A Rooster to Asclepius is Owed

They used to say that dry grass in the morning brought rain in the afternoon. Used to. Before the rain stopped coming at all. The small streams dried up. The crawdad towers crunched beneath boot heels. The noises at night changed from the quarter notes of frog croaks to the unending drone of bugs to, finally, a quiet interrupted only by a bored dog or amorous coyote.

The church stayed full. The crops were brown in the fields and people were watching their livelihoods dry up and turn to dust. What could you do but pray in circumstances like this?

Steve Collins was the lone hold-out. He sat in the rocking chair on his porch, one hand on a mason jar of white whiskey and the other gently resting on his shot gun, and he passed the time daring anyone to come back up to his house. Come on, you motherfuckers, he thought. Come while I’m home and see what happens.

After church, there was sometimes a brief discussion of sending the Sheriff up to talk to him.  To try to tell him, yet again, that his wife’s death was an accident. That talk lasted only until one of the old men heard it and he would spit, “If it was right to do, there’s no need to lie about it. No need to apologize for it.” And then those old men would turn and look at the pastor until he blushed with shame.

The old men might be considered brave, since they effectively stopped any further harassment of the Collins family, what there was left of it—Steve and the baby.

But how brave can you be if you never ask about the drought? If you never point out that the night you burned the witch and then staged it to look like a car accident was the last time it rained?

The minister had an answer ready—that this was a trial, a test of their faith, not a divine punishment, but he was glad he never had to use it, because he didn’t quite believe it himself.

What he said to himself was We may have screwed up here. He never said that out loud, though, because thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. And if you are punished by God for following the Word, then what kind of sense does the world make?

A pastor is over his flock like a man is over his family, like God is over them all. If it was wrong, then why not strike the pastor down? Let a new man rise up to head the church?

This was the pastor’s reasoning—that, if the judgment he’d passed on the Collins woman was wrong, then God would hold him accountable, not punish his flock. They were just doing what they were told. And so, if he still stood in power here, what they did was right with God. So the drought was a test or the Devil’s work. That was the pastor’s reasoning—it just didn’t always satisfy him.

The land stayed dry, the rain remained elusive. Wells turned to mud and people, already poor, had to divert food money into buying bottled water at the store.

Mrs. Collins, before she got married, was Tammie Walden. Her grandfather, old Duck Walden, had been the one to sink most of those wells. The old men remembered how he’d find a willow and cut himself a branch with a y shape and, holding on to the two short ends, was guided by the jerking and pulling of the long end pointing out in front of him to where water lay beneath the ground.

People were scared, but no one was surprised when Walden’s wells went dry. But still, no one went to the pastor and insisted they figure out a way to set this right with Steve. And what right could be set? They couldn’t bring Tammie back.

And, finally, people stopped going to church. It took months. But when they had no crops to take to the elevator, they had no money to put in the plate, and the pastor had no money with which to pay the power bill and who wanted to sit around in a cold building?

The next spring, those who could afford it moved away. It was just too strange to see spring come and be met not with green, but with a repeat of fall. The weather was cool and beautiful, but the grass was pale and broke under children’s bare feet.

So, finally, the pastor did go out to talk to Steve, who was still sitting on the porch, whisky jar in one hand, shot gun in the other, the baby squatting in the yard, poking at pill bugs.

“Haven’t seen you in town much,” the pastor said. Steve stared at him a long time, gently running his thumb over the cool metal of the gun. The pastor knew—and it was true—he was contemplating shooting him.

Instead, he answered. “Haven’t had any need to be. Prices are better at the IGA,” which was in Millersburg, the town to the west.

“Trees look good,” the pastor said. He’d already noticed that the closer he got to the Collins place, the greener things got.

“Yes, sir,” Steve said.

“Well, you know,” the pastor said. “We’re really suffering.” And just then the baby laughed. Both the pastor and Steve looked over at it. Steve also gave a slight, bitter snort that almost sounded like a laugh.

The pastor had intended to discuss what they could do to fix the situation, but the laughter made him angry. “You think this is our fault?” he asked, his voice raising. “Your wife was a witch, a bride of Satan. You think this is bad? What do you think the town would have been like if I had let her live?”

Some idea Steve had been toying with resolved itself. And he looked back to the pastor and smiled.

