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The Well by Michael X. Wang

The Well by Michael X. Wang

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013

For more than three hundred years, since the return of the two brothers Ai and Jiu, our family has been known across the province for our ability to dig and construct wells. According to our ancestral tree, the two brothers joined Li Zicheng’s coalition of rebel forces against the Ming Dynasty and partook in the 1644 sacking of Beijing. When the Qing army came and destroyed Li Zicheng’s army, they returned home to Xinchun and lived a pastoral life of farming and well drilling. The brothers were large and fearsome, built like upright mules, and when I was little I often went to the shrine of my ancestors to stare at the limestone engravings of their silhouettes, at their hair tied in dense buns, at their beards, long and flowing, that made them look like warrior-poets, and at their eyes, generous and determined, that embodied a confidence and spirit that nowadays villagers and city folk alike seem to lack.

For example, just the other day, my wife, Tingting, and I drove our tractor to Yuncheng City to sell off our excess peppers. We were setting up shop along Golden Destiny Lane, a popular tourist spot, grinding our dried peppers into chili for people to sample, when a tour guide—one of those jobless local men who owned a three-wheeled taxi—got out of his vehicle and helped the rich tourist get up from his seat. The guide, skinny with sunken cheeks, might as well have gotten on his hands and knees and hailed the rich tourist as the next coming of Buddha. Even though he was taller, the guide kept his head hunched. The tourist carried a cane and walked over to taste our chili. After sampling a pinch on his tongue, he said, “Too hot,” and then motioned for the guide to bring him something to drink. The guide handed him a glistening bottle of water, one in a plastic container that young people—my daughter included—seem to like, and the tourist drank half of it down in a hurry and then threw the bottle to the ground, where the water funneled out like blood from a headless chicken. He then had the nerve to tell the guide that the water was hot. And the guide, instead of spitting on the man’s face, apologized! They didn’t buy any of our chili, and I’m glad they didn’t, because I wouldn’t have sold them any, not to the tourist, for being a wasteful slob; and not to the guide, for shaming the Chinese people.

Until recently, my family went to the city only when we needed to buy materials we couldn’t get in the countryside. We didn’t need to use our own hands to sell off our extra crops; we made enough money from our well-digging to hire other people. We are still the dominant well diggers in our region. From Xinchun to Duchun to Pingchun, we are occasionally called upon to dig new wells, but most of our work nowadays is to repair old ones. My daughter, Guo, tells me I should expand the family business by using modern equipment and by drilling on our property to bottle and sell water. I tell her drilling is disrespectful, unnatural, and bad for the soil. She tells me my beliefs are nonsense, superstition. I tell her that if it weren’t for this “superstition” passed down by our ancestors, I would’ve never had enough money to send her to agricultural college, where she learned those fancy drilling techniques.

“Oh, Dad,” she says, “If you wear a glove for too long, you risk outgrowing it.”

“I’m old,” I tell her. “My hand stopped growing long before you were born.”

*

There has been a drought of work over the last few months. My family is getting short on spending money (we’ve already sold most of our extra chili). Then, one day, Boiled Dan, the village chief of Duchun, taps on my door carrying cartons of haw flakes and Coca-Cola. I know what he wants from the moment he steps into my yard, and I feel an excitement that I haven’t felt since I was nine, when my father took me to dig my first well.

“Jiang!” he says, handing my wife the cartons tied together with bright orange ribbons. “Is it true what they say about the Laos, that the older they get, the stronger their arms?”

Boiled Dan is not a man to be trusted. He treats you like an emperor when he needs something and turns his back like a feathered peacock after getting what he wanted.

“Our arms strengthen with our sons,” I say, nodding to Tingting. “This one is barren of teakettle chutes.”

Tingting places the cartons in a cabinet next to the stove. She has heard my complaint ten thousand times—it’s almost a joke between us—and automatically she says, “One cannot be blamed if the original teakettle leaks.”

“Quick-witted as always, Tingting.” Boiled Dan smiles and I see a shining silver tooth in between yellowed ones. “But let me do away with formalities. I have come to ask your family, the famous Lao well-diggers, for a favor.”

I sit down, cross my legs, and ask him to continue.

He takes a seat across from mine and pours himself some tea. “As you may know, two weeks from now is Duchun’s thirty-fifth anniversary. That’s right: It’s been thirty-five years since Chairman Mao came to our land and partitioned the gentry’s property. I want to celebrate. I think we should celebrate. I want to give my villagers a new well, one as large and as grand as the largest in Xinchun.”

