The well was old and long dry and fairly deep. Leaning over the shallow rim of piled flat rocks you could never see to the bottom which only held water when it rained and then filled up to the top quickly. Woloji passed it with a basket of green plantains, her bare feet with wide toes and soles hard as horn, crunching over the rocks of the dry ground, when she heard the man’s voice for the first time.
“Hello?” it called, suspended in air like a forest spirit.
It was in the early heat of the afternoon, when the sun toasted the tall dry grasses of the savannah until they began to shimmer like a desert sand of waving brown tufts. The time of day when the dangerous and bad tempered black vipers hid from the sun and stayed out from underfoot and the larger cats and animals lounged in shade or near the watering hole. Of the beasts, man was the most dangerous and unreasonable. Even the doll eyed vipers were reasonable creatures if you respected their peace. A young woman alone, a man would hunt down.
She stopped and half turned, looking down. Silence. Something moved down below. An impatient gasp.
“Hello?” she said.
“Someone!” the man called back. “Hello Someone! I’m here.”
Woloji stood still at the edge of the flat rocks, feeling her youth, her thinness. The lonliness of the savannah. She looked up. The tall grass and the greener trees were filled with hidden animals, some of them dangerous, who all knew she was here, were watching and smelling her even now but had no malice towards her. She looked down again, thinking.
“Someone is there, I hear you up there. Help me, please,” called the man.
She opened her mouth to speak her name and stopped.
“I need help. Are you there?”
She shuffled her foot. Kicked a flat rock off the edge and watched it tumble down into darkness.
“Hey!” yelled the man. She heard the rock hit and the man moving around down there. “I need help. What’s your name?”
They always want to know your name, she thought. They always ask that. They always want to know your name so they can say your name while they’re holding you down.
She did the cooking. She would cook these plantains. Her mother was in bed now, doubled over. It was like not having a mother. At night she cried and hid from every night sound, fearing the soldiers had come back. In the day she would sleep if Woloji was there.
She opened her mouth, stopped, swallowed, spoke. “Why are you there?”
The well was silent, baffled. The darkness waited for her.
“Did you fall?”
She heard the man moving and short gasps. “Are you hurt?” She called down. “You sound hurt.”
“Yes,” he called. “Can you bring a rope or a ladder?”
She put down the basket and sat on the ground. “So, you’re hurt? Did you hurt your foot?”
“Yes, girl,” he called up. “Can you bring your mother or your father? Someone who can help?”
The word mother made her jaw tighten. She looked at the plantains, picked one up and turned it over. How much like a man’s thing it looked. When they hold you down, when they’re excited over you, it looks like that. “Are you a soldier?”
The darkness was silent. She listened, straining to hear what the man was doing.
“Are you a soldier?”
“What?” said the well. “I need help. Can you bring a rope, little girl? What’s your name?”
She raised the plantain like a club and was about to throw it and stopped. “Are you a soldier?”
The dark was breathing. Then, “No. I’m not a soldier.”
She stood swaying at the edge of the well with the hard plantain held up in her hand. Sweat ran into her eyes, stinging. She shook her head and put the plantain in the basket, thinking.
“What do you want?” she called.
There was a sound like an angry sigh.
She looked around. “It’s getting dark,” she called down.
“Will it rain?” said the man in the well.
“I don’t know,” said the girl. She sat down again. “It might. What food do you like to eat? Maybe I’ll bring you some food.”
“Do you have water?”
“No. I have these plantains.”
“Can you bring help? Your mother or father or uncle?”
“Father, dead. My uncle, he’s run away.”
“Can you bring your mother? And a rope. With some water.”
“My mother, she can’t come.”
She felt the rage down below in the well.
“Who can you bring?”
“It might rain,” she said. She dangled her feet over the well’s edge.
“Yes, but who can you bring?”
“It’s very hot. I hope it rains soon. Do you like rain?”
“Little girl, I’m hurt. If you can bring a ladder or a rope, you will be a hero. What is your name?”
They hold your arms down. They hold your legs down so you can’t kick at them when they’re on top of you.
“Do you like plantains? Or bananas? Which do you like better?”
The darkness seethed. “A rope. I’ll give you money.”
She sat thinking.
“I have a lot of money. I’ll give you some, little girl.”
She sat thinking. “I’ll be back.” She stood up and called down, “Wait here.”
It was dozing on a rock, like a beautiful black rope with its big wide mouth and the arrowhead cheeks full of fast acting death. She had prepared herself with a dead frog, a big stick and a thick burlap bag from home. She put the frog inside the bag and prodded the snake gently with the stick. The big viper put its head in the bag, licking out its tongue at the frog. She poked it again, waited and when it slithered into the offered shade she gently scooped up the bag and closed the end in her fist. She felt it twisting and struggling and biting at the rough cloth.
She brought the bag to the well and stood swaying, holding the bag out over the edge.
“What’s that?” called the dark. “Is it water?”
She stood swaying, holding the bag out at the end of her arm.
“Is that a rope? Hold one end and throw the other end down. That’s a good girl.”
She stood swaying in the heat, thinking of nothing as the bag flopped and moved angrily at the end of her arm.
She stepped back and tore a strip off the bag. She tied off the end of the bag and put it down and sat with her face in her hands. After a long time she said “I have to go. I have to make dinner. I’ll come back.”
“Don’t go!” yelled the voice. “Don’t leave me.”
“I’ll be back.”
“Can you bring someone?” The man was almost crying. “I need help.”
“I’ll come back,” she said. “Wait here.”
She came back in the morning with an aluminum cooking pot of kerosene and a box of matches.
She balanced the pot of kerosene on the edge of the flat rocks of the well rim and snatched up a fistful of dry brown grass. She held the grass near the bowl of kerosene and lit the grass with a wooden match. She watched the grass burn.
“Is there someone there? Hello? I’m down here? I need help. Please help me.”
She stood watching the smoke rise from the blazing grass and held the flame over the pot at the edge of the well.
“Please help me! I’m not a soldier. I swear.”
She watched the flame burn quickly to her fingers, looking down at her face staring back dully from the brown depths of the kerosene.
“I’m not a soldier.”
She looked at her face in the kerosene, threw down the smoldering grass and began to weep.
“Are you up there?” called the well. “Are you up there? I can hear someone up there.”
She sat at the edge of the well and cried.
“Is that you, little girl? I have money for you. What’s your name? Tell me your name and I’ll tell you my name. Okay? Is that okay? What’s your name?”
She sat and wept for a while longer and then picked up the pot of kerosene and brought it home.
She never went back to the well. Two nights later the clouds broke into a thick howling rain that made the dirt streets of the burned village run with mud. It would be the first of many heavy spring rains and soon it would be time for planting. She thought of the man in the well, all alone. She fed her mother boiled plantains and thought about the man as she held out the food to her. She herself was not hungry. She had never learned to like plantains at all.
It rained heavily and steadily all night and all the next day. The ground filled up with pools and deep gulleys of rushing water. When Woloji went outside for anything she was careful not to step barefoot in the pools of water because there would be worms in there that could dig under your skin and make you sick.