The Skinny and the Mule

Pietro Valdez was having a bad morning.   Bad mornings usually found him leaning against Enzo’s doorpost, beneath the shade of his friend’s straw roof, and this morning was no exception.  Here he could rest, draw on a self-rolled cigarette, and contemplate the injustices that existed in the world.  Inevitably, he would reach the same conclusion as always; that every one of those injustices was stacked against him.

So, maybe he had been a little late setting his nets in the river that morning – just a little, tiny bit late.  What did it matter?  Pietro had a problem.  His whole village had a problem.  No matter how early he, or anyone else who fished the river should rise from their beds, Rodrigo – Bang-Sticks Rodrigo – would take all the best fish!  Pietro stared along the river bank towards Rodrigo’s moored boat with half-lowered eyes, his head full of vengeance. Of course, Rodrigo’s little dock was busy; Luca, Bang-Sticks’ son and his friend Raul were boxing Rodrigo’s catch, loading it into a dilapidated but durable truck that would take it to market.  In the warehouse behind the dock Luiza and Yasmin, Marco’s two girls, would be preparing more fish for drying.

Feeling a pat on his shoulder, Pietro turned to discover Enzo, his friend, had sidled out of his hut to lean against the other door post.  Pietro passed his cigarette to Enzo.

“Business is good.”  Enzo commented, sharing Pietro’s thoughts.

“Good!”  Pietro spat his ire into the dust.  “Good!  That bastardo was at the eddy pool this morning, blowing up half the fish in the river.  What is left?”     Pietro’s nets had come in empty, again.  So!  There was no money, there was no food.  Luana, his wife, could hurt him when she got this mad.  Again!  She had thrown a pot at him and today – he rubbed his shoulder ruefully – she had not missed.

“Matters,” He muttered; “Cannot rest.”

Enzo grunted.   “I do not see what you can do.  Rodrigo has a deal with Carlos Eduardo, Carlos Eduardo gets him his sticks of dynamite in return for thirty percent of the catch.  It is business.  Don’t say you wouldn’t have done the same deal if you’d thought of it first.”

Pietro shook his head.   “He dynamites the fish!   Soon there will be no fish at all in the river, then what does the village do?   What does Thales do?  What does Marco do?”

“Marco goes to work for Carlos Eduardo.  Already he is thinking about it.  I talked with him yesterday.”  Enzo answered.  “I am thinking of it myself.  Maybe you should.”

“I, Pietro Valdez, work for a gangster who grows fields of Marijuana?   What does that make me?”

“Rich?  It is very good Marijuana.”

“Or dead.  Carlos Eduardo is a very nasty man.  His henchmen are very fond of guns.”  Pietro muttered.  “No, I am a fisherman, not a grower of drugs.  I want to feed people, not send them crazy.”

Thoroughly subdued, Pietro fell silent, and together the two men shared their one cigarette, brushing flies away from their faces as they contemplated the vast waters of the river in the morning heat.   In such mood an hour might easily pass without either moving or speaking a word, but today Pietro’s attention was drawn to a small commotion behind Bang-Sticks dock, where Rodrigo’s son Luca was preparing for his trip to the market in Almeres, fifty kilometres away.

“What is that?”

“That?”   Enzo replied.  “That is trouble, my friend.”

A girl dressed minimally in shorts and a t-shirt was attempting to talk to Luca, with limited  success.  She might have been, as Pietro judged, no older than twenty-four or twenty-five years, and clearly her attempts at flirtation were falling on stony ground.  Luca was wiser than his years, and in Pietro’s closely guarded opinion, more interested in Raul than in female company.  This was an insult he was saving for that special argument with ‘Bang-Sticks’, when the opportunity eventually arrived.

“She is pretty girl.”  Pietro observed.

“She is a ‘Skinny Girl’.  Keep away!”  Enzo warned.

“That may be difficult.  She is coming towards us.”

The girl had abandoned her charm offensive on Luca, and was striding along the riverbank in their direction.  Pietro was familiar with the ‘Skinny Girl’ appellation, of course:  everyone knew it.   A very astute group of young women had banded together in the last three seasons with the sole purpose of taking over the drugs trade on the river.  Using their natural abilities to charm they were picking off owners of small to middle-sized fazendas one by one, trusting in the farmers’ deference towards women.  Once they found a way into that plain farmer’s bed, though, the women showed no such compunction, and shot them dead at the first opportunity.   So far, they had made no attempt to unseat any of the larger drug barons, bigger players unlikely to fall for their fatal game.  Knowing their depth, and in regions where police presence was rare, they were thriving happily on the proceeds of farms like the one owned by Carlos Eduardo.   Lecherous to a fault, Carlos Eduardo, Pietro thought as he watched the approaching girl’s fluid, hip-swinging gait, would be easy meat.  Nevertheless…

“You have a boat!”  Her voice was sweet, almost a song, and her teeth were many and incredibly white.  She flashed her dark, Hispanic eyes at Pietro.  “A boat with a big, big motor.   That man Luca says”…  She stopped directly in front of Pietro, so close he felt the warm whisper of her breath.  “You have a big, big motor, yes?”

Pietro was wrong-footed by the girl’s proximity.     “I suppose so.”  He muttered.  No matter that Enzo growled a warning, his friend was already in the web.  “You want my boat?”

“I need your boat, Pietro, you will help me, I know!   You are Pietro, yes?  You are a generous man, everybody knows Pietro.”

“You asked Luca.  What’s wrong with Luca’s boat?”

