A TAINTED WELL
Written by Jerry C Smith
Copyright 2016 Jerry C Smith
All Rights Reserved
FINDING AN OLD FARMSTEAD
What could be better than walking down a winding dirt road on a warm Saturday morning in June? Anyone who’s into forgotten Alabama history knows some of our finest treasures are found beyond the next bend.
While exploring my maternal family’s ancestral environs on Marshall County backroads, I discovered traces of just such an old road. It began on the other side of a privet-choked gully, so I parked my Toyota under some trees, jumped the ditch, and began walking overgrown wheel ruts toward whatever vintage treasures lay hidden at its end.
Clearly, this road hadn’t been driven for decades, which naturally begs the question of why. As I put distance between myself and the present tense, the countryside began to take on a whole different look.
Apparently, the land hadn’t even been worth cutting for timber or grazing cattle, as most of its trees were of huge circumference and surrounded by tangles of grey, weather-bleached deadfall. Traces of rotted rail wood dangled from posts of heart pine, occasionally draped with loose rabbit nests of rusty, tangled barbed wire held in place by even rustier staples.
Some of these posts enclosed small tracts of level ground, interspersed with a variety of “volunteer” vegetable and tobacco stalks from abandoned table gardens, their farmhouses long since rendered by Mother Nature into contorted piles of scrap lumber and rusty tin surrounded by rows of daffodils that had been planted long ago next to foundations.
After perhaps a mile of pleasant walking, watching for snakes in the old wagon ruts, listening to birds, and breathing the pure air of rural Alabama, an old farm house appeared where the road abruptly ended.
It was obviously abandoned but, strangely, was not strangled with weeds or kudzu. Indeed, it was almost as if someone had been keeping it alive, for whatever reason.
As farmhouses go, this one was quite large and oddly well preserved, with no roof cave-ins, sagging walls, or crumbling foundations. It was surely a pioneer home, but showed no signs of recent occupancy.
A hundred feet or so beyond the house I spotted the remains of an old dug water well which miraculously, still had a rusty bucket on a chain, barely visible through knee-high weeds.
I’d not anticipated such a long hike and, consequently, decided to leave my water bottle in the car, but escalating summer heat reminded me that I needed a drink ere I continue my exploration.
After removing a sheet of roofing tin from the well’s mouth, I lowered the bucket gently to avoid stirring up any sediment, then hoisted it back up when I felt it right itself upon filling with water.
The water looked okay, harbored no swimming creatures, and was very cold & inviting. I reasoned that since no one had used this land probably for decades, there was nothing to pollute it. Crossing my fingers, I tried a sip.
It tasted totally okay and a bit sweet, almost like expensive spa water from France, so I drank deeply, then sat down against the trunk of a huge oak tree for a little rest.
MANY HOURS LATER
I awoke in a pool of sweat with the mother of all headaches, and eyesight that came & went at will. Someone was shaking me. “Momma, he’s waking up”, a girl’s voice rang out, which did absolutely nothing to abate my headache.
Through rheumy eyes I saw a rather thin but plainly becoming girl of perhaps sixteen years of age. She was wearing a black, loosely fitting dress that reached from just under her chin to the tops of her buttoned shoes. It was decorated with wide white lace, smelled of cedar and lavender, and left practically everything to the imagination.
“Where am I?, ” I asked. She replied, “You’re in Grandpa’s old bed. Nobody’s used it since he died last Fall, and then you come along. But don’t worry about it none. He didn’t have somethin’ catchin’ when he died”
“WHY am I in your dead grandpa’s bed?”
“We was coming home from the fields and found you passed out by that old well. I hope you didn’t drink any of it.”
“Uh yeah, I did. Was that bad?”
“Mister, you are lucky to be alive. We had to shut that hole down a long time ago because the water got messed up real bad. A couple of our cows got into it and went crazy. We had to kill ’em, and were afraid to eat the meat.
“Pa said it was somethin’ in the ground, so we started using a spring that comes from higher up the hill. You rest up. I’m gonna go get Momma.”
My vision had become fairly clear by now, though fine detail was still hit & miss. Looking around the room, I saw very little furniture save my bed and a small handmade table beside it, a straight back chair with woven cane seat, an old round-top trunk, and a tall cabinet with mirrored doors that looked like it was made to hold clothing.
