In the summer of 1953, a man working for the federal government arrives in Mars Hill, North Carolina, where the government is planning to build a lake. The government man has learned to deal with people angry over the decisions he’s been tasked with implementing, but that appears to be less of a problem in this case because there is no one to evict from the land being used for the lake.
When he asks a few locals about the cove situated on the land, an older man named Parton claims that they couldn’t bury the cove deep enough to please him. Parton won’t explain this statement beyond a vague claim that the cove is a place where bad things happen.
The man rides out to the land, parks, and walks half a mile to the abandoned farmhouse last inhabited by a man named Slidell Hampton, according to records at the local courthouse. There is also a barn and an overgrown family cemetery.
The man walks deeper into the forest until he reaches the bottom of the cove. There’s a cabin with two wells on either side, although only one of the wells still has a rope and bucket. The man considers how little the place will change once it’s underwater as it already feels dark, uninhabited, and remote. The man also thinks about how an ornithologist claimed that the area might hold the world's last Carolina Parakeets, which will probably become extinct once the lake is filled.
Hot and thirsty, the man decides to try to get some water from one of the old wells. He goes over to the well with the rope and bucket and starts to turn the crank. At first the crank won’t budge, as if the bucket is buried, but then the bucket starts to rise.
He finally raises the bucket to the surface and is surprised to find that it’s nearly two-thirds full, although the water is murky and hardly looks drinkable. He looks up at the sizeable cliff face overhanging the cove and drenching the whole area in shadows. The man imagines that once the lake is filled, the cliff will edge out from the surface like an iceberg in the ocean. He looks back at the bucket of water and sees that the water is still cloudy but has brightened enough to reveal something at the bottom of the bucket. He peers in and sees a human skull.