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SHORT FICTION: It's in the Water

This short story was originally published in "Tales from the Springs" literary anthology in 2005.

This is actually Calistoga Springs, California but it came close to capturing my vision.

Clay had never seen anything like it. The spring shot up like a Texas crude strike, showering him with frigid water.

“Sara, come here,” he yelled for his wife, who was pulling weeds in the vegetable garden on the other side of the barn.

“What is it?” she said as she rounded the corner, the words dying in her mouth as it became clear what it was.

“Is that water?” she shouted over the roar, herself getting drenched by the downpour.

“Well,” he said, laughing. “It ain’t oil.”

He went on, “I stuck the pick ax in a couple of times to loosen the rocks and when I moved that large one there,” he shrugged, raising his hands, “this is what came up.”

“Well, cover it up again,” she hollered over the din of rushing water.

Clay struggled to flip the slippery, flat slab of West Virginia slate onto the powerful spout. The jet stopped suddenly and completely.

“Wow,” they said almost in unison, smiling in puzzled astonishment.

“I know this place is famous for springs, but—what’s that?” Sara exclaimed, pointing to faint words etched into the flat stone that now served as the well’s cork.

Clay and Sarah stooped to take a closer look, brushing the mud and grass from the face of the rock.

“Don’t be wary…,” Clay slowly read as he cleared the rock's smooth surface, “Don’t be daft….after a fortnight,” he struggled with the last line, “plumb the craft?”

“Well, that’s really interesting” Sara said as she read the inscription herself, “but what does ‘plumb the craft’ mean?”

They stared at each other quizzically.

“I don’t know,” Clay said, “What does any of it mean?”

“I don’t know either, but right now, I want to get out of these wet clothes,” Sara said, turning toward the house in the distance. Clay followed, both of them shivering in the cool October air.

Clay and Sara had settled on the neglected and secluded, 10-acre farm a few miles from Berkeley Springs only days before, and had immediately begun the grueling process of cleaning the neglected house and clearing the wildly overgrown property surrounding it and the nearby barn.

Dingy as it was, the farmhouse itself was livable, and the barn studio was in surprisingly decent shape. The prior owner, an elderly bachelor and well-known artist Daley Crouse, had apparently spent most of his time in his rough, but comfortable studio, visiting the house only to eat and sleep, if that.

Situated on a slight knoll overlooking the now prairie-like acreage that was once a corn-field, the barn dwarfed the non-descript white and black-shuttered farmhouse on the horizon.

A veritable paragon, the weather-worn, red building towered at 50 feet, with large, leaded glass panels at its upper reaches and shuttered openings across the lower half.

Thorny brambles, grasses and seedlings encased it, save a for a well-tread path to an inconspicuous side door, nearly invisible were it not for the clear trail that cut through the overwhelming vegetation.

It was the barn that had sold them on the otherwise uninspiring property. After six years in a cramped apartment, they both longed for open spaces and Clay longed for a workshop of his own. He’d long tinkered with anything motorized and hoped to parlay his hobby into a little extra income repairing lawn mowers, farm equipment and cars.

Sara worked as a bank teller in nearby Winchester, and was simply grateful that she and Clay were finally able to buy any house after ten years of marriage and saving every dime. She was happy to encourage his hobby, too—especially if it would supplement his income from the cable company.

“Maybe we should call Ron,” said Sara, referring to their real estate agent. “He would know who we could ask about it.”

“Honey, Ron said this Crouse guy was an oddball, a totally secretive loner,” Clay reminded her.

In fact, a few locals that they had met confirmed that Daley was always incredibly friendly and spirited on the odd occasions he was around people, but always alone and conspicuously adamant about not wanting visitors.

“Once, he met me at the mailbox down that long driveway like he was on the look-out for strangers, and didn’t even invite me up to the place,” one of the town cronies had told them. “He was friendly ‘bout it, but I could see there was no way he was letting me near that studio of his.”

And that is what anyone who knew Daley wanted more than anything: to see the studio, and more importantly, whatever was in it.

Everyone wanted to know what artistic fancy had last captured Daley’s apparently limitless creativity. For a while, Daley would paint prolifically, and his paintings would sell themselves off the walls of every gallery in town. Next, sculpture would become his obsession, and he would fashion fabulous objects out of clay, stone, metal or anything he had on hand. Sometimes, people would be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of something he’d written…a poem or short story…and the words, they said, leapt off the page with lyrical beauty. And yet, while he didn’t hide his talents, Daley seemed to shun any real fame.