A tattered straw hat with mildewed sweatband hung from a peg driven into the wall beside the door. Over the door hung a rusty double-barrel shotgun with dog-ear hammers and the initials E A T in its buttstock.
A bedside table held only a tin cup and a tattered old Bible wrapped with string, its spine long since deteriorated. The bed itself was of hand-hewn oak planks and posts, varnished many times. My mattress was stuffed with something soft yet lumpy, and the whole thing folded halfway around my body. I could feel something firm going crossways underneath it, like ropes or wooden slats.
On the floor in the nearest corner was a peculiar pot with lid, made of porcelain or china and, oddly, a small pile of paper lay beside it. The room’s walls were of unpainted wood planks, none the same size, with ceiling and bare floor to match.
Although my stomach was still a bit queasy, an aroma wafted in through the open door that spelled good, solid food.
“Hey, I’m Molly,” the lady of the house said as the entered my room. Except for age, she was the spitting image of her daughter, complete with long black dress and buttoned shoes, although hers sported two-inch heels and pearl buttons.
“Tressie told me you was feeling better. How about settin’ with us for dinner?” I needed no further encouragement, and followed her down some steep, rather narrow stairs into a living/family/dining room which occupied all the first floor except for the kitchen.
Against an outside wall was a huge rock fireplace, with midafternoon sun shining down through its wide, uncapped chimney to the cool hearth below. A battered old couch, covered in cracked leather, sat in front of the fireplace.
The rest of their furniture consisted of a handmade smoking stand, with a rack for several pipes and a lidded box, presumably filled with home-grown tobacco, and a small table holding a fruit jar full of daffodils in water next to a large Bible on a crocheted doily. Apparently, the dinner table chairs served for additional living room seating as well.
Ten long wooden pegs stuck from a wall beside the front door in two zigzag rows, bare of winter garments for now but holding two straw hats and several cloth bonnets with long tie strings. Three pairs of work boots stood underneath, their leather buffed into suede by years of hard labor.
The table was of knotty lumber, sanded and varnished only on it’s upper side, and spread with a white cotton cloth with knitted lace around its edges. It did not quite cover the whole tabletop, creating a beautiful contrast with the dark oak.
Ten straight chairs with caned bottoms, and one bench, sawed from half a hickory log, surrounded the table. At one end of the bench was a large, round block of wood to raise a baby to table height so it could be hand-fed by whoever sat on the bench.
No two chairs were exactly alike, yet quite similar in their own way, as if each had been hand-made by the same artisan, as needed over the years. Nor were there more than three plates of matching pattern; indeed half of them had no pattern at all other than tiny spider web cracks common to home-fired clay products.
The table was set for twelve. Several glass Mason jars in its center held ample supplies of mismatched spoons, forks, and heavy, round-pointed butter knives. Napkins were nowhere in sight, but a damp rag was draped over one end of the bench seat.
“The rest of ’em will be here in a minute,” daid Molly. “They’re takin’ care of horses and unhitchin’ the wagon after church. You just go ahead and set down.”
“Church, ” I said, “you folks go to church on Saturday?”
“Mercy, mister, you really been sick. This ain’t Saturday. We found you and put you to bed yesterday afternoon, and it’s a good thing too because the skeeters would have ate you alive.”
I decided to let my mind clear a bit before digging into this any further. Molly and Tressie busied themselves with bringing in huge bowls of lumpy mashed potatoes with skins still on, green beans, boiled corn on the cob, steamed squash, fried okra, hominy, a fruit jarful of piccalilly, and a large bowl of gravy, followed by two huge platters heaped with fried chicken and another piled high with biscuits the size of fast food burgers.
“You want sweet tea, I reckon?”, said Molly. “We got the best in the county on account of our iron water. It just goes real good in sweet tea. Everything here come from our garden. It’s done real good this year.”
The aroma of these humble, hearty victuals was like nothing I’d ever found anywhere but backwoods Alabama. I was ready to dig in, but my Southern raising reminded me that this food must be blessed first, so I had no choice but to await the arrival of the others. They were not long in coming.
