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One With Water


            It was mostly tumbleweed and sagebrush off to the south. In the north fields where the creek cut its twisting path it was grassland. All together, good cattle land, Wyoming’s high desert plain. Jonah liked the dry heat of summer, liked riding through the fields, puffs of dust kicked up behind him. He and Flo raised steakhouse grade beef. It wasn’t what they’d planned but, well, sometimes plans get handed to you. For nearly forty years they’d run Pop’s, Boise’s top steakhouse. Every cut of prime on the menu came from the ranch. But Pop died and suddenly they owned a couple thousand acres of Wyoming and he was back home being a cowboy, Pop’s boy. It had benefits though, one being he didn’t have to shower nearly so often.

            Flo was from Oregon, on the coast. She liked water and cruises. “It’s calming,” she told Jonah, “having water all around you.” Being on a boat didn’t bother Jonah all that much. Looking at all that water was okay, so long as it stayed out there. Sometimes they’d go to Vegas. Flo would get sun and water; Jonah’d get sun. She’d slather on sun block and lie by the pool. Jonah would take the truck out into the desert, climb in the hills and feel free.

            They moved back partly because of this thing Jonah has with water. It’s awkward but he’s been this way as far back as he can remember. He’s scared of it. As a kid on the ranch just the thought of a bath would make him tense, fearful. He was scared of it growing up and still scared now. Not of drowning or worried about slipping in a tub. It’s being in water, enveloped. Water was okay out there, over there. Water was okay to drink, make tea or coffee, even a bit slopped on his hands wasn’t awful. He’d shaved his head a couple of years back after Flo bought him an electric razor so that’s not an issue any more. When he showers it’s always fast, never easy. He goes as long as he can. Flo tells him when it’s time. She wrinkles up her nose and he knows.

            “I’m sorry hon. I’ve gotten so used to the way I am that it’s hard for me to tell.”

            “Not hard for others,” Flo said.

            Then Jonah got this idea to build a windmill. He liked wind, dry wind — and there was a lot there in the high plains. It’d come rolling down the side of the mountains and hills, across the open fields and there was so much of it. It wasn’t doing much good and maybe, he thought, he could harness it, like a wild pony.

            It was damn hard work. He had to figure out things he’d never thought about before, basic woodworking and construction, how to lay a foundation, how to cut curved braces for the walls, stabilize the structure, rig-up the blades, set them in flexible moorings so they shifted with the changes of the seasons.

            It took him nearly six months but he ended up with a high plains beauty, white at the base with wide hoop-stripes each making a gentle shift, first to off-white, then to cream and up to a soft gray up at the top. The way the color changed matched the way the day’s light moved. He carefully painted fake windows on the side and put on a red shingled roof. Every windmill Jonah had ever seen had a red roof so his did too. It was all wood except the blades which were fiberglass.

            “Don’t think I should use wood,” he said to Flo. “I’m no engineer, but I’m pretty sure that with the kinds of wind we get here we wouldn’t have a prop on that thing for long.” Flo just smiled.

            When Jonah was out on the range he could see the red roof from a long way off. From the south fields he could see the tips of the blades turning gently in the breeze, becoming a bright blur when the real stuff bent the grass and made the steers nervous. It made him smile. He named it ‘Haa.’

            “Okay, Mr. Smarty-Ass,” Flo said one day. “Is that thing out there just to amuse you or do you think you might do some good with it?”

            That got Jonah thinking. He’d never really wasted anything in his life so why start now. He’d put the windmill where the wind was most steady, in the north pasture exactly fifty-eight paces from the sharp bend in the stream. He was of two minds about that field. The runoff from the mountain snows meant they didn’t have to worry about water but it made Jonah queasy, especially when the spring melt pushed it up near the top of the banks. Before he put up Haa he didn’t used to go there much.

            But Flo had a point. He got out the backhoe and started digging. First he cut one ditch off from the stream down to Haa and then another back and a short tunnel underneath her where he carefully set in a drive-wheel. He picked up a used wind-powered generator and set it up so that the blades powered the wheel to move the water.

            “Normally,” he told Flo, “folks use water to make power to control things. I’m doing it the other way ‘round.” Flo just smiled and cast on for a new sweater.

            Then he built a side shed onto Haa, this time with a real window so he could see everything working, watch water flow. He now had it running  gently in a long loop. Gravity brought it down slow from the creek; Haa sent it back up and Jonah discovered a quiet stillness, being alongside a soft stream that he made.

            Later, with winter starting to let everybody know she was just waiting for fall to get done being nice, Jonah got to worrying about water again. Mostly when he worried about water it was two in the morning and the worrying got done for him. He never had a lot of control over what popped into his head, odd fears, images, counting things, rhythms, tempo. Like with stairs. When he went up or down he would tick off each step by touching his thumb to a finger, one step for one finger. He used his right hand going up and the left coming down. He tried to make it come out even so that his thumb was on the pinkie when he was at the bottom and the pointer at the top. He knew which finger to start on for every staircase on the ranch and could look at a set of stairs he’d never seen before and get it right most times.

            When Jonah walked he counted steps. He had gotten so used to this he could stroll along talking to someone and still keep a running count. He knew how far almost everything in his life was from everything else by the number of steps it took him. This worked just fine for him but was a nuisance if he had to tell someone else how far some place was from some other place.      “What,” he joked to Flo one day, “do I tell a little-bitty ol’ lady who takes steps one-half of mine? Worse, can you imagine me telling some cowboy, ‘Well Sir, Sal’s gas station is exactly a hundred and eighty-four paces up Brindley Road from Joanne’s Coffee Caffee.’”

