The Fish and the Well

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At Meredith, a women’s liberal arts college in Raleigh, my freshmen year friends asked often about my background during supper, as they did with everyone, attempting to use a few stories to stitch together a character. I was quiet and preferred to listen, but the group was insistent in learning more.

“Polly, c’mon! Everyone’s gone but you.”

“Heather hasn’t given us any stories yet, either,” I sulked.

“Richardson comes before Walker, silly. You’re up.”

“Fine, ladies,” I fake smiled and put up my hands, “one story, but nothing more.”

I told them of our large family farm in eastern North Carolina that my great grandfather Littole Barry Richardson built at crossroads with four fire places, a wraparound porch, a smokehouse for the pasture cows, the six pecan and two hickory trees that my mom wouldn’t let my older brother John, older sister Gladys, or me play on, and the garden, the light of my mother, bursting with a framed concord grape vines, strings of collards, stacks of butter beans, and bushels of strawberries.

I told them that on Sunday afternoons we all watched my mom make butter. She would have milked the cow on Thursday and then strained it into large pans, waiting three days for the cream to rise to the top in the cool air of the refrigerator. We’d gather around the wooden kitchen table and watch her arms move swiftly in memorized motions, churning and churning until the mixture took solid form. With careful fingers, she would take spoonfuls of the butter and mold it into prisms, cubes, and sometimes if we were lucky, her artistic genius carved our names into the pale fat so that for dinner, we could slice into a J, G, and P for fun. The girls would smile in nostalgia, maybe remembering their own mothers or their family’s homemade specialties, yet they pressed for more.

“What about your dad? What’s he like?”

I never considered my dad much of a story. He wasn’t mean, but he rarely showed affection or outward love. Tense in his nature, I believed he only clenched his fists when he walked because a bottle wasn’t between them already. He had lost a son – I guess, my brother – at two weeks old without a known cause of death; he labored over every crop to provide for our family; he managed a 132-acre tobacco farm, but struggled to raise and maintain more than 15 of those squares; he pretended to eat fish bones whole and spit most back up to make John laugh at dinner, but I saw a few scrape down his throat in intended pain. When I saw him flinch, I thought of the times when the blade he used to descale the fish missed the slumping creature and sliced his skin instead. But of course I didn’t mention that. I also didn’t mention that he allowed the Depression to plant a bloodthirsty seed inside his mind and his heart, that his stress kept him out wandering in the loose strands of the farm at night, the trace of spilt alcohol left on the crops by dawn. No, I told them of the well and the fishing, instead. Things to make them smile.

Made of five-foot wooden boards, the squared well had an angled shelf on the side with an aluminum bucket held up by a faded white rope. Whenever Dad lowered the bucket, a wooden sweep guided it down like a seesaw so his pulls wouldn’t lose any water. Looking down scared me because it was so dark. Even in broad daylight the bucket always disappeared. At first I thought it was like magic – an empty bucket descending into nothing and then coming back full with a load of drinkable water, but then John ruined the allure and told me a giant eel-like sea monster who loved the taste of young girls in ragged overalls lived down in the mud and would eat me in pieces if I ever fell inside.

One day, he actually schemed with my dad to create this nightmare. My mom had asked me to go fetch a pale of water for boiling her fresh chickens, and as I stared at the wooden sweep ensuring not a drop was lost, John, dressed in his army t-shirt and camouflage pants, came barreling and yelling down the hill. I turned around and started panicking. I couldn’t drop the bucket because it would fall ten feet and Dad would have to jump down to retrieve it from the abyss, but if I didn’t let go, John, with what looked like fish skin and chicken feathers pasted to his cheeks, would tackle me over the edge. Frozen, I stood there like a deer that just heard a gunshot and waited for John’s body weight to clash into mine, but instead, I felt myself being lifted in the air in a huge embrace and heard the bucket splash. “The eel is HUNGRY! He has come to eat little Polly!” John bellowed, licking my face and gnawing at the air. “AHHH! The well is my kingdom, young girl!” He was tickling me now and moving my hair above my lip to give me a mustache. “John!” I screamed back, uncontrollably giggling. He picked me up and carried me above his head up toward the house, screaming, “I have her for you, father, your majesty, my master,” where Dad sat on the porch with a dark drink, roaring in laughter.

“Do you ever go visit home?” Heather asked. “It’s not too far from Meredith.”

“On holidays, sure,” I responded.

“Your family seems so funny, Polly,” another girl Martha sighed. “My family is so dull. My dad works at a bank and my mom just watches the kids.”

“Can you tell us another? Just something quick?”

I nodded.

Dad and I always went to the well after we fished. Dad loved fishing. He used reed poles with a cork and baited only with earthworms he found in the soil earlier that day. He always baited my hook for me (I was scared of worms, too, because they squirmed like eels), and he taught me the importance of patience in waiting not only for the first nibble, rather for the third or fourth, just to make sure the perch, or sometimes chub, was trapped. We’d take the fish back to the well, and while Dad scrubbed off all the dirt, he’d say, “Now Polly, remember what I’ve told you. Don’t ever waste. We don’t waste in this family, especially not right now. Not an opportunity, a step, or most importantly,” he’d lean in close to me here, “extra fish meat,” and would swing a gasping fish head in front of my face so its black eyes, nearly popping out of their sockets, were looking straight into mine. Each time I thought it wouldn’t happen again, and each time when it did, I screamed, ran toward the house, and could hear him chuckling in the background.

“Same, I wished my parents were so...capable like yours,” Heather added. Other girls at the table nodded in agreement. “My dad doesn’t even know what a perch is, let alone that it’s edible.”

“It’s really not that exciting,” I said, thinking of how my father gave all the profits from two much needed acres of tobacco crop for me to be at this table, with these girls, at this college. He wanted me to take this chance as much as I did and he sacrificed more than I could ask for. “It’s mostly just my dad and brother scaring me with sea creatures.”

“Do you miss home?”

I paused. Did I? I missed the full-body laughter and the lighthearted tricks and the fish and the well, but I didn’t miss the underlying sadness, the unspoken stress, or the building tension of the times. “Yes, I do. I do miss home and what it was for me, but I knew there was another world out there and my family wanted me to be in it.”

“Is that why you came here?”

“Yes, that’s exactly why I came here.”

“It’s only an hour or so away from your farm, right?”

“More or less, but it’s still away, isn’t it?”

The girls nodded in agreement, mumbling “still away” to themselves. A brief pause, and thankfully, the attention moved on. “Heather Walker! You’re up, hun.”


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