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July 08, 2024

Guardian of the Well

By Peter Barbour

Under a cloudless sky, an endless landscape of sand stretched out before him. The sun beat down relentlessly on the barren plain. The dry air gripped Ren's throat and sucked every bit of moisture out of him. He had no urge to void and sweat no longer poured off him. Ren was thirsty. He raised his water bag to his lips, but there was little water left inside. His lips cracked from dryness and skin peeled from his face. He made his way to shade beneath a dune and sat down. Prospecting for minerals ended when his jeep broke down. Now, he was regretting the decision to set out on foot. As he rested, he scanned the land around him and noticed a depression. Heat waves rose from the depression and he detected a faint hint of green in the shimmering light.

"Water," he murmured in a hoarse dry voice, happy with the prospect of finding relief for his thirst.

He mustered what little energy he could find and walked to the depression. It seemed like ages until he arrived. There, sitting on a rock opposite a well, was a man. He was thin, covered with dust, and wore a broad hat pulled down to just above his eyes. He had a scarf around his neck pulled up over his face to just below his eyes. Ren approached the man who acknowledged Ren's presence by raising his hat slightly.

"Hello," Ren said with trepidation. "May I get some water from your well?"

"Of course you may, but you need a bucket and rope to get any water out of this well."

"I don't have a bucket or rope. Can I borrow yours?"

"I would gladly lend you mine, if I had any. I could tell you where to get a bucket and rope. Perhaps you would be willing to trade something for that information?"

Ren thought for a moment. He was annoyed and suspicious of this man, who appeared unwilling to share his water, if, in fact, it was his water. Concerned there might not be any other way, Ren decided to do as the man requested.

"I have money. How much do you want for your information?" Ren asked.

"Money?" The man returned with disdain. "Money has no value here. Offer me something useful."

Ren reached into his pack. He pulled out a packet of jerky meat and held it up for the man to see.

The man raised his hat a little further to get a better look.

"I'll give you this for your information."

The man looked at the packet and took it.

"Okay. Go there." He pointed in the direction of the setting sun. "There is a place where you can get a bucket and rope. When you return, you can have as much water as you need."

"There is no other way?" Ren asked, unhappy with the man's response. He didn't like the prospect of walking any farther. He considered ignoring the man and, instead, try to get water from the well without the man's consent. 'How did the man get water from the well?' Ren wondered. Ren stared at the man. The man stared back, an evil stare through snake-like slits.

"Go," the man said meanly. "You're wasting daylight and my time."

Ren considered his options. He was unwilling to confront the man more aggressively. He decided to start walking in the direction the man had pointed but turned back to look at the man one last time with hope for a reprieve.

"How far is this bucket and rope?" Ren called.

"Not far," returned the man.

Ren walked and walked. Too far to turn back, he kept on going. He wondered if this were simply a ruse. Then, just as he began to falter in his hope that he would reach his destination, in the distance, he could see a canvas cloth staked on two poles. Once he drew closer, there appeared to be a woman sitting at a table in the shade amongst an outcropping of rocks at the base of a hill. As Ren approached closer, he surveyed the items displayed on the table.

"Hello, have you any water?" Ren said hopefully.

"Only enough for myself. There's not enough to share. You could get water at the well," she responded, and pointed in the direction Ren had come.

"So, I've learned," Ren said dejectedly. "I will need a bucket and rope to get any water from that well."

"That is correct. I can give you the bucket and rope. What can you give me? Perhaps you have a knife? I would trade the bucket and rope for a fine knife."

Ren reached into his pocket and pulled out his knife. The woman examined the knife, put it in her pocket, and handed Ren a bucket filled with rope. Ren grabbed the bucket by its handle and headed back to the well.

As the sun began to set, long shadows and the sameness around him obscured any landmarks. Once the sun was below the horizon, disoriented by the desert sameness, Ren wandered far afield from the way he'd come. Even as the moon rose, the way was impossible to navigate. Ren was exhausted. He collapsed on the ground and looked up at the stars. He believed he was going to die. As he lay there, his mind wandered, and he imagined he was safe somewhere, in bed, at peace. He could feel himself drifting off to sleep but forced himself to stay awake. He reached for the bucket, held it to his lips and pretended to drink. He put the bucket down and willed himself to stand. Once up, he picked up the bucket by its handle, and started to walk again towards the dawn.

In the early morning light, he could better orient himself. He could see off in the distance the depression where he'd discovered the well. He walked in that direction. Once there, he found the guardian of the well sitting in the same place he had found him the day before.

"I have a bucket and rope," Ren said. "May I drink?"

The man extended his open hand and motioned toward the well.

Ren ran to the well. He tried to remove the rope but found it sewn tightly into the inside of the bucket. He reached into his pocket for his knife and remembered he'd traded it to the woman for the bucket and rope. He tore at the string that secured the rope, tearing the skin on his fingers. Ren threw the bucket aside angrily.

"I'll die without water!" Ren shouted at the man. "Can't you help me.?"

"Die? So, must we all. That's the great reality of life," the man returned matter of factly.

Feeling betrayed, Ren was frustrated, angry, desperate, then fearful.

"Please!" Ren pleaded. "Without water, I will die. How do you get water from the well?"

"I don't," the man responded. "The well is dry. There is no water here."

Ren was spent. Too weak to stand any longer, hopeless, betrayed, and defeated, he tried to rush at the man but collapsed at his feet. The man stood and kicked Ren in the side to see if Ren would stir. When Ren did not move, the man removed Ren's backpack, took whatever he could find of value from Ren's pockets, and propped him up against a rock opposite the well. The man took out his canteen, took a gulp of water, picked up the bucket by its handle, and headed home in the direction of the setting sun where his wife sat at a table under a tarp in the shade.

Article © Peter Barbour. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-08-26
Image(s) are public domain.
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