Feb 14 2011 6:06pm
The Bird of the River (Excerpt)
The sun came up. It warmed Eliss’s back and felt good after the freezing night. From their camp up here on the hilltop she could look down into the river valley, where it was still dark. The river barges lay silent in the blue gloom, and only now a white transparent trail of smoke from a galley cookfire rose up through the shadows into sunlight, flaring into red and gold.
A thundering crash of disappointment followed, however.
Eliss found the pipe and pouch, right there beside their campfire. She crouched down and stared into her mother’s face. It was a young face, but lined and exhausted, with shadows.
Eliss told herself that just because Falena had left out the pipe and the pouch didn’t have to mean she’d been smoking the Yellow again; maybe she’d taken them out but resisted the urge. Maybe she’d realized how stupid it was to smoke Yellow the night before asking for a job, especially when times were so hard. Maybe, after struggling with herself, she’d realized how disappointed Eliss and Alder would be when they saw she’d broken her promise again. . . .
Falena sighed and shifted. Eliss looked back at her and watched as her mother opened her eyes. Eliss felt her heart sink. Falena’s eyes were yellow again. After all she had said about starting a new life for them . . .
Eliss averted her eyes, too angry to speak. She watched sidelong as Falena sat up, yawned, and, noticing the pipe and empty pouch, swept them hastily under a corner of the blanket. Falena was in her early thirties. She had been plump and shapely most of her life, but in the last few years had grown thin, especially in her face; smoking Yellow took away the appetite. She used to say she did it so as to leave more food for Eliss and Alder, but then Eliss had discovered how much it cost.
And it cost more than the money they so seldom had. A thin diver found it hard to get jobs, for only plump women could survive the cold of the deep sea or the rivers. Worse: Falena did terrible, stupid things when she smoked Yellow. It was because Falena had done stupid things that they had wandered without a home the last four years, from camp to camp, from uncle to uncle.
Even the uncles were fewer and farther between now, as Falena’s looks faded. Alder couldn’t remember them all. Eliss could. The clearest in her memory was Uncle Ironbolt, who had had gang tattoos and a lot of money, and been a genial man when he wasn’t drinking. He had actually provided them with a house for a couple of years, before a rival killed him. That had been back before Alder was born.
Eliss remembered Alder’s father. Alder was now ten, small and stocky. He had used to be a placid child, calm in the worst crisis, but lately he had started to show a temper. He rolled over, on the far side of the ashes of their campfire, and sat up. “It’s going to be hot today,” he said.
“What are you, the Weather Cricket?” said Falena, giggling. He glared at her, seeing the yellow color in her eyes, and looked at Eliss. She looked back and made a hopeless gesture.
“Oh, what are the two of you so sour about? It’s a bright sunshiny day! And maybe Mommy will get a nice sunshiny job today. Lissi, I’ll pack everything up. You get dressed, baby. Lissi, why don’t you take the baby and go down there, see if one of the stallmen will sell you something to eat?” Falena pointed down into the river valley.
Eliss rolled her eyes. She had no money to buy anything. Surely her mother knew that? But this was one of the lies to cope with it all: Falena was hoping the stallmen would have pity on two homeless waifs and give them something, a little fried fish or some boiled straj meal. Alder pulled on a long shirt with a hood and stood up. “I’m dressed. Let’s go.”
“But people can still see your legs, baby.”
“I don’t care. It’s hot.” Alder was tired of hiding the color of his skin.
“Lissi, make him put some pants on.”
“It’s a long shirt,” said Eliss. “Nobody’ll see. It’s hot, Mama.” “You kids,” said Falena with a sad laugh, shaking her head. “It’s so little I ask of you, you know? And all for your own good . . .” Eliss scrambled to her feet and took Alder’s hand, leading him away down the hill to avoid another whining argument.
“What are we really going to get for breakfast?” asked Alder.
“What ever we can find,” said Eliss. Alder nodded and pointed into a green patch on the yellow hillside, a few feet off the trail.
“There’s water under that. Got a stick?”
Eliss pulled a stick from a dead bush and gave it to him. Alder waded out through the yellow grass and dug with the stick, and in a few minutes came back with three big muddy tubers. Together he and Eliss found a spot just out of sight of the hilltop, where they settled on a fallen tree trunk and Eliss drew her little knife. She peeled the tubers and sliced them up. The tubers had crisp white flesh, juicy and cold, a little sweet. Eliss had no idea what they were but Alder always knew what sort of wild-grown things were good to eat.
They were still sitting there, crunching up the last of their breakfast, when Falena came wandering down the trail. Eliss stood up and waved and her mother came straggling over, lugging their bundles and the cookpot.
