Summary:Travis and Owen find a new village, suffer attacks of one kind and another and pick up a few more for their little band of strangeness.
Part six- Tinkering
It’s been a day since our spur of the moment swim and we have found ourselves a town, which is a good thing since the foraging on this side of the river isn’t as good as it was on the other side, although we have managed to find a few all right herbs and do the protective, smelly mud thing again. I have convinced Owen that we’ll fair better off we don’t go into town the first time coated in mud and sticks, even if it would make the place more endurable. So, we spend an hour washing up before we walk closer to town.
It looks like more people live in this village than live in Owen’s hometown for sure. There are some ruins, but there’s also a good number of newer buildings built from course bricks and wood instead of straw. Some of the old ones look like they might be hundreds of years old- newer layers of brick capping older ones, as if they might have been kept up- been in continuous use- and repaired again and again. Unfortunately, while this town- not so much a village really- while this town might look better than Owen’s village, it still smelled the same- maybe even a might worse on account of the more unwashed bodies to contribute to the fragrance of the place. And it is louder- there is the sound of metal hand tools in use, and larger crowds outside in the street making the noises of working and living, even if they aren’t talking.
We pass a whole livery stable of gigantigoats smelly and loud in a wood-fenced corral. I can see that most of them wear a sort of a bridle and one or two are even saddled. Seems to put the last nail in the coffin of the horses to see that the goats have taken their place like that. A few streets further in, there are shops selling cloths and foodstuffs (by the smell of it, more with the stuff and less with the food, unfortunately) and pottery. There is another selling rough knives and swords and other simple metal tools- shovels and scythes and the like.
We reach a town square with a great well at the center and Owen stops and signs with a very ripe old woman. I stand back trying not to grimace from the stink and rethinking the no herbs decision wanting to go back in time and put some on before we’d come into the town.
“Ask her where we can stop for the night,” I suggest. Then I remember how pungent the inside of the longhouse had been without the mask of the herbs and mud, which we don’t currently got any of. “Scratch that, ask her about food,” I correct. Then I remember the local cuisine. “Wait, just ask her-” I falter, not sure what we’d want from her. “Ask her- heck! I don’t know what you shoul-”
“Trav!” he cuts me off. “This way.” He points across the square.
“What’s over there? What did you ask her for?”
He simply says, “Outcast,” and heads in the direction he’d pointed.
Outcast. It was a word we’d used about ourselves. Did Owen expect that there was another person like us here? I reckon it’s possible, maybe even probable since this town is bigger than Owen’s village.
“Listen, Owen, I’m not so sure we should be aligning ourselves with every village idiot that comes our way.” He stops walking and glares at me a moment. “Okay, yeah, I shouldn’t hold that against them what with how much you’ve helped me, but-”
“Ain’t you hungry?” he asks raising his eyebrows and willing me to catch a hold of what he’s getting at, which I guess I do.
“Oh.” Another sensed person would be our best bet for eating half decent tonight. It might end in us getting exiled from another town, but at least we’d have full bellies. “Lead on, oh wise man.” Owen makes another face at me and resumes his march across the square and down one of the streets that branch off of it.
Since I got to this time, I’ve kind of always had one old tune or another rolling around in my noggin- some that I remember words to (and I’ve tried to teach to Owen) and others that were just random jangles ringing around in the quiet emptiness of this world. Music to keep me sane is how I always thought of it. So it takes Owen asking about it for me to realize that the tune I’m hearing isn’t just the clanging metallic backbeat to the music in my cerebellawhosit.
“Hear that?” he asks, pointing down the lane of rough brick houses we’re striding down.
We follow the sound, which gets louder- changing from a syncopated clanging to a fuller metallic grinding of what has to be machinery. It is most definitely a motor- one in sore need of a tune-up or at least a lot of axle grease. The smart money would turn right round and makes tracks in a whole ‘nother direction, but that ain’t never really been me, and Owen’s even more eager to find out what in tarnation is making that racket (possibly because he ain’t never heard nothing at all like it before).
The sound is now a sort of wrong squeal and crash that makes you worry for your eardrums (lest they start in bleeding) and your back teeth (lest they get shook out by the vibrations). Each step brings a new level of auditory intensity and we have soon left painful behind and ventured into overloaded deafness- like the woofers in our ears have started giving out and skipping the loudest bits.
