The River Runner- a short story set in the alternative history world of the Siluria, on the long tributary between Port City and Iron Town. Eight chapters of Adventure and Magic on the Mighty River. …..for Part 2 (click here)
Chapter 1 — The River Runner
A small dust cloud kicks up as the pine cone connects with the boy’s shoe, it bounces once and rolls to a stop a couple feet away. The younger one watches out of the corner of his eye for a response from his brother, but the older sibling seemed unaware of any tension. The forest path gave way to a field and a magnificent view of the west side of the valley. With a confident kick, the pine cone rose over the meager wooden fence and into a freshly dug up farmers field.
“You better not scuff your good shoes, ma will have a fit.” the taller one said. His younger brother ignored the reprimand and kicked at a blade of grass along the side of the field. Sulking, he failed to notice the spring in his brother’s step and looked up in surprise to find he was behind in the race to the river.
“Cheater!” Bren screamed and joined the tradition to race his brother to the bridge. He ran with both arms swinging wildly, his boyish frame at the edge of manhood. From the lead, the older one with longer legs allowed the distance to wane by exaggerating steps and giving taunting looks. A smile seldom seen at the farm crosses his face and the age he seldom acts arises. The boys pass a farmhouse to the left where a little girl cheers them on from the porch.
The Bridge lay across the river like a dull black spider and was the pride and joy of Iron Town. With massive metal struts as big around as the giant trees of the north, they supported the distance needed to span the gap of the wide water torrent, in the midst of it’s spring expansion. Huge cut logs banded together with chains, flowing down from the forest above and were collected on the waterfront of this growing city. Teams of beasts pulled wagons full of iron and merchandise across the bridge heading south to Port City.
All the way up from the river embankment and disappearing into the west hills, Iron Town rose from the simple mining town on the side of a mineral rich mountain into a metropolitan wonder of brick, iron, glass and wood. Smoke rose from the Iron Works coupled with smells of industry dumping into the river, and many intoxicating wonders could be found around every dangerous corner. From the mining in the Mountains down to Iron Bridge, all things lead back to the river.
The younger boy flies past his brother, while the sibling stops at the bridge embankment and walks down a small path under the iron monument. Bren looks down to where his brother disappeared and shakes his head ….. once again left to explore the city alone.
“Bren?” a lovely voice carries to his ears.
Panting slightly, the young man turns to see a new classmate in a summer dress standing on the bridge. Smiling up at the pretty girl, Bren straightens his clothes and steps onto the wooden planks of the wide bridge leaving the dirt behind, moving towards beauty.
“Keyla, how are you?” He asks. Keyla is polite and well trained by the Sisterhood in social decorum, appearance and magic but still she wonders out loud about the strange world of the Iron Bridge.
Bren grins and talks about the history but notices she looks down at his brother far below with more questions. Keyla was a bit older than Bren and had lived a sheltered life at Port City. She moved to Iron Town recently and was curious about the strange world around her. She points below to the scene below the Bridge. “Who are they?”
“Just a bunch of rascals.” Bren tells her pointing at an old man. “That’s Old Thom, he’s like a magician and a courier or was… he’s too old now.” He explains this small group of men were constantly there, yapping and drinking in front of a well worn circle of half stumps and benches under the bridge.
Keyla had a confused look watching his brother sitting next to a bearded man and asks. “Why does he go down there?”
“Cause he’s a flipster.” the answer is said with obvious contempt. The pretty teen asked what a flipster was and the young man grinned and replied. “Can’t keep his boat …..right side up.” Bren ignores the more confused look she gives him.
Bren climbs up on the wide railing and leans against a support, facing the city with one leg swinging. Keyla looks up at him and puts out her hand in a small effort to join him. “You’ll get dirty” his blackened hands are shown.
“I don’t care.” she says slyly sending a smile. He pulls her up to a sitting position at the edge of the rail, years of farm labor had made him surprisingly strong. She rubs her new dirty hands together and in a moment of lady-like grace smooths her dress over her knees smearing the iron remnants in two long streaks. She decides then, that if she continues to come down to the river…a white dress will not do. Bren watches her from the edge as she listens to the men below.
Old Thom was telling a story about the first time he went down river for a client. “That Newspaper man gave me a solid gold coin for my story, and they photographed me for the headline.” His hands were up in the air as if he was holding a paper himself. “It was called an epic showdown….one between myself, A River and two couriers on horseback.”
“No contest, I tell ya.” Old Thom rants “I was in Port City a full day before those fellows, the newspaper man puts me up in a fancy hotel. That’s when they started to hire us for the fast jobs and it’s been smooth sailing since.”
“Why ain’t you rich, then?” Cerly asks. “I seen you by the park, taking money from an old lady.” Cerly is promptly smacked in the head by his good friend Geerge as Old Thom freezes staring at the river in contemplation.
“Shut your trap Cerly” Geerge says “Sorry Thom, he’s new.”
Old Thom laughs at it all, happy with his lot in life and says with a wink “I did take money from that Old lady, she’s my Mother..” Smiling widely. “I also work for her too…you got a problem with that Cerly?”
Cerly shook his head. No one knew how old Old Thom really was…some say he was 50 but lived such a hard life that sizing him up for a scrap was impossible. His knees were shot, back crooked, but his eyes burned with fire and his cane was said to have a blade in it. Cerly looked down avoiding the gaze of the Elder.
“Iron Town isn’t for the timed and weak, best remember that.” He pauses to look down at young man next him who talks timidly.
Old Thom hushes everyone. “Speak up Jan Jan, so we all can hear your story..”
“My Pa thinks the same way.” the Older brother points at Iron Town. “Did ya’ll know that the first Iron Works in the area only go back 70 years. Back then it was called Iron Village… was higher in the hills where the first digs began, when there was nothing here but a huge plain. My Grandpa thought the whole place was evil.”
Old Thom smiles at Jan Jan enjoying taking the sideline for a bit.
“Why doesn’t your Grandpa like it?”