            This “semi-attention to detail,” which was what Flo called it, had advantages. Once Jonah got his mind onto something it would end up someplace different from where others would. Thinking about the little stream he’d run under the windmill ended up with him thinking about a pond. With Haa up and working, it wouldn’t be that hard to build another one a couple dozen steps or so off to the south. It could pull water over to the swale there and fill it up. The windmill could keep that pond honest, keep the water moving, keep it fresh.

            He dug out the swale a bit, lined it with state-of-the-art materials, managed to get in a truck load of rocks and stones and went to work on the new windmill. When it was done he dug a new channel off the one that ran to Haa. Then, feeling tired but satisfied, put in a couple dozen water plants. Bart at the nursery, which was precisely three hundred and sixty-six steps from Sal’s, sold him a wide variety, some to be kept in submerged pots, some on what would become little floating islands and others Bart said just toss in. They’ll grow on their own in water, which made Jonah’s chest tighten a bit, though less than he thought.

            And the north field was beautiful. Haa and Haa Too were turning smoothly in the fall breeze. The gentle rivulet trickled down, split in two with one channel heading back up to the creek and the other feeding the pond. Winter followed and the winds stilled and Jonah found, to his delight, that he could walk on the pond when it froze over. He made it. It was his pond.

            “You know, Mr. Smarty-Pants,” Flo said on the first day of real spring “now that you’re a water engineer or whatever it is you’ve become, why don’t you do something for the cattle? And, by the way, did you take a shower? Without me sniffing?”

            So, Jonah built another windmill. He named it Odah. “’Odahingum’ means ‘water’ in Cheyenne,” he told Flo. “Any more Haas would sound stupid.”

            Odah was bigger; it drove a more powerful pump because the new pond had to be four times the size of the first. It also, Jonah understood, had to be deeper to get the right aeration for the steers and the plants and to keep the balances of nature just right.

            He dug a canal to connect the creek with the new pond and another one out of the far side and back again though it took longer than he planned. There were bends to build in and flow patterns to figure and stones and rocks to keep the edges from eroding and the banks had to be supported and the flow controlled and Jonah started to feel like that “water engineer.” By the middle of summer the cattle had a pond to drink from and Jonah had a third glorious windmill and a bit of bum hip. Bart fixed him up with a triple-load of pond plants and a dozen trees that they planted along the eastern shore.

            While he waited for the shade to grow Jonah got to thinking about things like sluices and gates, with timed controls. He now had a half-dozen little streams and canals all being run by the windmills and was beginning to feel, not so much like an engineer, but more like a conductor. He started work on what he thought of as his string section and by the time spring arrived he had four sluices set up. Two controlled the water-flow to the little pond in the swale and two more handled the big pond. A generator hooked up to Ohad’s winch provided power. The steers kept hanging around, staring at him, tilting their heads in that engaging way as he put in the barriers, set up the control systems, rewiring everything through a panel he’d set up in a second hut he’d built up near the outlet of the first stream.

            “It’s kinda loud, though, don’t you think?” said Flo, standing there arms akimbo. “All those machines.”

            It was. That pasture used to be quiet, just the sound of the creek, the wind through the grass, the steers munching, lowing. He didn’t see any way to block the noise so he figured the best thing to do would be to mask it with the sound of water. It took him another two months. He had to drain the big pond and the pain in his hip slowed him down but finally it was done: a double-ringed fountain with a full four-foot spray from the outer ring, a lower one from the inner and a spike of water up from the center. He put a movable cap on top of the spike that he could raise and lower remotely with a lever and control the fineness and reach of the arc of water from it. And it was done.

            When Jonah finished each day’s chores he would limp out and sit, by water, watch the surface ripples dance with the wind, the shadowy swirls form as each stream exited its windmill. He’d move the lever and the cap would go up and down on the main spike and he’d marvel as the late afternoon sun painted pastel rainbows in the fine arc. He would stare at water, for hours sometimes, just sitting and feeling the warmth grow though his heart and chest.

            Autumn came. He was spending less time with the herds and more at the ponds, watching the lilies shift in the currents, the two Haas and Odah humming, almost singing with the eddies at the narrow necks where each canal drew the water from the stream.

            “You okay, Jonah?” wondered Flo one late September day.

            “Never been better,” he smiled, picking up his cane. “I’m just gonna head back out, talk a bit with water.”

            He sat on the bank of the big pond, under the largest of the trees and held his knees as close to his chest as his arthritic hip would let him. As the sun set he rocked gently back and forth and felt the first pull, the first soft tug. Odah’s rickita, rickita hypnotic rhythms matched his movements, the soft breeze pushed the blades, the long grass hissed around him in tune with his heart.

            He lowered his feet, turned fully around and slid slowly down off his spot, head down, sliding, oozing along the wet bank, otter-like to the water. The coolness pulled him in. He never knew it could be like this. All the fear drained away. Gone the burden of weight. Eelgrass flicked lovingly against his cheeks, lily pads cast shadows on his arms. Such joy. Such peace. Jonah opened his mouth and welcomed in what was his.


Reader Comments (1)

Nice story. Like this.

January 13, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercelecoxib capsules

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