Monday, 14 January 2019

Chapter 24: A Spot of FIshing

A day had passed.  She hadn’t yet reported her failure at the school to MinSci.  She was stalling.  She didn’t want to relive the embarrassment.  She was sure Boyd would be unimpressed by her having been so cavalier.

Neith and the boys had been out collecting kindling together.  Neith and Amos were following Davey back into the house.  The youngest held Neith’s hand while she carried a larger crate of pine cones between her hip and other hand.  They took their time, keeping to Amos’ stride.

Twilight was falling – later each day, she noticed.  The sun brightened the house earlier each morning, too.  She grinned watching the middle child heft his basket of pine cones – he was grunting and breathing with great effort to show her what hard work he was doing.  Occasionally Davey would turn back and flash Neith a smile as if to say, I’ve got this.  It’s heavy, but this is all. under. control.

This little boy needed to stay just as sweet and free as he was.  Would Prescott’s Phase 2 allow that?  Or would attempting to splice into this gene pool the City’s self-absorbed young destroy the peace; the innocence this kid enjoyed?  It was looking like faking an outbreak was the only way to keep the crazies out.  The school wasn’t excited about one extra person here; one quiet, harmless person.

She put her own box under the outside awning and nodded for Davey to take his basket inside.  He’d asked with an expression in Neith’s direction if that is where he was headed.  Neith couldn’t imagine a wordless, keyless exchange with an And that could match the sophistication of the communication she had just had with a child.  Ands.  They were still rolling out And updates where she came from.

She resolved then.  If she couldn’t establish the possibility of a happy union between Nydia and Feichangbei within the next few weeks, she would tell Elle everything.  If Elle forgave her, maybe they could figure out how to execute the outbreak story; how to hide all of the small heat signatures that no doubt lit up the grid near Nydia; find a way to make it look like the last lifeboat was no more.  If Elle forgave Neith. Would Elle understand Neith had to consider more than Nydia?  That she had people back home whose happiness depended on her following orders?  Without further visits to the school, she wasn’t gaining much more to base her decision on.  All she was left with was the choice of who to betray, with limited information.  Protect Nydia by repelling Feichangbei – effectively ending the Grace Whittaker line; or risk destroying Nydia by inviting an invasion from Feichangbei.  It wasn’t an easy choice for an 18-year-old to make.  Elle was special, she might get over it.  Would the rest of Nydia forgive her?  Would they ever trust MinSci after learning of another breach of trust? 

Her thoughts were interrupted by the reoccurring image of a teacher ablaze with enthusiasm abruptly tempered with cold control.  Had visiting the school been that bad?  Elle said a lot of Nydia preferred to pretend Neith wasn’t there at all.  That helped to explain the lack of visitors.

Amos sharply kicked off his own boots while balancing against the door frame.  He pounded inside after his brother.  Davey’s shoes lay haphazardly, removed in a similar fashion a few moments earlier.  Neith lifted and twisted one of her soles into view and confirmed it was mud-clogged.  She stood on the back of each heel, slipping her outdoor footwear off.  She lined the boys’ and her own shoes up close to the wall where they would stay dry should the weather change.  The line-up of varied sizes sent a small note of happiness through her.  At the end of the row was a second pair in Neith’s size – her slippers.  She had slipped out of them when they went out.  Elle had made them with a small tool and ball of yarn (Neith knew what it was now!) over a week of evenings.  She quietly left them for Neith on her sleeping couch.  Neith hooked her fingers into the heels of her soft, inside footwear.

There, in the left moccasin, was some paper.  She grinned to think of Amos’ tendency to post things in any available receptacle.  He was probably posting her one of her own drawings.  She bent to collect the folded page.  The lined paper was unfamiliar.  She unfolded it with an uneasy tightening in her stomach.  It wasn’t a drawing.  It was a message.  Four words, in dark capitals, underscored twice. You’re not welcome here. 