Jan Jan was tall for his age, and almost the right age for training, Old Thom saw the potential in the young man and urged him to join the ranks of his crew. The boy was raised on a farm, so he learned to speak carefully and slowly, he wasn’t nervous with the men of the circle, he felt at home in their Outsiderness.
“The way he tells it, he was young was fishing on the river in the dead of winter and looked over at the Mining Camp. It was deadly quiet, with no smoke, or mine blasting, the whole valley seemed asleep. So he jumps from ice rock to ice rock, cause there was no bridge back then” Jan Jan was getting into the story and lowered his eyes, extending his hands to explain.
“Grandpa walks right up to the Camp and finds everyone starving to death, they was going to die for sure…. He tells them what they are doing is evil, digging up the mountain like that, but being a Godly man he gives them his fish and provisions saying… they best leave now, go south and don’t come back, he wasn’t going to make a habit of saving them. Told um, this country wasn’t made for city folks, they couldn’t survive without the City.”
Old Thom grumbles in agreement saying “that’s right….that’s right!”
The young man wasn’t done “Two weeks later the Valley had an early spring and they all lived. Worst part was they took his words as true and instead of leaving to go back to the civilization, they built a city. He said on his deathbed that was his biggest regret, saving them evil Diggers, could have saved the valley, by letting them die. My Grandpa ended up blaming them for everything, as did my Pa, every animal that died, every bad crop, every accident or splinter in the hand. Pa even blames Iron Town for killing Grandpa.” with a shrug and nod. “I think it was the gambling debt and a bullet to the back, but who knows.”
Jan Jan sits back down with a grown-up look on his face. The men all shake their heads, each one living on the edge of poverty and understanding the subtext. Cerly looks back at the Town and wonders what he stepped into, he pulls out a fresh bottle of Drink and passes it around. Old Thom lingers a little too long with it’s glass shape molding naturally into his hand.
“Well boys…this is why we choose the River over the Iron…our way is a different path… Goddess bless us with good fortune!”
“Aye!” yelled the men, “Aye!”
Keyla watches the older boy’s face intently, it reminds her of her own father and his rants about the poor and the undeserving. Her Mother was wealthy, and her Father was a merchant and that was just…the way it was. Yet this young man, staring off into the river with eyes older than they should, she feels something inside, like a tender need, a desire to hold him and make him smile and turn his face from the river to her.
“What about you Bren… you want to live in the city?” Knowing her life was spelled out for her, as suitors waited, wealth was assured and she could thrive with a privilege these boys did not have.
Bren had an active imagination but couldn’t picture any future yet, he was still dreaming about girls and the one he can smell directly next to him. “I don’t rightly know, but my brother gets the farm, and I’ll figure something out.” with a wink and smile.
Keyla watches her feet as they dangle over the edge, just glancing up to see a man pass her coming from the city. First …it was the shoes that caught her attention, they were nothing more than leather coverings tied with twine. His pants were attached to his shirt made from one long leather strip that was closed at the front. From behind the growth on his face…. too long for a gentleman…he looked her straight in the face.
As the man passed and the young woman was curious, clearly a poor man, but yet he walked with importance and gusto. Over his back he carried a large wooden tree pod from the giant trees in the north, but it was halved and worn as if a carpenter’s tools had molded it. The resemblance to a large brown walking turtle made her giggle. A wagon stopped abruptly and two boys jumped down and began to follow the man down the embankment under the bridge. Men halted their horses, resting on the saddles, watching over the railing to the scene below.
“What’s happening?’ The young woman asks.
Bren rolls his eyes and looks the other direction, showing his contempt. “It’s just a River Runner.” He stands up on the railing and points below.
Old Thom greets the new arrival with a slap on the back and leads his small band up to the wet edge where the pod was lowered into the river next to a large dangling rope strung up under the bridge. Speaking as loud as the river, Old Thom takes on the role of master of ceremony, as if he was waiting for the opportunity.
“Today one of our number heads down to Port City and we pray to the Mother to protect this River Runner, and we ask the Goddess to be merciful by offering this sacrifice of blood and Drink. Leaning over he tosses a combined liquid from an old cup in his hand.
The boy settles down beside her and whispers in her ear. “I think it’s just water, Old Thom wouldn’t waste any Drink.”
She nods unsure what Drink was, or why the old man even threw anything in a river so wide.
“This River Runner, my own apprentice and teacher himself, will join with the river and become one with the rush of the current. I bless you, the Mother blesses you and the river becomes you. Go and come back safe, Zauch, my friend.”
The crowd cheers and Zauch nods solemnly and shakes the hands of the few men around him. Jan Jan is given some attention as Bren notices with a twinge of jealousy arising within him.
“What’s that wooden thing?” Keyla asks, absolutely riveted by the whole spectacle.
“It’s his boat, crafted from the seed pod of the giant tree, see inside it, that box in the front is a waterproof kind of shed, it holds valuable things, like papers or money, things that have to get to Port city quickly and safely, the wealthy pay him a lot of money to run down the river. “
“Why?” Her curiosity was getting a full set of new information today.
“Cause it’s dangerous, with the rapids.. and the rocks …and the waterfalls… and robbers who’ll kill a man just for his gold teeth.” Bren leans in closer believing destiny was smiling on him today with such a beautiful object to be close too. “The seed pod is said to be indestructible.”
The young woman watches with eyes wide from a new found respect. Zauch steps into the pod and wraps straps around his legs tightly, putting pressure on the oars at his feet. His leather gloves reach out and hold on to the rope firmly as he nods to the old man and then to the boys who slowly push the pod out into the rush of the river.
The crowd holds their breath and the pod swings out into the dangerous flow of the water. He holds the rope and pulls himself outwards across the river. The pod rocks for a moment till the Runner regains control and eases into position, then he smiles at the crowd on the bridge. They were squeezed together on the bridge to watch the release of the runner, this was the best show in town.
Bren senses the next question tells her. “The pod can’t be released at the river’s edge, it’ll be crushed on the rocks before it reaches the first falls, has to be launched near the center.”