One townie told of the New York art agent who’d made it his lifework to recruit Daley, ultimately without success.

“Nah, fame’s not for me,” affirmed Daley, a familiar chorus to the many who’d tried to get him to pursue the “big time.”

“Well, I’ll ask Ron next time I see him around town,” Sara said. “Can’t hurt, right?”

But days passed and thoughts of the powerful spring were set aside in favor of tending the overgrown yard before the weather turned cold. Until one evening two weeks from the day they’d unearthed the spring.

Sara looked up from rubbing her feet as she sat on the edge of the bed at the end of another long day. “Maybe I should start painting tomorrow while you finish up in the yard,” she said, “I feel inspired.”

“Sure,” said Clay, pulling a dirty sweatshirt over his head, “Go for it. I have to fix the rider anyway,” he sighed, “I think we finally wore it out.”

The following morning, as they sipped the last of their coffee, both Clay and Sara sat in pensive silence.

“Well, off I go,” said Clay, absentmindedly kissing Sara’s forehead.

“See you at lunch,” said Sara, equally preoccupied.

Lunchtime passed, as did dinnertime, and soon it was dark.

“Sara,” called Clay, as he walked in the front door, starting at the sight that greeted him. “Sara,” he called again, as he wandered through the house, marveling at what his wife had done.

“I’m up here,” called Sara from what sounded like the attic.

As Clay made his way up the stairs, his excitement and wonder grew.

Finally, Clay came upon Sara, who was covered in paint, wielding a brush and grinning widely.

“It’s amazing,” said Clay.

“I know,” said Sara.

Nearly every wall, from the front door to here at the top of the house, was adorned with what could only be described as unbridled imagination.

“It’s been unbelievable, Clay,” Sarah said excitedly. “I can’t explain it! From the moment I took the brush in my hand this morning, I’ve been driven,” she continued breathlessly, pacing as she spoke.

“I mean, I had this vision that kept changing, and shifting, and…and…well, here, come with me,” she said, tugging at his sleeve, “I wrote a story about it. It’s in the kitchen.”

Clay chuckled, “You wrote a story? Sara, you can’t write a sentence.”

“That’s just it, Clay, I can’t explain that either!” Sara said, handing him the paper.

Clay stood nodding his head in understanding as he read Sara’s tale, an eloquent account of an artist’s passion.

“Do you see it, Clay?” Sara asked eagerly. “Can you see it? The words just came tumbling out! Does it make sense to you?”

Clay laughed as he grabbed Sara’s hand, walking through the kitchen screen door toward the barn.

“Oh, yes, Sara, it makes perfect sense to me,” said Clay, while they fumbled through the clear, dark night toward the barn, the upper windows of which cast a sheer glow over the vast lawn.

Sara’s breath caught as they entered the cavernous barn and stopped at the threshold.

“My goodness, Clay, .it’s…it’s incredible!”

There, in the center of the barn, where earlier had been a jumble of lawn tools, engines and junk, was a wondrous sculpture, grazing the barn’s high ceiling. Sara could make out pieces of metal, an assortment of gears and rubber tires, wood and glass, all somehow fused into something more than the sum of its parts.

Clay circled the sculpture, beaming, “I totally understand what you said, what you wrote.” He continued, “One minute I was tightening a bolt, the next minute I was soldering this and that, totally motivated by something I can’t account for. There’s no explaining it.!”

Suddenly, Sara and Clay’s eyes locked as they simultaneously made their way for the barn door. They half-ran the length of the barn, rounding the corner on the sodden ground.

Together they fell to their knees to find the large river rock clearly lit by the showering barn light.

Don’t be wary

Don’t be daft

After a fortnight

Plumb the craft

Their thoughts one, Sara and Clay slid the rock out of its place, once again releasing the mighty spring.

Now drenched and mindless of the cold, they rejoiced in their sudden gift of grace. “It’s in the water,” they shouted together as they danced in the shimmering moonlight.


CREATIVE PROMPT: Do you repress or deny your creativity? What can you do today to nurture and express the artist-creator within you?

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