Ambry Silverstrings and Walkin’ Pete
by Dana Beehr
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6
Now, down toward the Mouth, the Great Serpent River splits her track into a thousand braided streams — if you don’t know where you’re a-goin, you’ll be lost faster’n a lamb can shake his little tail. But Ambry knew the River better’n anyone else, for as she always said, she were the River’s child. She would’ve sworn there were nowhere on the River she didn’t know, for all that the River changed with every run.
So you can imagine how she felt when she headed her canoe toward the Blue Bayou and the channels started taking her into a part of the river she’d never seen. But she kept on, guiding her boat through the little streamlets, till eventually she came upon the wrecked carcass of the ship Marival;, lurkin’ in the shadows between two cypress trees at the entrance to the great Bayou.
A famous ship all made of iron, Marival was the first of her kind. During the War between the Empire and the Grasslands, each side made iron boats to patrol the River and try to keep it all in their own hands, from the Sawteeth up north to the Mouth down south. ’Twere one for each side: the Marival belonging to the Empire, and its like and enemy Miawak belonging to the Grasslands. Less’n it were the other way around; I can’t say as for sure.
What I do know is, the two boats met at the Mouth and fought it out, and ’twere the Marival were holed and sunk with all hands. And that happened, so they say, at the entrance to the Blue Bayou. So ’twas said, up and down the River, that the Bayou is haunted by the ghosts of those who went down with the ship, and ’tis only the very bravest of all river-folk who will go there, for any reason, the gold blockade runners being among the first.
Now Ambry came upon those blackened, twisted iron pillars and plates sticking out of the water, all surrounded with the long, shrouding willow trees a-drooping with hanging moss, ghost-hair moss, they called it; for said ’twere the hair of a ghost woman.
Story was, a woman of the Grasslands had fallen in love with a man of the Center, and when her people found out, they killed her and cut off her hair and hung it from a tree, so her sweetheart would see it and know. And ever afterward, her hair spread from one tree to another, all up and down the river, and would go on spreading forever and ever, till the ones that killed her, or their descendants as may be, were brought to justice.
When Ambry saw this, she said, “Well, this must be the place, but, if Walkin’ Pete went in here, he were braver than I thought!” And she started remembering that she had several pressing matters elsewhere that prob’ly shouldn’t wait. But she had promised Walkin’ Pete. And Ambry Silverstrings prided herself that once she promised something, she always carried it through.
So she guided her keelboat past the twisted, still-smoldering wreckage of the Marival, from so many hundred years agone, into the waterway yonder.
’Twere powerful dark inside the bayou, and the dark made it ten times more confusing. The trees were shadows, their branches all twining together, hung with dead-woman’s hair moss that grabbed for Ambry like reaching hands. The only lights were the glow of fireflies and swamp gas, death candles, so it was called, for used to be said that the fires of swamp gas were candles carried by dead spirits, looking for their bodies.
The brackish water spread out in long fingers among the bayous, with a current rippling and eddying in strange ways. That there current caught Ambry’s canoe and just wouldn’t let go. Took all her strength to paddle against it. And as she paddled so’s her arms ached, it came to her that her surroundings seemed a mite familiar.
“Say!” she said to herself. “Ain’t this the same tree that I just passed a little while ago? And I’ll be blessed if that ain’t the same rock that near scraped my canoe a while back! And goodness me, that’s that same half-wrecked ship stickin’ up out o’ the water!” And being no fool, she straight-way realized she were staggering around in circles like a drunk on payday.
“It’s that danged current!” she said in exasperation. “However much I try and break free, it just ends up steerin’ me right back to where I started! Well, there’s got to be a way around this. All I have to do is figure it out.”
Of course, seeing as how thinking had never been Ambry’s strong suit — she were more of an acting type — she knew that would be the tough part. So she sat herself right down on the gunwales of her boat, and took out her fiddle — because her fiddle always helped her think — and began to fiddle away, pondering her predicament.
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She were fiddling and thinking, thinking and fiddling, and took her a time to notice things were straightening out around her, and her little canoe were weaving through the waterways as sure as if someone were guiding it.
Well, Ambry didn’t know what she’d done to cause this, but she figured she might as well keep fiddling, so she kept a-sawing away as the canoe drifted on. She were a mite tense, for she didn’t know where she was going, but ’twere getting deeper and darker, and the trees pressing closer around her as her boat threaded onward.
Now she began to see scarier things all around her: skeletons lying here and there, caught in bushes and hanging from trees, and wrecked hulls and hulks of river barges and iron gunships jutting out through the water like boulders in the shadows. This were all just a mite forbidding, and Ambry’s skin set to crawling.
