I know it’s almost Halloween, so I thought I should share some of my scarier, weirder stories that have laid dormant in my computer all these years. This one was inspired by a period film in which there were still white and black water fountains. I wondered what it would feel like and at what length a person might go to, if he were thirsty enough, to snap and take a drink. My answer is the short story WHITE WATER.
by Jaimie M. Engle
They done told me there’s a well for white folk only on this farm, and that us Negroes ain’t allowed to drink no white-water. It all looks the same to me, the water I mean, clear and crisp, coming from God’s green earth. So, who’s to say which is white-water and which ain’t? I still don’t know. I ain’t nobody’s fool. I never had no schooling, but I learnt my ABCs as a kid, most of them, at any rate. The ones I need to read the word Negro and White so I know which bathroom I supposed to do my business in.
I heard the preacher giving sermons, how there ain’t no Jew or gentile, no freeman or slave no more. It sure as heck-fire ain’t that way where I live. No, sir. We Negroes still slaves, even though the shackles been long gone.
But I was thirsty that day, see? And there weren’t no place to drink from, like I’d been told. So, I asked the Boss Man, I said, “Please, boss. Pardon ya for a drink?” And he don’t pay me no mind. Just shoo me back to the field to pick his harvest; mouth curled in a sneer of tobacco-stained teeth, drooling black out the edges like some dang rabid coon needs putting down.
It was so hot that day, hotter than any harvest day I been used to, and I asked Boss Man, real kind-like, about half a dozen times, for even a mouthful of his white-water.
“None for you,” Boss Man said. “This is for white folk, not Negroes.”
Coulda been the heat, made me do it. Or coulda been I was just so thirsty, I ain’t able to think straight. But after awhile, I don’t remember much why. Don’t think it matters none neither.
After sunset, after Boss Man had his supper and I ate me some stale cornbread and a bowlful of black-eyed peas without a lick of water to wash them down with, I grabbed me a thick branch that’s been smoothed, and dipped it in the tar bucket. Marched up to the fire pit, and set that black glob of tar on fire. I passed the white-water well, but didn’t stop for no drink. Couldn’t. Boss Man said, “No,” and I ain’t the type to disobey my master, on most occasions. I went over to Boss Man’s quarters, where I seen him smoking his cigar, passed out on the front porch, from drinking too much moonshine. Figured I’d ask him one more time. Even if he was too drunk to answer.
I was just so thirsty.
His eyes popped real big in the flame light as I poured his moonshine all over him. I saw the understanding sink in, and I knew then he’d wished he’d shared his white-water with me.
But it was too late.
“If that’s your water,” I told him, “then I gotta make it suitable for Negroes. You gotta understand, boss, that we all the same. That’s what the Bible says.”
I touched the flame to him, watched him light up like a shooting star, and run cross the yard, through the field, burning half his own dang harvest to the ground. When I found him midway in the clearing, his skin charred and black as mine, I told him, “Now we equal, boss. Now we the same. So, it’s okay if we is drinking from the same well.”
I tipped my hat to him, like my grandma taught me to always do when passing a white man, and I went back to the well, where I ladled me a big scoop of water and took a long drink. And you know what? For the first time in a long while, I believed what the Good Book said.