Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Rus and the Ship

A story for Christmas. Happy holidays, everyone!

Rus and the Ship

Rus ducked under one of the big ship frames arcing up from shoulder-height like a tree branch, slapping his calloused hand on the wood as he passed. Good solid wood, this hornbeam was, brought up from the south and seasoned for two years in the shipyards here at the edge of Quartermoon Bay.

“Time yet?” he bellowed to the other side of the building stocks. In a few weeks this cargo ship would be planked, but now his deep voice carried right through the riblike frames to where Vander and Kell worked on another frame, adzing its rough shape.

Vander shook his head without even looking up. The sun had already dipped behind the snowy Teeth that rose west of the city, and though the sky held a bit of pale light still, the harbor water was dark. They were all waiting for the bell that would signal the end of the day, and their release into the pubs along the waterfront.

Rus turned back to the frame he was planing. The sweeping curve of golden wood rested on five sawhorses, and he ran the hand plane across with the grain, chewing his beard as he watched the line and the ribbon of wood that curled back across his tattooed forearm a foot, four feet, ten feet.

“Enough!” Kell’s voice came like a summons through the unbuilt ship. “We’re thirsty!” And just then came the toll of six bells from the far point of the Hook.

Rus put down the plane and sighed. None too soon. He buttoned his wool shirt against the wet wind that came swirling off the harbor -- there was always a land breeze as night fell -- and followed Kell and Vander out of the shipyard, scuffing through piles of fragrant wood shavings.

Before they even reached Stone Road, he stopped. Had he heard something, back at the shipyard? Vander and Kell trudged on ahead. Rus moved to follow them, but then heard it again: the creak of oars.

“Wait a moment, you thick slops!” he called, but Vander and Kell waved their hands at him without even turning back.

“Idiots,” Rus growled. Back to the shipyard he went, though he ached for the cool dark taste of ale. And tonight Old Mother Tallero was going to tell them the story of the Witch in the Cave.

Well. He would deal swiftly with whatever fool was trying to row into the shipyards, and then hurry over to the Smoking Owl and not miss much.

When he reached the shipyards it was nearly dark, and he could just discern a small rowboat pulled up on the rocky shore, with a figure standing next to it, holding an oar.

“You!” Rus called, letting all his impatience thunder out. “You can’t land here!”

The figure leaned on the oar, and Rus saw it was an old man, with lank, grey hair framing a wizened nut of a face, and a tangled grey beard. Overhead, the first stars gleamed in the dark blue.

“I ... I am,” the old man said in a thin voice.

“You are, you are,” Rus snapped. Old Mother Tallero had probably already started. He grabbed the man’s elbow to encourage him back into the little rowboat. But the man stiffened.

“Wait!” he said, and his voice was stronger. “Wait, please. I am ... so tired. I have come far.”

“Not far enough,” Rus said. “Come on, then. Back you go.” A gust of wind blew in from the water, carrying the salty and thick sea smell, but also something else. Rus inhaled. It was a clean smell, like wet iron.

Then he noticed that the stranger was dusted white. As the old man straightened, the dust fell from his shoulders. Rus touched it, and his fingers stung with cold.

“What ... snow?”

“Aye, snow,” the old man said, and his voice, louder now, rang like a bell. Behind him the sky was dark and jeweled with stars, and Rus could hear the far sigh of the surf.

“I have, as I told you, come very far. Very far.”

The man’s hair, Rus now saw in the starlight, was not grey but white like snow, and though his mouth and eyes were wrinkled from smiles, his eyes were grave and dark.

“Rus,” the stranger said, letting go of the oar. It clattered to the ground and he reached inside what Rus now saw was a sort of leather traveling coat, covered with buckles and flaps and little pockets, all of it stained and worn.

“Here,” the man said, and held out a gloved hand. Rus took the small object, unwrapped it, and held it up to the stars to see. It was a tiny model of a ship. But this was more detailed and intricate than anything he’d seen. Every mast and spar, every little flying jib, a working rudder and wheel the size of kernel of corn, even a web of rigging like silver hairs.

The world swayed. Rus put out one arm to balance himself, and planted his feet so he wouldn’t sit down. Because this -- this tiny model -- was something he had wanted when he was small, wanted it so badly he dreamed about it, talked about it endlessly, infuriated his parents and friends with the idea of just such a tiny ship. For Yuletide, he told himself. No, my birthday. No, Fishmarket Day. Okay, maybe Yuletide.

And then, as so often happens, he forgot about it. Years passed. Decades. And now he was standing on the beach with a stranger in the cold wind. His cheeks were wet and he rubbed them dry.

“How ... how did--?” he said, but the stranger held up a hand.

“I always come,” he said. “I always come.”

“But I’m grown now,” Rus said. The tiny ship was a relic of his childhood, and he felt a pang of the old want like a dream, but he was no longer a child. “I grew up.”

The man frowned. “Has it been so long?” He knelt and picked up the oar with surprising agility. “Has it truly been so long? Sometimes I cannot tell.” Then he smiled. “But you have a son.”

Rus was startled. “Ye-es,” he said. “Corin. He’s ... he’s six.”

The man nodded and rattled his little boat down the pebbled beach. The black water reflected the stars, and for a moment Rus’s head swam: it looked like the boat was floating through the sky.

“Your son, then,” the man said, and started to row. “I have much to do tonight. Goodbye, Rus.”

Corin, Rus thought. He would love this.

He carefully pocketed the tiny ship, marveling again at the intricacy and craft, and strode up the beach, thinking of his own childhood. He walked fast, and turned his collar against the first grainy flakes of snow.

As he reached Stone Road he turned not right toward the pub, but left, uphill, in the direction of home. He did not look back at the harbor, and he did not hear the splashing of oars stop, and the low chuckle of warm mirth, and the sploosh as if a large object -- the size of a rowboat, perhaps -- was lifted from the cold waves into the sky.

Yet as Rus stepped to the doorway of his little house, he paused. For even as the wind carried the iron tang of snow and the salty breath of the sea, it seemed he also heard the far ringing of bells under the stars.

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