The dry-skinned people of the region drew near in wonder at this miracle. Crops had withered, trade had fallen off, and thirst roved the land like a vengeful specter. Now arid despair would give way to a blooming oasis. The people rejoiced.
Nor were they long in discovering the magical properties of this watery wealth. Through the cracks of encircling stones fashioned by village artisans crept multifaceted leaves that perfumed the air with their uncanny fragrance. On hot afternoons, shadows near the well took on softened edges; at night, the stars above it seemed to dance and scintillate, their liquid reflections forming unexpected constellations. A drink from the well banished hunger and thirst for days on end; a dipperful moistened skin, smoothed wrinkles, melted off scars and scabs.
The well became a shrine, and carefully selected villagers were chosen to service and maintain it.
Outside the village, the people of the hills heard stories about this magic well and sent ambassadors of good will to ask for some of the water. If anything, the hill people were even thirstier than the village people had been. Between the hills could be heard the moans of dying cattle.
But the villagers refused to give the "outsiders" any water, particularly sacred water. "Come in from the hills and join the village. Then you can drink from our well."
Now on the outskirts of the village lived a hermit named Clubfoot. Because both village and hill blood flowed in his veins, he was rather an outcast, though the villagers were carefully polite to his face. Too, he had acquired some skill in the healing arts, and the villagers brought him their sick when their customary healers could do nothing.
Clubfoot didn't like what he saw of the rules, rites, and requirements of the increasingly powerful and now self-appointed Guardians of the Well, and he couldn't abide depriving people of precious water simply because they didn't belong to the village or wish to learn village ways. Nor could he comprehend the growing fringe of peddlers who charged inflated prices for supposedly health-giving holy water diluted with dyes and tainted with potions and promises.
So, piling insulated skins on the back of his donkey, Clubfoot brought the authentic well water to the hill people, accepting a few coins when his grateful recipients could pay him for his trouble and giving away the water when they couldn't.
The villagers quickly discovered what Clubfoot was up to and confronted him, but he was adamant: the water was intended for everyone. They threatened to cast him out, but he laughed at them: as far as their companionship was concerned, he'd been cast out long ago. The Well Guardians sealed off the opening to all but consecrated users, but the mysterious fluid always seeped past whatever blockages they constructed.
Unauthorized and unconcerned, Clubfoot went cheerfully on about his water-sharing business, and after a while the villagers, powerless to prevent him, went about theirs.
"Perhaps we should stop burdening you, dear friend, and take the well by force," the hill people suggested to Clubfoot one day, but he shook his head: "You are no burden, and force is the fastest way to become like that which you abhor. Wait patiently. A time will come when the villagers will regret their bad manners."
The time was not long in coming. On an evening after the Guardians finished their doling-out ceremony, receiving in turn an oath of allegiance to the now-exalted Water Teachings, an earthquake shook the village, its outskirts, and the hills all around it. Half the villagers' abodes were turned to rubble. Survivors helped the injured to the well, but only to stagger back in horror.
The well was dry. Not even a drop remained.
Summoning tools, the Guardians dug frantically. All night long they sought the source of the waters, but their spades and axes found only dirt.
"The gods have withdrawn the water," the Guardians explained to their frightened fellow villagers, "because you have not observed the rituals carefully enough. How many of you have read the Book of Wells which we transcribed for you, let alone tried to uphold its precepts?"
A guilty mutter issued from the gathering crowd.
"How many of you have taken the Oath of Immersion with complete sincerity and perfect faith? How many of you have subordinated your thoughts, your urges, and your feelings to the Creed of Currents propounded to you?"
The mutter intensified.
"How many of you have made the full contribution to the Fund of the Guardians, that we might better serve you?"
The mutter lapsed into a cowed silence.
"The water has left us," continued the encouraged Guardians, "because you have reached for it with the unclean hands of the disobedient. Walk only in the Ways of Wetness, stand firmer in your commitment to the Fount of Belief, and the water will return."
Into the midst of a sobbing, thirsting, fasting, wailing people walked Clubfoot, who, shaking his head sadly, made one last announcement:
"In the once-dry ground all around the village, the earthquake has opened countless magic wells--more wells than villagers and hill people combined. All anyone need do is walk out to them and drink."
"You are possessed by demons," the Guardians accused. "Only villagers get water--and of them, only those who profess belief in the One Well."
"One Source, perhaps, but many wells," replied Clubfoot.
"Even if they did exist, they have not been sanctioned with the proper authentication."
"You will learn to your cost that the only needful authentication is having thirst and the willingness to locate what truly quenches it. As for the wells, they exist all right. Come and see," and he took his leave. A handful of villagers followed him out. Rejecting these wayfaring heretics, the rest believed the Guardians and stayed behind.
Beyond the village, the sparkling wells flowed with steady life-giving abundance. Streams bulged with leaping fish, and green things grew everywhere. Communities flourished, and lowing cattle grazed the verdant hillsides. Passersby who stooped to drink were healed and made whole.
Yet to this day, the angry and envious villagers go on submitting to the rules and the rituals, stubbornly remaining within the confines of their dusty village, believing whatever they are told, raising inexplicably rebellious children, and thirstily awaiting the return of the sacred water.
© Copyright 1999 - Craig Chalquist
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