Alvin wasn’t in much of a hurry, or he and Arthur Stuart would’ve jumped over Turkey Creek and continued on their way. But Alvin was using this trip to quiz young Arthur on his times tables. Or debating Cuvier’s theory of catastrophism and how it stacked up to uniformitarianism. Or the poor crop of candidates for the upcoming presidential election.
So they was poking along about three miles away from Lake Erie, where the farms were fewer and the woods sometimes came right up to both sides of a creek. Even now, late in August, there was a brisk flow of water in Turkey Creek, and just as Alvin was thinking, This would make a pretty dependable mill race, they came out of the trees and right where it ought to be, there was a mill.
Except it wasn’t, not anymore, because the wheel was gone. But everything else was right, including the diversion dam and the channel to carry the water with all its force over the nonexistent wheel.
“Use to be a working mill,” said Arthur Stuart. “Cause there’s the pieces of the wheel.”
It was a dirty piece of destruction, all the spokes and blades broken up and half burnt. “Looks like somebody didn’t like this miller and made sure to put him out of business,” said Arthur Stuart.
Alvin couldn’t argue. But the sun was getting low, and they couldn’t see a town nearby, and either somebody was living in that millhouse or they wasn’t, but Alvin knew that if he told them he was a miller’s son, there’d be a place for him and Arthur Stuart to spend the night.
There was a place, but there wasn’t a soul to ask, so they accepted the roof and walls as if nature had made them, and ate a bit of the bread and cheese they’d earned by fixing a busted axle over on the downs near Walnut Creek at noontime.
Like usual, the hardest part about the job had been to get the wagon’s owner to go away long enough that Alvin could fix the thing without the fellow seeing how he did it, since folks often got themselves in a lather about it if they got to think Alvin was doing it by hexery. You trying to put a curse on me and my trade?
Alvin could never get folks to understand that what he did wasn’t magicking, it was just getting his doodlebug inside the axle and lining things up so they held together nice and tight and the hubs would turn on the axle nice and smooth. It wasn’t a curse or even a prayer, it was just letting the iron and the wood know what was needed and helping them get it done. Seemed like the more Alvin tried to explain it, the more upset they got.
So nowadays, it was Arthur Stuart’s job to pretend to twist his ankle or retch or start batting away imaginary wasps or something, and while their back was turned Alvin would stand there not moving a muscle while his doodlebug showed him how things was, and by the time they came back the job was done. “It wasn’t as broke as you thought it was,” said Alvin. “It was pretty easy to get it back in line, and I’m thinking it’ll hold up at least long enough to get you home.”
Truth was, when Alvin fixed something made of metal, it wasn’t going to wear out or break again till long after the owner was dead. But that was certainly long enough to get the man home to his family, and Alvin figured it was all right to accept the man’s offer of the food he had left over from his journey, seeing how he’d be home in Girard before nightfall.
In the morning they finished the bread and cheese and Alvin was all for going on their way, because he had an idea of getting up into the mountains so he could come down again in the Hio Valley and maybe call in at Hatrack River and see how Peggy was doing.
But instead Arthur Stuart starts laughing and Alvin says what’s so funny, and Arthur Stuart says you know you can’t go on until you find out what happened to this mill so let’s just get started and not pretend to discuss whether or not to ask around.
That’s why they walked on downstream and passed two more mills, both done the same way as the first one, and not a farmhouse standing anywhere near to Turkey Creek even though it was clean water and only a fool builds his house so he has to haul water any farther than he needs to.
Finally they came to a fine-looking brick building that was not and never had been a mill. In fact it had that look of substance that said it was meant to be either a bank or a school. But it was neither.
“This is the town jail now,” said the man at the door, “and you got no business here.”
“Jail? You got all the criminals in Irrakwa locked up in here? Bigger than any jail I ever seen, and I been to Philadelphia and Kingstown, Carthage and Dekane.”
“Well it’s bigger than we need, all right,” said the man at the door, “seeing it was built to be a college, but it’s a jail now, and there’s enough folks locked up here for public safety that we don’t wish it any smaller.”
“I’m sorry to hear of a college that failed,” said Alvin. “My wife’s a schoolteacher and — ”
“Never said it failed,” said the man at the door. “It just moved.”
Arthur Stuart laughed. “If it moved, how come it’s still here?”
“You know it ain’t legal to own no black child in Irrakwa,” said the man at the door.
“Then it’s a good thing that Arthur Stuart here is free,” said Alvin, “and my ward, and almost a man, so pretty soon I won’t have to drag him along with me on my travels.”
