Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chapter 11 (begun)



For what seemed like hours, Roger had them carrying things onto the ship and stowing them away.  She was bright and cheery, and had a curious approach of both treating them like they knew what they were doing and teaching them how to do it at the same time.  “We’ll make sailors of ye yet!” she’d say.  She gave the heavier crates to Johnny to lug onboard, and the smaller boxes and other small tasks went to Larissa.  Roger oversaw everything, but she worked hard as well.  Johnny didn’t know how she always knew when one of them was doing something incorrectly, or at a loss as to what to do next, but he suspected it had something to do with the weird parrot-monkey, which bounded and swooped around and called out stereotypical pirate phrases such as “Avast there!” and “Walk the plank!”  It seemed it couldn’t actually fly, but there was some loose skin under its arms with long, stiff feathers attached, and it would scurry, monkey-like, up to the tops of things and then leap off, gliding amazingly long distances, its legs tucked up under it and its feathered tail streaming out behind like a rudder.

At last, the last crate was stowed and Johnny sat down, exhausted.  He now knew how to tie three different types of knots and knew the proper terms for nearly everything on the boat.  And it seemed the ship was finally ready to set sail ... or perhaps ready to embark might be more accurate, for of course there were no sails.  “Jolly good, me buckos!” Roger called out, standing with her feet apart and her hands on her hips.  “Ready to weigh anchor?  How’re we lookin’, Bones?”

The red and blue streak shot up out of the hold and landed nimbly on a webbing of ropes on the side of the deckhouse.  “Red sky at dawn!” it screeched.

Johnny looked up, surprised.  “You actually have dawn here?” he asked.

Roger chuckled.  “It’s just an expression.  Means he thinks it may rain.”

Larissa spoke up.  “Why would you have a word for a phenomenon you never experience?”

Roger ignored this, looking out over the water behind the ship’s stern.  “Might rain, at that.  Shouldn’t be much to it though ... bit of a hig, I’d say.”

Johnny had no idea what a “hig” was, but he assumed it implied a light rain shower.

“Anyhow, we’ll need to get cleaned up afore we do too much else, so let’s get ‘er out in the deep.”

They followed Roger back to the wheelhouse (she called it that despite there not actually being a wheel, or a house, for that matter), where she grabbed a rubber handle attached to a cord and yanked it hard, just like starting an old lawnmower.  Immediately the fan roared to life and the ship began to sway gently back and forth.  Roger grabbed a large pole which stuck out horizontally.  “Here y’are Johnny.  Hold that there for me.”  Johnny obliged.  “Don’t let go, now, even if she bucks ye.”  Roger grinned at him, then strode off to the front of the boat.  Johnny heard a loud clanking, like huge chains being rattled, then there was a brief tug, and the back of the ship dropped precipitously, then the entire ship shot forward.  Johnny managed to hold on, but he was glad of the warning Roger had given him.

Roger reappeared and took hold of the pole, which she insisted on calling the “wheel” despite there being nothing wheel-like about it.  Johnny got close to her ear to be heard over the roar of the fan, and half-shouted “Why not just pull up the anchor, then start the fan?”

Roger kept her smile, but managed to convey the impression that this was a silly question.  “Not worth the risk!” she half-shouted back.

Johnny was fast coming to the conclusion that talking to Roger was somewhat like talking to Larissa.  That was okay; he was used to that by now.

“So,” he continued, changing tacks, “this thing run on gasoline?”

Roger gave him a quizzical look.

“Gasoline!” he said, louder.

She laughed.  “No petrol!” she called back.

Before Johnny could pursue this further, Roger flipped a switch and the roaring of the fan puttered out.  Johnny looked around.

They hadn’t come that far; he could still see the tall palm, perhaps a football field’s length away.  Perhaps they were in the middle of the lake, or river, or whatever this waterway was, but that was impossible to tell, because the water’s surface was still covered with floating plants, although there was a cleared out trail that marked their passage.  As Johnny looked, the trail started to disappear as the plants drifted back into the open space.

“Why’d we stop?” Johnny asked.

“Time to wash up,” Roger answered.  “Come along, me hearties.”

They followed her to the front of the deckhouse, where she pulled open a door and led them through a warren of rooms.  Finally they took three steps down into a windowless room which Johnny assumed must be in the very center of the structure.  It was lit only by a skylight.  The center of the floor consisted of a large square of wood which was somehow not part of the rest of the floor.  Roger strode over to a crank on the far wall and began to turn it; the middle of the floor slid smoothly back, like the sunroof of one of Johnny’s father’s cars, revealing the dark water beneath.

“Light ’em up, Bones,” Roger instructed.  Johnny noticed that, at each corner of what was now a large square hole in the floor, there was a short stand, with a round thing on top that looked vaguely like the decorative, glass-globed candles his mother used to buy.  And, indeed, Roger and Bones were lighting them as if they were just that, creating a spark by striking two objects together (Johnny supposed it must be a flint and steel).  The spark created was larger than any spark he’d ever seen before, and it flew unerringly to the blackened wicks, which started burning immediately.  Johnny didn’t think that making fire with a flint and steel was that easy in the real world, but it was a minor point considering he was traveling on a wooden airboat the size of a small yacht.  And it was about to get even more minor ...

Once all four globes were lit, Roger walked over to the wall where the crank was, and took down a small mallet.  She then went to the first stand and smacked the candle thing hard.  The fiery globe shot down, collapsing its wooden stand, passed through the floor of the boat and down into the depths of the water, leaving a trail behind it so that it formed a pillar of fire which stretched from the underside of the boat to the waterbed.  It didn’t really light up the water much, but there was enough glow that Johnny could see the shadows of fish, and maybe reptiles, scurrying away from the source of the underwater flames.  Roger repeated this three more times, until there was a sort of cage underneath the boat.  The water below the boat was still brown—the color of strong tea—but it was obviously clear of aquatic life.

“The brown color comes from the dissolved peat tannins,” Larissa said.

Roger was bent over, rooting around in a wooden box.  After a moment she gave a satisfied grunt and stood up, closing the box and placing a ceramic pot on top of it.  She brought three off-white, shapeless lumps over and handed one each to Johnny and Larissa.  “What’s this?” Johnny asked.

“Soap,” Roger replied, her tone stating that this should have been obvious.

Johnny nodded, staring at the hard lump in his hand.  “Sure, soap.  Of course.  Now what are we supposed to be ...”

He looked up and found that Roger was unbuttoning her shirt.  Quickly he looked away, back at Larissa.  The younger girl was watching Roger with her normal detachment, holding her own lump of soap in both hands.  From behind him, Johnny heard a briefly muffled “We are supposed to be sluicing off the sweat and grime we’ve worked up.  Now strip off and get in the tub, swabbies!”


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