Sharptooth: 13

Repeat: If this isn’t your thing, please come back on 12/1 (why yes, that is this coming Wednesday…). Today through Tuesday you might expect to see multiple posts each day. Again, read or don’t read.

Quick refresher: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Unlikely that I’ll get past 25,000 words before the deadline at this point, but why quit?

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


13

The young man who hoped for a longer story, the man who is new to this boat, is Silas. He is, unwittingly, the spy in their ranks.

Unlike the rest of their crew, Silas is new to the river, not just to this boat. He did not even see the water until he was 12. He did not see much of anything outside his house until then. But the house, when he was a boy, was enough.

It was called Mending House. Every morning there were baskets of torn clothes and linens lining the narrow stone porch in front of the house. Every evening the baskets held tidy, neatly tied parcels of coats and pants, quilts and pillowcases that had been repaired. Occasionally, there were pieces of small furniture that, like the soft goods, would arrive broken and reappear, days later, as good as new.

A post box by the front door received the morning delivery notes, letters, packages, books to be added or replaced in the library, and a daily newspaper. In return, the box held notes, letters, books marked for return, and occasional gifts for the messengers: baked goods, fresh flowers and herbs from the garden, tools or baskets that the women or children had made.

How, exactly, the clothes were mended and packaged, what was taught or made inside the walls of the house or on the fenced grounds behind it, were mysteries. No outside visitors were allowed at Mending House. Almost no one from the outside knew with any certainty who lived inside. Likewise, the children inside knew very little about anything other than what happened within their small clan.

Like the other children, outside of Mending House, these children, too, had schoolbooks and put on plays. They, too, learned skills that would lead them into their placements when they outgrew their time at Mending House. Bakers. Farmers. Caretakers. One or two of the children, every few years, would stay on and continue mending and teaching and repairing the house itself.

The latter was what Silas chose, because what he loved most of all, as long as he could remember, was wood. He loved carving sticks into shapes for tools or toys. He loved the sound of tapping a peg into place, the feeling of satisfaction when he held in his hands something he had made. He would sit for hours, carving and sanding in the quiet of the woodshop, while the other children busied themselves elsewhere.

One morning, at the bottom of mending basket piled high with sweaters and clothes, there was a small wooden boat, or what remained of it. The hull, painted dark red, was wrapped in rubber bands to hold the broken pieces inside. From the look of it, the toy had fallen and shattered. Almost nothing was intact.

“Silas?” one of the Mothers, called. “Come look. I have something for you.” She was sitting at one of the sorting tables, where the morning’s work was divided and assigned each day. To her right and her left were stacks of folded material, each with a note on top to indicate who would be charged with repair. In front of her, spread out on a scrap of cloth, were the pieces of the boat.

Though he knew how to stitch and weave as well as anyone, wood repair was always assigned to Silas, particularly if it required patience and detailed work like this.

He knew about bark boats and skin boats from school lessons. But he had never seen a boat in real life, not even a toy like this one.

“How does it go back together?” he asked, picking up the small pieces one at a time to inspect them.

Before she could answer, another of the Mothers appeared in the doorway holding five large, red-bound volumes. “Thank you,” said the woman at the table. “Will you put those in the workshop for us?”

Turning back to the boy, she said, “This is a very special assignment, Silas. It will take a long time, and the work must be very precise. Do you understand?” He nodded. “Let’s get you set up then,” she said, carefully rolling the small pieces in the cloth and carrying it for him to the bench in the shop, where the books lay waiting.

“Everything there is to know about ships and ship-building,” she said, tapping the stack. “Have at it.” And she left him alone to discover for himself.

He opened the cover of the top book, “History of Watercraft,” and turned to the first page, which he found full of undecipherable text.

Even if he’d had the skill to understand the words, he would have needed special glasses to access the small print. And he might have given up on the book if not for the brown, faded illustration inset in the middle of dense text. It was a hand drawn sketch of two boats, connected by a kind of wheel with bent spokes. The caption read, “Paddle Boat,” and almost nothing in the picture resembled the pieces spread out in front of him, but it fascinated him that someone – a real person – had drawn this image by hand.

He flipped to the middle of the book, landing on pages that also contained undecipherable text, but this time accompanied by photographs of large ships on water.

He moved the books to the floor, spreading them out in a half circle and opening them one by one, in no order, until his head spun with images of canoes, tugboats, steamships, ferries, sailboats, fishing rigs, and submarines.

He was 11, soon to turn 12. After that day, he no longer wanted to spend the rest of his life at Mending House.

He is on the boat now, more than seven years later, as part of the maintenance crew. He has come with the highest recommendations and with the express understanding that life on the water belongs to the River people. When the stop from town to town, as they make their daily deliveries, he is one of them now, outside the rules and conventions that define the eastern bank.

River people, as he will learn, have their own codes.

When the boat pulls in at South Port that night, the crew rise from their brief rest and attend to the chores of closing out the day’s work. They sweep the deck of trash, tidy the cabins for inspection. Silas takes his nightly checklist and makes his assigned rounds, noting as he goes. When he is finished, he takes the sheet, as he has every night, to the receiving man, who calls himself Striker. He, too, worked maintenance for many years until he tired of life on the water and applied to return to land. He is friendly, Striker is. He teaches Silas new things, new terms, to help him fit in more easily.

In return, Silas, who knows very little about the world outside of Mending House, about what is or isn’t customary, tells all that he has learned in the day’s journey, including the storytellers’ tales.


Total word count as of 11:59 a.m. on 11/28/21: 16,833/50,000 (Hey, yes, I know I’m not going to make the deadline. I accept that truth and am still writing anyway.)

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