“Luca?  He has such small motor.”  The girl shook her head sadly, holding up a thumb and forefinger to reinforce her point.  “Once in a month only, down the river to Minacura!  That’s two days each way.  Just you and me,  two days on the river one way, two days back.  You and me, alone, eh, Pietro?”   Her voice lowered suggestively.  “Ah, but can I trust you?  I hope I can trust you!”

Enzo snorted.  Pietro was experiencing sensations incompatible with the early hour and his abiding sense of grievance.  Reason had to prevail.  “What’s in it for me?”  He demanded.

“What is in it?  What is in it??”  The girl’s eyes glittered.  “You want money too?”

“I have expenses.”

“It is alright, I tease you!  Of course there is money.  I have done a deal with Carlos Eduardo.  It is a very good deal.  He is very generous man.  Your boat, it will be loaded with the very best merchandise!  Each run, 150 Real!  Think what you can do with 150 Real!”

“Two hundred.”  Pietro wondered what this girl had done for Carlos Eduardo that could have aroused his generosity.  “I want two hundred.”

“Oh, Pietro; so greedy!  One-Seventy-five!”

“You buy the fuel.”

“Agreed!”  The girl reached up and stroked Pietro’s cheek with long, elegant fingers.  “There are police on the river so we travel by night.  We will be such good companions!  Tonight, eight o’clock, okay?”

“Tonight?”

“Of course!  Why not?”

Pietro was thinking of Luana and the necessity for explanations which accounted for a number of reasons why not.  But money was money, and a cash argument would weigh heavily with his wife, as long as he kept her away from his travelling companion.

Eight o’clock that evening found Pietro and his boat moored up on a stretch of river tributary that adjoined Carlos Eduardo’s ranch.   The girl, whose name had proved to be Adriana, materialised rapidly from the darkness where forest bordered the water, followed by Paolo, Carlos Eduardo’s ostler.   Both were laden with heavy bales wrapped in waterproof plastic, which they dumped unceremoniously into the boat.   Pietro could see that Paolo was ill at ease.  He kept looking up and down the river, and seemed anxious not to make a noise.  No sooner had the first lot of bales been loaded than the pair vanished again, leaving Pietro to distribute his unexpectedly heavy cargo as evenly as he might.  Satisfied, he rolled a cigarette, drawing contented smoke as he wondered how easily Carlos Eduardo had fallen for Adriana’s  ploys.  Eventually, he supposed, the whole village must learn to fear Adriana and her ‘Skinny Girls’ as much as they had feared Carlos Eduardo. If so, at least one advantage was his: he had a ‘big motor’.   

Had he noticed the raised voices in the distance?   What was the clamour about?

Paolo came bursting out of the trees, loaded with yet more bales.  Adriana, similarly burdened, was close behind him.

“Come!  We load this.”

The shouting was not so distant any more.  The voices were angry.

“All this?”  Pietro protested.  “It is too much!  We won’t get all this through the gorge!”  But the bales were already stacked, on top of those he had already distributed.  Adriana was specific.  “We leave now!   Don’t start the motor!”

Pietro recognised the ingredients of a disaster immediately, but his sense of self-preservation persuaded him this was the wrong place to ask questions, so he did as he was told.  He cast off his dangerously unstable boat swiftly, as Adriana slipped into the prow, and Paolo melted back into the trees.  As he turned into the current he could hear the crashing of angry feet in the undergrowth.  It occurred to him that maybe Carlos Eduardo was not so gullible, after all.

In the darkness Adriana’s ashen face was almost luminous.  “What do we do?”  She cried, clearly no longer in command.  “Tell me, what do we do?”

A gun discharged in a burst of venom from somewhere close by.  Bullets snicked off the water.  

“We start the motor!”   Pietro replied quietly.   “Stay down, and do not say my name!”

                                                                  #

“We have lost them, yes?”  Adriana hissed.

An hour had elapsed, in which time neither the owner of the boat nor his young companion had spoken.   Upon reaching the point where their tributary joined the main river, Pietro had turned upstream.  After a half kilometre battling the current he had tied off his boat at a place where the trees overhung the water, concealing them from view.

“Yes, for now.  We are fortunate they had no boats moored nearby.  They will be hunting for us downstream, thinking we are making for Minacura.”

Adriana sniffed.  “This is no use.  If we go to Minacura, we will be following them.  Sooner or later we must meet.”

“This boat wouldn’t make Minacura anyway, with so heavy a cargo;”   Pietro told her.  “Our best bet is to meet up with your gang somewhere further upstream.  Maybe you should ‘phone them now?”  His comment met with silence.  “That’s a good idea, yes?”

Adriana said:  “What ‘gang’?”

“Why, the ‘Skinny Girls’.  The Skinny Girls gang.”

“I am not skinny girl!  I have nice figure, don’t you think?”

A cold hand grasped Pietro’s heart.  “Wait a minute!  You are not a ‘Skinny Girl’?”

“No.  I am a student.”  Adriana answered proudly.  “I am at university in Brazilia – third year.”

“Then this was – what?   You were trying to steal from Carlos Eduardo on your own?  No gang to help you?”

“Paolo, he helped me.”  Adriana grinned.  “He was very helpful!   And when we get these bales to Minacura and we sell them I shall be very rich and I shall be able to pay for my last year’s tuition.  You help me, Pietro.  Then you can be rich, too!” Pietro put his head in his hands.  “You.  Brave man with big motor – what is wrong with you?”

“Wait a minute!  You made your deal with Paolo?  You said your deal was with Carlos Eduardo, Adriana!”

