THE WELL WITCHER
an excerpt from THE FRUITCAKE EMPIRE
The woman and her son walked into the diner carrying two bags of beans and a bindle. The door swung open and startled the waitress, sitting behind the cash register reading a magazine. The cook looked up from his cutting board, knife in hand, and stared out into the empty cafe, the bell tied to the door hinge ringing.
In the doorway stood a large man, about six foot two, two hundred and forty pounds, with a baby face and arms that hung down clear past his waistline. He wore tattered jeans and a collared shirt, worn at the edges and stained around the neck from sweat. On his feet were steel-toed boots, which you could hear pounding on the solid wood floor boards as he stooped under the doorframe and entered.
Behind the man was a short, old woman. She donned a dust-blown dress as white as cotton, that hung down to the floor just above her bare feet. It was torn and tattered, snagged and ripped. The seams were coming unraveled and the loose threads were trailing behind the woman as she walked forward. Her eyes were dull and tired, with crow’s feet in the corners and circles underneath.
The eyes of the waitress and the cook followed the man and the woman as they crossed the dining room. The steps of the man were slow and staggered, leading with his right and allowing it to fall to the floor heavily as he dragged the left foot behind. The woman rocked back and forth uneasily like a teeter-totter, her head bobbing up and down as she tiptoed on the cracked wooden floor panels beneath her soles.
In between the mother and her son hung a cord, trailing out of the bottom of her dress and leading up into the shirt of the man. She held the loose ends in a bundle in her hands, wrapping the cable around her wrist like rope. It swung in between them as if she were a dock and he a skiff, or a tightrope strung from one cliff to the next, abridged.
They sat at a table in the back, beneath the television set and beside the waste basket overflowing with trash. The man fell into the chair with a thud, his rear end on the edge of the seat and his shoulders slouched upon the back. The woman sat down slowly, placing the dangling cord carefully on the table top between them, her back as stiff as an ironing board.
“WHATDYA HAVE?” barked the waitress, standing beside the table glaring at the woman crane-necked and gaudy.
“COKE,” she responded.
“WHATDYA HAVE?” the waitress repeated, staring at the man.
“COKE,” said the mother.
The head of the waitress spun around on a swivel.
“He’ll have a COKE,” the mother insisted. She was fiddling with the cord in between her thumb and ring finger, staring blankly at a knot in the wall.
The waitress crossed the diner to the machine that said COKE. Grabbing two plastic cups from a tray, she threw open the icebox and scooped in the cubes. She let the door slam shut and started filling up the glasses with the thick dark liquid until the sugary sweet soda reached the tip top rim of each container.
Back at the table, the son’s hands hung down by his side in fists. His eyes were wide open, but dull like a fish. They sat in the back of his head like strawberry grouper, waiting on a king or at least a cigar.
The waitress sat down the cups and dropped in the straws.
“WHATDYA HAVE?” she asked again.
“FRUITCAKE,” said the woman.
“FRUITCAKE,” repeated the waitress. She wrote down the word on a sheet of paper in a little black notebook, then crossed the diner to the window that opened up to the kitchen.
“FRUITCAKE,” she hollered, alerting the cook.
“FRUITCAKE,” he echoed, browning the beef.
Outside, an afternoon shower was rolling in from the east. It was the middle of summer in the low country, and the humidity was hanging in the air like silt in your lungs. The peaches lay rotten in the shade of their trees, and the smell of the poultry plant clung onto everything like dew.
In the cafe, the woman and her son sat uneasily in silence. The jaw of the son hung completely ajar, the dribble forming around the corners of his mouth like sap oozing out from behind a rusty nail driven into a pine tree’s trunk.
The mouth of the woman was dry, so she slid the COKE towards her on the table and dropped her chin to her chest, inserting the straw between her lips and slurping up that soda until it was gone.
A bell rang abruptly from inside of the kitchen.
“FRUITCAKE!” the cook shouted.
The waitress turned around from the cash register and picked up the fruitcake. She crossed the diner and sat the plate down on the table in between the woman and her son.
“FRUITCAKE,” she said, tossing the silverware towards the mother and turning around again to return to her perch.
Rain began to fall onto the rusted tin roof. A little at first, but then the cats and dogs. The son’s eyes slowly came into focus, as they dropped down from the walls to the pastry on the table.
“CUT IT,” he ordered, letting the words hang in the air like flies in a barn around a horse’s tail.
The woman sat in silence. Her eyes were cast downward on the cracks in the floor, her fingers still toying with the cable that ran down between her legs.
“CUT IT,” he demanded, dropping the syllables onto the ground like stones.
The eyes of the mother floated up from the floor like a bobber in a creek bed. She took a good long look at her son.
The grown man’s eyes were glazed over and oozing in the corners. The drool was dripping from the corners of his mouth and hanging by threads from the stubble on his chin. The mother picked up her fork and knife and began.
