Reveals the Wicked

by Chris Panatier

The desert was dry and water was rare, and every hole that was dug drew only air and sand fleas, and so the town put out for a man who could divine the source.

It had been the driest three years in memory, with even the cacti shriveling to husks, hollowed out and frail as fly wings and filled only by spiderweb constellations, their denizens hanging by a leg, dead of thirst. The town elders knew the solution, as each year it was brought to the floor and each year it was tabled, the decision having been made that the sacrifice was too great even in times of biblical drought. But on the third year they paused, knowing that there wouldn’t be a fourth if a well was not sunk that was wet.

Sent atop the only horse that could walk was a child, light in the saddle, both messenger and payment, to whom the message was known but the payment was not. To witch a well, they told the child to say when asked by the man what was wanted.

The child rode, a boy of eight, outfitted with a stick of bread and a canteen half-filled with what he’d collected of the morning dew.

The water was gone by the morning of the second day, but the child had reached the land the elders had described, a hill surrounded by ground punctured with dry holes all the way to the horizon. Atop the hill were a pair of trees—or was one of them a man? A man, yes. Tall and bent like a broken oak from some other place, leaning upon the handle of a heavy spade.

The horse walked up the hill and stopped shy of the man, about as far as a stone thrown underhand.

“Ask,” said the man.

The boy looked up from the pommel where he’d hid his eyes from the white sky, squinting to bring the cricked figure into focus. “Please,” he rasped, “we need you to come to the village and witch a well.”

“How many elders does your town have?”

The child answered that there were three.

“Hmm,” said the man. And he knelt and snapped a forking branch from a thorny mesquite.

“What are the holes for?”

“To feed the earth, boy. Only the almighty comes from nothing. When the sky does not give us water, it must come from the ground. And the ground is hungry. Behold its mouths,” he said, sweeping his spade.

“What…does the ground eat?”

“The wicked,” said the Digger, grinning, leaning forward and popping the extra twigs from his branch. “Are you a wicked one, boy?”

Fearful, the boy tried to mutter a denial. Only a scratch of sound came out.

The man brought an eye within a lash of the boy’s own. “No,” he said. “You are the light of the world.” He straightened, back crackling just like the branches. He sniffed. “Those elders. They always send a child. It’s a test, you see?”

Just as the boy worked to build enough courage to ask what was to become of him, the man spoke. “I will go now to find water for your people. When I return, then may you.” He pierced the bark of the tree with a talon-like finger, from which a trickle of pure water began. “Fill your skin.”

The man did not ride, for he had no mount. He placed the dowsing branch he’d wrought between his peg-shaped teeth, then levered forward onto knuckles that stretched down near the ground. The boy had not noticed how long the arms were. And his awareness about the disproportions of the man awakened a realization that he was no man at all, but something else entirely. It had not been a spade he’d held either, but a sharpened club of bone protruding from his muscled wrist. He was a strong whip of a creature who expressed the language of man, but only some of his corporeal trappings.

The Digger galloped off across the desert, faster than any horse.

He arrived in the town and went to work, walking the ley lines of his ancestors, turning the earth when posterity tickled the senses.

The elders approached, smiling and pleased, until they were near enough to see his true self.

“The well is deep,” said the Digger, “but wetness will fill it.”

Tentatively, one of the elders asked if their offering had pleased him. Yes, he answered back. He approached the three, felt them cowering inwardly. “Whomever was the one that thought to employ me shall claim the dowsing branch.”

The center elder stepped forward. “It was the three of us,” they said, “together.”

The Digger snapped the branch at the fork, leaving three pieces, and presented them. “A witching rod, then, was destined to find you.” Each of the elders took a piece and the Digger swung the spade, lopping their heads along with the sticks of wood fresh in their hands.

He gathered the bodies into his long and sinuous arms, leaving the heads.

When he returned to the hill, the boy was there beneath the tree, unharmed, horse watered. “There is a well in your village now,” said the Digger, dumping the bodies one after another into the pre-dug holes.

He began shoveling dirt from a long-dried pile. The boy stood and led the horse down the hill, stopping to gaze into a hole at a headless elder. After a moment he asked, “How long will there be water?”

The man counted the holes aloud and announced it would be three years.

“What are we to do after that?”

“Famine reveals the wicked, boy, and the earth is always hungry.”

Chris lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, daughter, and a fluctuating herd of animals resembling dogs (one is almost certainly a goat). He writes short stories and novels, “plays” the drums, and draws album covers for metal bands. Short fiction in places. His debut novel, The Phlebotomist, came out via Angry Robot in September 2020. Plays himself on Twitter @chrisjpanatier.
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