“What did you get?”
Eliss held out the third peeled tuber. “You want me to cut it up for you?”
“Thank you, Lissi baby, Mommy would like that.”
Falena ate slowly, often stopping to remark on how nice the tuber slices tasted. Even when she had finished, she seemed disinclined to move from the fallen trunk.
“This is a nice spot, you know?” she said at last. “Beautiful view of the river. We should have made camp here last night, instead of up on the hilltop. Dumb thing to do. That cold old wind blew all night.”
“Yes,” said Eliss. “Well, why don’t we go on down?”
“Oh, there’s no hurry,” said her mother, slowly rocking herself to and fro. “I mean, we’re here now. At the river. Lots of barges down there. What do you say, kids? Why don’t we just camp here a couple of days? Let me get my strength back from the long walk.”
“No, I think we ought to go talk to the barge captains now,” said Eliss. “We don’t know how long they’ll be there. Remember what happened at Port Blackrock?”
“And Green Hill,” said Alder. “And Sendrion.”
“All right, all right.” Falena drooped. “You kids never forget anything, do you? Lissi, take the cookpot.”
They went down the trail, which was so steep they had to lean backward to keep from falling, and at the last descended through a gully cut in the crumbling mud of the bluff, backing down on hands and knees. Finally they stood on the plank platform of the river town. Eliss looked around with interest.
The place was beginning to awaken. A man, still munching his breakfast, walked up to one of the great ware houses and unlocked its doors. There were hammocks strung in the underbranches of a great tree that overhung the riverbank, and now people began to emerge from them, throwing out rope ladders and climbing down. They went to stand in line before a big tent on which was painted LOADING OFFICE. People were waking up on the great barges and lighting cookfires, and so were the stallmen who sold fried fish and hotcakes. A crippled man wheeled himself out over the planks to a sunny spot, put down a can for donations, and struck up a tune on a hurdy-gurdy.
Eliss was fascinated. She’d never seen such a place; all the other cities of the Children of the Sun were cut from stone, solid and permanent, sometimes without so much as a single tree to show the seasons changing. Here, though, everything endured by floating. The docks on which all the stalls and ware houses stood were made to ride and fall with the river’s flow, like anchored barges. The stalls and ware houses themselves were lightweight and temporary, so many tents and board-and-batten shacks. And Children of the Sun sleeping in trees? She had thought only the Yendri lived that way, in their brush villages back in the forests.
And here were some Yendri after all, wading out into the shallows off the far bank like so many herons, raising their hands to pray. No one was taking any notice of them except Alder, who stared. And no one had noticed what color Alder was at all. Eliss decided it was a good omen. If Falena failed to get a job, at least it wouldn’t be because one of her children was of mixed race.
“Where’s your certificate, Mama?” Eliss asked. Falena stopped and dug around in her bundle until she found the scroll, somewhat tattered and crumpled now, the certificate from the Salesh Divers’ Mother house testifying that Falena was a trained diver able to hold her breath for as long as it took to recite the Prayer to Brimo.
“I guess I’ll need it,” said Falena.
“Of course you will!” Eliss felt the surge of anger and panic that came when she suspected Falena was going to sabotage herself again. “Are you crazy? You know that’s the first thing they’re going to want to see!”
“Don’t upset me,” said Falena, with an edge in her voice. “This is going to be hard enough.” Alder tugged at Eliss’s hand and shook his head silently. Eliss pursed her lips, but trudged doggedly toward the nearest barge, towing Alder after her, and Falena had to follow. A deckhand was sweeping, sending puffs of straw chaff through the scuppers. “Excuse me,” Eliss called from the foot of the gangplank.
“Sorry, I haven’t been paid in a month,” the deckhand replied, not looking up.
“We aren’t beggars!” Eliss felt her face grow hot. “Does your captain need a diver?”
“What?” The deckhand raised his eyes. “Diver? No, we’ve got a diver. She’s a good one, too.”
“Well, do you know of anybody around here who needs to hire a new diver?”
“Lissi—maybe we shouldn’t—”
“Couldn’t say.” The deckhand studied them, looking puzzled. “You didn’t check with the River Maintenance Office?”
“Where is it?”
The deckhand pointed to a rambling shed on the next dock.
“Thank you and may the gods bless you,” said Eliss, and turned and made off for the shed, still pulling Alder along.
As they jumped the shifting space over the green water between docks, Falena said: “Lissi, I know we talked about this . . . but, you know, the truth is, I’m not so sure my lungs are up to it anymore, and—”
“All you need to do is stop smoking and they’ll get better,” said Eliss. “And if you have a job you can sleep someplace warm and there’ll be enough food, so you won’t catch so many colds. You’ll be fine. Come on.”
