We were still upset, my brother and I. We’d refused to come home. Still had to, after a weekend at a small resort two hours away, with several artesian water pools. I wore a swimsuit my mother cut out from one of her old nylon dresses. This year with a top over my budding breasts. The handmade seam had rubbed my skin raw, leaving a mark on the side of my left breast. My mother examined it. It looks like a bite mark. She panicked. It’s not a bite mark, mom. The chlorine-soaked bra you made me irritated my skin. On Monday afternoon she went out alone. Odd. She rarely left the house by herself. To the pharmacy, she said. Our dad stayed home to watch us, instead he slept off his drunken stupor on the couch. We seized the moment. We took things into our own hands. I got the largest pot from the kitchen. Doru turned on the cold water at the sink in the bathroom. No hot water, in 1983 it must have been. Deep under the communist rule in Romania. Hot water, electricity on a tight schedule. We filled the pot to the brim, then carried it together to dump it on the living room floor covered with a Persian carpet. We did this several times before dad woke up at the clamor. The water reached up to his ankles. Under the electrical outlets, but the power had already gone out. It was getting dark, and mom hadn’t come home yet.
I caught you just in time, my mother told me. I’ve always wondered what tipped her. The rumor in the apartment block turned out to the true, and we had hot water that evening. I started running the bath, just like I’d seen her do it before. I found you with your brother naked in your arms, leaning over the bathtub, ready to dunk him in the lukewarm water. Thank God the hot water must climb to the third floor, my mother said, outlining the sign of the cross on her chest. Water always reached us lukewarm, low pressure.
Doru was out of his mind with panic. With agony. With anger. His two guppies were gone from the tank. How, where could they have disappeared? They were fish! He turned every stone, every pebble. Gone. Not there. Not dead. Maybe they were stolen, I told him. Maybe the kids in the neighborhood who’d broken in our home while we were away and had stolen my brother’s stamp collection have done it again. We heard my mother call us to the drinking water pail we kept in a corner of our kitchen. What’s this? She felt sick to her stomach. She pointed to the water, asked us to take a closer look. Two guppies were swimming round and round, crossing their paths. Then asked us to look even closer. Translucent creatures, millimetric in size, were swarming around, following the female. Babies! Baby guppies! My brother shouted with joy. How did they end up there? My mother asked us again. She looked to me, then to my brother. We shrugged. We didn’t know. My brother kept looking in the water pail. I watched his fascinated eyes fill with horror. It ate it! ATE it. One of the big fish ate a fry. My brother turned to me and punched me in the stomach. I’ve never admitted it. Never. Until forty years later, in my first poetry volume. My brother’s first words, after he read it: It was you! I knew it was you!
Don’t go near the water well alone! I feared the water well. Its dark green door containing the darkness that would otherwise pull me under. I always went with my mother to fetch water. I’d take my place at the wheel, unspooling the chain to lower the water pail. The splash would make my heart skip. One elbow on the stone edge, I’d peek down. The opening of the tin pail filling with water looked up at me like an eyeball swelling with tears. I’d draw back. My mother took my place at the wheel, to bring it up. The rise, slow, the pail, heavy. Mom stopped to double down, one hand on the wheel, the other on her belly. It will pass, she comforted me. I’d seen her sick morning after morning. She straightened, then leaned in to bring it to the edge, full to the brim. She poured out some, a small offering to the waterwell. We’d both curl our fingers around the handle and sync our steps back to the house. We’d set it up on its pedestal, a wooden stool. I’d take a tin mug, filled it with fresh water and drank. Like a calf. Mom called me that when she watched me driking water.
I wasn’t alone in the field. I was with this older boy. Much older than me, a neighbor. I can’t remember how we got there. Undress, go down the water well, he said. It’s empty. It has no water. Look, he said. I haven’t seen a water well with no water before. I looked down. It had no water, true. I still didn’t believe it. Why would he ask me to get undressed and go down into the water well? I was unconvinced. I said no. I shook my head. I didn’t want to. I feared the water well, even waterless.
Go quick, get some water! My aunt pushed me toward the door. Alone? Go get water alone? Go, don’t just stand there! My mother and the village nurse had been in the back room for over an hour. My aunt was stuffing wood in the stove. I took the bucket and went outside in the dark. The cold hit me, wrapped around me; I had a knitted vest over my shirt, and still shivered. I reached the well. My fear dipped. I knew what to do. First, I got steady on my feet. I opened the double doors wide to the side. I hooked the pail on the chain, and let it hang for a moment. Then lower it, just like I saw mom do. My cue, the sound of the pail slapping the water. Don’t look down, I whispered. Time stretched. I thrusted the weight of my body into each rotation of the wheel. Push. Once. Push. Twice. Three, four times. The pail handle jammed the pulley with a squeak. I held the wheel, gave the chain enough slack, then locked it in place with the hook. I leaned inside the well, one hand firmly gripping the edge. I was scared. Don’t look down, don’t look down. I grasped the bucket handle with one hand and pulled it to the edge. I tried to lift it. I couldn’t. I tilted it, to pour out some water, to make it lighter. Not the only offering the water well receives tonight, I heard a voice, half inside, half outside my head. Who’s there? Just me, my aunt replied. Are you coming? I stumbled my way back to the house, spilled water running down wool socks, my feet, onto the gravel.
Daniela Hendea is a Romanian-American poet and translator, crossing the Atlantic back and forth often in her writing. She debuted with the poetry volume Acordor de teremin/Theremin Tuner, published at Fractalia Press in 2018. Her poetry and literary translations have appeared in Romanian (Familia, Apostrof, Ateneu et al.), Italian (Un Posto di Vacanza), English (Asymptote). Daniela is an editor of the Romanian publication Prăvălia Culturală. She lives in Texas.
Featured Image Credit: Laura Andreea Flora