Her hands were starting to get cold and numb, but the moment she stopped playing, the boat started drifting backwards, so she had to keep on with it though her fingers shivered on the strings, and more’n a few notes came out a bit wobbly. If she hadn’t promised Walkin’ Pete, she’d’ve turned tail, suddenly remembering a pressing engagement back in the nearest town that she really couldn’t avoid.
Yet she had promised him, and Ambry never gave up on a promise. And besides, as she played, seemed as how the strains of her fiddle pushed back the dark a bit, and put courage in her heart.
“’Twere as bad not to play as to play,” she thought to herself. “So’s I might as well keep on, especially since the boat won’t seem to move less’n I do.” So she kept a-sawing on her fiddle, and after a time, her fear began to fall away.
By and by her canoe came in sight of a huge ring of cypress trees, their knobbly knees sticking out of the water. Cypress rings weren’t so unusual in the swamp, you understand, but Ambry were surprised to see one so large. “Why, it must be as wide acrost as the Great Snake River at Drowned Bear Bend!” cried Ambry. “A body could hold a whole jamboree in there!”
Indeed, the cypress ring was so large that several entire river towns could fit in there quite easily. Or so Ambry told me, and don’t you tell her I said it, but she has been known to stretch the truth now and again.
The trees around the ring were all covered with moss hanging from the branches just like lace curtains in some fancy house. They stretched from tree to tree, and on account of those curtains, Ambry couldn’t rightly tell just what were in the ring. But she could see something were, for light were coming through the cracks like between chinks in a log house.
She guessed right away ’twere the home of the Witch, and she felt a strange chill as she contemplated that dark and silent ring, all hung about with curtains of dead woman’s moss, and with the trees all standing like soldiers on watch.
“Darn it all, I wisht I’d never gotten myself into this silly escapade!” Ambry declared. “This is what happens to you when you promise first and think later! Still, I reckon I can’t back out now, or everyone would say I were skeert.” For Ambry would fight anyone up and down the river and twice on Sundays who called her skeert, and she won most times. She were downright ornrey, Ambry were, when her blood was up.
Well, Ambry paddled her canoe all around that there ring, looking for a way in, and half-hoping she wouldn’t find none so’s she could turn around and go home, when she came upon an opening between two cypress trees. Now, she didn’t like the look of that gap one bit. It looked evil, mean, like the maw of a gator just before it eats you down.
And even less did she like the look of the cypress trees on either side. Their dead branches reached out like bony old hands, all set to grab her. Still, there were no other way; she’d have to go on through, no matter what.
She’d put her fiddle down once she reached the open lagoon, and now she began poling her canoe toward that there gap. But she didn’t get more’n a couple feet before she took such a fright she near dropped her paddle straight to the bottom. For as she drew near, two huge serpents reared up outta the water — “Near on a mile high, both of ’em!” she told me — and lashed out with their long heads and sharp pointy teeth, striking near enough she could feel the wind.
Well, her little canoe bobbed as if ’twere the Great Shakes come again, and she took such a fright she nigh on to fell right over the side. The serpents were thrashing and splashing, and rearing up and down and tossing and heaving so that she didn’t know which way to go, and she were so downright panicked she could barely keep her head. The serpents struck again and again, and she were just barely able to get away from ’em each time; so Ambry told me later, she wouldn’t have given two coppers for her chances.
She were so panicked she could barely think, so she did what she always did when she were scared: she snatched up her fiddle agin and began to play. “I recollected how the current had brought me here,” she said, “and were hopin’ it could carry me all safe past the raving serpents. Leastaways — what’d I have to lose?”
Well, she fiddled as if ’twere for her life, and as she did, a strange thing happened: the great serpents hissed and flinched and started back, as if her music were hurting them like fire. They coiled up and began to dwindle away, like a candle flame drowning in a pool of wax. Their shining scales all melted away to nothing, and their horse-like heads dripped and shrank, and the long tendrils of riverweed hanging from their necks just curled off and disappeared like smoke. And when they finally disappeared for the last, there weren’t nothing left but two small, dark-looking objects bobbing in the water.
“Why, what on earth could those be?” Ambry wondered. She dithered a while, hemming and hawing about whether to go nearer. Not that she were scared — nosirree! — she was just trying to figure out the best way to approach. Those two dark things were sitting smack in the entrance to the cypress ring, so she knowed she’d have to go near them sooner or later, but the incident with the serpents had kind of knocked the wind out of her.
“Gee up, Ambry,” she told herself at last. “Or else you’re goin’ to back out on Walkin’ Pete and he won’t never get his curse lifted no more, and what’s worse, most everyone on this here river will think you’re a coward.” Just how everyone on the river would find out, Ambry had no way of knowing; but the river were a small place, and everybody in some ways knew everybody else. Gossip traveled faster than the River, so it was said; people claimed ’twere the only thing that did.
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Copyright © 2017 by Dana Beehr