Then, we spot the source of it. There is a tumble down barn that’s not so much the red that the sun-faded paint says it used to be. Part of the roof is askew and one of the big doors is hanging by only one hinge and therefore gaping open to show a big machine which is actively complaining about being in use.
As we get closer, we can also see someone flitting around- climbing on and round the mechanism and brandishing some odd tools. He’s small and quick, and wearing a sort of coverall that is a mottled grey- they are so filthy that I would be hard pressed to give a name to their original color. The coveralls stop in thick cuffs just below his knees and below his elbows. His exposed skin is streaked with dirt. The little fella has a thick head of carrot colored hair worn long enough to shadow his face as he looks down at his work.
We’re able to get right up next to the machine- which I recognize as likely a printing press- we’re able to get right up next to the press by gritting our teeth against the clatter. The little mechanic seems unaware of us, but even if he does hear, which I doubt all things considered, he wouldn’t be tipped to our approach by any sound we make. He jumps down from where he’d been hacking at the gears, and causing no particular improvement, and starts as he lands all but atop ol’ Owen, who reaches out and steadies the other man (boy?).
Half a tick later, I come to find out that the little grease monkey isn’t so very much of the masculine persuasion when he runs a dirty hand through his hair and tucks it behind his ear revealing a pretty little pixified face not at all disguised by the layer of grime it is covered in. Owen is staring at her, twitter-pated, as she starts signing at us angrily. I can’t rightly follow her at the speed she’s going, but she ain’t so much my concern anyways. Ignoring her, I step round the machine, find a toggle that seems likely and switch it off, mercifully ending the noise.
(I spent one summer in my long ago youth living with my touched Uncle Abednego when my mama first got sick. He ran an underground newspaper out of his basement. It was full of anti-technology conspiracy theories and rhubarb pie recipes. Uncle Abe printed it up on the world’s last letterpress printing press, on which you had to set each letter individually. It didn’t use a computer chip or even photography for the image, so Uncle was sure that that the government couldn’t tell what or where he was writing. This hunk of metal looked like that one’s ugly old cousin, hence my ability to luck onto the off switch- the sweet, sweet off switch.)
I bask in the silence, leaning on the press for a moment before turning and getting an unexpected face full of little redheaded girl. A spitfire, she is, hissing at me and nearly clocking me with her sort-of-a-wrench before my friend can get a hold of her- and that’s another thing I’m owing him.
“Jeeze, lady, I didn’t break it. I just shut it down,” I say even though she won’t pay me no never mind. “Owen, tell her I didn’t break it!”
“Busy holdin’ her,” he says- and yeah, he’s got the tiger by the tail there, doesn’t he.
“Right, switch.” I come round and take hold of her wrists so Owen can get his hands free and convince her we’re friendly types. After near to ten minutes, four stomped toes (she got the poor tootsies on my left foot but good), and what promises to be a deep bruise on my ribs from her flailing sort-of-a-wrench, Owen’s got her calmed down and tells me to set her loose. I do.
She sets right her clothes, tucks her wild hair behind her ears again, and sucker punches Owen right in the gut. Then, while I’m making sympathetic but useless noises at Owen, she switches the press back on and it grinds to life with a terrible squeal.
“Oh, that’s it, sugarplum!” I go in fighting this time, avoiding the sort-of-a-wrench, I zig and zag until I can turn it off again. Then, I stand my ground ready to defend my eardrums with every other body part. Luckily, that isn’t needed, as Owen has recovered enough to hold her back again.
“Good!” I shout, “Now keep her back a minute!” I take a gander inside the mechanism, which I gather is steam powered- she must have jerry rigged it- and boy howdy, she’s got this gizmo in the wrong place and that whatzit in backwards and there really ain’t enough grease in that thingamabob right there.
“Hurry, Trav,” Owen grunts at me as she gets enough slack to wallop him but good with an elbow to the face.
“Just a minute,” I promise as I work putting this monstrosity to rights. “There,” I say with finality and I throw the switch back into position. It isn’t exactly quiet, but it is bearable- and it might just work, too.
