Nicholas McCarthy pulled the bucket up from the well and ladled water into his mouth. The cool sweetness of it caused him to shiver despite the sun overhead. After wiping his brow, he looped his fingers through his suspenders and surveyed the land around him. He pulled his hat low and stepped across the furrowed rows that had once produced corn. He strode over the small mounds, crushing them under his boots like he would an unwanted mole trail.
Across the trampled farmland, men with spades and shovels worked to even out the ground. The constant thwack of the hammer against the small wooden posts dividing the land into lots comforted him. It was the sound of progress.
He looked to the north where he should have been able to see the city of Indianapolis encroaching on the dilapidated farmland. But a grove of trees marred his view.
He sighed and called out to Calvin. “How come those trees aren’t down yet?” He let Calvin handle all the construction while he managed the business side of their partnership. But even he knew those trees needed to be felled before any of the lots could be sold.
Calvin wiped sweat from his brow and stared toward the trees. “The men are having trouble breaking through the tree line. More men will be here within the hour, and we’ll try the crosscut saws.”
Nicholas picked up an abandoned ax from the woodpile next to the farmhouse and headed for the trees. They’d already lost a week negotiating with Dr. Sanders for the land. It was true that Dr. Sanders had the highest yield of any farmer in the area, but, due to its location, his land would also be the next to be swallowed by the city. And Nicholas aimed to be the one to chop it into digestible parts.
Even after they’d offered him more than any other farmer in the area had received, Dr. Sanders had stalled. He kept telling them he feared he’d be cursed for selling the land. Years of farming in the sun had warped the man’s mind.
But Nicholas knew all too well that everyone has a price. A few more dollars can make any curse tolerable, at least Dr. Sanders must have thought so because he finally accepted their offer, leaving them only a few months to meet the deadline Nicholas had set for the project.
As Nicholas neared the trees, he was impressed by their presence. Thick trunks grew so round they nearly touched their neighbors. He wouldn’t be able to link his arms around the trunk of any of them. He patted the bark of the closest one. They would be a nuisance to bring down, and he almost hated cutting down something so old. But sacrifices had to be made for progress.
He’d never met a piece of land he couldn’t spruce up and sell at a profit. And he aimed to have the town lots divided and leveled by the end of the week. Being out there helping with the construction at least meant he wouldn’t be suffocating in the farmhouse wondering how long it would take to fell the trees.
He swung the ax into the base of one of the trees. The blade bounced off without marring the bark. He swung again and again. Not even a splinter stuck out from where he’d hit the tree. He repositioned his hands on the wooden shaft of the ax. Putting his full weight behind the blow, he drove the ax toward the tree.
But right when the blade should have smashed into the side of the tree, the trunk bent to the side just far enough for Nicholas to plummet forward between the tree and its neighbor. He landed face down in cool dirt inside the grove. A plump worm struggled out of the earth between his fingers. He shook it away and stood, brushing dirt from his pants.
Inside the grove, brambles and thorn bushes tangled together thicker than the crown of thorns worn by the crucified Jesus hanging above the farmhouse door. Dr. Sanders had told them to keep the religious symbol. He’d thought they’d need it.
Nicholas dug the toe of his boot into the dirt, loosening clumps. If the dirt stayed soft, tearing the bushes out wouldn’t be as hard as he’d expected. Still, it was another setback. Picking up the ax, he turned back toward the trees. But the only visible gap between the trunks was less than an inch or two. He sucked in his stomach and pressed against the trees. They didn’t budge. He inspected several other trees. They all grew as closely together as the first.
He raised the ax to once again chop the tree, but a small, clear voice ringing out from further inside the grove stopped him. He listened for a moment, thinking it must have been a bird. The voice sounded again, a twinkling melody.
Curious to see who could have penetrated the grove, and was thereby trespassing on his land, he followed the voice.