First to arrive were five more girls, all still in their Sunday best but already barefoot, leaving their shoes on the front porch to air out, then be stored away until needed again next Sunday. Next came the man of the house, two strappingly handsome boys, and a gentleman whom the children called Grandfather.
He was a stern man, thin of frame and short of stature, with a beard that reached nearly to his waist. In his left hand he carried a tattered Bible, with several scraps of paper sticking out as page markers. When he spoke, the children said absolutely nothing.
After everyone was seated, Grandfather asked us to join hands while he said the blessing, which lasted all of five minutes and included most of the county’s inhabitants as well as a plea for good crops and an entreaty to guide and help ‘the stranger that You brought to our home’ .
While food was being passed around, the father said, “Pleased to have you with us. Heard you ran afoul of our old well. My name is Phillip, and this is Molly’s father, Med. He’s a Methodist preacher, and does a little doctorin’ on the side. I know you gotta be starvin’, so let’s eat first and then I’ll introduce you to my young’uns.”
Some twenty minutes later, after we’d eaten our fill in a busy silence broken only by a few “Please pass me some more, (whatever)”, Phillip cleared his throat, then spoke, “You already met Tressie. The rest of the kids is Ervin, Harmon, Lorene, Lida, Ida, Lois, and the little chubby one is Imogene.
“We had two more, but Eddie suffocated in a cotton bin and Liddie caught the fever and died. Both of ’em is buried over at the Baptist church in Boaz.”
I almost choked on my last bite of fried chicken! He had just named every one of my mother’s people. What the hell kind of place is this?
“What’s got into you, mister? Bite off a piece of pulley bone or something?”, he asked.
Regaining a little composure, I ventured, “Please tell me one more thing. What is Tressie’s whole name?”
“Why, she’s Tressie Lovee, but we just call her Tressie. Why you askin’ ?” Bracing myself for the worst, I ventured one more question: “What is you folks’ last name?”
“Thornhill, of course. Everybody around here knows that. We been on this land since before the Civil War. Bless me, feller, what’s wrong? You look funny. You gettin’ a relapse? ”
That was an understatement; this man had just introduced me to my whole maternal family, including my mom Lovee, who died some fifteen years ago at age 89, and all my late Sand Mountain aunts and uncles as well! It was too much to comprehend and, still weak from the well water experience, I once again passed out.
Med checked the visitor’s pulse, looked under his eyelids, then said, “He’ll be okay, but I think a devil has done got into him. You don’t want this man in your house. He’s kinda funny anyhow. Somethin’ set him off, and we don’t know what.”
Phillip asked, “Anybody get his name?” Tressie replied, “Weren’t no way to treat company, so I didn’t ask. But he sure looked like he ain’t from anywhere around here. Did you see them shoes? Look like they was made of painted tent cloth, and that fancy watch didn’t even have any hands on it. And he had some kind of funny shape in his pocket I was dying to ask about, but I knowed you raised me better.
“Not only that, “added Molly, “but did you notice how much he looked like all of us? I’d like to’ve seen him when he weren’t so old.”
“Here’s what we gonna do, ” said Med. “I got some laudanum in my bag. Let’s get some of it down his throat, then Philip and me will take him back out to that tree where Tressie found him, and we’ll leave him and all go over to my house and pretend not to be home.
“Maybe while he’s knocked out God will come and cast out that evil from him, or maybe he’s just got the old man crazies. Looked to be about 75. Anyhow, we don’t need to come back here until he’s gone, one way or the other.”
I awoke from my nap in an indescribable daze, like a dream too horrible to remember had come and gone, blistering my brain in the process. My arms and face had some kind of grease on them, which is fortunate because I was amidst thousands of gnats and mosquitos.
Looking at my cellphone, I noticed it read 6:53PM Sunday! After dusting off my clothes, I grabbed a few webcam shots of that strange old house, then began retracing my steps toward the highway, hoping the Toyota was still there.
Inexplicably, even though I hadn’t eaten since breakfast on Saturday, there was a taste of fried chicken and sweet tea in my mouth, plus some really odd chemical I’d never tasted before. And I was incredibly thirsty.
Spotting an old well with a rusty bucket beside it, I decided to try its waters before walking back to the car.