Neith took a deep breath and looked around without thinking.  Was she hoping to see the messenger?  How long had she been collecting pinecones with the boys?  Could there have been 20 minutes that her slip-ons sat unattended?

She swallowed hard at the thought of someone laying in wait, watching her and the children without her knowing.  It was an awful feeling – to be watched.  Then she frowned and choked when she considered the charges she was laying against a stranger, given what happened at the school.  Given her reports.   She slid the note into one of her jacket’s pockets and decided she could not react with the same malice infused in the note.  She was guilty too.

Re-entering the cabin, Neith was surprised to find Jamin inside with Elle.  He half-stood to mark her entry then returned to being seated.  Davey had carefully put his load down by the fire.  He now made a great show of dusting himself off and stretching.  Neith smiled and ruffled his hair while he leaned into her for an impromptu hug. 

“Neith?”  That was Elle.  “Jamin and I were just discussing your visit to the school.  And your interest in seeing more of Nydia.”

“That we were,” Jamin said.  He gave Elle a small smile of encouragement.

“Jamin would like to make you an alternative offer.”  Elle motioned towards the bench beside the table, inviting Neith to join them.

Neith’s arm was around Davey and Amos was again holding her hand.  She gently released the youngest.  Davey followed her to come and sit beside her.

“It’s temporary of course.  Mr Flynn’s spoken for you at the council.  People’ll take that to their homes and counsel there.   You may see the school yet.  But in the meantime, I can show you what I do.” Jamin looked between his hands on the table. “That is, if you’d like to.”  He looked up again.

Neith realised then she didn’t know what Jamin did.  Her first guess would be lumberjack.  Or bear impersonator.

“I would love to learn about what you do.”

“How’s tomorrow?”

Neith looked to Elle for confirmation, who nodded.  “Sure.”

“Alright then.  I’ll be here a half hour before first light.”  He excused himself, acknowledging Elle with a parting tip of the head. 

“Can I go?” Davey piped up.  Elle responded with a smiling headshake.

“What does Jamin do?”  Neith ventured.  

“He’s a fisherman.”  Elle pushed up and off the table as she answered.  She squeezed Neith’s arm as she made for the kitchen area.  “And a good man.  I know you want to get out, beyond out back and the garden.”  Neith mentally added away from Nydia and the resulting tension of you showing up at the school, uninvited.
 “The early fishergirl catches the fish,” Jamin boomed as he led the way out of the village.  Neith had just seen what had to be the solar chimney.  It was visible on the way out of Nydia.  She and Jamin wore boots that slapped the back of their calves loudly as they walked.  They went down along the coastal track, through a series of kissing gates, and out onto a very long wooden jetty.  It had narrow walkways stemming off of it at intervals.  Neith hadn’t seen it on the way in.  She had been pretty taken with the sheep grazing near the beach. And confused by the lack of people around what she then thought was Nydia proper.  The structure extended out much deeper into the sound than Neith expected.  Each rubber-clapping step she was hoping to be offered a life jacket.  The darkening water visible between the wooden slats made her uneasy.  Jamin gave her one – after she joined him aboard what he called a “fizz boat.” They headed out into deeper water still.

Jamin waxed on about marine farming.  Neith did her best to listen and forget yesterday’s note.  Jamin deserved her full attention. He drew up surface buoys attached to continuous ropes running parallel to the water’s surface.  He proudly presenting pillared clusters of clinging shellfish suspended beneath the horizontal ropes. He forced one of the harvested things open with a knife.  He slurped out the gelatinous creature inside.  He smiled, repeated the process, and offered the next to Neith.  She made a small grimace.  She blew out breath from an O-shaped mouth, apologised for her initial reaction and downed the fresh breakfast.  And fought to keep it down.  For at least 5 seconds.

Jamin patted her on the back.  “Are you gonna chunder?  I want to be sure to angle us right if we’re about to feed the fish.”  Jamin was laughing.

She held up a hand to signal she was okay.  Then she smiled the glorious smile she hid away in crowds.  Jamin smiled back proud.