“He’d never find his way home without me,” said Arthur Stuart.
“The college,” said the man at the door, looking at Arthur Stuart as if he’d never seen an uppity half-black youth before, “has a new building about a half mile down, after that point of land and well away from the water.”
“Away from the water?” asked Alvin. “Turkey Creek has a good flow, but we ain’t that far from the source, so even with snowmelt and rain put together, I bet you never had a flood reached even as high as this . . . jail.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. ‘You a naysayer?’ he asked.
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You a naysayer?” he asked.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Alvin.
“Sometimes he says nay, and sometimes he says aye or yea,” said Arthur Stuart. “And sometimes he makes sense, but it’s pretty unpredictable.”
“Just thinking you might be careful talking about how floodwater can only get this high or that high,” said the man at the door. “Folks locked up inside, they’re all naysayers. Do you get my drift?”
“I’m just a stranger as knows something about water in other places,” said Alvin, “but I don’t pretend to know anything about Turkey Creek apart from what my eyes tell me, so I’d be curious to find out what it is that misguided people might say nay to.”
“It’s scientist stuff,” said the man at the door, “so you can’t hardly expect to understand it.”
“So it comes from the college,” said Alvin.
“It comes from Professor Rea, him being the dean of the college, not to mention the world’s foremost expert on how water gets called and how water gets shunned.”
“Well, he’s the man I want to meet,” said Alvin.
“Too bad for you,” said the man at the door, “cause he’s off in Philadelphia right now, showing other scientists about his findings and warning them about the danger and all.”
“Well, here I got my hopes up that I might learn something, and now I’m disappointed,” said Alvin, with as much sincerity as he could muster. He made a little hand sign to let Arthur Stuart know that this would be a very bad time for him to make fun.
“I expect somebody else at the college might be able to explain it in terms that you can understand,” said the man at the door.
Again, Alvin made the hand sign and for once Arthur Stuart obeyed him. Since people assuming they were uneducated yokels always set Arthur Stuart off like a mockingbird, Alvin figured it was the fact that this was now a jail for naysayers that prompted him to keep quiet.
In a few minutes they set out downstream toward the town, heeding the man’s advice that they stay well away from Turkey Creek, because the ground was boggy and could suck a man’s boots right off his feet.
“Sounds like they got a powerful fear of water around here,” said Arthur Stuart.
“More like they got a powerful fear of folks who say ‘nay,’” said Alvin. “As to water, I’ve had some pretty bad experiences with it myself, over the years, so I don’t mock those as has respect for that element.”
They crested the rise, and there before them was a little hamlet dominated by a new brick building which was still being built around the backside, and which wasn’t half so fine as the one now serving as a jail. But the houses and shops and the college itself were all well up the slope, while down nearer the water, Alvin could see where the foundations of houses used to be, and where level streets had grown only one summer’s worth of grass.
“Folks went to a lot of trouble to make those streets down there,” said Arthur Stuart, “where they can be flat and smooth. Nothing half so good up higher on the slope, and nothing level at all.”
“They moved this village in a hurry,” said Alvin, “and they moved it away from the water, so I think we need to find out what cataclysm they’re expecting.”
“Can’t be another flood like Noah’s,” said Arthur Stuart, “cause it covered even the high ground, and besides, we still got rainbows so God’s not going to flood the world again.”
“I think you oughtn’t to speculate on what can and can’t be, lessen you get taken for a naysayer,” said Alvin, and when Arthur Stuart whooped, Alvin said sternly, “Ain’t joking now, lad.”
They ate a bit at the only working tavern, paying with a bit of cash money since Alvin didn’t want to take the time to earn his bread by labor. He wanted to find somebody to explain all that hard science to him, so he’d understand why they were afraid of a flood only a mile downstream from the source of Turkey Creek.
First person they ran into at the college was a genial old fellow who was overseeing the bricklayers on the east side of the building. “You’d think they imagined that the back of the building was invisible, the careless way they let the wall drift out of plumb and the bricks line up all higgledy-piggledy,” said the man once he and Alvin and Arthur Stuart was sitting on chairs in a decent-size lecture hall. “I’m Enos Walker,” he said, “and no, it’s never Professor Walker, because there’s only one professor at Rea College, and that’s Professor Rea himself. I’m a mere lecturer and so you have the honor of calling me Mister Walker or even, if you’re feeling neighborly, plain old Enos.”
