Sharptooth: 7

Repeat: If this isn’t your thing, please come back on 12/1.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Bang out a 50,000 word (shitty) first draft in a month. It’s my 4th attempt. This time I’m free-writing in Word, copying and pasting here when I get a chunk finished, to put some pressure on myself to get this thing done. There will be typos and inconsistencies. Aiming for young adult genre, with my 18-year-old daughter as my test reader.

Know what’s not conducive to writing? Having dogs who eat things that aren’t intended for canine consumption. So, to catch you up: I’m even farther behind than I was last week. But I’m still not quitting, mostly because I’m not a quitter and also because it’s only November 14 and way too early to throw in the towel.

Need to get caught up? Here are the previous entries:


7

They met River Man their fourth year of living in the trees, their fifth year on this side of the river, the summer she planned to end it all.

She had begun this new life with great resolve and determination. All she had to do was complete her orientation at the euphemistically-named Welcome Center and then she, and the baby, were free set their own course.

Because of her parents and her education and her curiosity, she excelled in every course – reading the skies, making camp, treating wounds. She’d written the most recent editions of half the primary education books, so she knew well how the Treedwellers wove baskets and warded off bears. She knew fires and fishing and all of the basic survival skills, and their time in detention would have been among the shortest on record if it hadn’t been for her fatigue.

The baby was teething and not sleeping, which set her on edge. When the imbecile forager’s repeatedly asked her the same questions about the same information, she snapped and said, “Oh for God’s sake my father was a Botanist! I know noxious from nourishing!”

That outburst earned her a trip to the Mother’s office where she was informed that neither God nor her father existed in this new life of hers. So she had to begin again, starting at the very first lesson, tying ropes and noting stars and building shelters for others to inspect.

Yes, the first time she failed the exit exam was simply a matter of circumstance. And after that unfortunate episode, they watched her more closely, looked for ways to exploit her impatience. So the second failure was nothing other than a set up, a wicked conniving that got the better of her before she realized it.

There was no third failure. She became compliant, submissive even. And finally she earned their ticket out of the compound and into the trees, where she planned a relentless southbound trek.

But they’d kept her long enough for the boy, no longer a baby, to present a challenge. He was walking and climbing by then and too big for her to carry very far. That first year they moved so slowly that it seemed they didn’t move at all. They found a hut near the Welcome Center and made it their home. There were a few other people nearby, most of them friendly, most of them older. In retrospect, she recognized that these people were lost in the wild and stayed close, after their release, because they were either too frail or two timid to do otherwise.

The second and third years were much the same. The boy grew and could walk up to a mile, by her estimation of distance, in one stretch.

But he required all of her. He rose with the sun and could spend an entire day following a bee on its errands. He delighted in puddles when the rains came, counted leaves as they fell, and he somehow never strayed far from her side, even when she drifted to sleep on hot summer afternoons.

By the fourth summer, when the boy was five, about to turn six, she had all but given up hope of ever finding her way back to the place where she belonged. She made a new plan and headed from the woods toward the big water. Along the way she gathered stones and put more of them in her pack each day as they traveled.

She grew stronger as the bag grew heavier. Eventually, it weighed almost as much as she did, and she could carry it, just far enough.

They stayed close to the water that summer, sometimes sheltering in an abandoned hut when they found one, other times camping in open air or up in a tree. She was looking for just the right place: Uninhabited, mostly, and shallow at the water’s edge, shallow enough that they could wade out into the deep water, with the boy at her side and the pack of rocks on her back.

Then they met River Man.

She had been standing knee-deep studying the water, trying to pinpoint the place where the shallow bottom dropped into the deep channel, when the red prow of a boat came around the bend.

There had been other boats, of course, though not many that day and none of them small and personal like this one.

He was alone in his boat that day, River Man, though he didn’t always travel by himself. This day was a quick trip, delivering a special request to a trading post nearby, a route that was familiar but not frequent for him. All of these details she would learn much later.

He saw them, her with the boy, and started waving in an exaggerated way, steering closer and shouting at them to be careful.

He stopped not 20 yards from her, tied onto a tree, got out of the boat, and lumbered toward them.

She held the boy’s hand firmly, turned around in the water and guided the two of them slowly back to dry ground.

The man was going to give her a lecture, she could see, when he drew close enough for her to read the eyebrows and red cheeks and set of his shoulders. He was going to berate her or scare her, or something of that sort. That she would endanger herself was of no consequence. That she would endanger the child was something else. She prepared a story in her head, bracing for the man’s tirade.

But instead he stopped, a dozen feet away, and simply looked at her, standing on the mud and rocks in wet pants with bare feet and carrying an oversized pack that pulled on her slim frame. He looked for longer than felt comfortable, sizing them up and taking in the full, desolate scene.

The boy, who feared nothing in the woods, wrapped his arms around his mother’s leg and whispered up at her, “Who is that?”

She said nothing.

Then the man’s face softened. He smiled at the boy and said to her, “You’re new on this part of the river, eh? Don’t think I’ve ever seen the two of you around here.”

“New,” she said, drawing the word out. “Yes; we’re new here.”

“Well then,” he said, closing the distance between them, “it’s a good thing you picked this day to be right here so I could keep you out of that coffin.” He nodded toward the water. “’Bout time for me to stretch my legs anyway, so it was good for both of us, I suppose.”

He came a little closer, tentatively, the way someone might approach a wild animal. He bent down, put his hands on his knees and said to the boy, “Hello, new man! Have you learned how to fish yet?”

The boy shook his head, still holding his mother’s wet leg.

“Not a great spot here,” the man continued, “but we’ll see what we can find, yeah?”

Her mind, having dropped anchor on the idea that this day would be their last, began recalculating, darting among all the new possibilities. She could decline the offer, hope he would soon leave, and then she could return to the original plan. She could accept the offer, delay her next steps, and hope he would be gone by afternoon.

Or she could use him. She could learn more about the river, learn something from this man about where they were, relative to where she’d been and to where she might again decide to go. River people, she knew, traded information at least as much as they traded goods. This possibility shook her free from her earlier plan.

“What do you think?” she said to the boy, in her gentlest voice. “Do you want to learn to fish today?”

The boy nodded.

“I don’t have gear,” she said to the man, “it’s back in the hut.” She gestured toward the woods, hoping he wouldn’t ask to go retrieve nonexistent equipment and catch her in this small deception.

“I got plenty,” the man replied, gesturing back toward the boat. “We’ll have better luck a ways downstream. You OK for a little walk?” And then he added, with a look she accepted as kindness, “You can leave that pack here if you want, since you don’t have gear and it looks like it’s heavy. There’s nobody around, no one will bother it.”

She unbuckled the strap across her chest. The spring of release tugged her shoulders and she had to steady her legs to counter its pull. She slipped one arm free and then the other, set the pack on the ground, reached for the boy’s hand and headed toward the boat.


Total word count as of 11/10/21: 8275/50,000 (Oy… so far behind….)