Light was beginning to crest over the hill.  Clouds skirted the hilly sounds.  It took Neith’s breath away.  The sunrise lacked the saturation of colours she knew from the City’s smog, but the reflection on the sea’s surface and the long-cast shadows from the surrounding forest all combined to create something magnificent.

“You have those pills with you?” 

“I’ll be fine,” Neith returned, wry. 

Jamin smile-grunted and continued collecting shells from the pillar he’d pulled up.  Neith deserved more ribbing than that, so counted herself lucky for him dropping the migraine subject so smartly.  She hadn’t had a migraine since then.  Huh.

They left the mussel farming area with full buckets.  Jamin took her to another spot where he said they bred King Salmon. 

“Those things are hard to bone, you know?”  Neith shared.

Jamin cocked an eyebrow at her.  “That they can be.” 

Neith also recalled the task worth it.  Elle had later grilled the fish with preserved peaches and ginger.  Neith’s mouth watered at the memory.  She was more of a fish-girl than raw, jelly-like-mussel-eater, she decided.

Jamin talked about how the cool deep water was best for the salmon and how the warmer months often cost them in stock.  He pointed out sources of water flow that ensured the cages were regularly flushed clean; how their position in the cavernous, drowned valley offered shelter from wind and waves.  Neith felt growing investment in Jamin’s words as he talked about the problems and solutions of adding protein to the Nydia community diet.  The salmon were born in a hatchery back on shore and transferred to the large netting enclosures she was looking at now. 

She looked up, catching movement in the periphery of her vision.  Another boat approached the far side of the pen. 

“Tai’s crew.  They’re late.”  Jamin nodded toward the boat while looking at his wound watch.  Neith fought her fascination with the timepiece to get a good look at the approaching company.  They drew closer.  Neith saw Laser Eyes among them.  Was that Tai, or was he one of the crew?  Laser Eyes was a fisherman, this much she knew.  Was he also a leaver of notes?  He saw her now.  He did little to conceal his hostility. 

“They’re here to feed them.”  Focus on the problems and solutions of salmon, Neith; Jamin’s sticking his neck out to take you out here at all.  Neith nodded through Jamin explaining ratios, furtively looking towards the other boat only twice. 

“Let’s fish.”  Jamin held out a fishing rod.

“Here?  With those?”  Neith’s eyes were wide.  “I assumed you drew these up in nets, or something more…effective.”  She eyed the skeletal device in the big bear’s paw. 

“We do.  But today: we’ll cast.”  Jamin’s lips vanished when he smiled.  Neith double-took to hear the term cast in this new context.  After Jamin demonstrated casting, he continued, “Look, I find it easier to talk this way.  My wife wishes I would come out with things without needing to traipse down here, but I tell her: it’s easier this way.”  It was nice to know Jamin had a wife – and one who liked to get him talking.  Jamin had something to talk to Neith about.  That made her nervous.  “Besides, I figure this is something you won’t have done before, eh?”

Neith nodded.  “Never before.” 

Tai and Crew left soon after. Sitting still next to Jamin, but with a purpose, Neith began to relax.

Jamin caught a speckled grey fish and reeled it in, expertly.  Neith caught another and offered her rod to Jamin, expertly.  He insisted she see the catch through.  She laughed while she did.  When he saw her paling at the sight of their fish flopping around in the boat, he threw both catches back in. 

“I saw the way he looked at you.”

Neith turned to look at Jamin, whose eyes were ahead.  Who was he talking about?  The fish?  No – had he been at the school when Miles had found her there?  She would love to know what Jamin made of the way Miles looked at her.  She still didn’t understand it.

“Tai’s not all bad.  He’s just hurting.”

Oh, of course Jamin was referring to the shared experience they had just had, moments ago.  She bit the inside of her mouth and redirected her thoughts away from Miles Flynn.

“But many of us know we can’t go on this way.  We need people.  Do you follow?”

