Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chapter 10 (concluded)

The Ship, and her Captain

Since the light never changed, it was impossible to tell how long it took them to reach the place where the trees met the water.  The dragonflies continued to divebomb them, and the mosquitoes continued to try to drain them of their blood.  More birds flew overhead, and they saw wading birds as well, hunting in the scattered pools that were so covered in floating vegetation that they were practically indistinguishable from the marshy land.  Some of the birds were white, a couple were a bright red, and one was an electric shade of violet.  None of them seemed inclined to abandon their work for the trivial circumstance of passing primates.

Traveling became easier as Johnny learned how to recognize the transitions from solid ground to mud or outright shallow water.  The wading birds were a giveaway, of course, but not every pool had those.  There were large, black insects that skated along the surface of the water in nearly every pool, but those were hard to spot until you were practically on top of them.  The various rushes and reeds were the best indicators.  Gradually Johnny learned to lead them in a twisty, staggering path that kept them mostly dry.  As they drew closer to the trees, they also began to hear evidence of life from the close-set woody jumble: cries that might have been monkeys or jungle birds, larger things crashing through the thick bushes, and a strange noise that Johnny could only describe to himself as reminiscent of the noise Tigger made in the Winnie the Pooh movies of his childhood, if Tigger had been less of a cuddly stuffed animal and more of a vicious carnivore.

As they walked, Johnny snacked a bit on Sandra’s food from his vest, but mainly he was too excited to care much about eating.  This was utterly insane, sure, but also galvanizing in a weird way.  At this point, he was anxious to see what would happen next.

When they finally reached the tip of the treeline, it was obvious this was a much bigger body of water than the small pools they’d encountered thus far.  There was still no sign of the water itself, buried under layers of floating plants, but the wading birds were here in flocks, and Johnny could make out bright blue water snakes, no bigger around than his finger but as long as his forearm.  The trees at the water’s edge were mangroves with thick, intertwined trunks that transitioned seamlessly to thick, intertwined roots, and shadowy forms lurked in the cages they formed, both above and below the waterline.  The bushes and shrubs and Larissa-sized ferns were thicker here too.  Across the water they could see more trees and bushes that might indicate islands, or a far shore, or anything in between.

The mangroves effectively blocked any hope of turning left.  To the right, it was mostly bushes and ferns, with some smaller, scrubby trees that might have been some form of willow, and one hugely tall specimen some way off that was obviously a palm tree.  Johnny stared at the palm for a moment, then looked back at Larissa.  He wanted to ask if palm trees grew in swamps, but perhaps he ought not point out any more anomalies today.

“Let’s go this way,” he said, indicating the general direction of the solitary tree.  “I don’t suppose you’ve got a machete in your jacket somewhere?”  He felt sure he was still smiling, and thought it was probably inappropriate, but there was no use fighting it.

Larissa didn’t answer, but then he didn’t really expect her to.

They pushed through the thick vegetation as best they could, though it got thicker as they went along.  By the time they reached the copse of stunted trees that surrounded the signpost palm, they could no longer see their feet, and there was only blind optimism between their lower extremeties and any poisonous reptiles or arachnids that might inhabit the area.

When they emerged from the screen of trees, the first thing they saw was the ship.  Technically, he supposed it was an airboat, although it didn’t look like any airboat he’d ever seen.  Of course, his experience of airboats was primarily limited to miscellanous movies set in the Louisiana bayou and reruns of “Gentle Ben,” but he was pretty sure airboats weren’t generally that big.  Or made of wood.  Or had figureheads.

It looked mostly like a smallish 17th century sailing vessel—perhaps 20 to 30 feet long—but, instead of sails, it had the flat bottom and huge rearward-facing fan that would make it swampworthy.  The fanblades were made of a metal that looked like brass, but the cage that held it in place was some sort of bamboo, and Johnny couldn’t see any engine at all.  The ship had a structure on it that perhaps housed two or three rooms, and there was a cabin on top of that, as well as what Johnny knew from his father’s brief yachting stint was called a flying deck.  The whole thing looked impossibly heavy, even for that monster of a fan, but it perched on the surface of the water like a bathtub toy.  At first Johnny could see no signs of life, but then he spotted a man with his back towards them, on the shore.  He appeared to be rearranging some crates.

