Death by misadventure - Editor
The Water Bearer
by John F.D. Taff
Jim was the kind of neighbor who never said too much; a wave when he saw you outside, maybe a few polite, friendly words at the mailbox or when you caught him outdoors as he puttered in his well-kept yard, but little more.
The year is 1947, and Jim, oh, he must have been at least 80 years old. Never married, but in good health, his back slightly stooped, his legs bowed.
My wife and I live in a newly built suburban home, bought with money from a GI loan. This was supposed to pay me back for the year I'd spent tramping through the muddy fields of France and Germany, living with an ever-dwindling group of men, sleeping wherever I fell, and shooting at--and being shot at by--people I couldn't even understand.
Now here I was with three suits in my closet, a new Chevrolet in the garage, a kid born while I moved through the dark trees of the Ardennes, and young wife I barely knew. It was an adjustment for all concerned.
The young, tender grass was taking root, the few trees just sending out their first, tentative leaves. Yet, for the most part, the defining color was still brown.
The only green at all was a small pond that lay in a natural depression in the middle of the common ground, which our house--and Jim’s--backed up to. A ring of trees surrounded it, and its banks wore a mane of cattails and water weeds that rustled in the wind.
I said the neighborhood was mostly brown, but that wasn't all true. Jim’s yard was the exception. It was a dazzling green jewel amidst the rough. The grass was lush and thick in his yard, flower beds burst with unexpected color, and he had planted trees--real trees, taller than a man as a tree should be--and they provided the only pools of shade on the entire street.
Jim spent about an hour every morning when the sun was cool watering his plants, pruning, mowing with an ancient push mower, clipping this and clearing that. Then, he'd disappear into his house.
It was on a Friday, as I recall. I had just closed a pretty good sale and phoned Sarah to tell her to start the grill. I picked up a couple of expensive steaks and a good bottle of wine, and we were going to celebrate.
I swept into the house, kissed Sarah and little Billie, then took my station out in the backyard to grill dinner. A few beers before, some wine with dinner, and we were pretty loose.
Sarah and I were still making up for lost time, and we didn’t even try to make it back to our bed. We turned off the lights, fumbled with buttons and hooks and belts, and I pulled her to me there on the living room couch.
When I awoke, I was confused for a moment, uncertain of where I was. I didn’t move for fear of a bullet. After a minute, I decided I was home.
I pulled myself from Sarah without waking her, dressed, found my pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. I crept outside on bare feet to smoke.
The night was brilliantly lit by a three-quarter moon low on the horizon. Its muscular light swept away the stars.
Cupping my hands against the evening breeze, I struck a match, lit my cigarette, took a few deep puffs. Exhaling, I saw another star, this one close to the ground and glowing red-orange. A lean shadow sat on the steps of Jim’s back door, rolled the star between its fingers.
“Evening,” he said in his gravelly, amiable voice as he saw me. “Fine night for a smoke.”
“Just thought I’d come out here and stare at that old pond. It’s been preying on my mind you know.”
What he said was so unexpected, so enigmatic that I found myself walking the short distance between our yards to stand near him.
He looked at me with rheumy eyes, and I smelled tobacco, beer, but mostly musty age.
“That old puddle bothering you, Jim?”
Pulling on his cigarette, he looked away. “Yes, sir. Why tear out everything that took so long to grow, and leave something like that; something that just...filled up?”
He took three long drags from his cigarette and let the smoke gather around his head, blue and diaphanous.
“It’s just a pond, Jim. It’s not even that deep.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he growled. “Water is water, and that’s all there is to it.”
I began to feel that maybe it was best that Jim never spoke much. He was getting on in years, and maybe he was a bit senile or becoming peculiar in his ways. I began to regret my decision to walk over and talk with him that night.
“Mosquitoes in spring. Bad smells in summer. Ugly in fall, and frozen over in winter. You got kids, don’t you?” he asked, fixing me with a hard stare.
“A little boy.”
“That’s the worst. Little boys are into everything. He’ll be over there like a shot. Should have it drained.”
I shrugged noncommittally. I mean, literally, the pond was no more than three maybe four feet deep, and that’s after a heavy rain.
Jamming his cigarette back into his mouth, he inhaled. The ember flared, lit his craggy face. “You’re too smart to believe that’s the real reason, though. Well, you’re right. I have another reason, a real reason, but that’s another story.”
He stubbed the fading butt onto his steps, dropped it into a old coffee can at his feet. I could hear his joints creak as he rose, held out his hand.
“Good night,” he said, and I shook it. He gave the pond one last, disgusted glance, turned to go inside.