The girl gets away from Owen, pushes me out of the way and inspects my work with an unwelcoming look on her face. The machine, which she had loaded up with ink and paper sometime before we’d arrived, started spitting out type covered papers. She grabs one up and looks at it squinty-eyed. Then she looks up at me, smiling like sunshine, hugs me and hands me the page. It looks like complete gibberish to me, even as most of the letters are familiar. I hand it to Owen. He looks at it a moment and starts signing one handed to the girl. I still can’t follow it, this time more because the signs seem completely unfamiliar than from their speed.
“Uh-huh?” I’m inspecting the unusual choices she has made in cobbling together the steam engine, so I’m not so much paying attention.
“She’s with us. You name her,” he says.
“W-what?” I look up from the boiler. Did I hear him right? He wants us to keep the crazy fairy-mechanic? And he thinks it can even be done?
“She’s with us,” he repeats. “Name her.” It’s an order, which he’s been giving more and more of lately.
“Why? I mean, I get that she’d probably clean up real nice, but we’re both gonna be black and blue by morning. Why should she be with us?”
“New village- better village.” And, yeah, I get that, but the fanged pixie? Really? I mean, her mechanical inclination might be handy if we had machines to fix, but we don’t, not one.
“Better?” I look over at her where she’s re-inking the plate, her face, impossibly, getting even more dirty as she wipes the sweat from her forehead.
“Yeah- better.” Owen is resolute, so I give because, maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll have half decent food.
“Right fine, but if she kills us in our sleep, I’m holding you personally responsible, got it?”
“Name her, Trav.”
I look at her a moment, dirty little fire sprite tinkerer, and proclaim her, “Tink.”
“Tink.” Owen wrinkles his eyebrows and purses his lips in concentration. “Is it a good one?”
“Best girl one there is.”
He nods. “Good.”
Having Tink along has been easy enough. As protective as she was of her old junk of a printing press, she gave it up readily enough when Owen told her to pack up two days after we met the willful little mechanic. We all packed up provisions- they were a might meager since Tink, being a non-taster, didn’t really have a line on the decent vittles. Still, it was probably late July by my reckoning, so there was fresh produce to be had in the marketplace and Tink, who apparently made a good living doing something, was willing to share her wealth. We were even able to lay in a supply of fairly good smelling herbs to use for when we made the next town by hiking through a nearby wood. All in all, things were looking up when we shook the dust of Tink’s town off and hit the trail. I let the two youngsters do the navigating- I was just glad to be out of the stink of too many unwashed bodies and too little sanitation to care exactly where we were headed.
Where we were headed is a small village near to a week’s leisurely walk from Tink’s town. On about noon on the sixth day, we spot the neat huddle of houses- log cabins really and we can smell the acrid cookfires.
As we were travelling, Owen had split his conversational time between flirting less and less shyly with Tink and our talking-signing lesson exchange. Tink and I have hardly signed to each other, preferring to let Owen translate anything we might have to communicate to each other. This is mostly because every time I try she just laughs and laughs, hissing as me hysterically as I have continued to be a terribly poor student of sign language.
That particular fact is probably why she pays me no mind as I try to warn her- I hear the now familiar (it haunts my dreams) growl of the beast that Owen and I have named the Cougarberra. Shortly after Owen has convinced her that we should skirt farther around the thicket of trees where we can hear the Cougarberra, I hear something else that chills my bones- the cry of a child. And, it is coming from the same place as the sounds of the Cougarberra.
“What is that?” Owen askes me, sounding puzzled and alarmed- I reckon he never listened to himself crying as a babe, nor had any others who could make such a sound around him, so he couldn’t know it for a child. I don’t answer him. I am too busy reaching into Tink’s pack that is hanging from her shoulder, so I can search for her sort-of-a-wrench- any weapon in a pinch, and it had served Tink well when we first met.
Once I find it, I sprint for the thicket. “Come on Owen!”
And, the forest fire excepted, I really not the type to jump at playing the hero- at least I never used to be- but I reckon that something important is wired into every half-sane human that won’t let him to leave a kid in danger- especially not if he knows there isn’t nobody else to see to it. So, Cougarberra or not, I’m seeing to it.