The River Maintenance Office hadn’t opened for the day. There was a water clock behind the window-grille, with the pointer creeping up toward the hour.
“See, we can’t talk to anyone yet,” exclaimed Falena.
“It’s only half an hour,” said Eliss. “We’ll wait.” She dropped her bundle and sat, immovable, and Alder and Falena had to drop their bundles and sit too. The sun, which had been such a blessing after the bleak cold of the night, was soon unwelcome. It poured down sticky heat in the motionless air. The green trees all along the tops of the river gorge seemed to droop and melt as the day heated up; Eliss wouldn’t have been surprised to see smears of green like candle-wax running down the clay bluffs. The insects started in with a buzzing drone. The smell of the river, rank and weedy, became oppressive.
Just as Alder and Falena were getting mutinous, however, the pointer reached its grooved mark. There was a faint plonk and a little silver figure with a trumpet swung up from the rear of the clock. A shrill whistle sounded. At the same moment, a woman opened the door from within, kicking the sill where the door stuck.
“Good morning!” Eliss stood up, practically under her nose. “Are you the person we would ask about jobs for divers?”
The Rivermistress took a step backward. She wore a long necklace of green agate beads, her badge of office. “Are you looking for work?”
“She is.” Eliss pointed at her mother. The Rivermistress looked doubtfully at Falena, who gave a feeble giggle. Her hair had gone limp in the heat and she looked tired and dispirited. The Rivermistress averted her eyes.
“Dear, you don’t seem up to the weight,” she said.
“She’s been sick,” said Eliss. “And she really needs a job.”
“Where’s her certification?”
“Right here.” Eliss thrust the scroll at the Rivermistress, who took it and peered at it. “Of course she doesn’t have the weight right now to dive in the sea, but the rivers are warmer than the sea, aren’t they? And we thought, well, a river job would be perfect for her until she’s stronger, just shallow warm dives. Please. I need my mother to get better.”
The Rivermistress twisted up her face and retreated another step backward. “Of course you do. Come in. Have a seat. Let me see what I can do for you.”
They filed in and sat on a long bench, with Falena fanning herself and making soft complaining noises. Alder sat with his fists clenched, staring out the doorway. Eliss kept her gaze riveted on the Rivermistress, who went to a great bound book on a lectern and turned through its pages. She looked older than Eliss’s mother but strong, with no trace of gray in her hair. Eliss thought she looked kind. Eliss hoped she was.
“I could help her, too,” Eliss told the Rivermistress.
“Are you certified?” The Rivermistress looked up at Eliss.
“No-o, but I’ve been watching her dive my whole life.”
The Rivermistress shook her head. “It’s harder than you think, dear.”
“That’s what I always tell her,” said Falena, shaking her head too. She rubbed her left arm. “Never listens. Everything’s harder than you think, Lissi.”
“You could try the Bird of the River,” said the Rivermistress. “That’s the big river maintenance barge. She’s here now. They always need divers.”
“What kind of work is it?” Falena asked.
“Clearing snags, mostly,” the Rivermistress replied. “Salvaging wrecks, when they happen.”
“That’s not as hard as making hull repairs.” Eliss looked at her mother. “You said so. How much does it pay?” she asked the Rivermistress.
“Food and lodging, provision for divers’ children, and a copper crown piece for every snag cleared. With a doctor’s care, if you get hurt. Bonuses for any wreck refloated and/or salvaged.”
“That’s not much,” protested Falena.
“It’s better than what we have now,” said Eliss.
“It’s the standard rate for shallow-water work.” The Rivermistress closed the big book. “Take it or leave it. Your choice.”
“She’ll take it. Where do we go?”
The Rivermistress pointed. “Three ware houses down. The one on the end has a big kingfisher painted on it, right? And just beyond that are some pilings painted green, and that’s where she’s moored. You can’t miss her. She’s bigger than anything else. The Bird of the River. Her captain’s Mr. Glass.” She hesitated before adding, “Though maybe you’ll want to talk to Rattleman. Mr. Riveter, that is. That’s the first mate.”
The Bird of the River was, yes, bigger than anything else, and that included the floating settlement itself. Eliss thought it was bigger than a few villages she’d been through, a whole separate town of huts and tents built on one barge. There was even a windmill, its vanes rotating lazily on a tower on the aft deck platform. The Bird’s deck was broad and scarred, streaked with yellow mud. Women crouched around a central deck house where the galley fire had been lit; they waited to cook breakfasts or heat water, dandling babies as they gossiped. Men went back and forth in a line, loading on sacks and crates of supplies. Children dove from the rail into the river, or chased each other across the deck. At each corner was an im mense capstan for hauling up chain and in the center a great mast was mounted, with a furled square sail and an observation platform above her crosstrees. Her figurehead was tiny by comparison, a sawn figure in her keel where it rose above the rails, the cutout shape of a little singing bird. Its flat wings were thrown out, its head arched back as though in joy.