Sarah still slept on the couch, the moon shimmering on her naked skin. I closed the door quietly.
As I did, I saw the moonlight sparkling on the water of the pond.
And for a moment, brief and shivery, it was bone-white beautiful.
“Do you believe a place, a spot of earth can be bad? Like a person, I mean.”
This was two nights later, when I had awakened and felt the urgent need to pee and smoke, in that order. Pulling on a pair of pants and a t-shirt, I tip-toed outside and lit up.
Jim had been out there a while, and, again, he waited until I noticed him to call me over.
“Sure, I believe that,” I answered in surprise as he popped open a beer and handed it to me. It was this simple, neighborly act that surprised me, not the question.
I had been in such places--felt them--several times during my war years; in a back alley of a Paris slum, in a little clearing near the edge of the Ardennes, and again as I filed past the ruins of the Riechstag in Berlin, even after the Russians had systematically destroyed it.
There are places that, like canker sores or abscesses on the face of the earth, both breed and attract evil.
Jim nodded his head gently. “Then, you also believe there are places that are good, for balance. Everything in life is a balance. And that’s the old part of me talking.”
“I suppose that’s true as well.”
“Now what if I were to tell you that it’s possible to hurt a good place, just like you could hurt a good person?”
“How can you hurt a place?”
“Same way you’d hurt a person...spurn it. You can’t hurt a bad place or a bad person. They’re as hurt as they’ll ever be. Oh, you can piss 'em off.”
“OK,” I answered.
He gave my dubious response a dubious look, as if he might suddenly clam up; as if getting me to see this connection were vital. But he obviously wanted to tell his story.
“When you hurt a person deeply enough, even a very good person, sometimes that person will want to hurt you back,” he proceeded after a minute. “It’s just so with a place, even a very good place.
“I knew such a place once. It was a pool of water very much like that one over there,” he said, swiping his hand toward the dark little smudge that was the pond.
Then he opened up like some terrifying night-blooming flower.
And he told his story, scattering it like dark pollen, just as I have set it down here.
It was 1923, the height of Prohibition and bathtub gin, Irving Berlin and jazz.
Already Hollywood was flickering across America, and radio was beaming to homes everywhere. The last great agricultural century, the momentous 19th, had given way finally to the gleaming, ferocious 20th.
For men like Jim, men who’d been boys during the country’s reconstruction, who had participated in the great mythic West, it was a sad time, a lost time.
Old even then, Jim had been moving from flophouse to flophouse for several years, taking temporary jobs, all the while unconsciously moving east; completing a circuit started when he was 17 and had jumped a train to Denver.
He stopped moving for a day or two when he reached Bonne Terre, a mining town south of St. Louis. He’d been born in St. Louis, and like a salmon, I suppose, he had made it his goal to return there before he died.
While in Bonne Terre, though, he heard of a wealthy gentleman seeking to hire a man to maintain his house and grounds. Outdoor work had always appealed to Jim, and he went out to the man’s property, a few miles from town, and applied for the job with a Mr. Krieger, the lawyer who was managing the man’s affairs.
He was hired on the spot, paid a week in advance. That afternoon, he moved his meager possessions to the groundskeeper’s cabin, set off from the main house behind a copse of dense evergreens.
The owner of the property, he was told by Mr. Krieger, was a young doctor, recently widowed. Wealthy by the measure of that day, the doctor had simply quit his practice, bought this land and come out here to rebuild his shattered life.
Krieger gave Jim a tour of the house, not overly large or opulent but seemingly a palace to Jim, introduced him to Grace, the housekeeper and cook.
“What about the owner?” Jim asked. “Will I meet him?”
Krieger gave Jim a sympathetic look. “Dr. Wilson is...a very private man. I’m sure you’ll see him sometime, but as to when, I wouldn’t guess.”
It was an entire month before Jim saw Dr. Evander Wilson. Jim had made friends with Grace and had settled into a routine of having his meals with her, working alone, retiring early to his separate living space.
Jim didn’t take long to get the lawn and garden in order, either. He spent a day or two organizing everything in the work shed, then another few days planning what plants he'd need and where he’d put them.
Two weeks later, everything was planted, the lawn was freshly clipped, and Jim was pruning hedges and bushes near the house.
He stopped to drink from a glass of lemonade Grace had brought him earlier.
A shadow fell over him, though, startling him enough to slosh cold liquid down the front of his shirt.
“Sorry,” came a quiet voice, and Jim turned to see Dr. Wilson.