I follow the noises a few hundred feet into the wood before I find them. The beast is playing with its food- batting at the small shrieking ball of child- first with one paw and then with the other. I can hear Owen fast behind me- following me the same way I followed him off the cliff. I think to myself on how convenient a cliff would be just now, but how likely is it that there would be one handy again?
Well, lacking the convenient cliff, I go with the next handy thing which is the sort-of-a-wrench- I raise it over my head as I make a mad dash for the animal. I resist a barbaric yawp, in the hopes that the Cougarberra will be too distracted by his dinner to hear my coming. I’m only going to get one good hit in, even if I do surprise the thing. Amazingly, I do get that one good shot in, conking the animal over the head- connecting solidly with the great big metal tool.
The Cougarberra doesn’t seem to react right away and Owen slides in under the dazed beast’s paws and snatches up the kid. The animal recovered enough to make a token sweep of its paw at Owen’s retreating back, but misses. The momentum from his attempt to keep his dinner swings the Cougarberra around enough to spot me. And, I’m in good swatting range, so before I can get in another blow with the wrench, I’m pawed down, the ground coming up to meet my backside right quick.
The Cougarberra falls on me then, pawing me hard across my right arm and shoulder, the claws ripping flesh, sinking deep enough to make me wonder if I’m already done for. He attacks from the other side, other paw I reckon, and I can feel deep slashes going across my belly. Another blow cuffs me in the head and I see stars and colors. The animal rears up as if he is making to come down hard on me- teeth and paws and bulk, but before he strikes, he makes an odd, almost surprised growl, pauses a beat and turns around. I can see something sticking out of the Cougarberra’s back- a handle to something that must be sunk deep into the beast’s flesh. It starts heading away from me, and I can just make out Tink a few yards to its other side. It is going right for her. She is backpedaling fast.
I get to my feet far more slowly that I want to. I see the Cougarberra lumbering after Tink, who is sprinting for the edge of the woods. I limp after them, pausing to pick up the sort-of-a-wrench, as it is still my onliest weapon. By the time I emerge from the shade of the forest, the Cougarberra has been bested. I see it a few yards outside the tree line downed by a ridiculous number of arrows. Tink is coming towards me followed by about a dozen men and boys with bows. She is signing something to me which I can’t catch a hold of and my insides feel like they are trying to be my outsides and my head is smarting something fierce, so I just tell her, “Gumdrops!” and then the ground is all slantitty and things go dark right quick.
I wake hazy and crusted over. Everything hurts and movement- even just breathing- even just wincing from the pain- brings on new and different pains. There is a thatched roof over my head- I see this with the one eye I can manage to crack open (ow). And, I can hear someone moving around nearby.
“Trav?” Owen’s face tips into view. “Trav, you want water?” he asks and raises something wet to my mouth- a cloth that smells of some of the good herbs. I part my lips and let the sweet-spicy trickle in. It feels glorious and I reckon that means I’m still alive.
Half a day later, I am still more pained than I ever remember being but I am setting up and drinking, eating, breathing. Some of the herbs Owen has been feeding me must be the really good herbs because I care less and less about the pain with each swig of the herb-laced water he has concocted. Later, something occurs to my somewhat addled cerebellawhosit, so I ask, “Owen, the kid?”
“She’s good- fine.” He smiles big and sloppy. “She’s like us,” he adds, pointing at his ear.
“Why she could cry,” I reason.
“Cry?” Owen repeats getting the word into his head.
“Yeah cry- that god-awful noise she was making. Babies cry- if they don’t have whatever it is that’s wrong with most of the folks around here.” I finish my sentence with a big old jaw cracking yawn.
Seeing that, Owen just pats me on the shoulder and says, “Talk more later,” and I drift off again.
Tink is there the next time I wake up. She seems none the worse for her part in the scrap with the Courgarberra. She makes me eat and drink and hands me a pot I figure is for doing my business before disappearing outside the little cabin I’m resting in. After a while she’s back, lugging a wooden barrel of some sort in and setting it in front of the fire that burns with the smell of more of Owen’s herbs. A couple of really stinky girls come in after her with pitchers and buckets steaming pots to pour clear hot water into the barrel- no, it’s a tub. They are drawing me a bath and it could not be more welcome.
