Call (Chapter 5 Part 3)
Grinning ear to ear, Chaff raised his foot. “Look at this, Lookout! My toes are all wrinkled!”
“That is…adorable, Chaff,” deadpanned Lookout. “That is so interesting.”
Chaff wiggled his toes, immensely proud of his himself. “It’s ‘cause we been walking in water all day, yeah? I don’t walk in water much. Just the river every week or two when I need a wash.”
“You are very intelligent,” said Lookout, not looking up. If Chaff didn’t know any better, he’d say she wasn’t listening to him.
A straight, rigid tree emerged from the mud like some jagged tooth. She leaned against it, fiddling with her tabula. Sinndi sat on the branch above her, wings tucked firmly by her sides, her flat face turning slowly, side to side. Ever since the run-in with the bathawk, Lookout had been wary of sending her owlcrow up to scout again.
Chaff tapped the big guy on the side, when it became clear Lookout wasn’t interested in talking. “You ever see this many trees all together, big guy?” said Chaff, looking around. “There’s a name for a grove this big, yeah? Gotta be. All these trees so straight and skinny too.”
His neck outstretched, his big lips pulled back to reveal teeth shaped like tombstones, the big guy cast a baleful look in Chaff’s direction. He flicked his ear, and continued to browse the nearby foliage, although there were so few leaves here that Chaff wasn’t sure if it was worth the effort.
“You standing real straight, big guy,” said Chaff, craning his head up to look at him. The big guy’s head was so high up that Chaff felt he could lose him in the morning fog. “What, you don’t like trees being taller than you?”
The big guy snapped off an entire branch with his teeth, dropped it to the ground, and began to pulverize it with his hooves. Chaff took that as a yes.
“This place different, yeah?” said Chaff, swatting away something that was buzzing around his ear. It flew away with a forlorn hum, and Chaff watched it go. He noticed suddenly the quiet of the marsh. The river Gammon had always been loud with the sound of merchants; the waterholes by the groves had always been crowded within a few hours. Yet, here, there was not a sound. It was like someone had stuffed cotton in Chaff’s ears, and he became intensely aware of the sound of his own breathing, the rise and fall of his chest.
“How you doing, big guy?” asked Chaff, uncomfortably aware of the loudness of his own voice. “You doing OK? Them two marshmen gonna come back soon, don’t you worry.”
No response. Evidently the big guy didn’t feel like talking either (not that he ever did). Chaff tried Lookout again.
“What you doing, Lookout?”
“Sleeping,” she said. “Can’t you see that I’m sleeping, Chaff? I am obviously asleep.”
“Oh. OK.” Chaff sat in the mud, hugging his knees. “You having nice dreams?”
Lookout scrunched up her face, pinching the bridge of her nose. “The very best.”
“What’s it about?”
Lookout sighed. She looked at Chaff, met his gaze, and pursed her lips. Above her, Sinndi focused her gaze on Chaff as well. “It’s a memory, actually,” Lookout said, finally. “About a boy named Walls.”
Chaff sniggered. Even by Shira Hay wild child standards, it was a funny name. “Walls?” he asked. “I gotta know the story behind that.”
“It’s not a long one. Kind of stupid, actually. We were a team back in the day. The Lookout on the Walls, you know?”
Chaff raised an eyebrow. “You are…on him?” he asked, slowly.
Shifting from her place on the tree, Lookout stood straight and rolled her eyes. “And his mind goes straight to the spring flowers. Should have known better than to bring that up around a boy your age.”
“Do I say something wrong?” asked Chaff, blinking. He stared at Lookout, confused.
Lookout paused. Both Chaff and Lookout stared at each other for a long time; Chaff was waiting for an answer, while Lookout seemed wary. “That wasn’t innuendo?” she asked, finally.
“Chaff, you’re dumb,” said Lookout, although she seemed relieved. “Moving on.” She closed her eyes and leaned back against her tree.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Chaff jumped to his feet, mud clumps falling onto the ground and his feet. “I want to know more. What’d you guys do together? As a team?”
A small grin split Lookout’s lips, although she didn’t open her eyes. “Stole things. All kinds of things. Food at first, then little trinkets. Walls broke into the Twin Libraries once. You know the electors keep their best books chained to the shelves? Didn’t stop him. Snapped it, stole it, got away. That was the other reason for his name. Not a single wall could keep him out, or in.”
Chaff imagined this Walls character like Shimmy: thin, lanky, always full of nervous energy. Shimmy was always climbing things, too. “Was he part of Tattle’s crew once?” asked Chaff.