“So?  I tried, but Eduardo, he is fat man, and he is very drunk.  So Paolo, he does dealing for me.  I am very nice to Paolo, and he does me good deal.   What is wrong?”

“Just this.   My boat is filled with Eduardo’s property, not Paolo’s.  Paolo has no property.  My boat is overloaded, it will not pass the fast water in the gorge on the way to Minacura.  All right, maybe we throw some Marijuana in the river, then we have a chance; but drunk or sober Carlos Eduardo is no fool.  Right now he is on his cell phone to his buyer in Minacura to tell him what has happened.  He is on his cell phone to police in Minacura (who he pays) to tell them what has happened.  Adriana, you cannot just sell marijuana on this river, you need connections.  You need to make deals, you need time to build up trust!   Right now, we show ourselves even five kilometres down river with this stuff and we are dead.”

Adriana fell quiet for a moment before she said unsteadily.  “I have done things for this a respectable girl should not do.  I cannot fail – I cannot have done what I have done for nothing, for no reason.  We can do it.  We will do it.”

“No, Adriana.  You can’t, and we won’t.”

 “Then what can we do?”

                                                                  #

“Why are you out so early?”  Enzo was surprised to discover Pietro busy with his nets.  “Can’t you sleep, my friend?”

Pietro smirked.   “Some nights I feel I have not been to bed.”

Enzo glanced cunningly at him. “Ah, the girl.  But you did not make the trip with her, no?”

“Wiser counsels prevailed, Enzo.”   The fisherman’s eyes were fixed upon Rodrigo’s dock, further up the river bank.  “I am a married man.”

“But still…”  Enzo followed Pietro’s gaze.  “Bang-Sticks is not out yet.  If you hurry…”

“Exactly.”  Both men were now watching as Rodrigo, appearing by his behaviour to be unusually agitated, shouted and gesticulated at a defensive-looking Luca.  They were too far away to hear what was said, but far enough to see two jeeps approaching Rodrigo’s warehouse from the landward side.  Carlos Eduardo was being driven in one, in the other were two extremely large bodyguards, both armed with semi-automatic rifles.

Pietro had known they would come, and in his view the timing could not have been better.  A stranger girl could not be seen talking to anyone in a village as small as his without arousing suspicion, especially if that girl intended to steal part of the local drugs baron’s harvest.   Adriana had been talking to Luca just yesterday, so it was obvious where Carlos Eduardo would look. 

Naturally,  since Adriana had been seen with Pietro too, he had no doubt Carlos Eduardo would want to follow that up – he was not worried.  He had nothing to hide, as long as no-one saw the two bullet holes in his boat.  As for Adriana, she was well on her way back to her university by now, chastened by her experience and no richer than before, but unhurt.  And she was getting a good start on Carlos which would get better, the longer he was detained by the discovery of his marijuana, stashed as they had left it last night, in Rodrigo’s warehouse.   

Rodrigo?   Well, those bales of drugs were still intact, so he would count himself lucky if he survived with only a little roughing up, but Pietro was sure he would get no more dynamite. 

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Abel

Finally, the gaudily-clothed party of holiday makers had audibly subsided to a conspiratorial murmur.   Their car stood deserted in the boatyard car park having disgorged its umpteenth suitcase, their enthusiastic spaniel dog had signed its name to almost everything that could offer an intriguing scent, and now they huddled beside the mooring in two groups, expectant, irresolute.   

Canal boat rental ‘Daisy May’ of the long gleaming red cabin waited, Perkins diesel puttering idly.  

Abel, who never hurried, saw that they were settled and wandered across to them. Under the spaniel’s contemplative eye a family of ducks swam around the stern of the boat; mother brown and glistening, chicks yellow going on brown and cheeping. At Abel’s approach but on no specific invitation, the more mature vacationers began to venture onto the deck. Their kids were already on board, climbing over the narrow boat’s cabin roof – four of them in all, the youngest maybe five or six.  Anxious maternal eyes watched as an attentive elder shepherded them to safety.  

“Toby, don’t touch now.”

“Michelle, keep hold of Petey, there’s a darling.”

 Two families, as Abel judged, and ready occupants for every one of Daisy May’s twelve berths.  They had driven up from somewhere in the South.

“Are you ready to go, then?”  His lazy, familiar drawl seemed to ripen with the season, Ariel thought..    

Ariel watched from her steamer chair on the front trestle of the boathouse, saw Abel draw admiring stares from a pair of teenage girls in the party.  He was a big man, broad and muscular, his body honed by a lifetime on the canals.   

The teenage girls dissolved into shy giggles. 

“The cabins are so small!”  One of the older women complained.

“Can’t be no wider, you wouldn’t get through the locks,” Abel told her. “She’s seventy feet stem to stern. She’s got everything you need. Just accept it all happens in a space eight feet wide.   Now;” He addressed the older man.  “Remember what I showed you?   Up is forwards, down is back.  It’s a tiller, so push left if you want to go right, right to go left, Okay?  Oh, and you steer from the back, so you need to push off from the mooring, or come off stern first.  I’ll leave you to it.  Enjoy yourselves and take it slow!”

His litany completed, Ariel drank in Abel’s measured, capable steps as he returned to her.  She greeted him with her twisted half-smile, patting the seat beside her own in invitation.  “The last one.  You’ve had a busy morning!”

“Busiest day of the year!”  He lowered himself into the chair, extracting a squeak of mild protest from its seasoned wood.  Ariel wondered, not for the first time, if all that muscle was sculptured from marble.  “I’ve got everything hired out until Sunday, now.”

