Homesteaders, Poor and Dry: Moving Rural Verse


The world was bone dry. I don’t know why God
would do such a thing. The field was bare as a floor and the springs: nothin’ – nothin’. Papa’s cattle bawled night and day ’til I thought I’d go crazy with it. Turn them out, I cried. Kill them, Papa, I begged. And he did. And he killed himself, too in a way ’cause he loved them crazy ol’ cows. I had to help him. There wasn’t anybody else. Momma had the baby. He handed me the big knife and I followed him. First he took the red one, the one he didn’t like the most. Old Mule, he called her ’cause she kicked him every day. He coaxed her into the barn. She went, hoping for some hay. The barn still smelled like hay, so she went. He tied her up and took the knife from me and held it ’round behind his back He thought she’d know what he was up to and run. He slipped his arm around her neck and the knife came up sharp and glinting like a present. His hands were shaking. He had killed cows and pigs
and chickens, millions of ’em but his hands were shaking now. This dry had him half crazy too. Just when I thought he wouldn’t do it he screamed and I screamed and Old Mule screamed. She pulled back and her wild eyes looked right at me. Blood thumped out of her and she fell shaking to the ground under me as if I was going, too. Papa was on his knees crying, I’m sorry, Old Mule, I’m sorry, and I ran away. I threw the gate open and chased the other cows away. I didn’t know where they’d go, but somebody else could kill ’em. Not my Papa. The next week the well went dry. Papa would drop the bucket down and it would come up empty. He turned the bucket over
and the bottom was wet. He said I’d have to go down into the well and fill the bucket with a cup. I’d have to ’cause we could never pull him up. He was the strongest and the well was small and I was the smallest. No Papa. I can’t. Yes, you can, girl. You can do it for the baby. He tied a stick in the rope for me to stand on and boosted me over the side. I could only see a few feet down then there was a black hole and I was looking
into the belly of a monster. A monster that would take me
in one swallow and I didn’t even get to have
my own baby and home yet. His face brushed mine and I whispered, No Papa. No. But the rope was sliding down
over the edge and I was going down too. I clung on to that rope nothing could get me loose. There were things down there. Scary things that would touch me. Papa’s face in the circle of sky
went farther away until I couldn’t see him only a black circle in a blue circle getting smaller. The well was so narrow the walls brushed me It was dark and places big rocks
stuck out and scraped me. I cried let me up let me up but I was still going down, leaving the world leaving Mama crying my name and my Papa moaning,
it’s for the baby, girl. I was lowered down in that well every day ’til the drought broke. Every day. I closed my eyes and sang myself songs, dipped the water raising down there
in the pitch dark all by the feel. But there was no time I’ll remember like that first time. After, when the water
came back up in the well, I went and looked down into the water and imagined myself on the bottom and sometimes I wanted to go back down to the quiet of the dark. In all my life Nothing can make me scared. I went down into the earth and drew back up. Nothing can ever scare me again. No man. No beast. No God. I saw His face that day and He promised me no fear.

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