Neith frowned, unsure.  The school wasn’t full.  Perhaps she hadn’t seen many people day to day, because there weren’t many.

“We can only go on so long this way before all we have left are cousins.”  There it was; Nydia needed Feichangbei.  Not just to keep their secret, they needed more people.  The pieces began to slide into place.  She could see now how this beautiful microcosm of a society was facing a very similar crisis to the City; only their gene pool lacked diversity, rather than fertility.  This changed things.  Would the plan she’d been incubating to have Nydia labelled as infected only secure their eventual end as well?  Cuss.

“I think I understand what you’re saying.”  Jamin and Elle, as council members, knew there was a prospect Phase 2.  Was Jamin saying he trusted her?  Neith thought he was implying she could stay.  Neith felt a surge of hope inside, as though respite from everything might be possible; as though she wasn’t sitting there, clipped into a life-vest with the elephant puppeteer’s agenda.  Being able to stay was something Neith wanted.  MinSci wanted more.

 “That will have to be good enough for now because – like I say – there’re mixed feelings about.  I need to come back to that.”  Jamin pulled some of his line through the loops of his rod as though he could draw up the words needed from the bay.  He finds it easier to talk this way.  “You see, the City – they haven’t always come in so easy.”  Neith chewed her lip, willing him to go on.  What was Jamin’s take on the City?  “They took someone.  A pregnant woman, last contact we had.”  What?!  She had been pregnant?!  Jamin continued, “It was Tai’s sister.  It didn’t end well.”

Neith tried to imagine Elle – her belly swollen with child – snatched from her safe-haven in the woods.  Neith found it difficult to breathe.  She knew Elle was well, safe back at the cabin, but it struck her with panic to attempt a vision of something so unconscionable; someone here being torn away, now she was here.  She’d known from Boyd the abduction had happened, but hearing Jamin say it now gave new gravity to what those people had done. And the details mattered!  Pregnant!  Those people; City people. 

Her people. 

Her instincts to delay and wait for more information had proven reasonable.  It had given her time to confirm Boyd’s story and learn not everyone had moved on. What could Neith say to Jamin’s revelation? “I’m sorry.”  Pathetic.  Jamin adjusted his line again.  “It disgusts me.”  She swallowed.  “If we’re sharing, I have to tell you: I don’t always agree with MinSci’s methods.”  Rarely, in fact.  She thought of Prescott and the cold hot chocolate.  Jamin raised his eyebrow again. “If it were my choice,” she picked her way carefully, “you all would be left alone.  Completely.”  Nydia’s need for more bodies was confirmed.  Neith officially scratched her Outbreak plan. 

There had to be another way to give both communities what they needed, without fouling the smaller one; without the elephant breaking the chair.  Today’s talk had confirmed she had every reason to doubt Prescott could maintain a gentle approach.

Jamin grunted and nodded. 

They headed back to shore in silence.

Back on the wharf Jamin put a hand on Neith’s shoulder.  “Give us time, is all I ask.  Some people aren’t excited to have any outsider in our midst.  But many of us,” he looked around to check none of the scant troop now at the wharf were in earshot; he licked his lips, “we’re ready for change.  Change is necessary.” 

Neith was speechless.  The stakes had been confirmed as high.  In a single fishing excursion she’d confirmed both a lack of trust in one, and a belief in better future from another.

Jamin released his hand from her and retrieved the rods from the vessel.

They began the noisy walk back.  At the first kissing gate Jamin held the gate against its spring for her to follow through and spoke again. “Elle trusts you.  That’s enough for me.”

Oh dear.  Her circle: officially expanding.  More relationships to secretly report about, more people who might be exploited or suffer as collateral damage if Prescott’s approach changed course.  Snakes laid still before they struck, didn’t they?  Neith wasn’t sure she wanted to stop it expanding – what she wanted was a fix for Nydia that allowed her to keep all of this and shut out Prescott forever.  Oh, and a condo on the Nydia fringe for her parents and BFF, please.  Can’t a girl dream?