Johnny and Larissa stepped cautiously toward this surreal scene.  Johnny wondered if it would be safe to approach this stranger, but he couldn’t see they had much choice in the matter.  Perhaps this fellow would know where they were, what the purpose of this swamp was, what had drawn him here.  An answer to any one of these questions would be worth the risk.  They drew closer, the sound of their approach masked by the shuffling of the boxes, and finally Johnny, not wishing to startle the man, said “Excuse me?”

The young man turned towards them then, flinging his dark blonde ponytail over his frilly white blouse, and suddenly Johnny wasn’t so sure it was a “he” at all.  It may have been a young man, but then again it might have been a young woman.  Johnny was reminded of those anime-style video game characters where you were never sure what gender it was supposed to be.  Plus they always had non-gender-specific names that were no help at all.

“Hi,” he or she said brightly.  “I’m Roger.”

And yet, thought Johnny, that makes me feel more than ever that she’s a woman.

Larissa stepped up and eyed Roger critically.  “Historical pirates didn’t wear shirts with ruffs on them, being for the most part too poor to afford such things, in addition to them being completely impractical at sea.  As would be those boots; seawater would collect in the tops, and the soles would slip on the decks of the ships.”  She gazed up with wide eyes.  “And Roger is an unusual name for a woman.”

Roger threw her head back and laughed, and it was that more than anything that told Johnny that Larissa was right about her gender.  It was a rich, throaty laugh: definitely the laugh of a woman.  “Well, my little lassie, whoever said I was an ’istorical pirate?  I’ve never seen the sea in me life.  And as for me name, how do ye know all the women of me clan aren’t named such?”  She winked, theoretically at Larissa, to whom she was talking, but Johnny couldn’t help but feel the wink was only for him.  “But I won’t pull your leg.  Me da’ always wanted a boy, he did, so Roger I am.”  Of course, that didn’t explain why she looked as if she’d stepped out of a pirate movie, but by this point Johnny had seen so much weird shit that this was nothing.  In fact, compared to stumbling upon a swamp in the sewers underneath DC, finding a woman who looked as if she’d stepped out of Cutthroat Island was practically normal.

Suddenly there was a red and blue flash streaking through the ferny undergrowth, and something shot up Roger’s leg, ran up her back, and perched on her shoulder.  It was feathered and beaked, with the colors that Johnny associated with a macaw, but with the arms, long-fingered hands, and prehensile tail of a small monkey.  The eyes were not bird eyes, definitely, but the way it cocked its head and clicked its beak was certainly ... well, parroty.

Johnny looked over at Larissa, fascinated to get her reaction on this new development.  She had her head cocked to one side as well ... the opposite way as the creature on Roger’s shoulder, Johnny noticed.  They stared at each other, patrons at a zoo sizing up unfamiliar creatures.

Suddenly the creature screeched: it was mostly a monkey noise, with just a hint of squawk.  To Johnny’s surprise, Larissa hissed like a scalded cat.  Roger still wore an inscrutable smile.  “Now, Bones,” she said, apparently speaking to the creature on her shoulder, “these are friends.”

Johnny looked at her in surprise.  “Are we?”

Roger flashed pearly white teeth at him.  “Well of course ye are!  Ye’re here to help.”

Johnny’s eyebrows drew together.  “Uhh ... okay.  If you say so.”  He shrugged and turned to Larissa, but she was now studiously ignoring the impossible feathered primate and seemed to be waiting for further developments.

Johnny looked back at “Bones.”  “So ... what is that thing?”  He supposed this sounded vaguely impolite, but at this point, he felt beyond caring about social niceties.

Roger raised a leather-gloved hand.  “This?  This is Bones.”

“Yeah, I ... I got that.  What is it?”

“It’s me companion.  Say hello to the nice people, Bones.”

The parrot-monkey turned its attention to Johnny now, and squawked “Mangy cur!”

Roger laughed her throaty laugh again.  “Never mind him,” she said to Johnny.  “That’s just his way of saying ‘ahoy!’.”

“Ummm ... right.  Well, good to know.  Say, do you have any clue what the hell we’re doing here?”

Roger studied him closely for a moment.  “Ye’re here to help me find it, unless I miss me guess.”

Johnny blinked.  “Sure,” he said, throwing up his hands and giving up on having things make sense, not for the first time this week.  “Sure, why not?”  He felt the unwarranted grin return to his face.


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