Richard Hartwell

Hard Water

What is it that makes the memory of rainy days, hard or soft? It isn’t just the volume of the water that falls or the driving wind or the lowering sky. It has to do with something else entirely. The soft rain has a gentleness and kindness, or else a sadness and loss. It is reserved in my memories of happy days of pleasure or of days of partings and of sorrows, of goodbyes. The hard rain has a combativeness, tempestuousness, and conflict. It is reserved in my memories of days of necessary journeys or of sharing revelations with something beyond the limits of my understanding. All this musing has brought me back to thoughts of another rainy day, a day in Gilroy when I was probably fifteen or so.

It had been raining steadily for several days and the ground in the Santa Clara Valley was soaked and full and could not hold any more. The slough behind our house, which ran through the open fields and by the unpainted shacks of the migrant workers, was swollen with the refused water of the sodden fields. The small children of the migrant camps would often play in the open slough when it held only the runoff of the springs flowing from the hills. They would launch small pleasure boats down the trickle of their dreams, chasing them for a while, and then watch them gather distance as the boats navigated into town and entered storm drains and culverts.

But this day, the day I have in memory, the women and children of the camps stood in the doorways looking out through the curtain of water. There was a mixture of men wading arm-in-arm down the slough. Along the sides, some of them were knee deep in the murky water, while in the center others were up to their waists. The men were Mexican and Italian and Portuguese and Anglo and they were uniformly wet and drenched. Their stern looks and curt conversations indicated a seriousness that had brought them together. A child was missing. Whose child and how lost and why were unimportant: an alarm had been raised by the distraught mother of a little boy. Family and friends and neighbors and bosses and others had been gathered to walk the slough and drag the ditch in search of the boy.

I joined them in a second tier of waders. We were spaced out several hundred feet behind the first wave, in the event the first set of males had overlooked or overstepped something. I stumble as I try to describe the ambivalent feelings I had all those years ago, as that young teenager. There was, of course, the element of wanting to be a hero—to be able to find the boy. But under the circumstances, finding the child was not really what any of us wanted to do. With each step that I took, I encountered something unseen and unknown underfoot. And with each step my heart would briefly palpitate faster until I was assured that the unseen obstacle was too hard or too small to be a child. I didn’t really want to succeed in my search.

Eventually, someone in the front vanguard of waders did find the boy. He was dead, of course, drowned, and his body had washed down the slough and was pinned across the grating guarding the culvert that ran onward under the road leading into town. The crush of water and assorted branches, leaves, broken boards, and other trash had been heaped against his body, hiding him from the view of anyone looking down as they drove over the bridge into town.

Once we all heard the cry that the child’s body had been found, people began to drift away. Only a very few advanced further to see the body, to participate as spectators at a preliminary viewing. Unlike many other tragedies, most of the people, the ones who had helped walked the slough, left and slowly trudged home along the banks, sucking the mud as they pulled their shoes and boots up at each step. There was no further talk; we were all captivated by the hard rain. I wondered how many times the boy may have sent his small boat down the slough towards this culvert. I wondered how many dreams he had launched while watching his small craft float away from him.

© Richard Hartwell

Richard Hartwell is a retired middle school teacher (remember the hormonally challenged?) who lives in Southern California. Like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, he believes that the instant contains eternity. He has been published in: Scarlet Leaf Review (nominated as Best of the Net, 2016), Birmingham Arts Magazine, The Cortland Review, Mused, Dual Coast Magazine, Kind of a Hurricane, Everyday Fiction, Everyday Poets, Poppy Road Review (selected as Best of the Net, 2011), Torrid Literature Journal (inducted into the Hall of Fame, 2013), Synchronized Chaos (nominated as Best of the Net, 2013), and elsewhere, both print and online, as well as in several anthologies. “Hard Water” previously appeared online in The Blue Heron Magazine, now defunct, in February 2014. Richard can be reached at

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