I reach for the cigarettes in my shirt pocket. I insert one into my plastic holder and light it with a match. Puffing on it, I put on an expression of concern. “This is not a small order, Dan. Our well was built a long time ago, and I’m not sure if we still have the techniques to construct one of that size.”

“But surely well-building flows from you like sweat. Surely this is a job meant for villagers. Surely having you is better than hiring private contractors from the city.” And here is the real reason he comes to me: to save him money. He smiles, his eyes disappearing. He knows I’d be flattered even if the flattery is so obvious.

I run my hand on the stubble of my beard. “I have to talk with the crew.”

“Of course,” he says, getting up to leave. “Remember, though, we don’t have much time. I want to unveil it in two weeks, in time for the anniversary, and the sooner you decide to do it, the sooner your crew can start.”

*

The next day I decide to go up the hill with Tingting and my daughter to take measurements of Xinchun’s central well. Our central well is one of the oldest and largest in the entire province. I know because my family must have constructed at least half of them. When I was young, my father and I would go from village to village taking surveys, making sure the village chiefs still had our address in case they needed repairs. On these trips, my father read me poetry by Li Bai and made me learn the classics: Hong Lo Meng, Shui Hu, Journey to the West. I was more interested in working with my hands, in well-digging, but I’m thankful that my father stressed the importance of literature. I’m known now in Xinchun as somewhat of a scholar. Occasionally, the village chief would come to me for help in deciphering a new code or ordinance, and this has brought a lot of respect for my family and me, and I like to think that my wife and daughter are proud of my knowledge.

But today Guo is in a sour mood. She’s mad at me because I didn’t tell her fiancé, Fai, about Boiled Dan’s proposition. It’s not that I don’t like Fai—I like him a lot; in fact, Tingting and I were the ones who arranged the wedding—but Fai is weak for a man, easily bullied by my daughter. Tingting and I thought this was good at first. Guo has such a strong personality, and we figured Fai’s water might douse her fire. But recently I’m starting to regret my decision to marry my daughter to Fai, who is now second-in-command of the crew, a man I’m supposed to groom so that he can take my place and carry on the Lao family name. I’m afraid he will give in to my daughter’s insistence. I’m afraid he’s not going to uphold the traditional methods.

The three of us are silent on our way up the hill, but once we’ve reached the top, my daughter can’t control herself anymore. “He’ll see, you know,” Guo says. “He will see us by the well and suspect we’re hiding something from him. Him, my future husband. What am I going to say when he pressures me?”

“You’ll tell him the truth—that as of now, I haven’t agreed to anything. Besides, we both know Fai cannot pressure a hen to lay an egg.”

“Stop lying to yourself, Dad. We all know you’re going to take the job.”

I pretend not to hear her. I crouch down next to the well, take out my tape measure, and hand it to Tingting. “Stay put,” I say, and then I begin to circle the opening. Cold air rises from the depth of the well, and with it I smell an aroma of steamed buns and leeks. It’s only September, and the well isn’t quite chilled enough, but already villagers are using it as a refrigerator.

“Your daughter is right,” Tingting says. “Soon Fai must be the one to start making decisions like this.”

“What do you know? A wife wishing an early death on her husband will be scorned by Buddha for all her lives to come.”

Tingting drops the tape measure. It coils halfway around before I let go of my end.

My daughter picks it up and hands it to me. “You know what she meant, Dad. The world is changing. A lot of villages use running water now. Soon, if you don’t let us young people help you, there won’t be many more decisions to make.”

“Fine,” I say, waving them away. “Go and get Fai. We need another man here. The two of you are more trouble than you’re worth.”

*

Fai and I spend the entire day gathering information. He is smart, possessing a scientific mind. Whereas I remember measurements by memory, he takes notes on a sheet of grid paper. His family was too poor to send him to college, but he was one of Xinchun’s top students, on par with Guo. He knows his multiplication tables and how to use a calculator, and his back has grown strong from working in his family’s fields.

After taking measurements of the well’s circumference, width, its height above land, and the size of each of its bricks, we decide it’s time to go down and measure its depth. We pull up a bucket and empty the steamed buns inside. Fai takes out a flashlight from his toolbox and hands it to me. Because he is the stronger of the two, I am the one who’ll be lowered down. I step one foot into the bucket, grasp my right hand tight around the pulley, and hold the flashlight with my other hand.