“We’re just wondering how much you’d charge for a bit of lecturing today,” said Alvin. “And by ‘today’ I mean here and now, and with luck no more than an hour’s worth, or less.”
“We’re between school terms, and with all my scholars off helping with preparations for winter, I have time on my hands and language so welled up in my head that I’d be grateful for a chance to let some of it out, to relieve the pressure.”
“I think he means there’s no charge for talking,” said Arthur Stuart.
“That is exactly what I mean, and I’m glad of a man who can say things straight out.”
“That’s Arthur Stuart for you,” said Alvin. “And now he’ll be silent and listen, I wager, while you explain to us why this town seems to think a deluge is coming, and anybody who doubts it gets tagged as a naysayer and plunked into a jail that used to be a college.”
“Man at the jail said it was a science thing,” said Arthur Stuart, “so I wonder if you lecture about the right kind of science.”
“Well I don’t,” said Enos Walker, “because we only need one professor of elementology. My expertise is somewhere between mathematics and metaphysics.”
“Not much overlap there,” said Alvin.
“None at all,” said Enos. “Like I said, I’m somewhere between them, and not properly inside either one. But I do know enough about Professor Rea’s science to explain what he’s been warning folks about.”
“I hope it’s simple enough for me to understand,” said Alvin.
Professor Rea had discovered a theory, which he was now certain was an absolute fact, that when mills ran on water power, they called to the water and brought on terrible floods.
“Oh, my version of it is simple, all right,” said Enos. “I’ll be interested to see what you make of it.”
And it was pretty simple. It seemed that Professor Rea had discovered a theory, which he was now certain was an absolute fact, that when mills ran on water power, they called to the water and brought on terrible floods. So mills were declared to be a danger to anyone living near any water that they drew power from.
“So that’s why all the wheels were taken off the mills on Turkey Creek and broken up and burnt,” said Arthur Stuart.
“Professor Rea never said to do any damage to anybody’s property,” said Enos Walker. “In fact, he said that the mills on Turkey Creek had already done so much harm that it would be a hundred years at least before the danger of mill-made flooding would be gone, so there was hardly any point in taking them down, as long as they weren’t turning anymore.”
Arthur Stuart chuckled a little.
“Nothing funny here,” said Alvin.
“I was just thinking,” said Arthur Stuart, “that it’s a dang good thing nobody around here knows that you’re a miller’s son.”
“Well, now Enos Walker, lecturer, is privy to that information, thanks to you and your mouth,” said Alvin cheerfully.
“But Enos Walker, lecturer, doesn’t believe a word of Professor Rea’s theory about mill-invited flooding, so he’s not likely to accuse you of anything,” said Arthur Stuart.
Enos Walker raised an eyebrow. “In these parts, where Professor Rea is so well respected, it can be a perilous thing to say that a man doesn’t ‘believe a word’ of his hydrological theories.”
“Wouldn’t want to be a naysayer,” said Arthur Stuart, still chuckling.
“I’m not a naysayer,” said Enos Walker. “Though it might be that in private, I might admit to sometimes being a naythinker.”
“You’re a man of science,” said Alvin. “You know that Professor Rea can’t possibly have a lick of evidence.”
“It’s a remarkable thing,” said Enos Walker. “His best evidence is the absence of evidence. Meaning that whenever anybody points out that there are a lot of mills on a lot of rivers that never had a flood of any size, he just shakes his head and looks worried and says, ‘Things have built up dangerously far, I’m afraid. Dangerously far. When the flood breaks loose, there’ll be hell to pay wherever men have built these monstrous watermills to torture the water, to enslave the water. How it longs to break free and wreak havoc over the land!’”
When he spoke for Professor Rea, his voice took on a different tone, and since Arthur Stuart was a perfect mimic, he repeated the whole speech word for word, and Enos Walker laughed. “You don’t really sound like him,” he said, “but you sound exactly like me trying to sound like him.”
“So who’s in that jail?” Alvin asked.
“Well, all the millers, of course, because they weren’t even allowed to leave town. They’re all bound over for trial, though the trial won’t happen till the flood actually occurs, because until there’s harm, there’s no crime.”
“Sounds like a life sentence,” said Arthur Stuart. “Since I’m pretty sure that flood ain’t coming.”
“The rest in that jail are naysayers like you. Doesn’t take much. Just a laugh or even a cough while Professor Rea is holding forth on the evils of ‘damaging the balance of the elements with monstrous wheels stabbing into the hydrous heritage of humankind, three thousand times a day, a million times a year.’”