“And no boat hauled up.” Ariel glanced towards the empty slipway that skirted the boathouse.  “What are you going to do all week?”   

“Problem, I know.  I was going to fix the seals on ‘Gracie’s’ pump out valve, but we were short by a couple of boats and it was nothing serious, so I had to put her back in the water.  More than that,” he nodded towards the newly-tenanted narrow boat now struggling at its moorings, “We called in this ‘un from Dad’s yard.   Moira overbooked us again.”

“I thought I didn’t recognise her.”  Trying to disguise her amusement, Ariel watched as ‘Daisy May’s’ novice crew tried to leave the mooring forwards, frantically thrusting their fending poles at the bank.  “She looks a nice boat.  When did you bring her up?”  Abel’s father ran a twin boatyard some thirty miles south on the Grand Union Canal.

“Dad brought her on Wednesday.  I still had to fit her out with some stuff, though.  She’s brand new.   We only bought her this Spring.”

Down on the canal, the elderly man at ‘Daisy May’s’ tiller was becoming increasingly agitated.

“I’ll just be a minute.”  Abel apologised.

Offering Ariel another prospect of his departing figure the young boatyard owner strode (at the closest he ever came to a rush, she thought) back towards the mooring, calling out to the novice helmsman.  “Mr. Yardley, sir, put her in reverse!  Down!   Down for reverse!  See, it’s pulling water over the rudder, so now put your tiller hard left.   Nope, left – that’s it.   Now you’ve got her!   Straighten nice and easy, see  – there you go!”

Several tons of steel narrow boat backed out into the placid water of the canal, its elderly navigator grinning at his success like a Cheshire cat as children cheered and a manic spaniel raced back and forth along the cabin roof.

“I thought you took them up to Handyard’s Lock first, to show them the basic stuff.”  Ariel said as Abel returned.

“I do.  Some take longer to accept it than others.  They all think it’s easy, I can do this, so they don’t listen.  It is easy, but they don’t listen.  He’ll be all right now.”

“You’ll have to buy a couple more boats.”  

“Well, the business is there, certainly.  But we already have fourteen in the water, and they’re getting more expensive every year.”  Abel shrugged.  “I don’t know; maybe. I sort of like life as it is.”

Sighing, Ariel turned her face to the sun, closing her eyes.  “You have it all here, don’t you?  The canal, your boats, a quiet country lane miles away from the traffic, generations away from the world.  I envy you, sometimes.”

Abel chuckled. “Envy me?  Well, I don’t think I ever saw myself as that lucky.  Maybe I am.”

“Absolutely you are!  I look at you, always contented, not a shred of ambition anywhere in your body?  Every time I see you it’s the same.  You’re just happy, aren’t you?”

“And you’re not?”

Ariel sat up in her chair, suddenly decisive.  “I could use another beer.  Do you have anything for lunch in there?  A sandwich or something?”

“There’s bread, and beer in the fridge.  Help yourself.”

But she had already left him, nimbly skipping through the clutter of tools and stores to the back of the boathouse where, behind a row of foggy and randomly cracked windows, Abel lived.

His was a ramshackle existence, unchanged for as long as Ariel had known the boatman.  He had grown up here, helping Mark, his father, with never much use for school or learning, although he had learned his craft well enough; and when Mark bought the site down south, Abel simply took over.  There lingered a friendly odor of generations (who knew how many?) behind those smutty window panes that was familiar to her, a kind of mustiness that felt comfortable.   A living area, chairs, a sofa scattered with magazines and tour brochures, a worn Persian carpet, today littered with the detritus of ready-meal life, that might just as easily play host to a misbehaving outboard motor, or a bilge pump.  Adjoining this, a kitchen – small but clean, with a bread bin, fridge full of beer, some ham…

It was hot.  Midday sun beat down on the boathouse roof, the butter was melting as she applied it to the bread.  Two bottles of Coors were coldly welcome in her hands.

“Thought you’d like another beer.”  She said, rejoining him.  “When are you going to build yourself a proper house?”

“I wonder how many times you’re going to ask me that?  I wonder how many times I’ve given you the same answer.  I like being right here, by this old canal. I’m happy as I am.”

Ariel didn’t respond for a minute.   She sucked her beer, listening to the waterside birds as they cheeped and clucked their way through a day’s commerce, trading beauty for bread with the steady trickle of tourist boats passing by.

“The canal’s changing, though.” She said at last, and Abel didn’t have to answer, because the peace was disturbed by a heavier diesel chug which, growing in volume, finally resolved itself into a sleek white river cruiser.   “Isn’t that ‘Moonlight’?” She asked.

Abel nodded.  “It was.  Old Tarbut got too decrepit to use her – got himself a heart attack winding her through Skinsford Lock, so he sold her on to Armand Brothers.  Now she’s ‘Number Three Four Seven.’   Where’s the romance, huh?”

“Tarbut? He was nearly blind last time I met him.”  Ariel chuckled.  “I hope they cleared the cabin of all those spiders.”

“I’m sure.”   Abel waved to the couple who stood arm-in-arm at the boat’s smart little wooden wheel, and they waved back.  “Pair of townies like them, They’d be running round the deck screaming otherwise.  You’re right, though.  Things are changing.  Maybe twice as many holiday makers these days.  It isn’t a bad thing, I don’t suppose.  Good for business.”