“This must be where the gods will smile on us at last,” said Eliss. “Don’t count on it,” said Falena in a dull voice. But she followed her daughter to the edge of the dock.
“Excuse me.” Eliss waved to get the attention of a small boy who sat on the nearest capstan, fishing. “Could we come on board and see Mr. Captain Glass?”
“Captain’s drunk again,” the boy informed them.
“See?” Falena said to her daughter.
“But you can talk to my daddy if you want.”
“Well, is your daddy the—”
“Daddy! There’s some ladies want to talk to somebody. Some ladies and a . . .” the child stared at Alder. “And they got a greenie with them!”
Alder ground his teeth. “Well, there it goes,” said Falena, turning away. “I told you.”
“Wolkin, what did I tell you about climbing up there?” A man strode toward them, a sack of meal on his shoulder, but he was glaring at the boy.
“Not to do it when we’re hauling cable. But nobody is, Daddy. And anyway—” the boy pointed at Eliss and her family. “She needs to see you about something, and there’s a greenie.”
“Are you the first mate?” Eliss asked the man, grabbing at Falena’s arm to keep her from skulking away. “Mr., er, Rattleman?”
“Right! That’s who we were supposed to ask for. You need to hire a diver, right?”
Mr. Riveter looked them over uncertainly, shifting the sack to his other shoulder. He was a man of average height, lean and bearded and fearsomely tattooed, but his face was open and rather innocent. “I suppose we do,” he said. “Do you know one who’s looking for a job?”
“She is,” said Eliss, pulling Falena closer and waving her certificate at Mr. Riveter. “She’s certified and trained and everything.”
“Daddy, look at the greenie!”
“Wolkin, that’s not a nice word!” Mr. Riveter peered at the scroll, slightly crosseyed. “So, er, you’re Miss . . . Mrs. Hammertin?”
“Don’t call me that again,” said Alder to the boy, quietly.
“You want to mess with me?” Wolkin threw down his fishing pole and jumped to his feet on the capstan. “You don’t want to mess with me. I know Mount Flame assassin moves!” He balanced on one foot and struck an aggressive pose.
“And, er, it says here you’re certified to deep dive. We don’t pay deep divers’ wages, though,” said Mr. Riveter.
“That’s all right. She doesn’t mind taking a shallow-diver’s pay,” said Eliss.
“I’m a Yendri,” said Alder to Wolkin. “You don’t want to mess with me either.”
“And, er, Mrs. Hammertin, do you have any, er, health problems of which I should be informed?” said Mr. Riveter.
“My chest hurts sometimes,” said Falena.
“She’s been a little sick,” said Eliss. “But she’s getting better fast.”
“Oh. Well, that’s nice to hear.” Mr. Riveter eyed Falena, scratching his beard. “You’re sure.”
“Mount Flame assassins kill! You never even see them coming! Yaii!” screamed Wolkin, launching himself from the capstan at Alder. He judged his leap badly and missed the edge of the dock, vanishing in a fountain of green water.
“Wolkin!” A woman in diver’s harness ran to the edge of the barge and looked accusingly at Mr. Riveter. “He wasn’t supposed to go in the water until his ear is better.”
“I don’t think he meant to fall in,” said Mr. Riveter.
“He came in crying last night for the drops in his ear—” began the woman. She paused, waiting for Wolkin to surface, but the little trail of bubbles coming from below stopped. “Wolkin!”
Mr. Riveter dropped his sack, and Wolkin’s mother began to scramble over the rail, but Falena had already slid out of her tunic and dived into the green water. Mrs. Riveter was poised on the edge of the dock, ready to leap in after her, when Falena resurfaced with Wolkin in her arms. The little boy’s face was pale, he was coughing and gagging, and began to cry when his mother took him from Falena.
“He got caught under a cross-piling,” said Falena.
“Please don’t make me wash the dishes,” Wolkin begged.
“We’ll talk about it later,” said Mrs. Riveter. She looked at Falena. “Thank you. Were you trying to get a diving job?”
“Yes, she was,” said Eliss.
“You should hire her,” Mrs. Riveter told Mr. Riveter, and carried Wolkin away up the gangplank. And that was how they joined the crew of the Bird of the River.
Copyright © 2010 by Kage Baker