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Daumier detail, altered

Drinking from the Well

Flash Fiction by Nance Knauer

Three old men, dressed in dark suits and flat, woolen hats, sit on a bench outside the village café. The only tree in the square grows beside and over the church, which is built of large stone blocks, quarried locally. The sun is rising over a distant mountain. As the pavement warms, the men roll up their pants, revealing pale skin and bones too near the surface. One of them, the biggest, laughs and points at the others.

“You have the legs of a rabbit.”

The two smaller ones, brothers, ignore him and watch a car climb up the curved road from the valley below. Tourists mean money, and the season has been slow. The men’s wives are busy at home, scrubbing floors or washing windows. The old men have been chased from their houses—a sign of spring like the snap of a wet sheet hanging on the line.

The car stops in front of a store where newspapers and a few snack items are sold. A short, roundish woman emerges from the vehicle. She is not pretty, but her body moves well. Her head turns as she walks, and she smiles at the trio. Her eyes are small and close to her nose. The big man nods and removes his hat, but she has already stepped into the store.

“I’m going to talk to her,” he says.

“She’s not very pretty,” says one of the others.

“Her legs look strong,” says the big man. He rolls his pants down and places his hat back on his head. His lips don’t close because his lungs are scarred from quarry dust and he gulps air like water. The smaller men worked in the vineyards. Their hands look like badly grafted vines, and their wives touch them too carefully, as if they might break.

“Her feet are so small,” said one of the brothers. “You’d have to do all the work with that one. My wife,” he sighs and looks out over the fields, “she has feet like a cow. She’s a good woman.” His companions nod and smile into the distance. They know his wife well.

The big man struggles to rise from the bench, but his body is stiff. The others help to push him up. He stands and rests, making little noises from the back of his throat when he exhales.

The woman walks out of the store with a newspaper curled beneath her arm and a bottle of wine in her hand. The old man shuffles toward her, his knees grinding bone like pepper, but he feels no pain, only a familiar hunger.

“Good morning,” she says. Her knuckles brush against his belly as she passes by, and he pulls in more air. Her smell reminds him of a deep well. He leans in to the dark trail of her, saliva pooling under his tongue—so much that he chokes and stumbles. Arms out, he is flying toward the ground until the woman turns to grab him. The newspaper and wine fall instead. The bottle breaks, and he watches the paper soak up the burgundy as her arms circle his chest. Her face is close to his, frightened, and his heart feels loose, watery. He coughs into her ear.

“Let me help you,” she says, walking him to the bench where he sits down heavily beside his friends. “You’ll be okay, now?” she asks.

He nods and tries to breathe quietly. Tiny cracks of pain grow into his shoulders. His fingertips are dry and dusty. Her hands leave his body and he hears her shoes clap against the asphalt, then the slam of her car door. The men watch her drive out of town.

“Her hands were warm,” wheezes the stonecutter, “and strong.” His companions murmur appreciatively as the car disappears over the top of a hill.

The large man rolls up his pants again. They all close their eyes and tilt their faces to the cloudless sky. Wind rattles around their ankles and their nostrils widen as they breathe in the fragrance of spilled wine. The big man licks one corner of his mouth as he opens his eyes, stares directly into the sun and blinks his way through the slow burn.

§ § §

Nance Knauer has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, FRiGG and Word Riot. She lives in Minneapolis where she is a member of the Loft Literary Center and was named a finalist for the Loft Mentor Series in 2004. Although she's never seen an iceberg in Lake Superior, she hasn't given up hope.

Reprinted from Ink Pot #7; available now

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