At the Well

by Barbara Jacksha September 15, 2006
story art

Stone angels look down on Danika and me from their high-rafter perch. They got their wings arched high, ready for a fight. The bone-white Madonna stares at us too; her face has this frozen-lip look, like she’s got something to say but will be damned if she’ll speak up before we’re gone.

Danika doesn’t notice. She’s eyeing the holy water, circling the basin like a cat afraid to pounce on its lunch.

Danika’s got a thing about water. She’ll tell anyone who’ll listen how her boyfriend Jake poisoned the well. How he came on all smiles, with all kinds of drugs that tangled up her veins. Couple months later, after they fought about some missing cash, Jake went and told her mama about the men and the sweat she traded for drugs. After that her mama wouldn’t open the apartment door, no matter how long Danika stood there banging. Jake told her daddy, too, and the last time Danika went banging on his door, he opened it wide enough to pitch out her studded jeans and suede jacket. Like that was enough to keep out the cold.

Weren’t nowhere for her to go but the girl’s shelter at St. Pete’s. We hooked up there at Easter, over two plates heavy with ham loaf and fixings. I noticed her right off—Goth-black hair, black-ringed eyes, spooky-white skin—scooping spoonfuls before she made it to the end of the food line. I was in my usual spot on the old floral couch. Danika sat next to me, something other girls never dared, and I wanted to keep it that way. So I gave her a look. She gave a look right back.

Up close, I could see the pinkest little mouth showing through smears of black-out lipstick. She had gravy on her chin that she left hanging there like it was nobody’s business. Had to admire that. Danika smelled good, too. It wasn’t the over-steamed ham or the soap the sisters give you. More like what’s left after a hard rain has washed all the ugly smells away.

To get dessert and a bed for the night, we had to watch that old movie, The Ten Commandments, and then listen up while Sister Mary-Paul talked about Lilia at the well. Sister said Lilia was a good woman who sold herself to a rich guy to save her man’s life, and even though she got shunned, she could still go to the village well and drink. Sister said that meant Lilia had God’s blessing.

Danika stood right up and told Sister Mary-Paul that Lilia had a hell of a lot more than that.

Danika thinks she’s got nothing except high firm titties, a little-girl ass, and Jake, who she might still crawl back to even though it means crossing all kinds of lines. The neighborhood lines, one worse than the next. The line of hopheads jittering outside that dump where Jake hangs. White lines spread out on Jake’s table instead of breakfast.

Danika don’t believe things can get better.

She told Sister, “Lilia got rich-girl clothes, a soft bed, served-up food and wine. Better than trash pickings and old-man dick.”

Everyone laughed except Sister, but now, months later, I see that Danika was right. Lilia didn’t drop a baby in a janitor closet like Danika did last night, squatted over a pile of long gray mops. That was something. Danika screaming, squeezing my hand, and swearing off boys—and though I wished that was true, I knew she wasn’t ready to cross that line, not yet.

Between the screams she leaned back, panting. With near-closed eyes, sweat-pasted hair, and pale skin getting paler, she looked like the bone-white Madonna herself–lying there deciding whether to keep on with this life or see if things were really better in the next.

Danika looked scared, but I told her she was brave. No matter what, she’d held onto that little life inside her. More than I’d done last year. I told her how afraid I’d been of squeezing out a freak that’d look up at me with my daddy’s half-crossed eyes, wearing his freckled skin. I told her about the coat-hanger doc and the room that smelled like blood and piss that nobody could ever scrub clean. Got us both crying. Then Danika started screaming again.

This morning I brought Danika and the baby back here to the sisters. Sister Prudence—she should play Vegas, she got eyes no one can read—answered the door. She took the baby without offering a prayer or kind word. She strutted off down the hall, skirt swishing, like it was every day a baby comes. No daddy. No grandma or granddad. No mama neither, just a blood-drained girl who’s got no choice but to hand off her child like it was a pair of misfit jeans.

Now Danika’s hanging out by the holy water like there’s something left to do. She wonders out loud if she could take a whore’s bath without catching fire.

Me, I’d settle for just one drink, like Lilia who traded sex for life. God forgave her. But Lilia’s well weren’t no holy water, just a muddy spring in the middle of a dusty square. God might not have been so forgiving if she’d gone straight for the clean waters.

Danika flicks the holy water, then backs off. She knows it too. Girls like us gotta look out for stone-wing angels. We gotta skim water from the mud, put in our years of repentance. Then maybe we can come knocking on God’s door and expect some kind of blessing.

About the Author:

Barbara Jacksha is an editor and co-founder of the literary journal Cezanne's Carrot (www.cezannescarrot.org). Her work has appeared in the W. W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, as well as in such publications as Beloit Fiction Journal, The Summerset Review, Vox, Carve Magazine, Mad Hatter’s Review, Margin, Peregrine, Mindprints, Poetry Midwest, Tattoo Highway, SmokeLong Quarterly, Dark Moon Lilith, Talking Stick, and Quercus Review. Barbara’s work has received many honors and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. For more information, visit her website: www.barbarajacksha.com. Barbara lives near Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband, resident canines, and several neighborhood coyotes.