“I remember a day like this, not too many summers ago, you and I went skinny-dipping down there.  We couldn’t do that now.   We’d be caught.”

Abel allowed himself a twitch of a smile.  “We were bloody nearly caught then, as I recall.  We were eleven years old.  The rules were different.”

“My dad wouldn’t have thought so.” Ariel sighed.  “Twenty-two years!”  She sat up, suddenly.  “There!  Did you see it?  Kingfisher!  Just a blue flash, but I know I saw!”

“Oh, him!  He’s been around a while, now.  Don’t know why – they prefer the rivers, mostly.  I expect he’ll move on soon.  Twenty-one.”

“Twenty-one ?”

“Twenty-one years.  That was the year of our eleven plus.  I failed.”

“And I went on to Partondon Grammar, for all the good it did me.”   She closed her eyes, lost in a golden haze of reminiscence.  “But still, it was a beautiful summer.”

Neither spoke then, reclined side by side, at one with their thoughts.  Oftentimes they might doze for a while here, with the water for company; until waking, she might turn to see his sleeping face and smile, as a lover might, at his innocence.  They were companions, friends, confidantes; and whether in the cold rains of winter or the summer heat this boatyard had been almost as much a part of Ariel’s life as Abel’s.  Here she had learned watercraft, taught herself how to paint the glossy barge art that adorned the holiday narrow boats just as gaily as the barges of old. If her love of art had been born here, so too in turns she had been baptised in tar, in antifouling, engine oil or grease; been exhausted, elated, proud and angry, but most of all she had felt the love that this place wrapped around her.  For as many hours of the week as were spared to her, she would come here, and always she would feel welcomed.

“Ah, here we go.”  Abel said.

A big river cruiser had burbled quietly up to the mooring, the sound of its engine lost in the silence of their thoughts.  A spare-looking man was already ashore, while a woman in a green blouse held a line from the stern, ready to tie off.

The man looked up as Abel approached him.   “How much for the mooring?”   He demanded crisply.  “We’re staying overnight.”

“Not here, this is a private mooring.  There’s a public staithe at the Stag and Hound by Handyard Lock.”

The man flushed immediately, primed for argument. He was short in stature and aggressive by instinct.  A terrier, Ariel thought; and he’s not enjoying his holiday. “What am I supposed to do, then?  I’m not going to moor outside a pub!”

“This boat’s from Robertson’s, isn’t it?  You could wind by the lock and take her back there.  It’s no more than five miles.  It’ll be quieter around their yard.”

Ariel allowed herself to chuckle openly, watching the man’s peacock strut as he vented his frustration.  Abel was unmoved and unmoving.  The man waved his wallet, Abel shook his head, and the scene played itself out, the one spoiling for altercation, the other patient, but obdurate, until there were no lines left in their script.  At last the visitor climbed back on his boat and, with a well-chosen selection of over-the-shoulder invective, sailed on.

“You could have let him!”  She rebuked, as Abel returned.

“Right!   They’d be queuing up by tonight.  I must have six signs saying this is a private staithe, They get worse.  What if one of my own boats comes in – a repair or something?”

The friends sat side by side, sucking their beers and watching a steady flow of tour boats pass by.

“What are you going to do, Abe?”  Ariel asked.

“Do?  Me?   Tidy up the boathouse this week, I reckon.  And I’ve got yards of paperwork to catch up on.”

“No, not this week.  I mean, with the rest of your life.   You can’t live at the back of a shed forever.”

“Why not?”

“You’re worth so much more, I suppose.”  Ariel said.

He took her hand gently and held it, and if her fingers trembled at his touch, he did not seem to notice.  “You know, I’ve often wondered about this ‘worth’ thing.  About chasing ‘success’, whatever that means – about always wanting a little bit more.  The way I look at it, I have what I want – all I’m really entitled to want – this is my little place in the grand scheme of things.  If I tried to change more than I needed to change, I’d only end up making myself unhappy. Other people, too.”  Abel added.  “Of course, it’s different for you.”

“How?  How is it different?”

“You like it – the pressure, the rushing about.  You enjoy the challenge, I expect.  That isn’t for me.”

“Really? Yes, I suppose I must.”   Ariel said.  “Don’t you ever want – anything – to alter, to improve?  I mean, you must sometimes ask yourself whether there could be another way?”

“Nope!”  Abel grinned.  “Everything seems to me to be just as it should be.”

He pushed himself out of his chair and walked down to the mooring to tidy a line his last customers had left beside the water.   “They’ll be missing this!” He called over his shoulder.  Ariel did not answer.  When he turned around he saw she had gone.   Such arbitrary departures were lately a peculiarity of Ariel’s visits, so he assumed she had needed to go back to her work.  As he returned to the boathouse he pictured his friend there as he always saw her.  Trim and pretty still, with her hair about her face in the breeze and that fond, slightly cynical smile, and he thought how nice a picture that was, and how peaceful her nearness made him feel.  He almost laughed aloud, as he often did when he daydreamed of Ariel, at the sheer joy she brought him.   Tomorrow she would be back, just as usual.

Ariel set her little car popping around the twists and turns of the boatyard’s narrow lane, heading  towards a village and a main road, which, in turn, would lead towards a town.  As she drove she wiped tears from her face, trying to ignore  the thump of her suitcase as it slid from side to side across the back seat.   When she reached town she would join a motorway to a city and an airport where the man she had agreed to marry would be waiting.  It was the third time she had made this appointment, and he had proved his love for her by his infinite patience when she had failed him twice.   That she could not return his devotion made her sad, and leaving the only man she could ever love cut a wound in her heart, but it was time for one promise, at last, to be kept.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Crossing the River

They would remember how they made it to the river that night, the travellers, and how it felt, emerging from the forest, to see the silver ribbon of the waters glittering in the last of the day and the first of the moon.  Tam was much the worse by then.

