2018 Barthelme Prize: Something Clear

Sarah Minor

Six hours into drilling, rescue crews heard one-year-old Jessica McClure singing “Winnie the Pooh” from the bottom of the abandoned well she had fallen down seven hours earlier.

Before Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, before his parents die, he falls down a well and into an important cave.

An outdated list of “Abandoned Well Accidents” begins: 
1981, a four-year-old girl (rescued) 
1983, a 10-month-old (fatal) 
1983, a 6-year-old boy (fatal) 
1986, a 2-year-old boy (rescued) 
1987, a deer hunter fell 30 feet into
a hundred-year-old well, but got away by
digging hand holds into the clay walls with his knife.

In places like Iowa and New York State children were often warned about old wells when they were sent into the woods and fields to play. “Watch out, you might fall down a well,” doubled as a warning against bad behavior, as if the well could pull you in like a fate. Having grown up and never fallen, it seemed that my friends and I had escaped something that was after us. Though not everything in pursuit comes running. Clairetta and I sit together on a patch of flattened grass beside a street that has ended at the woods. It’s eight o’clock, Friday, and the sky has gone red behind the trees where we’re letting car keys dangle winner from our fingers, as if we have somewhere to be. I’m wearing enough eyeliner that my brother has taken to calling me raccoon. She has blue eyes and a safety pin in her ear. We’re not allowed to go to the party where our friends are shooting rockets at the lake, but I’ll drive us there if my mother falls asleep early. We feel like kids down here, though neither of us has said it, beneath lightning bugs haloing to each other like the towers out at the power plant. Yellow, because this is Iowa, and summer, when all the best and worst things seem to be about sex, but that’s not what we’re thinking right now. Etta swats a daddy longlegs and pulls in her knees. In different neighborhoods, our fathers are drinking something clear and our mothers are heel-driving around the house, choosing drier poisons. Here in the gully something is rustling, troubling the grass at the edge of the woods. Then a sound like a broom on the tile. Something heavy being dragged out of the trees. Etta’s shoulder clicks as it tenses in the spot where a pickup T-boned her on the way to my house last year. It’s two years before the next accident, before he holds her down, before they slip it in our drinks. There was this joke that developed during the war against astrology in 1506, about people who fell into wells. Like in the tale where a philosopher with his eyes glued to the heavens falls straight into a ditch up to his ears: “O Thales,” said the olde woman who kept his house, “How shuldest thou have knowledge in hevenly things, and knowest nat what is here beneathe thy feet?” Now the sound moves into the gully, parting the grasses as it comes. Thump, scrape, like a game of jacks. I make my lips into a navel and mouth the count Etta knows: “ONE.” Her eyes go wide and she silences her keys. “TWO,” then the dragging sound. “THREE” and we are running up the slope with wet kneecaps, getting away.