He swooped the ax in front of him, taking out portions of the bushes. Thorns cut into his thighs and dug wavy grooves into his calves. He ignored the blossom of pain as the voice echoed louder. Bushes rose up in front of him, nearly impassable. He pushed through them, stumbling out into a clearing.
Sunlight pooled around a small pond. It was no bigger than the dining table in the front room of the farmhouse. Water trickled down several rocks into the pool.
It took Nicholas a moment to realize the voice had quieted.
“Hello,” he called. Not even the cry of a bird answered him. He spun around. Thorny bushes ringed the pond in on all sides. There was no sign that another human had come through them.
Shaking his head, Nicholas knelt down at the pond, resting the ax at his side. He cupped the cold water in his palms, bringing it to his lips. But before he tipped the water into his mouth, two eyes appeared in the pond. Startled, Nicholas dropped the water and scooted away.
A woman rose up out of the center of the pond. Her face was smooth. Not a single wrinkle or freckle marred her skin. Her skin glowed softly. Loose golden hair cascaded over her shoulders, but not a drop of water clung to her hair or the white sheath she wore. In one hand she held a golden goblet.
“You’ve come for my fountain, have you?” she asked. She leaned down and dipped her goblet into the pond. She stared at him over the rim while she took a sip. Her eyes were as blue as the water she stood in. And as cold.
“Who are you?” he stammered. He grabbed the ax, holding it across his body half as a shield and half was a weapon.
“Many call me Lady Spray, but you may call me Hebe.” She took one step forward toward the edge of the water.
Nicholas shuffled backwards until his back collided with the thorny bushes. He told himself there was no reason to be scared of her. She looked like little more than a girl with her hair unbound, but something in her eyes spoke of wisdom.
“You’re scared of me?” An amused smile curved up her lips.
Nicholas rose to his feet. “I’m not scared of anything. You’re trespassing on my land, and you’ll have to leave now.” He tightened his grip on the ax.
Hebe reclined across the rocks over which the water flowed. She laughed and rolled backwards so that the water cascaded around her body. “Does it truly belong to you? Did you build it?”
“I’m building on it right now. By the end of the week, all the lots will be cleared and ready for sale.”
“So that’s why you were trying to cut down my sanctuary.” She sat up, and the water adjusted to flow around the lower half of her body. “I thought Poseidon might have sent you. He’s always after my water. He thinks it should belong to him. But I think he finally learned his lesson after that little incident with Ponce de León.” She dragged her fingers through the water, but no ripples originated from the movement.
Nicholas noticed the unnatural movement of the water. His eyes flicked to Hebe’s face. “Who’d you say you were again? Where do you live?” There were still several farms surrounding the land he’d bought. He hadn’t seen her at any he’d gone to in order to discuss buying them, but the area was known for large families. And if she spent most of her time in the grove, that might explain her absence.
“I live here, and I will continue to do so, which is why I’m telling you right now not to touch a single tree with another one of your blades.” She took another sip from her goblet.
“These trees are coming down. How’d you get in here anyway?” He thought he heard voices and a few metal clangs outside the grove. “You need to leave before my men cut down the trees.”
“I’ve always been here, and I will not leave, not at the request of a human. You are all so reckless,” Hebe said. “You don’t know what you’ll destroy.”
“A little destruction is necessary for progress,” Nicholas countered. His father had taught him that. It had become his motto over the years.
“Then you destroy your own future as well as my own,” Hebe said. She stepped to the edge of the water. “You’re a man of vision, are you not? I can see it in your eyes. You’re not as weak as Sanders. That’s why I bent the trees and let you in. I sensed your desire for power from here. You want to live to see not only your own buildings, but the buildings that will come after yours.”
“I’ll make a deal with you. You leave my grotto alone, you don’t harm a single tree or bush, and you dedicate your life to protecting my sanctuary, and I’ll let you drink from my fountain.” She crouched down and let her goblet fill up with water. She held it out to him.
The inside of the goblet was plated gold, making the water glow as it sloshed around.