The doctor was young, not much older than 30, with pale skin, brown hair and large, brilliant eyes behind wire spectacles. He was dressed simply in a pair of khaki trousers and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
Thin and sinewy, Dr. Wilson still seemed puffed up to Jim; not with pride or vanity, mind you, but with something held in.
“Dr. Wilson, sir,” said Jim, holding out his hand. “A pleasure to meet you.”
Wilson took Jim’s calloused hand in his own smooth, elegant hand, shook it lightly. “Yes, Mr. Krieger told me about you. You’ve certainly done a splendid job with the lawn.”
The doctor left him to his work, walked slowly around the house and into the woods, where he vanished in the mid-afternoon shade.
Jim did not see him again for a week.
When he did, Dr. Wilson nearly ran him down.
Jim was preparing to trim the lawn, when Wilson bounded around the corner and into him.
“Good Lord, man, I’m sorry,” he apologized, grabbing Jim by the shoulders and holding him steady. “Are you OK?”
“Yes, sir,” breathed Jim, but the truth was that Dr. Wilson had startled him.
He wasn’t the same man Jim had met a week ago, nor was he the same man Grace talked about. He was energetic, ebullient.
“Well, catch your breath, Jim,” Wilson said, still gripping his shoulders. “It looks as if I didn’t break any bones.”
“Then, I’m off. Good day to you!”
And with that, Wilson dashed off into the woods.
Jim noticed, as his breathing returned to normal, that the doctor wore a bulging backpack, and he remembered Grace telling him several days ago that the doctor had been returning from God only knew where with wet clothing.
Probably found himself a swimming hole, mused Jim, then returned to his work.
Off and on for the next few weeks, as late spring gave way to the heart of summer, Jim saw Dr. Wilson a few more times. And each time, it seemed as if he were more alive, more energized, more there in a fundamental sense.
Dr. Wilson even began taking breakfast and dinner at regular hours in the dining room. Most evenings he sat reading in the parlor before retiring to bed early.
But always in the afternoon he disappeared, his pack bulging with a change of clothes and a lunch put up by Grace.
And the longer this went on, the more curious Jim grew.
The truth was that Jim was beginning to find life there dull. His duties were easy and quickly accomplished, leaving him with much of each day to himself. He’d begun reading books from Dr. Wilson’s library, but increasingly he felt the need to stretch his legs...and satisfy his curiosity.
So one morning after breakfast, he asked Grace if she wouldn’t mind putting up a lunch for him, as he was determined to take a hike that morning.
Jim knocked around in the yard until he saw Dr. Wilson leave for his afternoon excursion. Quickly putting away his tools, Jim dashed to the house, grabbed his lunch, and set out after the doctor.
He stayed well behind the doctor as they made their way through the dark, cool woods, but he didn’t hide. Dr. Wilson never once turned, though, never slowed, just pushed forward at a leisurely pace, whistling as he went.
Following him over the rolling, densely wooded land, Jim quickly found himself out of breath, sweating. Pacing himself, he let the doctor pull ahead of him a little way, as his joints began to protest.
Down a small, rocky slope and around a stand of trees thickly clogged with young saplings, Jim drew to a panting halt. Cursing and wheezing, he turned around, but the doctor was nowhere to be seen.
Just then, there came a loud whooping cry, followed by a splash.
Jim spun and heard the glissando of raining water from behind a hillock dotted with wildflowers. Cautiously, he moved toward it, climbed to its crest.
There below him, nestled amid a circlet of massive, old trees, was a small pond, no more than 20 feet across. The trees hemmed it in closely, but all around there was a narrow, grassy bank wide enough to sit or lay upon.
One side of the little pool was crowned with cattails. The trees, twisted, gnarled and moss-slicked, dipped their roots into the pool like tentative bathers.
The pool must have been fed by a spring, for the water was burnished silver, not at all stagnant or green or weed-choked.
Within the pool, Wilson floated, occasionally ducking below the surface, rising again in a blast of spray and breath.
Jim hunkered behind one of the trees, watched the man drift lazily atop the water. Clouds sailed around him, mirrored on the water, so silver it almost seemed a pool of mercury; so reflective that, below its surface, Wilson’s body disappeared.
It was quiet here, so Jim unpacked the lunch Grace had made him--a hard boiled egg, a cold beef and cheese sandwich, a pickle and a clutch of purple grapes--and ate as Wilson slept atop the water’s surface.
When he was done, a wave of drowsiness overcame him, too. Without another thought, he leaned against the willow behind him and drifted into a peaceful, contented sleep.
The sun had begun its slow downward arc into night when he awoke.