It’s been about fifty years since anyone has gone down. My ancestors used the finest marble-brick mix to ensure the well’s longevity. It’s the reason the well hasn’t needed any major restorations for more than a hundred and fifty years. In fact, the last time someone went down was during World War II, when the Japanese used the well as a living grave, throwing into it more than half of Xinchun’s villagers. The Red Road Army arrived a month after the massacre, and at first they thought the entire village was decimated, but people had hidden in huts and fields, and my young grandfather had gone to a neighboring village. Mao’s soldiers tied shirts over their faces when they went down, and it took the Red Road army two weeks to pull up all the bodies. Three years after the war, my father said the water was still tinged pink.

Shining the flashlight on the side of the well, I see that the walls could use some cleaning. The brickwork has become uneven in places, jagged, and it’s likely that buckets might get stuck. The bricks are also covered with green moss. It’s not poisonous, but the scent is damp and pungent, and the smell might migrate over to the buns and leeks. I’m surprised that all these years, I’ve gotten no complaints.

I count the number of bricks from the opening to the bottom, and when the bucket hits water, I shout, “Two hundred and ninety-nine,” my voice echoing up. The pulley shifts a little. I step down into the water and it reaches my waist. Peering down at me, Fai looks no larger than an insect—an ant or grasshopper perched on heaven’s doorstep. He disappears for a moment to tie the pulley to a rock or a tree, and I see him again with his clipboard of grid paper.

His mouth moves, and half a second later I hear his words echo down: “How large is the base?”

What makes this well such an interesting one is that the brickwork arches and becomes wider the deeper you go. At the bottom, the diameter has increased by at least a third. I submerge under water, and to my surprise, there is a thin layer between the last brick and the earth, allowing the aquifer more room to move around, producing fresher water.

I count the number of bricks in the last circle and yell up, “Eighteen.” The opening, if I remember correctly, has a circumference of twelve bricks.

Fai writes it down, tiny hands on tiny paper. I lift my foot into the bucket, pull my body up, and then tug at the pulley twice to let him know that I’m ready to be lifted back up. He disappears again. I’m sixty-seven years old and to this day I rarely feel tired, even after a day of work in the fields, but right now my arms are exhausted. Perhaps my tiredness is a trick of the mind. Perhaps finding out firsthand the intricacies of the well’s design and the hours of labor required to reproduce it have gotten me scared. Whatever the reason, halfway from the top, I grow fearful that I might let go of the pulley and fall. I break one of the first rules of well repair: I look down, and I’m high enough so that I can’t see the bottom. Even the glow of the flashlight does not reach the water, where only minutes ago my head was submerged.

*

“I don’t think it’s possible,” Fai says, “at least without the use of modern equipment.”

Guo sets a dish of pan-fried peanuts onto the table, smiles at me, then rejoins Tingting by the stove to cook the rest of the dinner.

“We can use equipment to make the bricks, of course,” I say, “because of time constraints.”

Fai looks over to my daughter for help. She gives him a nod, and he turns back to me. “Dad,” he says, “what I mean is—”

“Elder Lao,” I tell him. “No one is married yet.”

“Elder Lao, what I mean is it’ll save us a lot of money and labor to use a driller. Guo says she can borrow one from her college at no charge.”

This is the first time Fai has been present in the early planning stages, and I forgive his words because he doesn’t know the importance of tradition in well-digging. Since I’m supposed to be the one to teach him, this is partly my fault. “An apprentice,” I say, “should not give the artisan advice. He should follow the artisan no matter what, like a son to a father. You will be both soon, so you should be doubly obedient.”

Fai lowers his head. I hear the crash of a pot, and from the corner of my eye I see Guo picking it up in such a manner to let me know that she intentionally dropped it.

“Eat,” I say, gesturing with my chopstick. “This is no day to be glum. A project like this warrants celebration. Guo! Tingting! Bring out the wine!”

*

The next morning, a fog covers the roads. It is a portent for misfortune, and usually, with less pressing matters, I would’ve stayed home. I’m driving our tractor to Duchun, where Boiled Dan waits with the contract. Fai is sitting in the wagon with two of the crew. Guo also insisted that she should come, and since I’d won such a huge victory over her and Fai the day before, I decided to let her.

The tractor has both its advantages and disadvantages in foggy weather. It’s slow enough that I won’t crash into anything, but its speed also hinders it from making any sharp turns in case another vehicle fails to see us. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, since the tractor is so loud that if a car doesn’t see us, it should for sure hear us.