The River Runner with sure solid arms begins to scoot hand and hand along the rope. The pod and it’s contents registering in his legs, made lightweight and durable…. as a Runner must be sure of his pod as he is the river is deadly. His arms relaxed and deliberate, making slow grasps, keeping the pod steady as possible. He knows all his strength must be saved for the first few falls and the narrow area between a series of rocks. Death is always a looming force, yet this moment makes it all worth it, when the crowd screams and cheers and all eyes are on this simple mineral digger turned River Runner.
Trained by Old Thom, the original River Runner, who made hundreds of runs in his good years, this Runner was on his twelfth trip and the pride of it still wells inside him. His pod was found high in a great northern tree five years ago. He knows it’s strengths, he knows it’s weight and its curves. Half of his pay is lined into his clothing, for the delights of Drink and festivities waiting for him in the Port City. He is the master of the river and ceremony.
The cheering dims and Zauch knows he is at the center. Carefully balancing on the rope he steadies the pod with his weight, looking at the bridge to get his horizon straight. The river purrs below and he sighs with eyes closed taking in the feeling of calm. His toes curl testing the paddles and more gentle pressure is applied. A bird sails above curious about the smell and sight of the small figure on a wide river but the River Runner stares ahead steady and focused.
He releases quickly in a jerk and pulls his hands inward to the straps on his legs. The pull of the river yanks his stomach quickly with the sucking in of breath, the glee of the prior moment met with slight fear as the River and Runner are one. The movement is violent as water rises gently over the edge of the pod and then he is pulled forward under the bridge at tremendous speeds as the river grips him like a cat with a bird in its paw.
Bren and Keyla jump down and cross the bridge with people shoving and pushing to grasp the opposite railings in vicious grips. Men point in wonder, women swoon fanning their bosoms with much smiles for one another, and the children jump up and down with dogs barking ceaselessly in excitement from the open wagons.
The Runner now with calm resolve masked on his face, pushes the oars into the water guiding the pod in a gentle glide toward the open gap between the rocks. It is a small waterfall and with a light flop, the Pod sails over with grace. The Runner pulls his oars in once sure of his course and grasps the straps at his legs. Space and air meet the water and whoosh he lands safely, pulling out the oars, to line up for the next much longer fall.
The Waterfalls here are deeper, farther and a certified man killer. Not last harvest a Runner off course ran into a boulder the size of a small cabin. They found the pod intact a bit down river, but the body was only half found. The sound is deafening on the rocks and a man could lose his mind, but Zauch was well trained and as the pod flies off the edge and the man leans back to balance the weight, he can view the clouds and the edge of the fall flying away from him. He reaches into oblivion and seeks the power of the flow of water. Twice the pod flew up and down into the rush of waves and then settled into the pull and away down towards Port City.
The crowd loses sight of the pod and then it is over and the moment is gone. The wagons load up with the kids and the pedestrians begin strolling in the afternoon sun. The two young adults walk slowly down to the embankment where Jan Jan is engaged in conversation with the Old Thom. The bearded man turns to the new arrivals. “Whose is this lovely lady?” He winks.
“Old Thom, Jan Jan, this is Keyla, my school friend, she’s moved from Port City.” The old man takes her hand and in a sly move, kisses the top lightly. “Ahh…my second favorite city.”
Jan Jan nods at the young lady and returns his gaze to the river. She watches his face for signs of interest, but notices the other two staring and she smiles shyly aware of the oddness. Old Thom turns to the older brother.
“Remember Jan Jan if you are serious… you must begin to learn to balance now, everyday.” He wanders off and says over his shoulder. “You are welcome to visit anything Keyla.”
Jan Jan smiles widely and his heart beats with excitement. Keyla notices the usual demeanor of the older boy is boiling away with an energy that quickens her heart.
“Dang, that is going to be me someday.” He rubs his brother’s annoyed head and speaks softly to himself. “Yep, that’ll be me.”
Keyla says her goodbyes and the boys watch her bound away. The older asks.“How old is she?”
“Bout my age, maybe older” Bren and Jan Jan ignore the other and sigh with inward needs.
The brothers with nothing more to say walk home in silence and Jan Jan’s grin reverts back to the serious face of the first born, intent and simple.
Near the center of Iron Town just off the boulevard lined with cobblestones, a young woman sits in a top floor window looking out at Iron City. Her room was refined with luxury and fine furniture, however books, artwork, science experiments and dirty clothes lay about much to her Mother’s annoyance, but she smiles enjoying the freedom her daughter has.
“I am going to the tea shop now, would you like to come?” She asks in her polite way.
Keyla used to love listening to the women talk, gossip and read the Cards at the tea shop, but today she had other interests.
“I don’t feel well, Mother, I am sorry.” She keeps her face sad and looks over at the doorway where her Matriarch puts on her walking gloves.
“Perhaps, but I sense something else” Mother smiles again and turns slightly. “It will be interesting to see what the Cards will say.”
It was a threat and Keyla was worried, the Goddess and her Magic should not be trifled with but her mind was elsewhere and the Tea shop was not of interest. As soon as the door closed, she jumps down, reaching under her bed for her Uncle’s’s Sailor box.
Her Mother’s older Brother had been a hero, a spy and a sailor but was now retired in Port City. Mother kept the mementos with pride, including a telescope. Keyla stood at the window looking down at the river with one eye closed and the other spying the spaces below like a rouge on the prowl.
A few men sat by the old bridge, but she knew they held no interest. Scanning over towards the shallow pools she found what she was looking for. The young man stood balanced on top of a pod, bouncing up and down in the wake of the river. She smiled as the timing was perfect and ran down the stairs to escape into the sun.
An old world architect had built their mansion and it’s garden gate proudly bore local iron. Iron Town’s wealthy district had cobblestone streets that always slanted slightly downwards like the tail of a long snake. The brisk walk through the bustle of the city was always fun for Keyla. Her father was usually busy so her freedom was unheard of …for polite society but nonetheless she worked her way to the Bridge, past the Shack and down to the pools.