“You want me to halt construction for a sip of water? I own the farmhouse down yonder. There’s a well not ten feet from the back door.” The well would be demolished at the end of the project along with the farmhouse. But for the moment, it supplied the men with water while they worked in the heat.
Hebe didn’t lower the cup. “This is no regular water.” She motioned him toward her.
He hesitated, but her eyes drew him forward like two whirlpools, pulling everything they wanted into their grasp. He stepped forward, and she grabbed his wrist. She spilled some of the water on a cut he’d gotten from the bushes. Instantly, the scratch stitched itself back together, leaving fleshy pink skin it its place. “Isn’t that better?”
Nicholas jerked his hand back and broke eye contact. He couldn’t remember why he’d approached her. He inspected the skin. “How did you do that?”
“I would guess that the well of which you speak has never gone dry, that the crops it feeds flourish more than other fields further away from it. I would even bet that it’s the sweetest water you’ve ever tasted.” When he said nothing, she continued, “That’s because it’s so close to my fountain. Nicholas, you’ve found the fountain of youth. If you drink from it, you will never age. You will never grow ill. You will never die. I’m offering you eternity in exchange for helping to keep it safe.” Her voice was as light as the gurgle of the pooling water. “Stay with me. Help me. The world could be ours.” She leaned forward, bringing the cup closer to his lips.
Like the tide, her eyes pulled at him again. He dropped the ax. The clunk of the blade hitting the ground shook him. He looked down at it, refusing to look back into her eyes while her words flowed through his mind. He wasn’t sure he believed her, but everything about her confirmed her story. Up close, her face looked even more ageless. It was as smooth as a stone that had sat at the bottom of a stream all its life. Her skin showed no hint of ever having been touched by the sun. She was beautiful. She had a confidence that he’d never seen in another woman. Could he leave everything else behind for her?
“Why would I need to protect the grove?”Nicholas asked. “I could build you a house. You wouldn’t have to stay here.” Her sanctuary was nothing more than shrubs and a ring of trees.
Hebe yanked the cup back toward her body, clutching it to her chest. “This water is my life force. If it dries up, so do I. And so would all those who’d drunk from it. I need it to replenish my strength. It’s what allows me the power to keep my trees firm beneath your blades. Trying to keep them untouched over the past few days has been exhausting. I’ve used so much energy that I’ve grown numb to their pain. I expended my last bit of strength allowing you in. With time, the water will refresh me, but I need someone around who can help me when I grow weary.”
He looked down at his healed hand before turning to look back through the trees in the direction his men were working. He owned the land. He could tell them to forget about the trees. He’d have them build a fence around them instead. What was the one or two lots he’d lose to the trees when he had eternity to buy and build on more land? He’d be like a king, owning all the land in America.
“It’s a deal,” he said. He stuck out his hand to seal the bargain, but instead of Hebe’s svelte hand sliding into his, he felt the stem of the goblet.
“Drink up,” she said.
Nicholas brought the cup toward his lips. But just as he tilted it up, a call echoed through the grove.
“Timber,” a male voice called.
Nicholas barely had time to dive sideways, spilling the water from the goblet, when one of the large trees crashed into the pile of rock over which water was delivered to the pond. It tottered on the rocks before rolling off and severing the pond in half. Water leaked out through the groove the tree had created.
“No!” Hebe screamed. She fell to the ground and clutched at the water being absorbed by the earth. One half of the pond was entirely dry by the time Nicholas clamored to his feet. The other half, the one with the rocks, hadn’t fared any better. No water ran down them to refill the pond.
Hebe snatched her cup from where Nicholas had dropped it. She scooped it along the ground trying to catch the last bit of water before it drained from the pond. Her white sheath was smeared with dirt as she dug deeper into the ground looking for water.
“We’ll fix the pond,” Nicholas said. “I’ll have my men …” He trailed off as Hebe turned her face up toward his. Wrinkles weighed down her skin.
“It’s too late,” she whispered. She fell backwards, still clutching the cup.
Nicholas knelt at her side.
