The Cistern


It was a hot September day, and the town was humming with its usual rhythm of activity—not too busy, not too loud, simply the everyday flow of people living, working, helping each other, and mostly minding their own business. I would tell you the name of the town, but you would never find it on a map, and even people who live very close to it would probably give you a puzzled look if you asked where it was, for it was a quiet town, frequently forgotten by its own neighbors. In light of this, you may be surprised to hear that there were new people passing through it nearly every day. The townspeople were not unfriendly, in fact many of them were quite hospitable, but none of these visitors were coming to see their town, and all of them knew that. People visited the area for the same reason the town had been built there—just uphill from the quiet hum of village life there was a freshwater spring. Te water was clean and sweet, and many people said that everyone who drank it was stronger, healthier, and wiser.

On this particular day, a young man who lived on the outskirts of the town was hard at work, beads of sweat shining on his forehead. Only his head and shoulders were aboveground, and then only sometimes, for he was intently focused.

“Hallo!” Called out the man’s neighbor, who was coming from the spring. “Hard at work again, I see!”

“Yes,” replied the young man. “Might I ask a favor of you? I’m re-caulking this, the water seems to be leaking out the walls, and I found it nearly empty again this morning. I’d like to get it refilled as soon as possible, so I’m working from the bottom up. The part that I’ve finished should be able to hold water. Might I have just a cupful from the bucket that you’re carrying?”

His neighbor looked at the man’s work. The top of the cistern stood knee-high above the ground and extended three feet or so into the earth. Its rounded walls were impeccably constructed, water-tight and smooth, but there was a deep gash in the side, running the full length of the inside of the cistern, and instead of a water-tight floor, the man’s feet and ankles sank into thick mud.

“You know, it’ll just keep draining if you don’t give it some sort of floor.”

“Oh, no,” the young man assured him. “I’m pretty sure the problem is this wall. It just isn’t water-tight enough.” For all of his careful attention to detail, the young man seemed thoroughly unaware of the crack in his cistern and was instead focused on making sure that the almost non-existent spaces between the bricks were sealed. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind sparing a cup, I’d like to get this refilled
as soon as possible.”

With a look of concern, his neighbor lowered his bucket of fresh water to share with the man. “Of course, friend, take as much as you need.”

“Oh, thank you,” the young man replied. “But I don’t want to take too much of your water. What if you were to run out?”

“Preposterous! The only way I could run out is if the spring dried up, and we both know that will never happen!”

“I suppose, but one can never be too careful. Access might become more difficult: the town council could decide that it’s no longer open to the public, or what if it does dry up? People visit that spring every day! What if there isn’t an endless supply of water? Like I said, one can never be too careful,” said the young man, quickly pouring the cool, refreshing water into his hole in the ground where it became muddied and undrinkable.

“Aren’t you going to drink any?” His neighbor asked incredulously.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t want to waste it on something like that. I don’t need it right now as much as I will later.”

The neighbor nodded and got up to leave.

Several others passed by that day, and the young man asked for some water from each of them. As the day wore on and the hot sun beat down on him, he grew more and more parched, never acknowledging that he desperately needed a drink.

“Why don’t you stop and get a drink from the spring, it’s so close by!” Someone visiting from out of town asked him, noticing his dry, cracked lips and weary expression. “I’ve traveled for miles to drink that water, and it’s only a stone’s throw from you! Come, we can walk together.”

“I have that water!” He protested.

The visitor looked at the murky water at the bottom of his cistern and
shook his head. “Suit yourself.”

Several hours later, two of the townspeople found the young man unresponsive at the bottom of his cracked cistern. One of them immediately lowered himself in to try and pull him out, but it was no use.

“This mud’s awfully thick,” he said, climbing out with the assistance of his friend. “We’ll need a couple more people if we want to get him out.” He wiped his muddy hands on his even muddier overalls and exclaimed, “It doesn’t make any sense! He was so close to the spring, and I know at least five people offered him water! Why didn’t he just climb out of his hole and drink some of it?”



Poem and photo taken from the 2018 edition of Artos, the literary journal of Bethlehem College & Seminary students. Photo by Bennett W., college alum.