Bren was focused on his training while his father was at market selling the wares of the farm and Old Thom was coaching the young man. “Straighten ur back boy, feel the river, feel it’s pulse and timing.” He glanced at the arrival of the girl and feared for the inevitable. Bren looked up as well and promptly fell into the pools. With a sigh Old Thom yelled at the young man. “Keep practicing” then turned to Keyla with a glimmer in his eye. “What brings you out to the River my dear?”
She thought quickly. “I wanted to dip my feet in the water to cool off, in the heat.” Summer was underway and not yet unbearable so it seemed like a sensible answer to Keyla.
“Fine idea Keyla, come join me.” The old man found a nice rock at the edge and patted a flat area next to his dangling feet.
Bren nervously attempted to ride the pod while the girl took off her shoes and added her pale feet into the water next to the original River Runner. In a quick moment when her flesh was exposed to the sun, he fell once again into the pool.
“Where is your mother on this lovely day?” asked the bearded Man.
“She is at the Tea Shop… of course… as is her custom.” Keyla watches the young man.
“Focus…..Jan Jan….focus…” he yells loudly and with a timid voice asks “Have you ever heard the story of Mad Jaques?” She hadn’t and so Old Thom spins his yarn.
“Once upon a time a stranger wandered into Iron City. This was back when the fine brick houses were beginning to line the boulevard, when the merchants, those that could afford to build, had stores, salons, shops with refinements and expensive items. The town was laid out with sturdy warehouses by the river and mining works up by the mountain. The old buildings up on the hill were for the poor and working men who drank and yelled and fought like the poor always do.”
Keyla had only been in Iron City for a short time and had never ventured up into that area of town.
“This was the nature of Iron Town, when the new arrivals crossed the bridge, a welcoming committee would judge those suited to what part of town. A fine hotel erected with many rooms was full of the business minded and those with means seeking opportunity. Those of a slightly less persuasion would settle into a boarding house down by the river and the warehouses. The diggers, servants and risk-takers would be ushered away from the newly minted City and up into the dredges of the old mining town, where they were sure to be taken advantage of. This was the way it has been.”
Bren stopped looking at the girl and managed to stand on the pod looking up at the bridge for a level point. Old Thom smiled at his success and appreciated the distraction. He finally got to the point.
“Mad Jacques came not from the river, or the wagons, but wandered into the middle of town with two mules from the Mountains. He’d stare absentmindedly at buildings and peer queerly at the women with tight cloth around their waists and giant hats. He went to the fine hotel with his huge beard, shaggy head and furs wrapped on every conceivable square inch of his body and you know what happened?”
Keyla knew, she was aware of the class divide and which side she was on. Old Thom continued.
“The doorman refused to open the door. Management was called and with a few mere grunts he was turned away lest the proper authorities were called. No words were uttered, just pointing and finger shapes. The Stranger moved on down to find the river boarding house. On the way to that establishment the man stopped at the bank. It was just as eventful and no sense could be made of his requests, as he spoke a different language. Same problem as at the Boarding house, as his donkeys couldn’t enter. Turning around he made his way back up the mountain to find a stable. This stranger could not be understood. Mad Jaques wandered the streets speaking his language trying to find someone who could understand him.”
Keyla wondered where this story was going and wondered about the time, her mother and if Bren was going to talk to her.
Old Thom seemed to shift gears. “You’ve been to the tea shop with your Mother?
“Yes, she loves the place, and reading Cards.” Keyla didn’t mention her Mother had a long history with Magic, and was training her daughter in the arts.
“That tea shop used to be owned by a woman named Maary. She was born in the old country in a wealthy family. Maary attended the best schools in the east, and then traveled across the sea with her family to Iron City becoming refined and proper. When she was of marrying age, her father was murdered and the business stolen by rivals. Her inheritance was mostly gone, her mother heartbroken and she had no future. Thankfully with the kindness of her mother’s friends she set up that small tea shop near the tower, and the new wealthy women would come with their daughters to learn refinement and read Cards. The Tea shop became the feminine center of Iron City.”
She hadn’t known that, and stopped watching the boy, to peer into the Old Man’s face with an intentional focus.
“Time passed and no suitors came, so there she was living a meager life above that shop, serving tea and teaching out of her kitchen the young women of this city. Then one warm day with the windows open, she heard a question spoken outside that reminded her of something from long ago. Putting down the tea pot, Maary wandered out the door. She answered the phrase loudly to the surprise of the women in her shop and the stranger in the street.”
Old Thom smiled, closed his eyes and spoke quickly in a foreign tongue… a beautiful set of nouns and verbs. “Can anyone please help me, the stranger said… that what it means…sort of…more like ….can anyone be kind to me, but in his language… please and kind are the same thing, but the point is…she was able to understand Mad Jaques.”
Keyla smiled and looked out longingly at Bren and the tone arms that balanced in wonderful symmetry. The old man rambled but she loved the poetry within and the moment was perfect.
“The donkeys were strapped outside and this hairy furry man came into the tea shop chasing the women away. If you can imagine, the refined young lady sitting in a tea shop alone with a very hairy foreigner, eating vicariously, drinking tea and speaking words to each other…. no one else understood.“
Old Thom hurried to the ending as training was still underway. “AS the story goes, and told by eager girls waiting for their prince, he was from a wealthy family overseas, and wandered too far south while searching for gold in the mountains of the north. He was an adventurous man, who amassed a fortune. Can you imagine it? The next day, Maary entered the boulevard with a handsome wealthy clean shaven man and did three things. She translated for him as he placed his physical gold into credits at the bank, she sold the tea shop to my sister and left Iron City for the old country with her new love. Mad Jaques wasn’t actually mad, he just wasn’t understood.”
Keyla pondered the story, and the reason she was told it. Old Thom stood up and pointed at Bren that it was time for a different training, then focused on the girl one more time.