“The fountain must be rebuilt,” she said. Agony contorted her face. “I won’t be revived until my waters flow from the fountain once more. I must stand atop the fountain.”
He reached for her hand, but by the time he grasped it, her body had hardened into stone. Nicholas moved away. He hadn’t drunk from the cup. He wondered if he had if he would have shared her fate.
“I didn’t know you were in here,” Calvin said, walking along the trunk of the fallen tree. “The boys got the tree down. The rest should be easier now.” He hopped off the trunk and landed next to Nicholas. “What’s that? Some sort of statue Sanders left behind? Because if it is, he’s not getting it back. He signed over the property as is. It was bad enough finding that hornets’ nest in the barn. He owes us for that.” Calvin knelt down and lifted the statue upright. “I think the boys might like this. We could set her up right outside the farmhouse like a good luck charm or something.”
“She belongs on top of a fountain,” Nicholas said.
“Where are you going to find a fountain around here? We could lean her against the well.”
“We’ll have the men build one right here.”
“This is in the middle of lot six.”
“Forget about lot six,” Nicholas said, rising to his feet. “I want a fountain built here.”
Calvin shook his head. “You’re the boss.” He climbed back up onto the tree trunk and disappeared from view.
Nicholas carried Hebe to the top of the rock pile and set her down. Then he began to dig. He dug long after Calvin begged him to come back to the farmhouse. He dug even though there was no light to see by. He dug until his hands bled.
But he didn’t find any water.
Every day thereafter Nicholas dug while Calvin chopped down the trees around him. If they fell near him, he didn’t notice. Houses began to grow around him, their wooden frames as empty as the pond.
Calvin would stop by occasionally with food and water. He’d tell Nicholas that they were thinking of naming the area Fountain Square because of how many small fountains Nicholas had tried to create.
Nicholas ignored him and kept digging.
It wasn’t until the houses were finished and a young boy stood watching him, that he stopped digging and looked around. He’d dug holes all over the land. Slowly, he crawled out of the most recent hole.
“What are you doing?” the boy asked.
“Looking for life,” Nicholas replied.
“You’ll never find it in a hole,” the boy said before running off down the street and disappearing into one of the houses.
Nicholas watched the boy go then turned his gaze back to Hebe. She’d been his constant companion, always watching from her perch, waiting for him to bring her back to life. Sometimes he thought her frozen fingers moved, trying to point to where he needed to dig. He even thought he saw a droplet of water fall from the cup in her hand, but when he checked, it was empty.
Eventually, he pulled himself toward the farmhouse. He sat on the front step, leaning against the house. He knew he couldn’t go on digging. But he couldn’t give up either.
He moved Hebe into the farmhouse where he could watch over her. He had his men dig as far as they could before they gave up and quit, saying they would never reach water.
Slowly, Nicholas returned to the world around him, although he never sold the land where the fountain had been. He married the daughter of a Baptist preacher, and he told their children bedtime stories about Hebe. And after he’d died, his son had a fountain erected in the center of Fountain Square in memory of his father. He placed his father’s beloved statue atop it.
And there Hebe stayed until the 1920s when a new fountain featuring a pioneer family replaced her. Some say Hebe’s statue was put into storage when the pioneer family statue was installed. Others claim Hebe’s statue mysteriously disappeared one night from atop the fountain after the city altered the water supply that fed it, prompting the commissioning of the pioneer family statue. Still others believe that the Hebe statue installed in 2009 is actually the original statue re-covered to hold up under the elements. Those people claim that if you look closely, the droplets running down Hebe’s face aren’t the result of spray from the fountain; they are the tears she sheds waiting for her waters to flow once more.
Annie Sullivan graduated in December 2012 with her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Butler University. She has lived in Indianapolis her entire life, but she loves traveling and exploring new cultures. When she’s not off on her own adventures, she’s working as an editorial assistant at John Wiley & Sons, Inc., publishing company and dreaming up book ideas.
Photo nicked from our friends at Pivot Marketing.