We arrive at Boiled Dan’s house unharmed for the most part. Little Maize, a nineteen-year-old boy we hired two summers ago, had to jump off the tractor momentarily because his face was brushing against a tree branch, but luckily for us, no car was passing by at the time.

Boiled Dan’s front door is open, and when we walk in, we see him in his yard sweeping eggshells into a pan. “Ah, Jiang,” he says, “what took you so long?”

“The fog,” I say.

“Right.” He laughs. “I’m blind.”

We are all amazed by the way his yard looks. I haven’t been to his house in a few years, but I don’t remember the whitewashed walls, the calendar of foreign cars, the large vase with dried cherry blossom branches sticking out, the name-brand electric stove, stainless steel pots, and bronze wok. “Stop staring,” I tell the crew, but even Guo can’t help walking over to the kitchen and admiring the cookware.

“Come in,” Dan yells from the living room. “You don’t have to stand outside. I’ve set out some treats.”

The inside of his house is even more impressive than the courtyard: leather sofas, bamboo coffee table, and a thirty-two inch television, which is five inches larger than Xinchun’s community TV. Fai and the others are already eating the moon cakes and sesame crisps that Boiled Dan set out on the table, and Dan pats the seat next to him on the sofa for me to sit down. The armrest feels cool on my elbow, like snakeskin, and I’m self-conscious when I lean back.

“I got some bad news, old friend.” Dan has grown solemn. “I just got a call from Yuncheng this morning. The city contractors made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“That can’t be true,” I say. “You gave me your word. We already drew up plans.” I take out the well manifest from my back pocket and spread it out on the table. “You see here. We’ve chosen the techniques and materials. We’re ready to begin work.”

“Let me finish. Not all of my news is bad.” He looks around at the crew, at Fai, at Little Maize, and then at my daughter. “The contractors are short on labor, and I recommended your crew. They faxed over a contract.”

I shake my head. “Why hire more people when we could do it ourselves?”

“It’s not a matter of people. It’s time, and cost. The village needs the well soon, and I can’t take the risk of a delay. Plus, the contractors already have materials stockpiled, whereas we have to purchase our own at a premium price.”

When he tells me this, I understand that this has been the plan all along. He never intended for us to work alone, to oversee the construction. In his eyes, we’re just labor.

“We won’t do it,” I say. “You can look for slaves elsewhere, Dan.”

“Why use such words, old friend? This is better for both of us. You might be getting paid less, but you’ll be doing much less work, and money is still money.”

Guo puts her hand on my shoulder, leaning in. “We do need money, Dad. Fai and I are getting married, remember?”

“What a sensible daughter you have,” Dan says.

“Who told you to talk?” I say over my shoulder. “Go outside, all of you!”

The crew gets up from the couch. Guo takes Fai’s hand into hers, and before she leaves the room, she says, “I have a wise, learned father. He reads poetry and understands it. I know he will see past his pride and make the right choice.”

“Listen to your daughter,” Dan says. “Here, as a show of good faith, I’ll even add this.” He places three one-hundred yuan bills onto the table. Then, he takes out a contract written up by the city contractors and places it next to the bills. “So, old friend, how about it?”

*

After signing the contract, I walk outside with Boiled Dan. Everyone is relieved when they see the smile on Dan’s face, the flash of his silver tooth. Guo hugs Fai, who, from the way he rubs his head, seems to be the most relieved of them all. He will soon be a husband, and after that, a father, and the only hope I have in the world now is for him to be luckier than me when it comes to his wife bearing him sons.

The crew has started to gather on the tractor, and I ask Dan if we can at least examine the location of the well.

“Of course,” he says. “Just follow me.” He walks around his yard to a shed in the back, where he brings out a black scooter covered in plastic wrap.

“How would you like a ride?” he asks.

I tell him no, that I need to drive the tractor.

“Well, what about you, Guo?” he says. “A beautiful young lady on a beautiful young vehicle.”

She looks at me and I shake my head. “Sure!” she says, jumping on.

We drive behind Dan, following a dirt road, my daughter sitting behind him with her arms grasping the handlebars above the rear wheel. They’re much faster than us, and every minute or two they double back. The scooter kicks up dust, and combined with the fog, the road becomes difficult to see. I cough from the exhaust.