“These lines we create between poor, rich and ….wanting… are imaginary and only in our own heads. Best to remember that, and that tea shop remains, a powerful junction for the women of this Valley.”
Keyla never talked to Jan Jan but wandered home slowly, putting her Uncle’s sailor box back where she found it. When her mother arrived home she found the girl in the library with her nose deep into a history book.
“Feeling better my love?” She asked
“Yes, thank you Mother” Keyla paused and asked directly. “Did the Cards say anything?”
Her Mother smiled, sitting at the edge of a settee looking out the window to the river below.
“Yes, I saw the old man with the lantern, a woman by the River pouring water out by the glass and the completion of a cycle.”
“What does it mean?” The girl wondered.
“Time will tell, my love, time will tell.”
Deja woke each morning before the sun and cared all day, each day for her men. Barren after the birth of Bren, she had taken in wayward orphans and it gave her some joy in calling them…. hers. Pa never liked the extra mouths to feed and once the Drink began it’s destruction, the children never came back. She had been sought after once and had legs that were admired. While the beautiful girls sat in the corner, the men took turns dancing and spinning her… so her dress would rise and the legs could be seen by all, twirling and flexing to the fiddle and tub beats.
Now she woke with red welts from bed bugs and a lack of food had made them skinny and discolored. Each day she rose and worked the day away on the dying farm, even trips to the market full of rude city folks and strangers made her miss her village. This numbness feeling increased each passing year.
The heat of the midday was working across the farm and the thin shadows left tiny warped lines across the kitchen window sill. She stared at the tiny dark lines intently and a far away casual movement shifted her attention. Deja noticed her eldest son working at the field’s edge with his muscular shoulders straining under the constant sun and swaying of the shovel. With a sigh, she places some biscuits and dried meat in a cloth and walks out the door. Her dark hair shining in the sun except for a few strands of gray. Her legs ached with each step self remembering the dancing days of yore.
Looking out at the depressed farm, her one single desire left in the world comes to mind, to see grandchildren racing along with her legs. It seemed far and distant like a tired mule on the horizon. For what woman no matter the looks and goodness of her son, would want to live here in the dirt? She thought of the girl down by the river, turning into a beautiful woman and wonders if her son will win her love and the wealth it would bring.
“Your Pa is gone till supper.” He hadn’t noticed her arrival and the shoulders stiffen as if a far away dream had been interrupted. “So I want you to go, be a boy, before your too old.”
Jan Jan turns and looks at her, his handsome face was red and wet, his untrimmed hair flowed wild and unkempt. His eyes though looked solemn and old as if she was too late to save the boy.
“Here take this, eat it on the way” She walked back to the shade, safety and prison of her home. “Tell your brother and maybe see that girl.”
Holding the cloth with the familiar hard bread and aged meat, he smiles slightly not for his mothers insinuation about the girl but for her ignorance and love. Throwing the shovel over his shoulder he strolls to the shady entrance of the barn, wiping his face with his shirt and adjusting to the darkness of the barn. The tools had a proper place and he was always sure to find it, with a slight jump he crawled up the ladder to the hay storage and over the bales to his brother’s secret spot.
His brother as usual was asleep in the light of a crack in the barn’s side. His feet propped up wearing unnecessary shoes to the otherwise clean clothes. His brother did very little chores and was expected to do less. Not that he minded, he understood, his brother’s place was not here but somewhere that hadn’t been revealed. He kept Bren’s secrets and his brother kept his.
“Going to the river?” asked the boy.
“Yea, ma got us lunch.”
He peaked from under a straw hat at the meager offerings and shook his head. His slight frame stayed slight and he cared not for strength or agility. His strange mind lived in his imagination and existed in the nothingness of the brain. “Have fun.”
Jan Jan stood a few moments as if waiting for something. “Keyla’s been around a lot recently by the river.”
Bren gave no indication of hearing and stayed silent, he was almost a man himself and he loved Keyla Yet he feared after his brother with his brawn and bravery, learning the ways of the River Runner. If the way she looked at him and the way she looked at her brother never changed, he could not accept a future with either. As his older brother grunted and disappeared behind the bales he stared at the inside of his straw hat unable to put together words. His mind floating in doubt, pity and unbearable longing.
The ball of fire burned equally in the great valley and relief was hard to find. The harvest was soon and the summer had been long and costly. Jan Jan practiced walking foot by foot balancing as much as he could. The forest between the farm and the river was shorter and shorter each year. Good timber was becoming hard to find as well as firewood in the winter or maybe they were all just colder because they were hungrier.
The need for singing entered his brain as both soothing and engaging. His voice carried like a petal in the wind and he hoped for a glimpse of golden girl. Jan Jan sang new lyrics to an old song, and she was the subject. Keyla was growing up and filling out, the scent of her could drive him insane. He found himself watching her neck as it moved while she chatted away with Old Thom by the river. She came by often enough for months and sat on the bank at times while he trained. As the summer dragged on he came back to the river less and less. He wishes he could watch her sing, or dance, or at least be less obvious with his staring.
Jan Jan strolled past the farms and down to the old shack. Piercy lay in the shade. He was a good Runner, reliable but seldom hired on account of his family. No one wanted to hire a married man with kids. They wanted single men, expendable and always wanting more. Men who would risk their lives in the dangerous river seasons, to earn the money… then spend it carelessly to return for more. Piercy made enough money for his family but little else for Drink or staying in Port City. “Jan Jan, lovely day ain’t it.”
“Aye, where’s old Thom?”
“Down by the pools with a new apprentice.” Piercy points away from the shade into the sun and heat.
With a shrug he heads down under the new bridge and toward the quiet pools in an inlet area of the river. Old Thom with his legs in the water, just below the rolled pants points his cane a seemingly innocent distance from a floating pod. The young man inside frightened and squirming, clings to the edge of the strange boat, trying to regain balance in the bobbing. Old Thom yells gently then suddenly smacks the boat with his cane forcing it down as the water pours in over the side. With another good push the pod flips back and forth until the kid falls out leaving the pod empty except for his pride. Jan Jan waits for the old man to stop laughing and humiliation to be over till he joins the training party.