Stretching, he disentangled himself from several long, thin willow branches that had draped themselves amiably over him, coiled possessively around his shoulders.
Looking down, he saw Wilson sleeping on the banks of the pond. He was completely nude, Jim noticed, and his clothes were scattered around him as if he had been in haste to remove them.
Jim would have turned away then, headed for home before the doctor himself awakened, but for one thing.
The water began to move.
Blinking rapidly to clear his eyes, Jim gaped as the silver coin of the pool elongated, seemed to stretch toward Dr. Wilson. As he watched, the water slid beneath the doctor’s sleeping form, lifted him from the earth, brought him back into the pond.
Slowly, sensuously, Wilson was enfolded by the water; first his limbs, then his chest, then his face, smiling as the waters received him.
Jim leapt to his feet in alarm, prepared to descend the hill and leap into the water to rescue the doctor. But just as he pushed away from the willow, Wilson broke the surface of the water, rose into the gold afternoon sun wreathed in a million silver spangles.
And he cried out from a slack mouth dripping argent sparks.
Jim had heard cries like that before, coming through the thin walls of a whorehouse, floating on the night air from the edges of a cattle drive camp.
Wilson bobbed on the water for several seconds, his face serene and content. Then, with a seemingly mighty effort, he swam ashore, pulled himself out of the water. Grabbing his shirt, he toweled off, dressed languidly in the clothes from his pack.
As he dressed, Jim gathered his debris, silently left the little glade so that he would be sure to get home before the doctor.
Dr. Wilson’s mood heightened daily, and he became a fixture, both at home and in town. He began entertaining, holding dinner parties, inviting Mr. Krieger, his partners and their wives over for coffee. On occasional evenings, he would even play a game or two of rummy with Grace and Jim.
He also began courting a widowed woman, who, coincidentally, ran the town’s pharmacy for her dead husband.
As Dr. Wilson seemed to come into himself, his visits to the pond grew infrequent, until they tapered off entirely.
Once he was sure that Dr. Wilson was completely occupied with the new woman in his life, that he wasn’t making trips to the pond any longer, Jim made plans to revisit it himself.
The day Jim chose was during the waning of that summer, when the morning starts out teasingly cool before the sun reasserts its dominance, and the air itself seems to melt.
He ate a hurried breakfast, packed himself a light lunch, wandered into the yard. Taking his time, he pushed into the dense undergrowth of the woods, picking the narrow path that had been worn by Dr. Wilson on his previous trips.
Jim felt like a kid again, about to do something that was equal parts fun and forbidden. Impatience bubbled up within him, and he increased his pace.
It was not difficult to find this time. He paused at the base of the hillock, took a deep breath, climbed to its top.
The scene that greeted him was not as he remembered.
The pond had shrunk under the hot caress of the sun, leaving a wide margin of thick, black ooze that faded into a lighter, scabby mud. The water huddled in the middle of this was brackish and thick, clotted with water weeds and algae.
Bedraggled cattails slumped against one another on the far end, and even the trees seemed to lean away from the remains of the little pool.
Jim nearly gagged on the stench, a hot, rich miasma of decay, as he stood flabbergasted on the crest of the hill.
But more than that...there was a feeling, Jim told me, a feeling unlike what he had experienced there before. Then, he had felt a seductive atmosphere clinging to the glade; a becalmed, lazy sort of sensuality.
Now, however, all he felt was hurt and betrayal and a lingering, seething layer of resentment. He felt this all in the space of the first few seconds he gazed down at the ruin of the pond.
None of this was directed at him, he knew, good or bad; it was because of Dr. Wilson, or rather because of his absence.
Confused by the nonsense of this realization, assaulted by the foreboding feelings, and repelled by the sight and smell of what the pond had become, Jim staggered back down the slope, walked home in numb silence.
Just as everyone expected, Dr. Wilson announced his engagement to Mrs. Clairine Woods, the wife of the deceased town pharmacist. Many local tongues wagged at the marked change in the doctor’s demeanor--and not a few more at the shrewd medical monopoly he was rumored to be creating.
An early fall wedding was scheduled, with a reception to follow on the lawn of Dr. Wilson’s estate. Preparations were made for the wedding and the arrival of a new wife.
Summer bled into fall, and Jim spent more time raking leaves and pruning dead branches than mowing or planting. He kept busy enough that he seldom thought much more of his strange experiences with the pond.
Raking leaves one bright, cool early October morning, he smelled something that penetrated his skull and drew forth a memory. It was the smell of wet, mildewy decay, and it made his stomach twitch.
At first he thought it was nothing more than damp, molding leaves, but it hadn’t rained in more than a week.