Arthur Stuart had to repeat that, too, only now he wasn’t imitating Enos Walker, he was going for the voice that Walker seemed to be trying to imitate. “How do you do that?” asked Enos Walker, dabbing at his eyes. “You never met the man, you never heard him, but now you sound just like him.”
“It’s his knack,” said Alvin.
“He imitates people’s voices?”
“Much deeper than that,” said Alvin. “Arthur Stuart never says so, but I think he understands the soul, and the voice just floats on top, so to speak.”
“Mr. Walker,” said Arthur Stuart, “since you know Professor Rea’s theory doesn’t hold water, so to speak, how can you keep silence and not correct him?”
Enos Walker nodded sadly. “I accept your accusation, my lad, and I confess my shame. I have a wife and two lovely daughters who are somewhat sought after by young men of this town. If I were to say my nays, I would lose my situation, so that even if by some oversight I were not locked up with the others, I would be forced to move elsewhere to seek my livelihood. I’d have no letter of recommendation to carry with me, and I’d have two weeping daughters and a scolding wife to contend with. So it is not fear of the jail that silences me, but weariness of life, weariness of my imagined life if I earned the lamentations and imprecations of that fearsome covey of females.”
“I am delighted,” said Arthur Stuart, “at how your language gets much more formal and buttside upmost when you’re saying something that you know is perfectly dishonest.”
“I try to teach the boy manners,” said Alvin, “but seeing as how I haven’t good manners myself, I fail regular.”
‘People can go to a powerful lot of trouble for a pretty long time before they weary of it,’ said Alvin, ‘as long as they’ve got some kind of expert telling them they have no choice.’
“Here’s how I see it,” said Enos Walker. “Not one of Professor Rea’s predictions has come true. Not a one. And people have gone to an enormous amount of trouble trying to prepare for those predictions to be fulfilled. Professor Rea has also forbidden the digging of wells, since pumps are as pernicious as mill wheels, so all these citizens will have to walk all the way to Turkey Creek every day and haul water. How long before the sheer weariness of it makes naysayers of them all?”
“People can go to a powerful lot of trouble for a pretty long time before they weary of it,” said Alvin, “as long as they’ve got some kind of expert telling them they have no choice, and there’s no other expert telling them that it’s all just empty chinwag.”
“But I can’t speak against it,” said Enos Walker, “because he’s the expert on the elements, and I’m only a wanderer between math and metaphysics.”
“So they all believe that you believe it,” said Alvin, “because you go along with it.”
“I and the other four teachers at this college,” said Enos. “And when any men of science make a pilgrimage to this place, to learn at the professor’s feet, they quickly realize that questions aren’t welcomed here. It’s an inconvenient thing, to be called a naysayer. So of course the regular folks here think that all the men of science are in agreement with Professor Rea.”
Alvin smiled. “I respect your self-knowledge, sir,” he said. “And I appreciate your dilemma, because when you’re in the devil’s pay, it’s best not to contradict the devil’s dogma.”
“Oh, no,” said Enos Walker, with a twinkle in his eye and an edge to his voice. “It’s the naysayers who are all in the pay of a conspiracy of millers, to try to cause people to doubt the danger so the millers can go on laboring to bring the floodwaters down upon us.”
“Without mills,” said Alvin, “where do they grind their corn?”
“They take it farther by wagon, and it costs them more,” said Enos Walker, “and a good many businesses are failing because people lack the money to pay for what they used to buy. And it’s hard to sell land here, so far back from the creek, so when people leave, they leave with almost nothing.”
“But that’s only money,” said Arthur Stuart, “and scientists and professors, they don’t care about such things.”
“They don’t when their wife has a very rich father, as Professor Rea’s wife has,” said Enos Walker. “But mine doesn’t.”
“I’m a miller’s son,” said Alvin, “and I’ve traveled this land a bit. I never saw nor heard of a flood caused by mills. I’m also a journeyman blacksmith by trade, with my anvil in this poke I carry with me.”
“Your arms and shoulders proclaimed your trade from the moment I saw you. Except that you don’t have one arm markedly stronger than the other.”
“I use my arms equally, so my shirtmakers don’t have trouble with their measurements. And as a blacksmith, I’m right glad there’s no elementologist claiming that smithery brings down lightning strikes.”
Enos Walker leaned forward. “Keep that thought to yourself, sir,” he said. “Because it’s only a matter of time before he realizes that the other elements shouldn’t be neglected.”
