and the Gator King
by Dana Beehr
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3. 4
“Somethin’ else, you say. Well now, let me think...” And Ambry stroked her chin and looked thoughtful. After a moment, she said, “Well, sir, there is something I might be able to play for you. It’s a very important song to me. You see, my mother used to sing me this song when I was a tiny babe in a dugout cradle. So if you’d allow me, I would like to play this song for you now.”
“Well, Miss Silverstrings,” said the Gator King, all serious, “if it’s a song your mother used to sing to you, I’d be downright honored to hear it.”
“Thank you, sir,” Ambry Silverstrings said with deep emotion. “I do believe you will enjoy this song, and I only hope that I can do it justice.”
And so saying, she began to play.
Now, Ambry had been aimin’ for just this all along. Everything she’d played so far was just to soften the Gator King up, so to speak. The song was a lullaby, “Silver Moon.” Wasn’t a body along the river but would’ve known the song back then. Mothers all up and down the river sang it to their children, come nap time or evening, to get them to toddle off to dreamland. Some said it’d been the first song that Ambry had ever learned to play.
Silver moon, shining bright,
Close your eyes and sleep tonight
Darling child in your bed
Now to rest your sleepy head
Don’t you worry, little dear,
Your loving mother’s always near.
Ambry played that song as only she could, drawin’ out its long sweet strains and lettin’ each note sing, and the more she played, the heavier the Gator King’s eyelids grew. His tail sagged, his body sank to the ground between his legs, and his head hung lower and lower. He was tired out from all the laughing and dancing he’d done earlier, and that lullaby was like lying in a fine warm feather bed with a soft down comforter. His eyelids drooped shut, snapped open with a jerk, and then drooped closed again.
Now, Ambry was watching him very closely even as she was playing. She reached the end of the song and started over again, waiting to see if he noticed but he didn’t. As she played it through, stretching it out and making it really last, his eyes stayed closed. She kept playing as softly as a sigh, and a low snore drifted from his nostrils. Ambry let the last notes die away, and the Gator King kept snoring just like a winter-sleepin’ bear.
“Mister Gator King, sir?” Ambry asked softly, but the Gator King didn’t wake up. She poked him lightly with her fiddle bow, and still nothin’.
That had been what Ambry was waitin’ for, and she jumped on top of him just as quick as you please. He started awake, but before he knew what was what, Ambry was tying him up with her own silver fiddle strings taken from the spares she always carried with her, winding them around and around his legs and body and even around his jaws.
Oh, he fought her somethin’ fierce! Thrashing and twisting, and even going into a death roll, turning over and over and over, but Ambry just jumped off and let him roll, for with every revolution he was just winding himself tighter in her fiddle strings.
And oh, when the Gator King figured out that he was caught and weren’t no getting out, he was madder than a wet hen! He howled and raged, swearing revenge, cursin’ somethin’ fierce — for the Gator King had overheard his cursin’ from passin’ riverboat sailors, and as anyone can tell you, nobody in the world can curse better than boatmen, except possibly for dock workers, and they generally do. But Ambry had heard and said much worse, so she stood there with her arms folded, unimpressed, waiting for him to cool down.
“Well,” said the Gator King, when he finally ran out of cusswords. “You caught me, Miss Silverstrings, even if you was a lowdown cheater to do it. What do you aim to do?”
Ambry said, “Understand, sir, that I wouldn’t have done this if you’d been reasonable. But I’ve got you now, and I don’t plan on letting you go until I got what I came for. So you will be spittin’ that river out, Mister Gator King, before I go on my merry way, or I’ll just leave you tied up here for nothin’.”
“You are the worst cheater I’ve known in all my days, and I should have never listened to you for even a moment!” he roared, but he knew he had no choice, and so right then and there, he coughed up all the river he had swallowed. It poured out of his throne room frothing and boilin’ just like a washtub on laundry day and went runnin’ back into its old channel, laughing and gurglin, happy to be free again.
Well, when folk heard the rushin’ and ripplin’ of the river come back, and saw all the boats that had been left high and dry liftin’ up on the risin’ flood, everyone in all the towns up and down the whole length of the Great Serpent River, from Great Falls at the headwaters to Rivermouth at the bottom, came running out of their houses and down to the docks, cheerin’ to see the river swirlin’ and eddyin’ round their piers and peninsulas.