I bask in the bath, letting the heat work into the sore muscles and soak soft the surprisingly not oozing cuts on my body. I wonder at how all those scrapes are not infected. I wonder if there is something in the herbs. I make a note to ask Owen and forget about it almost immediately. After I have drowsed in the healing waters long enough for them to get cold, Owen comes in and helps me dress, gets me to bed.
In the morning, I venture out into the village. It is smaller than Tink’s town- more like Owen’s. I just hoped they are a might friendlier. Turns out they are- most especially considering how the kid we saved is the daughter of the mayor of the town. They hold a big brunch feast in our honor- Owen’s and Tink’s and mine. They even let Owen set the menu, so there is a good lot of fresh fruit and some kind of sweetened oatmeal (or some porridge grain) and nuts- all kinds of nuts. It is the best we have eaten since we left Owen’s little hideaway in the woods near to his old village. During the brunch, the little girl we saved sits herself down in Owen’s lap like it’s her royal throne and they talk and talk. Seems that while I was recovering, Owen has begun her education.
Halfway through the meal, Owen elbows me and says, “Gotta name her, too, Trav.”
Now, I don’t figure on this, since keeping Tink was as much about her keeping us as it was us keeping her- she being pretty much grown, but keeping a kid is a whole ‘nother thing. “Can’t do that, Owen. She’s not ours.”
“Is too!” he insists. “Honcho gave her.” He points to the mayor nodding.
“Said she needs to be with her own.” He circles his finger around to indicate the two of us. “She’s ours. Name her, Trav.”
I shake my head. What the hell is wrong with these people? You don’t just give a kid away because she’s what- a little different? “No. No- Owen, we can’t keep her. She’s a kid, not a puppy. You can’t-”
“I name her then,” he snaps. “I name her,” he pauses thinking. “I name her Bess.” He adds a smug nod and turns away from me.
Takes me a minute to decide if I am angry or touched or something else because Bess is my mother’s name, and Owen knows it. Anger wins and I snap, “No! Not Bess. You don’t get to do that Owen! You don’t get to keep her and you sure as hell don’t get to give her that name!” I stand, still wobblish, but not caring.
“Trav, don’t-” Owen starts to try and argue, but I don’t, can’t listen.
“You don’t get this, Owen. Not a kid, not Bess. Not if we’re gonna stay together.”
“It’s the kid or me. You get that? The kid or me!” I force my complaining legs to carry me to the cabin I’d been staying in and start packing up the little I have.
Ten minutes later, the mayor comes in, sans knocking, his little daughter in his arms. He doesn’t try to sign to me or anything, just steps up to me and hold the kid out, like I have no choice but to take her.
“Listen,” I say, useless as it is, “I don’t know what Owen and Tink have been telling you, but you don’t have to give up your kid. I- we can’t take on a kid, okay? ”
He just stares me down for a while, holding the kid, who is most decidedly not named Bess, out to me. She is small and dark in completion, eye and hair. There is a spark of suspicion in those brown eyes, and of wariness in the way she seems to be trying to shrink back towards her father. She is totally different than she was as she sat in Owen’s lap. Then she opens her teeny little mouth and says, “Trav.” Just that- and I melt. Because, look at how it had all gone for Owen. This girl shouldn’t have to grow up the village idiot, too.
“Gol-darnit!” I cuss and reach out for the girl. She is soft and warm and smells sweet. She must have had her own bath recently. He father smiles hard and nods at me- so pleased to have given his kid to the likes of me. I feel like I should warn him off, but apparently it would do no good. He leaves me alone with Not-Bess and I peer at her little face. “You sure about this, kid?”
“Yup,” she says like a challenge, like she knows something.
“Right,” I sigh and carry her outside with me. Owen is waiting out there, smiling bright and I can’t- “Don’t say a word,” I warn and pass the kid off to him.
I hear him calling her Bess again as I walk back to the feast. I just wince and keep going. Tink pats my arm, possibly in sympathy, as she passes me on her way to go blow raspberries on Not-Bess’s little belly.
Author’s note: This is the conclusion of the section, but not the end of the story. Travis Keller continues in January 2009.