“In the mornin’ we’ll cross,”  Abel decided.  “Not tonight, not now.”

Three days since, the travellers, two men and a boy, had left the ashes of their village, the morning after the Reivers came.  The border raiders had stripped them of everything, their livestock and their families, leaving no good reason to remain or any clear idea of where they were going, other than a hope they might find protection with the Prince Bishops who ruled the land to the south.   Abel, the fittest, drew a travois laden with what few belongings they had saved; Tam, the village chieftain whose leg had been badly burned in the firing of his hut limped along as best he could, with the boy to help him.  They had known the river barred their way; they also knew the Reivers would not be far behind.

 “We’ll rest here.”  Tam, exhausted and crippled by pain, dropped to his knees.  His companions understood.  The boy was only thirteen summers old, yet he knew there comes a time when a man’s blood flows too slowly, when his fingers turn black.  Tam’s beard was frozen back to his flesh, where it found no warmth to free it.

“They’ll not spare us, those bastards,”  The boy said.

Abel patted the boy’s shoulder.  “Here’ll do.  Young un’, get what ye can from the river, will ye?  We should eat well.  It’ll be raw tonight.”

There was their plan, then.  The ‘young‘un’ set off along the riverbank with his sharpened wand of willow, while  Abel gathered wood to make a fire.  And there was Tam, picking at the grass for dry kindling with numb fingers, but otherwise moving not very much at all.

The river was wide and the river was deep, which the boy supposed had a beauty to the minstrel’s eye, but he was never much for rivers.  Its waters were so cold with melt from the high tops it would eat your bones if you stayed still, even in its shallows, for long.  He had no wish to tarry here; if the choice were his he would cross the water that night, for to have the Reivers discover them so exposed on this north bank would leave little the crows could peck over, but Tam needed rest, and Tam was his Chief.  

Fortune smiled:  she permitted a fat Chub to languish where it thought itself safe, deep in a pool behind a promontory of rock.  The boy’s point struck fast enough to pierce it.  It was four hands long, food for a man, but little enough for three.

Atop the promontory the boy rested a while, drawing his prey to leave a gift for the birds and giving himself time, as Malfus his father had taught him, to learn about the land that must afford him shelter until light returned.  In this moment he remembered his parents’ charred remains as the Reivers had left them, and he swore in his heart the Reivers would pay.  Abel was his father now, if any man was. 

The silvered river had turned leaden in the departing light, flecked black where it over-ran itself, or interrupted its journey around a stone.  No other sound than its music penetrated the pall of silence.  No birds sang.

It was a howl; it was pitched high to hang, wavering, on the wind.  The howl was long, echoing and re-echoing above the dark trees, and it froze the marrow in the young one’s bones. A fox?  A hare, perhaps, in a fox’s jaws?  A primal scream, certainly, yet of madness, not of pain.   Stock still, the boy let only his eyes move as he strained to see the first visible sign of danger.

Steep forest garbed the river’s further bank, not a forest like those of his Borders home where the trees men call pines hold the land in fief and nothing can grow in their shade, but a mesh of oak and birch and a floor of briar.    Somewhere in the blackness of that tangled wood, he could be certain, the author of the howl was watching him – watching and waiting.  

And so it proved.  Two great eyes of cold fire, flame and ice, moving with slow precision through the undergrowth.  With a hunter’s skill that belied his tender years, the boy began to move, his head perfectly still, his eyes never leaving those fiery orbs.  A river stood between himself and this creature, he reasoned:  let it be an expert swimmer, he would still have time to rejoin Abel and Tam.  If a stand against a monster there must be, they would make it together.

Abel and Tam were waiting.  They had heard the cry as distinctly as he.

 “’Tis crossing the river – ‘tis coming for us!   Run!”

Abel started to his feet.  Tam did not move at all.  Could he move?  But the boy’s alarm aroused the fitter of the two men for no more than a second before Tam’s words reassured them.   “The creature will not cross the water.  It is as the legend tells it.”

Abel frowned,  “Sometimes I trust my eyes better than I trust the lore.  There are  tales told then, of a worm?”

 “Some say it’s a worm,”  Tam agreed;  “some will have it as a dragon.  Yet dragons, as I have heard it, fly.  No-one’s ever seen such a thing hereabouts.  It is his forest, and as forests go it is a bad place.”

“You knew of it?”  Abel accused him; “And still you brought us here?”

“I have heard the legend.  I did not know the legend was true.  Besides, there is no other path for us.” Tam warmed himself by the fire while Abel set about cooking the young ‘un’s catch over wood he had collected. “Dragon or worm, ‘tis said to be a monstrous creature.  And if it has seen the boy it knows we are here.”

The two men exchanged glances.  The boy could see the fear in their eyes.

Tam shifted himself uneasily.  “Tend my foot, young ‘un, will ye?  It pains me.”

Obediently, the boy knelt to untie the thongs of hide that bound Tam’s leg, releasing skins which clothed his foot in the manner of a boot.  The skins were stuck to the flesh beneath, so as he peeled them away, the flesh was lifted too.  

“Poison.”  The boy said, struggling to keep a lump from his throat as his nostrils were assailed by a too-familiar stench.