Why, they say at Ferrytown, that there were so many people crowdin’ the banks to greet the river’s return that the river let all the attention go to its head; it leapt up outta its bed to give a little wave and a bow to the crowds, only when it fell back down it couldn’t find the same spot again, and that’s what made the Ferrytown Falls.
Meanwhile to the north at Three Willows, the river was so glad to see the town again that it flung one of its loops around the town to give it a big hug, and that loop became the Three Willows Meander. Those things are true, too: you can go to Ferrytown or Three Willows to this day and see ’em, and there they’ll be.
And all the whole length of the Great Serpent, the folk said, “Why, Ambry brought that river back! She rescued the river from the Gator King!” For she’d spoken to just about everyone all up and down the river while she was searchin’, tellin’ them what she was after — and the folks she hadn’t, the walking catfish had.
“Ambry Silverstrings, hurray!” the people cried. “Three cheers for Ambry and boo to the Gator King!” And the noise of the people cheerin’ drifted downriver and echoed and boomed through the Gator King’s hideout, so that he downright raved with fury.
“I’ve done what you asked,” the Gator King growled as the cheers died away. “Now, will you let me go?”
“One moment, sir, if you please,” said Ambry, for now she had him where she wanted him, she thought it best to get a few things clear, not least because she didn’t trust him not to leap on her and eat her up the minute she let him loose.
“First, you must promise me something. And I must tell you,” she said, “that those fiddle strings that bind you are very special indeed. They are hairs from the head of the Great Thunderbird, who makes her nest on the peak of Mount Dinal in the Sawteeth Mountains—”
“Birds don’t have hair,” growled the Gator King.
“The Thunderbird does,” Ambry explained, “because the Thunderbird is not just a bird, she’s a woman too. Why, don’t you know anything about Natural History? Honestly, I never had a day of schooling in my life, and even I know that!” she scoffed.
“These strings have magic in them, so that if anyone is bound in these strings and makes a promise, they must keep it. If they don’t, the Thunderbird will curse them with the most powerful curse she knows, so that bad luck will dog their steps, and nothin’ they do will ever prosper until they’ve done it.”
“That can’t possibly be true,” growled the Gator King.
Ambry shrugged. “You’re right. It can’t. I’m probably makin’ it all up. I just thought I’d warn you, so’s you’d know. Didn’t seem fair, really, not to tell you. But if you don’t want to listen—”
“I said you’re lyin,” the Gator King snarled, and Ambry could see that even if he didn’t want to believe her — at the same time, he sort of did. There were stories about Ambry Silverstrings doin’ some sort of service for the Thunderbird of Mount Dinal... maybe it wasn’t so far fetched that she’d gotten some magic strings in exchange. And the Thunderbird was the most powerful of all spirits — who was to say that her strings couldn’t do just what Ambry was talkin’ about?
“That’s right, I am lying,” Ambry said loftily, foldin’ her arms. “Don’t believe me. But on your own head be it.”
Somehow the fact that she wasn’t sayin’ one way or the other got more of a hold on the Gator King’s mind than if she’d insisted for sure. He thrashed some more, strugglin’ in her violin strings, and growled, “Just tell me what you want, you little she-demon.”
“First, sir, I want you to leave the river alone. That river is mighty important to a lot of folk. So no more stealing the river. Promise me.”
“I promise,” growled the Gator King, “you little fiddle-playin’ weasel!”
“Second, you must promise me that you won’t try to hurt me or get revenge on me in the future. I’ve heard that you have a mean streak and a long memory. So before I let you out of these strings, I’ll have your word, sir, that I’m safe from you comin’ after me.”
The Gator King hissed, for that had been just what he was planning — wait for her to release him and then take a nice chomp out of her leg. But he knew she had him over a barrel, so he ground his fangs and said, “Done. I won’t come after you, nor seek revenge on you.”
“Well, that’s mighty kindly of you,” Ambry said, smilin. “Mighty kind indeed. Now there’s just one more thing I want to ask of you, sir, and then we are through, and I’ll cut you free.”
“One more thing?” the Gator King howled in outrage. “What else could you be askin’, you water rat?”
