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The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips

The following is an excerpt from The Well and the Mine (Hawthorne Books, 2008) by Gin Phillips.

 

After she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash.

The back porch comes right off our kitchen, with wide gray-brown boards you can lose a penny between if you're not careful. The boards were warm with heat from the August air, but breathing was less trouble than it was during daytime. Everybody else was on the front porch after supper, so I could sit by myself, nothing but night and trees around me, a thin moon punched out of the sky. The garden smelled stronger than the left-over fried cornbread and field peas with onions. And the breeze tiptoed across the porch, carrying those smells of meals done and still to come, along with a whiff of Papa's cigarette and snatches of talk from out front. It was the best time of the day to sit with the well, its wooden box taking up one corner of the porch and me taking up another.

I loved the well then.

I leaned up against the kitchen door and looked through the wood posts of the railing, even though I couldn't see anything but black. There weren't clouds covering that slice of moon or the blinking stars, but they still didn't throw enough light. The light from the kitchen door let me see to the edge of the porch. But the woman she didn't see me, I guess. Sometimes the Hudsons down below got their drinking water here—they didn't have their own well—and I thought it was a big, solid woman, with shoulders like a man. She climbed the stairs two at a time. Then she held that heavy cover off the well, like a man would, with no trouble.

I couldn't see the baby at first 'cause it was underneath her coat. But she took it out, a still, little, bean-shaped bundle wrapped up like it was January.

I could have reached her in five or six steps. If I'd moved.

She held the bundle like a baby for a minute, tucked under her chin like she was patting it to sleep, whispering. The blanket fell back from its head, and I saw a flash of skin. Then she tossed it in. Just like that. Not long after the splash—just a quiet, small sound—she lifted the square cover again and fit it back into its cut-out space, settling it in with careful little touches. Even with all that weight, the porch boards didn't creak when she left.

The splash wasn't so much the sound of the baby hitting the water as it was the welp the well made; it sounded shocked and upset knowing something inside it was awful. Wanting my help.

I felt my teeth dig into my bottom lip, maybe drawing blood, but I was quiet as a mouse and stiller than one. Mice scatter like marbles.

After I don't know how long, Virgie pushed at the door. I knew the sound of her feet on the floorboards. I scooted up, and she poked her head out.

Virgie wore cicada shells, pinned like brooches at her collar. We used to wear them all the time, rows of them like buttons down our shirts during summer, but since she'd be going to the high school next year, she wouldn't wear them to school no more. She'd gotten too old.

"We're all out front—why're you hidin' back here?" She looked down at me, then up at the well. "I swear, you'd marry that well if it'd give you a ring."

Beyond it was pitch. The kind of blacck you' think you'd smash into like a wall if you were to run into it. The woman was gone.

"Some lady threw a baby down it," I said.

Virgie looked at me some more. "Down the well?"

I nodded.
She laughed, and I knew without looking at her she was rolling her eyes. "Hush up and go inside."

"She did!" My mouth was still the only part of me I could make work—it felt like I'd taken root in the floorboards.

"Nobody's been near our well. Quit tellin' stories."

She knew I didn't tell stories. I swallowed hard, and it loosened my feet. I pushed myself up and took a step toward the well. "She was, too! A big woman with a baby in her arms. And she threw her baby in without sayin' a thing."

"Why would she do it with you watchin' her?" She said it like she was grown-up, not just 14 and only five years older than me.

"She didn't see me." My voice was high, and my chest ached with wanting her to believe. At the well, I tried to slide the cover back, but it was too heavy. "Look in here."

"You don't have a lick of sense."

"Virgie..." I was begging.

She looked a little bit sorry, and came over to stroke my hair like Mama did when I got upset. "Were you daydreamin'? Maybe you saw somebody walk by the porch and you imagined it."

"No. We have to look in the well."

"How do you know it was a baby?"

"It was."

"Was it cryin'?"

"No."

Finally she looked worried, looking out at the night instead of looking at me. "Somebody mighta thrown some garbage or somethin' in there outta spite. But who'd do it?"

"It wasn't garbage. It was a baby. And I'm gone tell Papa."

I turned and marched off toward the front porch, going back through the house with Virgie right behind me. That last week in August, the nighttime wind was enough to cool your face but not enough to carry off a day's worth of sunshine. The sun was twice its normal size at the tail end of summer. We'd all stay outside until it was about time to go to bed. Papa and Mama were in their rockers, with Mama shelling peas and Papa smoking a cigarette. They were lit from the lights in the den—Papa was still smdged, even though he'd washed and washed his face and hands. He was bluish instead of black.

Virgie announced it before I could. "Tess says she saw somebody throw somethin' in the well."

Papa caught my arm and pulled me over to him. He curled one arm around my waist and set me on his lap. I reached down and felt the leather of his hand, snuggled closer to him.

"What did you see, Tessie?"

"It was a woman, Papa. And she had a baby in her arms, wrapped up, and she threw it in the well." I spoke slowly and carefully.

Papa used his knucke to nudge my chin up. "It's awful dark out back. Maybe you just saw some shadows."

I shook my head until a curl popped loose from my ribbon. They were always coming loose. (Virgie had gotten her blond angel hair bobbed to her shoulders and she curled it like in magazines at the newsstand.)

"I saw her. I did. I was sittin' by the door, and I was gettin' too chilled so I was gone come in, but then I saw her walkin' up the back road. I didn't know her, but she was comin' right straight here, so I sat and waited and nearly said hello to her when she got to the steps, but then she didn't walk towards the door at all. She stopped at the well. She looked around, moved the cover, and tossed a baby in. And then she left."

"I think maybe somebody tossed an old sack of trash or maybe a dead squirrel or somethin' in there just for meanness," Virgie said.

I looked straight at Papa. "I swear it was a baby."

"Don't ever swear, Tess," he said with a little shake of his head, looking back toward the dark. Two lightning bugs went off at the same time.

Mama looked puzzled, the lines in her forehead deeper than usual. "Why would she throw it in our well?"

Virgie looked mad at me. "Now you've upset Mama."

 

From The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips. Copyright © 2008 by Gin Phillips. Published by Hawthorne Books.

 

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