The grin vanished from Lookout’s face. “Yeah. Once.”
Her sudden change in mood made Chaff step away. As he tried to think about what he had said wrong, something dawned on Chaff. That day, by the river, when they had wandered too near the Alswell wagon…the boy Lookout had talked to, the slave…
“Lookout,” he said, slowly. “Was he the old runaway guy?”
Lookout didn’t speak for at least a minute. The quiet of the marsh swirled around them, dense and thick as fog. “They got his name wrong. Called him Walsh after they caught him.”
Chaff was silent, thinking about how he had replaced Lookout’s close friend. It felt all wrong. He didn’t run fast enough, Lookout had said, all that time ago. It had seemed so callous at the time, but now it just seemed…hurt.
“He was stupid. We were stupid. Everyone thinks it, but we were cocky enough to try it, you know? Rob the fields. Rob one of the farmer’s mansions, even. Hurricane was dead-set on going back, and Walls thought that he was good enough to get out, I suppose.”
“But you can find him, can’t you?” asked Chaff. He held the girl’s tabula tightly in his hands. “You can always find the people that are important, yeah?”
Lookout’s head rolled as she turned to look at him. “I told you, Chaff. They burned him. They hung the body over the bridge.” Her voice shook. “We were going to steal him back. The whole crew promised, once we got out, that we were going steal him back. And then we lost Veer, too…”
Chaff stared at the ground. Lookout had tried so hard to get her friend back, but before she had been able to do it Albumere had killed him.
That wouldn’t happen with the girl. He wouldn’t let it happen to the girl.
“Do you miss them?” asked Chaff, after a while. “Him? And Veer?” Veer had been nice to him, Chaff remembered. If not nice, at least friendly. She deserved more than what he had been able to give her.
“I’m asleep,” said Lookout, and she really did sound tired now. “I’m dreaming, Chaff. It’s the best dream. Please don’t wake me up.”
He crept away without saying anything. “Watch out for her,” said Chaff, patting the big guy on the side, and the big guy flicked his ear in response. “I’m going to go find the guides. We want to get going, yeah?”
Chaff walked away without looking back, his feet squelching in the mud. He needed a moment to himself.
The quiet became that much more apparent when Chaff was alone. He made sure to keep the big guy in sight, but as the distance grew between them, the silence around Chaff deepened, and the fluttering in his gut grew. Lookout’s story had been disconcerting. Chaff furrowed his eyebrows. It wasn’t fear he was feeling…
It had shaken his conviction, he realized. Chaff shook his head. That was such a dangerous thought that he could not risk dwelling on it. He would find the girl. They would find each other. Lookout’s story might have had a sad ending, but his would not.
Alone, in the oppressive, cold silence of the marsh, Chaff couldn’t be sure of that.
He focused on the task at hand, looking around for his two guides. What were their names again? The girl was Sri, and the man was Gopalla or something like that. Or was the bathawk Gopalla? Either way, they had been true to their word. The bread had been fresh, and despite Lookout’s reservations the spring snails had been rather good: firm and chewy, with a crunchy shell. According to Gopalla, they were delicacies in Kazakhal.
Chaff hugged his shoulders. Was it just his imagination, or was the mist getting thicker? The big guy was nothing more than shadowed blur, and more than once Chaff mistook him for another one of the tall straight trees when he turned back to check. Perhaps it was time to go back.
He was just about to turn around when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a figure in the mist. Chaff turned to wave, relieved that he hadn’t wandered all this way for nothing. He began to walk towards his guide, smiling.
Except it wasn’t his guide at all. Chaff blinked. It didn’t even seem to be human. It was shaped like a man, certainly, but what would have been its skin was just bark and wood.
It was just a funnily shaped tree.
Disappointed, Chaff turned back, but then he froze. Trees didn’t have eyes.
He twisted around, and the man-shaped tree was still there. On what looked like its head, there were two slits, jagged slots that glowed amber-gold. As Chaff watched, the wood began to pull away where its mouth would have been, and this third opening was filled with the same amber-gold light.
“Chaff!” shouted Lookout. “Chaff, they’re back!”
Attention torn, Chaff dashed back to human company. The quiet and the fog were unnerving him. He looked over his shoulder, but the trees—man-shaped or otherwise—were gone. A trick of the light? Chaff scrubbed his eyes. A man could go crazy in these swamps.
“You want to be careful walking this place alone,” said the man, eying Chaff. “The ground is treacherous.”
Chaff nodded, although to him it seemed that the trees were much more dangerous. “You find a way?”
