Chapters 39-40 Summary

Stanley wakes up in a meadow beneath the giant tower of rock. He has very little strength, and his whole body hurts. His mouth is coated with sand from the dirty water he has been drinking. The hole he dug the night before has just a couple of inches of dark brown water at the bottom. He tries to rinse his mouth out with it.

Fighting against his weakness, Stanley forces himself to get up and explore the meadow. He walks the last few yards to the rock tower and touches it. He thinks about going to find the shovel and the jars so he can enlarge the little well he has dug.

Zero wakes up moaning, drinks some water, and lies on the ground shaking. Stanley encourages him to rest, but Zero wants to talk. He confesses that he took Clyde Livingston’s shoes—the ones Stanley was accused of stealing. Stanley thinks Zero must be delirious. When Zero falls asleep, Stanley sings a sad song his father used to sing:

“If only, if only,” the woodpecker sighs,
“The bark on the tree was just a little bit softer.”
While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely
He cries to the mo-oo-oon
“If only, if only.”

After a while, Stanley remembers the onion he found during the night when he and Zero arrived at the water. He reasons that there may be more wild onions in this field.

At this point, the narrative shifts briefly back to the story of Sam, the onion seller, in the old town of Green Lake more than a hundred years ago. One day as Sam walked down the street of Green Lake, a woman named Mrs. Tennyson came running after him in her nightgown. Mrs. Tennyson thanked Sam for his onion tonic. Her daughter had had a bad fever, and Sam’s tonic had saved her daughter’s life.

In the meadow by the Big Thumb, Stanley and Zero spend a great deal of time sleeping, eating wild onions, and drinking water out of Stanley’s well hole. Zero is very sick, but he seems to be healing. After a while, Stanley feels sure that Zero will survive. However, after two days it is clear the water in the well is getting sandier, and Stanley really needs to go find the shovel.

Stanley walks down the hill, following the trail he and Zero came up. He has trouble a few times, but he always manages to find it again. Stanley walks until he is tired, then he sits down to rest. He notices a lump in the grass and goes to investigate; he realizes it is the shovel. He is amazed that he carried Zero such a long way up such a steep hill. As Stanley hikes back up, he keeps having to sit and rest because the climb is long and hard.