course. He spent his busy day wondering who did this while I tried to act normal but was over stimulated to the point that everything made me jumpy.
It wasn’t until late that evening that I noticed the red ribbon mom had tied back my long hair with was gone. I had it in my hair when I did chores. I had it in my hair before I fell in the…I’m going to be in so much trouble if they find out! I ran back to the mud room where I’d hid my wet clothes and searched through them. I needed to soak them before adding them to the washing machine when laundry day came around again. I couldn’t find the red ribbon anywhere.
I took my chances in looking near the well, not too close, mind you, but close enough to see that it wasn’t visible. I walked down by the flower bed and pretended to sit next to the gnome and play my childish games. Still no red ribbon. When I wiggled a bit to find my seat on the rock wall, I knocked the gnome over and there sat my ribbon, perfectly tied in a bow and waiting for me. I was so shocked I grabbed it and took off before realizing that I needed to set him upright again.
A load lifted from my chest allowing me to breathe easier. I could skip and run and not worry about being found out. I asked my sister to put the bow back in my hair and she asked me who tied it. I just shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly and waited patiently for her to fix me up.
The weekend passed so slowly. Monday was wash day and I needed to get my dress into the wash before mom saw it. I’d hidden it in the mud room and it’d freeze dried while being wadded into a ball. I covertly watched and sneaked it back to my room to put with the rest of my dirty clothes.
I wasn’t allowed to be near the wringer washing machine. For the longest time mom did laundry the old fashioned way with a wash board and lye soap but thankfully daddy had gotten her this second hand machine and we loved it. In the fall and winter, we had to heat all the water to wash our clothes in because it was too cold to handle them otherwise. So, come Monday morning, I got up early and helped mom heat water and pour it in the washer and tub.
I knew it was almost time to leave the house for school and that she’d put the clothes in soon so I waited until the washer was close to being full when I tossed my dress in with a few other items and cheerfully announced, “Look mom, I’m helping you get the laundry started!” and bounced around the house getting my papers for school.
By the time we walked to the bus stop, the story of our missing bucket and dipper had been shared from household to household and everyone agreed it was some mystery. I walked away a saved little girl by a grace I didn’t fathom until many, many years later.
I’ll save that story for another day when the past isn’t too hard to remember and when the cares of this life have lessened enough for me to share again. Come back and see me soon.
© 2017, Becki Alfrey