AROUND THE KITCHEN TABLE
By Lloyd Ratzlaff
In a shack beside the dugout at the edge of my childhood village lived an old man named Adam Schmidt. He wore a huge handlebar moustache, and had a reputation as a water-diviner. He lived hardly two blocks from my own house, yet I don’t recall ever seeing him until one day when I was five or six Grandpa Gliege asked him to find water for a well to dig in his yard. No one would have used the sinister term “water-witch” for this old man, and I doubt anyone in our village had heard about a warlock.
But Grandpa believed there was water, and dug anyway. Several days later, Kooney Koenig, the drayman, delivered lumber for the well’s crib. I stood fascinated as he commanded his horses — “Gee!” Haw!” — backing the load toward a spot Grandpa had chosen between his chicken barn and summer kitchen, and I marvelled at the beasts’ obeying the syllables.
Grandpa had dug far down, and Adam Schmidt was on hand again to observe. Once again he shook his head, repeating from beneath his immense moustache, “Gibt kay Vota.”
But there was water. And eventually Grandpa covered the well and erected a pump.
The first time I took a drink I nearly threw it up again.
Never anything so foul, so bitter, so unlike anything that might pass
for water — if
I’d had capacity or nerve to blaspheme, I’d have said Dives
himself in Hades would turn up his nose at it. The water I usually drank
from the village well was cold and sweet; even Billy Zulauf’s well
had drinkable water, though I was scared to fetch it if he was about
in his yard, glowering, it seemed, as he spat off tobacco when I passed
by with my pail.
(Design Pics photo)
Here is what had happened. Grandpa and the Diviner were both right, in a way. The new well hadn’t actually tapped a water vein, but merely a mineral-infested seepage from some good underground flow elsewhere. Now I know why Grandpa liked all his Pepsi-Colas, and the Alpenkraeuters stacked by the case in his cellar. Until the day Grandpa died, I could never drink the water without quailing.
His poultry flock, however, didn’t seem to mind. Each spring Grandpa ordered a batch of chicks from Saskatoon’s Early Hatchery. They arrived on the train in cardboard crates with little ventilating holes, squirming creatures who cheeped mightily as we took them out and dipped their beaks in the water, and loosed them under the brooder stove’s shield — how they ran around after confinement in their tiny cells.
The adult chickens, too, swallowed Grandpa’s water without protest (but then again, how could I know — maybe it’s why the roosters were so malignant whenever I tried to walk through the fence, as if their water was all my fault).
I have only one other memory of Adam Schmidt. There was a Halloween night when I was nearing adolescence, when a few of us boys snuck along the dark trail between the old man’s house and the dugout. We had no intention of playing tricks or begging for treats. The house seemed hardly bigger than my father’s work-shed, and we watched through the one window where the old conjurer sat at his table, playing solitaire by the light of his kerosene lamp. We knew that card-playing was a sin, and face cards held especially dark meanings — the Joker was the Devil, and dabbling with his deck was like fooling with our souls.
But the sorcerer sat, like the man in Robert Frost’s poem “concerned with he knew what,” knowing what he knew. And Grandpa, no doubt, also knew what he knew, maybe at that very moment making his evening rounds in the chicken barn. I can only say that in one instance at least, the old wizard was more right than wrong, a benign joker in our pack.
Ratzlaff is the author of two books of literary non-fiction, The Crow Who Tampered With Time and Backwater Mystic Blues. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.