“Is that necessary?” I ask Dan when he doubles back again. “I can fit the two of you in the wagon. There’s enough room for the scooter, too.”

“Lighten up,” Dan says, flashing his silver tooth. “Have a little fun.”

“Yeah, Dad. Have a little fun.” Guo winks.

When they disappear into the fog again, Fai taps me on the shoulder. “Is she safe? Should I do something?”

“You’ve missed your opportunity,” I tell him. “You shouldn’t have let her get on in the first place. Let this be a lesson.”

We reach a bulldozed area of land on a small dirt hill, the fog preventing us from seeing where it begins to descend. Dan rides around the hill with ease, as if he was in his back yard, treading his scooter in concentric circles, twisting like a tornado. I grow increasingly worried for my daughter, who spins around so fast that I’m afraid she’d be thrown off. Boiled Dan holds his right hand into the air, as if touching the fog, and directs us to a spot on the ground marked with the red character jing—for well.

“Here,” he says, and I’m somewhat astonished by the quality of the spot he picked. Of course, he has seen the location of Xinchun’s well, and the bulldozed hill we’re standing on reminds me a little too much of Xinchun’s. Except our hill is natural. When the crew and I walk down, we see a pond nearby and a stream feeding into it. I’m impressed that Dan knows to place a well by a body of water—to track the aquifer level.

“Good choice of location,” I tell him. “How do you know so much about well digging?”

“The internet,” he says. “My son just bought me a computer.”

“You’re not afraid of being electrocuted?” I ask. Wall outlets terrify me. When the Red Guards ran power lines through our village, my father was standing underneath one of the poles. The Guards were not much more than kids and didn’t know how to properly string up the wires. A couple days later the power was turned on and the loose cable struck my father, killing him.

“Don’t be silly, Jiang,” Dan says. “The computer doesn’t have enough power to harm a mouse.” He gets on his scooter and puts on his blue Mao cap. “Jiang, I used to be like you, fearful of everything. But ever since I’ve embraced this new China, my life has gotten ten thousand times better.” He takes out a cigarette, lights it with a golden lighter. “And I can still hold onto our traditions: Why else would I build a well if I didn’t value traditional village ways! You need to realize that the new and the old aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have one with the other.”

*

By the time we leave Boiled Dan’s village, the fog has abated. Guo says she has to buy some sewing material from the city, and since Duchun is closer to Yuncheng than our village, we take a detour to visit Yuncheng’s indoor market.

I’ve never been to this market before, but Tingting and Guo have gone several times since it opened four years ago. They tell me how convenient it is to shop here, how you push around this small metal cart and take whatever you want off the shelves and pay for all of it when you’re done. “A thieves’ paradise!” I said, but walking around it now, I’m surprised that no one is stealing anything. Or maybe they’re just such good thieves that I don’t notice. Whatever the case, I’m not very impressed. I walk with my hands behind my back, and tilt my head to examine the labels on the boxes and bottles. All of them say “Great Tasting” or “Delicious Flavor,” but how do you know what is really good without someone there telling you what you’re buying? Guo and Fai seems to know what they’re buying, though, taking one item after another as if this was the way people had bought things throughout history. Even Little Maize, barely a man, finds a thing or two he likes.

I have been coming to Yuncheng for nearly fifty years now, first with my father, then with my wife, then with my young daughter, and now with my daughter and her soon-to-be husband. When I was a boy, Yuncheng seemed to me an old city. Its four-hundred-year-old walls were still standing. The fashionable men and women living here wore silk gowns that hid their ankles. And the older people had long flowing beards and haircuts like my ancestors—tied in dense buns. The streets were dirt or cobblestone, red candlelit lanterns hanging from every store, and there was a peaceful bustle about it all. Walking down its avenues, hearing the footsteps of the rickshaw man, smelling the roast duck hanging from restaurants, I felt like my grandmother was telling me a story.

Now, as an old man, Yuncheng seems to me a young city. The walls have long been dismantled—the Red Guards called them reminders of China’s backwardness. Everybody on the streets has phones without wires, small enough to hold in your hands. And the older city folks dress in the same way that young people dress, in the same kinds of clothes, the women wearing the same kinds of makeup. You cannot cross the streets anymore without hitting a car, a truck, or a bicycle, and everyone seems so busy, so important, even when they’re just shopping for food.

I look up at the buildings sometimes, and wonder where all of them come from. Some of the buildings must be as tall as our well is deep. They scare me when I walk by. I’m afraid they might fall.

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