Inside the Book
Excerpt from The Personal History of Rachel DuPree
I still see her, our Liz, sitting on a plank, dangling over that well. She held on to the rope that hung from the pulley, her bare feet pressed together so tight that the points on her ankle bones were nearly white. She was six. She had on her brother’s castoff pants and earlier, when I’d given them to her, she’d asked if wearing pants made her a boy. I’d told her we’d wait and see, and that had made her giggle.
The plank Liz sat on swayed and twisted in a wind that blew stinging grit. Her bandana covered her nose and mouth. The rope around her waist was knotted to the one that held the plank. Isaac, my husband, called it a harness. He said it’d keep her from falling off.
‘We’re right here,’ I said to her. ‘Daddy’s got you.’
She looked at me, her coppery face frozen up with fear. The wind gusted, and Liz flinched, her eyes slits. Isaac and our oldest girl, Mary, stood side by side as they gripped the well handle. They dug in their legs and pushed the handle up.
The rope jerked. Liz dropped a handful of inches. She sucked in some air and then let out a sharp, piercing cry.
My knees buckled, but I steadied myself against the well. ‘You’re our brave girl,’ I called as she sank into it, her eyes closed.
The sunlight caught the top of her head. Her brown braids tied up with scrap rags went rusty red. Her shoulders shook. She made a gurgling sound and then she was gone.
I wasn’t one for calling on Jesus and asking for favors. But that day I did. Merciful Jesus. Sweet merciful Jesus. Be in this well with my child.
Isaac and Mary held on to the well handle, turning it, keeping it steady as their neck and arm muscles bunched and shook. John, our ten-year-old son, did what I couldn’t bring myself to do. He leaned over the top of the well and watched Liz. Above him, hanging on a second pulley — a makeshift one that Isaac had put up this morning — was a bucket. Four others were on the ground by the base of the well.
I coughed and spit out some dust. I tightened the knot in the back of my hair kerchief and then pulled my bandana back up to cover my mouth and nose. I’d pushed it down earlier; I wanted Liz to have a good look at my face. I didn’t want her thinking her mama was hiding behind a ragged piece of cloth.
Hold her hand, sweet Jesus. Hold her tight.
Yesterday the water pump by the house blew nothing but air. Later, Isaac tried the well at the barn. The bucket came up empty but the bottom was wet. When I saw Isaac knotting a plank to the well rope, my blood ran cold.
‘Not that,’ I told him. ‘Not that.’
‘Have to,’ he said.
‘But the White River’s still running. Can’t you-‘
‘It’s down to a trickle.’
I looked at him.
‘Liz,’ he said as if I had asked.
‘She’ll be all right.’
‘You could drop her.’
‘Don’t do this thing.’
Muscles pulled around his mouth. ‘I have to.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘no,’ but there was nothing behind my words and Isaac knew it.
‘At ease,’ he said now to Mary, their hands still gripping the well handle. The rope was played out; Liz was at the bottom. Mary let go of the handle and shook out her hands and shoulders. She ran her palms down the sides of her skirt. She was almost thirteen and tall for her age. She took after Isaac that way, but like me, she was dark. When Isaac had told her that he couldn’t turn the handle without her, her back straightened and her chin went high. Isaac could do that to a person. He could give a person the worst chore and make that person feel honored to be chosen. I’ve had fourteen years to try to understand this about Isaac, about how he made this happen. This was what I’d come up with. It was because his eyes admired you for bearing up, and when he looked at you that way, there was nothing finer. And there was this too about Isaac. He didn’t shy away from any chore. He knew what had to be done, and he did it.
Being Isaac’s wife, I knew this better than anybody.
‘Send the bucket,’ Isaac told John. ‘Slow. Call down, tell her it’s coming.’
John did and then, his cracked lips tight, began turning the makeshift handle. The wind tossed the bucket sending it in circles. The metal cup inside the bucket clinked from side to side. In the well, the rope holding Liz hung taut, turning some. Isaac, though I guessed that he didn’t need to, kept his hands on the handle. Off in the north pasturelands a dust devil whirled and skipped, picking up stray clumps of tumbleweed. Cows, knotted up by the barbwire fence, flattened their ears as the funnel blew past them. I watched all this but it was our Liz I saw in the darkness ladling water into the bucket cup by cup.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
But I did. It was my greed, my pride, my love of my wood house that drove us to do this. And land, that was part of this too. Land was everything to Isaac. Isaac. I was willing to do anything he wanted. Anything.