“Here’s what I think,” said Alvin. “In fact, I’ll make a prediction.”
“As a blacksmith or a miller’s son?”
“As a man of science,” said Alvin, “because I’m a bit more learned than most folks think. Here’s my prediction. There will never be a flood of Turkey Creek, mills or no mills. And people will stop hauling water from Turkey Creek by tomorrow morning, and will all be moved away within a couple of weeks. This town will be empty, and this college will be out of business, and your daughters will have to go elsewhere to find eager young men, though I doubt they’ll lack for offers wherever they go.”
“An interesting prediction,” said Enos Walker.
“I’ll go farther. I daresay that wherever Professor Rea finds believers, and mills are shut and their waterwheels broken up, the water will cease to flow at all, until all the people of Irrakwa and the United States live in terror of a visit from the Professor, and will refuse to let him open up his mouth.”
“I beg only to know the evidence that leads to your predictions,” said Enos Walker.
“I think this man is a denier of every theory,” said Arthur Stuart.
“All true men of science are skeptical,” said Enos Walker.
“The difference between your Professor Rea and me,” said Alvin, “is that he predicts what water is going to do at some vague future time, while I predict what I’m going to do while folks are sleeping in the town tonight.”
Enos Walker looked as skeptical as a true man of science.
Alvin nodded to him, and passed his hand across the surface of the chair beside him. Then he caused water to condense out of the air onto the wooden seat of the chair until there was a bit of a puddle there.
Enos Walker raised an eyebrow.
Then Alvin caused the water to soak into the wood all at once, and it was instantly gone.
“I have a knack with voices,” said Arthur Stuart, “and Alvin Maker has a knack with elements.”
“Professor Rea and I work with the same subject matter,” said Alvin, “though I don’t believe he’d respect my credentials.”
Enos Walker nodded gravely, then smiled. “Inconvenient as some of your predictions are to me personally, since moving is always hard work, it seems to me that even my wife can’t blame me for causing my family to move away from a failed creek.”
They took their leave of Enos Walker soon after, had supper in the tavern in the town, and then, when it was full dark, they walked out to the banks of the river.
‘It’s their fault when they believe in anybody whose predictions always fail, and whose ideas violate common sense and experience. It’s their fault when they punish folks for a difference of opinion.’
Alvin’s doodlebug felt its way upstream to the natural springs that gave rise to Turkey Creek. Then he plunged down into the bedrock, into the aquifer that fed the spring, and found a new channel for the water, bringing it to the surface where it would flow into Raccoon Creek, more than a mile to the east, and with a good rise of ground between them. Within a few minutes, the water in Turkey Creek slowed to a trickle, then a seep, then a series of puddles.
Only when the bed of the creek was dry did Alvin turn his attention to the college-turned-jail. He found all the locked doors and dissolved the locks so the doors wouldn’t stay shut. But he sealed up the door where the guard slept, so he couldn’t get out till somebody broke through the wall come morning.
Soon the prisoners discovered that their doors were open, and not long afterward they began to wander out through the back wall, where Alvin had peeled off the entire façade of brick. By morning, the prisoners would all be far to the west, having crossed Turkey Creek without dampening the soles of their shoes.
“This is hard on the folks downstream,” said Arthur Stuart.
“If they want water, they can build a mill and call for it to come,” said Alvin.
“It’s not their fault that they believed in a fool who called himself a scientist.”
“It’s their fault when they believe in anybody whose predictions always fail, and whose ideas violate common sense and experience. It’s their fault when they punish folks for a difference of opinion. And the lesson of not falling for every hoax that calls itself science will be worth more than what they’ll lose on their property value.”
Alvin Smith and Arthur Stuart went overland by night, and this time they moved with haste, hearing the greensong and running like the wind, faster than deer, as fast as Reds once ran these lands when they were forest down to the shores of the lake.
Over the next few weeks the stories reached them of a goodly town, which had a college in it, that had to be abandoned because Turkey Creek dried up one night and never had water in it again, not even when it rained. And the strangest thing of all, according to these tales, was the fact that the millers had already left the place, tearing down their waterwheels.
“So if you ever hear of millers deserting a steady stream, look to your wells!” said the gossips. “Because that’s a stream that’s going to fail, and a town that’s going to die.”
— Orson Scott Card is the author of Ender’s Game and many other books. This story appeared originally in the November 19, 2015, issue of National Review and continues his six-volume series The Tales of Alvin Maker, an epic fantasy of the American frontier.
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