Short Story / Writers / Writing

Hard Water by Rick Hartwell

What is it that makes the memory of rainy days, hard or soft? It isn’t just the volume of the water falling down or the driving wind or the lowering sky. It has to do with something else entirely. The soft rain is of a gentleness and kindness, or else of a sadness, and of a loss. It is reserved in my memories for those happy days of pleasures or for those days of partings and of sorrows, of good-byes. The hard rain is of a combativeness, of a tempestuousness, of a conflict. It is reserved in my memories for those days of necessary journeys or of sharing revelations with something beyond the limits of my understanding. All this musing has brought me back to thoughts of another rainy day, a day in Gilroy when I was probably fifteen or so.

It had been raining steadily for several days and the ground in the Santa Clara Valley was soaked and full and could not hold anymore. The slough behind our house, which ran through the open fields and by the unpainted shacks of the migrant workers, was swollen with the refused water of the sodden fields. The small children of the migrant camps would often play in the open slough when it held only the run-off of the constant springs from off the hills. They would launch small pleasure boats down the trickle of their dreams, chasing them for a while, and then watch them gather distance as the boats navigated into town and entered storm drains and culverts.

But this day, the day I have in memory, the women and children of the camps stood in the doorways looking out through the curtain of water. There was a mixture of men wading arm-in-arm down the slough. Along the sides some were knee-deep, while in the center others were up to their waists in the murky water. They were Mexican and Italian and Portuguese and Anglo and they were uniformly wet and drenched. Their stern looks and curt conversations indicated seriousness to their labor that had brought them together. One of the children was missing. Whose and how and why were unimportant any longer; an alarm had been raised by a distraught mother. Family and friends and neighbors and bosses and others had been gathered to walk the slough; to drag the ditch in search of the child.

I joined them in a second tier of waders. We were spaced out several hundred feet behind the first wave, in the event they had overlooked or overstepped something. I stumble over describing my ambivalent feelings as a young teenager. There was, of course, the element of wanting to be a hero, of wanting to find the child. But under the circumstances, finding the child was not really what any of us wanted to do. With each step I encountered something unseen and unknown underfoot. And with each step my heart would palpitate momentarily faster until I, was assured that the obstacle was too hard or too small to be a child. I did not really want to succeed in my search.

As it was, someone in the front vanguard did find the little boy. He was dead of course, drowned, and his body had washed down the slough and was pinned across the grating guarding that culvert that ran under the road leading into town. The crush of the water and the branches and leaves and broken boards and trash had been heaped against his body, hiding him from the view of anyone looking down as they drove over the bridge and into town.

Once the cry was taken up that the body had been found, people began to drift away. Only a very few advanced further to see the body, to participate as spectators at a preliminary viewing. Unlike many other tragedies, most of the people, the ones who had helped walked the slough, left and slowly trudged home along the banks, sucking the mud as they pulled their shoes and boots up at each step. There was no further talk; we were all captivated by the hard rain. I wondered how many times he might have sent his small boats down the slough towards this culvert. I wondered how many dreams he had launched while watching his small craft float away from him.

   

Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school (remember the hormonally-challenged?) English teacher living in Moreno Valley, California. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large; and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his “druthers,” if he’s not writing, Rick would rather be still tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon.

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