In the woods that start a stone's throw from the old man's well-house and stretch for nearly a mile to the river and onward across the hills that were once mountains, onward west to the outskirts of a nearly empty, once-thriving mill town called Star, the wildcats are screaming. The old man, made deaf to the mating screams by the force of his intensity, sits at a broad table, writing in a hard-covered notebook about another long-dead old man who he met as a boy of six when he first came to this farm, not as an orphan but as an ignored appendage of his newly widowed mother. He writes of the old man who had almost soundlessly taught him how to draw water from the well that still stood only feet from the house's steps, taught him how to lower the galvanized bucket down with the cranking handle until it sank beneath the distant, tiny circle of dark water, and how to use the wench and lever to raise the full cast iron bucket back into the light of day. He wrote of how the boy, for that was how he thought of himself those sixty-five years before, as the boy, one as detached from him tonight as he was from the mother he never loved, grew to love lowering the bucket into the distant water as the old man stood soundlessly, refusing to begrudge any emotion toward the boy's wrinkled brow and determined mouth.
It was by the well on one cold early spring morning, the boy dressed only in pajamas, his bare feet cold against the black soil, his small blue hands squeezing the iron crank as he lowered and raised the bucket, that the old man began to tell him the first story. The boy and his mother had lived in the house a year by then and until that morning the old man had limited his words to instructions and modifications of instructions. Bend over to drop the seeds. Hold steady to the bar if you don't want a bruise on your forehead. Pass close behind the mule to limit the arc of his kicks. Even the instructions had been rationed out as they worked the garden or tended the acres of green to gold tobacco.
The boy was mystified in a way he was not yet able to understand when the old man began telling him the story. For him to hear about anything but instruction on what was happening at that moment was such a new experience that for the first moment he wasn't sure if the old man was talking to him or if his mind had become a foreign animal, like the wildcats that howled on spring nights from the woods. (The progeny of the wildcats he could hear now, here alone, writing, an old man himself, protected from the night beneath the rusted tin roof, writing furiously in a small pool of light cast by a single bulb in a single unshaded lamp.)
On that cold spring morning, the old man's mouth seemed disconnected from his stern features as he began to talk with no preamble or hesitancy, as though he had memorized what he wanted to say in order to deliver it without emotion.
“This comes from my mother's own lips,” he began, his eyes staring over the boy's head at the well's wench and pulley. “This is how she told it. She was standing here by this well, alone, not yet a woman but well on her way, as she watched the bedraggled soldiers from Massachusetts or Michigan and other places she would never see or long to see ride across the untended fields. She didn't run or long to run she said later. She was too weary, weary of the work and weary of the praying, weary most of all by the foolishness of men that had brought her to this place, alone, hungry, standing with a full bucket resting on the well top, one hand clinging tightly to her skirt, as the seven dusty and bone-weary soldiers stopped their horse's progress before her.
There they stood. A riderless young woman and seven young men brought to this point by hatred imposed upon them from outside. Hatred that had no foundation or roots in her or their experiences, the hatred that came from Washington and Richmond and Charleston and New York, not from her or from these mill boys and dock workers and merchants and railroad workers slumped wearily atop their weary horses.
“Water,” she said, without a question's inflection.
“Yes, that would be nice,” the one in front, the leader clearly, although she could see no insignia that said he was placed at the forefront of his men by an official act. No badge or oft-folded piece of paper had given him that privilege. She knew it had been assumed with the inevitability of water flowing downhill. He was the leader.
She reached for the tin dipper hanging on the wall and filled it from the freshly drawn bucket. The first drink, again without thought or consultation, went to the leader. He had dark eyes that had grown darker as he sat under the shade of the old oak that stood between the well house and the house itself. Outside of the tree's shadows, they may become blue or green or maybe a rich brown like the deep hills of the west she longed to escape to, away from this piece of land she hated but would never leave.
The leader was not yet a man despite the demands war had placed on him. He was like bread that had been baked too quickly, still soft around the heart, virginal in his soul regardless of what his body might have done.
At that moment she realized she felt what might be love for the young man sitting before her on his tired and too small horse. She loved him for the moment he was there and would stop loving him when he was no more. Not carnal love, not the need for flesh she would feel later, but a love of his mystery and of his fate. She knew that it was a love no less strong for its transience, never doubted its force, just as she knew she would still be standing there, whole, intact, virginal when the dusty and weary men turned and rode away.
He drank and handed her the dipper and she, one by one, moved down the line they had organized by some well-practiced, unspoken system. When each man had had his fill she went into the well-house and found two old water buckets and drew water and filled the buckets and by turns gave each horse his fill. One of the young men placed the reins down across his weary horse's neck and started to slip off to help but she looked at the young man, the leader, her momentary lover, and he held his hand out and the soldier slipped his boots back into his stirrups and picked up his reins. She worked steadily until each of the horses had been watered and returned the buckets to their place and returned to her place before the men and looked again with unflinching eyes at the leader, the dark-eyed boy, and she knew in the way she would know most things in her life he would never become a man. That before this rich man's war had ended he would lie dead in a Virginia wood.
She knew that you see, son, she knew it as sure as she knew he'd protect her at that moment. That he would turn his men around and head away without looking back. That he would ride toward what waited. But what she couldn't know was if he also knew what she knew. They shared knowledge of his death. That the young woman waiting for him in the northern cold, writing a daily letter between her chores, stoically marching through her own life until he returned, would age into adulthood and old age unmarried, would see a new century full of automobiles and telephones and airplanes, would stay alone, forgotten, until she died on the eve of the European war.
That was her curse, you see, boy, that she could see the grief waiting for him and her. She never saw the joy because joy was random and happens only in the midst of a steady stream of lack of joy and no one could possibly see when it'd raise its tiny head, gasping for air.
The men turned and rode away without so much as a glance back. She watched them disappear, alone, alive, facing a life of a husband who died too soon and dead children and me, the only survivor, alone as she knew I would be the morning she forced me from her body.”
Why is he telling me this thought the boy who would also be old and alone in a too-large empty room writing words no one would ever read while the wildcats screamed outside and then instantly knew there was no answer to his question and because there is no answer it was all the more valuable. It was an unlocked keepsake that he carried with him until this spring night when, hunched over an old notebook, cheap pen in hand, he began writing the notes of his own unlived life.
I realize this is clearly a Faulkner pastiche. I'm interested in how well I pulled it off as well as in anything else someone would like to say about this story.