“This way,” said the marshman, pointing. He began to walk. Chaff looked upward, but the man’s beast was nowhere to be seen. Lookout walked ahead, constantly craning her neck while Sinndi stayed right by her side. The owlcrow looked somewhat smug, like she was enjoying the coddling.
The girl fell in step beside him. Chaff considered her for a moment. She was willing to help him through the marsh; perhaps she could be trusted with other information as well. Chaff asked, in a low whisper, “Hey, what’s this place called?”
Sri looked over her shoulder, as if Chaff could be talking to someone else, and then turned back to him, her mouth a little open. “Kazakhal,” she said, finally.
“Well, yeah,” said Chaff. “But…this place. It got a name?”
“The Quiet Marsh. That’s what the folks in the village call it, anyway.”
It was a fitting name. Chaff stared at the trees of the Quiet Marsh, trying to think of a way to phrase his next question. His thoughts were interrupted as the man beckoned for them to follow. They took a winding path across a particularly deep stretch of water; Chaff held out his arms for balance as he put one foot carefully in front of the other. It was beginning to dawn on him that he didn’t know how to swim.
“Yike,” he said, turning back and watching the big guy follow. “That could be a problem.”
To his credit, the big guy simply waded through the water. His entire lower body was drenched by the time he re-emerged, but he had a placid, almost bored expression on his face as he joined Chaff’s side, dripping with brackish water.
“Spooky place, yeah?” said Chaff, as Sri joined him on the other side.
Sri’s features were not the same as the older man’s, but she had the same serious, pensive expression. When Chaff spoke, though, she smiled just a little. “Yeah. Spooky.”
“Does anything live out here in the marsh? Anything scary?” asked Chaff, looking around.
“Little marshkids sing a song about the poltergeist,” said Sri. “If I can remember how it goes…” She looked like she was concentrating hard. When she was sang, the tune was high and slow, and her voice was breathy. “Poltergeist that haunts the hollow, Hung himself where none could follow. Rope it snapped and now he’s drowning, Face stretched long and now he’s frowning.”
Chaff looked at her. It seemed rather dark for a children’s rhyme.
“Mutter, mutter, ‘geist on the tree, ‘All the rivers flowing to me.’ Dancing feet from lover spurned. Listen all now, lesson learned.” Sri took a deep breath. “Have your say and tarry not. On the noose you’ll prance and rot, Lest the poltergeist you be: Hang yourself where none can see.”
The boy waited until he was sure she was done, and then asked, quietly, “What does that mean?”
“They say that a man used to live in this marsh, just like us,” said Sri. “He fell in love with a beautiful woman, as beautiful as the Lady Spring herself. When she rejected him, he hung himself in his Fallow-born hollow, but his soul was trapped inside the amber sap and he never found a way out, and that’s why he became the poltergeist. He haunts the very center of the Marsh; he doesn’t say anything anymore, just mutters gibberish under his breath.”
“What’s he look like?” asked Chaff. His curiosity had already been piqued, but this story about haunted hollows and marsh ghosts was interesting enough for him to listen on its own merit.
“Like a regular man, but all covered in vines. His neck is all wrong from when the rope snapped, and his face has a great big frown on it, like this.” Sri put her fingers in her mouth and pulled her lips down, making a grotesque face that Chaff had to laugh at. Suddenly, Sri lunged at him, holding out her hands like she was some swamp monster herself, and Chaff jumped. Sri bowed her head. “My joke,” she said, quietly.
Chaff slapped her on the back, and laughed. “You really got me, yeah?”
Sri smiled. “Yeah.”
Chaff looked around. Now not only the trees were alive, but the vines and the swamp muck as well. This poltergeist didn’t sound like the bark-made man he had seen—but if that wasn’t it, then what was? “What about the hollows?” Chaff asked. “What are the hollows like here?”
The change on Sri’s mood was astounding. While before she had been at best mildly amused, now she was positively beaming. “They’re like nothing you’ve ever seen!” said Sri. “It’s so strange, but they’re nothing at all like cypress or juniper that you find here. I thought they might be like black gum for a while, but they flower a month or two after, and the flowers are this dark orange, not at all like the regular green-white. All the other hollows in the regions I’ve visited, in Jhidnu and Hak Mat Do, are just like the local trees, but the ones in Kazakhal are so different!”
Biting his lip, Chaff wondered if he might be able to sneak a word in edgewise, but from the looks of it he wouldn’t.
“I’ve been tracking their movements whenever I can—Gopal only lets me go so far on my own—but these hollows all move in strict circles. Isn’t that weird?”