Following his nose, he walked cautiously around the house to where the path through the woods began. Just on the verge of the trees, the earth was soaked, the grass matted. Here and there along the bottoms of their trunks, the trees were draped with water weeds and long, dark strands of foul-smelling green algae.
Jim felt his heart begin to accelerate, labor in his chest.
He set his tools on the grass, went back to his cabin to lie down for a spell.
The morning of the wedding arrived, and Jim skipped his usual early breakfast to take one last spin through the grounds. He had planted a profusion of mums around the entrance to the house to give some additional color to the surroundings, and he wanted to check to be sure they were perfect.
He bent down to one plant to snap off a broken stem, when a scream resounded from the house.
Rising so fast that his knees cracked like splitting wood, he dashed up the front steps, stuffing the yellow flower on its broken stem into his pocket. The front door was open, and he slid across the polished tile in his wet boots.
“Grace! What’s the matter?”
She appeared at the top of the steps, ashen, her mouth agape and forming silent words.
“Are you OK?” he asked, rushing up the stairs toward her.
His feet squished on the staircase rug; it was soaked.
Alarmed, he pushed past her, turned toward Dr. Wilson’s room. The carpeting became wetter as he approached the door, which was half open.
It swung heavily back when he touched it, revealing a nightmare.
The room was in a shambles, furniture tumbled everywhere, lamps overturned and shattered, wet clothing strewn in improbable places.
Everything was stained with green muck. Ropes of algae, thick and mucilaginous, hung from the bed’s massive posts, draped from the fireplace mantle, festooned the paintings on the walls. Rank brown-green slime stained clothing, towels, bed sheets, the wallpaper.
The smell of wet rot hung oppressively upon the air, cloying and nauseating in its intensity.
Dr. Wilson lay stretched atop his rumpled bed, dressed in his wedding clothes--a white day jacket, black trousers, a black cravat, shiny black shoes.
The doctor’s face--eyes open--wore a look of sublime ecstasy. His skin was a pale shade of blue, and he, of course, was quite dead.
He was soaked to the bone. From the doorway, Jim could see his shriveled blue fingertips, curled like flower petals. Around one gleamed his new gold wedding band.
The room, the smell, became too much for Jim, and he lurched to the window, threw it open, and dry heaved into the morning air.
Looking down, he saw green stains along the grass where he had seen them a week earlier. They led to the side of the house, up the siding and across the windowsill his hands gripped tightly.
Snatching his hands back, he turned them over. His palms were stained a dark, dead green.
“Death by misadventure,” he said, lighting up a fresh cigarette. “That’s what the coroner wrote in his report. But no one who was in that room believed that.”
He exhaled a cloud of smoke, and I took a drink from the warm beer I held.
“Not me. I knew. Besides, I was in the room when old Doc Hampton showed. He opened Dr. Wilson’s mouth to have a look-see inside, and a gush of water and wet cattail fluff spilled out. Only I knew.”
I didn’t want to say it, but I felt obligated. “What? That the pond had gotten into the house and drowned the man? That’s crazy.”
Jim turned and gave me a sour look. “I told you I read a lot during my time at Dr. Wilson’s. One of the books I read said that a person is made almost completely of water. Why do you think the oceans hold so much attraction for men? Because water attracts water, calls out to its own.
“Someone once said that the sea is a harsh mistress. But I think that’s only half right. Water is a harsh mistress--and a jealous one.”
I could think of nothing more to say. His story had held me, pinned me at some essential level where I couldn’t wriggle away.
“Drain it, I still say,” he muttered. “Drain that son of a bitch before it loves somebody. Before somebody loves it.”
He gave me a funny look, then said good night, and vanished into his house.
I stood there a while longer watching the pond out there in the darkness. I heard the calming sound of the wind rustling the reeds of its hair.
And I felt something stirring inside me; the desire to see it up close, to cup my hands in its water, to gaze at my reflection in its mirrored surface.
Rushing back inside, I closed the house against the sight and sound of the pond, went back into our bedroom and woke my wife.
I made love to her then, to keep my thoughts at bay for a while.
That was about two months ago.
Jim passed away quietly one night in his sleep shortly after telling me his story, relieved of its burden.
The pond, however, is still here.
For the past week, I have awakened in the middle of the night, not sure of where I am, snapped my eyes open onto a vast, black, pin-pricked sky circling above me.
Beside me, like a lover, the pond lapped at its banks, curled around me, dampening my skin.
My wife has begun to wonder why my pajamas are wet every morning.
I haven’t told her.
I don’t think I should tell either of them about the other…