“Keep going, try to stay balanced while getting on and off”Old Thom leaves the water and joins Jan Jan sitting on the bank. They sit for a moment in silence and then share the hard biscuits and meat.“Lot’s of chores?”
“You always have chores Jan Jan, you never train.” The young man protested that he did the exercises. “Away from the river is not training.” Old Thom hits the ground with his cane and then points out to the river. “You need to join the flow ….. out there.”
Both men sigh, aware of the problems. Responsibility and honor are deep traits in farmers and the son of farmers. Jan Jan’s father knows nothing of his training, for what would the first born, inheritor of the farm need to learn the ways of a River Runner.
“When am I gonna do my first run?”
“Are you ready?” the Mentor almost yells. Jan Jan smiles but turns quickly to a serious soulful look of longing.
The older man munches on the biscuit watching the boy once again fall into the shallow pool. “Do you have a pod?”
“You know I don’t.. but I could borrow one.” Jan Jan pleads
“NO” the old man struggles up on his cane facing the young man “No one would lend you his pod as much as a man would lend you his wife, you can’t run the river on a borrowed pod, it must be yours, you must love it and understand it, honor it, you must go seek it.”
Jan Jan looks past the Iron bridge to the mountains and the rocky terrain in the distance and wonders aloud.“Alone?”
The old man doesn’t answer but shuffles up toward the path above, pointing and yelling loudly at the soaked student, who has yet to get back on the pod.
“You, boy, leave the pod, Jan Jan must train, he is not ready.” and limps away with a wet student.
The young man left, stares at the pod and places his hands on his head. He had mastered the pools months ago and rather quickly. He could mount the pod, navigate almost to the river itself, but always avoiding the flow. A fear would grip him and he would turn back. Once into the flow there is no way back, smash into the rocks or go over the falls.
A group of children fresh from the city run downward from the bridge seeking the cool waters of the pools. They tear off the ridged clothes and jump screaming and roughhousing into the refreshing coolness, away from the prying heat of the sun. The young man’s misery is projected outward and the children ignore him but retain a slight curiosity of the pod. They watch him for an abandonment of a potential toy.
Time passes as he watches the pod bob slowly away up and down in the tiny waves made by the children. He smells her first, off the wind like a forgotten memory. The misery is lifted and a calm settles. “You gonna swim?”
“Not sure if it’d lady-like of me.” Keyla had gambled once again on finding the young man alone and she beamed at her success.
He turns to see her approach carefully to his side. Her ankles white and smooth catching his eye like a glint of silver ribbon to a crow. Her floral dress billowing in the wind so he can see parts of her knees. They never do much talking when he’s around her, mostly he just watches and smiles. She has been watching him back. Keyla stands next to him looking down at the little pod in pure wonder as if all the dirt and dust flew away and left a vacuum of uninterrupted space.
Jan Jan suddenly becomes aware of his own dirt build up, his own smells and the heat arising within him. Jumping up suddenly, he pulls off his shirt, and wades into the water till he can dive under. “Hell good thing I ain’t a lady.” He calls out before disappearing under the cool waters. He knows she said something in return but missed it. Submerging deeply he swims outward to the drifting pod, emptying his thoughts and the inward heat at once. He stays under for as long as he can then slowly drifts back up.
“What’s that ya said before?” he yells into empty space. Looking toward the bank he finds it empty but for his scattered clothes.
The pod just to the left of the bank floats gently so he reaches out mindlessly grasping it’s sides and pulling toward him. The view obstructed by the pod reveals the rocks to the left of his clothes and on the rocks an empty dress.
“I said ….it’s a good thing I ain’t a lady yet.” She’s floating a few feet from the pod,her hair wet and pulled against her head.
He watches her silently and her eyes never waiver but hold the look with intensity. The gentle drip of water falls from her nose and on to her lips. He pushes closer to her, releasing the pod and rising to his feet. His chest warming instantly in the sun. Without a word he moves closer tilting his head to gauge her response. She moves away slowly with a smile on her face deeper into the water.
“Don’t be getting any ideas there Jan Jan.”
She splashes him quickly giggling. They both begin to splash violently moving circles in the shallow pool. His large hands have a distinct advantage in the battle. She finds refuge behind the pod, splashing sideways and hiding when necessary. In a moment when the view is blocked, he swims under the pod, pushing it aside and picking her up as if she weights as little as the pod itself. She screams in pleasure as he tosses her over his head and into the water. Surprised by his own actions he stands ashamed hoping he hadn’t hurt her in the shallow water. Keyla stands up, her undergarments clinging and heavy with a shocked look on her face. A moment passes while the two reassess.
“Damn …you are strong.” He laughs at her swear and smiles splashing at her again. “No, no… I want float in the pod, help me.” She takes charge of their play with a sharp word.
They move to the pod as he holds the thing balanced as she pushes on to the side, her ass showing to the world and bridge alike as she remains stuck a few minor moments. Settling into the tiny seat she holds on the edges ignoring the paddle inside. “What now?”
“Hold on girly” She yelps as he pushes the pod quickly out toward the other side of the pool and lets go as it glides roughly toward the playing children.“Get the paddle and steer it… see ya a natural.” he grins with the fun.
The girl pushes the pod in circles then straightens out and heads back toward the young man. It builds up speed. The children now yelling and watching the scene, begin to swim far behind trying to catch the girl. When it reaches Jan Jan he grabs the edge and spins it in circles while Keyla yells in fake fear. After a minute of laughter the pod comes to a gentle roll and the two face each other, him hanging from the front, her sitting on the seat gripping the edges.
Their eyes are locked, the tightness in the pit of their stomachs deep and powerful. The silence is awkward and their fingers just an inch apart on the side of the pod, close in as if magnets pulling closer in nature’s game. There was something magnetic about it
“Hey mister, I wanna go next.” said the kid who swam the fastest.
