Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chapter 13 (begun)


The dock was possibly the most normal thing Johnny had seen since they’d arrived in the swampworld.  It was an old but perfectly normal-looking short wooden structure, L-shaped, extending perhaps twenty feet from a small hummock and then striking out parallel to the channel for another ten feet or so.  Johnny wasn’t sure, but it seemed like at least part of the area enclosed by the small dock wasn’t actually water.  This didn’t seem to bother Roger, however, who guided the boat slowly but surely around the dock’s spur.

“Um, Roger?”  Johnny didn’t have to yell, because there was a brass speaker on the flying bridge that connected to an identical one in the wheelhouse, with the curious result that he could speak to Roger in a lower voice from here than he could if he’d been standing right next to her.  “I think we’re going to bottom out ...”

“Aye, that we are!”  Roger’s voice was tinny but bright over the speaker.  It didn’t really sound like any speaker Johnny had ever heard before; he hadn’t figured out what powered it, and Larissa had offered no insight.

Roger did something with the wheel which caused the boat to fishtail alarmingly, and Johnny and Larissa had to grab on to the rails around the flying bridge to keep from being knocked over.  The ship completed the U-turn and nosed into the dock’s enclosed area.  Johnny was positive that at least some of what was under the hull was solid ground—well, as solid as the ground in this place ever got—but that didn’t seem to stop it.  Roger nosed the ship neatly into the inside corner of the dock until it gently bumped the wooden planks, and the only abnormal thing was the squishy noise that accompanied it.  Johnny assumed that was the noise of a large wooden airboat being drug across marshy ground.

Roger cut the fan, and Johnny and Larissa rejoined her on the deck.  “Will we be able to get out again?” Johnny asked.

Roger looked at him as if this were a lunatic question.  “Now, why, me fine feckled friend, would I drive us into a place that I could not get us back out of?”  She grinned and tossed her ponytail as she turned to head for the dock.

“Airboats can’t travel in reverse,” Larissa ventured.

“This one can!” came from Roger’s retreating back.

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The dock was still sturdy, but showing its age.  There were splits in the boards and pilings, and places where chips had fallen out or rotted away.  The wood was slightly soft from the pervasive damp.  Roger was tying off the ship with algae-covered ropes that seemed like they should be falling apart any second, but they held the ship firm.  Johnny walked to the corner of the dock, where the ship’s figurehead protruded over the planks so that he would have to duck to go past it.  He stopped and stared at it for a moment; he hadn’t gotten a clear look at it before.  It was a full-length wooden sculpture of a naked woman who seemed to be floating, or perhaps riding, on clouds.  It was unpainted, but very detailed.  The woman looked lithe and quite young, with a mischievous expression.

Johnny was startled by a hand on his shoulder.  “That’s The Sylph, me bucko.  Ship named after the girl or girl named after the ship, I never knew which.  But she’s older than I am, she is.  Although she don’t look it, eh?”  Roger winked at Johnny and elbowed him in the side, which Johnny found vaguely disconcerting.

They ducked under the figurehead and strode down to the end of the dock, where there was ... nothing.  The dock just ended.  The two pilings at the very end extended high up into the air, forming a sort of gateway to walk through.  But Roger put a hand on one of these poles, leaned out over the marsh, and then swung herself around and onto the relatively dry ground of the hummock.

Johnny and Larissa stopped and stared at her.  “Well, you don’t want to be walking through the posts.  That’s for berks who don’t know no better.”

Johnny said, “But we know better?”

Roger looked exasperated.  “Well I just told ya better, ain’t I?”

Johnny found he couldn’t argue with this logic.  He tried to duplicate Roger’s acrobatic move, but he ended up with one foot on the slope and another in the watery muck.  Although this put a healthy amount of liquid in his right boot, it also put him in a good position to help Larissa transition around the pole, so he planted himself firmly and half-lifted her off the dock and onto the little hill.  Larissa, like Johnny, was wearing new clothes from Roger’s cinema-pirate wardrobe along with her regular shoes, but Larissa had kept her light-green jacket, while Johnny had been forced to ditch his heavier coat in the oppressive heat.  The humidity played hell with your hair here, so Larissa had adopted a ponytail like Roger’s, and Johnny had taken up a bandana.  The end result was that they now resembled movie pirates just like Roger, from the ankles up.  Looking at Larissa now, and knowing he looked the same, Johnny was reminded of going to a Renaissance Faire and seeing some folks who had made a brave attempt to dress the part, but failed when it came to finding period-appropriate footwear.

Bones came scurrying down the dock in his usual frenetic manner.  When he reached the end, he lept straight up, bounced off the outside post, pushed off Johnny’s chest, bounded off Larissa’s head, and glided smoothly to Roger’s shoulder before Johnny could finish his “oof.”  The red and blue creature gave a characteristic squawk and said “Thank’ee so, lubbers!”  Roger threw her head back and laughed.

Larissa brushed the hair out of her eyes and glared at Bones.

Johnny extracted his foot from the muck and joined the others on the hillside.  Together they walked the eight or ten steps to its crest and stopped to look out over the marshy land.

It was strange that the view from this point, which was only a few feet above the level of the water—lower even than the vantage from the flying bridge—should look so different, but somehow it did.  What lay ahead was more scrubby trees than they’d yet seen in one place, and fewer puddles and more ground mist.  It still wouldn’t be accurate to refer to this as “woods,” but it was possibly the closest they were going to see in this vast swamp.  The trees weren’t tall, but they were close set, and covered with vines and Spanish moss.  It seemed darker out there, though of course the light was exactly the same as it had always been.

Johnny turned to Roger.  “We’re walking through that?”

Roger maintained her sunny smile.  “Well a’course we are.  That’s the way to get to the Guide, and we gotta get to the Guide, so we gotta go that way.  Seems straight enough, don’t it?”

Johnny looked doubtful.  “Is it safe?”

Roger grinned widely and slapped him on the back.  “Johnny, me boyo, livin’ ain’t safe.  Now let’s get to gettin’!”

She and Bones swaggered down the hill at a brisk pace.  Johnny and Larissa followed more cautiously.

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