“Don’t you worry, Reverend,” he said. “This will all take care of itself. Folks over in Millersburg told me it’s going to rain all next week.”

A week’s worth of rain was not enough to undo the year of drought.  But the waterways filled up again and, before long, the ditches and creek beds were lined with lacy white flowers at the tops of tall, deep green stalks. These were the first signs of plant life in months. The church was surrounded by them, a sea of white, a sign from God. People showed up for Sunday service, to rejoice. The church full again after standing mostly empty all winter.

After church the children ran through the flowers, their arms outstretched so that their fingers could brush against the parasols of blossoms. One child discovered that the stems were hollow. How delightful to sip fresh water out of the stream with your flower straw! All the children, even the teens, usually too cool for such nonsense, joined in. Some chewed on the stems just for the wetness within. The cows and horses all hurried over to eat something living, for once, finally.

Young women braided the long flowers in their hair. An impromptu church picnic was declared.

And one of the old men thought how nice it would be to show the children the tender wild carrots that grew at the root end of those flowers. And so he yanked a plant loose from the dirt.

“No!” He started yelling, “No!”

Steve Collins could hear the ambulances on the main road from his porch. But whether it satisfied him, I couldn’t tell you.

9 thoughts on “A Rooster to Asclepius is Owed

  1. Because I love you guys and I didn’t want you snickering all the way through this story in which children possibly die, I refrained from calling it “We owe a cock to Asclepius” because there’s just no way you can quote an ancient Greek philosopher going on about the cock and not get the giggles. It is impossible. You’re welcome.

    Anyway, the title is a reference to Socrates who died after ingesting hemlock, which the children have been playing around with in this story. Plato says that Socrates’ last words were “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” I thought the hemlock and the notion of indebtedness played nicely with the story while still letting what happened not be quite easily apparent.

  2. I had to look to your comment to fully get the ending. Botany is not-a-me thing. But I loved the story. I love revenge stories. And I wondered if we’d get martyred witches this month in your fiction (your dangling shoes still haunting from their basis in fact).

    I watched a (possibly too scary for offspring) cartoon adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree tonight.

    The scene where the creepy guy shows the modern kid who’d dressed as a witch torch-bearing mobs storming the cabins of wise-women “until all Europe was covered in the smoke of witches” (paraphrased) then asks her if she still wants to be a witch now was a bit of a gasp.

    But I still plan to be a witch of sorts on Halloween. You?

  3. Yeah, they think they’re in a field of Queen Anne’s Lace, which is wild carrot, but, oops, it’s hemlock. Weird how you can think you’re doing a good thing and it’s not. I’m just saying: this story had a theme, which I beat to death.

    Jess, if I’ve learned one thing working on these stories, it’s that there’s almost no way of escaping being a witch. Just stand out a little bit somehow, and sooner or later, someone’s going to accuse you of witchcraft.

    I hope to always be witchy in that regard.

  4. Ah, thanks for the botanical clarification. Because I got the Socratic reference but couldn’t see how it fit.

    Also, did the pastor get it wrong (because of sexism, obviously) and Steve is actually the witch?

    Also also, what has happened to WordPress’s Recent Comments function?

  5. I think the loss of recent comments was just a glitch. They’re back now.

    Ooo. Steve could be the witch and not her! That would be good. But no, I kind of just assumed she was having her revenge from beyond the grave. I will, however, happily support a reading in which Steve is the witch.

  6. Well, I’m not trying to dispute your understanding of the story. You wrote it, after all. But I didn’t know that witches can cause that kind of damage from beyond the grave. So (esp. given the Greek context) I thought maybe she was someone like Persephone, with someone Very Powerful left behind to wreak havoc on her behalf.

  7. No, I don’t feel like this is a dispute at all! I think it’s awesome that the text clearly supports your reading, too, and it’s as delicious as what I intended. You know how old I am so you know what theoretical nonsense I came up learning.

    I don’t believe the author’s intention or interpretation is the be-all, end-all. At the end of the day, I think the author is just a story’s most intimate reader. Doesn’t make the author authoritative, so to speak.

  8. Don’t go there. You are bringing back bad memories of a talk I heard about Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, in which the speaker attempted to prove that the story wasn’t antisemitic because we don’t like the prioress’s tone of voice. Those were dark days indeed.

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