“Third, I want your promise that you or your gators will help me out, should I ever call on you. Not much to promise, and I don’t ’spect I’ll be needing your help much. Still, a girl likes to know she has powerful friends on her side.” She held up a little bone whistle carved from a bird’s leg. “So Mister Gator King sir, if you’ll promise that when I blow this, you and your gators come to help me as quick as you can—”
Well, when the Gator King heard that he howled as if the sky was fallin’, for never in history had him and his gators ever been thralled to a human’s will. He cursed so that the very air started to smoke, and the earthen walls of his throne room began to shake and shiver. He called Ambry some of the names he hadn’t been able to remember before, swore she was the progeny of a mole and a blind skink, said river water rather than mud ran in her veins, and just about every dirty thing he could think of. Ambry waited till he ran outta steam, then said, “That was some pretty fine cussin’, sir. Now what’s your answer?”
Well, there was only one thing that the Gator King could answer, and he saw it plain. “I promise,” he said, grindin’ his teeth so hard that they almost split. “I’ll come when you blow your little bone whistle, or send one of my subjects instead, and we’ll get you out’n whatever trouble you got yourself into.”
“Well, now, sir,” Ambry said, beaming just like she had met her best friend, “that is mighty kindly of you. I know that I can trust your given word—”
“I don’t know that I can trust yours, you little river rat,” snarled the Gator King. “Let me go!”
So Ambry knelt down and started untying him from the strings. The moment he was loose, she jumped back, just in case he decided to see if she’d been telling the truth about her strings and the Thunderbird, but the Gator King was a superstitious fellow, and he didn’t believe in taking chances. He snapped his jaws, but slithered away as fast as he could.
“Get out of my den!” he growled.
Ambry saw that his face looked like a thundercloud that’s about three shakes of a lamb’s tail from lettin’ down rain, and decided that now was not the best time for a little friendly chit-chat. So she bowed to him, very respectful, and said only, “I take my leave, sir.”
She backed out of that den, down the tunnel under the tree roots, and into the sun outside. And there she saw the most beautiful sight for sore eyes she’d ever seen: the Great Serpent River flowing past, all bubbly and roiling, with chunks o’ foam driftin’ along the surface, logs bobbing up and down, and breakin’ into little ripples along the islands and rocks in the middle of the stream.
Well, seein’ that, Ambry Silverstrings was so happy she leapt up and down and shouted for sheer joy. She took out her fiddle and played herself the most sprightly tune she knew, so that the river herself began dancin’ and swayin’ and weavin’ in time. She whistled her way down to the river bank, where a splintery old boat was tied up at the dock — the Gator King’s boat, as a matter of fact; like all river folk he owned a boat himself, but Ambry didn’t know that and couldn’t be bothered.
She took out her little knife and cut it free, stepped in just as it was whisking away from shore, and set her bow to her strings; and as the current swung the boat out into the middle of the river, headin’ downstream the last few miles to the town of Rivermouth, she was sawin’ to beat the band. Folk heard that music, and they said, to each other, “Why, that’s Ambry Silverstrings herself!” and they rushed to the banks to cheer her praises.
It was many a day before Ambry had to buy herself a drink again in a tavern, people were so grateful to her. For a time afterward some folk spoke of rewards, but Ambry said, and she meant it, that bringing the river back was all she wanted. For Ambry loved the river and felt it should be free just as she was. River water rather than blood ran in her veins, it was said, and there was nowhere she had ever felt more at home than in a keelboat or flatboat, rockin’ along, being carried by the current and just driftin’ as gently as a baby in her mother’s arms.
As for the Gator King, well, he lived many and many a long year, keeping his promise to Ambry. She called on him and his gators now and then to bail her out of scrapes — near on half of which she did not get herself into. He nursed his grudge against her for quite a while — he had a long memory, did the Gator King, near as long as the river itself. The two of them tangled a few more times, and some of those are great stories in their own right, but eventually they settled down and began to get on with each other as folk do.
As the Gator King heard more and more people tellin’ the story of the time Ambry Silverstrings got the river back, he began to get almost proud of his part in the whole thing, and would bust in on people and set the record straight when they were tellin’ it.
Sometimes, when he was in his cups, he’d tell it himself, though when he told the story it was more about how that rascally fiddle player tricked him. So things went on like that, until the day when the Gator King thought he might have seen his chance to get his own back on her. Never one to let such an opportunity go by, he decided that he would take the chance to show her what was what....
But that is another story.
Copyright © 2014 by Dana Beehr