Chaff nodded very slowly.
“All the other hollows have these winding patterns; they trade off, so the newest wave of young wild children is always isolated from the most dangerous of the wild animals. It’s not perfect, but there’s definitely a pattern to it. But the hollows in Kazakhal don’t seem to coordinate at all!”
“You know a lot about trees,” said Chaff. He felt like he had taken on a bit more than he could handle.
Sri looked away, a little embarrassed and a little proud. “It helps to study them. They’re very…reliable. No surprises.” Sri fiddled with her thumbs. “I’ve been meaning to ask…since you are from Shira Hay…what are they like there?”
“They move all the time. Every day, it seems.” Chaff scratched his nose. “And the water follows them, yeah?”
Sri nodded eagerly. “And the species? What kinds of trees are they?”
Chaff didn’t even have an educated guess for this one. “Hey, Lookout!” he shouted. “You know what kind of trees we got in Shira Hay?”
Lookout turned around, and scoffed. “Course I do,” she said. “We got thorntrees.” She stopped.
From Sri’s expression, it was evident she was waiting for more, but she made do with what she had. “Acacia,” she said, nodding. “See? A native plant, just like in the east. It’s so consistent, except here! And I know it’s not due to Fallow spreading them around because plants don’t have tabula.”
“Maybe hollows do?” suggested Chaff. He still felt a little lost.
“Do they? I don’t know!” And for some reason, Sri looked overjoyed by the fact. “There’s so much to learn. I read some scrolls while we were in Hak Mat Do, and I’ve already got some theories of my own, but there’s-.”
“Like what?” asked Chaff, genuinely curious. “What theories?” And in the back of his head, he made sure to remember that Sri, too, could read.
“I’ve looked at the numbers,” said Sri. “And you know something? There are so many more mentions of hollows in the older texts. It’s not just because they were more respected or venerated, either. They were actually more frequent. Chaff, I think…” And at this she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I think the hollows are dying.”
Chaff stared at the tabula in his hands. Sri’s information felt like another piece to the puzzle that was Albumere, but he had only a quarter of the pieces and did not even know where to begin to fit it. It was frustrating.
“Slowly, yes. It’s all very gradual. But think of the consequences! What happens to us if the hollows die out? What happens to tabula?” Sri looked ahead, with a wistful look in her eyes. “I just need more information. Have you ever been to the Twin Libraries?”
He nodded vigorously. He had left his scarf on the big guy’s back, but he still had his book under his arm. He wasn’t ready to show that to Sri, though.
“What I would give to spend a day there,” said Sri, shaking her head. “And if they gave me pen and ink, that’d be just…perfect.”
“Maybe next time I show you the way through Shira Hay, yeah?” suggested Chaff.
“Yeah. Maybe,” said Sri, and though she smiled and nodded, the excitement seemed to have died down. Chaff personally wondered how anyone could be so passionate about trees, but he supposed everyone had their own personal quirks. He flipped the girl’s tabula over in his hand, and wondered once again where she might be.
Was she as smart as Sri? What were her trees, her one subject that she could just be passionate about? Chaff promised himself he would find out.
His thoughtful mood was interrupted when he saw movement in the forest ahead of them. Gopal had edged behind a nearby tree, and Lookout was scrambling backwards as fast as she could, as Chaff heard heavy, thundering footsteps. It didn’t take long for him to see it.
It had eight eyes, and eight legs. Mandibles clicked on the sides of its mouth as it approached, and blubber hung off its bulky frame as it crashed through the trees. Fins protruded limply from the creature’s back, and its long, wide tail made a wide swathe in the mud as it advanced. It had a wide, blocky nose, and when it opened its mouth behind its mandibles, Chaff saw rows and rows of teeth on red gums.
After drinking in all these details, though, Chaff’s lasting impression was that the spiderwhale was much, much bigger than the big guy.
“Goodman Gopal! Goodwoman Sri!” shouted the man sitting comfortably on the beast’s back. He was bare chested, and wore only a length of cloth tied around his waist and a Kazakhal flat cap.
The spiderwhale came to a stop so close to them Chaff could feel the heat of its body. The man’s gaze drifted from Sinndi, to Lookout, to the big guy, to Chaff. “And who are your new friends?” he asked, coldly.
Posted on February 19, 2014, in 5.03, Chapter 5 (Beck & Call) and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Chaff, creative writing, fantasy, Gopal, Lookout, Lug, novel, original characters, Sinndi, Sri, story, The Bark-Made Man, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, Wozek, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.