“Before you were born,” she said, bracing her elbows on the edge of the table and shifting slowly in her seat, “when the jasmine bloomed and the figs hung heavy in the land of pianos and scales, I was a well witcher.”
She drove the fork into that pastry and steadied that knife to cut, then started dicing up the fruitcake into tiny bite-sized pieces.
“In those days, when the hum of the cicada set the tenor and tone for the march of the moonshiner’s parade, I walked out God’s green earth with a forked willow switch, witchin wells. The fields were fertile and the harvest was plenty, but the water lay down in the ground, and the rivers ran salty as pork.”
The woman was scooting the pieces that she had cut to one side of the plate, allowing the silverware to scrape the porcelain as she did so.
“When a man has a well that goes dry, he has to dig a new one. Trouble is, he don’t know where to dig. He takes his shovel to the open pasture and turns over the dirt, searching for signs he doesn’t know how to read: a sand flea scurrying, a squash blossom turned inside out, a tin can draped across a courtyard fence – muggledy peg, muggledy peg, rigamarole malarkey.”
She cleared her throat loudly and went on.
“Every now and then, I’d catch wind of a man like this. Or he’d catch wind of me. And I’d go witch his well. I’d wander out to Pea Ridge or Guinn or Winfield, or wherever else that man may be, and I’d douse a well. I’d walk that property twice over, my forked willow switch in hand, like this,” she explained, holding the fork and the knife out in front of her, the butts touching and the ends facing out, “just like this, with my arms outstretched and my elbows locked, and I’d a start a walkin. I’d walk with my switch in hand until the tip of that pole shot down towards the ground like I had hooked a bass on a zora spook in the back of the cove at the X Marks The Spot at the break of dawn.”
The woman’s arms shook as she demonstrated the dousing, her heads steadying the silverware as it pointed downwards towards the table, bouncing every which a way.
“I’d stand there, pole in hand, pointin down at my toes and tuggin at my shoulders, until that man’d step out from the crowd around me and drive a stake into the ground at my feet. Then I’d step back, and all of a sudden, the switch would go limp, pointin out in front of me out towards the horizon.”
Her arms were still now. She rested her elbows on the edge of the table and went back to cutting.
“Then the family’d gather round with their shovels and their plows, their spades and their hoes, and they’d start a diggin. I’d watch em dig for a while til that sun dropped down behind the pines, then I’d ask the man to pay me and head home with my head held high.”
The mother cut the last piece of the fruitcake in two, holding down the pastry with her fork as she sliced. The rain had stopped, but you could hear the heavy drops as they fell from the branches of the pecan trees that hung overhead, ringing like a spittoon as they pinged on the tin.
“I witched a many a wells this way,” she said confidently. “That is, til you come along.”
The son was still sitting there, motionless. His arms hung down by his side and his back was slouched against the chair like a sack of potatoes. His eyes were fixated on the decadent dessert. He was craving the candied fruit and the roasted pecans, the ground-up spices and the leavened bread. The saliva was dribbling out of his mouth in spurts, and it ran all over the table in little streams and rivers, dripping from the tabletop onto the floorboards beneath them.
The mother fiddled with the utensils in between her hands. Her heart was pounding and her eyes had grown as wide as two big bright harvest moons as they focused on the body that sat in front of her.
In one fell swoop, the woman drove the fork down into the cord down into the solid wooden table. The son twitched. She held the cord into place between the aluminum prongs, steadying the knife with her other hand and preparing it to cut. The eyes of the son bulged out of his head like a catfish caught in an irrigation ditch, drying out in the sun.
In a quick sawing motion, the mother severed the tether that bound the grown man body to her frail female frame. Her spine was bent over the table like a hog’s head at a feed trough. She gritted her teeth together maniacally, never taking her eyes off of the cable, the knife and the fork working mechanically in her hands.
The grown man winced. The grown man moaned. The grown man groaned with every cut his mother made, his body shaking in the chair and his legs stomping on the wooden floor beneath him. The table shifted this way and that, and his head swung around on his neck like a bobble-head doll.
When all that was left of the cable was a thin, solitary thread, the mother paused. She picked up the knife one last time and held it above the table. She looked into the eyes of her son and dropped that knife down onto that umbilical cord like a guillotine. The son’s head fell to his chest and his eyeballs rolled back into his head like marbles.
All had fallen silent in the roadside diner. The waitress stood beside the cash register, flipping through her magazine. The cook sat on his stool, thawing out a piece of steak. And the woman sat in her chair, scooping up the fruitcake and shoveling it into her mouth, one piece at a time.
Alex Gregor is a writer, editor & instructor currently living in Rome, Italy. He is one of the founding editors of OOMPH! Press and was previously the curator of the DIRTY SOUTH reading series in Atlanta, Georgia. His chapbook, FAUCET, was selected as a finalist for The Atlas Review Chapbook Series (2015). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fanzine, Real Pants, NOÖ, Entropy, Deer Bear Wolf Magazine, DELUGE and elsewhere. He has a MA in English from Georgia State University. You can find excerpts of his writing here.