The children all crowd around the pod, some standing, some swimming, holding on to the edge. Keyla pushes off from the back of the pod, slipping into the water and swimming over to the rocks. The boy climbs into her place fighting with the other children for control, all while the young man’s eyes never leave the girl in the water.
Keyla watches the Young man talk to the children with a softness and yet assertive manner. He was an excellent orator of the River Runner creeds and mantras. She swims back to her clothes and nervously slips back into her dress over the wet undergarments while musing over the new information. He was in her spell, she had caught her mouse and it was time to play, and yet..she wanted truth, stability and justice. What was real?
At the bridge she looked down to see he was resting in the sun, his muscular body soaking in the heat and driving her mad. It had to be love, it had to be true. She thought and smiled at the children who pushed themselves in the pod pretending to be the conquerors of the river, and great River Runners each and everyone.
The snoring from the other room had a rhythmic feel, their father’s loud grunts floated around the house. As the familiar sounds of the night became constant and settled, Jan Jan rose gathering his things. The excitement of the coming night and possible success left him restless and now the time was upon him. The young man slaps his hand over his brother’s mouth and presses his weight over the thin frame. The shock is noiseless and violent with slight thrashing but the soothing shush brought calm
“Hush now, just hush, I need to talk to you” The older sibling whispers quietly.
Bren is silent and still, waiting for the punchline “I need a favor from you, and I never ask for nuthing.” The boy nods and Jan Jan releases his hand and backs off the bed kneeling next to his head.
“I’m goin up to the mountains in the north.. I need a big head start, so you gotta cover for me.”
“What do you need?” Bren whispers
“You tell pa, that I went hunting for the night, get some fresh meat and…..” He pauses allowing the insanity of it to sink in. “…and I need ya to do my chores.”
“Why now?” asks his brother.
“Well ya need to know the truth, the farm ain’t doing good, Pa owes a lot of coin, and this year’s harvest might not fix it. We gonna lose the farm unless we get a lot of coin.” Bren nods and his brother continues. “Now if I do a river run, it would be enough to save the farm. But I need my own pod….listen…you gotta do my chores, get the wagon ready in the morning for market, and all those other things.”
The moment lingers both understanding the consequences, the closer Jan Jan gets to reaching his dream of being a River Runner, the closer he gets to breaking his father’s heart. Both brothers know the farm is going to be abandoned but neither wants to be the first to leave.
“I’ll do it, but you be back and safe or Pa will skin me for winter.” Bren smiles weakly.
The brothers watch each other carefully. The last few months had been busy with little time to go to the river. The summer heat gave way to too much rain and now winter was breaking. Neither talked or tried to come to grips with the coming changes and above all else, Keyla’s love was an unknown ridge for either. Then like a silent bobcat the brother was gone.
A slight chill from the fallen night kept Jan Jan awake but his thoughts roamed the vast spaces of his excited mind. He moved onto the open road empty and moved by the shining moonlight. Following the road northwest along the river he caught sight of deer running in packs of four or five, drinking from streams in frolicking play. Tempted by the easy kill he keeps his weapon stowed for the inability to carry anything more up into the mountains.
He traveled far into the morning while the frosty dew settled on the open meadows. By sunrise he stood high on a hill looking down upon part of the valley as the city was blocked by the west mountains. He could even imagine what the valley looked like without the towers and boulevards. The way it used to be with tiny villages scattered along the river and the wayward hills. He let the sun bask his face in glorified rays and he pretended he could see the river all the way to the sea.
The sea itself was unseen by his family and a strange mystery. A mythos of epic adventure, a whole body of water further than the eye can see and salty. That last part amazes Jan Jan the most, to taste salty water, smell the salt, and swim as if in curing salts. With a contented sigh he moves upwards into the shadows of the great mountains with the unknown and beast alike.
By mid morning in the cold shadows began to give way. He continued to follow the river till he reached the valley with the large red rocks. Old Thom told him that the mysterious rocks had fallen from far up high in the west mountains crashing and laying waste till it rested in the thin valley marking the way to the giant trees.
Sitting on a boulder with the minor sun shining down on the last open space before the tall trees. It was midday and he rested eating his hard biscuits and dry meat and quietly panting tired as an old dog. He knew he needed substance. His weapon was a buckshot with a black power fuse. Sure enough, a small band of rabbits played in the rays. He opens fire on the band with a bang that echoes in the trees. One confirmed dead and one blood trail, after a short search and an hour of prep, Jan Jan feasts on one meal and over cooks the other for later. His groggy tired body gives up to the strange dreams and becomes a human log. Then after some hours the purpose comes to mind and with a shake he rises and pushes into the trees ahead of him.
Turning into the tiny little crevasse, it wound through the mountain, wide at times and no thinner than the ribs within him. He crawled and twisted, then roamed to the open mouth of the valley of the Grey Mist. It stretched up into the Grey mountains themselves like an opposing force or watchful sacred grounds of some unknown god, filled with hidden knowledge.
The Grey Mist is like entering a ghost. The trees are vague and foreign, the soft remains of snow weak and dull. It’s as if the world has become dead. The young man keeps his mind sharp by speaking aloud the codes of the river runner, remembering each lesson, each mantra. Only when the sound of his voice returns unearthly and distorted and the songs of branches remind him of the gentle perfumed syntax of her voice and Keyla becomes a distant apparition, then his spirit weakens and pace slows. The crunch of the wood at his feet and the slush of his stick sticking into the snow. He breathes out and his breath joins the mist to work against him as if his whole being was being absorbed. Jan Jan’s ears get cold under his hair perking to every creak and noise. Snow falls from high in the trees crashing down like a surprise attack. He wraps his handkerchief around his head covering the cold and sounds alike.
Then as if it never existed the mist is gone and there stands the giant trees of the north. Unburnable, unbreakable, and possessing an age as old as the mountains themselves. The sun peaks out from the branches descending to sleep behind the earth. Knowing time is of the essence he scans the tops till he sees the pod, his pod, as if calling him. The pods are nature at it most extreme, the pods were once seeds, but the trees are too old to be fruitful. The pods rarely fall from a healthy tree, but rather become a part of it, growing to a certain size than hardening for a lifetime of seasons.