“Aye.”   Tam caught Abel’s glance.  “It’ll serve me long enough!”  He snapped.  “You’ll not be cutting my limbs from me this night, man!”

They should have taken turns to watch, perhaps, and there might have been some plan to do so, had not their weariness and the gnawing of starvation overcome the travellers, to send them into a deep sleep.   For his part the boy slept fitfully, beset by dreams of the burning of his village and the terrible blood-lust of the Reivers.  He woke long before the sky returned to light.

Given peace to think, he considered their chances with the monster across the river.  One fit man and himself.  If his crippled chieftain had been whole it might have been a more even contest, but there was only Abel.  Abel was more a weaver than a fighter.

Yet if they stayed this side of the river the Reivers would just as surely get them.  Their raiding parties were everywhere, so even if they were not specifically pursued they would be found, and very soon.   They were in no condition to run.

Propped with his back against a rock, the boy took a decision; he rose, padded softly to the travois where he knew that Tam had left his sword.  As Abel slept not three spans away, he took the sword and slipped silently away towards the river.

Did he have a clear idea of his intentions?  Beyond crossing the river probably not:  could he slay the worm?  He might have persuaded himself of that, but neither could he be blamed if his hope was to simply escape;, a boy of thirteen, struggling for survival in a world that wished him only harm.

The swim took him downstream on the current, so he made landfall out of view of his companions on the northern bank.   It also tired him, for he was unused to swimming and the weight of Tam’s sword held him back. Then there was a difficult clamber up a slick and muddy riverbank while the oak woods frowned down upon him as if entering them at his tender age was vaguely distasteful.  He began patiently exploring the few apparent chinks in the dark wood’s armour of briar, but blind alley after blind alley ended only in a wall of thorns.  The sky was already light when at last he found a gap that led somewhere.   His companions would be wakening.  They might think he had gone to fish for food, but if they discovered the missing sword…

Progress was still painfully slow.  The ground was rising, the sounds of the river dwindling behind him to be replaced by…silence.  Still there was no sound: in an oak wood at dawn, not one bird sang.

When the boy came upon the clearing he had no idea how far he had travelled or how late the hour, because the canopy of the trees had kept him from the sun.  Every step had been an agony of fear and doubt, expecting the legendary worm to pounce upon him, for he felt certain it knew of his coming.  It was watching him from behind the arras of the forest, picking its spot.  This glade could be its amphitheatre.  With fear oozing from every pore, he stepped into the sun.

“Greetings,”   Said a voice, conversationally.  “A better day than yesterday, don’t you think?  I’m sorry if that’s the wrong thing to say, but in my experience Englishmen prefer to talk about the weather.”

‘Be still!’  In the boy’s head his father’s voice reminded him. ‘Until you know your enemy you cannot decide how to engage with him!  Think before you move!’

 All in all the boy had never had much confidence in this advice, and always favoured running away as a first option.  However, this seemed quite a congenial encounter and he did not feel afraid.   Obviously this was a fellow traveller.  Obviously there was less to fear in this forest than he had thought.

“Who are you?”  He replied, scanning the surrounding undergrowth for the owner of the voice.  “Where are you?”

“Oh, over here!”   A clump of dense vegetation parted, to reveal a human head – rather grizzled, distinctly hairy, but human, nonetheless. 

The boy sighed with relief, “Us be fellow travellers, then!  I’m headed for the land of the Bishops, what’s your destination?”

“Destination?  Well, nowhere, really.  Wherever fortune takes me, I suppose.  I wonder, would you perform a small service for me?”

“Anything!”  The boy grinned broadly; “What have ye in mind?”

The face’s eyes closed and its nose inhaled deeply, as though savouring the woodland scents.  “Thank you.  I am so grateful!  Do you see the book over there in the grass?”

Now the boy had heard of books, although he had never met one personally.  This was his first.  Fortunately, as there was only one object to choose from he had no problems with identification.  It was a doughty volume, hide-bound, lying open.

“Aye, I see it”  He said, anxious to oblige.  “They told me these were dangerous woods.   I’m happy to find them otherwise?”

“You heard they were dangerous?  Oh, dear!”

“Aye, they say there’s a worm..”  The boy’s voice tailed off as his eyes drank in the beautifully illuminated manuscript of the book. “That’s beautiful!”  He breathed.

“Isn’t it?”  He heard, rather than saw, his new companion emerging from cover behind him.  “A man in a grey husk dropped it there.  Would you read from it?  That would oblige me awfully.”

“I would if I could,” The boy said earnestly, wondering exactly what was meant by a ‘grey husk’, “But I’ve no notion what the symbols mean.  I‘ve never seen the like.”

“Oh, that is a pity!”  said his new companion; almost at his shoulder now.  “I thought all humans could read books.”

“Humans?”  The boy was suddenly aware how his guard had dropped.  “You said ‘humans’?”

“I did, didn’t I?”  Replied the voice.  “I, you see, am not – well, not entirely.”

Putting his deceased father’s advice firmly to one side, the boy forced himself to turn around, and the sight that greeted him dried the words in his throat.  Standing in full view the owner of the face was a little taller than he – that he expected.  The luxuriant chestnut mane which framed the face, the lithe feline body rippling with muscle, the twitching, spine-laden tail, they were quite beyond expectation.  Terror triggered his legs to flight but his feet remained resolutely rooted to the spot.

“Oh, don’t try to run,” the face entreated him; “I’m much faster than you, as the man in the grey husk discovered.  It just wouldn’t work.”

“You’re the worm!”  The boy managed to stammer.

“Worm?  My dear child, do I look like a worm?”   The creature turned a little to one side, offering itself up for inspection; “I’m a Manticore if the name is familiar to you, but I don’t imagine it will be.  The head of a man, the body of a lion and a tail a bit like a porcupine.  You won’t know what those are, either, if you cannot even read a book.”

“Are ye going to kill me?”

“Kill you?  Yes.  Eat you?  Yes, although there’s hardly enough of you to make it worthwhile.”

“Is that what happened to the man in the grey husk?”

“Yes.  How do you think I got the book?”

“But you’re so … so…”

“Polite?  Well-mannered?  Of course.  The fact that I am going to consume you is nothing personal, so there’s no harm in a congenial conversation first, is there?”

“If I’m too small to bother with,” the boy kept a firm grip on his nerves as he tried to inject a note of reason,  “why don’t you simply let me go?”

“Why.  Why.”   The Manticore seemed to ponder this for a moment, then his eyes lit up, as if kindled by sudden inspiration.  “If I do you will spread word of me among the humans of the south, and then one of them, usually in a metal suit, will come to slay me.    I can cope with that, but the bits of metal get stuck between my teeth.  I’ve got a triple row of teeth, look!”   It gaped, exposing what did seem, indeed, to be three tiers of razor-sharp teeth.  “A dragon acquaintance of mine had just such an experience a century ago, and he didn’t handle it very well at all.  The human despatched him with a long sharp stick – most upsetting.  That was what induced me to move away from Persia.  I suppose it’s why I’m here.  ‘Why’, you see?  Your word, your word!”

It bounced up and down on its forepaws gleefully, “Well now, I think we’ve observed all the pleasantries, haven’t we?  I admit to being a little peckish…”

“No!”  The boy jumped back, Tam’s sword raised:  “Leave me alone, creature!  I don’t want to have to harm ye!”

“Harm me?”  The Manticore chortled; “Oh my dear, look at you!  A scrap of a thing, hardly worth the bother, really, but it’s a fetish of mine, isn’t it?   Do put that pointy thing down, child, before you drop it!”  It raised one paw, exposing a row of long, hooked claws which it examined professionally, before polishing then on its mane.  “I could live very adequately on the deer from this woodland, but I do like a human now and then – quite a different taste, you see?  Are you familiar with pork, at all?”

The boy was not without acumen, quick to assess his chances as very low, yet not prepared to give up; not yet.   “Suppose I could be of use to ye?  If I’m scarce worth eating, perhaps I have skills I could offer?  It’d be better to keep me alive then, surely?”

The Manticore laughed, and its laughter was not a pleasant sound.  “Do you know I can fire the spines from my tail, like arrows?  I have so many weapons, child.  What could you possibly offer that I do not already have?”

“I could collect the spines for ye, and bring them back…”

“I don’t want them back!  I simply grow another set.”  The creature stretched its leonine body and lay on the grass, its chin resting on its paws.  “But this is intriguing.  What else can you offer me?”

“I can hunt deer for ye?”

“No!  Ah, no.  I can do that for myself.  I like doing it.”

“I can catch fish!”  The boy said.  “Basically, you’re a cat.  You must like fish!”

The Manticore cocked an eyebrow.  “Now that is interesting, you are quite correct.  I adore fish!”

“Well, I can catch them for ye.”  The boy said – and as he said it a scheme of such low cunning entered his head it was all he could do to keep from laughing in the creature’s face.  “I bet yer can’t catch fish for yourself – ye don’t like water, do ye?”

“As you observe with such perspicacity, I am a cat.   I loathe the water!  I hate the water!  I despise it!”  In the ensuing shudder, a spine accidentally dislodged itself from the creature’s tail.  It flew like an arrow and embedded itself resonantly in a tree-trunk.

“Few men must pass this way,” the boy suggested, “because there’s legends told of ye in the north to make them afraid.  Suppose my companions and I were to build ye a raft from the timber in these woods?  Ye could cross the river and your paws would barely get wet. A short march north of the river there are many humans for ye to feast upon – not men in armour but wild raiders easy for ye to catch and devour.  Y’see, ye would profit greatly from letting me live!”

“Really?  Could you do that?  My dear chap, could you absolutely do that?”

“Oh, aye!”  Said the boy, “We can do that.”

So it was that the Manticore agreed to let the young ‘un’s companions cross the river.  Tam was beyond caring, but Abel’s reluctance, and his horror at his first sight of his ‘worm’ took longer to surmount.   When the boy explained how their cooperation could be ample vengeance for the razing of their village, though, he was inspired.  

The Manticore had another surprise in store for them yet, because it possessed a power of healing, which it exercised by bringing Tam back to health.  While the boy fished, the adult pair felled trees to fashion a raft, and came the day when the Manticore was able to step gingerly onto its floating transport.

By the combined efforts of men and boy their unlikely cargo was propelled across the river without incident, and after some surprisingly emotional goodbyes the Manticore confessed the smell of quarry was quite overwhelming.

The three travellers had the pleasure of seeing it vanish into the trees beyond the river, knowing what a dreadful revenge awaited their Reiver foes.

Finally, the trio released their raft into the current, lest the Manticore should ever alter its mood and try to return.  They turned to the south, and although their own legend is rarely told, it is said they made their way safely to the more secure lands ruled by the Prince Bishops.   There, the boy learned to read the book the Manticore’s poor unfortunate lunch had left behind, becoming versed in Latin and a revered scholar.   

At least, that is the legend…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.