The young man grabs a rope from his pack, lying it on the ground and adds a tiny saw sticking out of his pants and begins to throw at the nearest branch. After three tries it catches and with strong arms, true and steady begins the long journey upward. When the path is reachable he does it free hand using his excellent balance and when the branch is too far, he uses the rope. The ground falls away and he rarely looks down watching the sun descending quickly. A distant yelp comes from the forest floor where wild coyotes tear his pack apart looking for the leftover rabbit. The time is short and a pitch black climb down would not be advisable, so he moves quickly. Finally as the sun is halved against the mountain edge he reaches the pod, a beautifully round and solid seed. No snares or ill shaped holes. Just testing his luck he kicks it to no avail. So the sawing begins, just above the thinnest point, it takes only minutes and with another good solid kick it sails downward to the ground far below with a healthy thump.
The wind at this height is strong and cold and once the frantic climb up is finished the coldness sets in and he begins his descent. His hands behind the leather gloves start to freeze and harbors his ability. Desperate he squats on a giant branch pulling up bark and grasping leaves, pulling them into a tiny pile. He starts a fire with the flint in his pocket warming his hands and body. Lighting various handmade torches using strips of the handkerchief he drops them downward hoping for a lighted path. One lands on a branch smoldering slowly. The sky is completely black and all that is visible is a couple points of fire, the path is a blacken mystery. Unsure if he will freeze in the night or the fire keeping him alive would burn through the branch sending him to his death below, he waits for a miracle. Time stretches longer and as he warms himself atop of the world he reflects.
In the very core of his being he doubts the future. His boyhood dream of becoming a River Runner, of flowing downstream with all of the world’s teeming life. To see wonders and sights, the taste of diversity, and the knowledge of different fruits. The thought of staying has always seemed ugly and void of emotion. A joyless life toiling on the farm. His brother is smart, and will succeed in the city, but all Jan Jan has is the dream. The talent is still ….an unknown. Then there is her, to lose sight of her is like the clouds blocking the stars from the soothsayers. That constant reminder of the possibility of love, the desire to feel and be joined. To leave is to leave her, to allow Keyla to live her life without him. The choice is unanswerable, the different angles are opposite and yet unimaginable to choose.
He stares into night, feeling the burden, the pain and the faces tugging in his mind, then as if Keyla’s face is replaced by a shining light he notices the moon has come from behind the hills and shines brightly his path to the bottom. Hungry, cold but filled with renewed hope he starts a fire and warms himself on the ground, then sets about finding his pod with fire and stick. The coyotes watch him with reflecting eyes in the night as he drags his seed next to the fire and fighting the fatigue begin the long task of opening and emptying his fresh pod.
The sun perks up silently warming the camp site. The embers from the fire are still warm with a wisp of smoke rising gently. The site is littered with the remnants of the inside of the pod and the torn pack of the young man. Strangely the pod seems intact as a bird lands on top bobbing its head in a causal curiosity. A noise inside shakes the pod and the top flips up to reveal the hollow center where Jan Jan slept in relatively cramped but warm comfort. For the long hike ahead he uses the leftover rope to fashion a harness the pod and carries his weapon in anticipation of the hunt.
The Grey Mist seemed almost cheery this time around and the downward slope made the journey quicker. With a little creative maneuvering he makes it through the crevasse. He reaches the red rocks while the day was at its peak. He crept silently, getting used to the weight of the pod. A medium sized female deer fell a meager distance from the shore, with metal it it’s brain, luck had been again on his side as his gun fired the best possible shot. Hiding the pod until he could later retrieve it, he carried the deer on his shoulders the rest of the uncomfortable walk.
Jan Jan was surprised by the way he felt seeing the farm, it was home, he missed it, it was the only place he’d ever known. His thirst for adventure was still strong, but this place was a part of him. The sun had dipped mostly giving an orange glow, as if all the plants and fences and buildings were more real and vibrant. Smoke rose from the fireplace and the smell of food soaked into his stomach doing turns. He crashed through the door, his shoulders tired from the weight and slapped it on to the kitchen table with a noisey slump. His family sat around the fire, supper already eaten, with the remnants heating slowly in the stove. Bren was nose deep into a book barely glancing up at the arrival, mother was creating a quilt and his father staring drunkenly into the fire.
It was quiet while each looked up to his return. He felt like a man, proud and happy. His mother responded first by moving to get him some food and seemingly both happy at his success and return and unhappy about the unnecessary drama bleeding on her kitchen table. She beacons him to the fire. The men sit quietly.
His brother watched over the pages, his eyes full of emotion as his father complimented Jan Jan on the meat watching over the pages, his eyes full of emotion.
“Did ya go far?” his father asks. The young man points towards the mountains. “Up to the red rocks, not much game these days, had to wait awhile.”
His father nodded, and drank from his jug. The mother sat at the table looking into the beast’s eyes, as if waiting for the energy to deal with the coming task.
“Boy gots to explore.” Jan Jan felt he got away with it, and sighed in relief, eating the food placed in front of him like a ravaged animal. His father pleased and future looking better. “You did well.”
A weak smile crosses Jan Jan’s face as he nods to his brother who nods back. Years of brotherly anguish and unspoken feelings washed away in a feeling of trust. The secret that each held, the future for both looking bright and successful, all was well in the universe.
“See ya numskull” Their father kicks in Bren’s direction in the open air, but a strong gesture no less that seemed to cross the room and caused the boy to be unbalanced on the stool he sat upon. “Your brother did his chores and brought back fresh meat, what the hell did ya ever do?” The man settles in his chair swigs wildly at his Drink. “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
Bren smiles in his secret knowledge, knowing his future would shock the family, but Jan Jan would would cast the first stone away the family farm. The River Runner would soon be on his way to Port City.